In This Issue
- On/File: March 2004
- Findings & Footnotes: March 2004
- Changes afoot in the Muslim brotherhood
- Religion fighting or fueling Sicily’s mafia?
- Current Research: March 2004
- New funerals break from tradition
- Salvation Army’s return to roots brings new divisions
- Evangelical fiction crosses over to secular world
- ‘Passion’s’ ecumenical and evangelical appeal
- Immigrant Christians replacing mainline’s declining ranks?
On/File: March 2004
01: The fledgling website, www.catholicscholars.net represents a new attempt to steer the media to sources and referrals on the conservative side of the church spectrum.
Conservative Catholics have long complained that the media reflects the views of liberal and dissenting Catholic theologians and spokespeople and ignores the perspectives of more traditional members as well as the church leadership most closely in step with the pope.
The site lists scholars by expertise and by state who are members of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a leading conservative Catholic academic association.
02: New Generation is a growing Scandinavian-based evangelical youth movement that views the public schools as a mission field for evangelization.
Founded in Oslo, Norway in 1996 and then expanding to Sweden, the group has had unusual success in gaining evangelical converts in a strongly secular environment. Students lead outreach events, prayer meetings and engaging in one-on-one evangelism, usually with school authorities’ permission. New Generation is now active in 200 Norwegian and 230 Swedish schools.
The movement does not take doctrinal positions related to any denomination and has thus gained wide acceptance among Scandinavian church organizations. More recently, the movement’s success has generated enough interest in to start chapters in Russia.
(Source: Charisma, March)
03: While it is difficult to assess claims that it brings a “silent revolution in education in Bangladesh”, the International Islamic University Chittagong (IIUC) represents on the Indian subcontinent an interesting example of attempts at an “Islamization of knowledge” found across the Muslim world.
Founded in 1995 thanks to new legal provisions allowing for the creation of private universities in Bangladesh, the IIUC has been growing rapidly and now counts 2,000 students in Chittagong and 1,500 at its campus in Dhaka, the country’s capital. A new campus is currently being built in Kumira (20 kms. from Chittagong), as RW could observe during an on-site visit in January: the new campus includes an impressive, modern library building. The success of the IIUC should not only be attributed to its Islamic orientations: private universities have become quite successful in Bangladesh (more than 50), for those who can afford to pay the fees, due to various problems and turmoil at the state universities.
Moreover, only a small minority of the students are primarily engaged in Islamic studies: most of them choose business administration, computer science or communication engineering. But all students have to attend some courses on Islam, the Quran and the life of Prophet Muhammad.
There is an emphasis on conveying ethical values to students. At a later stage, the founders of the IIUC hope to develop in various areas of knowledge (business sciences, social sciences, etc.) a curriculum enlightened by Islamic principles and knowledge.
The IIUC is one of the most recent initiatives deriving from an impetus launched by the first Islamic Educational World Conference held in Mecca in 1977, which produced recommendations for the Islamization of knowledge: other earlier instances have been the International Islamic University in Malaysia and the Islamic University of Islamabad in Pakistan.
— By Jean-François Mayer
Findings & Footnotes: March 2004
01: Vital Theology is an ambitious new newsletter that attempts to apply a broadly Christian theological critique to contemporary society and culture.
The newsletter, published 20 times a year, seeks to provide theological insights on current events and bridge the conservative/liberal divide by moving beyond contentious “culture war” issues to larger themes. The first issue of the newsletter (February 15), edited and published by United Methodist journalist David W. Reid, casts a critical eye on research into the health benefits of religion, and provides commentary on the state of college football and its loss of a “theological aesthetic” sense to the “cultural idolatry” represented by Michael Jackson.
A subscription costs $39 and is available from: Vital Theology, 2538 Tucker Court, Ft. Collins, CO 80526; http://www.vitaltheology.com
02: The American Religion Data Archive (ARDA), an extensive collection of survey data on religious attitudes and behavior (http://www.TheARDA.com), has recently completed a major upgrade.
Bar charts and pie charts are now available through an on-line analysis feature. Mapping upgrades allow users to compare two maps of a state or nation and receive correlations using congregational membership, census, crime, voting, and other kinds of data. All files can now be browsed categorically or alphabetically.
03: Most of the 19 contributors to the book Predicting Religion (Ashgate, $29.95) focus on the situation in the United Kingdom.
Editors Grace Davie, Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead have managed to bring together a variety of authors to focus on future developments and other observations regarding likely trends. Since contributors are primarily European, several of them emphasize the continuous decline of Christian churches.
Steve Bruce offers a long list: decline in church attendance and in membership, erosion of Christian beliefs, indifference, little influence on major debates, etc.: “Three decades from now, Christianity in Britain will have largely disappeared”, with Christian membership and church attendance falling below five percent (Rob Hirst sees the same scenario, but less rapid: by year 2050).
Liberal Christianity will vanish first, according to Bruce, due to its inability to transmit its legacy to future generations, but conservative churches will liberalize and consequently follow them on the way to decline. Martyn Percy considers the future of Charismatic Christianity as less bright than many tend to believe: it has reached its peak and its future is troublesome, since – says Percy – it lacks a “real theology”.
In a somewhat less affirmative way than Bruce, Bryan Wilson also thinks that current secularizing trends are likley to persist : the electronic revolution might even have more profound secularizing effects in the 21st century. However, other articles either nuance or partly dispute the expected consequences of secularization. Helen Cameron has no doubt that the Church of England will continue to decline (which, among other things, will make it always more difficult for it to fulfill many unpaid tasks in parishes), but one might see more of other forms of affiliation with specific purposes (parachurch and other informal groups).
In a chapter about Wicca, Jo Pearson does not think that liberal Christianity will collapse: its reluctance toward institutional dogma is “wholly in line with the Zeitgeist,” and it is exactly what has allowed Wicca to proliferate. Consequently, rather than disappear, Christianity in Britain will be transformed. And if Christianity is to become “the ultimate victim of the democratic spirit,” suggests S.J.D. Green, it won’t lead to a “rule of reason,” but to a “different kind of religion.” (In this multifaceted book, readers will also find chapters on Quakers, astrology, New Age, cyberspace, gay and lesbian Christians — among other topics.)
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
04: Hare Krishna ($12.95) is the latest book in the Studies in Contemporary Religion series from Signature Books.
The 100-page book (with photos), by Federico Squarcini and Eugenio Fizzotti, provides a concise history and overview of current trends in the ISKCON (or International Society for Krishna Consciousness) — from the early foundations of the movement in Hindu India to its launch in the U.S. in the 1960s to the numerous dilemmas and declines (from child and sex abuse charges to financial mismanagement) that Hare Krishnas have faced in the last decade.
The authors write that the group is still struggling with the change from a religious order of full-time devotees to a more typical denomination with congregations and lay members, mainly of the second generation.
Other pressing issues facing ISKCON include: the legitimacy of successors to the founder Bhaktivedanta and the resulting power struggles, interfaith involvement, and the need for education. The many schools the movement ran were shut down due to scandals and a population shift among members. To remedy the situation, several accredited institutes of higher education have been founded, such as the Institute for Vaisnava Studies in Berkeley, Calif. and the Oxford (UK) Centre for Vaisnava and Hindu Studies.
Changes afoot in the Muslim brotherhood
A new generation of leaders is rising in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which might lead to changes in this influential Islamist movement, reports Paul Schemm in Middle East International (Jan. 23).
On Jan. 9, Ma’mun al-Hudaybi passed away at the age of 83. He was the last major figure of his generation. While the new leader, Muhammad Mahdi Akef, is nearly as old (75) and is considered “old guard,” his ascent to the leadership might allow the rise of younger leaders in their 40s and 50s with a political experience gained first on campuses in the 70s, according to several Egyptian analysts.
The new leader, who is more comfortable with the media than his predecessor, denies that there is any generational conflict within the Brotherhood. He is indeed reported to have “better relations with the middle aged generations than his predecessor”. But internal divisions within the group, especially the pressure of younger generations for more internal democracy, might become more apparent.
(Middle East International, 1 Gough Square, London, EC4A 3DE; UK;http://meionline.com)
— By Jean-François Mayer
Religion fighting or fueling Sicily’s mafia?
Ten years after a courageous struggle by the Catholic Church against Sicily’s Mafia, there is a loss of momentum in such efforts, even as religious and quasi-religious currents are now playing a prominent role in this criminal culture.
Britain’s The Tablet (Jan. 31) notes that 1993 marked the height of church protests against the Cosa Nostra, when the pope publicly condemned the crime organization and Fr. Pino Puglisi was murdered for his anti-Mafia activism. It seemed that the Mafia’s longtime ties to a complacent — and in some cases complicit — Catholicism had been broken, writes John Dickie.
But today the church has stepped back from confronting the Mafia, and is “more interested in celebrating a martyr [Puglisi] than in tackling the organization that killed him.”
Dickie writes that “recent research has revealed a majority of [the Mafia] membership, several thousand strong, profess themselves to be devout Catholics;”police raids regularly turn up private altars and images of Padre Pio and the Sacred heart in their hideaways. “There is something more disturbing at work here than just a self-interested borrowing of the paraphernalia of Christianity for evil purposes,” Dickie writes. The Mafia in Sicily is now believed to exist as a shadow state with religion serving as its “cultural glue.”
Cosa Nostra executions are seen as carrying out a “quasi-divine” justice and Mafiosi often refer to themselves as “`Christians’ or `Cristiani che corono’ — Christians on the run . . . Becoming a mafioso also means having a new identity, for which religious morality is often integral.” Although women have no role in the Cosa Nostra, their function of transmitting this religious culture in the home to the next generation is crucial, Dickie concludes.
(The Tablet, 1 King St., Clifton Walk, London W6 0Q2, UK)
Current Research: March 2004
01: The kind and degree of religious and spiritual experiences people seek out may be related to the level of the chemical serotonin in their brains, according to a new Swedish study. The study, conducted by Lars Farde of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and published in the November issue of the American Journal of Psychology, finds that receptivity to certain religious and spiritual practices may be linked to the density of one of 15 serotonin receptors in the brain.
Science & Religion News (March) cites the study as suggesting that those with a low density of serotonin receptors (related to anxiety and depression levels) tended to be more open to spiritual experiences.
Farde adds that “Whereas the higher levels go more with people who believe what they see with their eyes and are not so open to God or other aspects of religion.” The study was conducted by having test subjects (all men) undergo brain scans and answer a battery of questions on spiritual concerns. Farde says that the study’s findings do not explain a person’s belief system, but they can indicate why a person may be more inclined to a charismatic church as opposed to one with more order and tranquillity.
(Religion & Science News, P.O. Box 5065, Brentwood, TN 37024-5065)
02: Contrary to popular media interpretations, there has been no religious boom among young people in Japan in the 1980s and their relations with traditional Buddhist sects and Shinto shrines has weakened.
That is the main finding of surveys conducted from 1992 to 2001 and analyzed by Nobutaka Inoue in a recent publication from Tokyo’s Kokugakuin University, entitled Japanese College Students’ Attitudes Toward Religion. Some young people have been attracted to new religions (which often have created groups specifically meant for them), but also to New Age types of spiritual seeking outside of any commitment to an organized religious group.
While about half of Japanese college students tend to think that humans will continue to need religion, no matter how much science develops, the level of firm belief in a specific religious faith is very low. The Aum Shinrikyo incident has made it still lower: it appears that the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway by that apocalyptic group had a huge effect in worsening the image of religion in general (which was not very good among young Japanese before the event); 55.5 percent of Japanese college students said that their images of religion became “much worse” after the incident. It is interesting also to notice that most students don’t trust religious figures (Shinto priests, Buddhist monks, Christian ministers).
Interestingly, similar research conducted around the same time in Korea showed a significantly higher level of trust toward religious leaders there. Asked which religious figure they might wish to seek advice from, 21.4 percent of those interviewed in 2001 chose a Christian minister or nun, while only 11.8 percent would turn to a Buddhist monk and a meager 5.8 percent to a Shinto priest (i.e. less than a fortune teller, a category which gets 11.5 percent).
The fact that only a small percentage of respondents express a firm personal faith does not imply a lack of interest in religion. 50 to 60 percent believe in gods, Buddhas and/or spirits (spirits ranking highest from the three categories, and Buddhas lowest). As with young people in other parts of the world, a significant percentage is also attracted toward ideas conveyed by a religious subculture (interest for paranormal, occult, spiritual worlds, etc.).
Their information on those topics don’t rely on religious figures, but on knowledge derived from the popular media. Moreover, at least half of Japanese students still have an interest or participate in religious folk customs (largely transmitted by the family and local community)
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com)
New funerals break from tradition
Funerals are increasingly departing from traditional and somber rituals and assuming a more informal, flexible and celebratory nature, reports theNew York Times (Feb. 11).
Nationwide, but especially in the American West, funeral homes are embracing a trend known as “personalization,” where services are tailored to individual preferences. A deceased person’s ashes may be sent heavenward via helium balloons, or a minister may forsake the sermon and pass the microphone around to participants in a funeral service.
The development is a way of responding to the decline of the role of organized religions in funerals, according to funeral industry analyst Daniel Isard. Ten years ago, 90 percent of the deaths of Christians resulted in funeral visits and a service in a church or a chapel; today, only 60 percent of deaths result in both of these, says Isard.
He adds that “Our society is less formal, less dictated by formal relgions. It is more humanistic in dealing with death. Traditionally, ministers thought the eulogy was to make a person cry. People who attend a funeral like to see a two-to-one ratio — two laughs for every sob.” Thomas Long of Emory University says that these innovations represent a clear break from any funeral tradition. “It’s not as if old rituals are evolving to absorb new needs. It’s as if we’ve broken with tradition and people make things up.”
Salvation Army’s return to roots brings new divisions
As the Salvation Army attempts to reassert its religious roots, the organization is becoming increasingly torn between its religious and charitable functions, reports the New York Times (Feb. 2).
The Salvation Army branch in New York has served as the flashpoint in the conflict. Long regarded as the least religious in its programs, the New York division recently reasserted its evangelical identity, requiring all workers to sign a form promising to carry out the Salvation Army’s religious mission. Many were not even aware that there was a religious mission component to their work.
The action prompted a “mini-rebellion among some long-time employees who resent what they see as an intrusion into their personal lives and the potential for religious discrimination,” writes Daniel J. Wakin. Similar conflicts have occurred in the Salvation Army elsewhere in the U.S. during a new reorganization plan, according to church officials. Part of the plan includes the provision that more Salvation Army members be recruited for jobs in the organization.
Dissenting employees plan to file suit against the Salvation Army, claiming that because the group is receiving public funds it cannot discriminate religiously. Under the Bush administration’s welfare policy, it is easier for churches and other religious organizations to use public funds for distinctly faith-based social services.
Likely to intensify the conflict is the decision by the Salvation Army to use most of the recently donated $1.5 billion (by the Joan Kroc, wife of the founder of the McDonald’s chain) for educational and spiritual rather than social service purposes.
Evangelical fiction crosses over to secular world
As the burgeoning world of evangelical fiction grows more diverse, tensions are emerging over authors who are “crossing over” from the Christian to the secular markets.
The conflict is similar to the situation in the contemporary Christian music industry, where artists who seek to reach beyond the evangelical niche are accused of compromising their message. Charisma magazine (March) reports that Christian fiction has come a long way from plots about “the beautiful pioneer woman who falls in love with the widowed pastor. Characters in a sampling of Christian fiction published during the last year experienced contemporary problems: the death of parents or children, alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, divorce, losses associated with Sept. 11, homosexuality, cancer and drug use.”
The Christian fiction genre has particularly expanded in recent years to include subcategories that range from medical and legal thrillers to comedies. The Christys, an annual Christian fiction award, started in 2000 with 82 entries from 13 publishers has now grown to 137 entries from 26 publishers.
Christian fiction is now regularly published by such prominent secular houses as Penguin, Harper-Collins and Warner Books. With new authors signing on to big publishers, the lines are blurring between genres, leading many to wonder what makes a novel Christian in the first place, writes Natalie Nichols Gillespie. Some authors resent Christian publishers’ most of which are members of the Christian Booksellers Association) ban on off-color language and sex scenes and having their books shelved in the religion section away from other fiction and are seeking out secular publishers.
Some writers have been blackballed from the CBA publishers for their heterodox views, but other authors feel more censorship in portraying Christian themes in their fiction from secular publishers.
(Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746)
‘Passion’s’ ecumenical and evangelical appeal
Aside from generating controversy over its alleged anti-semitism, Mel Gibson’s new film, The Passion of The Christ, has become a new ecumenical icon among American evangelicals.
Gibson, an aderent to a traditionalist Catholicism that still views Protestants as heretics, is hailed in Christianity Today (March) as creating a vision of Christ that resonates with “all classical believers…In the history of modern evangelical enthusiasms [the movie] seems to be joining WWJD bracelets and Promise Keepers conferences as cultural markers.”
Promoters of the film have produced a “Passion lapel pin and witnessing card . . . Moving responses from oridinary believers and Christian celebrities havecirculated widely on the Internet, urging believers to see the movie. And Tyndale House has reinforced the movie’s influence by publishing The Passion, a coffee table book that integrates still photos from the filming with a harmony of the Passion accounts drawn from the New Living Translation.”
In the National Review (March 5), Ramesh Ponnuru writes that “In recent years there has been much discussion of `evangelicals and Catholics together.’ There has been joint political action and joint theological reflection. In the popular culture, this movie appears to be the most significant moment of such togetherness yet.” Writing in the New York Times Magazine (February 29), Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero agrees that “the culture wars no doubt have something to do with the evangelicals’ decision to close ranks with Gibson, who must be commended for so adroitly spinning the debate over his depiction of Jews into a battle between secular humanists and true believers.”
But the evangelical reception to the movie may mean that the portrayal of a “friendly Jesus” so popular in evangelical megachurches is “on the way out” and that the “self-esteem” gospel is being replaced by the “tough truths of the creed,” Prothero writes.
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
Immigrant Christians replacing mainline’s declining ranks?
Scholars and other observers of American religion are realizing that immigration is more likely to replenish the declining ranks of Christian churches than create sizable blocs of world religions in the country.
In Christian Century magazine (Feb. 10), sociologist R. Stephen Warner writes that the “new immigrants represent not the de-Christianization of American society but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity.” Warner notes that recent research shows two-thirds of immigrants are Christian and that even outside of the traditionally Christian immigrant sending countries, (such as Mexico) there is a large of segment of Christian immigrants, such as those from China, India and the Middle East.
Warner adds that with recent studies showing a large defection of mainly native-born Christians to the “no-religion” category, the Christian immigration is having a replenishing effect on the churches. While evangelicals and Catholics stand to gain the greatest percentage of adherents, the effect is also evident in the mainline churches.
Much of the recent mainline growth in immigrant communities is due to a change of strategy. The greater use of lay pastors in mainline denominations is spurring these churches’ expansion into new ethnic and immigrant communities, reports the Christian Science Monitor (Feb. 18).
The decision by mainline denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), to let laypeople baptize and preside at communion a few years ago to save ailing rural congregations is having the unintended effect of creating new urban ministries. These new churches are often led by laity who come out of immigrant and urban ethnic communities and can easily relate to the congregants in language and culture.
The link between lay pastors and expansion of ethnic congregations is suggested by church figures: Presbyterians have more than doubled the numbers of lay pastors since 1999 and during the same time have added black, Asian and Middle Eastern congregations while losing 126 largely white congregations. Between 1996 and 2001, the number of Asian lay pastors in the United Methodist Church has tripled from 19 to 59, while American Baptists and African Methodist Episcopalians are increasingly turning to pastors without seminary training to serve in urban immigrant congregations.
G. Jeffery MacDonald writes that the trend of forging new ties between immigrants and mainline churches “is helping many immigrants assimilate [as] denominational ties can help boost social status in an adopted country.” But he adds that the new approach is likely to challenge denominational cultures. The growth of lay pastors will go against the United Methodist pattern of moving clergy around every few years, as well as the emphasis that Presbyterians have put on a learned clergy trained in Greek and Hebrew.
There is, however, an attempt to rework seminary education and simplify the ordination process to meet the needs of the new immigrant clergy.
(Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60605)