01: Several articles in the current issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review (January) are devoted to the complex and shifting interplay of technology and tradition in the Amish and other strict Anabaptist groups.
Contrary to popular perceptions, the use of technology is not totally and uniformly forbidden to any of these groups; rather, it is a matter of selectively using and adapting technology to best suit a particular group’s internal cohesion and relation to other Amish groups. The opening article by anthropologist Karen Johnson-Weiner argues that Amish are keenly aware of the unanticipated consequences of the use of technology to their traditions and can move either toward more conservative or liberal practices to suit their communities’ needs.
For instance, a new progressive Amish community in New York actually reverted back toward restricting work in the outside world and returning to farming when it realized a weakening of community life. Another article highlights how the Andy Weaver Amish group has created a middle way between the traditionalism of the Old Order Amish and the liberalization of the new orders, especially by their selective use of technology. The concluding article examines how the German Baptist Brethren group split over the use of the Internet and how the church has sought to reconcile the conflicting parties.
For more information on this issue, write: Mennonite Quarterly Review, Goshen College, 1700 Main St, Goshen, IN 46526.
02: Even as religions are increasingly operating as consumer brands, the fields of marketing and behavioral economics have been reluctant to incorporate religion as an influence in economic decision-making.
The new book Belief Systems, Religion, and Behavioral Economics (Business Expert Press, $43.95), by Elizabeth A. Minton and Lynn R. Kahle, looks at this curious inattention to the impact of religion in consumer behavior and find that this has serious repercussions in businesses ignoring or even offending the religious sensibilities of their customer base in their marketing efforts, such in advertising products that may be discouraged or forbidden during various holy days.
The authors review the research that has been done on religion and consumer behavior and find a whole range of significant and mundane concerns that can inform marketers—from the tendency of Buddhists to prefer fair trade products to Muslim sensitivity over using sexual innuendo in advertising to the tendency of conservative Protestants to buy products on sale than other believers. In general, highly religious consumers are less likely to be store loyal and are more apt to voice complaints than less religious consumers. The authors conclude that the rise of “big data” and the presence of religions in social media are making it easy and potentially profitable to target religious niches in advertising, product development, and market strategy.
As if to answer and expand upon the concerns of Minton and Kahle, the anthology Religon as Brands (Ashgate, $109.95), edited by Jean-Claude Usunier and Jorg Stolz, brings together a wealth of sociological and marketing research and theory and research on the way that religions are forced to market themselves in order to be attractive to consumers.
The contributors view consumerization of religion as part of modernization but acknowledge that there is considerable debate what this process does to religious faith. Those holding to a secularization model see such consumerism and the pluralism that comes with it dissipating religious vitality or at least making religion more individualistic. Those scholars holding to the market theory see such a free marketplace as creating competition and greater vitality. While the book does not settle the debate, it illustrates the advantages and limits to branding.
The editors state in the introduction that many groups have successfully used their symbols, services and distinct styles to create a niche for themselves, but it is also the case that such marketing does not always equal growth. Religious branding can turn away prospective members and divide and disenchant those who are already members of a congregation or denomination. The chapters are far-reaching, looking at both the “supply side”—the religious organizations doing the branding— and the “demand-side”—how individuals consume religion. Notable chapter include a study on how religions increasingly compete with secular institutions to capture the hearts and minds of consumers; how the “Hillsong Sound” of the megachurch network by that name has become a global Christian music brand; and how the “business model” of monopoly was pioneered by the Jerusalem Temple.
03: The new book Christian Higher Education: A Global Reconnaissance (Eerdmans, $36) introduces the reader to the burgeoning world of new Christian colleges and universities outside of North America.
Along with the growth of churches and denominations in the global South and Asia and Eastern Europe, there has been an untold story of how these schools have grown rapidly in these regions, especially Africa. The contributors bring vital qualitative and quantitative data to bear on the phenomenon. In a worldwide survey conducted by the editor, 595 Christian universities were found outside of the U.S. and Canada by 2013, and more than 30 percent of these schools have started since 1980.
Africa remains a hot spot, with 46 new Christian universities founded between 1990 and 2010, while 25 and 32 started, respectively, in Asia (including Australia) and Latin America. The founding of these schools are a “trend within a trend”—private higher education has expanded rapidly in much of the world as public universities have become overburdened with a new need for training technical workers and business professionals.
But the Christian universities often stand out from these new schools for their commitment to “nation-building”—especially pronounced in the book’s chapters on Nigeria and Kenya—and offer broader educations, including training in the helping professions and liberal arts studies. The contributors tend to see the trend of new Christian universities more as an outgrowth of church growth in a similar way to the institution-building that took place after revivals in 19th century America.
And, as in the U.S. (and older educational institutions started by missionaries in parts of the global South), there is already concern that these newly created universities are facing the pressures of secularization. In fact, some of these new universities have secularized very rapidly, in only a generation’s time.