In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: November 2005
- Religion and politics new bedfellows in Australia
- Current Research: November 2005
- Peer ministries growing on college campuses
- Meditation finding place in the college curriculum
- Congregations emerge as ‘first responders’ after Katrina
- Religious altruism and suicidal terrorism — is there a connection?
01: The new book, T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher (New York University Press, $30) by Shayne Lee, is part biography and part social critique of one of the rising stars in the black church, or what has been called the “new black church.”
Jakes’ wide-ranging ministry personifies the new black church movement– charismatic, prosperity-oriented and focused on self-help rather than older black church models of social action. Lee traces Jakes’ beginnings from his poor childhood in West Virginia to his formative influence by “neo-Pentecostal power brokers,“ including such televangelists as Oral Roberts and Paul Crouch. Lee focuses on the therapeutic and consumerist appeal of Jake’s message, packaging psychology and inner-healing in a slick format that appeals to a rising black middle class.
His many books (including two novels), movies (most notably “Women Thou Art Loosed”) motivational tapes and speaking engagements on such secular subjects as economic empowerment and women’s sexual abuse suggests that Jakes has unusual crossover appeal. Lee is especially critical of Jake’s business approach to ministry, which, he charges, favors celebrity and prosperity over concern for the spiritual and social welfare of his followers.
Lee’s chapter on the “new black church” is the most interesting, as he suggests a close parallel between this new religious expression and the new paradigm megachurches, such as the Vineyard. Both stress informality, spiritual experience, contemporary music, team leadership (these black churches usually favor women pastors) and are increasingly using satellite churches, where pastors preach at several locations.
02: While How The Other Half Worships (Rutgers University Press, $49.95) has the appearance of a coffee table art book, with its hundreds of photographs of poor, inner-city congregations, author and photographer Camilo Jose Vergara clearly intends to chronicle this vast and understudied area of American religion.
With roughly half of the book including text, Vegara, who was trained as a sociologist, records much of the “material culture” of religion in the inner-city, its buildings, interiors, artwork and supplies, theology, devotional practices and even religious leaders themselves.
While these congregations, particularly storefront churches may give the impression of uniformity from the outside, Vergara’s photos and text reveal a world of particular institutions with unique practices and teachings (however, a popular urban church, the United House of Prayer for All People, does in fact operate as a franchise with even uniform interiors featuring a portrait of founder Sweet Daddy Grace).
Yet Vergara also finds patterns running through many of these congregations: struggling churches are more likely to display images of “a pale-faced Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes,“ while more established inner-city churches always feature Christ as dark-skinned; as in the suburbs, there is considerable criticism of inner-city megachurches by smaller churches, with the former viewed as too worldly and entertainment-oriented; heaven is the most popular image used in black preaching and folk art while hell, suffering and damnation figure more prominently in Latino churches; founders of these churches often become revered figures, as seen in the many portraits displayed of them. Prospective researchers hoping to survey or even count the number of these churches may be discouraged by the fact that most don’t answer their phone or have answering machines.
03: As its title implies, State, Market, and Religions in Chinese Societies, edited by Fenggang Yang and Joseph B. Tamney, (Brill, $69), looks at the current revival of the major faiths of China and related countries through the analogy of the marketplace. Such a model, known as religious economy theory, is built around the dynamics of competition and the free market in spurring religious growth and seems most suited to its American context.
However, the book’s contributors suggest that religion in Chinese societies may even function more as a marketplace than in the U.S. This is most clearly seen in the chapter on how competition, switching and choice drive the growth of Daoist and Buddhist temples, as well as such practical factors as location and innovation to interest potential visitors and worship.
The contributors stress that there is not one religious market in China. Rather, there is a “red market” of state-sanctioned religion, a “black market” comprising underground religious groups, and a “gray market” of legally ambiguous activities and groups. An introductory overview by Tamney notes that in China, Singapore, and Taiwan there are four (increasingly differentiated) religions– folk religion, Daoism, Buddhism and Christianity–competing for the allegiance of the Chinese people. Folk religion has experienced sharp declines (often involving ancestor worship) while Christianity and Buddhism seem to be on the upswing.
Tamney adds that the challenge for Buddhism (and to a greater extent, Daoism) is to modernize while Christianity has to become more indigenous. In a concluding chapter, Anna Xiao Dong Sun writes that while interest in Confucianism is growing on the mainland, it seems to be losing its appeal in Taiwan. But in both countries there is an intense debate on the religious nature of Confucianism, with Sun noting that there is an increase in visitors to Confucian temples in China where the worship of Confucius is evident.
Australians are taking a page from American politics, judging by the way the nation’s two political parties are courting religious voters. The Australian Christian quarterly Zadok Perspectives (Spring) reports that as the Federal election approaches, John Howard of the Liberal Party and politicians from the opposing Labor Party have made pitches for the conservative Christian vote, making special appearances at Hillsong, a prominent megachurch outside of Sydney.
The more liberal Labor party has surprised political observers in its attempt to catch up with the Liberals in “connecting with that they see as a significant voting block in contemporary Australian society where many of the old loyalties have changed including religious and political sentiments and alliances.“ The old political/religious patterns that grouped Catholics under the Labor right, the Uniting Church and the Australian Council of Churches (ACC) with the Labor left, and the rank and file Anglicans and others spread somewhere between Labor and Liberal, have faded away.
Today, Catholics don‘t vote as a bloc, and the declining Uniting Church and ACC have lost their political clout to large and growing churches with their own networks. The new players are the conservative Protestants, who have started such organizations as Family First, Saltshakers and the Christian Lobby. The latter group has gained 6000 members since 2000, an impressive number considering that the established parties have just 20,000 members.
While some of the evangelicals are involved in liberal causes such as Aboriginal rights, the rise of conservative think tanks, such as the Lyon Forum and the Tasman Institute, are pulling conservative Christians rightward in support of John Howard. Writer Peter Corney acknowledges that the outspoken evangelical Christianity of George Bush is having an impact among Australian Christians, but also cites culture wars and a concern over moral values that are native to Australia.
(Zadok Perspectives, P.O. Box 2182, Fitzroy 3065, NSW, Australia;www.zadok.org.au)
01: Coalitions of “unlikely bedfellows” on issues such as poverty and the environment do not generate much support among religious Americans, according to a recent study.
There has been journalistic speculation that Americans can break free from rigid stereotypes of staunch antagonists locked in culture wars in order to join hands on common issues of concern. In Books & Culture (November/December), political scientists James Guth, Lyman Kellstedt, John Green and Corwin Smidt write that the most common religious coalitions are defined by the culture war divisions between traditionalists, centrists and modernists, especially on such issues as religion in public life, gay rights and abortion and even on President Bush’s foreign policy and faith-based initiatives.
On less polarizing issues, such as the environment, poverty and the death penalty, there has been some expectations that religious alliances might be less predictable. But on the war on poverty and the environment, the culture war alignments still hold, even though the divisions are not as nearly as deep as on such issues as abortion. Although environmentalism has wide public support, Mormons, evangelicals and Hispanic and black Protestants are either skeptical of tough policies or see them as a distraction from other issues.
On poverty, there is some room for voters in each religious category to work on this issue, but “traditionalists” and “modernists” are far apart in their support of specific programs. Only on the death penalty are there signs of a pluralist coalition, with support uniting conservative Protestants and secularists and the opposition drawing together black and mainline Protestants, more traditionalist Catholics and atheists and agnostics. The writers conclude that alliances often draw together the most committed activists (particularly clergy) committed to the culture wars and have lower rates of participation from less active but more moderate parishioners.
(Books & Culture, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
02: While the center is holding firm, the “boundaries” of Catholic teachings, practices and beliefs are becoming more porous and vague, especially for the youngest “Millennial” generation, according to a new survey.
Every six years since 1987 a research team led by William D’Antonio and Dean Hoge survey Catholics on questions of identity. Although not finding drastic change, the 2005 survey, published in theNational Catholic Reporter (Sept. 30), notes continual slippage on the defining boundary markers of Catholic identity.
The creedal beliefs in the resurrection of Christ, the importance of the sacraments and helping the poor have remained strong for all the generations — pre-Vatican II, Vatican II (baby boomers), post-Vatican II (GenX) and Millennials — but the beliefs that Catholics feel are peripheral to the faith are increasing. It is the youngest generations where the tendency to see fewer requirements for being a good Catholic is most evident:
In 2005, the Millennial generation (18-26) was found to be even less church involved and more oriented to conscience and individualism (rather than seeing the church as mediator) than the older generations. Eighty-nine percent of the Millennial generation said it was okay to disobey the church on abortion compared to 45 percent of the oldest generation and 58 percent overall. But in general, Catholics today are slightly less concerned than they were in 1987 about obeying teachings on abortion and having their marriages approved by the church.
Yet another finding from the survey suggests that it is not necessarily poor Catholic education and illiteracy on church teachings that are driving dissent among the young. James Davidson finds that the pre-Vatican II generation most likely to say they can’t explain the Catholic faith to others. Those who said they have a hard time explaining the Catholic faith to others were no more likely to dissent from church teachings than those who expressed no such difficulty. On politics, the survey indicates that Millennials have swung over to the Democrats much more than older generations (58 percent of Millennials voted Democrat in 2004 compared to 34 percent of GenXers).
(National Catholic Reporter, http://www.ncronline.org)
03: The steady decline of mainline Protestantism may be running its course, according to a recent study. For some time there has been a debate among sociologists about the main factors for conservative religious growth and mainline decline, with one group citing largely internal reasons (strictness and greater commitment) and the other tracing the resurgence and decline to demographic factors.
In the Christian Century (October 4), sociologists Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley and Melisa Wilde stir things up again, arguing that it is lower fertility rates and the higher rate of contraception among mainline Protestants rather than theological and cultural factors that have caused decline. and conservative growth. The fact that conservatives have had larger families since the early days of the 20th century up to the baby boom explains 70 percent of the mainline decline. The remaining 30 percent of the decline comes from a “precipitous drop in conservative-to-mainline conversions,” the researchers add.
In testing other hypotheses for mainline decline, such as a higher apostasy rate for mainliners than conservatives and a greater flow of non-Protestants into the conservative camp, Hout, Greeley and Wilde find that neither of these differentials are high enough to explain the denominational shift. The researchers created a model that allowed them to calculate how the mainline decline would look like if nothing but the demographic rates had changed.
The model accurately predicted the sharp mainline decline, though it predicted that the loss would level off ten to 15 years sooner than it actually did. Hout, Greeley and Wilde predict that with similar birth rates now taking place among conservatives and liberals, and. with the falling switching rates from conservative to mainline churches no longer significant, the mainline decline may be at an end-point. But because the above demographic dynamics are still present among generations as young as the baby busters or GenX, “the Protestant population will continue to shift in the conservative direction for many years to come…”
(Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60605)
04: By 2025, local churches will lose roughly half their “`market share’ when alternative forms of faith experience and expression will pick up the slack,” according to an analysis by pollster George Barna.
Using survey data and other cultural indicators from the last two decades, Barna forecasts that a growing percentage of church dropouts “will be those who leave a local church in order to intentionally increase their focus on faith and relate to God through different means.” Describing these devout Christian dropouts as “revolutionaries,” Barna cites such alternative expressions as house churches, participation in marketplace ministries, use of the Internet to satisfy faith-related needs, and the “development of unique and intense connections with other people who are deeply committed to their pursuit of God.”
Barna adds that not all of such revolutionaries have stopped attending local churches altogether. Rather, they view their spiritual life as their own responsibility and even if they maintain some connection to a local church, they supplement that relationship with faith-related efforts that have nothing to do with their local church.
Barna writes that he “stumbled onto the Revolution,” when he found that a high level of spiritual activity is taking place alongside dissatisfaction with “what emerges from the average Christian church.” Barna finds that nine percent of adults participate in a house church; 22 percent are involve in “spiritual encounters” involved in the marketplace (their place of work or play); and 10 percent view the Internet as their foundational religious experience. Evangelicals, blacks and “downscale adults (below average educations and incomes) are the most likely to participate in these alternatives.
(Barna Research, http://www.barna.org)
05: Since the ban on headscarves and the wearing of other religious accessories in public schools in France last year, the number of infractions against the law has decreased dramatically. In the year after the ban was introduced in the 2004, there were 639 infractions against the ban, mostly by head scarf-wearing Muslim girls.
There were 240 infractions against the ban alone during the first day of school in 2004. A week after children returned to school this September, the French Ministry of Education reported that only one Sikh boy and 11 Muslim girls defied the ban. Most of the violations have come from just a few schools in predominantly Muslim communities.
Traditional college chaplaincy programs are making room for “peer ministry,” which consists of college students who help their fellow students on spiritual matters, reports the New York Times (Oct. 15).
Modeled on campus resident assistants who help their fellow students with day-to-day life, peer ministers add a spiritual dimension to their work and are more often appointed by the campus ministry rather than the university administration. Even religious schools are recognizing that professional staffs of campus ministers can only go so far and value the way peer ministers can relate more to students’ problems and questions on religious matters, especially as the importance of peers has steadily grown among young adults..
At some colleges, specific religious groups run peer ministries, while at religious colleges the ministry may be based on one tradition but are also ecumenical in spirit and open to any student. Hillel, a Jewish student organization, runs several peer-minister-style programs, seeing it as a way to help students discover their Jewish identity.
Catholics value the way peer ministers can supplement many incoming students’ lack of Catholic education. The added help provided by peer ministers tends to shift the role of campus ministers and clerics, making them freer to concentrate on administration and sacramental life. However, some peer ministry programs allow students to give sermons and perform other clergy tasks, thus grooming a new generation of leaders.
There is growing interest and even involvement among educators in adding the practices of contemplation and meditation to the college curriculum, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 21).
Contemplative practices are now found in a range of college courses and programs–from economics to art history and music. As neuroscience has recently discovered the mental and physical benefits of meditation, professors are using contemplative practices as a form of “mental hygiene” for students. Beyond that, some educators believe that meditation can help students achieve insight and “enlightenment” in the learning process, writes John Gravois.
Leading the way in promoting the use of meditation in curriculum is the Northampton, Mass.-based Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society, which has recently teamed up with the American Council of Learned Societies to give out fellowships for professors wanting to integrate contemplative components into their curricula.
Integrating contemplation into classroom curricula takes very different forms. An economics professor at Emory University has drawn up a syllabus requiring students to meditate on pictures of poor people, while the University of Michigan School of Music uses contemplative practices in their jazz program to stimulate creativity. While some critics have charged that this development amounts to bringing spirituality and “pseudoscience” into the classroom, most students have given these exercises positive reviews.
Hurricane Katrina revealed the efficiency of churches and other congregations in their role as “first responders” in the midst of local, state and national government delays and stalemates in providing relief.
The swift response of congregations was noted by newspapers across the U.S. and Britain, with the New York Times headlining an article, “A New Meaning for `Organized Religion:’ It Helps The Needy Quickly.” One observer noted that churches became first responders because “they’re already there. They represent a focal point in the community.” But Katrina served as something of a watershed event in the lives of many churches in the U.S., writes Eric Swanson in Advance, the e-newsletter of the Leadership Network.
He writes that “A line was drawn in the sand. Churches had to declare, with respect to helping those outside the church, whether they were `in’ or they were `out.’ There was no neutral ground. There was no time for debate and rhetoric…” But it appears that the decision to respond did not happen solely on a congregational basis.
In Houston, for example, a coalition of the faith community led by several pastors called for immediate action, leading “tens of thousands in Houston churches” to get involved in relief work. The Christian Century (October 18) reports that some Gulf Coast church leaders and government officials–emboldened by the large role that houses of worship assumed after the storms–are saying they want congregations to do even more. One pastor said “We have seen a paradigm shift. In America since the 1930s or `40s, we’ve thought the government is going to do it. Now we realize the church is going to have to do it.”
As suicide bombing has become a principle means of terrorism, specialists are trying to second-guess those who perpetrate such violence. But how predictable is terrorism, especially when it is motivated by religion?
There is no one answer to that question as social scientists approach this new field. Science & Theology News (October) reports that researchers’ attempts to understand suicidal terror have “revived a controversial theory of `altruistic suicide,’ the act of killing oneself so that one’s community might live.” This would suggest that suicide terrorism is more a phenomenon of group psychology and group behavior than “fundamentalist” religious beliefs. This theory turns the focus on how religious beliefs and practices can generate extreme forms of altruism.
University of Nevada political scientist Leonard Weinberg and Israeli terrorism expert Ami Pedahzur found from their research among Palestinian suicide bombers from 1993-2002 that people who commit such acts are strongly integrated into a social group and are concerned with the group attaining its goals; they tend to have a strong religious background with more religious education than others.
A June, 2005 University of Michigan study related religious background, group socialization and suicide terrorism even more directly, writes Mike Martin. Sociologist Jeremy Ginges found that mosque attendance was closely correlated with involvement in suicide attacks. Such “collective rituals” may help create the altruism needed to give up one’s life for the group. Ginges also found that faith alone does not make a terrorist; personal devotion and belief in Islam was unrelated to terrorism.
Meanwhile, the use of suicidal terrorism by al Queda lacks the instrumental and rational components that would make it very strategic or “altruistic,” according to historian Faisal Devji. Al-Queda’s use of violence is superficial to its purposes and is likely to be short-lived, he added at a recent lecture in New York. Devji, who was speaking at a lecture at the New School for Social Research attended by RW, said that al-Queda is unlike earlier kinds of Islamic fundamentalism and Islam in general in that it has no coherent political program and lacks the control and instrumentality to have much intended effects besides its own symbolic actions.
In studying Osama bin Laden‘s writings and statements, Devji finds an emphasis on “ethical practice” rather than strategic or instrumental action that has a discernable end. This tendency can be seen in London bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan‘s reference to his suicide bombing as being an “ethical act. “Even al-Queda’s call for the establishment of the caliphate is not a defined plan since bin Laden and his second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri can not agree on its location.
One of the reasons al-Queda is so violent is because it is inherently unstable due to its ethical orientation. Such instability means that the movement could soon “tip over” into something non-violent Devji, who is author of the new book Landscapes of the Jihad, added that al-Queda‘s ethical and mystical orientation puts it on the periphery of an already fragmented Islamic world. In fact, al-Queda‘s teachings are increasingly spread through mystical Sufi networks far from its Middle Eastern base.
(Science & Theology News, P.O. Box 5065, Brentwood, TN 37024-5065)