In This Issue
- On/File: July/August 1998
- Findings & Footnotes: July/August 1998
- Celtic spirituality finding congregational shape
- Unificationist blessing movement catches on in Africa
- Current Research: July/August 1998
- Anti-cult movement broadens agenda, clientele
- Hinduism’s ‘digital dharma’
- Spiritual seekers return to India
- United Nations of religion already feuding?
- Faith-filled books for parents embrace the religious spectrum
- Popcorn: lifestyles changes challenge religion
- Promise keepers face a new downturn this summer
- The new ‘moral majority’ — golden rule Christians?
01: The Catholic Radio Network is the most ambitious effort to create a national Catholic presence on the radio.
The network, the brainchild of radio executive John Lynch, will employ a 24-hour format with a basic “faith and values” approach. The network came on the national scene with a recent $57 million purchase of 10 AM radio stations in major markets across the country. Key figures in funding and running the network include such conservatives as Fr. Joseph Fessio of the Ignatius Press, William Clark, former national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.
The San Diego-based network will feature strong Catholic commentary on current issues while steering clear of the divisive and polemical style of Catholic broadcaster Mother Angelica, who has criticized the bishops. The Hispanic market is a major concern of the new network.
(Source: National Catholic Reporter, June 5)
02: The Opus Angelorum movement has been attracting controversy in the Catholic Church for its esoteric teachings and alleged authoritarian practices.
Members of the secretive group, which is most active in Germany and Austria but has spread to 60 dioceses around the world, venerate guardian angels and battle with demons. Opus Angelorum teachings are based on the revelations of Gabriele Bitterlich, an Austrian housewife who wrote a massive book detailing the different angels and demons active in the world.
While no membership figures are given, officials have said there are approximately 10,000 regular members and a another million people sympathetic to the movement. The group has been accused of brainwashing and rigid control of members’ lives (mostly by parents of young members). Although the Vatican has asked members to renounce the esoteric beliefs associated with Bitterlich’s book (without banning the movement), critics claim that adherents still hold to the founder’s teachings and hope to infiltrate the church.
(Source: The Tablet, May 30)
01: The Complete Guide to Buddhist America (Shambhala, $23.95), edited by Don Morreale, not only profiles Buddhist groups in the U.S. and Canada, but also provides interesting accounts of Buddhism as practiced at the group and individual level.
The book mainly concentrates on the Theravada, Vajrayana, Mahayana (Zen) and “non-sectarian” varieties of Buddhism that practice meditation and acknowledges that the non-meditative and ethnic branches of the faith are largely omitted. An introduction by Morreale provides an interesting portrait of Buddhism in America based on his “unscientific” sampling of Buddhist centers.
While the three branches of Buddhism profiled in the book have doubled or tripled their numbers of centers in the past decade, there has been a ten-fold increase of “non-sectarian” Buddhism, or what Morreale calls “polydenominationalism.” The largest growth has been in the home-based and lay-led groups. Over one-fifth of U.S. meditation centers listed by Morreale are located in California, while more than a third of Canadian centers are found in the province of Ontario.
02: It was only a matter of time that a full-blown theology of the computer would be written.
Jennifer Cobb’s Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World (Crown, $24) views computer technology as opening the way for a new understanding of the divine. Cobb, a computer consultant, holds that in cyberspace, particularly through the Internet and the emerging forms of artificial intelligence, divine creativity is expressed in its pure form.
The fact that human technology can convey the sacred challenges ideas of God as separate from the world and is in line with process theology, which teaches that the nature of God unfolds through evolution and human creativity. Although the ideas may be dense and hard to follow at time, Cobb does provide interesting first-hand accounts of the new technologies and the scientists involved in these fields and how their work applies to these theological concepts.
03: The declining state of Christian churches in the Middle East under Islamic pressure has become a key concern of the new human rights crusade focusing on religious freedom.
For that reason alone, William Dalrymple’s book From The Holy Mountain (Henry Holt, $30) should be required reading. Dalrymple takes an extended journey among the Christian churches and remnants of such countries and places as Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Egypt and finds signs of decline and sometimes near-extinction.
The Christians are most beleaguered by militant Islam in Egypt, while the Israeli government created the most pressure for Christians in Jerusalem and other West Bank villages. In Syria, the Muslim-Christian interaction is more benign, reflecting a time when Eastern Christianity and Islam were far from enemies. Dalrymple provides colorful examples of how a good deal of syncretism still takes place — Muslims crowding Eastern Orthodox shrines for blessings and cures and offering gifts of goats to priests who obligingly sacrifice them.
The growing appeal of Celtic spirituality among Christians is finding institutional expression in new congregations and even a quasi-denomination.
Both liberal and conservative Christians, as well as those in alternative religions (such as Neopaganism), have adopted various elements of Celtic traditions and spirituality–from an earth-based spirituality to a renewed concern with divine transcendence. The Australian evangelical magazine On Being Alive (June) reports that the recent formation of Celtic Christian Communion is the most tangible sign of the Celtic interest, as it claims to be based on the “catholic, apostolic and orthodox” church which flourished in Ireland and other countries in the first eleven centuries of the Christian era.
Some groups tied to this communion are the Holy Celtic Church, the Anamchara Celtic Church, and the St. Ciaran’s Fellowship of Celtic Christian Communities. These churches (for which no locations are provided except that they are in the northern hemisphere) generally meet in members’ homes as small cell communities and also in small chapels.
Worshippers are usually not required to renounce any previous denominational affiliation to worship. The worship style is liturgical, ordered according to the traditional Celtic Christian calendar. An emphasis is placed on the Celtic saints and their spiritual teachings. Celtic hymnody and musical instruments are often used.
(On Being Alive, P.O. Box 434, Hawthorn, Vic., 3122 Austrialia)
An effort to extend the influence of the Unification Church through bestowing blessings on individuals and families is finding fertile ground in Africa, according to observers and Unification officials.
Unification leader Sun Myung Moon’s campaign of holding worldwide blessing services has been interpreted either as an effort to broaden the boundaries of the church to include members of other faiths or as a shrewd move to extend the influence of the church [see October, `97 RW].
The blessing movement has had minimal success in the West, but the situation is different in Africa. Several members of NUREL-L, a scholarly computer discussion group of new religious movements, were skeptical when Unificationist scholar Andrew Wilson quotes church leaders in claiming that 85 percent of African couples have received the “blessing.”
The blessings have been very popular in Africa, with over 15 million reported in Nigeria. These blessings consist of a couple sharing a cup of “sanctified” wine or grape juice and pledging to be faithful and have a God-centered marriage, even though most won’t join the UC.. Wilson adds that the blessings are conducted in association with public health, environmental and agricultural programs, particularly in the wake of the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
Moderator of the discussion list and University of Calgary religion professor Irving Hexham says that while he doubts the 85 percent figure that Wilson uses, the common practice of requesting and accepting blessings in Africa would make the Unificationist claim not too far-fetched.. The reason most Westerners may not have heard of this phenomenon, Hexham adds, is that Western media tend not to provide full coverage of religious phenomenon in Africa.
01: Vocations to the Catholic priesthood are often encouraged in parishes with at least one assistant pastor and with elementary schools, according to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Georgetown University-based Catholic research center.
The survey found that among pastors who reported multiple vocations in their parishes, 58 percent had an assistant pastor or parochial vicar and 64 percent had an elementary school. Sixty-six percent reported such practices as eurcharistic and Marian devotions. Most of these parishes with multiple vocations also had strong youth programs and service projects. A survey of recently ordained priests who were asked about the characteristics of their home parishes showed similar findings to that of the pastors’ study.
The findings show that the “shape of parish life has a direct impact on a vocation decision and suggest that personal attitudes about vocations originate in parish context,” according to CARA.
02: The Christian Reformed Church continues to lose a substantial number of members, leading both critics and leaders to lay the blame for such losses on the sharp conflict over women’s leadership in the denomination.
The 285,000-member Calvinist denomination was among the first evangelical denomination to approve the ordination of women (aside from Pentecostal churches)– and has been experiencing one of the steepest membership declines among conservative bodies. Church statistics from 1997 show a loss of close to 7,000 members — its second largest membership decline in its history (the church lost 11,000 members in 1993-94), according to the Christian Century (June 3-10).
Since the debate over women’s ordination began in 1992, the denomination has lost 37,000 members, most of whom have joined conservative split-off movements.
(Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60605)
03: While the portrayals of religion has increased in recent years, such depiction’s of faith are still few and far between, according to a recent study by the Media Research Center.
The center’s annual report, “Faith in a Box: Entertainment Television on Religion, 1997,” analyzed 1,800 hours of prime time programming and found only one portrayal of religion for every 3.3 hours of entertainment television programming. The study found the total number of treatments of religious subjects has increased over the past few years — from 287 in 1995 to 551 in 1997. Forty two percent of shows in 1997 showed positive treatment of religion, while only 22 percent were negative.
This 2-1 ratio was almost identical to that of 1996, and a good deal better that 1995’s 4-3 positive ratio. Depictions of religious laity are increasingly negative, while there were almost twice as many positive portrayals of religion in institutional or doctrinal role (such as references to the Bible) as there were negative. Even though there are more religious shows, such as “7th Heaven” and “Touched By An Angel,” they seldom deal explicitly with religion, according to the study.
Religion has the least visibility and influence in TV commercials, according to another study published in the journal Sociology of Religion (Summer). Out of 797 commercials studied by sociologists Brendan Maguire and Georgie Ann Weatherby, only 16 had religious or spiritual content. Since several of the 16 commercials are repeats, the researchers actually found only eight distinct commercials Only three of these commercials carried what could be called conventional religious themes (churches, clergy, etc.), while the others either had non-conventional themes or images (featuring, for instance, the Dalai Lama) or just generic spiritual messages (Lexus putting “soul” into the production of its cars).
Maguire and Weatherby conclude that the rarity of religion in commercials can either mean that advertisers have little use for religion (seeing it as divisive or irrelevant), or, less likely, they feel that the subject is so sacrosanct that any use of such themes would cheapen religion.
(Sociology of Religion, 3520 Wiltshire Dr., Holiday, FL 34691-1239)
The anti-cult movement today is targeting non-religious groups, as well as dealing with a greater diversity of former “cult” members than was the case in its early years.
Those of some of the conclusions of veteran anti-cult activist Marcia Rudin in recounting the history and challenges of the movement in the Cult Observer, (March/April), a publication of the anti-cultist American Family Foundation. Rudin is reflecting on changes in the AFF, but suggests that many of these changes are found in the wider movement. Rudin writes that anti-cultists are now as concerned with the psychological, business, political and New Age groups as they were with the strictly religious groups more prevalent in the 1960s and 70s.
AFF is finding clients now among the middle-aged, senior citizens, as well as minorities — a departure from the young affluent, whites of earlier years. This change in demographics has led to new patterns of family involvement and new kinds of complaints: problems of young people raised in these groups; and child custody battles between members and non-members of cults or new religious movements. Rudin adds that only a “tiny percentage” of ex-cult members have received any kind of intervention.
Deprogramming is rare nowadays and even older notions of brainwashing are being rethought and replaced by a “more nuanced analysis of mind manipulation and totalistic milieu dynamics.” There has been an increase of demands and requests for assistance in the AFF, although Rudin thinks that may be because of the easier access to her group through the Internet.
Anti-cult education programs for young people are also expanding around the world. The formation of groups around the world and networking between the different organizations is aiding the international reach of anti-cult leaders and activists.
(Cult Observer, Box 2265, Bonita Springs, FL 34133)
There have been many attempts to hold religious services over the Internet, but even most proponents claim the communal elements of such rituals can’t be easily replicated on-line.
But the Internet and Hinduism may be a better match. Hinduism Today magazine (July) reports on “cyberbhaktis”–devotees soliciting temple Deities’ blessings on the Worldwide Web. Hindus can also view live pujas (worship) from the historic Ganesha temple or they can request special blessings and prayers for themselves. New York’s large Ganesha Temple is likewise planning to put its services on the Web.
So far, at least 50 U.S. Hindu temples have sites on the Web, including the huge Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in London. Another article (in the magazine’s “Digital Dharma” section) reports that the Hindu ritual of Vedic astrology is also easily accommodated on the Internet. Cyber Astro, an online astrology service, offers free horoscopes before committing clients to paid consultation.
Services include relationship analysis, and remedies like chanting and gem therapy for illness. [The individualized temple services and other rituals of Hinduism, as well as occult practices and techniques requiring little communal involvement or sacramental participation may make these faiths and spiritual movements particularly adept at providing services over the computer.]
(Hinduism Today, 107 Kaholalele Rd., Kapaa, Hawaii, 96746-9304)
India, once the destination for spiritual seekers in the late 1960s and `70s, is again attracting a record number of pilgrims, reports the New York Times (June 7).
After a period of disillusionment with gurus (due to sexual and financial scandals among several Indian spiritual leaders), it appears that the Western interest in seeking spiritual enlightenment has returned, particularly among the :”jet set,” writes Alex Kuczynski. The interest in the spiritual traditions of India has been evident for several years in the U.S., particularly expressed in the popularity of yoga and the teachings of Deepak Chopra. Today the number of “beautiful people” as well as ordinary Americans seeking inspiration direct from India has hit a peak: last year, 244,329 Americans visited India, up about 70 percent from four years ago, according to an Indian tourist official.
The most hard-core visitors — who include entertainers and models such as Meg Ryan and Betty Buckley — gravitate to the ashrams dotting the Indian countryside and cities. The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s commune at Poonah is still popular with Westerners — particularly singles due to its liberal sexual attitudes — despite the controversy surrounding the deceased leader.
Another ashram popular with Americans is one outside Bombay led by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, known to her followers as Gurumayi, despite allegations about her fundraising and financial integrity. Americans are overlooking such controversies because they are in a spiritual crisis after attaining wealth. They also have access to “tremendous amounts of information about these things now, so you’re not just stuck with the spiritual traditions of your ancestors,” says writer Anne Cushman.
The United Religions Initiative (URI) gained controversy and publicity in recent years for its attempt to create a sort of United Nations of religions, but the organization is already showing signs of division.
The evangelical anti-cultist SCP Journal (Vol. 21:4-22:1) takes a critical look at the organization, noting that it has undergone a number of changes since it was started two years ago by Episcopal Bishop William Swing of San Francisco. Swing conceived of the URI as the religious counterpart of the United Nations, as it would draw together the world’s “great faiths” to deliberate and act together on common issues.
But as Swing passed his vision on to other religious leaders and activists, the focus on traditional religions began to change. By 1997 Swing himself dropped the “religious” requirement for URI, as it was decided that groups claiming a “spiritual” identity as well should be included. Leaders from New Age (Barbara Marx Hubbard) and other alternative movements, such as Neopaganism, soon joined the group.
At the same time, a more pragmatic, secular dimension has also emerged in URI. A team from the Social Innovations in Global Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland has been instrumental in the organization’s development. They, and other secular supporters of the URI (such as the Gorbachev and Soros foundations), see the group, and religion in general, as a tool for promoting the notion of the “global good.” For the URI to become a major interfaith forum, it will have to include more traditional-conservative religionists, such as the Catholics (although individual Catholic leaders have signed on) and evangelicals.
This goal may difficult to achieve, since many of the more recent alternative-New Age groups have called for the exclusion of Christian “fundamentalism” from the URI platform — a change from Swing’s more tolerant position that the initiative should “leave the porch light on for everyone.”
(SCP Journal, Box 4308, Berkeley, CA 94704)
In recent years, the evangelical community has led in the number of books aimed at churchgoing parents anxious to know how to apply their faith to parenting.
Publishers Weekly (June 15) reports that more titles appealing to parents across the religious spectrum. Pointing out that “five times as many parenting books debuted last year as in 1975,” PW presents a summary of new and recent titles which are being well received in mainline Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist circles. Editors from these faith communities suggest they have sensed a strongly growing anxiety among parents feeling the need for advice in today’s highly mobile, often violent society.
In these communities the trend for faith-filled parenting books centers around the basics: the wise investment of time and energy, family education, respect for the long-standing traditions of the faith, and celebration of the appropriate holy days. Beyond that, most recent titles face directly the changing family scene due to adoption, divorce, single parenting, and greater sexual activity by those not yet adults.
Popular titles include Loyola Press’ “A Prayer Book for Catholic Families”; Jewish publishers such as KTAV feature such titles as “Practical Parenting: A Jewish Perspective;” Buddhists are represented by the work of alternative spirituality leader, Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parents.” From the Lutheran Augsburg-Fortress Press is a series “Children and Families” on which the focus is giving parents specific, practical things to do with children, such as making videos, doing art work, telling stories, and writing songs.
— By Erling Jorstad
Faith Popcorn, the market-savvy forecaster of social and “lifestyle” trends, has increasingly turned her eye toward the religious future in recent years.
In an article in the evangelical digest Current Trends & Thoughts (June), Popcorn applies many of her unique (and strange-sounding) concepts to religious institutions. Two conflicting forces will continue to shape Americans religious search.
“EVEvolution” involves the “secrets of marketing to women.” Popcorn says that since women often “seek to `join a brand,’ religion’s traditional invitation to `join’ a group will find new relevance. At the same time, the trend of “Mancipation,” that is, the liberation of men to express their deepest emotions and fears, will give congregations the opportunity to extend its role and relevance in the life of men.
“Being Alive” deals with the growing concern with health and the quality of life. As research increasingly shows a health-spirituality connection, the church can be in the vanguard of this “wellness revolution.” Lastly, “99 Lives,” concerns Americans lack of time and growing stress and pressures. Organized religion will have to adapt to this reality by abbreviating services, without losing their impact. Religion will also have a role in making Americans’ free time more meaningful and “life altering,” Popcorn adds.
(Current Trends & Thoughts, P.O. Box 35001, Colorado Springs, CO 80935)
Just when the roller-coaster fortunes of the evangelical, men’s support movement, Promise Keepers, seemed to be leveling out, recent evidence shows that its 19 planned rallies this summer are seriously under-registered.
While PK weathered the storm of l997 budget declines, it has acknowledged that early registration for its once popular rallies is running on the average of 20,000 fewer than that in l997, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, (June 13).
Added to that is the elimination of the $60 admission fee to a specific gathering; yet the attendance figures continue to decline. At one point last year, the $60 fee furnished 70 percent of the total annual PK budget. Now, with no fees, the group is financing its ministry through receiving donations and the sale of merchandise such as T-shirts, videos and books.
Observers suggest that the changing financial fortunes of the once hugely successful men’s program make its long-term impact on its believers uncertain.
— By Erling Jorstad
Christians stressing practical social concern and following the Golden Rule rather than doctrine or activism may represent the majority of American Christians.
That is the finding of a research team headed by Hartford Seminary’s Nancy Ammerman in the recent book Lived Religions in America (edited by David D. Hall, Princeton University Press). These “Golden Rule” Christians. outnumber the familiar categories of “activist” and “evangelical”. The evangelicals (emphasizing prayer, Bible study, and evangelism) comprised 29 percent of the total, and activists (stressing social action and working for justice) made up 19 percent; thus 51 percent saw themselves as “golden rule Christians who are concerned with directly caring for others living one’s Christian values everyday.”
Ammerman and team’s research was gathered from 1,995 individuals in 23 congregations, with balanced representation from women, Catholic, evangelical and liberal Protestant churches. This trend harmonizes well with related movements within church life, with the primary emphasis being on spiritual practices rather than ideology. Ammerman suggests this changing pattern of participation “may in fact be the dominant form of religiosity among middle-class suburban Americans.”
But it is not exclusively white, nor are the priorities defined by age or gender. This form of religiosity is based on Bible reading but not in any literal sense. Golden Rule Christians focus primarily on relationships, especially on the local level. Their goal is not to change the whole political system nor change the beliefs of other people. They express their faith in caring for family, friends, neighborhood, and congregation. They participate often in volunteer activities, soup lines, working at senior centers and the like.
Ammerman makes it clear that their faith is more than a do-good, uplifting kind of morality. Eschewing denominational boundaries, they see themselves as Christians for two reasons. They work largely through congregational structures, “no other organization puts caring for others so clearly at the center of its life” And secondly, they find an element of transcendence, of communing with God, at the core of their activity. Ammerman suggests church leaders would do well to investigate more completely the pervasiveness of this religious commitment among their members.
— By Erling Jorstad, RW contributing editor