01: As with other religious communities, American Judaism is faced with disaffection from the Gen X and Millennial generations, particularly on issues related to the religion’s ethnic identity and ties to Israel, writes Rabbi Sidney Schwarz in the new book Jewish Megatrends (Jewish Lights Publishing, $24.99).
But Schwarz’s book is far from a eulogy of American Judaism; he sees the “stirring of Jewish revival” taking place on “margins of the community.” The rabbi spends the first quarter of the book highlighting the contours of such a revival: The disaffection toward Israel among younger Jews, largely over the Palestinian situation, is being countered by the Birthright program. Birthright has sent close to 300,000 Jewish young people to Israel on free 10-day trips.
As a result, Birthright alumni are found to be significantly more likely to be committed to Israel and to marry other Jews. The shift from a “tribal” (or ethnic) Jewish identity to a spiritual or “covenantal” identity has lowered levels of involvement with traditional Jewish organizations, yet it also has created a new interest in Jewish learning, even if in a more “do-it-yourself” mode. The lack of communal identity among young Jews has nevertheless led to new community-building efforts and engagement in social action, Schwarz concludes.
Schwarz’s “bad news-good news” approach is echoed by most of the respondents who contribute to the rest of the volume. Jewish philanthropy is in serious eclipse yet funders are realizing that the decline of umbrella organizations, such as the federations, has given way to new non-profits and more individualized and public-private forms of funding. A chapter on denominations confirms that the non-Orthodox branches are commanding less allegiance, though attempts to chart a post-denominational course, such as the Synagogue 3000 project, still tend to be sponsored and housed under Reform or Conservative auspices.
A chapter on Orthodoxy suggests that these synagogues’ flexibility—moving to areas where congregants are—and adherences to tradition are increasingly appealing to young Jews seeking religious “authenticity.” Schwarz concludes the book by noting that forging a new tribal identity along with the covenantal-spiritual component will be the best way to ensure the American Jewish future.
02: There Is No God: Atheists in America (Roman & Littlefield, $36), by sociologists David Williamson and George Yancey, provides provocative data and analysis to the rapidly growing literature on secularism and non-religion in the U.S.
The book focuses on “everyday atheists” rather than atheist leaders and intellectuals and the various humanist and secular movements and groups, and is based on an open-ended online survey of 1,451 atheists (mostly members of atheist organizations) and more in-depth interviews of 51 atheists in the Midwest and South. While not a probability sample, or information about the size of the atheist movement, the survey was large enough to locate patterns among secularists. The book confirms that atheism is still strongest among highly educated, older white males and that most come from non-religious backgrounds. Many come to atheism less through personal contact with other atheists than through reading secularist literature, such as books by new atheist authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
The book is most interesting in its chapter on politics, showing that while atheists are critical of those holding religious beliefs, believing they are irrational, they hold particular animus toward those who apply their faith to politics. Yet the atheists surveyed see politics as integral to their own atheism, often co-joining secularism with liberal or leftist political views. Williamson and Yancey argue that the way atheists (at least those connected to secularist organizations) connect their non-religion to liberal politics makes them at least as politicized as conservative Christians.
The book identifies a subset of the more “militant” atheists as being “fundamentalists” (a label most atheists vigorously deny). However, regardless of label, the definition may apply to a segment who accept the concern voiced by Dawkins– that raising children in religion is immoral and could even be a form of brainwashing. The authors conclude that atheist outspokenness and activism is inevitably tied to its ongoing conflicts with conservative religion and its political implications. From their interviews with Southern atheists, Williamson and Yancey find that the more contact they have with conservative theists, the less likely they were to fear the political control of these believers.
03: The Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative (PCRI) at the University of Southern California has recently issued two publications that suggest much of the older Pentecostal churches and structures are being outpaced by newer “post-denominational” or “next generation” renewal organizations and congregations.
The PCRI, funded mainly by the Templeton Foundation, has focused on the global South Pentecostal and charismatic churches, which reveal diverse and even conflicting trends in these movements. A new report from the PCRI, entitled Moved by the Spirit, documents the growth of these next generation renewal groups that tend to eschew earlier Pentecostal tendencies of separation from the world and favor engagement with culture and social action. The report also notes that the lines are increasingly blurring between evangelical, charismatic and even mainline churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (though there is an interesting aside on how Lutherans and charismatics in Brazil came to a parting of the ways).
The report is very upbeat about these next generation groups, citing how there are small yet growing gay-friendly fellowships in Brazil, charismatic groups in Indonesia open to cooperation with Muslims, and networks in Nigeria and Latin America fighting for social change and eschewing right wing politics found in the older Pentecostal churches. But it doesn’t give much evidence that these tendencies are embraced beyond a small, if growing, circle of younger charismatics.
For instance, there is the claim that prosperity theology (teaching that believers can claim financial blessings) is increasingly disdained by next generation churches, yet the report acknowledges that this school of theology is still popular in many churches in the global South. Even if “next generation” charismatics are found to represent more than half of the neo-Pentecostal groups existing outside of the older denominations (according to a Pew study), it is not clear how many would espouse the liberal directions portrayed in the report.
A more sober reading of the Pentecostal/charismatic situation is found in the new book Spirit of Power (Oxford University Press, $29.95), edited by Donald Miller, Kimon Sargeant, and Richard Flory, who are all involved in the PCRI. The book brings together much of the ongoing and mushrooming Pentecostal research being conducted in the global South and includes chapters on Pentecostalism and its relation to gender, missions, democracy, and globalization.
In the Introduction, Miller highlights the creative nature of the Pentecostal upsurge, where new congregations and networks are easily formed often by self-taught religious entrepreneurs while meeting emotional and social needs of the marginalized and displaced in the developing world (while also recently becoming appealing to the new middle class).
Particularly interesting is Robert Woodberry’s study of Pentecostalism and democracy, where he finds a “moderate positive impact” on the spread and stability of democracy–expanding civil society where it is weak (while also noting that initial Pentecostal movements in politics were clamorous with corrupt leaders). Other chapters look at places where the Catholic charismatic movement is weak—Paraguay– and strong—Brazil—and how the religious marketplace shapes these outcomes, the growing role of “reverse missions” of global South Pentecostals in the West, and the emerging leadership roles of Pentecostal women, particularly in Africa. For more information on the Moved by the Spirit report, visit: http://www.usc.edu/crcc.
04: Rupert Shortt’s new book Christianophobia (Eerdmans Publishing, $26) is clearly a spin off of the widely used term Islamophobia.
Shortt argues that “Christianophobia” is a fear and hatred of Christianity, often by Islamic extremists, that is the real or actual threat to human rights and religious freedom today. The book documents the persecution of Christians around the world by secular as well as religious antagonists, although it does not pretend to be exhaustive. Shortt, the religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement, does not defend the thesis of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and Christianity, but rather argues that the causes of violence against Christians are complex—ranging from fear of non-Christians who witness Christianity’s historic ties to the West and missionary activity to envy of the faith’s positive effects on education, democracy, and financial prosperity.
Shortt pays particular attention to Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, India, Burma, Vietnam, and the Holy Land. While some of the cases of persecution that Shortt records are well-known, others are less well known, such as activities of friendly allies to the U.S., including Turkey, whose religious directorate campaign targets converts from Islam to Christianity. He makes it clear that in many of these cases, the majority of Muslims and those of other religions also protest the violence against Christians. In Nigeria, Muslims have organized to protect Christian churches from destruction while Christians have done the same for mosques.