In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: February 2000
- China targets religious over political dissent
- Promise keepers show more promise in Latin America?
- Arguments on Bible hold political ramifications in Israel
- Christian growth continues but in new regions
- Current Research: February 2000
- Americans revising but not rejecting hell
- Cyberspace fragmenting Islamic authority?
- Radical theology — too postmodern for churches?
- Evangelicals’ postmodern identity crisis?
01: In early January two journalists launched a new website, Beliefnet.com aiming to be an online spiritual community, resource center and new source for people of all faith communities.
Created by Steven Waldman and Bob Nylan, formerly of Newsweek and U.S.News & World Report, the web site started with a $5 million initial investment. The site is intended for seekers and believers, carrying information on religion, spirituality, and culture, along with family matters and ethics.
Many of the articles are contributed by well known names such as Bishop John Spong, Marcus Borg, Fr. Andrew Greeley, Buddhist Lama Surya Das, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and writers for goddess spirituality. According to a USA Today newspaper story (January 13) the founders are aiming at promoting dialogue among the several groups, with links to major sacred texts, a search engine for local houses of worship, dialogue groups and reading lists.
Within a few months, the site will have an online commerce section carrying crosses, meditation cushions, books, music, travel opportunities, and charity donations.
— By Erling Jorstad
02: A Particular Place, (Rutgers University Press, $21) by Nancy L.Eiesland, provides an interesting look at how congregations function in “exurbs,” those areas on the outskirts of major cities experiencing a transformation through a population explosion, jobs, and housing expansion.
Through in-depth interviews and observations in a once rural town and now exurb near Atlanta, Eiesland recounts how the religious pluralism that comes with the arrival of newcomers affects the congregations in the area. From a town that was once predominantly Methodist and Southern Baptist, a whole range of religious choices are now available to residents. For instance, a new megachurch has an especially strong effect, increasing rivalry and competition among the churches.
But Eiesland concludes that the new diversity also benefits congregations, encouraging new connections between them in order to minister to people’s increasingly “multi-layed patterns of religious belonging. “In contrast to many scholars of religious change, Eiseland does not see clear winners or losers among these congregations (although she notes that some are and will fail), but rather comes to the position that different religious communities fill different niches, with some innovating to meet new needs and others preserving resources and values to meet future needs.
03: David S. Katz’s and Richard H. Popkin’s Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium (Hill and Wang, 1999. $26) may even interest many who have likely tired of reading about millennialism, thanks to the incessant hype concerning Y2K in the media.
Katz and Popkin attempt to trace how religious radicalism has shaped the development of New and Old Worlds, and generally succeed in making an almost tired subject come alive. They do this by spending much time on so-called minor historical characters, such as the Spanish Marrano Alfonso de Zamora who advised Spanish Catholic church officials on Jews and Judaism, influencing Church policy toward Jews. Their comments on the cultural impact of these events on religious radicalism and millennialism are timely and insightful.
Katz and Popkin have also included one of the best overviews of British Israelism and Christian Identity (the ideology underpinning groups such as Aryan Nations). Other chapters explore very effectively the antecedents of Waco and the Unification Church.
— By Lin Collette, RW contributing editor
Recent events in China suggest that religion is emerging as the most serious threat to the ruling party’s monopoly on power, reports the Washington Post (Jan. 10).
In early January, an important lama of Tibetan Buddhism made a dramatic escape to his faith’s exile community in India, even though he was hand-picked by Chinese officials to squelch the independent Buddhist movement in Tibet. A short time later, Beijing further frayed relations with the Vatican by appointing its own Catholic bishops in defiance of the pope.
Add to that the continuing crackdown on Falun Gong, a popular meditation group, and it isn’t difficult to notice an overall campaign against unofficial religion in China. John Pomfret reports that since December the government has used a new law outlawing Falun Gong to brand 10 Christians sects as illegal “cults.”
Frank Lu of a Hong Kong-based human rights center says that “While China continues to jail any democracy activists it can find, these days the Communists are really concerned about religions. They realize there is a spiritual void in China. They know most people are cynical about politics, so they won’t follow the democratic activists. But they will follow a new messiah.” The report adds that police have used “prolonged detention, torture and reeducation of Tibetan monks and nuns…[and] some Protestant and Catholic Christians.”
China’s Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council calls the report “unfounded.” Chinese analysts say that each of the recently cracked down groups represent a distinct threat to government authority. Falun Gong is the first mass movement of workers since liberation. Officials have sought to co-opt Tibetan Buddhisim through appointing approved leaders (such as the now exiled Karmapa Lama) who would squelch any separatist movment against China.
The move to snub the pope and appoint their own Catholic bishops was a way of “warning both the Vatican and the Chinese who remain loyal to the pope to drop their support of underground churches,” which are growing among Catholic and Protestant churches.
The evangelical men’s ministry Promise Keepers may be faltering in the U.S. but it appears to be just picking up steam in Latin America.
Religion Today.com reports that “through small groups, pastors’ conferences, and PK’s hallmark stadium events, the vision of inspiring men to live Christian lives is spreading. Men’s ministries are growing in at least 10 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean…” PK’s claim that men are uninvolved in church and family life is especially being stressed in Latin America, where about 80 percent of church members are women.
The growing numbers of unwed mothers and divorce are also a target for the international men’s ministry. Promise Keeper’s “straightforward, man-to-man approach appeals to the machismo of Latino men,” says Israel Vega, the ministry’s Latin America director.
The on-going, often acrimonious controversies within Israel over its true religious history and its mission today has recently taken on a new dimension among archeologists and public leaders over the nation’s proper use of the Bible.
An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 21) finds at least three competing camps of interpretation have stirred major debates on whether the Bible can be understood as reliable, literal history. The controversy goes beyond academic polemics, taking on sharp political dimensions overtones as to the future of organized religion within the nation itself.
The first school, centering around Archeologist Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University, finds no convincing evidence from past literary or physical records that the Bible’s historical narratives are at all to be understood as literal fact. The Hebrew Bible is not a religious document at all, he claims, but rather the “defining document” of Jewish nationhood. Too many contradictions among the source materials, and too little evidence from remaining archeology exist to lead to any other conclusion.
A second school headed by Mordechai Cogan, a Hebrew University scholar, and colleague Amihai Mazar, think the first school has gone too far in rejecting the Bible as history. They concede it cannot be taken literally as history, but insist enough evidence exists to prove beyond doubt that the Jewish people are the rightful heirs in claiming ownership of the lands of the Old Testament. The political implications of this center around Mazar’s position, “The Jews in Israel no longer need the Bible to justify their presence in the Middle East. We’re here because we’re here. We no longer need excuses — we’re native.”
A third school centered in Israeli universities claims the furor really misses the major thrust of the Hebrew Bible. They insist its authors never intended it to be literal history; it should be revered and promoted for its literary and moral values it espouses. Observers point out that beyond the argument in academia there exists major political implications in the dispute. Can Israel continue to claim that Palestinians have no valid claim to their presence in the disputed territories, if the Biblical record is not literal?
Conversely, isn’t the dispute really over Zionism, the establishment and perpetuation of Israel as a religious state justified in its exclusiveness towards Arabs? One rabbi voices the traditional Zionist view of the controversy: “It’s no coincidence that it is happening now. The attack on the Bible is part and parcel of the general attack on Zionist values that is exemplified by the current Israeli government’s willingness in the framework of the peace process, to hand over parts of the biblical land of Israel to the Palestinians.”
— By Erling Jorstad
Christianity is far from exhausted at the turn of the new millennium, but many of the regions where it gained status as an established religion are likely to remain in the free fall of secularism, writes sociologist David Martin.
In the National Post (Jan. 1), a Canadian newspaper, Martin maps where Christianity is likely to retain its strength or grow and where it will continue to decline. Christianity is in trouble in its Mideast birthplace, but only because of the local factor of high migration due to Muslim pressure. Europe is the place where secularity continues to win the day.
It is not only the older secular centers such as Scandinavia, London, Paris and Amsterdam, but also areas of waning Catholic influence or post-communist disillusionment. Today the secular capitals are also “places like Madrid or Prague, Tallinn and Minsk. To put it melodramatically, the Catholic fortresses of Ireland in the northwest and Poland in the northeast felt the onset of the secular tide,” Martin writes.
In short, where faith was tied up with established powers, there is decline. In North America, there is still vitality in the midst of religious pluralism, though Canada may “follow the secular path of Britain and Europe,” writes Martin. The growth of indigenous Pentecostalism in Latin America, suggests that “If the U.S. could go its own way, free of church-state link-up and religious monopoly, so too could Latin America.” Africa is following suit, as Pentecostalism grows among “young men and women anxious to partake in imagined communities stretching across borders, particularly through modern communications.”
Asia is more of a “question mark,” as Christianity continues to appeal to marginal people, on one hand, and new aspiring middle classes, on the other. Martin concludes that “How you estimate the future of Christianity depends where you locate today’s lead societies.”
01: Although the United Methodist Church is often said to be on the verge of schism on the issue of homosexuality, a new study suggests that the denomination will stay together and that members are liberalizing their views on the subject.
The study, entitled Where the Spirit Leads (Abington Press, $15) by sociologist James Wood, surveys leaders and delegates at the church’s 1996 General Conference, as well as analyzes polls on attitudes to gay rights and homosexuality among United Methodists in general. Wood finds that although gay rights in the church — specifically the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of homosexuals — was reported to be the key issue at the General Conference, the majority of delegates viewed other concerns such as world unity, spirituality, worship, ecumenism as more pressing and important.
Yet Wood also found that that one-fourth of the U.S. delegates did feel strongly enough on the homosexual issue that they would leave the church if the opposing view prevailed.
Wood, however, doubts whether a serious split will come to pass. For one thing, the role of caucuses — or special interest groups — in the UM tends to institutionalize conflict, giving most members a voice in deliberations. Furthermore, it is the lay delegates themselves (they are more liberal than the clergy and superintendents in their general interpretation of the Bible) who have, over time, taken a more liberal view on homosexual issues, particularly the women, more educated, and younger ones — and a greater percentage of each will be delegates in the future.
Of those who have changed their minds on the issues at the conference, more than three-quarters shifted to more acceptance of homosexuals. Wood concludes that agreement to disagree on these issues will hold sway more than serious plans of a major schism, at least for the near future [The General Conference this summer will deliberate on the denominational dispute on the blessing of same-sex unions; see May `98 RW for more on this issue as well as a different view on the possibility of a United Methodist schism].
02: American Muslims are politically diverse, although many lean in a conservative direction on moral issues, according to a new poll.
The survey, conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and one of the most extensive of the American Muslim community, found that over half of the respondents (55 percent) believe abortion should be prohibited except to save the life of the mother. The Washington Times (Dec. 23) reports that the poll found that 35 percent identified themselves as politically conservative, 34 percent “politically independent,” and 16 percent liberals.
Overall, however, 41 percent of the 878 respondents surveyed said they are “more sympathetic” with the Democratic agenda. Muslim respondents were strongly for gun control (72 percent) and supported the government’s continued role in health care. One-fourth of those polled give George W. Bush and former Senator Bill Bradley their support, followed by Al Gore (15 percent) and John McCain (10 percent). The respondents also showed a 56 percent voting rate, which is 10 percent higher than the national average of voters. The largest number of responses to the survey came from the states of California, Virginia, Texas, Illinois, and Maryland.
03: The rate of front page news stories on religious subjects in newspapers has remained stagnant for a generation, reports a study conducted by the American Journalism Review.
RNA Extra (January/February), the newsletter of the Religion Newswriters Association, reports that the survey examined the evolution of religion news coverage (among other topics) by analyzing content in 10 mainstream dailies — Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, Fresno Bee, Houston Chronicle, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Macon Telegraph, Memphis’ Commercial Appeal, Richmond Times-Dispatch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Topeka Capital-Journal, and the Wilmington News-Journal. Of the newspapers surveyed, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Richmond Times-Dispatch gave the most space to religion coverage.
Only in 1999 was that coverage more than one percent of all front page news. For instance, the St. Louis paper had four percent of its front page news about religion. Half of the newspapers analyzed decreased in front page religion stories during the 35-year period. The survey, however, noted that religion has gained readership in general as it has been integrated into general news coverage.
(RNA Extra, PO Box 2037, Westerville, OH 43086).
04: Successful church unions have been small in number and even when they take place there has been no increased dynamic toward evangelism and missions in the merged denominations.
These are a few of the trends surveyed by missions experts David Barrett and Todd Johnson in their latest annual statistical summary on global missions in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (January). By the year 2000, there have only been 60 united or uniting denominations, with 70 million affiliated members. “Numerically they form a mere drop in the ocean of 1.9 billion church members worldwide today,” write Barrett and Johnson. They add that for every successful union, there are “ten abject failures.” These usually take the form of negotiations for mergers that after years of dialogue only break down and are never taken up again (such as with the Anglicans and Methodists in Britain during the 20th century).
This search for unity is rendered increasingly superfluous by the ever growing number of denominations in the world. In 1900, there were 1,880 distinct denominations in the world; as of 2000, the total is 33,800. While Protestantism continues to be the most fragmented, even the relatively unified tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy is experiencing this trend. Since the collapse of communism, “virtually every Orthodox country has suffered schisms and counterschisms.”
But the writers add that there may be some positive aspects to this fragmentation. “One is that it is far more difficult for totalitarian countries such as Communist regimes to make a dent in this massive global Christianity, no matter how much they may try to regulate, harass, suppress, or — the one-time goal of many regimes — liquidate it.”
(International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 490 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511)
05: The recent English Church Attendance Survey finds a sharper decrease in attendance than in previous time periods, although the whole matter of going to church in the UK is becoming more complex.
The Quadrant (January), the newsletter of Christian Research, which conducted the survey, finds that 7.5 of the population of England were in church on an average Sunday. The survey, conducted among 12,400 churches, finds that the new figure is down from the 12 percent of the population who attended church on an average Sunday in 1979 and 10 percent in 1989, suggesting that the pace of decline may be accelerating.
But counting average church attendance is a tricky matter in today’s England. For the first time the survey asked ministers about the frequency of attendance in their parishes, finding that 16.2 percent of the population are in church at least once a year. This means that less frequent church attendance, rather than its cessation, accounts for one-third of the decline in regular church-going. Another new question asked whether churches are holding midweek services.
Forty two percent answered positively, likely increasing overall attendance figures.
(Quadrant, Vision Bldg., 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London, England SE9 2TZ)
While more Americans believe there is a hell than from a few years ago, they, and religious leaders in general, are also less inclined to view hell in literal terms, according to an article in U.S. News & World Report (Jan. 31).
Last summer, the Vatican and then the pope himself illustrated the revisionist mood when they denied that hell is an actual place, but only a “state of being” where one is estranged from God. The pope added that the Bible uses “symbolic language,” such as describing hell as a lake of fire. While the pontiff faced conservative criticism from his own church and from evangelicals, he seems to have his finger on the pulse of public opinion in the U.S.
A new poll conducted by the magazine find that in 1997, 48 percent believed hell is real place where people suffer “eternal fiery torments.” Today, just 34 percent agree with that statement. Writer Jeffrey Sheler adds that more Americans believe in hell today than in the 1950s or even a decade ago. In mapping out the various positions believers have about hell, Sheler also finds that evangelicals are now divided on the subject.
Such leading evangelical theologians as Clark Pinnock, John Stott and Phillip Hughes have come to view — not without attacks from more conservative theologians — that unbelievers are annihilated in the afterlife rather than punished eternally.
A controversy among American Muslims is raising the question of how authority is delegated in the diverse Islamic community.
The controversy surrounds Shaykh Kabbani, leader of the Washington-based Islamic Supreme Council (ISC), who stated in an address at the U.S. State Department last year that many American Muslim groups had connections with terrorist groups, or were silent about such ties among their fellow believerss [see February ’99 RW for more on this issue].
The statement set off a firestorm of protest in the Muslim community, accusing Kabbani and his council of disloyalty and contributing to anti-Islamic stereotypes. A petition of Islamic organizations protesting and calling for a boycott on Kabbani and his followers was put on the Internet and published in the Muslim Observer newspaper. This kind of boycott and condemnation is traditionally known as a “fatwa” in Islamic practice, but making such a ruling in the U.S. is problematic, according to an article in The Muslim magazine (Fall), which is published by the ISC.
The magazine found that no scholarly or professional association of Muslims claimed credit for the fatwah, but rather it was initiated by an aggrieved pharmaceutical engineer in northern California and taken up by others on the Internet. The magazine quotes a Washington Post article on the new influence of “cyber-fatwahs.” “Once Muslims seeking muftis–Islamic legal experts–would have had to travel from village to village to find wise and respected folk.
The muftis . . . would sit face to face with questioners issuing fatwas. These were legal opinions on questions that came up in everyday life . . . But to get one [fatwa] today, Muslims can just surf and click . . . A whole World Wide Web of cyber-fatwas appears, including those laid down by respected muftis from Egypt, some iconoclasts with no credentials at all and a few younger hipper alternative muftis like Khan with Islamic legal backgrounds but without official titles.”
(The Muslim, P.O. Box 1065, Fenton, MI 48430)
A movement known as “radical orthodoxy,” is gaining prominence in the theological community, and has also been strongly affected by the growth of postmodernism in the secular culture.
First Things magazine (February) reports that radical orthodoxy is led by a group of Anglican and Roman Catholic thinkers from Cambridge University in response to postmodernist concepts that elevate the role of power and personal interest in shaping language, society, and even human consciousness.
Writer R.R. Reno, a critic of the movement, notes that such leading radical orthodox thinkers as John Milbank, Graham Ward and Catherine Pickstock “hope to articulate an encompassing Christian perspective that will supersede and replace secularisms both modern and postmodern.”
Radical orthodoxy is complex and somewhat abstract, emphasizing the importance of theological speculation. For instance, Millbank and Ward hold a view of Christ’s atonement that places more emphasis on human co-creation and cooperation with God than on traditional sources that see Christ as primarily present in the church and Scriptures.
(First Things, 156 Fifth Ave., Suite 400, New York, NY 10010)
Is postmodern thought undermining the very identity of evangelical colleges?
That is the question posed by Charlotte Allen in Lingua Franca magazine (December/ January). The influence of postmodern philosophy has emerged on several campuses and in the works of evangelical publishers such as InterVarsity Press. In the attempt to understand and appropriate the highly influential intellectual movement known as postmodernism, several well known evangelical scholars have ventured into intellectual territory that has proven highly controversial and, to some, worrisome about evangelicalism’s future.
For several decades, most evangelical four year colleges in the United States have experienced continued growth in enrollment, financial support, and sense of mission. Warnings (as found in such scholarly works as George Marsden’s “The Soul of the American University”) that mainline Protestant colleges succumbed to secularization in pursuit of their goals helped keep evangelicals closely in touch with their tradition. Noted for its suspicions, even rejections of universal truths, master narratives, Scriptural authority, and prepositional normative truth, postmodernism is now being studied carefully by a variety of evangelical scholars.
They find that the school of thought’s inclusive nature is allowing them a place at the table of scholarly discourse, as well as being congenial to the evangelical understanding of faithSuch theologians as Timothy Phillips, Dennis Okholm, Philip, J. Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh are searching for ways to reformulate evangelical beliefs in a world reshaped by postmodernism.
They argue that older ideas about “objective truth”, in fact, the existence of any final truth at all, should be superseded in favor of more personal understanding of God’s ways with humankind. Other revisionists have challenged the traditional evangelical teachings on patriarchy, female submission, and apocalyptic scenarios from the Book of Revelation, and have called for a wider appreciation of the concerns of seekers.
These and related ideas have produced a steady stream of protests and criticism by other evangelical scholars and publishers. Some insist the new scholarship is merely camouflage for a new politically liberal agenda for social outreach. Others such as Mark C. Taylor and Richard Hughes claim that revisionist postmodernism is in reality capitulation to the latest intellectual trends, overly simplistic, and worst of all, potentially threatening to the efficacy of evangelical faith as it has unfolded over the years.
Some other critics fear that today’s lifestyles of students, especially their clothing, adornment, and music reflect a more nihilistic direction for the future of evangelicalism worldwide. The implications of the dispute are more than the familiar academic warfare over intellectualized problems; Allen writes that evangelicalism may well be on the verge of having to redefine its once articulate loyalty to traditional teachings in light of the ever-changing nature of contemporary scholarship.
In his book Marsden warned that too much preoccupation with relating current issues to the faith of the tradition led mainline Protestant colleges into secularized halls of learning. Evangelicals will have to decide how this new world of postmodernism is to be understood in light of existing norms of truth.
(Lingua Franca,22 W. 38th St., New York, NY 10018)
— By RW contributing editor Erling Jorstad