In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: April 2005
- Limited internet use shown by Japanese religions
- Vegetarianism finds following among Muslisms
- New spiritual interest reshapes French evangelical churches
- Buddhist elements find place in European Christian funeral rites
- Current Research: April 2005
- ‘Vampire Cults’ feeding off popular culture
- Exurb megachurches playing greater social service function?
- Fourth wave feminism blends spirituality, politics
- Episcopalians divided over welcoming non-Christians
- Conflicts over proselytization go global
01: A Mormon and Evangelical in Conversation is the name of an unusual dialogue touring the U.S. Longtime friends Robert Millet, a prominent Latter-day Saint author and educator, and Greg Johnson, a Baptist pastor, seek to demonstrate how Mormons and evangelicals can converse and build bridges through staging public dialogues and conversations in churches, colleges, and Mormon temples across the U.S.
In 2003 and 2004, Johnson and Millet took their traveling conversations to 24 cities from California to Canada, often facing protests by conservatives in both groups. The conversations often address dividing issues–such as differing doctrines of salvation–between both groups as well as trying to clear up misunderstandings. Johnson recently founded Standing Together, a group funded by Christian churches interested in building better relations with Latter-day Saints. The pair also have a radio show and are publishing a book about their ongoing conversation.
(Source: Salt Lake Tribune, March 21)
02: The Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour is causing controversy among American Muslims for its unabashed avowal of women’s rights in mosques.
The tour, led by Asra Nomani, author of the recent book, “Standing Alone In Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle of the Soul of Islam,” has organized mixed sex prayer services with women in leadership. Critics charge that the tour is trying to make a political statement rather than attempting true reform of Islam.
They add that the act of a women leading a prayer service is still too radical for most American Muslims. The most recent meeting of the tour was held at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, since no mosque would sponsor it.
(Source: Time, March 28).
03: World Mate, a religious organization founded in Japan in the mid-1980s by Toshu Fukami, is a striking example of the way in which a number of modern Japanese groups are mixing entertainment and religious marketing.
But it also claims that Shinto has a universalistic message. Observations on World Mate, based on field research, were presented by Inken Prohl (Free University, Berlin) at the 19th Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions in Tokyo in late March. Compared with other modern religious organizations — an expression which Prohl prefers to the more common term of “new religions” — World Mate is not a large organization, since it counts only around 34,000 members.
But it reaches a wider audience, since Fukami’s best-seller, Lucky Fortune, is reported to have sold 950,000 copies. Fukami is not only a religious leader, but also a multimillionaire businessman and a composer and musical performer, who rented Carnegie Hall in New York for a concert. Its consulting firm has organized lectures with guests such as Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher and Fritjof Capra. As a religious organization,
World Mate offers a variety of rituals and considers itself as based upon Shinto. Fukami has co-founded an International Shinto Foundation, and sees the “universalistic values of Shinto” as capable of bringing salvation to mankind: this strong emphasis on Shinto also helps to project a respectable image of World Mate to the Japanese public. World Mate offers to its members a variety of programs and practices from which to choose. Interestingly, not only does World Mate conduct market research, but it also analyses activities of other religious organizations.
The attitude toward business and profit is a positive one. In his publications, Fukami compares the world of business to the world of the gods. Prohl sees in World Mate a striking example of religious commercialism, the “diversification of religious programs in response to public demands” in Japan, and of religion as entertainment. In her opinion, those are issues which can be expected to require further research, not only in Japan, but in the global context as well.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
While 60 percent of the Japanese population are Internet users, there is at this point relatively little use of the Internet for counseling by Japanese religious bodies. This observation was made by Takanori Tamura (Kanto Gakuin University) and Hajime Kaneko (Kansai University) at a session on religion and information and communication technologies (ICT) organized during the 19th World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) in late March in Tokyo, which RW attended.
There are indeed cases of members of religious organizations who have been using the Internet for counseling, but they face difficulties in finding other people wanting to join their work, while religious organizations are cautious. This may be due to the fact that the leadership is generally older than those generations eager to embrace the Internet, the two Japanese scholars suggest.
According to research conducted by Rev. Kenshin Fukamizu and presented at the same session, more than 35 percent of the chief priests of Buddhist Jodo Shinshu temples have an e-mail address, with huge variations among age groups: nearly 80 percent of the priests below age 40 have an e-mail address, while only 10 percent of those above 70 have one.
Moreover, not all Japanese religious organizations make use of the Internet to the same extent, according to another paper by Hiroyuki Kurosaki (Kokugakuin University): despite the significance of Shinto in Japan, relatively few Shinto shrines have a website. There are approximately three times more Christian Japanese websites, although Christianity makes only one percent of the Japanese population.
Moreover, with a few exceptions of active online promotion, most of the websites of Shinto shrines only provide information on the history, the names of the deities, the ritual calendar and information for reaching the shrine. But there is a more complex background: Kurosaki reported controversies among Shinto priests regarding the use of the Internet, with some suggesting that practices such as virtual visits would defile the dignity of traditional worship. On the other hand, a group of priests think that refusing the ICT is not a satisfactory answer and have organized a Shinto Online Network Association (http://www.jinja.jp/).
— By Jean-François Mayer
Many Muslims are making “the unorthodox decision to become vegetarians and [have] inflamed debates about Islamic dietary laws among scholars and religious leaders,” reports the quarterly magazine What Is Enlightenment? (March-May).
While Islamic law and tradition allows and even encourages meat eating, animals have to be killed under strict conditions. The spread of factory farming across the world in recent years has conflicted with the Islamic “halal” teachings on raising and slaughtering animals for food. The dilemma is intensified since Muslims are not permitted to eat carnivorous animals, yet many factory farms feed animal remains to livestock.
Websites addressing the conflict between factory farming and Islam are numerous, and there is a more recent growth of pro-vegetarian Muslim sites. For instance, the website Islamic concerns.com. provides free vegetarian starter kits and lists pro-vegetarian fatwas (Islamic legal pronouncements). These websites argue that “beyond the technical violations of Islamic dietary laws, factory farms, with their intense cruelty to animals, contradict Islamic principles” of kindness and compassion, writes Maura R. O’Connor.
(What Is Enlightenment? P.O. Box 2360, Lenox, MA 01240)
A growing popular religious interest and a renewed concern to avoid religious restrictions and prejudice are helping to reshape evangelical churches in France, reports Christianity Today (March).
Popular and intellectual interest in religious issues in France is expressed in increased Bible sales, coverage of spirituality in the media, and greater receptivity toward evangelistic efforts, writes Agnieszka Tennant. Evangelicals, who have grown to about 350,000 since the 1950s [see September 2002 RW for more on evangelical growth in France], are benefiting from and being challenged by these trend as they seek to retool their methods to reach a more mainstream audience.
There is a greater interchange between Catholic and evangelical churches, with parishes using the latter’s Alpha evangelism programs of evangelism and even using their teachers in parochial schools. Renewed government attempts to restrict public religious expression–such as in a move to restrict religion on university campuses — has hurt the evangelicals’ expansion even while making them more adept at avoiding sectarian stereotypes; for instance, they now use the “Protestant” label like the mainline Lutheran and Reformed churches. But it is among immigrants where the French evangelicals are having the greatest impact.
African immigrants, even those with Muslim backgrounds, are joining the ranks of these churches. Some Muslims may attend their prayer services on Friday nights and also go to evangelical services on Sunday (often assuming different names to keep their identity a secret). One source knows of 17 support groups for Muslim converts to Christianity that have formed in the last 10 years. The article speculates that evangelical churches may even be agents in preventing immigrants from becoming involved in criminal and radical Islamic groups as they help them assimilate through finding them friends, apartments and jobs.
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
At least in the German-speaking part of Europe, an increasing number of Christian funerals incorporate Buddhist elements, according to Brigitte Loehr (University of Tuebingen).
She presented a paper on that topic at the 19th World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) in Tokyo, which RW attended in late March. Loehr relates this development to other trends related to death and dying. In German cities, funerals are often allowed only 20 minutes, with few people in attendance. In the former communist-ruled areas of East Germany, 50 to 70 percent of the dead are buried in community graves, quite often without any indication of their names or other particulars, reducing the need for public mourning.
The interest in Buddhism seems to be connected to a wider movement promoting alternative ways of dealing with the processes of dying and mourning.
The hospice movement, which seeks to provide a dignified environment of love and care for the dying, was actually influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. All of this does not mean a wave of conversions to Buddhism: the percentage of Buddhists in the population of Western Europe does not exceed 0.2 percent. Some practices, rites or ideas from Buddhism are being used in funeral rites and mixed with traditional Christian elements. In many cases, Loehr observes, the deceased person is buried in a conventional Christian way, with Buddhist prayers (possibly recited by an invited Tibetan lama) added.
The Buddhist element is less about the beliefs held by the deceased than as a way to help the close relatives cope with death. Loehr did not provide statistical estimates of the impact of Buddhist elements in Christian funerals in German-speaking Europe, but added that this interest may also be related to a growing individualism in designing funeral practices as well as other primary life rituals.
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)
01: Declining Catholic school enrollment and the closing of inner-city parochial schools are largely due to the skeletal structure of these institutions that turn away young teachers and burden graying administrators, according to a recent study in Commonweal magazine (March 25).
The steady closings of these schools and the reversal of growing enrollment of just a decade ago has been attributed to everything from the sex abuse crisis to the movement of Catholics to the Sunbelt. But in a Boston College survey of 384 inner-city Catholic schools nationwide, the aging and non-innovative structure of these schools is found to be the major cause for the state of decline.
The study found that most of the schools are out of touch with their students: they are staffed almost exclusively by females, and that a high percentage of the women religious school principals (representing 40 percent of the principals) are over age 50. Principals reported being overburdened by multiple and complex tasks, and only a few schools had professionals on the staff, such as counselors and speech therapists.
Rising costs and heavy dependence on tuition push many schools into a cycle of increased tuition rates and declining enrollment, leading to the school closings that are now taking place. But there were some bright spots. Forty five percent of all the schools reported that non-tuition income–such as private and corporate donations and government grants– increased between 1996 and 2001, with 40 percent reporting that it held steady.
The higher the poverty level of students in a given school, the greater the increase of non-tuition income. Such educational innovations as extended-day programs (providing after-school academic and social activities), middle school departmentalization, and mentoring programs for novice teachers were also found to be widespread in the schools.
(Commonweal, 475 Riverside Dr., New York, NY 10115)
02: Women rabbis in Conservative Judaism experience wide disparities in positions and salaries compared to their male counterparts, reports a study commissioned by the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement.
Moment magazine (April) reports that the study found that a large majority of women who hold pulpits (83 percent) head small congregations with fewer than 250 families. All of the largest and most prestigious congregations–those with more than 500 families–have male rabbis at their head. Men earn a mean of $40,000 more per year than their female counterparts. Even when men and women hold similar positions in small congregations, women earn between $10,000 and $21,000 a year less than men.
An overwhelming majority (91 percent) of the women surveyed said they don’t want the big jobs that pay the most or to be the senior rabbis in the largest congregations. In fact, many don’t want congregation positions at all, preferring teaching or community work. Approximately one-third opt to work part-time, limiting their positions for high paying jobs.
Writer Francine Klagsburn adds that anecdotal evidence points to bias against women among the congregations and board members with whom they interview, and that women receive fewer invitations for interviews from synagogue boards than do male rabbis.
(Moment, 4115 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Suite 102, Washington, DC 20016)
03: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) is reported to be the fastest growing church in the U.S., as well as rising to the fourth spot in the country’s top ten churches, according to the 2005 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.
The yearbook reports a 1.71 percent growth rate for the LDS church in 2003 for a total membership of 5.5 million in the U.S. The largest churches continue to be the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptists, and United Methodists, with the Mormons bumping the Church of God in Christ out of last year’s number four slot to fifth place.
The Orthodox Church in America grew to one million-members and is now included on the list of the 25 largest U.S. church bodies.
The increasing popularity of vampires in popular culture has created a small but growing subculture of devotees, some of whom have adopted religious elements and practices to suit their lifestyles, writes James Beverley in the Canadian evangelical magazine Faith Today (March/April).
Beverly writes that such TV shows as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, novels, such as those by Ann Rice, and even scholarship all reflect the interest in vampire themes. The phenomenon of people role-playing “vampyres” and those who actually consider themselves vampires sometimes takes on religious dimensions. Such groups as the Temple of the Vampire in the state of Washington see vampirism as a religious path, though they tend to forbid blood drinking, reinterpreting the practice as “feeding off human energy.”
Some Internet sites see such activities as getting blood from donors and learning how to handle the “Beast,” the inner urge to drink blood, as religious practices, according to Beverley. Vampire leaders have even drawn up a 13-point code of ethics known as the Black Veil, which counsels vampires to have self-control.
Vampire elders actually warn young people away from the lifestyle because of its morbid nature. Although some vampires claim to be Christian, Beverley finds most vampire Intenet sites to be far more attuned to witchcraft and the New Age, with some showing a “marked preference for sadomasochism and the bondage scene. Often the blood rituals in vampire life take place as part of sexual encounters.“
(Faith Today, M.I.P. Box 3745, Markham, ON L3R 0Y4 Canada)
A new breed of megachurches growing in U.S. exurban areas are taking on greater social service functions in the absence of infrastructures in these towns, reports the New York Times Magazine (March 27).
The megachurches growing in the exurbs, the new communities established beyond traditional suburbs during the mid to late 1990s, share a number of common traits, according to writer Jonathan Mahler: They tend to be in the sunbelt, provide a “locus for community” in the absence of town centers and neighborhood gathering places, and they serve important social service needs in these frontier towns, almost functioning as “surrogate governments.”
While the megachurches established in the 1980s and other congregations (black churches, for instance) have served these functions, Mahler claims that these newer churches are more expansive, seeking to play a more prominent role in their communities through establishing schools and other services for the young families crowding into them. They are also more intentional about developing mature Christians through small group involvement, according to the article.
Radiant Church in Surprise, Arizona, is taken as the prime example of this trend: the Assemblies of God congregation has grown to an attendance of 5,000 in seven years through its entertainment and social service oriented programs, even running a secular charter school, which nevertheless serves as a recruiting ground for the church,. Although he doesn‘t provide much documentation, Mahler adds that the new exurb mega churches tend to be more active in Republican politics.
Meanwhile, how successful are American-style megachurches when transplanted to secular Europe? A recent study of megachurch-style ministries in the Netherlands suggests that such churches may find a less enthusiastic response in a secular environment. A paper by Eric Sengers delivered last October at the Conference on Religion, Economics and Culture examined the Dutch member churches of the Willow Creek Association, a network of seeker-based churches led by Willow Creek Church, the pioneer megachurch in the U.S. Contrary to its success in the U.S., the Dutch Willow Creek congregations showed little growth, coming close to the average church growth patterns in their respective regions.
Sengers does note that 10 Willow Creek churches studied were mostly members of the mainline Reformed churches and did not adopt the complete seeker-based program found in most megachurches. Independent congregations that have more freedom to adopt the Willow Creek program do show “limited success” compared with that of mainline churches. But Sengers concludes that an “evangelical revival” is not occurring in Dutch Protestantism.
More feminists are mixing spirituality with social action efforts on an international level, reports Utne magazine (March/April). In what writer Pythia Peay calls the “fourth wave” of the feminist movement, women are moving from private forms of spirituality toward a public expression which affirms women’s bonds across ethnic and religious boundaries, especially since 9/11.
Peay adds that much of this movement is expressed in a series of congresses organized by women religious and spiritual leaders seeking to connect the various local spirituality groups.
Before 9/11, such women’s spirituality groups as Sacred Circles, a bi-annual gathering held at Washington’s National Cathedral, had stressed personal spirituality. But today the meetings are more interfaith and are stressing addressing political, economic and religious differences, particularly religious violence. The founding of the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders in Geneva in 2002 is associated with the UN and is attempting to get religious leaders more involved in international peacekeeping.
A recent Women & Power conference in New York brought mainstays such as Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem to speak about a “new paradigm“ that seeks to change the face of power from that of domination to service. Peay concludes that “women are becoming increasingly clear and vocal about the need to integrate an emerging set of feminine-based values into the culture.”
The battle between conservatives and liberals in the Episcopal Church doesn’t only hinge on gay rights. Rather, issues involving increasing acceptance and borrowing of non-Christian theology and spirituality are playing a role in the conflict, reports the current issue of Christian Challenge, a traditionalist Anglican magazine (December-January).
The magazine reports on a controversy in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, where the Cathedral Church of Our Savior in Philadelphia has offered its liturgical space as “user-friendly” to the Muslim and Jewish communities.
In Denver, the Episcopal cathedral recently added a Muslim Shiite cleric to its full-time staff. Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni, a native of Iraq, will head the cathedral’s fledgling Abrahamic Initiative, a bridge building effort among Christians, Jews and Muslims.
More controversial is the practice by a growing number of parishes in the Diocese of Northern California to permit the unbaptized to receive communion. This new form of “open communion” conflicts with the past tradition of allowing only baptized Christians to the sacrament. A proposal to bar this practice was defeated at the diocesan convention.
(Christian Challenge, 1215 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, DC 20003)
Proselytization has become more controversial in the last decade; not only the faithful of traditional religions, but secular circles as well have become increasingly suspicious toward at least some types of missionary activities.
“Proselytization revisited” was the topic of a day-long symposium, organized by Rosalind Hackett (University of Tennessee), which took place on March 26 in Tokyo, during the 19th World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), which RW attended.
In the current context of globalization, conflicts over proselytism are likely to grow, said Jean-François Mayer (University of Fribourg, and RWcontributing editor). Conflicts over missionary activities are not limited to the non-Western world: Mayer sees the “cult controversies” as belonging at least to some extent a similar set of issues. Proselytism is often interpreted as an attempt to extend political dominance and ideological influence, threatening not only traditional religious beliefs, but also national interests.
In Russia, according to a paper presented by Olga Kazmina (Moscow State University), the discussion on proselytism became more harsh by the mid-1990s, with an emphasis on religion as a political factor. The issue has been shaped by identity issues, and since the mid and late 1990s, the population has been much more sympathetic to the claim that foreign denominations are threatening Russian culture. Indeed, Grace Kao (Virginia Polytechnic Institute) remarked that proselytism is seen today in a pejorative light and that those who want to proselytize are increasingly asked to justify their actions.
Several religious bodies are indeed eager to differentiate between (legitimate) missionary activities and (intrusive) proselytization. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches consider proselytism toward other Christians as a “scandal.”. Interestingly, the criticism of proselytization seems to single out religious forms of persuasion, while secular causes remain free to make efforts to ask others to join their ranks.
In some cases, the new (and controversial) emphasis on group rights comes to clash with freedom to proselytize, according to several presenters. But there are also new issues which might contribute to shape the future of discussions about proselytism around the world. One of them is the increasing number of Christian missionary forces from the South; this is what Paul Freston (Calvin College) called in his paper the “browning of Christian proselytism,” not an entirely new phenomenon, but it has increased “both in terms of numbers involved and in terms of greater transnational reach.”
This should be seen as part of a general shift in the center of gravity of Christianity. The “brown” missionaries are not “geopolitically compromised,” and thus are not associated with “post-colonial guilt”. However, Freston acknowledged that the national identity of proselytizers is irrelevant in some cases, though it can change the context of such controversies.