In This Issue
- July, 2001
- On/File: July 2001
- Findings & Footnotes: July 2001
- Evangelical missions, relief groups turn to AIDS concerns
- Current Research: July 2001
- Opposition to Muslims forms new Jewish-Hindu alliance?
- Alternative, Eastern spirituality finds centers off the beaten path
- Faith or politics behind possible Unitarian schism?
- Americans shop for esoteric teachings over Buddhist basics
- Business-faith separation when it comes to philanthropy?
- Spirituality-brain connection finds scholarly and popular following
- Festivals supplementing or supplanting churches?
- Faith factor in jubilee movement influential but unnoticed
01: Christian futurist Leonard Sweet is practicing what he preaches on the Internet. As the godfather of the postmodern — “Pomo” to insiders — ministry movement, he advocates that Christianity must meet postmoderns where they live and speak to them in their language.
While Sweet is adamant that “a spirit that loves Christ and loves people” is the most effective witness of all, he advises Christians to “be on the forefront of technology. Don’t be in catch-up or put-down mode.” So, as the leading prophet for the growing movement, he has established a beachhead of web sites on the Internet that are among the most effectively designed Christian sites on the web so far.
His home site is at http://www.leonardsweet.com, and his book sites are at http://www.soultsunami.com, http://www.aquachurch.com, and www.soulsalsa.com.
Sweet’s recurring theme is that postmodern ministry must be E-P-I-C — Experiential, Participatory, Image-driven and Connected. One look at his web sites with their animated text and inspirational graphics will tell you that they are designed to be experiential and image-driven.
With prayer walls, message boards, and discussion groups for his book sites, he strives to make his site participatory and connect readers to one another. He weaves information from his and other web sites into his books, thus making his sites an extension of the reading experience for the readers. While one major focus of Leonard Sweet’s web sites is commercial promotion of his books, videos, and audiotapes, he provides enough free content to merit a few repeat visits.
— By Cody Clark, a Houston, Texas-based freelance writer
02: To many people, the phrase “online prayer” sounds like an oxymoron, but when you type it into a search engine on the web, thousands of pages with that reference are found.
With more people spending more time in front of a computer each day, the popularity of online prayer experiences is on the rise. One humble site is emerging as the leader of the online prayer trend. When you type “online prayer” into the Google search engine (http://www.google.com), which ranks its references by the number of other sites that link to them, Sacred Space (http://www.jesuit.ie/prayer) comes out on top of the more than three thousand other sites.
The fact that this site, run by Irish Jesuits, is less than two years old and has accumulated 1.7 million hits in that time makes its ascent on the web a notable one. The fact that this site lacks the fancy graphics and Internet gimmicks that impress most web surfers makes it even more remarkable.
In fact it is the simplicity of the site that makes it most effective. With no distracting graphics or banner ads, the text-only design walks the reader through a ten-minute session of meditation and scripture. It also requires very little bandwidth, which makes it very quick to load, even at peak times. Though the Jesuits run it, the site’s content accommodates all denominations.
Internet ministry designers take note: Sacred Space is proof that a text-only, simple site design with a clear focus can be as effective as any on the Internet.
— By Cody Clark
01: The Center for Contemplative Mind seeks to bring its teachings on contemplation and spirituality to a diverse clientele, including social and environmental activists, prisoners, lawyers, and business people.
The center, started in 1997, has attracted some of the leading corporations to its programs on “contemplative values,” including the chemical corporation Monsanto, as well as the Green Group, a group of CEOs from the major environmental organizations. Director Mirabai Bush says that contemplative practices — meditation as well as the Eastern practice of mindfulness and compassion — could play an activist role in changing the awareness and thus the practices of businesses and lawyers.
The center, coming from a Buddhist orientation, works with other religions to encourage contemplative practices.The center’s web site is: http://www/contemplativemind.org.
(Source: Tricycle, Summer)
01: This is the first July issue of Religion Watch to come off the press in our 16 years of publishing.
As might be expected, the move from a combined July/August issue to two separate issues involves more time and money. As summer is usually a dry time for new subscriptions and renewals, we welcome gift subscriptions and re-subscriptions from former readers who have “fallen away” from the RW fold.
Anyone who gives a gift subscription during July and August will get three extra issues added to their subscription. This applies to the print and e-mail versions of RW. Gift subscriptions are also at a discount: $26 for the print version and $19 for the e-mail version. To take part in this offer, just send us the name and address of the recipient of the gift subscription along with your own name and, of course, the payment.
02: We are also offering a summer clearance sale of the recent book, Trusting The Spirit: Renewal and Reform in American Religion, by RW editor Richard Cimino.
The book is available for $16 (regularly selling for $21.95.) Send payment (Canadian and foreign orderers must include an extra $6 to cover mailing costs) made out to Religion Watch to: P.O. Box 652, North Bellmore, NY 11710.
After years of ignoring or downplaying the effect of AIDS in Africa, missionary organizations and churches are joining forces in the prevention and treatment of the fast-spreading disease.
Charisma News Service, (June 27) reports that those attending the United Nations General Assembly’s special session on AIDS in New York in June found many representatives from worldwide Christian organizations and churches at the summit. Realizing that “It’s not just a disease of homosexuals,” said Jalipa, who works with World Vision in Nairobi, Kenya.
Across Africa, more than 8,000 daily die of AIDS. “It’s a disease that affects everybody — children, men and women . . . The church has the basic mandate to spread the word and the social responsibility to be compassionate.”
A special session gathered together different denominations and faith-based groups working on the issue. “It looks to me that AIDS is drawing the church — from the radical left to the conservatives — together because we have a common enemy. It’s a very positive movement,” Jalipa said. Although more than half of 1,500 multidenominational churches that partner with World Vision in Africa are “preaching AIDS from the pulpit,” Jalipa said some congregations are still judgmental and resistant to the crisis.
“A majority has really opened their eyes, arms and funding to AIDS,” he concludes.
01: Americans are as much divided by class as race when it comes to church attendance, according to a recent analysis featured in Re:Generation Quarterly (Vol. 7, No. 1).
In analyzing recent General Social Surveys, Joy Borkholder finds that as Americans move up the income brackets, both blacks and whites are more likely to attend church with the other race. North American churches are separated by income since people in the lower income households are generally not attending interracial churches while higher income people are; thus they are attending different churches.
The effect of income remains strong even after accounting for the degree of integration in a respondent’s neighborhood; in other words because someone may live near people of other races does not make it more likely that he or she will attend church with them. The regions here one lives also makes a difference: residence in the Pacific West and the Northeast is correlated with interracial church attendance (though the income factor still applies).
Catholics (particularly black Catholics) are the most likely to attend interracial churches, although nondenominational and smaller denomination churches there is the weakest relationship between income and interracial attendance.
(Re:Generation Quarterly, P.O. Box 381042, Cambridge, MA 02238-1042)
02: When it comes to the issue of embryo stem cell research, Catholics and evangelical Protestants are not following cues from their leaders.
A recent ABC/Beliefnet poll on support for using stem cells from human embryos, it was found that 54 percent of Catholics support the research, with only 18 percent saying religion was a decisive influence for their views. For evangelicals, 50 percent said they support the procedure, compared to 40 percent who oppose it. Both Catholic and evangelical leaders have been in the forefront of opposing stem cell research.
In a report for Beliefnet, Deborah Caldwell notes that the opposition from these religious leaders has been strong enough to pressure President George W. Bush from following some Republicans who support the procedure. Bush has been actively seeking to lure more Catholics to the Republican Party.
03: Child abuse is more widespread in larger congregations than smaller ones, according to a recent study.
Charisma News Service (June 25) cites research by a North Carolina organization finding that one in 100 churches across the country last year contended with allegations of sexual misconduct involving children. Christian Ministry Resources, which specializes in legal and risk management for churches, also found in its survey of 1,100 congregations that the number of incidents jumped to one in 25 for congregations with more than 1,000 members, according to a report on the survey in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
04: A survey of Catholic women in church leadership positions say their participation in decision-making is hampered by sexist attitudes, church structures, and the attitudes of some women themselves.
The survey, conducted by Catholic University’s Life Cycle Institute, finds that, on one hand, most of the women (87 percent) in diocesan leadership positions rated the quality of collaboration with clergy, religious and laypeople as good or excellent. But the CARA Report (Spring), a newsletter on Catholic research, notes that nearly one-third of the 233 women surveyed also said that their voices were stifled, and 30 percent said “diocesan leaders or priests have sexist attitudes or don’t understand women.”
The spirit of collaboration is withdrawn particularly if a woman is combative, single-minded or overly militant, say one-fourth of the respondents.
(CARA Report, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057)
05: A recent Barna survey finds that the percentage of Mormons who have born-again beliefs was higher than the amount of professing evangelical believers in Episcopal or Catholic churches.
The poll of 6,000 adults, conducted by the Barna Research Group, finds that thirty-four percent of those who attended a Mormon church said they had made a personal commitment to Christ and knew they would go to heaven when they died solely because they had confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their savior. Among Episcopalians and Catholics the figures for those holding these perspectives were 30 and 25 percent, respectively. George Barna writes that “Millions of Mormons attended Protestant and Catholic churches for years, and appear to have taken their prior theological training along with them.”
Barna also finds that Pentecostals are highly informed on doctrine, belying their stereotype of being emotional and non-theological. In polling the 12 largest denominational groupings in the country, Barna found that adults who attend charismatic and nondenominational Protestant churches emerged “at the top of the continuum” in being “biblically astute,” while those attending Catholic or mainline churches ranked at the bottom.
Barna finds that “Overall, charismatics have lower levels of education but higher levels of biblical accuracy,” compared to those attending mainline churches who are generally better educated. [It should be noted that Barna’s view of being “biblically astute” is heavily evangelical. An example of this is seen in the Barna survey statement that “the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches.” Four out of five charismatics agreed, while just one out of five Episcopalians concurred. Even if an Episcopalian was highly informed on Bible teachings, he or she might not hold to such a view of biblical inerrancy because the doctrine is not taught in many Episcopal churches.]
06: Another Barna survey finds that there has been a large drop in church giving in the last year, suggesting that congregations are feeling the same economic pinch as other institutions.
The survey finds that the number of donors to any non-profit or church organization declined by seven percent in the past year. Four out of every ten adults gave nothing to churches in 2000, a 15 percent increase in non-givers from the previous year. Among born-again evangelicals, there was a 44 percent increase in those giving nothing to their congregations. Compared to 1999, the mean per capita donation to churches dropped by 19 percent in 2000.
(For more on this and the previous Barna polls, visit their web site at: http://www.barna.org.)
07: A 25-year pattern of declining vocations in the West and growing numbers of priests and nuns in the Third World and Eastern Europe is starting to reshape religious orders in the U.S. and Europe, according to recent Vatican statistics.
The Long Island Catholic (June 13) cites the Vatican’s latest statistical yearbook as showing that religious vocations to the priesthood have more than doubled in Latin America, tripled in Asia and increased more than ten-fold in Africa. These countries comprise 70 percent of the world’s total vocations — a reversal from 25 years ago when 60 percent of the new religious priests were coming from North America and Europe.
While the governance of religious orders has generally remained in the hands of First World leaders, that is starting to change. Religious order headquarters and universities in Rome have priests from Africa and Asia in their administrations, making them multiracial institutions. Rev. Edward Carolam of the Oblate Fathers order says “This trend will change the nature of the orders over the next 15-20 years, and the change will come right up through the government.”
Another result of the shift of vocations is an age gap between younger Third World priests and nuns and the fewer older religious of the West.
08: Chile is among the Latin American countries with the lowest church attendance, according to a new survey.
Catholic World Report (June) cites a Gallup Poll showing that while 95 percent of Chileans believe in God, only 33.6 percent attend church. The rate is among the lowest in Latin America, but Chile was until recently among the most conservative and religious countries in the region, says Francisco Castillo, a professor of religious studies at La Republica University.
The poll finds that the highest rate of religious practice is found in the lowest and highest socio-economic levels (40.5 percent and 34.5 percent respectively), while middle class religious practice is at 28.5 percent. Only 10 percent of teens attended regularly, while 65 percent were 40 and older.
Militant Jews and Hindus living in New York are forming a new alliance, based largely on their common antagonism toward Muslims, reports the New York Times (June 2).
The unusual bond was seen recently when a Web site run by militant Hindus in the New York City borough of Queens was shut down by its service provider for its violent rhetoric against Muslims only to be rescued by a group of radical Jews in Brooklyn. So tight are these groups’ anti-Muslim bonds that “some of the Hindus marched alongside the Jews in the annual Salute to Israel Parade on [New York’s] Fifth Avenue . . . [more recently,] several of the Jews joined a protest outside of the United Nations against the treatment of Hindus in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime,” reports Dean E. Murphy.
The Hindus are associated with the militant nationalist movement in India known as Bajrang Dai, which has frequently clashed with Muslims over the supremacy of Hinduism. The Jews are associated with the Kahane movement, whose teachings advocate the expulsion of Arabs from Israel. Both groups include participants who view their stay in the U.S. as temporary and plan to return to their home country to wage battle for their respective religions.
The New Age movement has found a solid foothold in the South and is also finding a new tolerance for its unorthodox spiritual practices, reports New Age magazine (July/August).
The Asheville, North Carolina area hosts up to 50 retreat centers, and the city has more massage therapists per quarter block than most other places, writes Lauren Winner. The economy of the city has long been fueled by tourism, and now Asheville is attracting a growing number of spiritual pilgrims, gaining the title of the “Sedona of the east,” referring to New Mexico New Age hot spot. The still-predominant Methodist and Baptists are reported to be more accepting and open-minded than expected, as evidenced by the waiting lists for courses on Eastern spirituality.
Another emerging hotspot of alternative spirituality is the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. The once popular resort area has become a center of Buddhist teaching and practice, reports the New York Times (June 18). Major Buddhist centers — said to number up to 25 — have spread throughout the Catskill region and academics and others say the Buddhist presence is growing not only in number but in its unique variety of traditions from China, Tibet, Korea and Japan.
“If the world survives another 500 years, the Catskills will be a pilgrimage place for the United States and Europe,” says C.W. Huntington Jr. of Hartwick College. Already there are people from Asia and Australia attending retreats in the Catskills at Zen Mountain Monastery and the International Dai Bosatsu Zendo.
(New Age, 42 Pleasant St., Watertown, MA 02472)
The Unitarian-Universalists are undergoing new divisions about the church’s pluralistic and non-dogmatic teachings, but it appears that politics is also playing a large role in the conflict.
A small group of dissidents who recently planned to start a rival Unitarian-Universalist society in order to restore a more central place for God in the religion received wide media coverage. The effort of David Burton to form the American Unitarian Association also ignited a legal battle when the Unitarian-Universalist Association sought to sue the upstarts for stealing their name.
The Washington Times (June 18) reports that when Burton converted to the church he found that liberal politics mattered more than faith and spirituality in its pulpits and sought to start a parallel organization (rather than a new denomination) in Virginia.
For their part, Unitarian leaders argue that politics is driving Burton’s campaign. He belongs to a Unitarian-Universalists conservative forum and has been a Republican activist. [Burton’s claim that spirituality is neglected in UU churches may have been true 20 years ago, but there has since been a growing trend toward spiritual practices and even “God talk” in the denomination. The new spiritual thrust is often linked to liberal political views and is eclectic, embracing Christian as well as Neopagan caucuses, but atheism seems to be passé among most UU churches.]
Americans interested in Buddhism are being fed the more esoteric, high level teachings while missing the basics, often under the instruction of visiting lamas and other spiritual teachers, reports the Buddhist magazine Tricycle (Summer).
In an interview, Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace says that the dilemma is most evident in Tibetan Buddhism, where Tibetan lamas visiting the U.S. alter teachings to fit into the format of retreats, weekend workshops and one night lectures. Lamas find little interest among American participants in such Buddhist basic teachings as renunciation, ethical discipline and the cultivation of compassion, and in a “supply and demand” situation will highlight what people want to hear — newer advanced teachings, such as attaining one’s inner Buddhist nature.
Even if they have wealthy benefactors that take care of them, lamas still rely on retreat and conference participants for their travel costs and operating expenses and have to cater to their hosts interests (even if they try to convey that basic and advanced teachings are important). For all the interest in advanced, esoteric teachings, Wallace finds little if any evidence that American practitioners are achieving Buddhist holiness and enlightenment, which is marked by the state of meditative concentration, contemplative insights and paranormal abilities.
He concludes that with the lack of contemplative rigor as well as the effect of commercialization, “Tibetan Buddhism runs the danger of losing its integrity in the West and being totally assimilated into an amorphous New Age culture.”
(Tricycle, 92 Vandam St., New York, NY 10013)
The campaign for faith-based social services is “opening up a new front” as religious and political leaders press businesses to drop their common practice of restricting donations to religious groups.
The evangelical newsweekly World (June 16) reports that six of the 10 largest corporate givers in the U.S. explicitly rule out or restrict donations to faith-based groups. President George W. Bush recently took up the cause, arguing that the federal government is “no longer discriminating against faith-based organizations, and neither should corporate America.”
The figures on corporate restrictions come from a study by the Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank on charity and public policy. In researching corporations’ web sites, there were often disclaimers on religious giving, such as General Motors (number one in corporate giving) declaring that religious organizations are “generally not” targeted for contributions.
While AT&T will only fund groups that are “nonsectarian and nondenominational,” others permitted some funding to religious groups. Wal-Mart (the number two corporate benefactor) clearly ran against the current, with about “every other grant” going to a faith-based charity, according to the study. World notes that the effort to extend corporate giving to faith-based groups is about to get a major shot in the arm with the founding of two new nonprofit groups that will work at the “crossroads of business, politics, and faith-based initiatives.”
Michael Joyce, the former head of the influential Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (which seeded and sustained many conservative causes in the U.S.) will head a Washington-based lobbying group for members of Congress and others about Bush’s faith-based policies. He is starting another organization to be based in Phoenix, Ariz., that will seek to educate the public and private donors “for the long haul” on the same concerns.
(World, P.O. Box 20002, Asheville, NC 28802-8202)
There is a new interest among scholars in the relationship between the brain and spirituality, and it appears such scholarship is appealing to a popular readership.
Publisher Weekly’s Bookline newsletter (June 12) reports a “bumper crop” of new books finding that people may be “wired for God,” as spiritual impulses are being gauged and studied in laboratories around the world. During the past few months, there has been wide coverage of recent brain-spirituality books and scholarship, with news stories reporting on recent attempts to map spirituality in the brain (most often citing experiments of brain scans to detect the effect of meditation and prayer).
Lauren Winner reports that several of these books have been surprise successes: Ballantine’s “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief” by Andrew Newberg, Eugene G. D’Aquili and Vince Rause, published April 3, has 25,000 copies in print after three trips to press.
Matthew Alper self-published “The ‘God’ Part of the Brain” (Rogue Press) in October 1997. Since then, the book, now in its fifth edition, has sold more than 12,000 copies. Authors and editors say that this recent research is bound to reshape how we think about spirituality. “With neurological explanations coming to account for an increasing number of phenomena, it is natural that there should be a focus of interest on the relationship between religion and the mind,” says Kevin Taylor of Cambridge University Press.
Some of these books seek to affirm or reaffirm faith, seeing the new science as a way to discover more about spirituality rather than explain it away. Others are more reductionistic, seeing faith and spirituality as mainly biological functions with no supernatural component. Matthew Alper said the new knowledge about the cognitive underpinnings of spirituality could — and should — reshape organized religion as we know it.
“If spirituality is an instinct, we should look at it as such, and see that we temper the extremities of the instinct.” Believers who read his book, said Alper, should not necessarily give up going to mosque or temple altogether, but “they should at least embrace a more tolerant, less discriminating spirituality.”
Festivals are an increasingly prominent venue for spirituality and worship among Christians, but are they becoming a substitute for church involvement?
In the U.S., Christian rock concerts have become religious festivals, filled with pageantry, camaraderie, teaching, worship, not to mention music. The evangelical magazine Prism (May/June) reports on the mushrooming variety of Christian music festivals that bloom every summer. The premier event is the Cornerstone festival, launched 17 years ago by the Chicago-based community Jesus People USA.
Last summer the festival gathered the largest crowd in history, as 25,000 crammed onto an Illinois farm to listen to over 200 bands. Cornerstone blurs the lines between secular and Christian artists, as well as hosts an array of seminars (on everything from cults to popular culture), a film festival, art gallery, opportunities for social action, and debates about art and politics.
A new national event, called One Fest (http://www.onefest.org), is seeking to parallel Cornerstone, with a bent toward creating community and deeper faith among participants. John J. Thompson writes that these festivals’ “blend of seminars, impromptu experiences, main stages and body painting can suck even the most unfamiliar into the slipstream of joyful, culturally relevant fellowship. They can reinvigorate the faith and action of a long-time believer while providing unbelievers with an intimate glimpse into the true body of Christ.”
There does not seem to be much of a connection between the large crowds at these events and church attendance and membership, at least in Europe. For instance, Germany’s widely popular Kirchentag draws mostly the unchurched, judging by the low church attendance rates in Germany. The large numbers that attend church festivals and conferences in Britain over the summer likewise give the impression of religious vitality.
Religion Today.com (June 5) reports that last year’s festival-goers could not help but notice the discrepancy between prospering festivals and sharply falling attendance in many churches. British church attendance has fallen from just over 19 percent in 1975 to less than 8 percent today. “The festivals prosper, while the church is bleeding,” according to the original article in the Guardian.
The report says that the real beneficiaries of these gatherings are the growing number of para-church organizations and Christian companies. The involvement of parachurches may be why these successful events have failed to make an impact on the church. The existence of so many parachurch organizations, “going where the church is not going, doing what the church is not doing, only reinforces the notion that the church is irrelevant, out-of-date.” The “festival circuit” provides excitement and may well be in danger of becoming an escape from the realities of local church life, adds the Guardian.
The year 2000 has come and gone, but the religious based social justice movement known as “Jubilee 2000” that was inaugurated at the turn of the millennium may be getting its second wind.
The Jubilee 2000 movement was based on the single issue of debt relief for the poorest countries, drawing inspiration from the Hebrew Scriptures’ injunctions to forgive debtors during certain periods. In the Jesuit magazine America (June 18), William Bole writes that the movement has succeeded, with victories in Congress for debt relief and with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund making at least some debt cancellations (the movement caught on the strongest in “largely de-Christianized” England, he notes).
Now there is talk of prolonging the energies of the movement to tackle further debt cancellation as well as a possible program called Jubilee Plus, which would target the “root causes” of Third World debt. In any event, the movement is viewed as a model of social action because it is “issue-focused, non-ideological and faith-based,” writes Bole. Just how Jubilee 2000 is being reinterpreted and extended into a permanent movement and even a theology can be seen in an article by Palestinian Lutheran Bishop Munib A. Younan in Theology, News and Notes, (Spring) a magazine of Fuller Seminary.
Younan writes that the Jubilee is an “all-encompassing vision of social and ecological justice, which calls for release from bondage, redistribution of land and wealth, and renewal of the earth.” Just as the original Jubilee called for land reform, Younan writes that the Jubilee theology should lead to the restoration of land to the Palestinians. A two-states solution and a shared Jerusalem is a practical outworking of such a theology, according to Younan.
Meanwhile, the magazine Religion in the News (Spring), a publication of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, finds that “for the most part, the U.S. news media passed on the story” of Jubilee 2000. While the European media gave the movement significant coverage, viewing it as a significant religion inspired phenomenon, American journalists either failed to notice it at all or ignored its religious participation and inspiration. Even when the media covered the pope’s declarations of 2000 as a jubilee year, they neglected to cite John Paul’s central issue of debt relief.
Writer Dennis Hoover concludes that the high profile entertainers involved in Jubilee 2000 events, such as musician Bono, may have stolen the show from its grassroots activists.
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019; Religion in the News, Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College, 300 Summit St., Hartford, CT 06106; Theology, News and Notes, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena, CA 91182)