01: Religion & Politics is the new online news journal of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.
The site is more than the usual opinion blog, as it publishes original articles by leading journalists and academics. The journal is concerned with the interactions between religion and politics both in the U.S. and abroad, and on both the national and local levels; a special section features writers reﬂecting on their respective states’ political-religious dynamics and interplay.
Topics covered in recent weeks include, as one might expect, the Romney campaign, a Christian ethicist’s examination of Obama’s new support of gay marriage, the question of the existence of “Latter-Day Libertarians,” and reﬂections on the religious dimensions of foreign policy. The coverage and editorial board lineup seems fairly balanced and non-partisan.
02: The journal Religion, State and Society devotes its May issue to Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity in Latin America, and Russia and Eastern Europe.
These churches have grown to a much larger extent in Latin America, but the comparison between the two regions makes sense. Both regions are on the periphery of the West and latecomers to modernization, where Pentecostal and charismatic churches faced established, hegemonic churches—Catholicism in Latin America and Orthodoxy and, to a lesser extent, Catholicism in Eastern Europe and Russia.
The differences also stand out—Catholicism in America has tended to be more accepting of the wave of pluralism that the Pentecostals helped to introduce in Latin America than is the case for Eastern Orthodoxy (which is more strongly tied to national cultures); syncretism has also been a fact of life in Latin America, which smoothed the way for Pentecostalism in these counties to a greater extent than in the East. The articles on Latin American Pentecostalism (covering Chile, Argentina and Brazil) suggest that even as these churches are experiencing less rapid growth than 10 or 20 years ago, they are becoming more politically engaged.
This trend is also evident in Russia and Eastern Europe, but the still-dominant role of Orthodoxy in establishing national identity serves as an obstacle to such involvement. Unlike Latin America, the slackening of Pentecostal/charismatic growth in Russia and Eastern Europe since the 1990s has been met with the expanding public role and nationalist inﬂuence of the Orthodox churches. This is not helped by the still-strong perception among Russians and Eastern Europeans that Pentecostalism is a foreign imported religion.
For more information on this issue, contact: Religion, State and Society, http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/carfax/09637494.html
03: The scientiﬁc study of prayer and healing is a subject drenched in controversy among both scientists and believers.
In her new book, Testing Prayer (Harvard University Press, $29.95), Candy Gunther Brown takes into account the whole panoply of protagonists and antagonists in this contested ﬁeld—those who question the whole enterprise of scientiﬁcally investigating prayer and rituals, since they believe science disproves the supernatural; believers (both liberals and the more conservative) who oppose any empirical testing of matters based on faith; and a growing segment of scientists and believers who seek to subject prayer and other practices to scientiﬁc and medical scrutiny for their own reasons.
The Pentecostal and charismatic groups she proﬁles are divided on the matter. After decades of accumulating medical records purporting to demonstrate proof of healings, many have taking a “post-modern” approach that spurns the need to prove anything scientiﬁcally; yet movements such as the Vineyard and oﬀshoots of the Toronto Blessing movement are more likely to support the measurement of spiritual eﬀects.Even scientists supporting prayer research are at odds about results over intercessory prayer. Recent studies of “remote prayer”—using designated “prayers” who intercede at a distance for patients they don’t know—have shown negative results, but they are highly contested on methodological grounds (mainly in terms of the problems of having control groups).
For this reason, Brown focuses on “proximal prayer”—where healing prayer is conducted through personal contact. With her research team, she studied Global Awakening and its charismatic healing ministry in Mozambique, Brazil and North America. Through observation, interviews and follow-up investigations, Brown found that the “magnitude of measured eﬀects,” especially in Brazil and Mozambique, exceeds that reported in previous studies of suggestion and hypnosis.
Without taking a theological position on what is taking place in these cases or even if they constitute actual healings, Brown ﬁnds that these occurrences do have the “potential to exert lasting eﬀects.” She concludes that the beneﬁcial eﬀects and “emotional energy” resulting from these experiences travel beyond the recipients to a wider network of fellow Pentecostal believers and others in need.
04: In the book Gothicka (Harvard University Press, $27.95), Victoria Nelson traces how the gothick tradition of horror in America has been translated into a fan-based and alternative spirituality that is sustained by novels, ﬁlms and other popular entertainment.
What links all these cultural forms is that they seek to generate fright as a way of connecting with the “enchanted world” of belief. She shares the view of Philip K. Dick that when the “divine has been exiled from the table of serious art and intellectual discussion for well over a century, you have to look for it in what the elite culture thinks of as the trash.”
The book uses the term “secondary believers” to refer to fans of the various authors and media who try to recreate and identify these alternative worlds (such as “trekkies”), as opposed to “primary believers,” meaning those who cross over to actual belief (such as joining a spaceship “cult”).
Nelson covers the broad territory of gothick in popular culture—from the Catholic-inﬂuenced horror and thriller books to movies (such as The Da Vinci Code), magic cults based on the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, Vampire ﬁction, the “new Christian Gothick,” represented by the popular novel The Shack, and the many imported horror ﬁlms from Asia. In these examples of gothick art, entertainment and quasi-religions, Nelson ﬁnds older notions of subservience to a transcendent being and loyalty to an institution being eclipsed by an alternative spirituality based on superhuman gods and self-deiﬁcation
05: Wild Religion (University of California Press, $26.95), by David Chidester, looks at the diversity of religion in South Africa and, as the title implies, the way it often acts as an untamed and “dangerous” force that takes part in everything from the World Cup soccer tournament to successive national government policies since the dismantling of apartheid in 1994.
Chidester focuses on the non-institutional aspects of traditional African, Christian, and Islamic beliefs and how, if anything, they have become more politicized in post-apartheid South Africa. His account of the World Cup, held in South Africa in 2010, shows this interplay between traditional and Christian actors and movements: not only did churches compose prayers for the games, but the local organizers of cultural events prepared ritual sacriﬁces of animals in keeping with ancestral religion. The new pluralism in post-apartheid South Africa has also spurred resistance movements; Chidester devotes a chapter to Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, viewing such a marginal movement as Christian Reconstructionism as representing a reactive nationalism seeking to restore a conservative Christian society.
He tends to associate the inﬂuence of Reconstructionism with evangelicals, although he notes that the born-again Christians who emerged in 1970s apartheid South Africa were more socially and racially tolerant than South Africans in general. But the book really comes into its own in the later chapters, as Chidester examines how traditional African religions have been “unleashed” in post-apartheid society. The educational curriculum has been reshaped to reﬂect “heritage” and the role that traditional religions play in society.
Meanwhile, the New Age and other alternative spiritual movements, including UFO devotees worldwide, have latched on to the neo-shamanism of the Zulu people. The most colorful chapter concerns the presidency of Jacob Zuma, which has encouraged a mixing of traditional religion and Christianity, especially through Matholethe Motshkga, the African National Congress’s chief whip in parliament, who has actively sought to resurrect a theocracy based on indigenous and Egyptian hermetic mysticism (including theosophy) and rituals as a sort of new South African civil religion. The book concludes that the “wild” and hybrid nature of South African religion—and its increasing political expression—will endure even as it is targeted by those seeking to maintain the purity of religious traditions, which could include Christians worrying about non-Christian inﬂuence in education, as well as black shamans of traditional religions opposed to white initiates taking up these teachings
06: The new book Overseas Chinese Christian Entrepreneurs in Modern China (Anthem Press, $99), by Joy Tong, examines how Christian values and ethics are being imported into China by entrepreneurs in Shanghai.
The book focuses our attention on the vital involvement of overseas Chinese entrepreneurs, especially Taiwanese businessmen, in the market economy in Shanghai after the opening up of China, as well as the inﬂuence of the Christian values of these professionals. Tong has collected accounts of 60 entrepreneurs based on interviews and shows how powerful individuals utilize their business to realize their evangelical visions rather than for personal enhancement of for the sake of China.
The contribution of this book centers on its examination of the relationship between faith communities and business development among these overseas Chinese in Shanghai. Churches in China have also served as a location for building business networks and per-sonal trust, and exchanging social capital in a similar way as immigrant churches in the US. One of the book’s ﬂaws is that it is interview based, which means that the data is based on the claims of these entrepreneurs rather than observations. We don’t get the sense of boarder perspectives on organizational operations or strategies in everyday life based on interviewees’ selective responses.
Tong does not claim that the Christian ethic is a causative force in the formation of China’s market economy at large or in companies’ growth. Yet her assumption that “for more and more people in modern China, economic success, hard work and Biblical values are societal components capable of existing together in harmony” is hard to prove, since we also witness many successful “secular” businessmen and Buddhist entrepreneurs in China.
– Reviewed by Weishan Huang, a researcher with the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity who is currently based in Shanghai
07: Rethinking Religion and World Aﬀairs (Oxford University Press, $29.95), edited by Timothy Samuel Shah, Alfred Stepan and Monica Duﬀy Toft, reﬂects the renewed interest in religion in international relations, especially since 9/11.
The emergence of religiously inspired terrorism set oﬀ warning bells in a discipline that had largely ignoredreligious dynamics in world politics and foreign aﬀairs since it was established, following the plot line of the secularization theory (which correlates a growth in modernization with a decline of religion).
Since international relations is obviously concerned with the whole world and not just the presumably secular societies of the West, most of the contributors seek to explain the discipline’s myopia. In an insightful essay, J. Bryan Hehir traces the inattention to religion further back to the way the United Nations and even the Treaty of Westphalia (going back to the 17th century) came to symbolize a secular world order for diplomats and scholars.
It was only after the crises and revolutions inspired by various forms of religion—from Iran, to Poland, to Latin America, not to men-tion Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” thesis—that international relations reconsidered the religious factor in world aﬀairs. Other noteworthy contributions include a study of how the movements and organizations working for “transitional justice” based on the model of reconciliation (from Chile to South Africa) are informed by Christian teachings, but have been accommodated by Islamic, Jewish and native sources; a chapter on how a secular-religious divide runs through much humanitarian work; and a unique section on the role of the media in religion’s new role in world aﬀairs, including an analysis of how Buddhist monks in Burma used the new media to mobilize diplomatic initiatives. Many of the chapters feature valuable annotative bibliographies and a chapter at the end proﬁles the diﬀerent organizations dealing with international aﬀairs and religion.