01: Several evangelical leaders made news last summer when an open letter was issued calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict.
Most of the winter issue of the Review of Faith & International Aﬀairs is devoted to the statement and the controversy and issues surrounding it. Along with reprinting the statement, the issue includes articles from the open letter’s supporters and dissenters, including Palestinian Christian and Israeli Jewish leaders.
Also noteworthy is evangelical leader Richard Mouw’s account of the theological context of the evangelical debate on the Israeli and Palestinian issue and on prospects for a new dialogue on these subjects, particularly the strong role of pre-millenialism in the traditional evangelical support of Israel. Mouw cites the “emergent” movement among evangelicals and Jews (as represented by the group Synagogue 3000) as bringing about a new stage of dialogue both on Israel and on Jewish-Christian relations in general, as they focus on common elements of spirituality and worship, as well as social justice.
For more information on this issue, write: The Review of Faith & International Aﬀairs, P.O. Box 14477, Washington, D.C., 20044.
02: “Aquatic Nature Religions” might seem to occupy an esoteric corner of the religious world, but the December issue of the American Academy of Religion’s Journal of the Academy of Religion, devotes a special section to the subject.
Several articles examine the quasi-religious and religious aspects of such activities as surﬁng, ﬂy ﬁshing and whitewater kayaking. Depending on one’s deﬁnition of religion, almost anything can be categorized as religious, but the articles make the case that participants themselves claim that such activity is spiritual in nature.
In an introductory article, Bron Taylor notes that this kind of spirituality is a form of nature religion because it is based on the perceptions that nature is sacred and that there is a need to nurture a sense of connection with and belonging to the earth.
Whitewater kayakers describe their river experiences in terms of nonWestern religious, rendering the material world as sacred. Flyﬁshing likewise encourages a sense of the interconnectedness of nature and humans, as well as an exchange relationship, where anglers seek to give back to nature—by conservation efforts—what they feel they are given through ﬁshing. But it is in surﬁng where the spiritual element is the strongest, complete with its own mythology (its Edenic beginnings in Polynesia) and subculture, known as “soul surﬁng.”
Surﬁng spirituality can draw on pagan, Eastern or “Abrahamic” sources as well as its forming its own “nature religion” that has a strong environmentalist component.
For more information on these articles, write: Journal of the Academy of Religion, American Academy of Religion, 825 Houston Mill Road, Suite 300 Atlanta, GA.
03: The Message, a publication of the Islamic Circle of North America, devotes its current issue (September/ October) to the subject of Islamic ﬁnance.
The issue portrays the “interest-free economy” as mandated by Islam as being a “new silk road” linking Asia, the Middle East and the West. The prohibition against interest found in the Koran has largely been viewed as detrimental to Islamic ﬁnancial growth and stability, but this issue of the magazine claims interest-free ﬁnance is showing dramatic growth (the total of “Sharia-compliant assets” of the top 500 Islamic ﬁnancial institutions grew 29.7 percent in 2006.)
Several articles acknowledge that the risk entailed in interest-free investing and banking and lack of standardization prevents large-scale adoption of such practices. But more noteworthy is the way Islamic ﬁnance is portrayed throughout this issue of The Message as serving social justice and sustainable economic growth (in comparison to interest-based systems) rather than merely fulﬁlling religious obligations.
For more information on this issue, write: The Message International, 166-26 89th Ave., Jamaica, NY 11432.
04: The new book, A Sociology of Spirituality (Ashgate, $99.95) should help refute the notion that spirituality is an amorphous and free-ﬂoating concept without many social underpinnings and expressions.
Editor Kieran Flanagan begins the book by claiming that because sociology was born in the throes of modernity, it “was infused with capacities to kill the spirit” as it documented the “despiritualization” of society. At the same time, those who engaged in spiritual endeavors failed to articulate their experiences in a way that could be understood.
But with sociology’s new interest in collective memory and post-modernity, as well as the public’s turn to outright spiritual concerns, the need for a sociology of spirituality seems obvious. Flanagan and the contributors don’t disappoint in this expensive book, as they examine topics ranging from the growth of Christian spiritual centers in secular Holland to spirituality and the state, the new and increasingly popular concept of “spiritual capital,” and the emergence of spirituality in a wide range of academic disciplines (such as medicine, education and business).
Particularly interesting is the debate carried out through several chapters about whether the holistic and New Age movements are a sign of secularization or the “spiritualization” of religion. Steve Bruce and David Voas argue that the percentage of people participating in alternative forms of spirituality is not great and that the phenomenon is so diﬀuse and lacking in even basic spiritual commitment that it is actually a sign of “the sacred … giving way to the secular.”
Paul Heelas, who conducted a major study of the holistic movement in Britain, responds that all of these diﬀerent spiritualities and techniques are based on a common quest for “subjective well-being” that is fueled by dynamics within modernity that are unlikely to disappear soon.
In a chapter on post-boomers, Donald Miller and Richard Flory make the case that this generation espouses an “expressive communalism,” in which (in contrast to the “expressive individualism” of their parents’ generation) individuals ﬁnd spiritual fulﬁllment through physical (or sense-based) experiences primarily in the context of the religious community. This can take the shape of “reclaimers”—those rediscovering liturgy and tradition, such as in Eastern Orthodoxy—or “innovators,” who include “emerging” congregations that stress visual representation of the sacred, intimacy and experiential spirituality.
05: Branding Faith (Routledge, $34.95), by Mara Einstein, ambitiously turns from popular market theories to less cited marketing theories in explaining American religious growth and pluralism.
Einstein, a former producer turned communications professor, argues that generational change and other factors cause a new “demand” for a personal faith and spirituality that is vastly expanded by the “supply” of new media and technologies catering to these needs. She provides an interesting overview of the growth of religious marketing and media that closely mirrors its secular counterparts.
More controversially, Einstein asserts that the line between marketing and religion has become increasingly blurred. Many religious groups have become “brand communities,” where a particular product is marketed through symbols that evoke emotions, meanings and relationships beyond its physical attributes.
Faith brands—anything from the Kabbalah to the ministry of Joel Osteen, or Oprah Winfrey—are repackaged to appeal to consumers’ religious tastes. With regard to the Kabbalah, as propogated by the Kabbalah Center, one ﬁnds actual products (drinks and fashion accessories), and here marketing seems to have overtaken religion. In the branding process, these products can move from secular to religious—in the case of Oprah Winfrey—or from religious to secular, as with Joel Osteen.
Einstein provides case studies of these three “products,” along with the Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, and the Alpha Course. In the case of Oprah, her reliance on a team of therapists and “life coaches” (and her inﬂuential book recommendations) has further blurred the line between therapy and spirituality. Einstein sees the market-driven New Age movement as an example of the spirit being removed from spirituality and tends to see marketing—whatever its beneﬁts—as having a similar eﬀect on other religious groups.
06: Robert Montgomery’s The Spread of Religions (Long Dash Publishing, $20) provides a novel treatment of an emerging ﬁeld, which the author calls the “sociology of missions.”
Montgomery writes that academic interest in missions and the general question of why and how certain religions spread beyond their birthplaces has been thin mainly because intellectuals tend to reject proselytizing and uphold respect for “native” religions. But the author makes the case that this ﬁeld is promising, especially at a time when almost all religions are moving beyond their original boundaries and are adopted by individual choice.
Montgomery focuses on the beliefs, structures, and historical and social contexts of the “missionary religions” of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. He theorizes that it is those religions teaching a transcendent source of power and moral guidance that have voluntary structures that enact “interactive rituals” and organize “emotional energy” for their members.
On a social level, the “receiving” society of new religions should not have strong oﬃcial religions nor manage religion in a coercive way. From these and other theoretical considerations, Montgomery forecasts that religions will likely succeed to the extent that they oﬀer a sense of social belonging and “intrinsic rewards” based on members’ individualism.
He predicts that there will be a decrease of conﬂict as religious political power and the cultural identities it represents will be increasingly trumped by a stress on the right of individuals to make their own religious choices.