01: Reﬂections, the magazine of Yale Divinity School, devotes its fall issue to religion and theology and the social media.
The issue serves as a window into the question of how mainline Protestants are dealing with the new technology. The issue’s 22 articles suggest a growing engagement with the new media, yet also a concern about its challenges to traditional forms of community and relationships. Particularly noteworthy is the article by Verity Jones of the New Media Project, which reports on a study of young clergy by the project showing almost universal adoption of Facebook (97 percent) and its use for ministry (83 percent).
Jones and other writers argue that the social media will reshape theology, looking at how God is present in interconnectedness and networks as well as traditional groups. Other articles in the issue include an interview with the religion editor of the online Huﬃngton Post, and an article on social media and parish life. Episcopal priest Scott Gunn writes that the most eﬀective ministries are not coming from denominational leaders as much as from laypeople and clergy working together via social media.
For more information on this issue, write: Reﬂections, YDS, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511.
02: The November issue of the Nordic Journal of Religion and Society is devoted to presenting the ﬁndings from the NOREL program, which studied the changing shape of church-state relations in the Scandinavian countries.
The NOREL program studied church-state relations and the position of religion in the public sphere in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland from 1988 to 2008, looking both at the majority Lutheran churches and minority religions such as Islam. Most of the articles report that the state churches are moving toward a position of de-facto disestablishment (and in Sweden, actual disestablishment since 2000, although the government still has a measure of control in the Church of Sweden, especially in faith-based welfare programs) as concerns grow about freedoms for minority faiths.
Denmark remains the exception, with strong church-state connections and more restrictive policies toward minorities, although even this case may be slowly changing, writes Marie Vejrup Nielsen and Lene Kuhle.
For more information on this issue, write: firstname.lastname@example.org.
03: The New Evangelicals (Eerdmans, $20), by Marcia Pally, seeks to portray a distinct movement of evangelicals who have moved away from the religious right to embrace causes of peace, environmentalism, anti-consumerism and other issues not easily classiﬁable on the left–right spectrum.
In fact, many identify themselves on a case-by-case basis. After the election of President Barak Obama, there was much talk of liberal evangelicals disenchanted with the religious right and the politicization of Christianity. Pally outlines several subgroups in this broad and ill-deﬁned movement: emergent churches, which take a post-modern approach to mission; those working on what can be considered “common ground” issues, such as the environment and “civil society;” and the older “evangelical left” with its roots in the 1960s. These evangelicals tend to approach these issues by stressing the ethical and political importance of engaging other views, as well as developing structures that encourage building consensus and coalitions, according to Pally.
Most new evangelicals are opposed to abortion, but tend to bundle that issue with other life concerns, such as opposing the death penalty; on gay rights, they would stress ministry to gays more than ﬁghting for legal restrictions on homosexuality. Throughout the book, Pally focuses on high-proﬁle new evangelical leaders, such as Joel Hunter (advisor to Obama) and Jim Wallis of Sojourners, but she also interviews (featured in question-and-answer format) lay people, activists and pastors. While signs of a shift away from strict Republican identiﬁcation may be evident among circles of evangelical intellectuals and a subset of activists, Pally pays less attention to their evangelical constituency, which surveys suggest are more conservative on the issues (including many younger evangelicals).
04: The Anointed (Harvard University Press, $29.95), by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson, looks at the role of “evangelical spokesmen” and “experts” in the evangelical community.
The authors, both evangelical professors from Eastern Nazarene College, are clearly critical of the way in which conservative evangelical leaders, such as James Dobson (in psychology), David Barton (in history), Ken Ham (science) and Hal Lindsay (biblical interpretation) assume expert status while actually being amateurs in relation to established scholarship (although they struggle with making this case for Dobson, since he actually is a psychologist, although not an expert on the issues of homosexuality that he often addresses).
The author’s basic argument is not new; there have been other treatments of the “parallel culture” of much of evangelicalism. But the book does document how various leaders and thinkers challenging secular knowledge rise and fall according to a “star-making” or anointing process that often spurns accreditation and is assisted by the democratic evangelical culture. Because such leaders combine the persuasive powers of great preachers with the credibility granted to academics, they generate more intellectual authority than either actual preachers or evangelical academics. Stephens and Giberson discuss various theories as to why they think non-factual beliefs are spread so eﬀectively, tending to favor cognitive and evolutionary strategies, such as creating an “in-group” against a common enemy.
05: Robert Wuthnow’s latest book, Red State Religion (Princeton University Press, $35), ventures as much into history as sociology, but it serves as an extended case study of the development of a conservative religious culture.
Wuthnow traces the longtime link between Republican politics and the religious landscape in Kansas. He notes that the state’s religious and political dynamics revolve less around fundamentalism than sustaining a social role for churches that had long played a central role in small-town life. The state was often more divided between moderate Methodists and Catholics than between liberal and conservative churches; it was a leader in women suﬀrage and prohibition.
But it was the state’s network of conservative religious activism, particularly on the issues of abortion and teaching evolution in schools, that gained the most notoriety. Wuthnow cites an interplay of internal—the momentum shifting from mainline to evangelical churches—and external forces—such as the migration of many religious conservatives to Kansas—that encoura-ged Christian right activism. But Wuthnow tends to see “swatches of purple” deﬁning large sections of the state, with small-town pragmatism and the fostering of local community marking red state religion rather than “contentious moral activism.”
06: Despite a growing trend of people converting to Eastern Orthodox churches during the last 25 years, there have been few book-length treatments of this topic. The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace (Northern Illinois University Press, $25), by Amy Slagle, does a good job of ﬁlling this gap as it studies both the motivations of the converts and the impact they make on parish communities.
Slagle interviewed 48 converts and studied two parishes in Pittsburgh and Jackson, Mississippi. She ﬁnds that the spiritual marketplace and the conversion to Orthodoxy are not poles apart; the potential convert discovers Orthodoxy through a process of searching and selection. The converts value the sense of community and the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity, which they claim provides more freedom than the perceived “legalism” of Western Christianity.
The main conﬂicts stem from the ethnic nature of Orthodoxy and, in some cases, the sense of exclusion they feel from cradle (Slavic and Greek) members of these churches. But alienation is far from the whole story, as many of the converts admire and even identify with the deep “roots” (even if it meant exploring their own non-Slavic or Greek ethnicities) they found among parishioners. This was especially true for those who converted through marriage to an ethnic Orthodox member, seeing the change as providing a uniﬁed ethnic-religious identity for their marriages/families.
As for the parishes, Slagle ﬁnds that they reported positive beneﬁts from the presence of Orthodox converts, particularly in the way they infused spiritual enthusiasm and devotion into churches. Other interesting parts of the book include a chapter on the diﬀerences between the Orthodox situation in a non-Orthodox state such as Mississippi and in the Pittsburgh area, which has been considered the “Holy Land” of Orthodoxy in the United States.
07: Miklos Tomka’s new book, Expanding Religion (De Gruyter, $105), is said to represent the ﬁrst ever cross-national and cross-denominational analysis of surveys on religion in post-communist Europe in the period between 1991 and 2008.
Tomka, a veteran Hungarian sociologist of religion who died in 2010, oﬀers a complex view of the religious situation in Central and Eastern Europe, seeing patterns of both religious revival and decline in action. The drastic changes of the early 1990s in these regions, where religious institutions and actors suddenly re-emerged, struck many people as a “revival.”
The setbacks and naturally slower pace marking the subsequent rebuilding process has been viewed as a decline by some observers, although Tomka adds that it can just as easily be seen as a period of adjustment and stabilization. Traditional religious cultures, long under attack by communist governments, have certainly not returned and taken-for-granted beliefs have been replaced by independent choice that can both fragment old communities and ties, but also create new ones. In such a ﬂuid situation, churches may play increasingly public roles as post-communist political systems grow weaker.
Tomka’s analysis is based on international comparative surveys, such as the World Values Survey and a research project he conducted with colleagues. Tomka ﬁnds that there is a clear growth of trust in religious institutions in most post-communist societies, especially between 1998 and 2008—in contrast to Western Europeans’ decreasing conﬁdence in organized religion. He identiﬁes several other diﬀerences from the West: denominational belonging, often tied to ethnic identity, is still important in Eastern and Central Europe, even when beliefs fade in importance; there is not so much a loss of belief in a personal God (as surveys of Western Europeans suggest) as a diversiﬁcation of beliefs about God mediated by generation, denominational background and country; and younger people with a higher education actually tended to be more religious in countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and the former East Germany.
Tomka is hesitant to provide any hard-and-fast forecasts about religion in Eastern tern and Central Europe due to its ever-changing and complex nature, but the book’s wealth of data, extending over almost a 20-year time period, makes it essential reading for those interested in the subject.
08: In his book Religion in China (Oxford University Press, $24.95), Fenggang Yang’s seeks to answer the large question of how religions survive and revive in China under communist rule.
For readers eager to learn the general trends of religious regulations and practices in contemporary China, chapters one to four oﬀer a clear understanding of this picture. In these chapters, Yang informs readers on what he means by the scientiﬁc study of religions and Chinese religions, Chinese Marxist atheism and its policy implications, and religious regulations under communism in four periods after 1949. Yet the strength of this book is its focus on how the “limited tolerance of certain religious groups was governed by increasingly restrictive regulations” during the period 1979–2009.
The author explains religious vitality by building on the conceptual tools of market theories originating from Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, with his goal being to explain general religious patterns in China in the last six decades. The several research questions Yang raises throughout this book include: How much can the state control the growth or decline of religions? Why did eradication measures fail? To what extent can a secularist state promote secularization? In Yang’s analysis, the restrictive regulations that intend to keep religion at a low level have instead created vivacious dynamics on the demand side, which, he argues, is a characteristic of a shortage economy of religion.
His triple-market model of religious regulations (grey, black and red markets) describes the complex tripartite economy of religion in China and has strong inﬂuence on religious study among Chinese scholars today. He adds that “[s]hortages cause loss and inconvenience to consumers. They often have to wait for supply, to queue up, and frequently, are forced to be content with goods diﬀerent from their original wish.” Yang cites Janos Kornai’s shortage economy theory and criticizes supply-side theorists for assuming that religious demand in a society is relatively stable and distributed in a bell-curve shape.
Yang concludes that a “growing demand in turn stimulates religious supply and forces the authorities to adapt their regulation and enforcement strategies …. The shortage of religious supply is not only a problem of central planning, but is also a driven part of ideology. As long as atheism is maintained as part of ideological orthodoxy, changes in religion policy will be no more than cosmetic and the shortage economy of religion will persist.”—By Weishan Huang, a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, who is currently based in Shanghai, China.
09: The current Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion (2011, Vol. 2, Brill, $166) is devoted to religion and politics, although the book’s political dimensions are linked to broad issues of immigration, globalization and secularization.
This approach is evident in a chapter on the relation between rates of secularization and the public role of religion in the West. By comparing party preferences and attitudes toward the expression of religion in public with aﬃliation rates, the study ﬁnds that where Christians are numerically most marginal, they nonetheless have “strong aspirations for a public role of their creed than in contexts where the proportion of Christians is high.”
This conclusion clashes with secularization theorists who argue that the social impact of religion is weaker in contexts where religion has declined. Other noteworthy chapters include an examination of the controversy over Christian conversion and its role in Hindu nationalism in India, and several contributions on how religion plays a role in mobilizing people and providing social cohesion, but also leads the way to interreligious conﬂict—a tendency seen in the case studies of the role of Santeria in Cuba and Pentecostalism in Brazil.