01: Sociologists Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel provide a thorough examination of the postmodern “emerging Christianity” movement in their new book The Deconstructed Church (Oxford University Press, $35).
Emerging Christianity has been a diffuse movement, stressing its anti-institutional nature with participants divided among themselves about whether they go by the designation “emerging” or “emergent” (with the former the more conservative strand) as well as whether the movement itself is defunct. Through case studies of congregations and surveys, Marti and Ganiel find that emerging communities encourage a particular religious orientation marked by strong internal pluralism—there are few requirements of belief or memberships (with even non-believers participating). Yet there is also a high rate of participation among those attending.
The authors are convinced that the movement will persist and even thrive due to its embrace of pervasive religious individualism and pluralism in Western societies. But it may also function as a stopover for young adults before they settle down and find a more family-friendly church, even if its ideas and practices have wider influence.
With Marti based in the U.S. and Ganiel in Northern Ireland, the authors are good in showing the transnational nature of the movement, as well as its diversity of practices, teachings and worship styles. In the U.S., emerging congregations often position themselves against the evangelical Christianity, particularly megachurhes, while these groups in the UK, most notably the Icon community in Belfast, are formed by contestation with mainstream churches and secularism.
02: An Anxious Age (Image, $18.54) by Joseph Bottum, is an unusual book, being part conservative political critique and part historical and sociological commentary as it seeks to define what he calls the “post-Protestant” class and its implications for “American exceptionalism.”
Bottum writes that the loss of mainline Protestantism as a social force has left a vacuum in providing a common moral vocabulary for Americans that made them uniquely religious in the Western world. Through a series of vignettes and analysis of sociological research, the author argues that while the mainline’s descendents have shed their forebearer’s denominations and theology (usually opting for the “spiritual but not religious” label), they have retained a similar moral certainty on a host of social and political issues (ranging from environmentalism to abortion). These cultural pathways have been generalized to the rest of upper-middle and middle class America, encompassing Catholics, Jews and other Protestants who have left their religions behind.
The second part of the book is more original and timely, as Bottum seeks to show how evangelicals and especially Catholics have tried to fill the religious-moral space left behind by the mainline. He traces how American Catholicism during the past two decades has lost a share of churchly bricks and mortar influence through the priest sex abuse crisis and the resulting law suits, for instance, while gaining a new role as a seedbed of moral and political ideas.
This is most evident in the unique coalition that developed between evangelicals and Catholics with the former borrowing church teachings on natural law, just war theory and the dignity of the person. The Catholic factor retains its influence among a new generation of politicians, lawyers and judges, going all the way up to the Supreme Court, as well as in the pro-life movement. But Bottum concludes that neither evangelicals nor Catholics have been successful in filling the moral-religious space left by the mainline for most Americans—it may be that Catholicism carries too much institutional weight and evangelicalism too little to play such a role.
03: The appeal of “religious exoticism” and how such religions become domesticated to serve therapeutic needs is the topic of Veronique Altglas’s new book From Yoga to Kabbalah (Oxford University Press, $35).
Altglas focuses on two case studies, the Kabbalah Centre in Israel, the UK, France, and Brazil, and Hindu-based movements in France and Britain. Both movements have gained followings by downplaying their cultural and religious roots, with the Hindu groups stressing an Eastern spiritual identity and the Kabbalah Centre’s invention of a non-Jewish Kabbalah. The author shows how such “universalizing” strategies have their limits; such a process is difficult and outsiders—non-Jews at the Kabbalah Centre, and non-Hindus and non-Indians at yoga centers—realize that specific cultures and religions are still present in such groups, creating a measure of discomfort, leading to a low retention rate.
There are few conversions either to Judaism or Hinduism among seekers who participate in these groups, even though there is some prestige in “discovering” one’s Jewish identity in the Brazilian case study. At the same time, co-religionists and even some members oppose watering down the tradition, as seen when the Kabbalah Centre in Paris was forced to close in the face of such opposition. Altglas argues that these attempts at universalizing religious traditions are very much in keeping with the cosmopolitan needs of the “new petite bourgeois” class.
This class stresses such values as “authenticity, aesthetics, freedom, peace, and loving interpersonal relationships,” and see their involvement in such groups as a way of social positioning; thus the frequent referral to spiritual techniques as transferable “tools” for enhancing both one’s personal and professional life. She concludes that these groups may be part of the spiritual marketplace, engaging spiritual entrepreneurs and “bricoleurs,” but they are also bound by the constraints and preferences of this new class.