Friday, May 18, 2007

Progress, Postmodernity, Pentecostalism, and the Pope

I visited Guatemala a year ago this May; so my attention was grabbed when the Pope visisted South America this past week. Similarities are ripe within the religious environments of South America, Central America and Mexico. One thing in particular that they each have in common is how the once dominant Catholic influence is being surpassed in popularity and piety by imported forms of evangelical charismatic and/or pentecostal Christianity.

It was interesting when I was in Guatemala; the level of seperation between the Catholic church and the "evangelicals" as they were generically called in Guatemala. It was interesting that there was not really anything in between either. You had traditional Catholics and some indeginous Catholics whose form of Catholicism was mixed with the indegenious religious traditions, myths, and practices of Guatemala and then you had mega churches or small store front churches that looked very similar to any evangelical, charismatic, or pentecostal church in America.

Why is this? What is taking place in this region? What is taking place in the religious institutions themselves?

Some have asked does it have something to do with postmodernism? Perhaps, however it seems to me that there is much about Catholicism that appeals to the postmodern believer. Perhaps, not so much docrinally or institutionally but the form of Catholic spirituality and Catholic practics is much broader, wider, full of myth, symbol, experience, and mystery. All things that postmodern forms of spirituality seem to celebrate. However, some Charismatic/Pentecostal forms of worship have some of the same experiental, participatory, and creative forms of worship.

Niether Catholicism nor the so called "Evangelical" expresssions seem to affirm the intellectual worldview or philosophy that defines postmodernity. Both forms put a high view on "objective" and "absolute" forms of truth. Postmodernity is very difficult to define because it is not so much it's own worldview but a critique of the modern world view and its ideas about progress, absolute, objective, and observable truth, the centrality of human beings and our ability to "overcome" and "solve" the worlds problems, etc...What does seem to be fairly consistent in the bulk of postmodern deconstruction is that truth is not always absolute, objective, and observable but that it is always subjective and effected by the lenses that we see the world through. In short we have all had experiences that have shaped us and have created bias' that effect how we see the world. Therefore, truth is much more mysterious and complex for most postmodern thinkers. Often there is a difference between "fact" and "truth"; you can't really know the truth unless you know the story. In other words truth is always contextual and truth finding has a narrative, mysterious, and subjective quality. It does not discount that some things are "true" or even "right" but that the way we get there or understand it to be "true" is different.

All that to say; I think that the transition from Catholicism to the more evangelical churches has to do with the influence of an American vision of democracy and progress that has been taught through many business people and missionaries working, living, and influencing the religion. The evangelicals are seen as being more modern, progressive, less institutional, and less connected to the violent history and old money and corrupt systems that the Catholic church is still at times identified with. It is a sign of American Imperialism surpassing the European Imperialism that brought Catholicism. This is true all over the world that this peculiar form of American Christianity is exporting much more than religion just as European missionaries did years before them. It is the prevailing inlfluence of America and our peculiar form of Christianity that is one reason for this transition.

What do others think?

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Jim Wallis & the Pitfalls of "Biblical" Politics

In the recent press conference announcing Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (see video sidebar), Rev. Jim Wallis, for whom I have a great deal of respect, gave a six minute statement that I found quite troubling. He cited the following text from Leviticus, the Hebrew Bible's articulation of preistly guidelines traditionally attributed to Moses (but believed by many modern scholars to have been written in the centuries immediately following the fall of Israel to Assyrian forces in 722 BCE):

"The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:34; NRSV)

Wallis went on to allude to the words that the author of Matthew attributes to Jesus:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was...a stranger and you welcomed me... Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was...a stranger and you did not welcome me... Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:34-35, 40-43, 45-46; NRSV)

Here is my problem with this rhetoric. Wallis is a harsh critic of fellow evangelicals who trumpet biblical morality as justification to advance socially conservative policies (most notably, efforts to criminalize abortion and deny many legal protections to homosexuals). He also seems to have been fairly consistent in articulating a political philosophy that, while inspired by his specific religious tradition, is translated to universally accessible language and values when he engages public discussion of divisive issues. Here is a fairly typical Wallis soliloquy on the need for inclusiveness in political discourse:

It's important for religious people to say that religion does not have a monopoly on morality. There are people in this nation who aren't affiliated religiously but who care deeply about moral values and about the moral crisis of the country, and they need to be part of this conversation too. Martin Luther King Jr. had a way of [including everyone]-it wasn't just the Baptists who were marching in the streets; it was Catholics and Jews and people of no faith. I think we can speak a moral vocabulary that isn't exclusively religious and is inclusive of people who aren't sure about religion or just are not in fact affiliated. (Rescuing Religion From the Right, interview by Rebecca Phillips,

For someone who has repeatedly criticized conservatives for misrepresenting the Bible's message and exhorted people of faith to collaborate with their secular peers, I think Wallis has shot himself in the foot here. If he is willing to hold up a single verse in Leviticus to allude to a divinely sanctioned immigration policy, he loses any credibility to reject the claims of conservative Christians who would cite Leviticus to advocate for criminalizing homosexuality. By the very act of selectively quoting scripture to promote his political ideology, Wallis falls headfirst into the centuries-old trap of using the Bible to justify whatever you would like.

I have no problem with any Christian attempting to persuade his or her fellow believers of a particular interpretation of the Bible's position on any issue, nor do I believe it is problematic for one's political beliefs to spring from his or her interpretation of the Bible. However, for a prominent minister to proof-text his political position with an isolated Bible citation divorced from context in a press conference designed to pressure lawmakers seems not only unwise, but also intellectually dishonest. In other words, it is all well and good for Rev. Wallis to encourage his fellow evangelicals to consider how a biblical theme of compassion might shape their value system as they advocate for immigration reform, but to demand that United States lawmakers act based on an obscure exhortation to Levite priests 2500 years ago is a preposterous stretch. Is it too much to ask religious leaders of all political and theological perspectives to honestly speak about the overarching themes they see in their sacred texts and traditions, rather than reducing important policy arguments to biblical sound bytes nearly as inane as the talking points we are subjected to in presidential debates? After all, to pretend that one verse can illuminate the lessons of a nuanced and often contradictory 66-volume text insults the public's intelligence whether it is coming out of the mouth of a liberal or a conservative.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mmm... Holy War...

Well, my friends, Jeff Sharlet has done it again. Sharlet, who teaches journalism at NYU and edits The Revealer, a daily review of religion and the press, has written extensively about conservative Christianity in the United States. I have made a habit recently of recommending his work to my fellow religion/politics geeks, as he always seems to be examining organizations and trends in the evangelical church that fascinate me. His most recent article takes a look at the Battle Cry Campaign, an initiative of Teen Mania Ministries. The first few pages of the article are available online (see link below), but I still have to go buy the magazine to read the rest. I would be interested to hear people's gut reactions on a few counts:

1) For those of you who have a background in conservative evangelicalism, have you ever taken part an event like this? (At age 16, I did, although it didn't use the military motif as much. Perhaps our minds are more captivated by war in the post-9/11 world than we were in 1997...) Do you resonate with Sharlet's descriptions of Battle Cry, or do you suspect that, as a skeptic, he was unable to get inside his subjects' minds as deeply as he might have thought? Do you think he treats his subjects fairly?

2) From any and all faith perspectives, does anyone have reflections on the good and the harm that could potentially occur as a result of crusades such as these? Try to speak to both, unless you truly believe that Battle Cry is pure fascism or pure revelation.

3) For readers who have either an inordinate amount of time on your hands or an obscene fascination with the influence of the evangelical church in the U.S. political process, try comparing the following two Sharlet interviews: one from New York Public Radio this week commenting on his current Rolling Stone article...

...and the other from a 2003 chat with the Guerilla News Network, discussing his Harper's Magazine piece on the The Fellowship Foundation, the secretive evangelical organization that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast each year.

Here's a fun exercise. Sharlet concludes that one of these groups is a force for fascism and the other is not. Google search Battle Cry Campaign & Fellowship Foundation to dig up a little dirt on each, and then try to guess which one he thinks are fascists.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Jesus Camp

Has anyone out there seen this movie yet? Swing by your neighborhood video store & take a look; it is definitely worth watching for anyone interested in religion & public life in the U.S (click on the title of this post to see the trailer). I am glad to have seen it, although I must admit it was painful for me to watch for a couple different reasons:

1) Whenever I see groups of people frame the world in stark "us vs. them" terms, which is certainly the case for the protagonists in this film, I question their capacity to work together with anyone who does not share their views.

2) The film is peppered with clips from Mike Papantonio's Air America program, Ring of Fire. Papantonio's perspective on Christian fundamentalism is full of a fear and rancor that seems to have become more common for prominent voices on the political left (for a local example, see Lauren Sandler's article on, Come As You Are). It seems to me that liberals who are afraid/suspicious of their Pentacostal neighbors, whom they have not been willing to get to know personally, are not choosing to form their worldviews all that differently than the Jesus Camp protagonists themselves. I think that the shrill voices on both sides of the debate at the climax of this movie would do well to learn to play better with others.

Is there anyone else who has seen the movie and would like to react? Or feel free to reflect on the red-blue divide that the film is seeking to explore...

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


No other topic is able to shut down a good conversation quite like religion. Especially here in my adopted home, the Pacific Northwest, and my native land, the San Francisco Bay Area, people seem to have difficulty talking honestly about religion, despite its enormous impact on the world in which we live. Some of us can't have an open dialogue about religion because we know we are right and we refuse to have our assumptions challenged. Others refuse to engage because of a disdain for those who use religion as a crutch, or from cynicism brought on by the legacies of destruction left by countless religious movements over the centuries. Still others feel that we need to understand religion better, but we shy away from being frank about our doubts and misunderstandings out of the fear of offending someone.

Bear with me for a moment as I digress. In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought, the second most powerful computer ever constructed, spends 7.5 million years contemplating the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. After this deliberation, Deep Thought reveals that the Answer is 42. The masses, as you might imagine, are not amused:

"Forty-two!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"

"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."

In many respects, I think this ludicrous little story carries an excellent critique of 21st century U.S. public life. Too often we cling to cut-and-dry answers without being willing to consider whether we are asking the right questions. This is true of believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, politicians and their constituents. We want to feel that we are on the right track, but by valuing answers more than critical thinking, we often end up thinking that we know better than our neighbors without ever stopping to talk to them.

In our increasingly urbanizing society, people of myriad different faiths and cultures are living in closer proximity and greater interdependence than ever before. If we are going to live together effectively, I believe we owe it to each other to try to have authentic conversations. My goal in this blog is to provide a forum for a few exchanges that may not have otherwise occurred. We will discuss religion and politics in daily news, books, movies, and personal experiences. I hope that through these discussions we will have our assumptions challenged and our worldviews expanded.

The experiment begins today. I hope you will join the conversation.