In This Issue
- On/File: December 2000
- Findings & Footnotes: December 2000
- Hindu diaspora clashes with Christians over conversion
- Conflict over role of Islam grows in Southeast Asia
- Current Research: December 2000
- Religious fiction TV draws viewers and advertising
- Urban ministries using arts, prayer in outreach
- Seeds of dissent on homosexuality among Orthodox Jews
- Judaism drawing converts, sometimes unintentionally
- Denominations revamping their identities
- Muslims underrepresented on book shelves
- American Muslim’s success story?
- Election 2000 — reflecting culture wars or common ground?
01: The Young Spirit series of children’s’ books by Hampton Roads Publishing Company in Charlottesville, Va., represents an interest among parents to introduce their children to spirituality outside of the structures of institutional religion.
Twenty percent of Americans are said to identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and many want to raise likewise “spiritual children.” Book editor Grace Pedalino says “Our books are about being kind, finding your own path and being true to yourself. It’s the kind of message people not locked into a tradition want to pass onto their children.”
(Source: Charisma News Service, Nov. 27)
02: Vissarion is a popular teacher and self-proclaimed messiah of a growing new religious movement in Russia.
The 39-year old Vissarion heads the Church of the Last Testament, which claims up to 50,000 members in Russia and abroad. The faith preaches a mixture of Neopaganism, Eastern religions, and Christianity and has attracted a large percentage of professionals. Vissarion teaches that the world will soon undergo a crisis and that the human race come to an end in its present form, although followers of Vissarion can save themselves by perfecting their own nature.
Members are gravitating to western Siberia where their leader has established a “City of the Sun,” for the elite. Their presence in increasing numbers in the region is causing concern throughout Russia, and charges have been made that the church is totalitarian, with members starving to death (they are vegans). Other observers find that ecological and pacifist issues seem to preoccupy most members.
(Source: Frontier, No. 5, 2000)
01: The Fall issue of Turning Wheel, the magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, is devoted to Buddhists of Asian descent in the U.S. The meditative kinds of Buddhism taken up by mainly white converts has received the most media attention, while immigrant and other ethnic Buddhists have fallen through the cracks.
The issue features articles on Cambodian, Taiwanese and Vietnamese American communities, as well as the tensions present among the second and third generation members who tend to distance themselves from the faith (many joining evangelical churches). In one article Buddhist scholar Kenneth Tanaka discusses research he conducted on ethnic Buddhist communities in a separate article. He confirms that there is very little contact between ethnic Buddhists and converts; 90 percent of ethnic Buddhists had never visited a non-ethnic Buddhist center.
Many Asian-American Buddhists viewed American converts as being in a “formative” experimental stage of the faith, although 96 percent said they wanted to see more non-Asians join their temples.
The issue costs $5 and is available from: Turning Wheel, BPF, P.O. Box 4650, Berkeley, CA 94704
02: Killing the Buddha is a new web magazine for what can be called “half-believers” — those “made anxious by churches, people embarrassed to be caught in the `spirituality’ section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of God.”
The magazine (which took its name from a famous Zen saying to discourage spiritual illusion) may strike some readers as promoting doubt and irreverence more than any kind of belief. Recent articles include a look at a Catholic school and the liberal sexual attitudes among students, the role of the veil among feminist Muslims, and an in-depth story on the radical orthodoxy theological movement in Britain. The editors claim that they want to counteract the tendency of religious discourse to become “bloodless, parochial and boring.”
The site is at: http://www.killingthebuddha.com
03: Locating extensive news and commentary on the black church community can often be a difficult endeavor. But the recent appearance of BlackandChristian.com is sure to help in remedying that situation.
The web site features late breaking news on black churches, denominations and other figures, as well as providing commentary and such resources as Bible studies, continuing education and career guidance. The site, started and headed by Jacqueline Trusell, a religion journalist, covers the whole spectrum of African American Christianity, including Pentecostals and the evangelical black megachurches, although the accent is on social activism and the mainstream black churches, such as the National Baptist Convention and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The site is located at: http://www.blackandchristian.com.
04: Colin Wison’s new book Rogue Messiahs (Hampton Roads Publishing, 1125 Stoney Point Rd., Charlottesville, VA 22902 $22.95) makes the case that the many self-proclaimed messiahs are very different from other kinds of religious believers, even sharing something of the criminal mind.
Because of their beliefs about themselves, they lack the sense of “personal unimportance” that most religious believers strive for and thus are not able to develop self-control. Wilson, who has written many books on crime and the occult, profiles about 30 figures from history and the contemporary scene — from the 17th century Jewish leader Sabbatai Zevi to Jim Jones and David Koresh — and finds they display several common traits.
By investigating their personal histories, Wilson finds that these individuals have low self-esteem and therefore an unusual thirst for power. He finds that self-proclaimed messiahs of the modern and contemporary periods also display a history of sexual promiscuity. They tend to see their sexual escapades as “transformational” and mystical for both themselves and followers, yet become frustrated and even paranoid when such experiences often do not lead to fulfillment.
Readers may take issue with Wilson’s tendency to explain followers’ motivations in obeying these leaders in terms of “brainwashing,” as well as his emphasis on the role of the unconscious in rogue messiahs’ power over people.
The conflict between Hindus and Christians over evangelism is present not only in India but also among the large Indian diaspora in the Caribbean, reports Hinduism Today (November/December, January/February, 2001 issues).
Much of the interreligious violence and clamp down on religious freedom in India has stemmed from the Hindu claim that Christians are destroying local culture by proselytizing Hindus, particularly the rural population. The same kind of dynamics are taking shape in Trinidad and Guyana. Evangelical churches are “sprouting up across” both countries, often inspired by the influence and support of American evangelists, such as Benny Hinn.
“The competition touches on the delicate balance between Trinidad’s East Indian and African communities, each comprising almost half of the population of 1.3 million. East Indians were once overwhelmingly Hindu, [but] Christian churches have made steady headway in recent decades and now can claim perhaps one-third of East Indians.”
Recent census figures show that Hindus now account for only one-quarter of the Trinidadian population. In Guyana at the beginnng of the 20th century, about one percent of the population were Christian; today it is 15 percent. As in India, the evangelicals–particularly Pentecostals–are having the most success with the rural poor. There is a similar Hindu backlash against Christians. Sat Maharaj, head of the Hindu organization, Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha in Trinidad, says “I told our people to throw these people [evangelical missionaries] out of the villages.”
Another Hindu calls the conflict a “religious war,” and notes that programs of “reconversion” are being started by Hindus to counter the Christian expansion in their community.
(Hinduism Today, 107 Kaholalele Rd., Kapaa, HI 96746-9309)
Southeast Asia — spanning from the Philippines to Indonesia and even Malaysia — is experiencing a Muslim revival that is challenging religious pluralism and long-standing secular laws and governments.
The Washington Post (Nov. 5) reports that “In a trend that is causing increasing worry about regional stability, Islamic fundamentalists are mounting aggressive campaigns for separate states and strict adherence to religious laws.” The Islamic growth is most advanced in Indonesia, where hard-line religious leaders are seeking to impose Islamic law, with some leading Muslims calling for a battle against Christians and moderate Islamic groups, such as Wahid.
In the Philippines, a low-grade Muslim separatist battle going on for decades is now mushrooming into all-o war, reports Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The trigger for the recent conflict took place when President Joseph Estrada ordered an offensive against the Muslim guerrillas, “who turned out to be better armed and more resolute than the government expected.”
In largely secular Malaysia, Islamists are pushing their agenda through the political process, “which they have done with remarkable success.”
01: There appears to be mounting evidence that some religious attitudes and beliefs can prolong or bring on rather than heal illness.
A recent study found that spiritual alienation and an emphasis on evil and the devil can increase the risk of death. The study, conducted by Kenneth Pargament and Harold Koenig, followed 595 men and women aged 55 and older who were hospitalized at Duke University Medical Center between 1996-1997. Spirituality & Health magazine (Winter) reports that after controlling for demographic and health variables, three beliefs were found to raise the patients’ risk of mortality: Feeling alienated from God, feeling unloved by God, or attributing illness to the Devil, all increasing the risk of death by 19 to 20 percent over the approximately two-year follow-up period.
The researchers speculate that such “negative religious coping” may depress the immune system as well as lead to anxiety and depression. It may also be that such spiritual alienation could mean that the patients are socially alienated from friends and family and other support systems.
(Spirituality & Health, 74 Trinity Place, New York, NY 10006)
02: A majority of Jewish Americans do not oppose intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, according to a survey by the American Jewish Committee.
Forty percent of respondents said they were neutral about interfaith marriages, and 16 percent were positive about such marriages. Eighty percent agreed that “intermarriage is inevitable in an open society.” As might be expected, the opposition differed according to the Jewish denomination to which the respondents belonged, with Orthodox registering a 64 percent disapproval rating.
That number dropped sharply to 15 percent among Conservative Jews and just 3 percent among Reform. In a report in Christian News (Nov. 6). David Singer of the AJC says the survey confirms how “the taboo is broken” American Jews concerning intermarriage.
(Christian News, 3277 Boeuf Lutheran Road, New Haven, MO 63068-2218)
03: An Astrology web site has the largest audience among spirituality/religious sites, according to recent statistics.
Although no figures ae provided, data from the NetStats section (October 27) of computer publisher Ziff-Davis’ web site, finds that the web site astrology.com. brings in the most visitors. The other top web sites are the ESP-based 800predict.com and gospelcom.net, an evangelical site.
04: Although the elderly are often more religiously committed, a recent study suggest that this age group may not be a bulwark against the secular mood in Britain.
The Southampton Aging Project had tracked the attitudes of a group of people at least 65 years of age over a 20 year period (from 1978 to recently), with a sample group of 340 (though now down to 30). In 1977-1978 two-thirds of the group described themselves as members of a religious group, with women more active than men. Peter Coleman of the University of Southampton found that among the survivors two decades later, fewer than half described themselves in this manner.
That decline mirrors the proportion of respondents feeling that religion “means much” to them–down from 70 percent at the start of the project to 47 percent now. Only nine percent agreed religion was more important to them, while 37 percent said it was less important to them. According to a report in the magazine Touchstone (November), most repondents’ support for religion had declined during the 1980s.
05: Thirty percent of young practicing Muslims in Germany are willing to use physical force if the welfare of the Muslim community is at stake, according to a survey cited in the German news service Idea (Oct. 31).
The survey, conducted by the Central Institute of Islam Archives in Germany, intentionally sought out devout young Muslims and found that of the 800,000 children and teenagers in the German Islamic community (of three million Muslims), only 12 percent regularly visit mosques, prayer houses and youth centers. The 30 percent willing to forcibly defend the Muslim community said they would fight if faced with destruction, expulsion or persecution because of their faith.
Almost one out of seven respondents (13.5 percent) agreed that opponents of Islam should be eliminated. Only 2.7 percent consider the use of violence justified for the propagation of Islam.
(Idea, Postfach 18 20,D-35528 Wetzlar, Germany)
TV programs with religious, often Bible-based, themes are scoring high ratings, reports Charisma News Service (Nov. 13).
NBC began broadcasting “In the Beginning,” advertised as “From Creation to the Commandments” in November to garner big ratings for the November sweeps. The other major networks are using the same strategy. Next year, CBS will be airing “Adam & Eve” and NBC is developing a miniseries based on an account of Mary Magdalene.
In December, the cable station A&E will show a four-hour documentary titled “Christianity: The Second Millennium,” which is a follow-up to its investigation of Christianity’s first 1,000 years, which drew more than 10 million viewers, according to a report first appearing in the Los Angeles Times.
Though some were not critically acclaimed, recent religious-themed programs have attracted large viewerships. “The Life of Jesus Christ” on CBS (21.6 million viewers) and “Noah’s Ark” (30.9 million viewers on average) on NBC got the highest ratings among TV movies of the last two years. Steve White of NBC says that “Everyone watches these stories.
Maybe not all the people in every demographic but definitely some in each. That’s the definition of broad appeal or broadcasting” — a factor that draws advertising dollars. Garth Ancier, NBC’s president of entertainment, said the ratings may reflect a need for continuing validation of Judeo-Christian beliefs. Like medical or legal dramas, he says, the programming presents heroes with a strong moral beliefs.
(Charisma News Service, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Urban Christian ministries are stressing intercessory prayer meetings while using the creative arts to reach out to city-dwellers, reports the evangelical digest Current Thoughts & Trends (November).
Even before new ministries are being launched, churches involved in urban outreach are holding regular prayer meetings on behalf of problems in their neighborhoods. Brian Bakke of the Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago writes that another characteristic of effective urban ministries is endurance. These ministries have to be willing to “negotiate time, but not the vision,” sometimes waiting years before change and success is detected.
Urban ministries hoping to make an impact upon their neighborhoods are using art to communicate the Christian message without being offensive, Bakke writes. This approach sees the importance of “nuance, subtleties, and excellence in presentation.” But Bakke adds that “Yet so many pastors, in an effort to present the gospel through artistic performance, compromise on quality and thereby insult their audience.” He writes that these trends are in evidence in the Christian Community Development Association, a national umbrella organization for urban ministries.
(Current Thoughts & Trends, P.O. Box 35004, Colorado Springs, CO 80935-3504)
Orthodox Judaism is facing new movements of dissent on the issue of homosexuality, according to the Jewish Week (Nov. 3).
There is a new openness on the part of Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians as they find e-mail discussion groups and new support groups catering to their needs forming in the U.S. and Israel, as well as finding a measure of acceptance by some rabbis in their community. While these rabbis still see homosexual practice as sin, they are “more accepting of the sinner than they may have been in the past,” writes Debra Nussbaum Cohen.
Some of these computer discussion groups serve as dialogues between gay and straight Orthodox participants. The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a modern Orthodox (as opposed to ultra-Orthodox) group has hired a teacher publicly identifying himself as a gay man and Orthodox rabbi.
He is putting forward re-readings of the Torah text which permit homosexual partnerships (though not supporting anal sex, as in accordance with Jewish law) and marriage-like ceremonies. Nussbaum Cohen adds that “Perhaps most stunningly of all,” a Yeshiva College student running for student council last spring declared himself publicly as gay during a speech at the school, an undergraduate school for men at Yeshivah University, leading to turmoil at the institution.
The emergence of Democratic Party vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew and strong promoter of gay rights, has also encouraged Orthodox gays and lesbians. But Cohen notes that the new openness has generated reactions and new opposition. An organization known as JONAH: Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality was founded last year, teaching that gays and lesbians can become heterosexual through reparative therapy.
(Jewish Week, 1501 Broadway, Ste. 505, New York, NY 10036, http://www.thejewishweek.com)
Judaism appears to be attracting a growing number of gentile converts who are drawn to the faith for its teachings and practices rather than because of intermarriages.
There has been a longtime debate in Jewish circles about whether synagogues should seek converts (apart from seeking the conversion of partners of interfaith marriages), but it seems that the issue has become a reality as Jewish education programs are drawing many Christians interested in Judaism. Moment magazine (December) reports that when the Reform Jewish education program Taste of Judaism started in 1996, it was intended to bring disaffiliated and Jews back into the fold. Today, half of all the students in the program nationwide (which has spread to 470 synagogues) are non-Jews. In areas of the country with smaller Jewish populations, “that figure rises to 80 even 90 percent,” writes Sue Fishkoff.
Figures from the Reform movement show that 13 percent of these non-Jews make a full conversion to Judaism. The rate of conversion is high enough that the Reform movement has had to create an Outreach Fellowship Program to train lay leaders to work with the influx of converts “swamping Reform rabbis.” While there is no typical convert, most cite a theological attraction, mentioning disagreements in their former faith. Former Catholics tend to mention the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus as tenets they can no longer believe, while those from a conservative Protestant background more likely find themselves drawn to the Old Testament rather than the New Testament and believe they are finding the “original” scriptures.
(Moment, 4710 41st St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016)
In the face of perceived and real declines in the importance of denominations among American churchgoers, church bodies and congregations are attempting to reassert their identities, whether through public relations campaigns or reviving older traditions.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Nov. 4) reports that two of the nation’s largest Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are engaging in multi-million dollar media campaigns to raise denominational awareness — both among their own members and among the general public. The Lutherans’ Project Identity began after a 1996 poll showed that only three percent of Americans could say anything about Lutheranism other than it was a religion.
The move toward stressing denominational identity is seen as a backlash to the megachurch, seeker service trend, where denominations and doctrine are de-emphasized in order to attract unchurched Americans who were unschooled on these fine points. Some congregations now find that many — in some cases a majority — had not grown up in their denominations. Some congregations throw out generic texts and hymns, while others start denominational training. Religious publishers are also feeling the “back to the roots” mood.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is developing its first Presbyterian-specific Sunday school curriculum in 30 years. At some seminaries, denominational training classes are starting up, with students being required to take required courses in the denomination of their choice.
Even if Muslims are gaining more recognition in American society, they are underrepresented when it comes to books about their faith.
Publisher’s Weekly (Nov. 13) reports that the bookstore shelves do not fully reflect U.S. religious diversity when it comes to Islam, but “signs of change are evident.” Most Muslim books continue to be published by the Chicago-based Kazi Publications, which is expanding into publishing religious education works for second and third generation Muslims. As with other religious minorities, American Muslims are also interested in their roots, which is fueling Kazi’s 100-volume series of Great Books of the Islamic World.
Most of the secular trade publishers have issued books on the Islamic world, but they are usually targeted to interested outsiders rather than to a Muslim readership. One unique title coming out in December by Continuum is the memoir “American Muslim: The New Generation,” by third-year NYU law student Asma Gull Hasan.
For the most part, Sufism, the mystical wing of Islam, continues to occupy most publishers’ attention. Since the early 1990s, the work of the Sufi poet Rumi has drawn an ever larger audience, catching some publishers who thought it was a fad by surprise. Other Sufi teachers, philosophers and poets are “coming through the door opened by Rumi,” writes Marcia Z. Nelson.
It is not unusual for politicians and the media to speak of discrimination and intolerance toward Muslims, but there is little evidence of such prejudice, writes Daniel Pipes in Commentary magazine (November).
Using figures and information provided by Muslim organizations, Pipes writes that in education and the professions Muslims are near the top among ethnic and religious groups. A very high 52 percent have graduate degrees and their income appears to be higher than the national average (their median household income is reported to be $69,000. Pipes adds that Muslims are finding increasing recognition by the government, such as in displaying Muslim symbols along with Christian and Jewish symbols. The U.S. military accommodates Muslim holy days and practices, such as serving meals that do not violate Islamic laws.
The media has often been targeted by some Islamic leaders where Muslims are portrayed negatively. Yet Pipes finds that the “religion itself is portrayed only in positive terms . . . Ramadan inspires a blitz of coverage, with, for example, the Los Angeles Times running no fewer than seven major stories during the holiday season last year and virtually every other Los Angeles outlet following suit.”
Pipes adds that “Sympathetic news reports show Muslims as good neighbors, as classic exemplars of the American dream…” In looking at court cases involving Muslims on such issues as practicing their faith at work and school, wearing particular clothes (such as a veil) and observing holidays, the Muslims “invariably wins” accommodations in most instances.
As legal precedents have been established in these areas of concern, more corporations are changing their policies, such as allowing women to wear the hijab, or head scarf. Pipes finds that surveys show most Muslims agreeing that they have suffered little discrimination; for instance a survey by the American Muslim Council found 66 percent agreeing with the statement that “U.S. society currently shows a respect toward the Muslim faith.”
Pipes attributes the lack of major prejudice to the American willingness to accept other civilizations, as well as the “growth of the regulatory arm of government and especially its readiness to dictate workplace rules.”
(Commentary, 165 E. 56th St., New York, NY 10022)
Do the voting patterns from the U.S. presidential elections show a religious divide or new common ground in America?
Just as the final election results remained uncertain long after November 7th, the impact of the “religious factor” in voting is still under debate. This much is clear: White Protestants, who comprise 54 percent of the electorate, supported George W. Bush with 55 percent of their vote (43 percent for Al Gore).
As expected, evangelicals and fundamentalists went predominantly for Bush;. On the whole, Bush supporters go to church (on a weekly basis) more often than Gore voters (56-41 percent), reports ReligionToday news service (Nov. 10).
Citing exit poll data from the Voter News Service, it was found that Catholics chose Gore, by a narrow margin (50-46 percent). This reflects a gain for the GOP among a group that has traditionally voted Democratic. This may be due to the Bush Campaign’s concerted effort to target the “roughly 25 percent of Catholics who attend Mass regularly, [trying to] build a coalition of conservative churchgoing Protestants and Catholics.” [See July-August RW for more on this.]
The five percent of Americans who practice a religion other than Christianity or Judaism supported Gore — 54 percent to 33 percent for Bush. But that is not the case for Muslims, who may be on the way to creating an Islamic voting bloc, according to the Washington Post (Nov. 27).
In a post-election survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (of 1,774 respondents), 72 percent reported voting for Bush. Of those, 85 percent said their decision was influenced by the endorsement of the Muslim group. The results are significant because this was the first time Muslim advocacy groups endorsed a U.S. presidential candidate, throwing their support behind Bush.
Many analysts used a colored map of a county-by county breakdown of the U.S. to demonstrate how divided the nation was between Republicans and Democrats. The map showed Gore’s votes were predominantly on both coasts and in other big cities, with much of the West, Midwest and South solidly for Bush. The conservative Christian newsweekly World (Nov. 25) cites one commentator as saying that the election proved “Democrats as a home for women, minorities, gays, immigrants and city dwellers; Republicans as the favorite for men, religious and rural Americans, gun owners and moralists.”
Writer Gene Edward Veith concludes that “In the end, the election came down to the conflict between cultural conservatives and cultural liberals. And the nation, with the government it elected, is cracked right down the middle.”
Commentator Andrew Sullivan looks at the same map and sees more commonalties than clashing differences. In the New York Times Magazine (Nov. 26), Sullivan writes that viewing the maps of votes by counties shows enclaves of Bush supporters and Gore supporters coexisting throughout the country. “In Bush’s highest margin of victory in any state, in Wyoming, Al Gore still got well over a quarter of the vote. In Gore’s biggest statewide blowout, Rhode Island, Bush still won about a third of the vote.”
Sullivan adds that the distinctions between the candidates were minor with both focusing on similar concerns: paying the national debt, offering tax cuts, and internationalism in foreign policy. “Fundamentalist Christians, blacks and Jews vote as blocks, but they are the exceptions. A third of Latinos voted for Bush; Catholics and Asian-Americans were roughly split. A full quarter of even the gay vote went to Bush — even more to the Republican Congressional candidates.”
(World, P.O. Box 20002, Asheville, NC 28802-8202)