01: The new book Church, Identity and Change (Eerdmans, $36), edited by David Roozen and James R. Nieman, focuses on the changing nature of American denominations, suggesting that most church bodies, whether mainline or evangelical, are facing serious challenges in ministering to their memberships.
The book is unique in examining denominations both from a structural-sociological and a theological perspective. The chapters include contributions on the Assemblies of God, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Episcopal Church, Vineyard Fellowship, the National Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ.
All the denominations face what are considered the “postmodern” challenges of localism, internal pluralism and decentralization. Even those bodies with the most hierarchical and centralized structures seem to be moving toward new structures, whether they are aware of it or not; for instance; the Episcopal Church is moving from a traditional authority-based hierarchy toward an “autonomy-oriented network” (though this chapter was written before the current crisis in the Episcopal Church, which may complicate these models).
The editors conclude that denominations are most likely to be able to deal with internal pluralism and fragmentation (for instance, conflict between liberals and conservatives) if they have a strong theological identity and are able to avoid the politicization of issues found in weaker identity denominations.
Among other interesting findings (in a 650-page book full of noteworthy findings) are that both liturgical and Pentecostal denominations, with their more non-cognitive dimensions, tend to be more adaptive than Calvinist, cognitive- and “task-oriented” bodies; and how clergy play a new role in fostering denominational identity due to decentralization and the destabilizing of larger organizations (such as seminaries) that once served this function.
02: As in other religious traditions, there has been a long history of Muslim interpretations of the end-times.
However, in recent decades, new types of understandings of the expected turning point in the history of mankind have emerged. This is the topic of a new and quite unique book by David Cook (assistant professor of religious studies at Rice University), Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature (Syracuse University Press, $34.95).
Cook pays attention to a popular literature which few other Western scholars before him have cared to study. Although there is no field research to prove how influential this literature is among contemporary Muslims in the Middle East (at this stage, Cook has limited his research to the Arab, Sunni world), there are indications that it has indeed a real impact.
A number of the authors under consideration are actually children of the globalization of religious ideas: some of them have gone as far as looking for evidence not only in traditional Islamic literature and in the “signs of the times,” but have also quoted from the Bible or even borrowed from evangelical authors as well as other non Muslim sources.
Generally speaking, the new Muslim apocalyptic thinking is closely connected with traumatic experiences in the Muslim world and contemporary developments in the Middle East. Zionism – equated with malevolent forces of the end-times (e.g. the apocalyptic beast) – and its alleged worldwide domination is a cornerstone of the scenario. Muslim apocalyptic authors have also had to make sense of U.S. influence, for which they can obviously find no clues in traditional Muslim material.
Cook’s research brings into light a striking renewal and transformation of Muslim apocalyptic thought, incorporating anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. There is little doubt that recent events, especially since 9/11, make the field even more fertile for such speculations, especially in a context in which traditional figures of religious authority have been increasingly challenged by competitors across the Muslim world.
Even in the West, visits to islamic bookshops show the increase in treatises on the endtimes and related topics. Not only scholars, but diplomats who have to deal with the Middle East would do well to read Cook’s book and to keep in mind the kind of ideas, theories and speculations currently circulating in that area of the world.
— By Jean-François Mayer