01: The new book Holy Mavericks (NYU Press, $20) casts a wide net in its study of evangelical innovators, proﬁling charismatic televangelists Joel Osteen and Paula White, megachurch pastors Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes, and “emerging church” pioneer Brian McLaren.
Co-authors Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere see these evangelical innovators as helping to create the competition and vitality of America’s religious marketplace. The authors argue that these innovators bring change by bridging or collapsing the distance between religion and contemporary culture by oﬀering a more relevant and appealing message than their institutional counterparts. These innovators’ unique “social, cultural and spiritual dexterity” can be seen in Osteen’s blending of cognitive psychology (“choose to be happy”) with charismatic spirituality, Jakes’ use of pop culture in his preaching and teaching, and McLaren’s post-modern vision.
With their focus on competition and the religious marketplace, Lee and Sinitiere take a religious economy approach. Yet they argue that these innovators’ lax and accommodating stance toward the culture challenges the religious economy school’s theory that a certain degree of strictness is required for religious growth and vitality.
02: Already the author of two books and a number of articles on Islam in cyberspace, plus a guide to world religions online, Gary Bunt is no novice to the ﬁeld.
His new book, iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam (University of North Carolina Press, $24.95), is more than a repetition of his previous work, since it takes into account further developments, especially the presence of Islam in the context of Web 2.0 and online jihad.
It also raises issues on the ways in which Islamic societies might be impacted by the possibilities of networking that are now available to Muslims—a crucial issue, since such networks go across political boundaries. Obviously, there are some diﬃculties in deﬁning what is “religious”: for instance, the primary focus of many bloggers in the Muslim world is not necessarily religion, although they might also discuss it from time to time. “Islamic zones” are indeed emerging online, ranging from social networks, such as MuslimSpace (20,000 users, primarily in the US), to a virtual Ramadan tent set up in 2007 in Second Life.
Similar to what happens in other religions, the Internet can become a sacred space for Muslims (e.g. the presence of the Quran online). Online religious counseling has also developed in Islamic cyber environments. As in his previous books, Bunt also raises the important issue of challenges to religious authority through the multiplication of Islamic voices claiming to be authoritative online, as exempliﬁed through the phenomenon of cyber fatwas. “Shopping around” for a religious opinion has now become a prominent attitude.
And jihad in cyberspace is not ignored as an unintended consequence of Web development: the Internet has oﬀered unprecedented marketing opportunities for Al Qaeda and similar groups. There is a kind of “viral jihad,” with statements, videos and news spreading rapidly. While more and more people are of the opinion that the Internet has become a primary tool for propagating radical views, other observers put the emphasis on physical interaction (such as propagation at mosques).
Whatever the case, Bunt’s book provides a quite detailed panorama of jihadi online activities—not only their current status, but also how they unfolded over the years. Whether used for jihad or for benign purposes, the Internet has created alternative routes for accessing knowledge on religion, Bunt adds. A number of interactions that required face-to-face meetings can now take place online.
It is necessary today to study Internet activities related to Islam for approaching contemporary Muslim discourses, and not only jihadi activities, for the study of which funding will usually be more easily available. This has consequences not only for Muslims, but for scholars studying Islam too, as Bunt makes clear.
03: Though less focused on the Internet than Bunt’s work, the new book Jews, God and Videotape (NYU Press, $16.10) by Jeﬀrey Shandler reveals the many ways in which text-oriented Judaism, at least on an unoﬃcial basis, has adapted to the digital media age.
Shandler looks at such far-ﬂung places of media–Jewish interaction as Holocaust memorializations in the new media, Jewish holiday cards, and the Hasidic Chabad movement’s use of video and the Internet both for promotion and for internal purposes, such as the transmi ing of the image and words of the esteemed late Rabbi Schneerson to followers.
Another chapter examines Jewish involvement in “Second Life” or computersimulated gaming and role-playing environments, ﬁnding a close connection (even a replication) between how the faith is lived in real life and Second Life—even if one doesn’t have to be Jewish to participate in Second Life Judaism. Shandler also provides an intriguing account of the recent practice of home videotaping Jewish ceremonies (from bar mitzvahs and weddings to funerals) and how this has taken on popular religious overtones, as Jewish laypeople appropriate these rituals for their own purposes and meanings.
04: Along with its use of media theory to address religious questions, Exploring Religion and the Sacred in a Media Age (Ashgate, $89.96), edited by Christopher Deacy and Elizabeth Arweck, brings together a number of interesting studies that suggest a continuing “de-secularization” of the older media as well as a spiritualization of the new media.
The contributions include examinations of the quasi-religious elements in the electronic dance music culture, which is based on achieving trance states and transgressing Christian morality, the secular spirituality of the ﬁlms of Hong Kong ﬁlmmaker Stephen Chow, and the way in which online communities (such as the Otherkins, who believe they are other than human) function basically as religions. Equally of interest are the chapters examining how media inﬂuence is addressed and appropriated by religious institutions. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the case of The Da Vinci Code, where writer Ellen Moore ﬁnds evangelical churches resorting to popular cultural icons (even to the extent of staging Da Vinci-themed events) to refute the ﬁlm’s message.
A chapter on Sea left-based high-tech workers looks at whether the technological culture of the city may be a factor in its high rate of unchurched residents. Michael W. DeLashmu compares the percentage of high-tech professionals in Seattle and other cities with the rates of religious aﬃliation and ﬁnds no correlation between such work and religious disaﬃliation.
In fact, his interviews with Internet workers found little inclination to draw spiritual or religious meanings from their involvement in technology, and little interest in doing so. Their disaﬃliation stemmed from more “ordinary” factors—such as charges of intolerance and hypocrisy—rather than competing technological worldviews.
05: Shiite Islam is o en viewed as overtaking Sunni Islam as a key player in world religion and politics, but among Muslims in the US, this branch of the faith is o en seen as marginal.
Although less numerous than Sunni Muslims, the new book Shi’ism in America (NYU Press, $35) by Liyakat Nathani does a good job of showing how the other major branch of Islam is becoming more ethnically diverse, independent from home country leadership and socially active.
Nathani, who estimates the American Shiite population at two million (considerably more than many surveys have found), writes that the movement cooperated early with the more numerous Sunni Muslims, a pattern that by the 1980s changed as each group invested in its own structures and identities. The Shi’a have created many of their own institutions, but they have not embraced community involvement and inter-faith activity to the extent of Sunni organizations. Because of their more hierarchical and centralized nature, they also have to defer to judicial rulings made by leaders, known as the marji`.
The marji` are having more inﬂuence on American Shi’as thanks to the new media, but they are o en out of touch with the concerns of many members, especially youth, who are adopting a post-ethnic Islam along with their Sunni counterparts. There has been a growth of black Shi’a Muslims, although the AfricanAmericans have established fewer subgroups and mosques than the Sunni blacks and are much more integrated—even if contentiously—into ethnic Shi’ism. It is the ethnic divisions—not only between Shi’a and other Muslims, but also among the diﬀerent nationalities that make up Shi’ia communities—that will prove the most daunting challenge to this movement’s viability.
Nathani also provides an interesting account of the Iranian inﬂuence in the US, noting that it is not usually overt, but that oﬃcial Iranian ideology is o en spread to the Shi’ite community through religious and social teachings on satellite TV and the Internet.
06: While the title of the book might suggest a predictive approach, the recent volume Quo Vadis Eastern Europe? Religion, State and Society after Communism (Longo Editore, €25), edited by Ines Angeli Murzaku (Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ), rather oﬀers an assessment of various regional issues as well as of several national situations as they exist now.
What is certain is that the case of countries emerging from Communism has proved that there are ways for religious groups to reverse—at least to some extent—attempts at state suppression of religion, although those have left an impact. For several countries, a key component for the future is European integration, and this in turn will have consequences for Europe, since it means—among other things—integrating the Orthodox factor into the European picture. And the truth is that there is a widespread lack of knowledge on both Eastern Europe and Orthodoxy in the Western world.
A goal of the book is to contribute to ﬁll this gap. According to Thomas Bremer (Münster University, Germany), the real divide between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church concerns attitudes toward modernity, an issue he sees as much more crucial than doctrinal diﬀerences. Some other contributions pay attention to issues of dialogue in various Eastern European countries: but inter-religious dialogue as understood in the Western context still remains rare and is an import into the region, writes Paul Mojzes (Rosemont College, PA).
On the other hand, in his article on Ukraine, Walter Sawatsky (Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, IN) mentions instances of a new scholarship with readings of history informed by ecumenical developments and able to develop a critical assessment of the history of one’s own group. At the same time as Communist regimes persecuted religious groups more or less ﬁercely, they sometimes also provided them with a kind of monopoly: for instance, the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria was “both persecuted and privileged” (Bert Groen, University of Graz, Austria).
This also partly explains post-communist reactions against proselytism: RW associate editor Jean-François Mayer presents several cases where people in Eastern Europe have perceived missionary groups and new religious movements as threatening both their spiritual traditions and their national interests, taking advantage of a rapid transition, but the author argues that similar discourses can be found in other parts of the world as well. This should not hide other issues, such as tensions and schisms within religious traditions, evidenced by several contributions (e.g. in Montenegro, Bulgaria, Ukraine).
07: Muslim Anti-Semitism in Christian Europe (Transaction Publishers, $35.96) is a sharply polemical treatment of the documented cases of anti-Jewish sentiment among European Islamic communities.
Hebrew University historian Raphael Israeli views Muslim anti-Semitism partly as a reactive strike against another religious minority in the face of Islamic communities’ failure to integrate into European “Christian” societies. The book, based largely on secondary journalistic accounts of incidents of anti-Semitic incidents and rhetoric in Europe, also sees this phenomenon as part of an ingrained anti-Jewish sentiment within Islam itself. Israeli tends to equate the anti-Zionism evident among both the European left (and segments of the right) and a large part of the Muslim population with anti-Semitic tendencies.
He does unearth many accounts, although o en anecdotal, of anti-Israel fervor that melds into attacks on both Judaism and Jews, particularly during crises such as the Intifada. Israeli argues that the anti-Zionist sentiment among European elites tends to make them turn a blind eye to the anti-Jewish discourse of Muslim leaders in Europe or even defend it under the banner of free speech, even though they are very sensitive toward any signs of “Islamophobia” in their countries.
Since Israeli views both the antidemocratic and anti-Semitic tendencies as enduring components of Islam, he pays little attention to immigration and generational and other shifts developing among European Muslims; he sees the designation of “Muslim moderates” as li le more than a strategy to subtly introduce Islamic law (sharia) to European societies. While he discounts much of the potential of interreligious dialogue and peacekeeping, Israeli concedes that European leaders (both in individual countries and in the European Union) and public opinion have lately sought to challenge anti-Semitic currents.