01: The summer issue of the evangelical-based journal Faith & International Affairs is devoted to “religion and torture in an age of terrorism”–an issue just moving on to the evangelical agenda. The centerpiece of the issue is the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture issued by a new group called Evangelicals for Human Rights. Because torture is a new issue being addressed in the evangelical community, there is far from a consensus on the definitions and justifications for the practice as it relates to battling terrorism.
This is borne out in a survey presented by John Green, who finds evangelicals more likely to support torture than other religious groups. But politics (the fact that more evangelicals are Republicans) more than religion explains this difference. In fact, when examining only weekly evangelical church attenders, they had more restrictive views on torture than the evangelical population as a whole. . Other articles look at the relation of torture and the just war doctrine, and a history and literature review on religion and torture. For more on this issue, write: Faith & International Affairs, P.O. Box 14477, Washington, DC 20044
02: Stephen Ellingson’s new book The Megachurch and the Mainline(University of Chicago Press, $19) is a provocative study of the interaction and clashes between religious “tradition” and the innovations embodied in the megachurches and different kinds of spirituality. The book is based upon case studies of several Lutheran churches in the San Francisco Bay Area as they face challenges to their traditional practices and beliefs in the forms of a megachurch style of worship and progressive kinds of spirituality at odds with the Lutheran tradition.
Elliingson finds that even in congregations claiming a Lutheran identity, traditional theology, liturgy and practice are discarded or reworked to make way for innovations deemed more relevant to a largely unchurched and post-denominational population, although not without considerable resistance from congregations. Most interestingly, Ellingson finds that these challenges to tradition are due less to external factors, such as religious competition and wider religious and demographic forces, than to internal dynamics. These congregations, including those not even showing signs of decline, tended to take the ideas, narratives and solutions of church growth experts and then construct “crises of membership and meaning that served as the catalyst for change.”
Because American Lutherans have always been at loggerheads about what is authentic Lutheranism, resistance to these innovations is difficult. In conclusion, Ellingson sees a “colonization” of evangelical ideas and practices within mainline Protestantism and American Lutheranism in particular. This is not likely to lead to an evangelical takeover, but rather to increase “mutliple versions of the tradition [that] have limited and localized authority.”
03: While much has been written on gnosticism, especially in the wake of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, most of it has been either based on the ancient origins of the movement or has followed the conspiratorial tones of Dan Brown’s bestseller. Richard Smoley’s new book Forbidden Faith(Harper SanFrancisco, $15.95) is recommended to readers more for its wide-ranging discussion of current day manifestations of the religious philosophy than for its historical scholarship. Smoley is clearly sympathetic to the idea that the secret or esoteric dimensions of spirituality loosely known as gnosticism were lost or even suppressed in early Christianity, creating a religion lacking in spiritual depth.
But he acknowledges that classical Gnoticism and the present day Gnostic revival are often two different things with the latter being a construction and synthesis of different currents, such as Jungian psychology, the kabbalah and other occult teachings. Smoley also does a good job of distinguishing the small Gnostic movement of churches and their bishops, such as the Ecclesia Gnostica and Stephen Hoeller in California, from the more diffuse expression of Gnostic concepts in popular media and literature as found in the books of Phillip K. Dick and the “Matrix” movies.
04: The book Extraordinary Groups (Worth, $29.95), by Richard T. Schaefer and William W. Zellner, has had something of an extraordinary publishing history, going through eight editions. Used mainly as a sociological text, the book looks at unconventional groups ( mainly those with a religious background), providing an indepth treatment of their history and current developments. In this edition, the groups represented are: the Oneida Community, the Old Order Amish, the Gypsies, the Christian Scientists, the Father Divine movement, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Scientology (the most recent addition). The authors note that these groups were selected for their relevance to sociological theory rather than any criteria related to growth or societal significance. Yet Schaeffer and Zellner do provide interesting assessments of their current situations–from the near extinction of the Father Divine movement and steady decline of Christian Science to the endurance of the Amish and the continued flourishing of Mormonism.
05: African Immigrant Religions in America (NYU Press, $23), edited by Jacob Olupona and Regina Gemignani, is said to be the first book to focus on the growing number of immigrants from Africa who are bringing new and older faiths to the U.S. The opening contribution provides results and other specifics about the African Immigrant Religious Communities Project. The study shows how varied these communities are, ranging from African Independent (or Initiated) Churches, such as the Nigerian-based Redeemed Christian Church of God, to various Islamic groups and movements, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, not to mention the various mainline and evangelical churches that established a missionary presence in Africa (there is little on African indigenous religions in the book).
Research has only started on these groups, but, as might be expected from global trends, Pentecostal and charismatics usually represent the largest African immigrant groups. While most immigrant religious groups show such trends as transnationalism and the growth of self-help social services to minister to their own communities, other developments are more unique. Jacob Olupana writes about the emergence of chiefs or patrons within African communities. Unlike in Africa, where such community leaders have connections to the state to form their own base of power, in the U.S. these chiefs “have turned to religion within the civil society to establish their authority.“
Another chapter includes an interesting account of a prominent African Independent Church, the Brotherhood of the Cross and the Star, a charismatic group with theocratic leanings. In the U.S. immigrant context, such a theocracy means a new world order based on Christ’s rule rather than religious nationalism. A chapter on African immigrant churches and politics suggests that while African churches are conservative and sympathetic to some positions of the Christian right, such as faith-based social services, they have not developed coalitions with other religious and political groups as of yet. Other chapters focus on African Islam and tensions with American culture, and how immigrant religious groups provide new avenues for changes in gender roles.