In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: December 2002
- Evangelicals working with Chinese official churches
- Madrasas unlikely to move on a moderate path
- Sufism facing new pressures, making new adjustments
- Current Research: December 2002
- New spate of Mormon-themed films
- New symbols proposed, old ones disposed?
- Teaching Islam changes after 9/11
- Islam new concern for scholars and law enforcers
- Conference revisits debates on church attendance, ‘lived religion’
Findings & Footnotes: December 2002
01: The December issue of Wired magazine focuses on new connections between science and religion.
The issue provides thumbnail sketches and interviews of scientists’ beliefs, a profile of the Vatican’s official astrophysicist, and a theological reflection on the transcendent and even spiritual nature of computation. The lead article by Gregg Easterbrook will likely be of most interest to RW readers, as it provides a good update on how scientists and theologians are increasingly discovering each other. Easterbrook writes that since the discovery of the big bang theory, science has been “backing away from its case-closed attitude toward the transcendent unknown.”
Other more recent discoveries of unknown forces covering the universe–from masses of “dark matter” to the speeding up of cosmic expansion–are leading scientists to reach out to spiritual leaders “to help them comprehend what they’re learning.” The new era of biotechnology is also making many scientists realize they are stepping into territory ‘best navigated with the aid of philosophers and theologians.”
Easterbrook suggests that the new popularity of intelligent design theory among conservative religionists–which acknowledges some form of evolution– may further strengthen the new science-religion convergence.
For more on this issue go to: http://www.wiredmag.com
02: Protestantism In America (Columbia University Press, $35), by Randall Balmer and Lauren F. Winner, aims to provide an overview of developments in the largest sector of American religion and comes close to fulfilling this purpose.
The book consists of general history, case studies of Protestant congregations, biographical profiles of notable American Protestant leaders, and discussions of current trends — all in 245 pages. Balmer and Winner focus on common trends in American church bodies, specifically focusing on the major conflicts over feminism, homosexuality and social justice.
They tend to neglect the growth and changes found in specific theological movements, such as Calvinism (i.e., its growing influence in the Southern Baptist Convention), and fundamentalism (applying the fundamentalist label to a wide range of groups not usually categorized in this camp).
But almost every other major trend in Protestantism is given knowledgeable treatment: Promise Keepers, evangelical feminism, the growth of scholarship among conservative Protestants, the discovery of spiritual direction and the recovery of liturgy, faith-based social service, megachurches, and GenX ministries. Balmer and Winner clearly are of the view that evangelicals will carry the day for Protestantism. The book is particularly recommended to readers who are new to the multi-faceted nature of American Protestantism.
03: Vibert L. White Jr’s Inside The Nation Of Islam (University Press of Florida,$24.95) runs counter to other books and articles suggesting that Louis Farrakhan’s group is gradually moving toward mainstream Islam.
White, a former Nation of Islam (NOI) leader and now professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois, examines the history of the NOI, particularly focusing on the inner-workings of the group since it was reestablished by Farrakhan in 1977. White recounts his involvement in the NOI, and reports a continuing pattern of divisions, feuds and financial misdoings (with many of the group’s businesses ending up bankrupt or in debt).
Although far from a disinterested observer, White doubts reports that the NOI will move toward a non-racialist orthodox Muslim mainstream. This is mainly because the movement is so closely tied to Farrakhan, as well as due to continued pressure from militants to move back to a stronger black nationalist identity.
04: In recent months, a lot has been published on religion and politics, but for obvious reasons, the focus has llargelybeen on Islam.
Readers are well aware that this is a much wider issue, so It is refreshing to see a new book, Religion and Politics in the Developing World: Explosive Interactions, edited by Rolin Mainuddin, (Ashgate, $64.95). One shouldn’t try to look for a common thread in this collection of essays, as the book deals with both Muslim and non Muslim areas of the world. What makes the volume valuable are the individual case studies, particularly for those not already well familiar with each local situation.
For instance, there is an excellent and clear overview of religious parties in the Israeli political landscape. It is useful too to have an essay on Muslim indentity in Bangladesh or on “Voodoo, Christianity and Politics” in Haiti.
If a wider picture emerges from the book, it is one showing how traditional religions adjust to changing circumstances. The chapter on Nicaragua shows how the Roman Catholic Church went through mutations and internal tensions in its relationship to (successive) State powers.
The Catholic Church in Mexico has been able to continue its work through decades of State-sponsored attempts to decrease its influence and has managed well; it now remains to be seen how it will adjust to the challenge of a new religious pluralism. Indeed the conflict potential deriving from religious pluralism might be one of the other lessons from some chapters of the book.
In a few cases, if we are to believe the authors, the prospects are grim. The chapter on Haiti closes with the prediction that, “in the very near future”, Voodooists, Roman Catholics and Protestants “will struggle for control of the government — and then there will be an explosive violence that will become legendary.” Other authors are more hopeful (but would they still be today?): over time, Hamas’ role in Palestinian politics “may be marginalized”, concludes the chapter on Palestine.
— Reviewed By Jean-François Mayer
Evangelicals working with Chinese official churches
While evangelicals are usually associated with the unofficial and illegal underground churches in China, there is a new trend of these believers working with official church bodies.
The evangelical digest Current Thoughts & Trends (December) reports on missionaries who willingly work with the Chinese government’s Three Self Patriotic Movement and are establishing flourishing evangelical seminaries, Bible institutes and congregations. A leader in this kind of ministry is China Partner, which works with Three Self seminaries and Bible institutes in supplying teachers and other pastoral training resources.
China Partner also teaches Westerners about China, advising them about the extent of ministry still possible under official auspices. These missionaries cite the lack of conflict and suspicion from officials as the major advantage in working with the official churches. There are currently 51 American Protestant agencies involved in similar work, such as Bible publishing, teaching English, and working with health care and adoption programs.
Madrasas unlikely to move on a moderate path
Madrasas, schools that teach young children strict Islamic basics and often viewed as incubators of militant Islam by Westerners, are likely to keep growing and remain relatively unchanged, even under current reform efforts. That is one of the conclusions of journalist Husain Haqqani writing in the magazine Foreign Policy (November/December).
Haqqani notes that madrasas are not only a phenomenon of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, the poorest countries, such as Yemen, Somalia and Indonesia, often boast the largest madrasa enrollment. An estimated 6 million Muslims study in madrasas around the world. Twice that number study in maktabs or kuttabs, small Koranic schools attached to village mosques.
Most Madrasas–which provide room and board for young students–are predominantly quietist in tradition, “teaching rejection of Western ways without calling upon believers to fight unbelievers… But even the quietist madrasa teaches a rejection of modernity while emphasizing conformity and a medieval mind-set,” writes Haqqani.
There are many calls for reform by politicians within Muslim countries (who often seek Western aid in this effort). But Haqqani is skeptical about such prospects, believing the schools will not change as long as they are “home to a theological class popular with poor Muslims.” The proposed recipe for reform is to add contemporary subjects, such as math and science, along with traditional Islamic subjects. But just as madrasas survived the introduction of Western education during colonial rule, they will likely withstand the new wave of reforms.
As one student told Haqqani, “In haddith [commentary on the Koran] there are many references to how many times Allah has multiplied the reward of jihad. If I knew how to multiply, I would be able to calculate the reward I will earn in the hereafter.”
(Foreign Policy, 1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW Washington, DC 20036)
Sufism facing new pressures, making new adjustments
Although under pressure from militant Islam, Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, continues to show resiliance.
That was one of the conclusions of a paper on the current status of Sufism in the Arab world delivered at the conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Toronto. Mark Sedgwick of American University in Cairo noted that Anti-Sufi stereotypes developed over more than a century, and the movement today is often considered to be archaic and obscurantist.
“Sufism is generally seen by educated Moroccans and Egyptians as a deviation of Islam.” Most students from the elite classes know nothing about Sufism, “although “many of their great-grandparents were surely Sufis.”
The growth of a rationalistic world-view, the influence of nationalism and socialism, and, more recently, the Islamic revival have all served to repress Sufism. Salafism, a reform movement from the 19th and 20th centuries which considered Sufis as “backward” and constituting an obstacle to reform, has been taken up by “neo-Salifis” today, many of whom are “more resolutely anti-Sufi than the original” movement, partly due to influences from Saudi Wahhabi thought.
Paradoxically, reactions of Westernized elites toward political Islam tend to include negative views of Sufism as well, due to a general suspicion torward all forms of Islam, which means Sufis have found themselves under fire from two sides. However, a few Sufi groups have made relatively successful attempts to adjust to those new circumstances.
Sedgwick offered a case study on the the Budshishiyya, a Moroccan order. In contrast with a number of other Sufi groups, “by the year 2000, perhaps half of the order’s membership of at least 25,000 were ‘educated’ Moroccans.” It included a number of recruits from the Islamic Studies departments at Moroccan universities, “a remarkable achievement, given the prevalence of neo-Salafism and Islamism in such circles.” The Budshishiyya has also developed outreach activities.
The order’s success may be due to its ability to adjust to new situations. Some standard aspects of contemporary Moroccan Sufism, such as visits to tombs of saintly people, are not encouraged by the Budshishiyya. It has also shown an ability to build networks that correspond to other preexisting networks (i.e. among people of similar backgrounds). However, “the Budshishiyya, from the inside, differs little from a classic Sufi order. From the outside, it looks unthreatening, modern and tolerant, and very different from the standard anti-Sufi stereotype,” concludes Sedgwick.
— By Jean-François Mayer
Current Research: December 2002
01: The growth of “worship wars” in churches waged between those pressing for contemporary music and others hankering for traditional liturgy and hymns is exaggerated, according to a recent Barna Poll.
In a national poll of church-goers, Barna finds that battles between contemporary and traditional worshippers in Protestant churches do exist but they are limited. About one-quarter of senior pastors say their church has music-related tensions, but only five percent claim such conflicts are “severe.” About three out of 10 pastors report “somewhat serious” tensions regarding music. As a total, only seven percent of Protestant churches say they have “severe” or “somewhat serious” music conflicts.
Part of the reason for the lack of widespread conflict is that worshippers did not particularly rate music as a key concern for attending their church. Only 17 percent said they would change their attendance patterns if the musical style of the church was altered. [Barna doesn’t focus on conflicts surrounding liturgy, probably because of his strong evangelical orientation.]
(Barna Research Online, http://www.barna.org)
02: While institutional religious involvement is often cited as a factor in involvement in social action, spirituality also may have an important role in individuals’ engagement in social change, according to a recent study.
The Christian Century (Oct. 23-Nov. 5) reports that the University of Southern California study based on in-depth interviews with 67 men and women found that a commitment to social justice was connected to the “tailoring [of] a subjectively meaningful practice and worldview” associated with spirituality. Some of these individuals — selected from all the major religious faiths — had rediscovered texts and practices from their own traditions.
Others incorporated rituals, such as chanting and meditation, from other faiths. A third pattern was finding spiritual meaning in ordinary activities, such as eating with friends and family or even working out in a gym. “Most of our Christian interviewees utilized each of these forms of spiritual appropriation to some degree,” said Gregory Stancak, who collaborated in the study.
03: The sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is having a significant negative effect on the collection baskets, with 20 percent of parishioners saying they have stopped contributing money to their diocese, according to a Gallup poll.
The poll, commissioned by the Foundations and Donors Interested In Catholic Activities (FADICA), found that one in nine have also cut back on the money they give to their parish. Commonweal magazine (Nov. 22) reports that the poll found that 64 percent of Catholics think the bishops have badly mishandled the most serious crisis to ever face the Catholic Church. FADICA president Francis J. Butler says the drop in offerings is due to parishioners’ questions about how much money bishops have spent on sexual-abuse settlement claims, and whether there will be public disclosure on such matters.
(Commonweal, 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, NY 10115)
04: Muslims reporting hate crimes against them because of their religion increased dramatically since Sept. 11, according to figures released by the FBI.
The FBI’s annual hate crimes report finds that incidents targeting people, institutions, and businesses identified with the Muslim faith increased from 28 in 2000 to 481 in 2001 — a growth of 1,600 percent. The figures did not specify how many of the 481 crimes occurred after Sept. 11, 2001.
05: The percentage of British churchgoers attending “large” churches (over 200) has almost doubled in the 1990s, according to recent figures.
Quadrant (November), the newsletter of the British Christian Research Association, reports that two-thirds of churchgoers attend churches with more than 100 in the congregation, but the percentage attending the largest churches increased from 26 percent to 40 percent between 1989 and 1998.
The growth of large churches went from eight percent to 11 percent. While the number of Anglican large churches stayed the same — at about 1,300 — the number of free churches, such as Baptist and Pentecostal, increased from 1,500 to 2,500 during this ten-year period. In 2002, the “very largest” churches represented 0.1 percent of all churches but accounted for one percent of all churchgoers, which is 10 times their number.
(Quadrant, Vision Bldg., 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London SE9 2TZ UK; http://www.christian-research.org.uk)
New spate of Mormon-themed films
Films dealing with Mormon themes, and often targeting a LDS audience, are increasingly making their way to the cinemas, reports the independent Mormon magazine Sunstone (October).
More “feature films than ever are targeting the LDS audiences,” a trend that started with the release of Richard Dutcher’s film, “God’s Army.” The films deal with contemporary and historical subject matter, such as “Handcart,” involving the 1856 rescue of the Martin Company and “Out of Step,” about a Mormon girl moving to New York City.
Several of the films set to premiere in the next few months revolve around missionary themes. “The Day of Defense” is a drama inspired by a “cult-classic” pamphlet describing a theological showdown between a young elder and Christian minister in the deep South. The explosion of Mormon-themed films has even inspired a “mockumentary,” The Work and the Story, which parodies the rise of the Mormon cinema.
(Sunstone, 343 N. Third West, Salt Lake City, UT 84103-1215; http://www.ldsfilm.com )
New symbols proposed, old ones disposed?
Theologians and groups on the right and left are pressing the churches to incorporate new religious symbols and discard old ones in order to reach out to contemporary culture, writes Christine Wicker in the Dallas Morning News (Nov. 16).
The most organized and well-known of the attempts to revise and discard traditional Christian symbols is the Jesus Seminar. The seminar was originally focused on uncovering the authentic actions and sayings of Jesus through historical scholarship but now it is venturing into developing a faith and rituals that reflect the new view of Christ.
Seminar founder Robert Funk is proposing that the more universal symbol of salt replace the cross as the central Christian symbol since Christ’s death and resurrection is viewed by seminar revisionists as unhistorical. In challenging the traditional view of an omnipotent God, Funk would use the image of light.
There is yet little evidence that the ideas of Funk and the Westar Institute, the sponsor of the Jesus Seminar, are influencing many churches. It is more common to see mainline churches keep the old symbols while also adding new ones. Wicker gives the example of churches using crosses with a multi-ethnic figure, a mural of a globe in which worshippers leave their handprint in paint to symbolize the sacredness of touch, and languages and images reflecting feminist and interfaith concerns.
“Even some evangelical churches are engaging new images and giving old ones less prominence,” according to Wicker. Megachurches, such as Willow Creek Community Church, have been known to discard the cross in order to reach the unchurched. One “postmodern” ministry allows worshippers to write their sins in a bowlful of sand and then wipe them away.
Teaching Islam changes after 9/11
At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Toronto, the sessions on Islam were bigger than ever, reports Leslie Scrivener in the Sunday edition of the Toronto Star (Nov. 24).
One of those sessions was devoted to they way the study of Islam has changed in North American universities after 9/11. “Professors found they couldn’t just teach the classical foundations of the faith [but] had to address modern issues.” Student audiences also increased significantly.
It has also had an impact upon Muslim students themselves. In an interview with the newspaper, a former imam who now teaches at the University of Colorado, Liyakat Hakim, explained: “[The students] questioned things in their faith they’d taken for granted, because of what they’d been reading.” Such a period of questioning may actually reflect wider trends in the Islamic world, according to Vincent Cornell (University of Arkansas).
He is convinced that Islam is going through a change equivalent to the Protestant Reformation, involving moving away from a religious elite to greater openness to the grassroots expression of the faith.
— By Jean Francois Mayer
Islam new concern for scholars and law enforcers
Several workshops at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Toronto, held Nov. 23-26, dealt with the changing relationship between scholars and law-enforcement.officials on new religious movements after Sept. 11.
Only a decade ago, the threat level from new religious movements (NRMs) was perceived as so low that actions committed in the 1980s by followers of Rajneesh in Oregon were dealt with just as criminal cases, according to Jeff Kaplan (University of Wisconsin). Waco changed that situation. Similarly, in Europe, security agencies became interested in NRMs after the case of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan (1995). The coming of year 2000 and alleged millenial threats associated with it contributed to a new relationship between law-enforcement officials and scholars. [See September RW for more on this topic].
Now 9/11 marks a new turning point. Other topics have now replaced NRMs and millenial groups. Massimo Introvigne (Center for Studies on New Religions) confirmed that trend in Italy: security agencies there are no longer asking questions about NRMs, but about radical Muslim groups. Michael Barkun (Syracuse University) reported that regular private meetings have taken place between scholars working on NRMs or millenialism and the FBI at the AAR since 1999; in 2001, the meetings included scholars of Islam for the first time.
Barkun listed some problems with this shift, beginning with the lack of an historical relationship between religious studies and law-enforcement. There are no guidelines established regarding confidentiality and ethical issues. The fact that the FBI now has the prevention of terrorism as a priority task also has consequences: it is difficult for scholars to predict violence. The shift from the investigation of prosecutable crimes to prevention of attacks changes the balance between preservation of freedom and security interests, posing new questions for scholars, said Barkun.
The sessions also offered opportunities to reflect about past efforts at risk-assessment. Eugene Gallagher (Connecticut College) stated there had been an overemphasis on dates, well illustrated by the reactions to the year 2000, while the millenial calendar of groups is unlikely to coincide with the secular calendar. By narrowing the focus on the year 2000, law-enforcement reports produced in the USA as well as in several other countries had a restrictive perspective, possbily leading to the conclusion that millenial violence now belongs to the past.
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW contributing editor who heads the Website, Religioscope at http://www.religioscope.com
Conference revisits debates on church attendance, ‘lived religion’
The November joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and Religion Research Association in Salt Lake City had as as its official themes “Practicing Religion in the 21st Century” and “Theory and Applied Research.”
Along with the usual conversations and debates about data, both themes revealed an ongoing concern about the relation of the social sciences to practicing a religious faith. Consider the comments by Charles Glock, sociology professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and former president of the SSSR speaking on the compatibility of social science and religion: “Surface appearances to the contrary, I do believe that the social sciences and religion are inherently incompatible . . . The inherent incompatibility derives from the social scientist’s search for explanation . . . Social sciences’ determinism neither countenances a God who receives and answers prayers or a Devil who brings evil into the world.”
A rather different perspective was expressed during one of the conference’s keynote speeches by Robert Orsi, professor of the history of religion at Harvard University. He addressed the question “Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live In?”
His answer was that the question itself was irrelevant. “Lived religion is an approach to religion research that takes place at the level of the practice of the individual or community, not the level of the averages created by surveys. Current discussions about the “true nature” of Islam, for instance, make no sense for Orsi because there is, for him, no “true” nature of a faith. “There is no religion apart from this, no religion that people have not taken up in their hands,” he said.
Nonetheless, hundreds of other researchers at the conference advanced general theories about faith and practice and even, in some cases, tried to square their studies with their faith. Among the more interesting studies was a paper presented by Laurence Iannaccone, an economics professor at George Mason University. Most of his work has involved application of economics-style analysis in an attempt to explain religious behaviors. But this paper was a sort of statistical archaeology that claims to show changes in trends of religious service attendance from decades back — during years and in places where no such studies were done.
Iannaccone used surveys taken in 1991 and 1998 in 30 nations, including the United States, by the International Social Survey Program. Included in the survey were questions about the respondents’ attendance at religious services when they were 11 or 12 years old and whether the respondents’ parents attended services at that time.
If the answers are accurate, or even useful, the surveys offer retrospective information stretching from the 1920s through the 1980s.
Iannaccone said the data probably overstates the rate of actual attendance but is still reliable in showing trends. One trend: In the United States, children were consistently more likely to attend services than their parents until the 1960s. By the 1980s, the difference had vanished. The importance: Other studies have indicated that children who do not attend services are less likely to attend as adults.
Also on the question of church attendance was a presentation by C. Kirk Hadaway, a researcher with the United Church of Christ. Using findings from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, he produced an estimate that between 20.2 percent and 22.5 percent of Americans over the age of five attend a religious service on an average weekend.
Several presentations focused on one of the most comprehensive examinations of the beliefs and practices of Hispanics in the United States. The study, conducted by the Program for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinas/os (PARAL) and directed by Anthony Stevens-Arroyo of Brooklyn College, found that of the Latino faith communities that participated more than a quarter were founded since 1995.
Of those founded before 1995, 78 percent had increased membership — compared with the national average of 51 percent.
Almost two-thirds of the congregations are multi-Hispanic with two or more Latin American nationality groups working together. And three out of four of the Latino faith communities share space with non-Hispanic congregations.
[The program for the conference listing the papers and presenters can be found on the SSSR Website: http://las.alfred.edu/~soc/SSSR/]
— By Jeffrey Weiss, a Dallas-based writer