In This Issue
- On/File: December 1999
- Findings & Footnotes: December 1999
- Raelians pioneering in cloning?
- Current Research: December 1999
- NCC’s problems intensify
- Conservative Christians corner internet filter market
- Brighter side of the millennium found in popular magazines
- A review of millennial violence thwarted
- Millenial fervor downshifting?
On/File: December 1999
01: A book attracting considerable public attention is Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up With Has Lost its Meaning (Harper SanFrancisco).
Written by the chaplain at Tufts University, Scotty McLennen, it presents narratives of spiritual searching among Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. The author’s thesis is that religion and spirituality are just like your [the reader’s] moral development, your psychological development, your cognitive development.”
To date, the work is being warmly received in both academic and church-related settings.
(Source: USA Today, Nov. 4)
— By Erling Jorstad
02: Communist-Unification Rule over All (CURA) is a growing Russian religious movement based around the deification of past communist leaders.
The Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad)-based group considers itself a party where Lenin and God are seen as one and the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin are sacred texts. CURA does not associate with other communist groups as it interprets most communist concepts into a mystical belief system. The “class enemy” of CURA is negative energy and the “class ally” is a healthy lifestyle, involving a stress on the “purity of the bowels.”
The name of Lenin and the word communism are themselves seen as sources of energy that help purify human nature and heal disease. CURA also holds that reincarnations of Christ and Lenin are living in Russia in the form of a 24-year-old girl and a young boy. Most members are said to be from the lowest strata of society, and about 6,000 people have passed through CURA’s school from 1993 to 1997, according to the group’s figures.
Poverty and nostalga for the past are said to be fueling the movement’s growth.
(Source: Spirituality in East and West, No. 12).
Findings & Footnotes: December 1999
01: Saints and Madmen (Henry Holt, $25) by Russell Shorto, provides interesting accounts of how psychiatrists and psychologists have discovered the importance of religious beliefs and practices.
Shorto traces the current interest in the relation of psychology to spirituality to an upstart group of psychologists in, surprisingly, the psychiatric establishment of New York in the 1980s. They felt that the strict Freudian and medical approaches to mental illness were not effective in bringing healing to patients. Shorto finds that some psychiatrists see psychotic states as a pathway to spiritual experience (although they don’t disdain standard treatments); others see prayer and meditation as an important as medication and therapy in fighting mental illness.
Another chapter looks at the formation of spritual discussion groups that provide an open forum for seriously ill patients to discuss religious questions that in the past were discouraged or ignored by doctors. Shorto also examines the role of psycho-spiritual disorders in recent cases of violence and terrorism, and the place of psychodelic drugs in religious experience.
02: In early November, some 20 national organizations representing widely divergent views on many religious topics, published a booklet that presents in detail how schools can teach the Bible without violating the Supreme Court rulings on separation of church and state.
The booklet, The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide, is published by the National Bible Association and the First Amendment Center. Such widely divergent groups as People for the American Way, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches and the Christian Legal Society have agreed to promote this work, based on several years of preparation by experts in the field.
The major thrust of the booklet is to teach about the Bible rather than focus on theological or hermeneutical questions. Students may learn how the Bible influenced history, or how it influenced the civil rights movement, or stands as a work of literature. It incorporates versions of several traditions in its presentation; these include Hebrew, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox selections. It is currently being distributed to school districts around the country.
Readers may obtain a free copy by calling 1-800-830-3733 and asking for Pub. No. 99-FOC
— By Erling Jorstad
Raelians pioneering in cloning?
While many religious groups are debating the ethics of cloning, one new religious movement is taking action, pioneering in the technology.
Nova Religio (October), the journal of new religious movements, reports that the Ralians, a group mixing UFO teachings with genetic engineering concepts, founded the first biotechnology firm dedicated to the goal of human cloning. The 35,000-member group holds that space aliens visited the earth some 25,000 years ago and created life using advanced DNA technology.
Through the guidance of world religions and a final prophet Rael (born Claude Vorilhon), humans gain enlightenment and will eventually achieve immortality through cloning. Clonaid, the new cloning firm the group started in Switzerland in 1997, is currently offering a service where for $50,000 a person can preserve their cells cryogenically (deep freezing). The company plans to offer human cloning services (at about $200,000) to homosexual and sterile heterosexual couples.
The most well known figure to support Clonaid has been Richard Seed, a retired Harvard physicist and self-taught reproductive scientist who gained fame for his promise to create the first human clone. The Raelians’ attempt to fuse”anti-evolutionism and biblical literalism with progressive morals,” has put them far outside the religious mainstream. Writer John Bozeman concludes that they have now set themselves further on the fringe by becoming the first religion to make cloning a religious imperative.
(Nova Religio, Seven Bridges Press, LLC, 135 Fifth Ave., 9th Fl., New York, NY 10010-7101)
Current Research: December 1999
01: Scholars claiming that the church attendance figures of Americans have been inflated were given a boost by political scientist Robert Putnam at the recent meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Boston.
Putnam, who gained attention for his study, “Bowling Alone,” which found a widespread decline of Americans belonging to voluntary organizations, sees a corresponding drop in involvement in religious institutions. Using relatively unknown marketing survey results from D.B. Needham and other pollsters, Putnam finds that church attendance dropped 30-40 percent since 1975. Putnam suggests much of this drop comes from Protestants — even though many pollsters have claimed that the Protestant have not declined in attendance as much as the Catholics.
He finds that polling percentages on attendance don’t accurately show that the overall number of Protestants in the U.S. has dropped since the 1960s. Putnam reaffirmed his view that civic activity is down in the U.S. by as much as 50 percent since the 1960s. Because half of such activity is religious, this spells a significant loss of what he calls “social capital” among churches and similar institutions.
02: New United Methodist congregations that are growing are likely to use contemporary forms of worship, but are not necessarily conservative in doctrine, according to an in-depth study of these churches.
The study, presented at the Boston SSSR conference, surveyed the 210 United Methodist churches that were founded between 1991 and 1996. Most of these congregations are in the American South and West, although new church starts are occurring all over the U.S., according to researchers Gregory Hastings and Samuel Johnson of Boston University School of Theology.
Johnson and Hastings find that those churches that have the lowest growth rates have maintained traditional worship styles, regardless of whether their theology was conservative or liberal. The same dynamic worked the other way: those that “have let go of traditional worship and have adopted contemporary styles are growing significantly faster.” Theological conservatives within the contemporary worship group are only doing slightly better than liberal contemporary worshippers.
03: Despite the prevailing view that conservative Christians and their perspectives are excluded from the halls of prestigious universities, a recent study suggests that evangelicals and Catholics have found ways of bridging the worlds of their faith and their academic disciplines.
In a paper presented at the Boston meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), John Schmalzbauer found that with the widespread questioning of objectivity in various disciplines and such trends as multiculturalism, Catholic and evangelical scholars have been able to assert their right to get a hearing in the university and do not feel particularly excluded.
Schmalzbauer, a sociologist at the College of the Holy Cross, interviewed 20 prominent evangelical and Catholic social scientists and historians and found that rather than separating their religious and professional identities into two compartments, most of the respondents were “able to translate their religious convictions into professional jargon and vice versa.”
In presenting prominent evangelical historian George Marsden and Catholic political scientist John DiIulio as case studies, Schmalzbauer finds that these and other scholars tend to combine rhetoric from scholarly trends criticizing objectivity and calling for inclusiveness toward minorities as well as standard scholarship emphasizing objectivity and professionalism. Anecdotal reports have noted the sharp rise of evangelicals among “elite” Christian intellectuals since the 1960s, and, in another paper presented at the conference, William Weston of Centre College showed some figures to support this trend.
In examining the endowed lectureships at seminaries, Weston finds that only 13 percent of the speakers at these events were evangelicals in the 1960s; by the year 2,000, 33 percent of the lecturers will be evangelicals. The figure was higher for those Christians Weston called “traditionalists” and “neoconservatives”–those who may be orthodox in theology but not part of the evangelical subculture. He also found that the barriers between Protestants and Catholics have broken down, although mainly at the Protestant seminaries. More Catholics have given endowed lectures at Protestant seminaries than Protestants have been invited to speak at similar events at Catholic institutions.
04: Evangelism comprises a significant part in many churches’ involvement in social services, but such activity doesn’t necessarily limit the scope of those congregations’ social outreach, according to a new study.
Critics have charged that religious social service organizations tend to focus on evangelism and may exclude clients who do not agree with their religious teachings. The Congregations, Communities and Leadership Development Project conducted by Eastern Seminary was one of many groups and scholars presenting research on religious social service programs at the SSSR conference [There were 15 sessions devoted to these ministries and the new partnerships they are forming with the government — far more than in previous years]. The project examines 15 case studies of churches in Philadelphia involved in various forms of social outreach.
Most of the churches were what the researchers call “holistic” congregations, meaning that they see both evangelism and social outreach as vital aspects of the church’s mission. The researchers observed “some degree of badgering” in the studied congregations, “but rarely in the context of service provision.” Only two congregations required recipients to participate in a religious activity in order to receive a benefit (such as a sermon before a meal), and neither case involved using public money.
Services were never denied on the basis of a person’s faith. Even churches with a strong evangelistic thrust were willing in certain cases to accept restrictions on verbal evangelism in order to receive funding for a social program (mainly because they saw actions as well as words as a form of evangelism). Researcher Heidi Unruh concludes that “This is significant in weighing the implications of Charitable Choice, [a government policy] which lifts restrictions on faith-based agencies from receiving public funds provided that they are not used for proselytization, worship, or religious instruction . . .”
05: The greatest concerns for Quakers are a steady loss of religious identity, increasing fragmentation of Quakerism, and a lack of leadership, reports a recent survey.
The study, known as Among Friends, was based on focus groups and interviews with a total of 250 individuals and is said to be the most extensive look at Quakers in the U.S. ever conducted. Quaker Life magazine (November) reports that a major concern was how Quakers appear confused and indistinct. One focus group participant said, “One group of Friends are hardly Christian anymore; the other have lost much of the Quaker identity by identifying with evangelical churches that grow faster than ours do.”
These differences and divisions between Quakers also worried respondents, as they thought it dissipated their witness to the wider society. On this subject, the report concluded that when Quakers from different branches find themselves working on a common project (such as serving together as conscientious objectors during wars) their commonalties rise to the surface more than when holding discussions with each other. Finally, the anti-authoritarian nature of Quakers often makes them overly critical of leaders, according to respondents.
Among “programmed” (those who have pastors and preaching) and non-programmed Quakers, there is weak support for elders, clerks and other leaders; the situation may worsen as current leaders have not found a younger cohort to replace them.
(Quaker Life, 101 Quaker Hill Drive, Richmond, IN 47374)
06: Children are most likely to have a born again experience rather than youth and adults, according to a new Barna poll.
The survey, conducted by the Barna Research Group and based on a poll of 4200 young people and adults, shows that people from age 5 through 13 have a 32 percent likelihood of accepting Christ as their savior. Young people from the ages of 14 through 18 have just a four percent probability of doing so, while adults (19 through death) have only a six percent chance of making this commitment. Pollster George Barna writes that this information is consistent with previous surveys showing the highest receptivity to the evangelical message taking place before age 18.
But he adds that this is the first study where the liklihood of the born again experience was calculated at different life stages. The results also “challenge the widely-held belief that teenage years are prime years for evangelistic activity,” Barna writes in a news release (Nov. 15).
(Barna Research Group, www.barna.org)
07: It has almost become a cliché that people in the pews, even in the most liberal denominations, remain relatively conservative.
A recent survey from the United Church of Christ reveals a broad conservatism among members as well as the limits to such orthodoxy. The UCC survey may surprise people who consider the church the most liberal denomination in mainline Protestantism. The survey is part of a denominational Bible study project where 1,000 members responded to questions relating to biblical knowledge and authority. When asked about basic teachings, 86.9 percent agreed that Jesus rose from the dead.
Sixty Nine percent believe Jesus was born to a virgin. Only 16.5 agreed with the statement that “Only Christians go to Heaven.” On the question of the most important imagery of God for respondents, 75 percent said “Father,” while 27.2 percent said “Mother,” reports the Witness, the newspaper of the Biblical Witness Fellowship, an evangelical renewal group in the UCC. “Creator” was the most popular imagery for God at 90 percent.
(The Witness, P.O. Box 102, Candia, NH 03034-0102)
NCC’s problems intensify
The National Council Churches may be near collapse or radical restructuring on the eve of its 50th anniversary, according to a report in Religion Today (Nov. 27), an online news service.
For over a decade, there have been mounting reports of the NCC’s financial problems and a lack of support among congregations and some of its member denominations. The NCC is also in the midst of a leadership change as Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary for nine years, will be replaced by Robert Edgar. More seriously, a consulting group hired last year reported that the NCC is in a state of financial and administrative chaos.
The council adopted a recovery plan in October to deal with its $3.2 million operating debt, but the plan has been sharply opposed by the United Methodist Church, one of the most influential member churches. The UMC suspended its financial support to the NCC’s operating fund and stated that its funding will restart only when the council comes up with a balanced budget and workable financial plan.
All this may mean more cuts in programs and staffing to an already lean organization. For many years critics and some members have proposed that the NCC should restructure itself to include Catholic and evangelical denominations along with its largely mainline Protestant membership.
Such a proposal may be gaining in credibility; during the NCC’s Cleveland anniversary meeting, Catholics and evangelical leads will participate in a discussion regarding the council’s future.
(Religion Today, www.religiontoday.com)
Conservative Christians corner internet filter market
Conservative Christians are in the forefront of creating filters that block out pornographic and other offensive sites on the Internet, although they are divided whether to view such an endeavor as a ministry or a business.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Nov. 4) reports that “Christian-led Internet companies dedicated to providing smut-free online service” are a growing trend in the hi-tech world. Steve Watters, an Internet research analyst for the evangelical ministry Focus on the Family, says the growth of these companies displays “kind of a missionary mentality.”
The Nashville-based HEDGEBUILDERS.com is headed by a Southern Baptist pastor and provides churches and schools with reduced-rates or free service. Evesta.com and Safeconnect.com are up front about their Christian backgrounds but appeal to all families regardless of their faith.
“We want them to experience the service and values without necessarily bringing any baggage,” says Scott Jenkins of the Kansas-based Safeconnect.com. Watters says that about “50 percent of the filtered customers are new to the Internet because they didn’t want to get on until they get a service they could trust.
A lot of the more hard-core Christians or concerned parents would rather get a service that’s full-throttle protected.”
Brighter side of the millennium found in popular magazines
The growing crescendo of writings in the most influential American magazines on the religious dimensions of the new millennium is producing at least two major themes.
Such leading journals as Newsweek (Nov. 1), U.S.News & World Report (Oct. 25) and Christianity Today (Oct. 25), focus on how believers can find hope and renewal for the coming years through seeing the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament not as exact predictions about coming catastrophe but as sources for reaffirmations of faith in the coming kingdom of God. Rather than succumb to the popular school of scriptural interpretation which sees the imminent return of Christ bodily to Earth to destroy evil, writers in the cited journals call on readers to overcome the fatalism in believing that the ancient prophets understood precisely what will happen as the new century dawns.
For instance, the Humanist magazine (November/December) says that such apocalyptic thinking leads to passivism about major social and economic problems. Most of these publications say that the new century should be a time of renewed optimism in the power of God through human agencies to turn back the gloom peddlers. In the Reader’s Digest (December), historian Paul Johnson writes that empowerment is found in reaffirming the message of Jesus who taught gentleness, meekness, and love. “Whatever fresh evils arise in our midst, Christ’s message contains the means to overcome them.”
The same theme of renewed idealism shows up among those writers who call on Americans and world citizens to recognize, among other things, that unless they use the power of science, technology, and political resolve, the environment and all living things dwelling there may face major damage, even destruction. Audubon Magazine (Nov./December) reports that entire species are disappearing, global warming continues unabated, and wilderness areas may soon disappear forever from the American scene.
The society that produced the splitting of the atom, the cracking of the genetic code, and the creation of cyberspace reality can continue to restore the use of the environment to a balanced equilibrium among its many users. Such idealistic commitment can be achieved, according to several articles. William Schweiker in the Christian Century (Nov. 3) calls for a “humane and yet religious sensibility, a vibrant and realistic Christian faith . . .” directed at restoring trust in God’s power and care for “this fragile earth.”
Orlando Patterson writing in the New Republic (Nov. 8) finds reason to believe humankind can boldly affirm noble ends “befitting a great world polity”, and rekindle faith in “a vibrant democracy” to overcome political inertia and cynicism.
— By RW contributing editor Erling Jorstad
A review of millennial violence thwarted
With the year 2000 only a few weeks away, it was not surprising that several sessions of the November meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston focused on millennial topics, including a special session on millennial violence that analyzed the 1985 siege of the Covenant Sword and Army of the Lord compound in Arkansas.
Participants from both sides of the siege discussed their views of the incident which, contrary to later sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, generated no casualties and ended peacefully.
Kerry Noble, one of CSA’s leaders, and Danny Coulson, the now retired FBI Agent-in-Charge of that siege, who are now close friends, both focused on the mutual respect both sides felt towards each other, stating that respect for one’s opponents was a key factor in any successful ending to a siege. Coulson believes that this was one of the major problems in Waco and at Ruby Ridge, and both men felt that the absence of media at CSA also played a key role.
In their opinion, the fact that the media was not “egging on” participants on either side was a major factor in the siege’s successful denouement, as well as Coulson’s assignment as chief negotiator, a job hitherto not given to a raid commander. Nobel and Coulson agreed that CSA’s leaders were more likely to respect a commander than a “mere negotiator,” and Coulson would be seen to be negotiating from strength, something CSA would respect. Although Coulson admitted that he could not understand CSA’s Christian Identity beliefs, he refused to ridicule them. For him CSA was not a “cult problem,” which would be how the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms would term the Branch Davidians eight years later.
Other sessions on similar themes were held throughout the conference, with papers being presented on popular culture’s responses to the Y2K problem, the Book of Revelation, and Eschatology in the Gospels. Other sessions compared various instances of millennial violence, such as Aum Shinryko, the Solar Temple, and the Wounded Knee massacre.
— By Lin Collette, RW contributing editor.
Millenial fervor downshifting?
The annual conference of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University in early November was relatively low key at a time when one might think speculation about millennial fervor would be at its peak.
The speakers, mostly prominent academics of millennialist groups and phenomenon both past and present, confirmed the impression that there has been a “major downshifting” of end-times expectations compared to a year or even a few months ago. Ministries with a strong end-times message have not found a high demand for their tapes and other material; Jerry Falwell’s tapes on the subject are no longer for sale.
Stephen O’Leary of the University of Southern California said that there has been a good deal of “back-peddling” among those making predictions concerning Y2K and the millennium, as the prospects of a catastrophe have been downplayed by the media. “What we’re seeing is a counter-reaction before the millennium happens. It’s not only Y2K, but other forms of millennialism also,” O’Leary says. Some end-times ministries, such as Midnight Cry, even say that the alarm over Y2K was a “counterfeit” designed to “catch the unwary.”
Meanwhile, conspiracy theories involving the New World Order are in no short supply and have increasingly gone mainstream, according to Michael Barkun of Syracuse University. Barkun says that while these conspiracies have moved into the mainstream through the popular media, such as the “X Files,” they touch on age-old themes.
Conspiracies of world domination and deception using the standard anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic themes are finding new adherents among Christian, the Nation of Islam, militias, New Age and particularly UFO groups. These groups can hold to these conspiracies and also claim that they are not actually anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic since they target the “elites” (such as the pope or the Rothchilds) rather than the rank-and file Jews or Catholics, Barkun adds.
So are there any religious groups expecting the end to come at the dawn of the new millennium? Spiritual Human Yoga (SHY), a little-known group that emerged from the Vietnamese community in the U.S. in the 1980s, is one of the few large movements to assign major millennial significance to the year 2000. Founded by Luong Minh Dang in St. Louis, the group has drawn American and European followers to its mix of Eastern Yoga, esoteric and apocalyptic teachings.
A paper presented on SHY by Jean Francois Mayer of Fribourg University notes that over 50,000 people in 60 countries have taken the group’s courses, which are presented to initiates on six levels. In gaining access to the group’s high level teachings, Mayer found that Dang’s teachings progress from personal healing (by the use of spiritual energy through Yoga) to encompass collective healing and millennial and apocalyptic predictions. Dang sees the year 2000 as ushering in a new era of spiritual enlightenment and powers for his followers, although there will also be cataclysmic earth changes and diseases around the world.
Mayer concludes that by making such imminent predictions, Dang runs the risk of “disconfirmation” of his millennial teachings, as well as charges of stirring apocalyptic passions and violence by authorities (which Mayer discounts). But the fact that Dang has already issued failed prophesies and did not suffer a large loss of followers suggests that SHY will continue to prosper after 2000. Speaking of 2000, RW wondered what will happen to the field of millennial studies, such as the Center for Millennial Studies, after the new year.
Historian Richard Landes, director of CMS, says that millennium studies is still a “marginal field considered to be irrelevant” in academia and public policy. But Landes says that it is often after the millennium arrives, and disappointment about failed prophesies sets in among end-times groups, that the potential for violence and other forms of unrest ae at their greatest. (CMS plans to have the papers presented at the conference on their web site, which is: www.mille.org.)