In This Issue
- On/File: June 1999
- Findings & Footnotes: June 1999
- Values, spirituality find favor in Australian public life
- Popular Catholicism enduring, adapting
- Current Research: June 1999
- Clash on five percenters raise new religious freedom issues
- Religious orders marketing for vows
- Salvation Army outreach programs in transition
- Natural food finds its way to evangelical tables
- Parachurch groups challenge denominational life?
- Religious building boom underway
- Trance — how a dance fad turned spiritual
01: The Nehemiah Team project is raising urban-suburban partnerships to a new level.
The project, run by World Impact, a Los Angeles-based ministry that plants churches in poor neighborhoods, enlists suburban Christians to establish congregations in the inner-city. Four or more members of a suburban congregation volunteers to lead Bible studies, build friendships and walk through housing projects inviting residents to church. Some become full-time missionaries who move into the inner-city, with their sponsoring congregation paying the costs of planning the urban church.
World Impact provides guidance to the volunteers, training them to overcome cultural barriers. Volunteers may or may not be of the same ethnic group as those in the new church. New partnerships are planned in LA. and across the country.
(Source: Religion Today, May 13)
02: Christian Freedom International (CFI) represents a new breed of evangelical relief organizations that specialize in helping persecuted Christian believers around the world.
The Front Royal, Va.-based CFI trains teachers and teaches natives a trade, but its approach is different from that of mainline and secular relief and charitable organizations. CFI, founded in 1995, is part of the more practical wing of the growing Christian movement to protest and stop persecution of fellow believers. Like similar evangelical groups, it does not accept any government money, believing it would limit “our ability to speak and limit where we could go,” says CFI president James Jacobson, who is said to be on a hit list by the Sudanese and Burmese governments.
Their lack of bureaucracy and accountability to donors and supporters is another factor in these new efforts.
(Source: Wall Street Journal, May 28)
01: The recent criticism of the religious right from leaders and activists appears to have found a special hearing among younger evangelicals and other conservative Christians.
This is suggested in the current issue of Re:generation Quarterly (Volume 5 Number 1), which is devoted to the “Flawed Tactics of the Religious Right.” Most of the articles in the magazine, published by Generation X conservative Christians, criticizes the religious right for politicizing Christianity and for ignoring the role of culture and building community in extending Christian influence.
The issue costs $5.95 and is available from: Re:generation Quarterly, P.O. Box 381042, Cambridge, MA 02238-1042
02: As Jon Bloch states in his new book, New Spirituality, Self and Belonging: How New Agers and Neopagans Talk About Themselves (Greenwood Publishing Group/Prager, $55), those adhering to New Age and Neopagan teachings believe “The self is considered the final authority as to what to practice or believe.” They hold that dogma is an unreliable source of truth; truth can only be determined through one’s personal experience.
Although those involved in countercultural spiritual movements generally exhibit a wide range of beliefs, one can detect commonalties and, indeed, an underlying sense of community that binds disparate believers together. Bloch’s research sought to analyze this diverse community, using interviews with 22 persons whose core beliefs tended to be rooted in varying forms of Neopagan and Native American religion. Most (77 percent) had been raised Christian; the remainder had been raised with little or no religious training.
Bloch’s respondents exhibited considerable overlap in beliefs. All appeared to practice an evolving spirituality, in which they were continually open to new experiences and beliefs. Bloch implies that his subjects’ beliefs were thus not the product of aimless searching for just anything to believe in, but the result of an active quest for the “right” faith. While Bloch provides useful and often insightful commentary on his subjects’ beliefs, he often neglects to closely challenge respondents’ statements and seems to accept their stories at face value.
— Reviewed by Lin Collette, an RW contributing editor.
03: It’s not a good sign when a co-author gets the title of one’s own book wrong, but that’s what happened last month.
Somehow, we cited the book by RW‘s editor and Don Lattin as Against The Stream: American Religion in the New Millennium when the actual title is Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium. The former title is the 1994 book by the editor (the full title of which is “Against The Stream: The Adoption of Traditional Faiths By Young Adults”; please write for more ordering info on this book).
Needless to say, we are still offering Shopping at the discount price of $18. Foreign orderers should add $7 and Canadians add $3 for postage and handling (with payment made out through a U.S. bank or money order).
All payments should be made to Religion Watch and sent to P.O. Box 652, North Bellmore, NY 11710.
The issues of values and spirituality are making a comeback in the public and political life in Australia, reports the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper (April 27).
In recent months public meetings have been held where “church people have been asked to offer their insight on public policy and policymakers have been invited to reflect on the moral basis of the decisions they make,” writes Chris McGillion. “Ten years ago if I was speaking in a secular or public context people would say, `keep the Church out of it,’ Now they say, `Talk to us about values, ethics, spirituality,” says Baptist minister Tim Costello.
Observers are trying to find a reason for the turnaround in attitudes. Costello says the “culture is fragmenting so fast that lots of people who might only have a distant religious memory are actually saying `Where is solid ground? Where do we plant our feet? What do we tell our kids?'” That doesn’t mean that most politicians are courting the churches for advice. “Politicians, for expedient reasons, are working with an old paradigm that says Church and State are separate and priests should stick to the pulpit.
The outstanding church spokespersons operate out of a new paradigm — one that emphasizes their expertise,” says journalist Morag Fraser.
Popular or “folk” varieties of Catholicism are resilient and flourishing, though they don’t seem to be much of an impetus for social action.
Those are two of the conclusions of a world-wide study of popular Catholicism reported in the Jesuit America magazine (May 29). The study is based on seven case studies of areas where Catholic practices and beliefs are shaped by indigenous folk traditions. Researcher Thomas Bamat writes that “We found popular religious beliefs and practices to be enduring and evolving among local Catholics from urban Chile, where established Catholic piety and devotions endure while giving some ground to more rationalized beliefs and even “new age” practices, to Tanzania, where a Marian devotional movement harks back to pre-Vatican II practices and traditions while adopting a more African worldview and using public exorcisms, to Ghana, where emerging Catholic communities are beginning to transform tribal problem-solving strategies and rituals.”
Most of these “popular Catholics” neither showed “slavish attachment to tradition nor widespread hostility to the modern.” For instance, Dagomba Catholics in Ghana appreciate Western schools and medicine and have adopted more egalitarian relations between men and women. Hong Kong Catholics may venerate ancestors but they are firm believers in technology and representative democracy.
Bamat and his co-author Jean-Paul Wiest, who wrote the recent book “Popular Catholicism in a World Church,” found that “apart from prevalent community self-help and small-scale development projects, we found little organized action for change. This was true even in parts of the world where there has been notable social and political mobilization in recent years . . .”
They add that most church leaders ignore or, in two of the areas studied, actively oppose popular beliefs and practices.
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019)
01: A one percent drop in membership in the Southern Baptist Convention may not seem much, but it’s the first membership decline in the church body in 72 years.
SBC figures show the number of baptisms, the Baptists’ major marker, dropped by about 4,800 last year. But attendance at Sunday services actually rose by 174,052. Analysts suggest that this downturn may be another sign that Americans are drawn to groups and congregations that promote individual spirituality and entertain them. But they are less ready than previously to make a commitment or participate loyally in congregational life.
02: A survey of students at 12 American universities finds that their rate of religiosity, such as holding to traditional beliefs, declined sharply in the four years they attended school. The National Review magazine (May 31) reports on a follow up study it conducted of the Class of 1998 — among a mixture of state, Ivy League, and Catholic and Protestant schools — after surveying these students as freshmen back in 1995.
Over 60 percent of the seniors still maintained their 1995 formal religious affiliations, but “the authority of religious precepts appeared to have given way to the rules of experiment.” By the senior year, those attending religious services at least once a week had dropped off significantly at ten of the colleges, as did attending “twice a month.” For instance, 41 percent of freshmen at UCLA attended religious services weekly, while only 16 percent of seniors did so.
The percentages of those attending only twice a year grew to double digits, while those attending “not at all” rose from 22 percent in 1995 to 33 percent last year. Praying to God was also less frequent among seniors than freshmen. Daily prayer was down at nine colleges, while praying several times a week dropped at eight schools.
The relatively high percentage of freshmen students approval of such behaviors as abortion, homosexuality and mercy killing only increased (except divorce). On religious affiliation, the students choosing “other” faiths in 1995 had been cut in half by 1998. There was also a high rate (ranging from 28 percent to 36 percent) of “nones” in current religious affiliation at such schools as Brown, UCLA, Yale, Stanford and Dartmouth.
(National Review, 150 E. 35th St., New York, NY 10016)
03: While newspaper editors and publishers consider the subjects of religion and ethics is important in their coverage of local news, only a minority believe that their papers cover this field well, reports a new poll.
Seventy-two percent of editors said “Church News” (as it was called in the study) was extremely important or very important, and “‘values, ethics or religion news beyond the basics” was rated as important or very important by 63 percent of the editors, according to the survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
The study, conducted by the firm Clark, Martire, and Bartolomeo, Inc., is cited in RNA Extra (March/April/May), the newsletter of the Religion Newswriters Association. In rating their newspapers’ performance on religion and ethics, only 44 percent of the editors said they were doing an excellent to good job. “Church news,” however, was viewed as receiving better coverage by 70 percent of the editors.
(RNA Extra, P.O. Box 2037, Westerville, OH 43086)
04: The more a mother sees religion as part of her identity, the better relationship she will have with her children, reports a University of Michigan study.
The study, conducted by William Axinn and Lisa D.Pearce at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, found that the personal importance a mother finds in religion (the study included women of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths) predicts the quality of her relationships with her children, starting before birth through age 23. The Detroit News (May 8) notes that the study is based on a 35-year (begun in 1962) survey of 850 Metro Detroit women.
A clash between a black Muslim based group and the prison system raises new questions about how much the state can restrict religious groups based on judgment of their beliefs and practices.
The online newsletter Sightings (May 10) reports that the current conflict involves the group Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths, so called because its members believe that only five percent of people are aware of and teach the truth. The Five Percenters were founded by ex-members of the Nation of Islam in 1964.
The Harlem, N.Y.-based group is increasingly clashing with law officials about its religious nature and potential for violence in the prison system. While most Five Percenters deny that they are an organized religion and consider their “nation” a culture rather than a faith, they retain religious elements from their Black Muslim past, such as revering the Qur’an and Elijah Muhammad’s writings and holding to the exclusive divinity of black men.
South Carolina prison officials maintain that Five Percenters are a racist gang that pose a security threat. Since 1995, the state has placed approximately seventy members in solitary confinement and has allowed them to rejoin other prisoners only if they disaffiliate, by means of signing a pledge, from the Five Percenters.
Writer Jonathan Moore notes that such actions have been technically allowed by Supreme Court. While actions and practices can be restricted by the state, beliefs have protection against such interference. By requiring group members to sign a pledge of disaffiliation in order to rejoin the general prison population, it seems to observers that they indeed are disallowing certain beliefs and prohibiting their right to worship.
Since prison officials in at least four other states, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have also been segregating Five Percenters from the general prison population, occasions for conflict will likely increase in the future, Moore concludes.
Sophisticated marketing techniques are being used by a whole range of religious organizations.
Advertising for the Catholic priesthood has become an accepted practice, and now religious orders for women are following suit, reports the Wall Street Journal (May 11). The marketing trend has taken off among women’s orders mainly due to the leadership of the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Indiana. As recently as a decade ago, the sisters — as with other mainstream Catholic orders — were on the brink of extinction, attracting fewer than two enrollments from 1986 through 1990. That’s about when the sisters turned to marketing, involving such techniques as telephone interviews, focus groups, and heavy advertising that seeks to breakdown stereotypes about religious life.
For instance, one campaign used ads with posters carrying such “pitches” as “Just because you don’t pray eight hours a day doesn’t mean you can’t become a nun.” Those who responded to the ads were invited to free retreats for recruitment. Today, the order is recruiting an average of three new nuns a year.
The success of the Benedictine nuns has had a wide impact on orders around the world. Workshops are held as far away as Ireland and Canada on forming development and recruitment programs. At a recent gathering, more than 100 nuns discussed books such as “Selling on the Fast Track,” and studied the fundamentals of organizational software.
The 134-year old Salvation Army, as well-known as any Christian organization around the globe, faces major transformations in the next few months.
Its first American leader, General Paul A. Rader is retiring with a program involving some l.2 million members worldwide, including 117,000 in the United States. According to an interview in the Los Angeles Times (May 1), he sees the greatest challenges for the Army as stepping up its witness against galloping materialism and secularism within the United States, and harnessing the enormous growth in membership in Africa.
Right now some 786,364 persons claim SA membership on that continent, making it the area of greatest growth for this denomination. The Army views the West as spiritually impoverished and that marginalized people in the Third World have reached greater spiritual maturity. To help combat Western unbelief, Third World countries are sending their own missionaries to lead the Army in the United States. Alongside that, the Army is currently feeding some 30,000 refugees daily along the Albanian-Kosovo border.
A more subtle but important change is occurring in the SA. Leaders are giving more attention to working for long range systemic improvement in their participants’ lives rather than tying such work strictly to evangelism. This older image of Army ministry is slowly giving way to a more frontal attack on such problems as poverty, poor education, and vocational deficiencies. Such a transformation is, as noted in the article, giving a greater degree of credibility to its life-long commitment to the marginalized in urban society.
— By Erling Jorstad
Evangelical Christians are increasingly turning to natural foods, viewing such a diet as the biblical way of living.
The turn to health foods among evangelicals and charismatics is evident in such a popular magazine as Charisma, where ads and columns on herbal remedies and natural food products sometimes jostle with announcements of prophesy and healing conferences. The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (May 14) reports that a new natural food regimen for evangelicals called the “Hallelujah Diet” is finding plenty of converts in the U.S. South. The diet is based on the Old Testament verse of Genesis 1:29: “I give you all plants that bear seed everywhere on earth and every tree bearing fruit which yields seed; they shall be yours for food.”
Diet creator George Malkmus, whose book “Why Christians Get Sick,” has sold 200,000 copies, says that the Bible has physical as well as spiritual advice. Christians, he said, have been “turning to the world for answers about our physical problems, and it’s killing us.” The diet stipulates a strict fruit and vegetable diet and Malkmus calls conventional medicine toxic, reports Yonat Shimron in the Religion News Service-based article.
Malkmus has trained 1,042 people in his philosophy
New parachurch associations within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may provide alternative models of mainline church governance in the near future, writes Joseph D. Small in the Christian Century (May 5).
The rapid growth and maturity of two new bodies, The Presbyterian Coalition and The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, are clear signals that special interest groups are coalescing and taking on many of the functions of the wider denomination. Both groups emerged during the l990s over the acrimonious battles within PCUSA over teachings and practices relating to sexual expression; homosexuality and the ordination of gays and lesbians being the most prominent. Small adds that both have since broadened their outreach to include other denominational issues, such as missions, finance and education.
For instance, the Covenant Network has a budget of $175,000 and is expanding its influence via a web site, newsletter, and regional and national conferences. Both are finding ways to attract new supporters and new funding and are affiliated with smaller specialized groups that have their own funding, staff and programs. Their appearance, he suggests, points clearly to the decline of loyalty in the older, establishment governance of mainline Presbyterianism.
Both are riding the crest of “the triumph of market consumerism throughout the culture.” Small suggests these groups, the “right” and the “left” blocs, show that denominationalism will continue to be polarized, and they will continue to draw support away from loyalty to the decades-old centralized system of governance.
(Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60605)
— By Erling Jorstad, RW contributing editor
A boom in religious construction is underway across the country, according to NetFax (May 10), the newsletter of Leadership Network.
Last year, $6.4 billion was spent on new religious construction including churches, synagogues, mosques, other religious buildings and additions to existing structures. According to the Census Bureau, this represents a 64% increase between 1994 and 1998.
Early indications reveal the boom is continuing in 1999. Two key factors in the boom include the growth and expansion of existing churches over the past decade, especially in the Southern, Midwest and West Coast regions; and a renewed interest in church planting and the resulting construction of new church buildings.
A third factor is the increasing religious plurality of the nation as more and more “non- traditional” religious groups seek to secure their own worship, teaching and community facilities.
Sweat and lights, costumes and hallucinogenic images of Jesus, the Buddha and Krishna projected onto walls or mountainsides while dancers bob and whirl to the constant thump of a bass beat.
These are all fundamental elements of an international music and cultural movement that stretches from underground clubs in New York to open air “raves” outside Hebron, Israel. The movement does not have a single name. Devotees may call the music house, trance, techno or jungle, but a seemingly separate group of musical subcultures are part of a community that seeks to alter a traditional understanding about gender and beauty, race and the body, and increasingly, about consciousness and spirituality as well.
What are these claims? Gender is fluid. Beauty is created. The body belongs solely to its owner. Spirituality is individual and experiential. It collects in the flesh and manifests itself physically as pleasure. It is therefore something that is felt rather than understood. It is universally available, can create world peace, and it has a soundtrack.
“House music, it’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing.” So goes a seminal anthem of house, a form of music that emerged from the black, Latino and gay clubs of Chicago and New York. House music itself is not played; it is reconstructed. DJs, the high priests of house, choose previously recorded songs and “free” the melody, vocals or bass from their original structure, reconfiguring them in a recording studio or live on the dance floor using multiple turntables.
Non-musical messages, whether political speeches or Tibetan chants, are selected or “sampled” and dropped into a particular “track” using computerized audio technology. The result is a repetitive, multilayered and highly rhythmic form of music that builds like a mantra, repeating a message continuously as other tracks are “blended” and “mixed” in or removed.
The house scene quickly grew out of its original audience merged with electronic and futurist music scenes in Europe and eventually split into a myriad of subcultures whose only difference may be a few extra beats per minute. For instance, trance is a quicker, non-vocal form of music and has captured a broad international audience. The original House sound has remained dominant in North America, although the current Mecca of house is arguably the Spanish island of Ibiza, which hosts festivals and performances through out the year.
The method of repositioning existing music into something more rich and strange acts as a model that is applied to other aspects of cultural life. Gender roles are deconstructed and individual listeners may turn up at performances cross-dressed or in outfits that deconstruct standard ideas about fashion or beauty. The effect may appear equally tribal or extraterrestrial. Body modification is prevalent. Dancers at events frequently bear tattoos and multiple body piercings; their skin may be branded or bulge in odd shapes, the result of metal implants placed directly under the epidermis.
Such drugs as 3.4-Methylenedioxy-N-Methylamphetamine (MDMA) are prevalent and valued for altering consciousness. MDMA is a psychotropic used initially by psychiatrists to induce a feeling of well being and openness in their patients. On the dance floor, the effect that MDMA creates swells with the swirling rhythms to generate a sense of unity, a feeling that is often ascribed to spiritual origins and one that is thought to be shared uniformly by all the dancers.
As the drug takes hold and the music builds the dancers may cling to one another in a manner that appears orgiastic, but when the drug has lost its effect and the music dies, most dancers relate a feeling of transcendence that is distinctly non-sexual. It is this interpretation—so often at odds with appearances—that creates misunderstandings about the nature of the experience. In Israel, for instance, police routinely break up trance parties — often held in nature reserves — charging that drug abuse is encouraged at such events.
Some of the behavior is clearly intended to achieve liberation by transgressing social norms. “I had to fall from grace, just to find a higher place” one house track intones solemnly. But much of the culture attempts to be merely creative; the intent of the dancers is to create a new style of being, not merely an anti-style. House, trance, techno, all of these musical scenes seek not only to entertain, but to recreate a society of believers. These pretensions are sincere for many of the participants in the movement.
There is an innocence to the desire to change the world through music that is reminiscent of the Western counter-culture of the sixties. However, where previous encounters with these movements were allied to larger political projects, the house scene makes no attempt at specific political action outside of fairly general and naïve desires of world peace and tranquillity. The desire of house is more singular; to transform the individual through music and through group participation in a culture that is transformative, narcotic and liberating.
— By Scott D. Scrymgeour, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.