In This Issue
- Featured Story: Orthodox Judaism’s dearth of new luminaries
- The ‘nones’ embracing ‘Good Samaritan ethic’?
- Mennonites’ expansion not dulling historic peace witness
- Current Research: July 2015
- Brazil’s children evangelists draw following and criticism
- Estonia not religious, but still spiritual?
- Among European countries, Soka Gakkai most successful in Italy
- Brittany’s church art a conduit for new spirituality
- India investing in secularized Yoga
- Islamic State’s shadow looms in Asia, alarming region’s leaders
- Online tombs in Japan complementing but not substituting for Buddhist burial rites
- Findings & Footnotes: July 2015
- On/File: July 2015
Featured Story: Orthodox Judaism’s dearth of new luminaries
At a time when Orthodox observance and yeshiva study enjoy unprecedented resurgence across the Jewish world, it is difficult to see clear successors to those (often European-educated) rabbis who defined Orthodoxy in the second half the 20th century, writes Andrew Friedman in The Jerusalem Report (June 29). In recent years, several haredi—or ultra-Orthodox—leaders have died, including Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Shmuel Wosner who passed away just this spring. There have never been as many students at yeshiva as there are today, but some observers suggest that the very spread of Talmud study, rather than retaining the preserve of the intellectual elite, has contributed to that situation. Rabbi Ari Kahn (Bar-Ilan University) adds that many Jews have embraced Orthodoxy without previous knowledge and family traditions, which means the need for simpler material and a dilution accompanies numerical growth.
Some Orthodox authorities also warn that the rise of extremist attitudes is detrimental to the emergence of new leaders of high intellectual stature: this does not encourage “creative thinking or moral courage,” that often have been characteristic of great leaders willing to make decisions, “often in the direction of leniency.” Most people interviewed by Friedman, however, think that this is merely a temporary state of affairs. They are convinced that a new generation of leaders will emerge, even if this needs to take some time after the death of those of the old generation. “People are living longer, but as long as Rabbi X is alive, no one will be recognized as the new authority” in a milieu that values what is old, says sociologist Samuel Heilman (Queens College, City University, New York).
(Jerusalem Report, P.O. Box 1805, Jerusalem 91017, Israel – http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report)
The ‘nones’ embracing ‘Good Samaritan ethic’?
The growing attention to non-affiliated often assumes they are biblically illiterate, but many are actually engaged with the Jewish and Christian scriptures, even if in a non-traditional and individualistic way, writes Elizabth Drescher in the Jesuit magazine America (June 8-15). In her research and soon-to-be published book on the non-affiliated, or the “nones,” including both atheists and agnostics as well as the “spiritual but not religious,” Drescher writes that she was surprised “by the degree to which many of the unaffiliated continue to find Scripture—especially the parables of Jesus—spiritually meaningful and morally relevant.” Among the more than 100 nones she interviewed, the author finds that they appealed to the Bible in a way that was very different from the church-going population. Drescher argues that even if most nones are not necessarily seeking a church or religious home [the recent Pew study shows that only one-in-ten nones are], they are seeking religious answers from diverse sources and they are in contact with the religiously affiliated in everyday life. In her interviews, Drescher finds that the nones are “deeply conversant with Christian traditions, especially Scripture. What is more, regardless of where they fell on the atheist-to-spiritual continuum, the nones who talked with me often retained considerable regard for the Christian Scriptures, especially the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.”
The nones had a high regard for Jesus, though not doctrinal beliefs regarding his divinity, but rather with “stories of his healings, his embrace of social outcasts and his critiques of religious hypocrisy and government-sponsored violence and injustice…” This embrace of Jesus as a moral and spiritual exemplar, what Drescher calls the “Good Samaritan ethic,” stresses his humanity and social action over his divinity or his miracles. Thus, these nones are different than the non-doctrinal churchgoers identified as “Golden Rule Christians,” according to Drescher. While Golden Rule Christians are also uninterested in church doctrines, they focus instead on congregational practices and doing good to those in need in their immediate communities. In contrast, the nones who “engage Scripture tend to do so by way of inspiring cosmopolitan rather than communitarian action. The starting point for engagement is a recognition of otherness rather than a reinforcement of commonalities…that the realm of religion, faith, spirituality, moral action—all those things that used to be seen as the exclusive purview of institutional religions—begins outside the doors of the church rather than inside.”
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019)
Mennonites’ expansion not dulling historic peace witness
The global expansion of Mennonite and other Anabaptist churches in recent decades has not come at the expense of their emphasis on peacemaking and conflict resolution; in fact, such values are important in spawning “neo-Anabaptist” networks existing outside of official Mennonite bodies, writes John D. Roth in the current issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review (April). Roth counters the view of some historians that Mennonite missionaries have downplayed their tradition’s pacifism and preached a generic evangelical message. He argues that especially in recent years, the peacemaking dimension of these churches has been an important part of their global appeal. He notes that between 1980 and 2014, membership in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite nearly tripled—increasing from 600,000 to 1.7 million, with the most growth registered in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The globalization of the Anabaptist peace witness has been facilitated by such international relief agencies as the Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite World Conference and various foreign exchange programs with Mennonite colleges.
Recent networks have formed over Anabaptist teachings on peace and conflict resolution among Christians from different churches. For instance, the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom has grown to 1,500 affiliates since the 1990s, and holds conferences on issues of peace and social justice. Similar networks and congregations not directly affiliated with Mennonite and other Anabaptist denominations, such as indigenous renewal movements in Korea and China, have formed among hundreds of pastors interested in the historic peace message. New churches that have more formal connections to Mennonites have often developed in settings of regional conflict. While not all Mennonite churches have embraced an activist stance, they have gained a reputation as “honest brokers” in Muslim-Christian conflicts in Africa and trauma healing and reconciliation programs in Latin America, according to Roth
(Mennonite Quarterly Review, https://www.goshen.edu/mqr/)
Current Research: July 2015
01: The idea that personal contact with gays and lesbians will reduce opposition to homosexuality may be valid for many Americans considering the rapid changes in public attitudes regarding gay marriage, but it does not seem to apply to evangelical Christians, according to a study in the Review of Religious Research (June). What is called the “social contact theory” states that a subgroup’s interaction with a minority group will change the former’s view of the latter. That theory may have to be revised in light of research on evangelicals presented by Ashley A. Baker and Sarah R. Brauner Otto. The researchers analyzed data from a cross-sectional survey of Houston residents, spanning from 2001-2013.
They find that self-identified evangelicals with gay and/or lesbian friends are only one-fifth as likely as non-evangelicals to believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable. While having gay and lesbian friends was associated with acceptance of the view that homosexuality is primarily genetic in origin, this was not the case for evangelicals. Baker and Otto argue that religion and social contact will influence beliefs about gays and lesbians, but they acknowledge that it could be the case that one’s beliefs about homosexuality would likely influence the amount of social contact one has with gays and lesbians, leading to these contrasting attitudes.
(Review of Religious Research, http://link.springer.com/journal/13644)
02: New research by Alain Bouchard (Laval University) does not only confirm the downward trend of Catholic identity in Quebec, but brings to attention more specific information regarding the development of what he calls “individuo-globalism” and the dissolution of the social role of religion. It has been known for a long time that the influence of the Catholic Church had undergone a massive fall in Quebec since the 1960s, but Bouchard, speaking at the CESNUR conference in Tallinn, Estonia, which RW attended, marshaled new figures to confirm this trend. His presentation was based on a comparison between the answers of nearly 600 students in 1988 and more than 2,000 students in 2014 at the same college in Quebec City. Self-identification with Catholicism has diminished by half—from 85 percent of the respondents in 1988 to 43 percent in 2014; while 47 percent say that they identify with no religion (9 percent in 1988) and 50 percent with no political party (question not asked in 1988).
Only a minority adopted the statement “I believe in God”—from 63 percent in 1988 to 21 percent in 2014; 40 percent stated that “Jesus Christ is God” in 1988, compared with only 8 percent today. But only a quarter claim not to believe at all, and another quarter say they “don’t know” what God is or tend to associate God with energy or nature. Regarding life after death, 20 percent believe that there is nothing, one-third say they do not know, and one-quarter claim that life continues but we cannot know what will happen. Weekly attendance at religious services is down to 3 percent and daily prayer to 5 percent, but this does not necessarily translate into a rise of alternative beliefs. There is also a clear decrease in the belief of reincarnation, in the possibility of entering into contact with dead people, in divination practices, astrology and parapsychological phenomena. The attitude toward the role of science is significantly more positive on average than it used to be in 1988, and only 13 percent feel that religion plays a positive role in the world. Regarding moral issues, support for homosexual marriage is massive (85 percent).
03: The younger generations in Finland are moving away from the Scandinavian pattern of “believing in belonging,” where church membership and rites-of-passage are retained even if the rate of attendance and adherence to doctrine is low, writes Kati Niemala in the journal Social Compass (June). Niemala analyzed a 10-year follow up study of young people who were confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland in 2002 in the area of Tampere (349 young people in 2006 and 225 in 2011). She finds that by the age of 20, 7 percent had left the church, and five years later a total of 22 percent had left. The general attitude toward church membership among the young adults had become significantly more negative and decisive after the age of 20.
Niemala also finds that as the younger adults reached 25, 42 percent felt that the church was remote from their lives, while only 27 percent experienced God and faith as more remote. Niemala concludes that Generation Y or the Millennial Generation has a weaker attachment to the church than previous generations. Rather than staying as members with low rates of belief (the Nordic pattern), the younger generation strive for “authenticity” and are more apt to leave the institution if it does not line up with their beliefs and worldviews.
(Social Compass, http://scp.sagepub.com/)
04: If it is possible to speak about the Islamic State (IS) as having a “brand,” then the group’s social media presence based around such themes as brutality, mercy, victimhood, belonging, and utopianism has made it stand out among other extremist Islamic groups, according to the newsletter Terrorism Monitor (June 12), published by the Jamestown Foundation. In analyzing an archive of over 1,700 official propaganda campaigns produced and disseminated by the IS since 2014, the narratives of brutality and mercy are regularly featured in tandem. The brutality of the beheadings and other violence is designed to create outrage from enemies but also demonstrate supremacy and power to followers. Yet the campaigns also show the IS showing mercy to enemies repenting, suggesting that the group will forgive one’s past affiliation provided that it is wholly rejected.
The narrative of victimhood, as seen in videos depicting the aftermath of coalition airstrikes, provides justification for its own violence. But it is belonging that is one of the IS’s most powerful themes. Videos and photos depict the central value of brotherhood and camaraderie, which is appealing both to potential foreign recruits and current fighters. Writer Charlie Winter notes that the Islamic State “turbo charges the concept of ummah (Islamic community) and takes it beyond Al Queda’s elite vanguard narrative by democratizing the ability to engage with the struggle.” Finally, the utopian narrative goes beyond creating a haven of security to inaugurating the end times under the caliphate as of August 8, 2014, warning that the Day of Judgment is at hand. The IS attempts to showcase its momentum on social media by regularly depicting new groups incorporating themselves under the caliphate.
(Terrorism Monitor, 111 16th St. NW, Suite 320, Washington, DC 20036)
Brazil’s children evangelists draw following and criticism
The growth of children preachers in Latin American evangelical churches is filling a special niche, creating a new kind of charisma based on innocence, reports the New York Times Magazine (July 14). The Assemblies of God has been the main denomination nurturing an estimated thousands child preachers in Brazil, though the phenomena is controversial, “earning scorn from other Pentecostal denominations, and even criticism from within the Assemblies of God…But the Internet and social media have helped young preachers find wide, sometimes international audiences. Today’s most successful child preachers work nearly every day and travel extensively,” writes Samantha M. Shapiro. One of Brazil’s best-known child evangelists is Matheus Moraes, who by the age of 10 was traveling through Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. and filling stadiums with 6,000 people.
Like Moraes, most of the child preachers come from poor and lower middle-class homes where their parents see their gifts for preaching and healing as a way out of the favelas or Brazilian slums. Critics charge that the children are being exploited as a commercial interest on behalf of their parents in receiving donations and selling DVDs. The children both preach and are seen as miracle workers, including two-year-old Alani Santos and 14-year-old Daniel Pentecoste, who crisscross central Brazil leading revivals in new farming communities and drug rehab centers, to 21-year-old Alex Silva, who by 13 had preached to crowds of 500,000. Shapiro finds that many of these child preachers see themselves as helping their families and communities and willingly sacrifice their childhoods and adolescence for their ministries. She finds that these children often preach on the common theme that the church serves as a hospital for sinners and ill people where healing and salvation is offered.
Estonia not religious, but still spiritual?
Along with the Czech Republic, surveys show Estonia as being the least religious country of Europe. However, this does not prevent many Estonians from combining a low level of religion with a high level of beliefs in supernatural phenomena, as made clear in several papers presented by scholars from the University of Tartu at the international CESNUR conference, that took on June 17-20 in Tallinn (Estonia) and that RW attended. That Estonia is a secular society was made quite clear by statistical data summarized by Ringo Ringvee: 12 percent of the resident population of Estonia describes itself as “believers” (but this is down to 6 percent among ethnic Estonians) and 27 percent say they are “inclined to belief” (25 percent of ethnic Estonians). Only 2.7 percent are reported to attend religious services at least monthly. Twenty-nine percent of the population is religiously affiliated. While that percentage has not changed between the census of 2000 and the census of 2011, religious diversity has increased. Lutheranism is steadily decreasing (from 152,000 in 2000 to 108,000 in 2011), and the smaller Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Seventh-day Adventist and Methodist denominations have also lost members. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church, with a majority of people from non-Estonian background, had increased from 143,000 to 176,000. Christian-free churches, Buddhists and local neo-Pagan groups have also increased.
But beliefs in a spirit or life force are very strong in Estonia, Ringvee stresses; 20 percent “fully agree” and 45 percent “rather agree” with the statement: “There is some power, life force or energy, that influences people and everything that happens in the world.” The belief that some people can foresee future events is even higher, as is the belief in the healing powers of some individuals. However, another presenter, Marko Uibu, warns that these beliefs express sympathy and openness rather than actual practices: 77 percent of Estonian population say that they believe that psychic healers can cure, but only 12 percent have actually used methods of alternative healing themselves. When it comes to such practices, there is a curiosity for them rather than an embrace. According to figures presented by Atko Remmel, one could still be tempted to speak of “spiritual atheism” in Estonia. Among people stating that they have no religious faith, the level of such beliefs (including that plants have a spirit or that animals have a soul or spirit) is very high and only slightly lower than the average population. Only when it comes to stating that humans have a soul do “atheists” rank significantly lower than the rest of the population (around 22 percent for atheists, compared with 42 percent average).
Among European countries, Soka Gakkai most successful in Italy
Registered as an organization in 94 countries of the world, the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai is present in most European countries, where it claimed 105,000 members in 2012 (352,000 in the USA), and probably 120,000 members today. But the movement is especially successful in Italy, where its first meetings started in the early 1960s, growing from nearly 32,000 members in 2003, to now more than 75,000 members, reported Italian researcher PierLuigi Zoccatelli at the CESNUR conference in Tallinn, Estonia. Other European countries rank far behind, with more than 15,000 members in France and about 10,000 members in the United Kingdom. On June 27, the Italian Prime Minister has signed an agreement (intesa, the equivalent of a Concordat) with the Italian Soka Gakkai. The agreement allows Soka Gakkai to join the group of denominations enjoying special status, being allowed to appoint chaplains for the armed forces for instance, according to CESNUR director Massimo Introvigne. It also entitles it to receive taxpayers’ money, based on a free choice made by each taxpayer to affect to a religious group or charity from a selected list a set percentage of taxes paid by the said person.
Brittany’s church art a conduit for new spirituality
The preservation of Catholic art and architecture in Brittany is generating its own kind of spirituality alongside and, in some cases, as a substitute for regular practice of the Catholic faith, writes Ellen Badone in the current issue of the journal Material Religion (March). Up until the 1980s, Brittany was among the most devout regions of France, with relatively high rates of Mass attendance. Today, however, many parishes no longer hold Mass each week, congregations are increasingly smaller and elderly, and religious vocations have dropped almost to zero. Yet “Lower Brittany is characterized by one of the densest networks of religious buildings—parish churches and chapels in small hamlets—in France, with an average of five or six places of worship in each municipality,” Badone writes. Many of these chapels fell into disrepair as people left rural areas for the city. In the last two decades, however, there has been a concerted effort to restore and preserve these old structures by neighborhood groups, with festivals being held in honor of each chapel’s patron saint.
Most notable was the founding of the Association for the Promotion of Parish Enclosures (known in France as APEVE) in 2009 to publicize and preserve these elaborate structures that include a wall enclosing a parish along with a cemetery, a distinctive Breton crucifix, and an arch serving as gate into the enclosure. APEVE, co-founded by a retired Catholic priest, has attracted significant public attention to its tours and seminars as it seeks to promote “religious heritage” among Bretons rather than tourists. In studying the guides and other literature published by APEVE, Badone finds little promotion of Catholic doctrine or practices but considerable spirituality. The guides in particular are infused with notions of church art as introducing spiritual mysteries and the “inexpressible.” Art is referred to as a “sacrament of beauty,” drawing on connections with Catholicism. Badone concludes that it is not so much the case that the enclosed parishes are now serving secular functions as tourist attractions and museums (actually, many of them still are used for Catholic Masses). Rather, the “artistic beauty of these monuments provides a conduit connecting visitors to a perceived transcendent, immortal and universal community.”
(Material Religion, http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bloomsbury/mar)
India investing in secularized Yoga
Like in the West, yoga is becoming increasingly secularized but less for reasons of personal health and wellness than to promote national greatness and unity, according to the New York Times (June 20). The newspaper reports that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inaugurated an International Day of Yoga in late June to be celebrated by 175 countries. In India, the celebration will organize thousands of people performing yoga moves. Muslim leaders and preachers have protested the observance, accusing Modi of using the day to foist Hinduism on religious minorities under the guise of yoga, writes Manil Suri. But the use of yoga by Modi is less Hindu or even Indian-centric and more about promoting the yoga “brand” worldwide.
With the yoga business estimated at $10 billion just in the U.S., Modi is interested not only in drawing tourists, but also in asserting India’s intellectual rights over the practice. According to the article, “The country has been fighting attempts by Western gurus to patent yoga poses, assembling a repository of over 1,500 asanas to keep them free. But within India, the celebration of the secular version of yoga has become the “perfect vehicle to create a shared national consciousness. The physical engagement, mental discipline, and sublimation of desire enshrined in yoga meld seamlessly, yet discreetly, with the more militaristic tenets of [Hindu right] organizations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” Suri concludes.
Islamic State’s shadow looms in Asia, alarming region’s leaders
While the Islamic State (IS) has had the most success in the Arab Islamic heartland of the Middle East, the fact that half of the world’s Muslims are in Asia has caused considerable trepidation among governments in the region, reports The Economist (June 20). The Muslims of Central Asia seem the most open to IS’s message, where political and sometimes radical Islam often serves as an alternative to “nasty authoritarian regimes, and an estimated 2,000-4,000 people are among the 20,000 foreigners who have joined IS,” according to the magazine. Even in China, where only a small number of Muslim Uighur minorities have joined IS, the government’s attempt to root out extremism has fueled resentment at what Uighurs see as “colonial oppression by the Chinese state and its ethic-Han majority.” Even in Southeast Asia, where the numbers of IS recruits is far smaller, the question of how to respond to the threat has had political repercussions. In the Philippines, peace between the government and Muslim rebels on the island of Mindanao is “threatened by extremist groups that have pledged fealty to IS.”
In democratic Malaysia, new anti-terrorism legislation, including the refusal of detainees to have a trial, has angered Islamists and opposition politicians. In a similar way, Australia’s “several dozens” of radicals who have joined IS, as well as a bloody siege by an apparently deranged gunman with IS sympathizers, had the nation to plan to strip citizens with dual nationality who are “known terrorists” of their Australian papers. Singapore, another country with a low number of extremists, there is the fear that the Internet is reaching those with ears to hear the IS message. Because the nation is surrounded by largely Muslim Indonesia and Malyasia, IS has claimed that it wants to establish a province of its caliphate in Southeast Asia, leading Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to speculate that the terrorist state could start a base somewhere in the region. For these reasons, Singapore and Australia are contributing to the anti-IS coalition in the Middle East.
Online tombs in Japan complementing but not substituting for Buddhist burial rites
The growth of “online tombs” and other memorial sites for the dead on the Internet is not necessarily replacing traditional graves in Japan, although it is changing beliefs and practices about ancestor worship, writes Fabienne Duteil-Ogata in the Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (No. 8, 2015). Since the 1990s, funeral practices have become increasingly diverse in Japan, one example being the number of the “computer tombs” going online. Ogata finds that there are various kinds of computer tombs. One kind, started by Buddhist monks, still has a physical component at the Buddhist temple but individual memories and information about the deceased are stored in a virtual space accessible by password. Because these tombs fall into the category of collective tombs, and no heir is assigned for veneration or upkeep, they do not involve ancestor worship. Post-mortem rituals resemble more a remembrance service than a religious ceremony. Although associated with the Buddhist temple, these computer tombs use secular imagery, such as landscapes, and make little direct reference to Buddhism.
More recent are the virtual online tombs, with no rituals performed on the subscribers’ behalf. Less popular than that, subscribers to the virtual tomb, called Cyberstone, only have access to a personalized homepage. Although launched by a monk, the religious component of Cyberstone has “completely disappeared… Buddhism plays the part of IT-manager or webmaster,” Ogata writes. “But users of all these computer tombs continue to visit offline graves, especially during the ritual…Online practices are thus added to offline practices, but have not replaced them,” she concludes.
(Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet, http://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/religions/)
Findings & Footnotes: July 2015
01: Aside from Pope Francis’ encyclical, climate change is moving on to the agendas of theologians and religion scholars. The Journal of the American Academy of Religion devotes much of its June issue to a roundtable discussion on “climate destabilization and the study of religion.” Aside from the political and social (not to mention ecological) effects some social scientists have charted from climate change, such as increased migration and poverty, the contributors argue that, first of all, religion scholars and professionals will increasingly focus on the interactions between nature and religious beliefs and practices. So far, only a few universities and colleges offer programs in this field, with the University of Florida being the only institution having a doctoral program studying nature and religion.
The view that we are entering the “Anthropocene,” a term used to describe a new geological era brought on human-made climate change, will also raise the question of “how religion functions as either an inhibitor in generating resiliency in biosocial systems… or possibly contributes to biosocial resiliency,” writes Todd LeVasseur. Another noteworthy article by Lisa Sederis looks at how theologians, environmentalists, and philosophers are trying to create new theological models based on evolutionary biology, known as Universe Story, which seeks to supplant older creation accounts from the world’s major religions. For more information on this issue, visit: http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/current.
02: The new book Nations Under God (Princeton University Press, $29.95), by University of Michigan political scientist Anna Grzymala-Busse, presents a comparative study of religious political involvement in Ireland, Poland, Croatia, Canada, Italy and the United States, and finds that churches tend to gain the greatest political advantage and influence when they paradoxically appear to be above politics. Through analysis of surveys and the histories of church-state relations in each nation, Grzymala-Busse finds that while the U.S. is the most obvious example of low church-political involvement (due to church-state separation) and social and political influence but similar patterns are evident in the other nations; for example, the Catholic Church in Italy gained more political influence only after its alliance with the Christian Democratic party broke up.
The author acknowledges that Catholic monopoly nations have advantages over Protestant-mixed ones in that clergy and politicians can join forces as strategic and influential actors; yet for all their political savvy, they have difficulties mobilizing often-cynical voters to adopt their policies (as seen recently in Ireland). Even in Poland, the country most effective in retaining the Catholic Church’s public and political voice, there are signs of decreasing moral influence (no longer being critical to the fate of incumbents). The fusion of religion and national identity is important for all the nations the author studies, even in the U.S., where the absence of a common history among immigrants tended to elevate distinct religious and national beliefs (a nation under God). But it is in holding “high stocks” of moral authority that churches have the most political influence, and such authority is best conserved when churches appear apolitical, non-partisan, and “genuinely working on behalf of the common good,” Grzymala-Busse writes.
03: A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China (Templeton Press, $24.95), by Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang, is a noteworthy addition to the mounting accounts of religious growth in China, mainly because it is based on quantitative research as opposed to more popular treatments of the subject tend to rely on anecdotes and shaky estimates of the numbers of new believers and churches. The book is also of interest because it provides historical accounts of Christian growth, actually starting when the last missionaries left the country in the 1950s. Stark and Wang argue that Christian growth—not only in China but also in other East Asian societies—has taken place (actually for quite a while) largely among the most educated—a long range trend that seems to run against the idea that those of lower status are main participants in religious revival.
But even in rural China, the authors find growth using recent surveys conducted by Chinese researchers. Stark and Wang find that rural residents were more open about their faith than urbanites. They argue that instead of “deprivation theory” (the idea that the poor and needy are drawn more to religion), it is the role of social networks that explains much of this growth across the board. Many of the most influential converts are involved in strong kinship networks, learning and becoming involved in Christianity through family members and fellow residents of their towns and neighborhoods. Ironically, urban Chinese have more weak than strong ties and thus may be more likely to convert—not having to face ostracism over their conversions, but ironically, such individuals may not be able to spread Christianity very widely as compared to many rural Chinese who are embedded in strong networks. Stark and Wang conclude that if the growth rate of Chinese Christianity continues for the next 15 years, there will be 294.6 million Christians—more than in any other nation.
04: There is a lot of talk about the Global South becoming the new center of gravity for Christianity but there have been few attempts to unpack what this shift will mean for churches, denominations, and other organizations as these new networks and global exchanges take shape. Stephen Offutt’s New Centers of Global Evangelicalism in Latin America and Africa (Cambridge University Press, $90) offers case studies and analysis of places and institutions that actually function as centers in reconfiguring and transmitting evangelical Christianity. The book is based on Offutt’s fieldwork in El Salvador and South Africa, the book notes that these centers are only two links in the expanding “global connectedness” of evangelicals. Offutt takes issue both with the view that global evangelical growth is an expression of American-based capitalism and culture being exported around the world, as well as with those claiming that these movements are often indigenous and are the result of a natural shift as much of the West secularizes. Rather, the process is more complex; there is a clear North American imprint to the evangelical organizations and even denominations, but there is also significant synthesis and organizing taking place on the national and local levels creating new transnational ties.
Offutt finds that this connectedness flows from “global cities,” such as San Salvador and Johannesburg, with an emerging evangelical professional class that creates and maintains these networks (such as the World Evangelical Alliance). Evangelicals are particularly adept at building such networks, due to their decentralized structures, though the voluntary nature of evangelicalism also means that participants can easily disengage from them. From these global networks and “flows,” these evangelicals have become adept at exporting their movements worldwide—it is now commonplace to see South African missionaries in India, for example— creating sophisticated organizations and structures such as megachurches, building social development and welfare ministries, and encouraging greater evangelical political involvement.
On/File: July 2015
While the name of 57-year-old Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila had already been mentioned as a “long-shot” candidate to be pope at the 2013 conclave, his election on May 14 as the new head of Caritas Internationalis (an international confederation of Catholic charity agencies, including Catholic Relief Services) has increased the profile of this inspiring Asian Church leader even more. Coming from the Philippines, Tagle has first-hand knowledge of pressing issues such as poverty, disaster relief and migration (11 million Filipino people have left their country). This makes him especially qualified to represent the viewpoint of the Catholic Church at coming summits on sustainable development or the consequences of climate change, following Pope Francis’ June encyclical Laudato si’ on environmental issues. But besides the choice of a gifted communicator, it is difficult not to think about how this could also help to pave the way for Tagle in the future. Due to Pope Francis’ focus on the poor, Tagle will become one of the most influential Catholic figures in that field for implementing the current Pope’s vision, according to journalist John Allen, Jr. While nobody knows how many years it will take until the next pontifical election, Tagle “would make a strong runner if the key issue next time is continuity with Francis,” Allen notes. (Source: Inside the Vatican, June-July).