In This Issue
- On/File: June 2004
- Findings & Footnotes: June 2004
- Russian Orthodox reconciliation in the works?
- France ponders future of Islamic leadership after controversies
- Current Research: June 2004
- Growth of Canadian Christian radio seen as media alternative
- Conservative Christian women engage in activism from home
- The Charismatic/Pentecostal deficit in Evangelical publishing
- Black church conflicted on gay marriage issue
- Religious diversity and challenges flourish online
01: Church of Fools, undertaken by the British Christian magazine, the Ship of Fools, is one of the first fully virtual churches.
Going online for three months starting from May 11, this 3D church creates a virtual sanctuary where people literally from all over the world meet for worship. Upon entering the church, one can choose a character and chat with other people visiting. Or one can discover the church as a ghost. In either case, a visitor can walk around the church’s sanctuary and crypt, and choose special gestures (such as kneeling or typing “amen”) to enhance the worship experience.
Visitors should be warned that this Methodist Church- sponsored virtual church is difficult to enter, especially for the regular thirty minute Sunday service starting at 9 p.m. (UK time). Yet, it provides a unique new church experience available via one’s monitor 24 hours, 7 days a week. (Source: http://shipoffools.com/church/index.html)
— By Sairenji Ayako, a New Jersey-based freelance writer and researcher
01: The Revealer is a new daily Web review on the press and religion issued by New York University’s Center on Religion and the Media. The website (or blog) covers a wide range of media — from conservative evangelical books and magazines to the Jewish press to daily newspapers, radio and magazines.
The site takes a postmodern “media studies” approach, seeking to interpret (and “deconstruct”) the meanings and symbols in such discourse. For instance, a recent article compares the depiction of the torture of Iraqi prisoners to images of the Inquisition.
Less esoteric articles include a review of PBS’ Frontline documentary on the faith and politics of George Bush, a look at the New York Review of Books’ tendency to dismiss religion, and an in-depth analysis on the religion coverage of National Public Radio. NPR’s recent coverage reflects a trend of the media to acknowledge the importance of religion.
“It is a broader, less disaster-oriented examination of religion that seems, despite its deliberately neutral, accepting and calming tone, like a new form of activist journalism: a good-faith effort to reintroduce faith to public discourse as something non-threatening, non-crusading, non-jihadist.”
The site’s address is: http://www.therevealer.org
02: The new book, Christianity Reborn: The Global Expansion of Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century (Eerdmans, $40), edited by Donald M. Lewis, provides a much needed account of evangelical growth and diversity the world over. The first half of the book looks at the evangelical expansion throughout the world through missionary endeavors in the 18th through 20th centuries, while the second half focuses on how evangelicals have become both a global and indigenous religious force in specific regions and countries.
Echoing many other recent accounts, the contributors see evangelicalism as the main form of global Protestantism, but they are less optimistic about its impact in many contexts. A chapter on China finds a sleeping giant in the evangelical churches, although the conflict between various camps (official versus non-official churches) may weaken their overall influence. In India, the growing conflict between Hindus and evangelicals on the matter of conversion reveals tensions in the evangelical community between those working in the context of Hindu culture and those (often with ties to the U.S.) demonizing the religion.
In southern Africa, the indigenous African Independent Churches (AIC) are showing themselves to be distinct from much of the Pentecostal movement on the continent, developing unique community and ecological action programs. Sociologist David Martin concludes with an essay mapping global evangelical growth, suggesting that the movement (particularly in its Pentecostal/charismatic dimensions) will have its greatest impact in Asia, Latin America, Africa and parts of Eastern Europe, especially appealing to uprooted and marginalized populations and to minority ethnic groups in search of identity.
For the first time since the break with the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) in 1927, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR).
Metropolitan Laurus, made an official visit to Russia in the second half of May and has had discussions with Patriarch Alexy II as well as with other Russian Church hierarchs and with President Putin, who has been active in encouraging reconciliation between the two branches of Russian Orthodoxy. As reported in RW (January 2002), the issue of dialogue with the MP was one of the motives for a group from ROCOR in America and Europe to break with it in 2001.
Patriarch Alexy emphasized that there is a new type of relations between church and state in Russia today, and that “the Church is free,” although there are common tasks which should be solved in cooperation with the State. The meetings and visits to various holy places around Russia have not yet led to a full restoration of relations between the two religious bodies.
However, a timetable has already been set for the forthcoming work of the joint commissions. According to statement by ROCOR’s Archbishop Mark (Germany), quoted by the French Service Orthodoxe de Presse (June 2004), it seems that there are projects to remove any overlapping ecclesial structures, which would mean the integration of MP Orthodox parishes in the West with ROCOR, while a solution should also be found for the small parishes created by ROCOR in Russia in recent decades.
It remains to be seen if the dialogue will lead to a full reunification or only full communion. Anyway, the views within ROCOR regarding the current moves remain quite divided. ROCOR is reported to have some 250 parishes around the world, with its strongest presence in the United States.
(Service Orthodoxe de Presse, 14 rue Victor-Hugo, 92400 Courbevoie, France – www.orthodoxpress.com – Websites:
MP – http://www.mospat.ru/e_startpage; ROCOR – http://www.russianorthodoxchurch.ws/english/)
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
After French authorities recently tried to expel an Algerian imam who had apparently justified his wife’s beating based upon religious principles, as well as expelling a self-proclaimed imam who had told his congregation to rejoice about Madrid’s bombings, the issue of training the future religious leaders of French Islam increasingly appears as a key issue.
The new French interior minister, Dominique de Villepin, has recently said that the country needed clerics trained in a moderate Islam that respects human rights and democratic principles, reports The Guardian (April 23). Currently, most of the imams have received their training, if any, abroad. There are some private Muslim theological institutes in France, but most of them welcome students on a part-time basis and usually affiliated with one specific current of Islam.
However, Villepin also said that French secular principles forbid the government to organize such a training program of its own and that this should rather be the task of the Muslim Council elected last year with the strong encouragement of the French government. The council is considered as representative of the Muslim population in France.
It has suggested in May that acting imams should receive additional training, especially in order to make them more familiar with French language, history, and society. It was also recommended that private institutes should give practical training to future imams (e.g. preaching) during a two year cycle. Moreover, the council would like to encourage the development of theologians and suggested that a Department of Islamic Studies should be created for that purpose at the University of Strasbourg.
For historical reasons, church-state separation as it exists in other parts of France deson’t apply to the Alsatian area, where Strasbourg is located. However, any project is and will be slowed down by competing groups within French Islam, which want to have imams trained at the private institutes they have already created, reports the newspaper Liberation (May 15 and 17).
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
01: Although evangelicals have been viewed as uniformly holding an anti-Islamic and pro-Israel agenda, there are significant differences on these issues in American evangelicalism, according to a new study.
In the Brandywine Review of Faith & International Affairs (Spring), Dennis R. Hoover writes that American evangelicals have increasingly been labeled in the media as supporting a “civilization fight” (to paraphrase Samuel Huntington) between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West. But in conducting a content analysis of the two main evangelical publications, Christianity Today and the newsweekly World, Hoover finds important distinctions.
Christianity Today, representing more moderate or “mainstream” evangelicals, soft-pedaled the idea of inevitable conflict between Islam and the West in its coverage in the two years after 9/11. Articles about evangelizing Muslims and religious persecution of missionaries were the most prominent kinds of articles in the magazine during this period. World (which more closely reflects the positions of the Christian Right), in contrast, clearly took a harder line, stressing the violent nature of much of Islam and criticizing news coverage that was viewed as favorably biased toward the religion.
In a “qualitative review” of the secular media’ treatment of evangelicals and Israel, Hoover finds overwhelming attention paid to evangelicals and fundamentalists with pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian views. But journalists tended to “drop the ball” when it came to evangelicals who are more critical of Israel and supportive of Palestinian rights.
He concludes that “This is no minor oversight, for alternative views, while perhaps in the minority, are nonetheless far more widespread in evangelicalism than the conventional wisdom presumes.”
(Brandywine Review of Faith & International Affairs, 1300 Eagle Rd., St. Davids, PA 19087)
02: Increases in educational levels are occurring across the religious spectrum, “regardless of whether adherents belong to congregations in denominations . . . that are classified as liberal, moderate, or fundamentalist,” reports the current issue of the demographic newsletterVisions (Vol. 5, Number 5).
In analyzing General Social Survey figures from 1984-2002, the newsletter notes that liberal religious adherents continue to hold their edge in educational levels, as they have historically. In the 2002, General Social Survey, three-fifths of liberal adherents had at least 13 years of schooling, compared to 54 percent of moderate adherents and 44 percent of fundamentalist adherents.
But over the past two decades, the level of schooling has risen among all three religious orientations. Since 1984-85, fundamentalist adherents have decreased in the proportion of adults who are least educated and have gained sharply in those persons with 13-16 years of schooling. Liberal adherents have become even better educated, with those having more than 16 years of schooling increasing by one-third.
On the whole, the newsletter adds, attenders of religious services appear to be better educated than the general populace. For example, the U.S. Congregational Life Survey (which polled 300,000 worshippers in a wide range of religious congregations) found that 38 percent of respondents had at least a college degree, compared with 23 percent of the general population.
(Visions, P.O. Box 94144, Atlanta, GA 30377)
03: An online poll of singles by the website Match.com found that two-thirds of them are at least open to the idea of dating someone whose religious upbringing and beliefs may differ from their own.
The informal poll found that only 26.5 percent would not date outside of their own faith and that it is important that their partner shares their beliefs. Thirty seven percent said that religion was not a decisive factor in determining who they will or won’t date, while an almost identical percentage were somewhat more concerned about finding a partner of comparable faith, yet did not rule out the possibility of dating someone from another background. While many — about 60 percent — said they value religion in their lives, they expressed openness to the idea that people of “at least somewhat different” faiths can intertwine beliefs and sustain a successful romance.
04: Is the failure of churches to minister to youth through Sunday schools almost a half century ago behind much of the decline of the churches in England?
That is the argument of Rachel Coupe writing inQuadrant (May), the newsletter of the Christian Research Association. Coupe maintains that the huge loss of children from British churches in the 1950s is attributable to church policy as well as to cultural factors, playing a big part in the drop in current church attendance. What is called the “fifties freefall” refers to the sudden dip in Sunday school attenders between 1955 and 1960.
Coupe writes that the policy of encouraging children to attend church with their families and thus merging the old style Sunday school with the morning service initially tended to boost attendance figures. But children soon left the church at an earlier age and new children failed to arrive.
Coupe concludes that “It is possible that this change in policy caused the church to lose half its children over one generation…Although few Sunday Scholars became church members, most became nominal Christians who came to church for weddings, baptisms and funerals….There are observable consequences caused by the church reaching significantly less children since the late 50s: church membership is currently strong amongst retired people. Below retirement age there is a drop in membership with each successive generation…”
(Quadrant, 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London, SE9 2TZ)
05: Eritrea, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam have recently been added to the list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the world’s only government sanctioned organization investigating and reporting on religious freedom, recommended the additions because they had “egregious, systematic and continuous” violations of religious freedom. The list currently comprises Burma, China, North Korea, Sudan, Iran, and Iraq.
The Washington Times (May 13) reports that the commission also recommended that Iraq be removed since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The Christian media, particularly radio, in Canada is expanding, serving as a new alternative to the secular media, reports the Canadian evangelical magazine Faith Today (May/June).
“Whether it be radio, television, print or web, new Christian alternatives are popping up quicker than ever before and non-Christian audiences appear to be growing. In radio alone, more than 30 Christian stations have grown from a handful seven years ago,” writes Gail Reid.
While the U.S. dwarfs Canada with a vast network of Christian stations, the alternative function played by these new stations may be significant. These new Christian — largely evangelical — stations place a greater priority on providing a distinctly Christian perspective on current events and promoting a Christian lifestyle rather than on evangelism, especially as secular stations, such as the Canadian Broadcasting Company, are perceived as taking a more explicitly secular and anti-Christian slant (a survey of evangelicals featured in the article found that about 70 percent say the media in Canada rarely portrays Christians with fairness).
Another factor in the growth of these stations is that southern gospel music has become increasingly popular in Canada. With the growth of Internet and satellite technology, the article concludes that Christian radio in Canada has entered a new phase of maturity, “to the point that some…stations are actually focusing on gaining audience from their mainstream rivals.”
(Faith Today, M.I.P. Box 3745, Markham, ON L3R 0Y4)
Conservative Christian “stay-at-home moms” are increasingly entering the ranks of pro-family activism, reports World magazine (May 15).
The magazine reports that there is an “emerging group of women who have faced a choice: Continue in paid work in support of conservative values or stay home to nurture their kids….Instead they’re working part-time from home, advocating for family values in public while living them out in private.”
This development is part of a larger trend as the Census Bureau reports that labor force participation among mothers of infant children recently showed the first significant drop (four percent) in 25 years. The article notes that some mother-activists feel conflicted over taking a salary, viewing their voluntary work as a ministry.
(World, P.O. Box 2001, Asheville, NC 28802)
Although charismatics are the biggest buyers of Christian books, Pentecostal and charismatic works remain underrepresented in the theological offerings of evangelical publishers.
In Books & Culture (May/June), Arlene Sanchez-Walsh writes that a combination of remaining anti-intellectualism among Pentecostals and a rationalistic bias among evangelical gatekeepers has excluded the publication of scholarly work from Christians of this tradition. In interviewing charismatic and Pentecostal scholars, Sanchez Walsh writes that most “agree that evangelical presses do not seem interested in having Pentecostals write for their academic divisions because they view Pentecostal theology as inferior.”
Although Pentecostals and charismatics are branching out to write scholarly works on a host of theological issues, particularly evident in the flourishing Society of Pentecostal Studies, evangelical presses and journals are “content with funneling those authors into categories that presumably only Pentecostals can write about. Baker Books, for instance, has a division called Chosen Books, where popular charismatic authors can ply their trade on topics such as revival, prophecy, spiritual warfare, and other assorted experientially based subjects.
It is not unlike the ghettoization of ethnic minorities in the evangelical press.” Sanchez Walsh adds that evangelical publishers are using their academic book divisions to “dilenate what is and is not orthodox.” But she concludes that the rapid growth of Pentecostalism will likely challenge evangelicals to make more room for works explaining and exploring this phenomenon.
(Books & Culture, 365 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
American black churches are ambivalent and in many cases opposed to the prospect of gay marriage– a reality that is likely to forestall wider, ecumenical church support for this measure.
An article in Baptists Today (June) reports that aside from the conservative Church of God in Christ and a few activists on the left, “most black denominations have not come out of the closet with their views on the controversy.” Polls have shown differences across racial and religious lines concerning gay marriage.
A Pew survey last year showed that while opposition to gay marriage dropped in the overall population, it has remained stable among blacks (at about 65 percent). A recent poll released by Religion & Ethics Newsweeklyfound that 65 percent of blacks opposed gay marriage while 77 percent of black evangelicals opposed the measure. Black pastors are generally more liberal than their congregations, “so staying quiet about their support of gay marriage may be a form of job protection,” writes Adelle M. Banks.
Atlanta-area pastor Woodrow Walker II says that the “jury is still out on the issue in the African-American church.” But Walker is among a number of black pastors who have protested against same-sex marriage measures. Such opposition has been intensified by the attempt to link the gay marriage cause to the civil rights struggle, even bringing such liberal activists as Jesse Jackson to speak out in protest. The Chicago Tribune (May 27) quotes one black church leader as saying that the gay rights issue may cause black communities to become more diversified in politics and think twice about their traditional vote for Democratic candidates.
Meanwhile, the division and ambivalence on the issue among black denominations has prompted the liberal National Council of Church — which has seven black church bodies among its 36 member communions — to remain silent as well.
(Baptists Today, P.O. Box 6318, Macon, GA 31208-6318)
The availability of the Internet and other technologies offers new opportunities for religious groups to present themselves in both new and traditional forms. But such technology also gives rise to new challenges, especially during controversies.
One case study of how the Internet and satellite television has been instrumental in reshaping a religious organization can be seen in the controversial career of the guru Maharaji. Although many observers and scholars dismissed the movement inspired by the Eastern guru as losing energy and form by the 1980s, he has been able to reinvent himself and his group with the help of the Internet and other technology, according to the journal Nova Religio (March).
Known as the controversial boy guru in the 1970s, Maharaji founded the Divine Light Mission to perpetuate his quasi-Hindu teachings. But due to internal dissent in his family (most notably over his much publicized marriage) and instability in the organization, by the 1980s academics and the media predicted Maharaji and his message was headed for extinction.
Ron Greaves writes that Maharaji has kept his teachings alive by adopting a pragmatic and flexible approach that de-emphasized organizational structure. Divine Light Mission was abandoned and replaced by Elan Vital in the late 1980s, which removed any Indian trappings and closed down its ashrams, stressing its message of self-knowledge and individual experience for an international audience.
“Throughout the 1990s, more people were receiving the techniques of self-knowledge worldwide than in the heady days of the early 1970s,” Greaves writes. The full-time leaders were “demystified” to become instructors, and members no longer felt themselves to be part of a “sectarian movement” but rather a loosely connected group of individuals who came together on occasion to receive inspiration from Maharaji, often through the use of videos.
In 2002, Elan Vital morphed again into the Prem Rawat Foundation, and with the help of satellite and Internet technology Maharaji’ s teaching has been further individualized, focusing on the student-teacher relationship. Followers can now tune into Maharaji’s teachings (highlights from his recent tours) in their own homes, while his websites provide the “means for those who wish to communicate the message to download and create their own publicity materials.”
Considerable networking still takes place through email conferencing and local and national meetings of active volunteers. Greaves concludes that Maharaji has “chosen a route of perpetual transformation in which organizational forms are created and utilized and then destroyed…above all to keep his students focused on the core message rather than the peripheral requirements of organizational forms.”
The Web does not only offer opportunities for religious movements, new and old ones. The development of the Internet has offered unprecedented opportunities for disaffected members and other critics of religious groups. Even somebody with limited financial means is now able to launch a campaign with international impact, making it quite difficult for a controversial group to escape scrutiny, even if it changes location.
The pressure created by the Internet may also have played a role in leading Elan Vital to adopt a more open approach, since there used to be some quite active, critical websites, such as http://www.ex-premie.org (still online, but no longer updated since 2003), as well as online forums.
Another recent instance of this is described in an article by Frank Langfitt, in the Baltimore Sun (May 15). Former and current members of Greater Grace World Outreach (originally called The Bible Speaks, led by Pastor Carl H. Stevens Jr.) have been using a bulletin board to air criticism against the church, and postings come from as far as India and Argentina.
On the Factnet message board (http://www.factnet.org/discus/messages/3/3.html), Greater Grace has had the largest number of postings (except for Scientology). Dozens of messages for or against the church are posted every day. While some faithful members refuse to read the bulletin board, others do it, if only for responding to criticism, thus becoming exposed to it as well.
In a different way than Maharaji, Kemetic Orthodoxy, an Egyptian revival religion, has found its following largely through communication on the Internet while retaining a more traditional structure, according to the journal Sociology of Religion (Summer). The faith seeks to recover the religion of ancient Egypt, though ritual largely conducted through the Internet, although a center was recently opened in Chicago.
The group’s website, located at http://www.netjer.org, offers discussion, classes, counseling and biweekly worship services. What is worth noting about this small movement is that while those studying Internet religions (such as various Neopagan movements) have postulated that it is the decentralized, individualistic and experientially-oriented new religions that thrive in this medium, Kemetic Orthodox is hierarchical, centralized under one leader, and stresses tradition rather than personal experience.
(Nova Religio, University of California Press, 2000 Center St., #303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223; Sociology of Religion, 3520 Wiltshire Dr., Holiday, FL 34691-1239)
— This article was written with Jean-Francois Mayer, RW contributing editor and founder of Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com)