01: A movement of scientists and environmental thinkers and activists embracing evolution as a kind of secular religion comes under scrutiny and critique in the current issue of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (9.2). Such thinkers and scientists as Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson have charged that the traditional religious accounts and perspectives on the universe are no longer useful as an environmental ethic and have called for a scientific and evolutionary “mythos” to take their place. In the lead article Lisa Sideris looks specifically at the philosophers gathered under the “New Genesis” movement, such as Thomas Berry, Ursula Goodenough, and Brian Swimme, who have been the most active in pushing for this perspective in educational circles and the media. Sideris questions whether their views of traditional religions as being detrimental toward the environment and the elevation of the myth of a universal “sacred science” can provide the motivation and inspiration for environmental activism. Other contributors, such as scientist and theologian Holmes Rolston, question both the post-modernist approach of Sideris and the scientism of some of the more atheistic thinkers such as Wilson and Dawkins. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.religionandnature.com/journal/
02: The current issue of Religion, State and Society (43:3) is devoted to the state of Orthodox Christianity, both in Russia and in Eastern and Western Europe. The lead article by sociologist Victor Roudometof looks at how Orthodox churches are becoming more autonomous and “de-territorialized” in countries throughout Europe, especially as migrants are arriving in Western countries from the historical Eastern heartlands of the faith. These immigrants form connections to new local as well as global networks, challenging the traditional conception of diaspora churches linked to a “mother church.” Other articles look at the specific Orthodox situation in countries, such as Italy, France and England, noting how their church-state policies have shaped church life. In contrast, another article notes how the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church is attempting to “Russify” Orthodoxy in Europe, making plans to construct large Orthodox churches for parishes of the Patriarchate in almost all major European capitals. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/crss20/current
03: Korean missionaries in America sounds quite like oxymoron given the history that Korean Christians were proselytized, mostly by American missionaries, in the early 19th century. However, if we look at the development of Korean Christianity after the 19th century, Korean Christians sending Christian missionaries to America, often called “reverse mission,” may not seem so contradictory. For example, Yoûido Church, the largest evangelical church in the world with a quarter of a million members, is located in Seoul, South Korea. Furthermore, there is no mystery about the declining membership of Christianity in the West, even in the United States. In Rebecca Kim’s The Spirit Moves West (Oxford University Press, $24.95), she used four years of interviews, participant observation, and surveys of South Korea’s largest nondenominational agency to understand reverse missions. The main focus of her book is on the study of a group called University Bible Fellowship (UBF). The group was founded in 1961, and by 1998 UBF was the largest missionary-sending organization in Korea.
Kim documents UBF’s intense devotional practices (seven separate Sunday services, daybreak prayers). It is also hierarchically structured—a heavily pastor-centered and authoritarian culture. UBF missionaries come to America as students, professionals (medical doctors) and as ordinary immigrants. Interestingly, most of them don’t have a good command of English. However, they target mainly “white Americans” on college campuses armed with a “soldier spirit” and a “theology of sacrifice.” That they have achieved even a limited success in proselytizing whites, Kim attributes to their extraordinary dedication to their mission, even though many gave them the cold shoulder. After one of the founders of UBF, Samuel Lee, died, the organization went through a major reform. UBF is now more democratic, less conservative, and consists largely of second generation Korean Americans. Without any doubt, this is a fascinating study done by a Korean America scholar very familiar with the hierarchical, conservative, and fervent nature of Korean Christian missionary groups. – By K.T. Chun, a New Jersey-based sociologist and writer.
04: The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa (Cambridge University Press, $99) by Ilana van Wyk, provides a riveting account of how this burgeoning Brazilian church has been transplanted to another culture and has attracted a large following. Since the early 1990s, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) has aggressively evangelized Africans, and has about one million members just in South Africa. While the church’s growth in South Africa has received little attention, its teachings and practices on deliverance (often targeted to those suffering from AIDS), and prosperity have drawn wide publicity from the press. Though the book is mainly a study of one branch of the UCKG in South Africa, Van Wyk tries to unravel the puzzle of why this Pentecostal denomination is growing so fast, since it is so unlike other African churches. It is strangely “unsocial”—there are few prayer meetings, small groups, or Bible studies in the church, and most attendees don’t associate with fellow participants in the massive but non-ecstatic services that mainly consist of lurid and sometimes sexually explicit testimonies of how members overcame demonic possession and influence.
The Bible holds little importance for the UCKG and it has a reputation for demanding money from and bullying impoverished members (even advising them not to engage in charity but to give money only to the church) and running churches like businesses. But the anthropologist—who makes no secret of her dislike, even “loathing,” of the church’s aggressive and harsh approach—argues that it is the church’s “no-place” quality (as the book’s subtitle says, “A church of strangers”) that enables members to be “overcomers” and to develop the “technologies” to battle against demons that undermine their personal and families’ prosperity and happiness. These technologies of deliverance are very similar to local religious practices regarding evil spirits and witchcraft that revolve around contractual obligations to God—one factor in the church’s rapid growth among the poor in South Africa.
05: In the new anthology Pastures of Plenty: Tracing Religio-Scapes of Prosperity Gospel in Africa and Beyond (Peter Lang, $85.95), edited by Andreas Heuser, a team of scholars provide an interesting investigation of “health and wealth” teachings and practices in much of the developing world, with some forays into North America and Europe. While the Americans may have pioneered in prosperity theology, the field was taken over by African Pentecostals who have mixed these teachings and practices with political ambition and even calls for social justice and economic growth. The contributors show that the prosperity gospel has influenced a wide range of non-Pentecostal denominations and even (more unexpectedly) non-Christian religions, most notably Islam. This can be seen in chapters on competition between prosperity proponents in African indigenous, Pentecostal, and Islamic religions in Ghana, and how Sufi and Salafi Muslims have adapted prosperity teachings in their religious rhetoric. The only non-African-oriented chapter is one on the perceived failure of prosperity teachings in the Philippines, which led to a movement of “kingdom-minded” activist preachers stressing political engagement, whose own failure at the polls sent many pastors back to holiness theology and concentrating on personal piety.