01: Although it is far off the agenda of most Western churches, witchcraft remains a live and pressing issue in much of the global South.
The January issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research is devoted to the controversial subject, particularly about the effects of “witch hunts” on Christian churches. The debate about the relations between missionaries and witchcraft is centuries-old but the changing nature of churches in the global South, particularly the growth of indigenous and Pentecostal Christianity, have raised new concerns. These new forms of Christianity affirm much of native spiritual traditions where evil forces are active in everyday life, but they still have to deal with widespread witchcraft accusations and killings that often target the most vulnerable—orphans and elderly women.
An article on witchcraft in northern Peru finds that Christians are often in the bind of criticizing such practices while their resistance to engaging in witch hunts can make them vulnerable to such accusations themselves, in which case they may yield to social pressure and join the accusers. A report from Africa suggests that the “spiritual warfare” and prosperity teachings in Pentecostal churches closely parallel the concept that misfortune can be attributed to supernatural evil. But these churches also demand their members make a sharp break with shamans or witchdoctors and seek alternatives to such practices through healings and deliverance ministries. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.internationalbulletin.org/
02: Atheist Identities—Spaces and Social Contexts (Springer, $99), edited by Lori Beaman and Steven Tomlins, shows some of the diversity in non-religious, non-theist expressions as well as how atheists define themselves in a wide variety of social contexts, though with a Canadian accent.
The book, based on a workshop on atheism at the University of Ottawa in 2012 (updated since then), goes over some familiar and unfamiliar territory in the now expanding field of secularist and non-religion studies. The collection covers the now well-studied phenomenon of the new atheism, though brings in new findings and analyses. Steven LeDrew offers an interesting account of the clash between social justice-oriented atheist humanists, going back to Freud and Marx, and the new atheist “scientism” espoused by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. He shows how this division has been revived with the emergence of “atheism +,” a movement of younger atheists pressing for gender equality and political liberalism in wider secularism.
In another chapter, Ryan Cragun uses survey data to show how the new atheism catered to a rising and dominant group of atheists in the U.S. who represent up to 70 to 80 percent, and tend to be wealthier and older (many never married) with a greater affinity to science than other atheists. Other chapters include ethnographic examinations of how atheists self-define themselves, often in ways that transcend the theist-non-theist divide; and a study of the role that atheist rituals and commemorations play in secularist organizations (by RW’s editor and Christopher Smith).
03: The Sociology of Sharia (Springer $99), edited by Bryan S. Turner and Adam Possamai, looks at the contextual subject of Islamic law in secular societies in a comparative vein that suggests that sharia has many different meanings and applications.
In their helpful introduction, Turner and Possamai note that contrary to many critics who see sharia as a monolithic system, this category of Islamic law has several components, such as complex layers of law, a moral system, and a religious code mediated by interpretations by judges, the consensus of legal scholars (ulama), and legal reasoning, which means it changes over time. They compare it to rabbinic law, as both systems are locally based and dependent on the judgments of mullahs and rabbis regarding specific questions. The book includes chapters on the various applications of sharia in countries as diverse as Canada, Greece, Malaysia, Turkey, Germany, Australia and China, maintaining a balance between Muslim and non-Muslim dominated societies.
It is mainly in the area of civic and family law where sharia has gained some traction in Western societies: limited aspects of sharia are found in Greece and Germany, where it is focused on finance, family matters, and food preparation; in Canada, a Muslim marriage tribunal was controversial enough to be dismantled; in Italy, the courts are friendly to aspects of sharia; even in the U.S., where the dominance of the Supreme Court would mitigate any alternative legal system, it has been claimed that sharia has entered into state court decisions where it has been found to be applicable at bar.
Some scholars have argued that sharia has proven to be less controversial in the U.S (despite anti-Islamic sentiment) than in parts of Europe—where there has been a backlash against multiculturalism—mainly because of the stronger integration of Muslims into American society. In any case, U.S. courts find themselves having to refer to sharia in domestic situations, such as a Muslim immigrant married overseas who is requesting a divorce.
Although there are relative “success” stories, such as Malaysia and Singapore, several of the contributors also find a good deal of conflict about sharia in Muslim-dominated societies, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring when there have been concerns about the backlash against women’s rights. The book concludes with a chapter by Turner and James Richardson arguing that there is little evidence of “creeping sharia” in the West or even pressure from Muslim groups to enact Islamic law.
They note that various forms of “legal pluralism” are becoming more accepted under globalization. Although, they venture that sharia may best work in religious and domestic spheres (marriage, divorce, property) where there is a cohesive society and broader secular state law that may be necessary as a last resort to be able to “manage religions” and mediate conflicts about laws and values.
04: The new book Christians in South Indian Villages, 1959-2009 (Eerdmans, $35), by John B. Carman and Chilcuri Vasantha Rao, is a unique study done over a period of 50 years that shows the dramatic changes that have impacted Christianity in much of India.
In 1959, Carman studied congregations of the Church of South India (CSI) in several villages in Telangana in the state of Hyderabad, finding patterns of isolation of Christians from society and syncretism, as parishioners adopted Muslim or Hindu practices—a surprise to some of the mainline Protestant groups that sponsored the study. With Rao, Carman returned to the villages in 2009 and found a vastly different situation. Many of the old congregations studied had declined and fallen into disrepair, and received no new clergy for decades.
But there has also been the appearance and growth of independent churches since 1985, often in villages with no previous Christian presence. These congregations, mostly Pentecostal, independent Baptist, and connected with other evangelical groups, have fervent pastors and have a strong emphasis on miracles, particularly healing. The third change from 1959 was the revival of some CSI congregations, with new Christians joining.
Because of the new pluralism of different Christian congregations in Telangana, Carman and Rao note that their 2009 visit turned out to be the occasion for a very different type of study than was conducted in 1959. Because of the diversity of churches, the Christian population has most likely grown in the area, even if it is more difficult to get accurate numbers. While most of the members of the CSI congregations were Dalits, or from the “untouchable” caste, the authors’ most recent visit also showed members, especially from non-CSI congregations, coming from various castes.
The syncretism—and intermarriage of CSI members with non-Christians—that was evident in 1959 has remained to some extent with church members partaking in Hindu family festivals as well as Hindu traditions adapted to Christian ones, such as All Saints Day. There is also more engagement in Indian society and higher levels of educational attainment among these Christians, mainly due to the urban and economic growth and greater upward mobility of Hyderabad, but they also face opposition and reconversion efforts by Hindus.