In This Issue
- Postmodernism, theism driving evangelical theology rifts
- On/File: June 2003
- Findings & Footnotes: June 2003
- Christian party glut in New Zealand?
- Progressive Catholics protest Vatican’s UN status
- Freemasonry’s hidden and open impact on Islam
- Current Research: June 2003
- Yoga gains access to schools
- Christian comedy seeking Christian, secular audience
- International Churches of Christ dissolving?
- ‘Judeo-Christian’ nation challenged by American Muslims
- Despite scandals, Catholic political voice still has impact
Conflicts over the doctrine of God, postmodernism and views of the afterlife are emerging as the new theological battleground for evangelicals, writes Roger Olson in the journal Dialog (spring).
Olson writes that conflict in the evangelical theological community has unfolded in a series of “convulsions” thoughout the last century. Up until the 1990s, the battles were largely fought over the inerrancy of the Bible and the role of women in the churches. In the mid-1990s, the teaching of “open theism” first drew fire.
This teaching revises the traditional concept of God’s omniscience; although God may know much of the future, he is relational and interactive with human beings and thus does not know it exhaustively or infallibly. The battle lines are already clearly drawn in evangelical academic life; the Evangelical Theological Society condemned the teaching, and its key proponent, Clark Pinnock, is expected to be expelled from the society this year.
Olson adds that the next “convulsion” is already in view; “Some conservative gatekeepers are indicating that they will examine the evangelical credentials of theologians who believe that unevangelized persons who never hear of Jesus Christ may nevertheless be saved by his life, death and resurrection.” Another area of growing tension is the use of postmodern themes by evangelical theologians. Accusations of “cultural relativism” have been applied to those arguing that Christianity is a culturally conditioned (yet true) perspective, according to Olson.
He concludes that these charges of heresy affect the career paths of many young evangelical theologians, though they are forming their own enclaves, such as the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion and the Christian Theological Research Fellowship.
(Dialog, Pacific Lutheran Seminary, 2770 Main Ave., Berkeley, CA 94708)
01: Chino Shoho, a quasi-religious group, suddenly captured the public attention of the Japanese public toward the end of April.
The group, also known as the Panawave Laboratory, formed a caravan of about 20 white vans claiming that they were escaping from a sustained assault by communist extremists on their 69 year-old female ailing guru, Yuko Chino. The communist extremists are said to be testing a new weapon that harnesses harmful electromagnetic energy, known as Scaler Waves. The group’s white clothes and talisman (magical object) are seen as protections against this force.The security authority in Japan is paying special attention to the activities by Panawave, as the group reminds many of Aum Shinrikyo, a cultist group that conducted a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995.
The financial resources of Panawave are rather unclear, but the group has some highly educated members who are living communally. Moreover, the group teaches doomsday scenarios. They predicted the planet Nibiru’s possible hazardous approach to the earth on May 15th, which was then deferred to a later date. The guru is also said to have issued a death threat against some former members and a celebrity.The group was started in the mid 1970s, splitting from the GLA, a Japanese new religious group registered in 1973.
Panawave has about 1200 members. Much is unknown about the group, but its guru is claimed to have contact with the Archangel Michael. After participating in the caravan, the group returned to its headquarters in the prefecture of Fukai and is involved in discussions with city officials regarding maintaining peaceful coexistence with local residents
— By Sairenji Ayako, a New Jersey-based freelance writer.
01: Prism, the magazine of Evangelicals for Social Action, celebrates its 30th anniversary in its May/June issue.
The issue features a series of articles reflecting on the beginnings in the 1970s (stemming from the Chicago Declaration’s call for evangelical social involvement). and current state of the evangelical left and the general mood is downbeat. Samuel Escobar writes that as “evangelicals we have not succeeded in political action.
The exhilarating success of the Chicago declaration in 1973 was followed by the kidnapping of evangelical votes and money by fundamentalists in the Moral Majority and similar movements.”
Evangelical left pioneer Richard Pierard blames the “downfall of the liberal peace, environmental, and social-justice-oriented evangelical movement” on the conservatives’ “utilization of one social issue that could link Protestant and Catholic activists of all stripes: abortion.” A more optimistic note is struck by William Dyrness as he writes that “holistic ministries,” addressing both spiritual and social needs, are increasingly common, as are new relationships with non-Western evangelicals that have turned American evangelicals toward greater social involvement.
For more information on this issue, write: Prism, 10 E. Lancaster Avenue, Wynnewood, PA 19096; or visit ESA’s website at: http://www.esa-online.org
A controversial charismatic group’s recent founding of a political party in New Zealand is the latest of several attempts by evangelicals to create a Christian political movement in the nation.
The formation of Destiny New Zealand as an offshoot of the charismatic Destiny Churches network is raising concern that the “Christian party end of the political spectrum“ may now be getting crowded, since there already is the Christian Heritage Pary and United Future. The New Zealand Herald (May 24) reports that Destiny New Zealand has already raised controversy since it is linked to an evangelist who said that New Zealand has so many women politicians due to a “fatherless generation.”
But the main concern is that starting another party will further fragment the Christian vote Both Destiny New Zealnd and United Future votes will come largely from Pentecostals, while the Christian Heritage Party attracts evangelical Christians from a variety of denominations.
In association with several other organizations, Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) has recently initiated a “See Change” campaign in order to change the status of the Roman Catholic church at the United Nations.
Since 1964, the Holy See has enjoyed a privileged status as a “Non-member-state Permanent Observer,” since the Vatican is a State with a territory, albeit a tiny one and without a permanent citizenry. No other religion has such a status. CFFC claim the Holy See should have the same voice and the same rights as the other religions at the United Nations, “as a religious body, not as a quasi-governmental entity.”
The fact that the Vatican has defended at international conferences — quite often in alliance with Muslim countries — policies on issues of reproductive health quite different from those of CFFC obviously plays an important role behind such an initiative. But aside from those specific issues, one notices increasing criticism from militant secular groups as well as some progressive Catholic groups about the diplomatic activities of the Holy See in international arenas.
Whatever the results of this campaign, there will likely be similar efforts in the future. Sensing the significance of the issue at stake, pro-Vatican lobbyists have reacted by launching their own “Holy See Campaign” in support of the Vatican at the United Nations.
(Catholics for a Free Choice, http://www.catholicsforchoice.org; the pro-Vatican Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, http://www.c-fam.org)
— By Jean-François Mayer
Freemasons are having a quiet yet noticeable impact on Islam in much of the Middle East, reports the French quarterly on the Arab and Muslim world, Cahiers de l’Orient.
The journal devoted its latest issue to Freemasonry in Muslim countries and in an interview with the French newsweekly L’Express (May 29), Antoine Sfeir, editor of the journal, reports that there are some indications of a renewal of Freemasonry in this region of the world, where it has often been suppressed and consequently tends to remain very secretive. While the Western roots of Freemasonry associated it with colonization, it was also a channel for indigenous people eager to modernize their countries and to obtain independence.
Today, Freemasonry has strong roots in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and in Israel. It used to be very influential in Iran, but it lost much ground following the Islamic Revolution. Freemasonry is nearly non existent in the Arabic Peninsula, except among expatriates staying there.
Freemasons in the Muslim world tend not to make their affiliation known, due to well-grounded fears. There are about 10,000 Freemasons in Israel, and figures for Turkey and Iran are reported to be similar. It is more difficult to get statistical estimates for other countries in the Middle East. For the past five years, there has been a renaissance in Lebanon and Syria.
In Syria, Freemasons are primarily found among the Alawi minority, which is in control of the country: consequently, a number of high-ranking people in the current regime are reported to be Freemasons, and the late President, Hafez al-Assad, was rumored to belong.
Sfeir claims that there has been an influence by Freemasons on some contemporary developments in the Middle East: for instance, their role has apparently been prominent in promoting family planning in Egypt, due to Masonic brotherhoods of medical doctors. There have also been cases of discrete dialogues between Freemasons belonging to mutually hostile countries, often meeting with each other in lodges abroad.
Finally, according to Sfeir’s assessment, attempts at developing a reformist interpretation of Islam come from intellectuals sometimes belonging to or influenced by Freemasonry.
(Cahiers de l’Orient, 60, rue des Cévennes, 75015 Paris, France; L’Express: http://www.l’express.fr)
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com)
01: A University of Rochester study finds that daily newspapers show “significant gaps in providing readers with an understanding of religious beliefs and practices.
The study, which examined 12 daily newspapers between Feb. 3 and March 2, found that the articles studied rarely explored the beliefs, values and practices of religion and instead described religion in political and legal terms, without using religious terms as a frame of reference. For instance a Los Angeles Times story on an orthodox Jewish request to erect a religious enclosure around the neighborhood to perform daily activities did not explain the teachings behind these actions. Other findings of the study were that Islamic practices were associated with terrorism in each paper studied.
Roman Catholicism was more often linked with criminal or bad behavior (such as sex abuse) than with Catholic beliefs or values, reports Cybercast News Service (May 12). In responding to the study, political analyst Michael Barone noted that the “amount of church news seemed to be proportionate to the church-going habits of the elites in a particular metropolitan area. In Dallas and Atlanta, where a lot of elite people go to church, they printed a lot more church news than in New York or Washington, where most of the elite don’t go to church.”
02: Two recent findings suggest that Buddhists tend to be happier and calmer than other people.
BBC News (May 21) summarizes research from the University of California San Francisco Medical Center where it was found that the practice of Buddhist meditation can tame the amydgala, an area of the brain which is the hub of fear memory. Researchers found that subjects who were practicing Buddhists were less likely to be shocked, flustered, surprised or as angry in comparisons to other people.
The head researcher Paul Ekman concluded that “The most reasonable hypothesis is that there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek.” A separate study conducted through new brain scanning techniques at the University of Wisconsin at Madison confirms previous studies showing unique brain activity in the left prefrontal lobes of experienced Buddhist practitioners.
This area is linked to positive emotions, self control and temperament. Their tests showed that this area of the Buddhists’ brains are constantly lit up and not just when they are meditating “We can now hypothesize with some confidence that those apparently happy, calm Buddhist souls one regularly comes across in places such as Dharmsala, India [home to the Dalai Lama] really are happy,” said Duke University’s Owen Flanagan.
03: A preliminary study of faith-based social services in job training and placement in three states suggests that these groups are less effective than secular agencies.
The study, conducted by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, looked at faith-based and secular social service providers in Massachusetts, Indiana and North Carolina. There was the same rates of job placement between secular and faith-based providers, with the jobs offering similar hourly wages. It was found that clients of faith-based employment providers work substantially fewer hours per week and are less likely to be offered health insurance.
While the organizational networks of providers with a strong faith influence was the weakest, 57 percent of these providers report that contracting with the state in providing these services have affected their mission, leading to greater community involvement. The study also found that congregational leaders lacked knowledge about the constitution’s views on violations of church/state separation. Congregational leaders averaged a score of 66 percent on a simple questionnaire testing constitutional knowledge, such as that tax dollars cannot pay for religious activities such as prayer and Bible study.
(For more information on this study email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
04: The practice of tithing has signiicantly declined in the past year, according to a study by the Barna Research Group.
The portion of U.S. households giving one-tenth of their income to their church dropped from eight percent in 2001 to three percent in 2002, according to the study. George Barna attributed the 62 percent decline to a number of factors: the failing economy, the fear of terrorism and the war in Iraq, and the scandals involving the Catholic Church, which reduced some people’s confidence in organized religion. Those most likely to tithe are people 55 or older, college graduates, Republicans, Southerners, middle-income individuals and evangelicals and those from mainline Protestant churches.
Those least likely to tithe are Catholics, Hispanics, liberals, parents who homeschool their children, Midwesterners, independent voters and households making less than $20,000 whose head had not graduated from college.
05: Canada is showing a growth of unaffiliated individuals, although in some cases immigration is helping stem the flow out of the churches, according to recent census figures.
Canadians who indicated “no religion” on the census account for 16 percent of the population, increasing by four percent from the 1991 census. The percentage of mainline Protestants continued to decline, showing a decline of eight percent (mainly due to a failure to recruit new members to replace aging members) , reports the Toronto Star (May 14) Immigration has particularly bolstered the number of Catholics, now about 12.8 million, as well as, to a lesser extent, the Jews (growing by 3.7 percent because of immigration from the former Soviet Union).
Yet the growth of the unaffiliated may actually be due to immigration, ; one-fifth of the 1.8 million immigrants to Canada between 1991 and 2001 said they had no religion, especially those from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Sociologist Reginald Bibby disputes the idea that Canada is becoming more secular; about 40 percent of those not claiming a religion are under 25 and are likely to turn to a faith when they get older and are in need of rites of passage.
06: Saudi Arabia registered the most serious violations in religious freedom among 15 countries cited in the annual report by the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom.
The commission, the only government agency in the world investigating and reporting religious freedom violations, cited Saudi Arabia’s deportations, arrests, and even torture of foreign Christians in the country. The nation’s special religious police gives similar treatment to Shi’ite Muslim clergy and scholars. Vietnam, China and North Korea were also at the top of the list, particularly as religious freedom has declined in Vietnam since Congress passed a bilateral-trade agreement in 2001.
The commission also criticized the U.S. government for stonewalling human rights activists concerned about the growing repression in Afghanistan.
The growing popularity of Yoga now includes children, with an increasing number of schools offering courses on the spiritual and physical discipline.
Voice of America (May 20) reports that both private and public schools offer yoga classes, although these courses tend to stress the “relaxing” effect of the technique more than its Hindu content. The introduction of yoga into the public schools has generated some controversy, as parents concerned with the Eastern religious identity of yoga charge that it infringes on the separation of church and state.
Gretchen Maisch, who has helped introduce yoga in Washington, D.C. area schools says that while traditional yoga may involve Hindu spiritual principles, the classes combine exercise with storytelling based on messages about love or honesty or courage. She adds that yoga is a healthy way for children to deal with fear and uncertainty in the world.
Maisch leads students to chant for peace (using the Hindu word “shanti”) in the world and their own lives.
Christian comedy is finding a place in evangelical churches as well as “crossing over” and receiving a hearing in the secular world, reports Charisma magazine (May).
The new interest in comedy is not just about humor in sermons; comedy is now intentionally used as a tool for evangelism both in churches and secular venues. Steven Lawson writes that “Whereas Youth With A Mission’s and Jews for Jesus’ mirthy antics — which often featured whimsical street drama as an entree to evangelism–were once seen as extreme, today every other church in America seems to follow the Willow Creek [a megachurch] include-a-comedy-bit-on-Sunday morning mantra.”
Several of the pastors in churches practicing such “entertainment evangelism” have even turned to stand-up comedy full-time. Other congregations use the growing number of national Christian comedy acts in their services, such as the Gospel Komedy Slamm and Isaac Air Freight.
With the recent formation of the Christian Comedy Coalition, clean comedians [those not using off-color humor], Christians who do comedy, Christian comics and church comedians have come together under one umbrella to share resources and techniques. As with Contemporary Christian Music, there appears to be a tendency to bring Christian comedy into the mainstream.
Lawson reports that non-Christian crowds “these days at least seem to be more receptive to Christian comics,” with some clubs even featuring a “Christian night.”
(Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746)
The International Churches of Christ, an evangelical group known for its strict and controversial teachings, is in a state of decline and fragmentation due to a crisis in its leadership.
The Boston Globe (May 17) reports that the group, once boasting a membership of 135,000 members worldwide, is facing massive defections and financial problems after its charismatic leader Thomas “Kip” McKean stepped down from leadership. McKean resigned after his daughter defected from the church, which was in accord with a church rule that leaders should step down if their children leave the movement.
The movement has suffered strains for years, often concerning authoritarian leadership over members’ personal lives and aggressive recruiting techniques, especially on college campuses where it was labeled a cult. McKean;s resignation ignited a firestorm of demands for reform, including a widely circulated letter from one leader citing the church with “coercive giving,”. violations of personal liberties and inflating its growth rate. Dozens of other leaders have apologized for their actions and the central governing body has been dissolved, basically making each congregation self-standing.
That, along with large scale firings and a cut back in missions fund makes the future of the church uncertain.
Muslim activists and organizations are pressing for greater Islamic inclusion in a society symbolized by the “Judeo-Christian” model.
National Muslim groups such as the American Muslim Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim American Society are trying to popularize such terms and concepts as “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” or “Abrahamic” (referring to Abraham) to include Islam as an American religion on par with Christianity and Judaism.
“The new language should be used “in all venues where we normally talk about Judeo-Christian Values, starting with the media, academia, statements by politicians and comments made in churches, synagogues and other places,” says Agha Saeed of the American Muslim Alliance, a political group headquartered in Fremont, Calif.
Aside from Muslim groups, such ecumenical organizations as the National Council of Churches have also joined the fledgling movement to drop or change the “Judeo-Christian.” The change is necessary and of symbolic importance for Muslims trying to find their role in the U.S. after Sept. 11 and the Iraq war, according to proponents.
The strongest opposition so far has come from evangelical groups and leaders. Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals said “a lot of the ideas that underpin civil liberties come from Judeo-Christian theology. What the Islam community needs to make are positive contributions to culture and society so we can include them.”
In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, many observers forecasted that the U.S. church and particularly its bishops would lose much of their political influence on social issues.
But, according to Notre Dame sociologist David Yamane, the bishops’ political influence has not significantly suffered since the scandals of 2002. In Commonweal magazine (May 23), Yamane writes that a study he is conducting on bishops’ role in state suggests that much of Catholic political action is separate from the bishops’ influence (and reputations) through the church’s state conferences. The scandal in some cases did forestall other initiatives, especially in addressing legislation on the statute of limitations and clergy reporting of sexual abuse cases.
But there were other Catholic political victories. Among these, Iowa became just the second state to ban reproductive and therapeutic human cloning; the bill was introduced and advocated in the legislature by the Iowa Catholic Conference. In Oregon, the state conference put through a bill where health-care payers receive a conscience exemption on services that might be objectionable on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions. These state conferences are becoming increasingly important with the devolution of many social issues from the federal government to the state level, such as capital punishment, welfare, health care and abortion.
The concerns about the decline of bishop’s influence due to the scandals has centered on the church’s religious authority structure. But the state conferences — entities that have not received much attention from scholars and journalists — also have what Yamane calls an “agency structure” that carries out much of the “messier legislative agenda” apart from the bishops’ religious authority.
In his research, Yamane finds that the state conferences are increasingly sophisticated; a majority of the conferences consider legislative experience as the ideal background for the job. He concludes that the scandal is more localized than many realize, especially since a small minority of bishops have been directly implicated in any misconduct or cover-up. Although state conferences are the public-policy voice of the bishops, these agencies tend not to reflect the agenda of particular bishops.
They are more likely to invoke the tradition of Catholic social teachings as outlined in encyclicals and pastoral statements.
(Commonweal, 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, NY 10115)