01: Aside from Pope Francis’ encyclical, climate change is moving on to the agendas of theologians and religion scholars. The Journal of the American Academy of Religion devotes much of its June issue to a roundtable discussion on “climate destabilization and the study of religion.” Aside from the political and social (not to mention ecological) effects some social scientists have charted from climate change, such as increased migration and poverty, the contributors argue that, first of all, religion scholars and professionals will increasingly focus on the interactions between nature and religious beliefs and practices. So far, only a few universities and colleges offer programs in this field, with the University of Florida being the only institution having a doctoral program studying nature and religion.
The view that we are entering the “Anthropocene,” a term used to describe a new geological era brought on human-made climate change, will also raise the question of “how religion functions as either an inhibitor in generating resiliency in biosocial systems… or possibly contributes to biosocial resiliency,” writes Todd LeVasseur. Another noteworthy article by Lisa Sederis looks at how theologians, environmentalists, and philosophers are trying to create new theological models based on evolutionary biology, known as Universe Story, which seeks to supplant older creation accounts from the world’s major religions. For more information on this issue, visit: http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/current.
02: The new book Nations Under God (Princeton University Press, $29.95), by University of Michigan political scientist Anna Grzymala-Busse, presents a comparative study of religious political involvement in Ireland, Poland, Croatia, Canada, Italy and the United States, and finds that churches tend to gain the greatest political advantage and influence when they paradoxically appear to be above politics. Through analysis of surveys and the histories of church-state relations in each nation, Grzymala-Busse finds that while the U.S. is the most obvious example of low church-political involvement (due to church-state separation) and social and political influence but similar patterns are evident in the other nations; for example, the Catholic Church in Italy gained more political influence only after its alliance with the Christian Democratic party broke up.
The author acknowledges that Catholic monopoly nations have advantages over Protestant-mixed ones in that clergy and politicians can join forces as strategic and influential actors; yet for all their political savvy, they have difficulties mobilizing often-cynical voters to adopt their policies (as seen recently in Ireland). Even in Poland, the country most effective in retaining the Catholic Church’s public and political voice, there are signs of decreasing moral influence (no longer being critical to the fate of incumbents). The fusion of religion and national identity is important for all the nations the author studies, even in the U.S., where the absence of a common history among immigrants tended to elevate distinct religious and national beliefs (a nation under God). But it is in holding “high stocks” of moral authority that churches have the most political influence, and such authority is best conserved when churches appear apolitical, non-partisan, and “genuinely working on behalf of the common good,” Grzymala-Busse writes.
03: A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China (Templeton Press, $24.95), by Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang, is a noteworthy addition to the mounting accounts of religious growth in China, mainly because it is based on quantitative research as opposed to more popular treatments of the subject tend to rely on anecdotes and shaky estimates of the numbers of new believers and churches. The book is also of interest because it provides historical accounts of Christian growth, actually starting when the last missionaries left the country in the 1950s. Stark and Wang argue that Christian growth—not only in China but also in other East Asian societies—has taken place (actually for quite a while) largely among the most educated—a long range trend that seems to run against the idea that those of lower status are main participants in religious revival.
But even in rural China, the authors find growth using recent surveys conducted by Chinese researchers. Stark and Wang find that rural residents were more open about their faith than urbanites. They argue that instead of “deprivation theory” (the idea that the poor and needy are drawn more to religion), it is the role of social networks that explains much of this growth across the board. Many of the most influential converts are involved in strong kinship networks, learning and becoming involved in Christianity through family members and fellow residents of their towns and neighborhoods. Ironically, urban Chinese have more weak than strong ties and thus may be more likely to convert—not having to face ostracism over their conversions, but ironically, such individuals may not be able to spread Christianity very widely as compared to many rural Chinese who are embedded in strong networks. Stark and Wang conclude that if the growth rate of Chinese Christianity continues for the next 15 years, there will be 294.6 million Christians—more than in any other nation.
04: There is a lot of talk about the Global South becoming the new center of gravity for Christianity but there have been few attempts to unpack what this shift will mean for churches, denominations, and other organizations as these new networks and global exchanges take shape. Stephen Offutt’s New Centers of Global Evangelicalism in Latin America and Africa (Cambridge University Press, $90) offers case studies and analysis of places and institutions that actually function as centers in reconfiguring and transmitting evangelical Christianity. The book is based on Offutt’s fieldwork in El Salvador and South Africa, the book notes that these centers are only two links in the expanding “global connectedness” of evangelicals. Offutt takes issue both with the view that global evangelical growth is an expression of American-based capitalism and culture being exported around the world, as well as with those claiming that these movements are often indigenous and are the result of a natural shift as much of the West secularizes. Rather, the process is more complex; there is a clear North American imprint to the evangelical organizations and even denominations, but there is also significant synthesis and organizing taking place on the national and local levels creating new transnational ties.
Offutt finds that this connectedness flows from “global cities,” such as San Salvador and Johannesburg, with an emerging evangelical professional class that creates and maintains these networks (such as the World Evangelical Alliance). Evangelicals are particularly adept at building such networks, due to their decentralized structures, though the voluntary nature of evangelicalism also means that participants can easily disengage from them. From these global networks and “flows,” these evangelicals have become adept at exporting their movements worldwide—it is now commonplace to see South African missionaries in India, for example— creating sophisticated organizations and structures such as megachurches, building social development and welfare ministries, and encouraging greater evangelical political involvement.