In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: June 2000
- Bach makes half-believers of Japanese
- New religions in Islamic societies tolerated
- Current Research: June 2000
- Private schools abandon religion for light spirituality?
- Playing God by playing with computer games
- Christian music — more money, less influence?
- Mainliners politically active, but not activists
- New directions in small group ministries
- Millennialists delayed but not defeated
- African-American faiths show innovation, new divisions
01: The sweep and influence of the third Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999, are featured in the current issue of World Faiths Encounter (March).
Included are editorial overviews, reports on the widespread cultural diversity of the participants, a look at the “next generation” of youth leaders’ contributions, the leadership of the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. The meeting attracted 7,000 delegates, sponsored over 800 seminars, lectures and presentations, promoted a wide diversity of expression in the arts, and focused on major socio-economic global issues on which members could take leadership roles.
For more information on this issue, write: World Faiths Encounter, 2 Market St., Oxford, OX1 3EF England
— By Erling Jorstad
02: The consumerist and pluralistic realities of American religion and how they relate to urban life is examined in the new book Public Religion And Urban Transformation (New York University Press, $18.50), edited by Lowell W. Livizey.
The book, the result of an in-depth study of the religious institutions and neighborhoods of Chicago, provides a rich source of data and case studies of how “religious restructuring” impacts cites and neighborhoods today. Contributors note how the rise in immigrant populations has changed the boundaries and relations between religious groups and their neighborhoods, particularly as congregations of all faiths seek to reach members scattered throughout a metropolitan region.
The growth in individualism has likewise severed the link between living in a neighborhood and belonging to a congregation. Even Catholic parishes that seek to draw members from within their distinct neighborhoods feel the disconnection. A chapter on Old St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Chicago by Elfriede Wedam shows how the parish has adapted to religious consumerism — drawing people from throughout the city to a diverse menu of programs. While the consumerist tendency weakens community bonds and the drive for social reform, the contributors find that these congregations create strong sources of moral direction and new forms of community life.
03: Religious Persecution as a U.S. Policy Issue, edited by Rosalind Hackett, Mark Silk and Dennis Hoover, provides a helpful overview and discussion of an issue receiving growing attention by both political and religious leaders.
Issued by the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, the 60-page book features 42 public policy specialists, journalists, activists, academics and religious leaders (who participated in a conference at the center) to weigh in on five main issues: the International Religious Freedom Act, issued by Congress in 1998; religious persecution in China and India; religious persecution in the Middle East and Sudan; religious repression in Europe; and the ramifications of religious persecution for U.S. foreign policy.
After each contribution, there is a free-ranging discussion section among the participants. One persistent concern and debating point throughout the book is that the International Religious Freedom Act and the religious freedom movement in general is overly American, too influenced by the Christian culture and the concept of separation of church and state, and that an international consensus is needed to check religious persecution.
Another noteworthy debate involves the extent of religious persecution in Europe, with sociologist Steven Kent arguing that some restrictions on authoritarian new religious movements may be necessary, and Belgian human rights activist Willy Fautre holding forth that European government’s monitoring of “cults” has restricted religious freedom.
For information on the book, write: Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College, 300 Summit Street, Hartford, CT 06106, or visit the center’s web site: www.trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl/.
Although Japan is among the least Christian countries in Asia, the music of J.S. Bach appears to be doing what few evangelistic crusades or missionaries have accomplished.
Going far beyond a cultural fad, Bach’s music has conveyed Christian teachings and concepts to a large and growing following, particularly among the nation’s elites, writes Uwe Siemon-Neto in First Things magazine (June/July). Yoshikazu Tokuzen of Japan’s National Christian Council cites figures showing that while less than one percent of the 127 million Japanese belong to a Christian church, another eight to 10 percent sympathize with Christianity.
“Most of those sympathizers are part of the elite, and many had their first contact with Christianity through the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.” The driving force behind the “Bach boom” is organist Masaaki Suzuki, founder and conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan. In 10 years, approximately 100-200 Bach choirs have sprouted around the country.
Most of those interviewed say that the Japanese have lost their allegiance to Buddhism and Shintoism and are attracted to the message they find in Bach’s music. The Christian idea of hope is an alien concept in Japanese society, and the composer’s music and lyrics kindle a popular interest in what `hope’ means to Christians, Siemon-Netto writes. One avid Bach collector says Bach comforts the fears of Japanese, although few such sympathizers may completely convert to Christianity.
As for the origins of the Bach boom it seems that when missionaries were driven out of the nation in the 16th century, the church music (such as Gregorian chant) Christians left behind survived the persecution and infiltrated Japan’s traditional folk music. This influence remained potent enough to help Bach’s music spread across Japan centuries later.
(First Things, 156 Fifth Ave., Suite 400, New York, NY 10010)
There have been few reports of growth and conflicts over “cults” or new religious movements in the Islamic world, but these groups are present in the region and even seem to be tolerated more than might be expected.
In Nova Religio (Spring), a journal on new religious movements (NRMs), Mark Sedwick writes that just as most Western new religions take their cues from the surrounding Christian culture, new religious movements in Islamic countries draw from the Muslim context. When a group or inspired leader proposes a new variety of Islam it often results in a military conflict; those groups that are victorious are the ones that survive and grow.
These “new Islamic” groups are often far less organized than (NRMs) in the West and are often centered around a Mahdi or divinely appointed leader to announce the end-times. The Malaysian Arqam movement, with over 10,000 followers, is one such group, currently in conflict with government forces
Although no Western new religious movements have grown significantly in Islamic societies, an Egyptian group known as the Direct Path presents itself as an Islamic body to gain a hearing, but actually has Western esoteric overtones. Followers of a “Shayke Silver Birch” representing American Indian spirituality is another movement with an Egyptian following.
Sedgwick finds that these unconventional religious groups have been generally tolerated by officials, mainly because they keep a low profiles and don’t threaten Islamic power and identity. Those that openly preach a “post-Muhammadan” message, such as the Ahmadiyya movement, run into more repression. Sedgwick sees the “unexpected tolerance” in the Islamic world as stemming from Muslims’ non-denominational structure. Thus, other religions are not seen as posing a threat or usurping the functions of an established institutional Islamic body as might be the case in the West.
(Nova Religio, Seven Bridges Press, 135 Fifth Ave., 9th Fl., New York, NY 10010-7101).
01: An optimistic view of human nature and a sturdy religious faith characterizes many Americans today, according to a New York Times poll.
The survey of 1,003 Americans, found few signs of secularization. Forty-nine percent said they were about as religious as their parents, and 21 percent said they were more religious. Yet 75 percent said they believe in the intrinsic goodness of people, suggesting, “whether they fully realize it or not, that they no longer subscribe to the Judeo-Christian notion of original sin,” writes sociologist Alan Wolfe in the New York Times Magazine (May 7).
Fully 60 percent of respondents said that lying may be necessary when it helps to avoid hurting a person’s feelings. Wolfe writes that there were not significant differences between Catholics and Protestants. The strongest differences were between frequent church attenders and those who were not.
02: Lay ministers now outnumber priests on the staffs of most Catholic parishes, according to a survey.
The National Catholic Parish Survey found that the average U.S. parish has two lay ministers and 1.8 priests. America magazine (May 13) notes that when subtracting retired priests who may reside in parishes, the number of priests is reduced to 1.5. The survey also found that the average parish size has grown by 23 percent since 1982, from 2,300 members to 2,831.
At the same time, the size of the average ministerial staff increased from 4.7 percent per parish to 5.1. Another finding is that the average number of parishioners per priest has risen since 1982 from 920 to 1,572. Excluding retired priests, that ratio increases to 1,887 parishioners per priest.
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019-3803)
Although America’s prestigious private schools have by and large abandoned their religious heritage, there is a growing movement seeking to reinvigorate such institutions with spiritual values.
In Commonweal magazine (May 19), Michael McGough writes that most schools have abandoned chapel services, and have eliminated the position of chaplain. But religion is returning through the back door by way of the popular interest and acceptance of spirituality. The Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE) is a 400-member school association that encourages spiritual development, the study of religion, and community service.
The organization was originally called the Council for Religion in the Independent Schools but had to “do away with the R word,” because some people saw it as “connotating the doctrinaire, the dogmatic, the evangelical, the moralistic.”
Since the name change in 1998, the council has grown significantly. CSEE director Peter Cobb says that independent schools are discovering that the frameworks and vocabularies of politics and psychology do not address the concerns that religion traditionally has, such as the importance of charity and forgiveness. At some schools, such as Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, there is an abundance of voluntary religious programs as well as new classes in religion But McGough fears that the tendency to favor “lowest-common denominator ecumenism” and generic spirituality in private schools may not have much impact on students’ spiritual growth.
He adds that this may change as the Ivy League and other elite colleges increasingly draw students from first-rate public schools rather than private schools.. This might free prep schools from having to be inclusive at all costs, allowing them to be more “religiously declarative.”
(Commonweal, 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, NY 10115)
Computer games built around the character of an all powerful god or deity are hitting the market.
The online magazine Feed (April 28) reports that these games, such as The Sims and Black & White, allow users to play God where they “can create people, cities…gamers divine everything from weather to manna for groups of tribal villagers, and, for real fun, create a beast that personifies their evil or benevolence.”
These games have their roots in such role playing games as Dungeons and Dragons, which put players in control of imagined medieval societies, battles, and quests. The article notes that these games are not being created by young people but by the middle-aged, who “have a lot more reason to think about their own mortality,” writes David Kushner.
While earlier computer games often involved destroying creatures and cities, the new games revolve around being a creator, allowing players the open-endedness to design their own outcomes. Black & White begins on a “lush isle or Eden, where Tibetan, Cassock, and other global villagers are living a peaceful, though Godless existence.
Represented on screen by a graceful omnipotent hand, you seduce worshippers by any means necessary, raining manna from heaven or unleashing lightning bolts to instill fear,” Kushner writes. The newest games allow players to merge their god with other player’s deities, creating a “polytheistic” and more communal world.
The growing commercialization of Contemporary Christian music (CCM) is dividing the industry and leading its top musicians to speak out against recording companies that seek to tone down the Christian content of their work.
A cover story in the evangelical newsweekly World (May 13) reports that the $500 million Christian music industry continues to grow an average of 18 percent every year since 1996, but it is paying the price in growing criticism about its lowered standards. CCM artists, such as Michael Card, say that the CCM culture pressures them to tone down elements of their songs that are based on the Bible or deal with sin. The emphasis is on positive living; “Indeed, `positive’ is the latest mantra sung by CCM retailers seeking a definable marketing niche in mainstream society,” writes Candi Cushman
CCM is facing two challenges. There is the call for a return to Christian music as a ministry. Several leading musicians and executives have resigned and criticized the industry, particularly for being “yoked” with secular recording companies (which are said to have enveloped over 90 percent of Christian recording labels in the 1990s). Such critics also cite a “loosening” in lifestyle standards of CCM musicians, as seen in the growing number of divorces. On the other side are those who say that instead of making “Christian music” artists should “simply be Christians who are musicians, carrying their Christian worldview into the secular arena.”
Such Christian musicians as the British Christian band Delirious climb the secular music charts, and see the CCM label as marginalizing Christians in the music industry. Cushman concludes that CCM might “be headed for the worst of all possible worlds: A Christian ghetto watering down the gospel in order to be positive, and a secular marketplace devoid of Christians.”
(World, P.O. Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802)
As the political temperature continues to rise this summer as the elections approach, sociologist Robert Wuthnow points to the little known but increasing strength of mainline Protestants in the political arena.
Writing in the American Prospect magazine (May 22), Wuthnow writes that such social causes as ministries for AIDS victims, alcoholics, the homeless, low income workers, and gay/lesbian programs are galvanizing many of the 22 million members of the mainline who find through inter-faith, and interdenominational coalitions the organized means of implementing their agenda. Rather than emulate the religious right’s aggressive vote getting, the mainline continues to work through local agencies and congregational based outreach. Acknowledging that the mainline lost enormous numbers of members and resources since the l960s, Wuthnow adds that their losses were largely demographic, not from ideological dissent.
The members had smaller families, married later in life, and pursued college degree programs. Their “quiet influence” as the author calls it, demonstrates a significant feature of today’s religious landscape. For mainliners the more active a person is in church, the more likely that person is to be in related community programs; church membership in the mainline is positively associated with filling leadership roles in other community programs and in volunteering for service agencies.
Choosing to eschew the religious right penchant for electoral campaigning, the mainline members pursue programs promoting serious discourse over major social and economic issues/ For all their quiet active work, mainliners face serious challenges.
They encounter localistic orientation in their congregations, meaning many members choose not to be involved in national issues; they encounter parishioner distrust of governmental involvement in social reform; their activities are at times poorly packaged, lacking in public relations know-how. Yet, Wuthnow concludes, the mainliners continue to be optimistic about their pursuits. They realize they are in public policy for the long haul as they continue to pursue their quiet activism headed towards the November elections.
(American Prospect, 5 Broad St., Boston, MA 02109)
— By Erling Jorstad
Over the last few years, Wade Clark Roof writes, major changes are unfolding in small group ministries, both Catholic and Protestant.
A well-known scholar on recent American religious life, Roof writes on the religion web site Beliefnet.com that across the country more people are involved than ever before in small groups — anywhere from 33 percent to 43 percent of the total population. Asked why they joined and remained in these groups, many said they found strength and support for their problems by helping others in these settings.
There, more than in large congregational settings, participants are finding the opportunity to “start over” their lives.Roof goes on to ask whether such groups really do have a lasting influence on the participants. Some may lack spiritual depth and others have only narrow community outreach. Some small groups reflect the “tacky” shallow quality of today’s religious life. But Roof writes that the research shows that many who stay involved for longer periods of time are helped, they do start over. They explain they are looking for personal experience more than for doctrinal instruction; they learn from others often more than from the educational programs of their own parishes.
Roof adds that there are significant changes in small groups. More small groups are less self-absorbed, the people seem more committed to serious quest. More are joining also because the group experience serves as a tested springboard to help them become involved in specific outreach ministries in their own churches.
The author finds more emphasis on “partnering”, rather than on “recovery” and a deeper understanding of community responsibilities. Some new groups are self consciously inter-generational, adding a variety to small groups that didn’t exist before. Roof concludes with the hope that small groups have the potential to transform many of the older, entrenched organizations and practices into “sustainable spiritual dwelling places.”
— By Erling Jorstad
Millennial groups and others forecasting apocalyptic scenarios have scaled back their predictions since Jan. 1, though they’re not necessarily out of business, reports the Skeptical Inquirer (May/June). As might be expected, those groups and individuals who closely tied their forecasts of apocalyptic events to the year 2000 have revised their views significantly as time has passed.
Software guru Ed Yourdon, c-author of Time Bomb 2000, has taken citations from his book off his web site, but adds that for a few “Y2K wrought a profound and permanent change; even if the computer systems didn’t collapse, the Y2K-related threat of such collapse has made us reexamine our lives, redefine our priorities.”
Christian Reconstructionist thinker Gary North, who made perhaps the most extensive forecasts of Y2K apocalypse, is less repentant. He removed the forecasts of an imminent return to a 19th century style of living from his web site, but still features a regular Y2K “Glitch report.” . Computer failures of any scale still provide North a “flicker of hope for his post-technological theocratic utopia,” writes Robert Scheaffer. Others have fastened on to other key dates.
The Year 2000 Institute foresees the conversion of European currencies to the euro as leading to computer-induced disaster. Scheaffer notes that the institute also “warns that on September 8, 2001, the clock will roll over on millions of systems . . . running the UNIX operating system,” affecting 12 million computer applications, and will be an “event of Epoch proportions — quite literally!”
(Skeptical Inquirer, 1310 Sweet Home Rd, Amherst, NY 14228)
African-American Christians and other believers are facing a new pluralism, both with new religious movements emerging and in practices that are causing new divisions.
That was one of the conclusions of a conference on “The Spiritual State of Black America” which drew hundreds of church leaders, activists, scholars, and laity to Atlanta in May. In the online newsletter Sightings (May 16 and 17) Robert Franklin reports that the gathering dealt with such trends as the growing appeal of Islam in the African-American community; the emergence of independent megachurches; the federal government’s expectation that local congregations expand their role in providing needed social services; the exodus of men and young people from traditional congregations; and the womanist (black feminist) demands for equal opportunities in ministry.
Franklin notes that the most unusual news during the conference was the emergence of a movement of Baptist pastors designating themselves as bishops. Most of these Baptist bishops are “dynamic, entrepreneurial, neo-Pentecostal ministers who have developed megachurches and understand themselves to be reappropriating the clerical titles and styles of the New Testament.” This practice has criticized by traditional Baptists who eschew such episcopal trappings of authority.
The concern that black churches are losing their social role was sounded by John Hurst Adams, senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who declared that since the post-civil rights movement period, African Americans have been “damaged by excessive assimilation” into the spiritually corrupting core values — individualism, materialism, and ethical relativism — of late capitalist culture. Franklin adds that the self-help theme prominent in black churches was evident in a symposium on how congregations could become more involved and skillful in sponsoring housing development projects for low income people.
A session on the continuing growth of Islam in black communities also dealt with the changing nature of the Nation of Islam . Both Muslim leaders affirmed the recent moves in Chicago by Wallace Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan to reconcile a decades-old spat between the competing heirs to Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. But a debate broke out between Muhammad, a mainstream Muslim leader and son of the late Elijah Muhammad who founded the Nation of Islam, and Minister Ava Muhammad, who serves as the regional representative of Louis Farrakhan.
She is also the first woman to be appointed head of a local mosque. Tension grew in the audience as Muhammad respectfully indicated that he could not contravene the core teachings and practices of Sunni Islam by acknowledging Minister Ava as a full-fledged imam. Black church specialist Lawrence Mamiya asked whether or not Farrakhan’s bold move in appointing the first and only female imam in the Islamic world would be rebuffed by more orthodox Muslims as he seeks to be embraced by the global Muslim community.
Franklin adds that “a listener at the conference could conclude that the spiritual state of black America is, like the rest of the nation, a mixed bag. There is enduring vitality in the traditional black churches and, as the Baptist bishops illustrate, there is plenty of exciting innovation. A growing number of people are exploring alternatives to Christianity and others are voting against organized religion in favor of sampling personalized spirituality and self-help rituals.
But the bad news is that a growing percentage of youth have disengaged from the bedrock practices and institutions of the family, church, school, and workplace” and have embraced risky and criminal behavior. Blacks from Britain in attendance affirmed that this diagnosis is hauntingly familiar and accurately describes (maybe predicts) where blacks in England and Europe seem to be headed.
While black Catholics were not mentioned in Franklin’s report, new research suggests that they are strongly involved in social activism. With the leadership of black Protestant churches in social justice, community development and family health programs well documented in current research, Prof. James C. Cavendish finds significant differences in the contributions to those programs by black Catholic parishes. Writing in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (March), Cavendish finds that within black Catholic churches, the social outreach programs are much more widespread than those of white Catholic congregations.
He adds that those black Catholic churches that have parish councils and leadership training programs involved with congregational activism, are more effective in community ministry than those with less organized leadership. Those black Catholic parishes with visibly stronger lay leadership in outreach programs are more effective than those which stay with traditional hierarchical governance. From this Cavendish concludes that a black Catholic denominational affiliation “may be less significant than the particular congregation’s own internal structure.”
Those congregations with strong lay participation are the ones on the front end of community outreach.
(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 872 SWKT, Sociology Dept., Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602-5388)
— Erling Jorstad contributed to this report