In This Issue
- On/File: February 2002
- Findings & Footnotes: February 2002
- Traditionalists in Brazil return to Rome
- Changes in China law reviving denominations?
- Sufism revives in post-Taliban Afghanistan
- Search for new archbishop and Anglican future
- Current Research: February 2002
- Coffee houses revived as evangelistic tool
- Divine hours gains converts
- Space colonization captures religious interest
- New twist on new age-native religion rift?
- Reconstructionist Judaism finds niche in mainstream
- East-West split growing in American Judaism
01: The Muslims of America, a community of black Muslims in Virginia, attracting the attention of law enforcement officials and journalists over its alleged ties to terrorism.
The trailer park compound is reported to be part of Al-Fuqra, a sect started by Pakistani Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani, and composed of approximately 1,000 to 3,000 black Muslims in the U.S (not connected with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam). The leader of the community, Vicente Rafael Pierre, was arrested shortly after Sept. 11 on unrelated gun charges as part of the broad clampdown on terrorism.
There was concern that the capture of Pierre might lead to a confrontation between his followers — who are said to stockpile weapons — and law officials in a manner similar to Waco. But now the focus is on how Al-Fuqua has spread terrorism in the U.S.
Reports allege that the sect was behind a fraud scam in Colorado and attacks on Hare Krishnas, Hindus, and Sikhs (India is a special enemy of the sect). More moderate Muslim leaders are reported to have also being assassinated by members. While there may be evidence linking Al-Fuqra with Osama Bin Laden’s Al Queda, there is no clear connection to Sept. 11.
The main strategy behind Pierre’s arrest is to charge suspected terrorists with minor crimes to prevent them from engaging inmore serious acts of terrorism later on.
(Source: National Review, Dec. 31)
01: An article by Toby Lester in The February issue of the Atlantic Monthly looks at new religions, but does so in a way that breaks the mold from most reportage of this phenomenon.
Lester does touch on the usual suspects — such as Unificationism, the Hare Krishnas, and Sokka Gakkai — and the cult and anti-cult controversies in his inquiry on which new religions are destined to become prominent in the future. But he quickly moves beyond the stereotypes to look at some new religions that are actually growing, such as the syncretistic Cao Dai of Vietnam, and then focuses on the more likely candidate of Christian hybrid movements thriving in — and now growing beyond — the Third World.
For more information: The Atlantic Monthly, 77 N. Washington, Boston, MA 02114
02: RW contributing editor Jean-Francois Mayer has recently founded Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com), a Website that promises to be an informative resource in contemporary religion.
The site has already featured an interview with Prof. Abu-Rabi about Sayyid Qutb, thinker of the Islamic resurgence, an article on current expressions of the New Age, and a file with the full text of a militant Islamist edition of Bin Laden’s “Declaration of War” Religioscope, offered in both French and English, also allows visitors to monitor the daily news, as it selects and updates the 20 latest religion headlines in the media, with direct links to the articles.
03: The American Religion Data Archive (ARDA) compiles data on a wide range of religious trends and topics.
The archive, at: http://www.TheARDA.com, just completed a major software upgrade. Church membership data can now be mapped for the nation or individual states online, and summary membership reports for all participating denominations are available by county, state, metropolitan areas, and nation.
The software upgrade also allows users to browse all files in the ARDA and conduct improved searches.
04: Journalist Charles M. Sennott shines a penetrating light on the situation of Christianity in the Middle East, in his recent book The Body And The Blood, (Public Affairs, $30).
Sennott follows in the footsteps of Jesus as he journeys through the declining Christian communities of the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Egypt, and Lebanon, at the turn of the millennium. Sennott confirms reports of continuing emigration of Christians out of the region and notes that since the recent (or second) Intifada between Israelis and Palestinians, the Christian withdrawal has only intensified.
Unlike the first Intifada (where Christians played a role in protests), the intensification of Islamic militancy has squeezed out Christian participation (even though Christians are often hesitant to report such repression to Sennott in their fear of being coopted by Israel) The one growth area is the immigration of thousands of Russian Christians to Israel (though they came into the country claiming a Jewish identity). Sennott is convinced that however weakened, Christianity serves as a crucial buffer, if not always as a reconciler, between Muslim and Jewish agressions.
The stalemate between Catholic traditionalists, those opposing innovations from the Second Vatican Council, and Rome appears to be resolved on at least one front, according to several reports.
On Jan. 18, in Campos Brazil, a group of 28,000 Roman Catholic traditionalists reunified with Rome. Their bishop, Licinio Rangel had been consecrated in 1991 by bishops themselves consecrated in 1988 by the leading figure of the traditionalist movement, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The group in Brazil had been involved in the negotiations which began in the year 2000 between the traditionalists and Rome. However, while the discussions with the Society of St. Pius X have remained at a standstill since mid-2001, they continued with the group in Campos.
The Brazilians have received permission to celebrate the Latin Mass in the traditional rite. In addition, their bishop will be the head of the Apostolic Administration of St. Jean-Marie Vianney. The traditionalist faithful will be part of that Apostolic Administration (limited to the territory of the Diocese of Campos), which will depend directly from the Pope.
In a letter written on Christmas day to Bishop Rangel, the Pope also promised that he would provide for a successor to the Brazilian bishop. The current head of the Society of St. Pius X, Bishop Bernard Fellay regretted that there had been a separate agreement, but acknowledged the fact that a kind of diocesan-like structure had been granted for the first time to traditionalists. In an official communique released on January 16 as well as in several interviews, Bishop Fellay stated that the Society of St. Pius X would monitor very carefully the developments in Brazil.
In an interview with RW, French expert Luc Perrin of the University of Strasbourg explained that the event could indeed be very significant and that the Apostolic Administration might actually be the best solution for protecting the interests of traditionalists reuniting with Rome. As reported by Fides news agency (Jan. 18), the current bishop of Campos played a key role in creating trust between both sides, underlined Perrin. While the Pope is eager to find a solution, there are people against any agreement in Rome as well as in the Society of St. Pius X.
According to figures given by Bishop Fellay himself to the Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger (Jan. 5), there are currently around 150,000 traditionalists following the Society of St. Pius X worldwide. In recent years, it has established new outposts in non Western countries. Not only liturgical issues are at stake: the traditionalists are very critical of other developments in the Roman Catholic Church, and strongly condemned the recent interreligious gathering at Assisi, for instance.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
New registration laws in China may lead to the reemergence of distinctions between Protestant denominations.
A high-level national work conference on religion in China took place in Beijing from Dec. 10 to 12, 2001. Top Chinese political leaders attended, including the seven members of the Politburo of the Communist Party. According to a China Daily report on Dec. 13 (http://www1.chinadaily.com.cn), President Jiang Zemin stressed that the Party’s leadership over religion should be strengthened. The conference thus confirmed the will of the Chinese regime to keep religious life under control.
However, the conference also marked a significant development, as stressed in an article by David Murphy in the Dec. 27 — Jan. 3 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review (http://www.feer.com). Conferees stated that it should become easier for religious organizations to register with the state.
Until now, Protestant or Catholic congregations had to register through the official “Patriotic Associations” established under control of the Communist Party. Besides the problem of political interference in the lives of the Churches, it had another practical consequence for Protestant congregations: it led Protestant groups with backgrounds in different denominational traditions to lose at least some of their characteristics. Now, they should be able to register directly with the Religious Affairs Bureau; such a policy has apparently already been implemented for some time in several cities.
While this is obviously an incentive meant to bring back numerous unregistered, semi-clandestine congregations under state control, it might lead the different Protestant traditions to reassert more strongly their specific denominational peculiarities, instead of having to melt into a single organization for gaining legal status, as was the case until now.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, is undergoing a revival in Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s fall, reports the Boston Globe (Jan. 23).
For centuries, four major Sufi orders had vast and devoted followings in Afghanistan, evidenced in the weekly mass visits to saints’ tombs, the raising of colorful flags at cemeteries and the celebration of the Persian new year. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, they raided gatherings of “zikrs,” Sufi rituals where men pray, chant, play music or sway in ecstatic trances, arresting prominent leaders of the movement.
Although Sufis met clandestinely during Taliban rule, the fall of that regime has not only encouraged followers to return to practice the faith, but has also drawn “hundreds if not thousands of new adherents,” according to Sufi leaders.
Flags banned under the Taliban have been raised again over the tombs of saints and workers are cleaning shrines in Kabul and elsewhere. The poetry and chanting in the zikrs often reflect a “longing for peace in a country devastated by more than 20 years of war and now drought and hunger,” writes Anthony Shadid.
The early January announcement by the Archbishop of Canterbury (and head of the Anglican Communion), Dr. George Carey, that he would retire before the end of the year, has put into motion a search for a successor who will be a key shaper of world Anglicanism and the Church of England.
There have been many reports and speculations in British media during the entire month of January. From the original 10 to 14 candidates, a short list of two candidates should be produced by the Crown Appointments Commission (13 members, chaired by a layman who will be nominated by the Prime Minister), explained The Times (Jan. 10).
The final two must be selected with the support of at least nine commissioners. The Prime Minister will then appoint one of them as Carey’s successor. Prime Minister Blair pledged that his decision on the next archbishop of Canterbury would not be influenced by the candidates’ views on issues such as the war on terrorism, according to The Telegraph, (Jan. 25). However, support is growing in Britain for splitting church and state links, reports the Guardian (Jan. 23).
According to the results of a recent poll, 48 percent of British voters say it is time to end the role of the Prime Minister in choosing the Archbishop. Only 36 percent of voters asked in the poll would like to see the Church of England keep its special position as the only state recognized religion.
The 37 foreign, self-governing churches of the Anglican Communion have no say in the appointment of their next spiritual leader, reminded The Times (Jan. 18). Despite the fact that the growth and vitality of the Anglican Communion is currently taking place outside Britain, the possibility of a non-British Archbishop of Canterbury is ruled out for the years to come. There are currently some 73 million Anglicans, including the 2.4 million member Episcopal Church in the United States. Church of England attendance has continued to decrease over recent years.
The Times (Jan. 11) adds that “Over the past generation, some 1,500 churches, roughly a tenth, have been declared redundant.” However, it still has about 20 million nominal members of the Church of England, although only about a million attend.
The Times still finds reasons for hope: the Church has developed with increasing success its role as educator, establishing new secondary schools.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW contributing editor who lectures in Religion at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland).
01: Although anti-gambling initiatives by religious groups have met with few recent successes in the U.S., attitudes against gambling are strongly associated with other social positions that are influenced by religion.
In the Public Perspective (January/February), the journal of the Roper Center of Public Opinion and Polling, John M. Benson and other researchers analyze recent surveys and find highly religious people, regardless of denominational preference, to be significantly less likely than the less religious to take pro-gambling positions, by a range of 22 to 42 percentage points. For instance, highly religious people were less likely to approve of casino gambling in general (23 percent to 65 percent).
Further analysis found that anti-gambling attitudes show a “remarkable similarity” and were highly correlated with taking conservative positions on abortion, stem cell research, physician assisted suicide and homosexuality. Benson and colleagues conclude that even though gambling has become a big business and was not a major issue in the 2000 presidential campaign, conflicts over the issue will not likely go away, particularly at the state level. It may just “re-emerge on the national stage as part of a broader discussion of values.”
(Public Perspective, 341 Mansfield Rd., Unit 1164, Storrs, CT 06269-1164)
02:Recent figures confirm the fact that church giving continues to drop — a trend that may have intensified since Sept. 11. The Washington Times (Jan. 18) reports that recent figures from Empty Tomb, a research group on church giving, shows that people are giving 2.5 percent of their annual net income — a drop of 17 percent from the 3.1 percent people were giving back in 1968.
Parachurch ministries, in particular, are reporting a drop in contributions since Sept. 11, according to Charisma magazine (February). Groups such as Focus on the Family and concerned Women for America reported 25 percent and 56 percent drops in giving respectively since the attacks. Empty Tomb has found that Christian giving to charities outside of the congregation has declined the most since the 1960s.
(Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746)
03: The presence of ethnic minorities is fueling the growth of churches in London, according to recent attendance and population figures. Quadrant (January), the newsletter of the Christian Research Association, reports that church attendance grew in those seven districts (out of 358) and five boroughs (out of 33) of London with the highest percentage of ethnic minorities.
The newsletter cites the example of Brent, whose percentage of ethnic residents rose from 45 percent in 1991 to 57 percent in 2000. Church attendance during that period had increased 13 percent in 1998, resulting in one-sixth (16 percent) attending church on Sunday; that’s more than double the national average of 7.5 percent, and the third highest in the country.
(Quadrant, Vision Bldg., 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London SE9 2TZ UK)
04: Hindu youth in the Netherlands, even those who are foreign-born, may be taking their cues more from the surrounding secular Dutch culture than from their own families, suggests a recent survey.
Hinduism Today magazine (January-March) cites a survey conducted among 305 Dutch Hindu youth (ages 12-29), most of whom were either born in Surinam or their parents had immigrated from the South American country. A majority of the youth did not know which branch of Hinduism to which they belonged, and only one-fourth knew of such standard Hindu texts as the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, which are both popular in Surinam.
Only seven percent agreed that their parents are capable of deciding their marriage partner. This is noteworthy because most of the parents “still believe they are the most capable of choosing the right partner for their children,” says researcher Chandersen Choenni, who conducted the survey.
(Hinduism Today, 107 Kaholalele Rd., Kapaa, HI 96746-9304)
Christian coffee houses, a staple of the Jesus movement and subsequent evangelical outreach in the 1970s, are making a comeback, reports the Washington Times (Jan. 14).
Coffee houses were mainly for evangelism mixed in with entertainment and fellowship for evangelical young people in the late 1960s and 70s. But as the patrons got older and had families by the 1980s, the establishments had faded away. Today, new coffee houses are being established as Christians seek new ways of engaging in innovative evangelism.
They are sponsored by groups ranging from charismatic Catholics (who run a Website listing coffeehouses in most states: http://www.garg.com/coffee) to inner-citiy ministries.
Other coffeehouses are free-standing establishments with full-service ministries, offering programs on bereavement, divorce and the singles life, as well as inviting guest speakers. In inner-city St., Louis, Missouri, Don Sharp, pastor of the Church of God Independent Holiness People, uses the coffee house to dispel misconceptions about the area, welcoming visitors to the neighborhood, as well as ministering to residents.
“Fixed-hour prayer,” a practice common among Christians from liturgical churches, is finding a wider appeal among other believers, reports Cutting Edge (Winter), a newsletter of the charismatic Vineyard churches.
In an interview with the newsletter, author Phyllis Tickle says that the interest in the practice (also called the “office of the hours” or divine hours), consisting of praying from a prayer book at various hours during the day, is reflected in the number of new books on this subject. Tickle’s recent book, “The Divine Hours” (prayers based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer) went into a second printing after four weeks — at a time when six other fixed-prayer books were just published.
She was surprised by the young people and evangelicals responding to the books, claiming that they had already taken up the practice of setting aside regular periods of their day for praying from a prayer book. Other fixed prayer proponents say that their biggest audiences for seminars on the practice are often charismatic and Pentecostal Christians (The newsletter adds that some Vineyard churches, known for their spontaneous worship, now use these “prayer manuals;” see last month’s RW on similar changes in the Vineyard movement).
Tickle adds that groups of three or four people are now gathering together in workplaces to say the offices together. She attributes the interest to the fact that these prayer books don’t allow for “false intimacy. In evangelical circles we have made Jesus our buddy. There is a dignity in the hours that emphasizes the transcendence of God.”
(Cutting Edge, 1800 Ridge Ave., Evanston, IL 60201)
Although it may sound like science fiction, a new period of space exploration and eventually colonization is beginning, and religious groups and thinkers are clamoring to be on board.
After a nearly 30-year hiatus, the space program has been revived with ambitious plans for exploration. The completion of the $60 billion International Space Station as well as discoveries that some planets have properties to sustain human life have led to plans to embark on colonization missions by as early as 2005. The New Oxford Review (January), a Catholic magazine, reports that these new possibilities are particularly receptive to organized religions and spiritual seekers, especially because space-related professions have “attracted a disproportionately high number of believers.”
The meetings of the Mars Society, founded in 1998, are “clearly aimed at funneling the growing disenchantment of contemporary secular society into support for the colonization of space, with Mars as the first goal. Technical seminars on spacecraft systems and advanced robotics are interspersed with lectures on `Theological Considerations Concerning Terra-forming Mars’ and discussions of a Martian Bill of Rights,” writes Lewis Andrews. The 4,000-member society, now the largest space advocacy group in the U.S., has a popular task force on religion headed by James Heiser, a Lutheran minister.
Heiser and others involved in the society compare the colonization effort to the 17th century Puritan voyage to escape corruption and establish a “new Jerusalem” in the new world. A similar group is the Association of Roman Catholics for the Promotion of Space Exploration and Colonization. An official of this group, Franciscan Brother Alexis Bugnolo, argues that Christians are the best equipped for such expeditions because their strong convictions and moral base will help them persevere in a hostile environment.
But even if organized religious groups are not allowed on early missions, strains of religious and spiritual utopianism are already driving the effort, Stewart adds. Space colonization is viewed by many scientists as an expression of”transmillennialism,” where redemption is revealed as a progressive spiritual evolution into a superior kind of human.
(New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706)
American Indian and Australian Aborigines are divided among themselves over Western New Agers, Pagans and other alternative spiritual groups adapting and marketing their traditions, according to an article in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (January).
For close to two decades, there has been a conflict between alternative spirituality-New Age groups and native spiritual leaders who accuse the former of exploiting and stealing their traditions for popular consumption and financial gain. Christina Welch writes that the current battle focuses on two key — and thus symbolic — indigenous practices: the American Indian sweat lodge and the didjeridu, an Aboriginal musical instrument.
The sweat lodge has become a staple of New Age-Pagan ritual, serving as a vehicle of spiritual self-discovery, while the didjeridu (used by Aborigines in initiation ceremonies) connects spiritual seekers to Mother Earth and an indigenous, pretechnological lifestyle. However, Welch writes that it is not only modern Westerners who have appropriated and often transformed these practices as they take them from native cultures.
Modern Aborigines in Australia, such as the international performer Mandawuy Yunupingu, now see the didgeridu as a symbol of Aboriginal identity and connection to the land, even as indigenous activists protest the Western use of the instrument. American Indians are now using the sweat lodge as a therapeutic tool to combat alcoholism and drug abuse. But Native American activists criticize such Indian authors as Wa’Na’Nee’Che for adapting the sweat lodge to Western spiritual standards (by, for example, stressing it is only a pleasant experience).
The fact that New Agers and Pagans put these once-secret ceremonies on the Internet in often changed forms only intensifies the conflict. Yet Welch concludes that the Internet can also allow “indigenous peoples the freedom to bypass the constraints of Western publishing houses and represent themselves in their own terms.”
(Journal of Contemporary Religion, Theology Dept., King’s College, University of London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS, UK)
The Reconstructionist movement in Judaism is gradually entering the mainstream after 47 years of existing on the edge of Jewish life.
The Jewish Week (Jan. 18) reports that new leadership and maturity is bringing? greater stability and acceptance, if not sharp growth, to the smallest and youngest Jewish branch in the U.S.. Reconstructionist Judaism, founded by Modecai Kaplan, views Judaism as a civilization more than a religion, and rejects such traditional Jewish concepts as a personal messiah, resurrection of the dead, and the concept of Jews as a chosen people.
Writer Deborah Nussbaum Cohen notes that the self-image of the 50,000-member denomination (with 100 congregations) is strengthened by a thriving seminary with an enrollment of 90 students — up 50 percent from 1993.
The movement is starting its first summer camp (a staple of Jewish youth ministry) this year. The new acceptance and recognition of the movement in the larger Jewish community is evidenced by the use of the word “Reconstructionist” in print far more frequently than was the case five years ago.
Part of the move toward the mainstream may have been helped by Reconstructionist leaders’ attempt to distance themselves from Renewal Judaism — a mystical and social activist movement started in the 1960s that has strong, if indirect, influence on many Jewish institutions. Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee says that the Reconstructionist movement may not grow very large, but does attract unaffiliated Jews open to seeing Judaism as a “culture of ideas.”
Others point to the movement’s openness to other religions and liturgical creativity as creating a distinct niche for the denomination.
A division and impending split in a national Jewish organization is also serving to highlight a conflict between Jews in the Eastern U.S. versus those in the West, according to two reports.
The Jewish Week (Jan. 11) reports that the firing of a popular West Coast director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the leading Jewish defense organization in the U.S., has set off talk about a split in the organization along East-West lines. National director Abraham Foxman fired West Coast regional director David Lehrer, apparently without consulting the West Coast lay leadership, leading critics of Foxman to charge that the New York leadership of the group treats non-New Yorkers as subordinates rather than equals, ignoring their contributions.
The Los Angeles Times (Jan. 6) reports that East-West tensions have simmered in recent years in other national Jewish organizations, such as when the University of Judaism broke off from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1994 when it opened its own rabbinical school. As more Jews move to the Sun Belt and West Coast, the Northeast — still home to 40 percent of American Jews — has been slow to share the power, according to Los Angeles Jewish leaders.
An ADL official denies any prejudice exists toward the West Coast. However, some say the divisions also show the different approaches between the establishment, which continues to stress battling anti-Semitism and promoting Israel, and younger Jews (gathered around the Los Angeles Alliance) who promote a liberal agenda of social justice, such as fighting the death penalty and engaging in Muslim-Jewish dialogue.
(Jewish Week, http://www.thejewishweek.com)