In This Issue
- Cremation gaining acceptance among American Jews
- On/File: September 2001
- Findings & Footnotes: September 2001
- Islam confronts AIDS with diverse responses
- Current Research: September 2001
- Suburban sprawl threatens Native American religious sites
- Jewish education now includes learning about Christianity
- Are the Boy Scouts more religious today?
- Religious fraud grows with the help of its victims?
- Sitcoms serve as grist for Bible studies
- Evangelicals and goths — who’s doing the converting?
- Interview with sociologist Michael W. Cuneo about exorcisms
Cremation gaining acceptance among American Jews
Cremation, long taboo among all Jewish denominations, is becoming more common among U.S. Jews, reports Moment magazine (August).
Jewish law and tradition stipulates that a body is to be honored by being buried rather than destroyed. The holocaust, with its use of gas chambers and crematoriums, is another reason for the Jewish aversion to cremation. But slowly both Jewish organizations and individuals are accepting the practice. The Cremation Association of North America estimates that three percent of all cremations are performed on Jewish people, even though Jews represent 2.3 percent of the U.S. population.
Jewish funeral homes see a lower percentage of Jewish cremations than nonsectarian funeral homes, but Jews who choose the procedure are also less likely to go to Jewish funeral parlors, says Mark Weissman of the Jewish Funeral Directors of America. The greatest increase in the number of cremations is in the Sun Belt states, particularly Florida and California, the same areas to which a larger number of Jews have retired.
Orthodox and most Conservative rabbis still frown on cremation, but Reform and Reconstructionists will usually officiate at funerals with cremation. Reform rabbi Mark Kaiserman ventures that “As cremation increases, individual rabbis will move to positions [accommodating] what the majority wants. New lifestyles are leading to new kinds of funerals.”
(Moment, 4710 41st St., N.W., Washington, DC 20016)
On/File: September 2001
01: The religion department at the University of Virginia (UVA) is unique for its blending of religious studies with theology that stresses specific faith traditions.
The standard religion programs have emphasized the attempt to find common elements through the dispassionate and comparative study of the world’s religions. In contrast, UVA embraces a new “postmodern” approach, hiring scholars who work out of particular theological traditions and then bringing them together for larger conversations. In 1999, the department hired John Milbank, the leader of “radical orthodoxy,” a new movement that seeks a renewal of theology’s role in a “post-enlightenment” society.
The department is also engaged in a “Project on Lived Theology,” which seeks to connect theological writing and research with the everyday practices and patterns of particular religious communities.
(Source: Re:generation Quarterly, Summer)
02: Mars Hill Graduate School in the Seattle area seeks to create a new breed of clergy and church worker in tune with contemporary culture.
The school, affiliated with the evangelical Western Seminary in Portland, Ore., places a major emphasis on interaction and learning from the unchurched, “postmodern” seekers, who are legion in the Seattle area. The seminary offers classes to 202 students on everything from youth ministry to psychopathology and publishes the Mars Hill Review (http://www.marshillforum.org), a 5,000 circulation journal that seeks a dialogue with non-Christians.
(Source: Washington Times, Aug. 3)
03: The formation and growth of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is one sign of the concern that has spread among conservative religious groups that their freedoms are being curtailed on U.S. campuses.
Since it started in 1998, FIRE has been inundated with requests to help students and leaders of campus organizations involved in conflicts with administrators over issues of the freedom of religion and association. The foundation has recently started a Center for Religious Freedom on Campus to serve as a legal network and resource center to battle what organizers sees as the “selective repression” of religion and conservatives that pervades modern higher education.
The foundation gained nationwide publicity when it successfully defended a Christian student group that was banned from the Tufts University campus after it had denied a position of leadership to a homosexual. For its first project, the center, which has already received a multiyear grant from the John Templeton Foundation, plans to distribute a guide detailing the rights of students and on-campus religious groups.
(Source: Washington Times, Aug. 21)
04: Al-Fatiha began four years ago, but the gay Muslim group has mushroomed with the help of the Internet.
Al-Fatiha grew out of an e-mail discussion group in 1997 and now has nine chapters in the U.S., the UK and Canada and claims to have reached more than 2,000 Muslims worldwide. Founder Faisal Alam says he hopes the group opens up a conversation with Orthodox Muslims on the topic of homosexuality. The decentralized nature of Islam in the U.S. makes it likely that most Muslims don’t know of Al-Fatiha’s existence, a fact that may be beneficial to the group in the long run.
“The fact that it is not debated allows the informal practice to continue more than if it were debated,” says Abdullahi An-Na’im, a professor at Emory University.
(Source: Sequoia, Summer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, undated)
Findings & Footnotes: September 2001
01: The new book Religion On Campus (University of North Carolina Press, $24.95) provides a comprehensive examination of religion on college campuses — from academic study of religion to extracurricular activities.
The book, by Conrad Cherry, Betty A. DeBerg, and Amanda Porterfield, features four in-depth case studies of campuses, including Catholic and Lutheran-affiliated colleges and state and private universities. The authors hypothesize in the introduction that viewing universities and campuses as secularized and irreligious in character is wrong. They demonstrate through their case studies that religion thrives on campuses, even if faith and practice are far more pluralistic than in the past and lacks a unifying effect among students and faculty.
In fact, the pluralism of modern campuses, with religious activity more voluntary even at religiously affiliated schools, did not appear to hurt religion and may have stimulated interest in faith. Although spiritual seeking is widespread on campuses, Cherry, DeBerg and Porterfield find that students frequently make the connection between spirituality and voluntary social service.
Another noteworthy finding is that students often invest their religious interest and even devotion in taking academic courses on religion.
Islam confronts AIDS with diverse responses
Islam is increasingly grappling with the spread of AIDS, with Muslim leaders taking similar approaches to Christians in their early attitudes to the spread of the disease, reports the Washington Post (Aug. 13).
Warnings that AIDS-related sex education and condom promotion will undercut individual morality and lead to societal destruction have come from Islamic leaders in Pakistan and evangelical Protestants in Jamaica. Last winter, the Council of Islamic Clerics in Nigeria’s northern Kano state condemned a planned seminar on HIV/AIDS prevention as violating Islamic law. Imam Ibrahim Umar Kabo called it a Western “gimmick to spread immorality in our society.”
When the Kenyan government announced plans in July to import 300 million condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, Sheik Mohammed Dor of the Council of Imams and Preachers said the country was “committing suicide” and encouraging sexual experimentation among young people. Complaining of the expense, President Daniel Arap Moi suggested that all Kenyans instead abstain from sex for two years.
“My experience today, reaching out to faith-based organizations in Africa, has a similar quality of 10 years ago in this country,” says Jason Heffner of the U.S. Agency for International Development. “You could not get the major [U.S.] leaders to sit down around a table . . . [and] we didn’t have the leadership we needed. Now, we see the religious community on board in many ways.” [see the June issue of RW for more on world evangelicals addressing AIDS].
The explosion of AIDS in the developing world has also begun to challenge some views on the disease. Uganda’s Islamic Medical Association organized a prevention campaign that has become a model in Africa. In Niger, Islamic leaders this year recommended that Muslim teachers learn to teach about AIDS and that couples receive premarital HIV testing. In Senegal, where more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, the spread of HIV slowed dramatically after Islamic and Christian leaders joined a government AIDS-prevention campaign advocating condoms along with abstinence and fidelity.
“Sixteen years ago, people didn’t talk about AIDS,” Senegalese Imam Ousmane Gueye said during a U.N.-organized visit there last month. “Islam forbids all evil and fornication” as well as condoms, he said, but that teaching has been adapted for people with AIDS to prevent the spread of infection. “AIDS is . . . not a divine curse,” Gueye said.
“It is a disease and there is no cure, but you must not run away from people with AIDS.” UNAIDS, the umbrella organization of U.N. and World Bank AIDS programs, has produced an HIV-prevention video with quotes from the Koran for Islamic religious leaders. “Our approach has been to work with those church leaders who are open to it,” said Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS.
Current Research: September 2001
01: American Catholics are more likely than other Americans to be wired to the Internet, according to a survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
America magazine (Aug. 27-Sept. 3) cites the study as showing that 64 percent of U.S. Catholics have Internet access while 56 percent of all Americans are connected. Younger Catholics who go online are more likely than older ones to visit sites about religion. In fact, connecting to religious sites is especially high among teenagers, including those who do not attend church regularly.
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019)
02: The majority of Christians oppose such new biotechnology procedures as the genetic modification of food and animals, reports a new Zogby International Poll.
The survey, conducted in mid-July, found that 57 percent of Protestants and 52 percent of Catholics oppose the technique of manipulating genes from one species or organism to another. Among those self-identifying as born-again Christians, 62 percent said they were against such technology. Among Muslims, 46 percent opposed genetic engineering (with 32 percent supporting it and 22 percent not sure).
Jews were the only group in which a majority supported such biotech measures, with 55 percent favoring them and 35 percent opposed. The majority of respondents believed God empowered people to use technology for human betterment, but drew the line at “playing God” by transferring genes between different species, according to an article in the Long Island Catholic newspaper (Aug. 8).
03: While religious practice in France continues to slide, there are signs that young people are more likely to “buck the trend,” reports Quadrant (July), the newsletter of the British Christian Research Association.
In comparing results from the 1999 European Gallup Survey to that of 1981, the newsletter notes some slippage occurring: In 1981, 59 percent of young adults (ages 18-29) said they were Catholic, while only 48 percent said they were in 1999. Yet in the more recent poll, 53 percent say the church provides answers to spiritual needs, compared to 42 percent in 1981. In 1999, more young people believed in life after death, heaven, reincarnation and hell (increasing by about 10 percentage points) than in 1981.
These increases were more pronounced among younger than older French people. In fact, older people placed less importance on having religious ceremonies at birth, death, and marriage from 1981 to 1999, while support for these rituals surrounding life events grew among young people (in 1999, 75 percent said it was important to have a religious ceremony at death, compared to 68 percent in 1981).
(Quadrant, Vision Bldg., 4 Footscray Rd., Eltham, London SE9 2TZ)
Suburban sprawl threatens Native American religious sites
A growing number of native American sacred sites are under threat from new sprawling housing developments and industrial plants.
The Los Angeles Times (Aug. 16) reports that from Florida to Ohio to Arkansas, Native American groups are fighting battles with state and federal governments to protect places, including burial sites, where ancestors worshipped. Targets of recent native American protests include a Chicago-based company’s plans for an open-pit clay mine and cat-litter plant in a community north of Reno, Nev; and the construction of a casino in Black Hills, N.D., that threatens an area prominent in native American history.
One consultant of a Florida tribe says “It is the official opinion of any native American that if you disturb a burial site, the soul or spirit … will forever be at unrest.”
Carrie Lewis, a representative of the Quapaw tribe, says she is afraid more industry will prevent archaeologists from studying the area around the sites that could have artifacts or remains.
Jewish education now includes learning about Christianity
Jewish learning about Christian beliefs and practices “appears to be on the rise,” reports Jewish Currents (July-August).
The magazine cites a recent meeting of the Catholic-Jewish Liason Committee, where making the history of relations between Catholics and Jews a “core part of the curriculum for new clergy.” The committee noted that Jewish institutions have not “made as great an effort as Catholic ones to revamp their teachings about the other in recent years.”
The report adds that Jews are increasingly incorporating the history of Christianity into their curricula. There are also a growing number of non-Orthodox Jewish day schools that are including Christian history in their curricula, as well as participating in student exchanges with Christian schools.
(Jewish Currents, 22 E. 17th St., Suite 601, New York, NY 10003-1919)
Are the Boy Scouts more religious today?
The sharp controversy over the Boy Scouts’ prohibition of homosexuals from its membership is not only dividing congregations and denominations but is also showing how scouting has gradually taken more religious overtones over the years, reports Newsweek (Aug. 7).
The Boy Scouts policy prohibiting homosexuals from membership in the organization has again the ongoing divide among U.S. religious bodies over gay rights. Mainline church bodies, including the Reform Jews, have passed statements and, in some cases, withdrew support from Boy Scout programs, while groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), the Catholic Church, and Christian right groups have supported the organizations’ stand on the issue.
Newsweek notes that the LDS, whose constituency comprise 13 percent of the Boy Scouts’ membership, have adopted scouting as its official youth program. Observers say Mormons exercise strong clout over the scout’s national board, “which for years was sprinkled with top executives from Eastern firms and now attracts mostly conservative civic leaders tied to the churches that sponsor troops.”
Meantime, the Girl Scouts, which leaves the gay rights issue up to its local councils, have taken a more secular route. In 1993, the organization removed the pledge to “serve God and country” to placate atheists’ demand that belief in God not be a litmus test for a good Girl Scout.
Religious fraud grows with the help of its victims?
Fraud involving investments in religious causes is on the increase, with more than $1.8 billion lost on such schemes in the last three years, reports the Los Angeles Times (Aug. 8).
State security officials report that con artists in 27 states have taken advantage of at least 90,000 investors, with such deceived parties claiming that they are being targeted because of their religious beliefs, a practice known as “affinity fraud.” The schemes involve taking the money of new investors and using it to make interest payments to previous investors.
The key tactic that perpetrators use is extending an individual’s religious beliefs to a belief that the investment is valid, according to Deborah Bortner, director of securities in Washington. An article in the Washington Post (Aug. 11) suggests that the growth of religious affinity fraud today is documented by a similar 1989 study by the securities association and the Better Business Bureau, which showed that 13,000 investors had lost $450 million in religion-based fraud over the previous five years.
The increase may be because religious fraud today is harder to detect, with scammers get smarter by using slick marketing videos and other techniques. Today’s religious investors are also enamored by the promises of prosperity and are unwilling to question fraudulent groups, Bortner adds. Although not focusing on religious fraud, a recent survey finds that today’s investors are motivated by religion.
The poll, conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation International, found that 79 percent of investors describe themselves as religious or spiritual. Fifty-six percent of all U.S. investors said they include their faith or other personal ethical values in financial decisions, according to Religion News (Aug. 31), a release by the Pew Forum. Women were more likely to mix investing and religion (63 percent) than men (49 percent).
(Pew Forum, http://www.pewforum.org/news)
Sitcoms serve as grist for Bible studies
TV sitcoms are being put to use by churches as material for Bible studies and grist for spirituality in general, reports the New York Times Magazine (Aug. 12).
In the effort to be relevant to unchurched seekers as well as the faithful, churches are increasingly borrowing from the popular culture and media. The Simpsons is the subject of a new book and is finding praise among Christians who find that the animated sitcom poses unabashed religious questions to its viewers. The trend is most evident in churches “using episodes of the ‘Andy Griffith Show,’ ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘The Brady Bunch’ to teach the word of God,” writes Sam Smith.
Churches that teach by viewing sitcoms now number in the thousands, and it is not unusual for churches to increase their attendance figures at Bible studies using this technique. The approach seems to have started at a church Bible study in Alabama where the “Andy Griffith Show” was used to illustrate that week’s lesson. Word about the new Bible study aid spread to area churches and then nationally through the web site www.barneyfife.com.
Critics see teaching by the sitcoms as just another way the churches are being infiltrated by secular and worldly values and techniques. Stephen Skelton of the Nashville-based Entertainment Ministry says the so-called “media ministry movement” is presenting “prime time parables” that relate to a generation raised on a media-dominated environment.
Evangelicals and goths — who’s doing the converting?
The “Goth” international youth culture, with its “dark aesthetics” and fascination with death and vampires, is becoming both a mission field and an emerging counterculture drawing disaffected Christians.
Charisma magazine (August) features a cover story that seeks to dispel stereotypes about the Goth subculture (that they worship Satan or that most are violent and practice vampirism) and call evangelicals and charismatics to reach out to young people involved in the phenomenon. Writer Jimmy Stewart cites one minister working with Goths who finds that a large percentage come out of “highly ritualized” churches such as Catholic and Episcopal, and are predisposed to ritualistic pagan groups such as Wicca.
Although the Goths have been around since the 1980s, it seems that churches are only beginning to target their ministries to this subculture. Such churches and ministries as The Refuge (St. Petersburg, Fla), Church on the Edge (Huntington Beach, Calif.), and the evangelistic band No Longer Music use the music and imagery of Goth culture, usually focusing on the cross and death, in their outreach.
More noteworthy may be the emergence of the Christian Goth counterculture, which has spawned its own music (and record label), Internet presence and churches, such as the First Church of the Undead in Orange County, Calif. Stewart finds that several of the Christian Goths he interviewed for the article actually became Goth after they were Christian.
One went Gothic after he attended the popular Cornerstone Christian rock festival where he had met Christian Goths. Another girl says that Christian Goths were more accepting than other Christians.
(Charisma, 600 Rinehart Road, Lake Mary, FL 32746).
Interview with sociologist Michael W. Cuneo about exorcisms
Religion Watch recently interviewed Fordham University sociologist Michael W. Cuneo about his new book, “American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land Of Plenty” (Doubleday, $24.95). In researching the book, Cuneo observed exorcisms in Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as interviewing exorcists and those undergoing the ritual.
RW: In your book you write that the news and entertainment media have fanned the flames of fascination and shaped people’s views on exorcism. Why all the fascination, particularly among the media?
Cuneo: On one hand, the media treat exorcism as something ludicrous, an absurdity. Yet the media– and academics– also hope I’ll corroborate rumors they’ve heard about exorcism, that I’ll be able to tell them that I saw spinning heads. When I tell them I didn’t come across anything like that, they’re disappointed. Exorcism has become for them this last frontier of the supernatural and the mysterious that transcends scientific control.
RW: You trace most of the public fascination about exorcism back to the book and film, “The Exorcist.”
Cuneo: The hero-priest in the [William Peter] Blatty book and movie became part of our cultural legacy. While priests were largely viewed as laughing stocks in the popular culture during this time [early 1970s], this was the one area where the priest was the hero. It enhanced the role of the priest [when] it was being devalued.
RW: The Catholic ritual of exorcism receives most of the attention. But Protestant charismatics were involved in exorcism since the late 1960s, yet it has been pretty much ignored in the entertainment and media worlds.
Cuneo: That’s because Roman Catholicism is seen by many as a repository of intrigue and mystery. It’s not that one [form of exorcism] is more effective than the other. It’s that the priest is connected with this 2000 year tradition of liturgical richness.
RW: Yet “The Exorcist” and Catholic writer Malachi Martin’s book “Hostage to the Devil” created “customers” for charismatic and evangelical exorcism?
Cuneo: Right, but for evangelical exorcism, the Satanist scares of the 1980s, [when there were reports of Satanic ritual abuse], were very influential.
RW: In recent years there has been a huge increase in Catholic exorcisms around the world. But you find that the current crop of exorcists in the church have low status in the church and fall short of the expertise found in the movies. You also describe in your book “renegade priests” who perform unofficial exorcisms. Are they stealing the thunder from the official exorcists?
Cuneo: There is an effort by Rome to professionalize the exorcists…The official exorcists are in great demand, and not just from Catholics. It’s the difference between surgeons and chiropractors and other alternative forms of medicine. A lot of people see the renegade priests as quacks.
RW: You write in your book that understanding the phenomenon of exorcism is helpful in understanding American religion. Why is that?
Cuneo: Scholars of religion haven’t even begun to plum the enormous significance of the popular entertainment industry. Hollywood has had a tremendous impact on everyday religious behavior and belief. The only shocking thing is that more academics haven’t discovered this. How could it not have an impact when people are bombarded by these media-generated images? Exorcism as currently practiced is a synthesis of tradition, ritual, media-generated images and narratives and therapeutic elements from the broader culture…I’ve been in exorcisms where the model of the priest-exorcist is Damien Karras [the priest in the Exorcist] This is religious life imitating an art form.
RW: Turning to the deliverance groups among charismatics and Pentecostals, where do you see these kinds of ministries going? It seems that Catholic and Episcopal charismatics have become leaders in these ministries.
Cuneo: Catholics and Episcopal churches can have these ministries even if their congregations don’t approve of them. I’ve talked to pastors [from other traditions] who were thrown out of their congregations [for their exorcism or deliverance practices]. It’s more difficult to get Catholic priests thrown out because they are appointed by the bishop rather than by the congregation. It’s also that Episcopal and Catholics have a stronger tradition and vocabulary of symbol and ritual to address these issues.. Among the Pentecostals, exorcism has been strongly revived in the Faith movement, which is associated with the health-and-wealth teachings and [televangelist] Benny Hinn.
RW: It was surprising to read of the burgeoning interest in exorcism and deliverance among evangelicals who are not charismatic.
Cuneo: I don’t think it’s really reaching the mainstream evangelical. There’s a concern that it is theologically irresponsible and morally corrupt. They would say it’s buying into the ethos of victimization. The evangelical vocabulary of sin and repentance conflicts with [new teachings on exorcism]. By the way, I was very impressed with the way evangelicals approached exorcism. It was approached with real pastoral sensitivity and insight. Most [attemptss of evangelical exorcism] had some psychological benefits.
RW: In your book, exorcism starts off as a very rare and dramatic ritual, and as it became more common, it seemed almost bland and routine, taking on a 12-stelp, self-help appearance. Where it used to be a last resort, now it’s almost a first choice for some psychological problems. Do you see the domesticated nature of exorcism growing in the future, with maybe even a secularized version emerging?
Cuneo: There will always be very flamboyant exorcisms. There will always be a yearning for the dramatics and fireworks. People want dramatic confirmation that they are engaged in a battle with actual diabolic forces. What’s happened is that certain deliverance ministries have followed the 12-step therapeutic model, but many people are unhappy about it becoming so domesticated. The therapeutic value [of exorcism] comes from it being rare and secret. When it becomes too common it becomes like cheap currency.