Podcast Interview with Elizabeth Drescher on "The Nones"
Last Updated on Thursday, 18 July 2013 20:06
In October 2012 the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a survey that documented a significant shift in religious demographics in America. A large and growing number of people identified themselves as "The Nones," those who prefer no affiliation with religious institutions. As a result of this survey data, there has been a lot of discussion and controversy over how to interpret this segment of society. In this first podcast for Sacred Tribes Journal, we are privileged to have Elizabeth Drescher as our guest to discuss this phenomenon. Drescher is is a scholar, researcher, and writer. She is a faculty member in religious studies and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She holds a PhD in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union and an MA in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University.
Dr. Drescher is the author of Tweet If You [Heart] Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011) and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). Dr. Drescher’s current book project, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, 2014), explores practices of meaning-making, self-fulfillment, ethics, and self-transcendence among America’s fast-growing religious demographic, the religiously unaffiliated. Her website can be found at http://www.elizabethdrescher.com.
Listen to STJ Podcast 1.1 and enjoy this interview with Elizabeth Drescher on "The Nones" by clicking here.
Dual Book Review Weaves Important Tapestry for Evangelicals
Last Updated on Thursday, 01 November 2012 17:35
Two new volumes intersect to provide important considerations for Evangelicals on responding to religious puralism. In a dual book review at the Evangelical Channel of Patheos I explored these ideas.
Important Pieces of an Important Puzzle
Two significant volumes that address one of the key challenges of our post-9/11 world.
Brian D. McLaren
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World
New York: Jericho Books, 2012
Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America
Boston: Beacon Press, 2012
Two authors working in the area of interfaith relations need to be read by Evangelicals: Brian McLaren writing as a Progressive Evangelical, and Eboo Patel as a Muslim. Both men contribute important pieces of the puzzle that should be discussed and incorporated into an Evangelical response to religious pluralism and interreligious engagement.
This combined review begins with McLaren's book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? McLaren self-identifies as a Progressive Evangelical, and his ideas as developed throughout his many books, as well as his actions, particularly those in regard to the issue of homosexuality, have led some Evangelicals to classify him variously as liberal, heterodox, and outside the Evangelical fold. In my estimation as someone who has worked in Evangelicalism in theology, missiology, and dialogue, there is much of value for consideration in this volume. Therefore, I urge conservative Evangelicals not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, and to give McLaren a fair hearing in this book.
This volume is not about interreligious dialogue, but instead, is a pre-dialogue book that advances McLaren's thesis about Christian identity, which he sees as often defined by way of hostility toward those in other religions. McLaren labels this "Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome," and he identifies what he sees as the main element of the problem:
Our root problem is neither religious difference nor religious identity nor even strong religious identity. Our root problem is the hostility that we often employ to make and keep our religious identities strong—whether those identities are political, economic, philosophical, scientific, or religious. (63) (emphasis in original)
Although Evangelicals may balk at McLaren's perspective, it is confirmed by Pew Forum surveys revealing our attitudes to various religions, and also in my work among Evangelicals in new religious movements and world religions in churches throughout the United States. New religions are described with the pejorative label "cults" and understood through an apologetic strategy of refutation that functions as evangelism. World religions do not fare much better, with many, particularly Islam, viewed with suspicion and seen as worthy of only a marginal place in "Judeo-Christian America."
Many popular treatments of new and world religions by Evangelicals reflect McLaren's idea of a hostile relationship, which seems to function by way of identity construction. The logic here is one whereby, just as America tends to define itself by way of opposition (Communism in the past and now by way of Islam through the "War on Terror"), so too Evangelicalism defines itself by the religions it opposes. This is supported by application of the work of Jason Bivins in his book Religion of Fear, which describes Evangelicalism as a movement having a preoccupation with boundaries and a strong sense of combativeness, which constructs its sense of self by way of opposition and embattlement.
In order to consider the possibility of reshaping faith identity by way of benevolence toward other religions, McLaren has an ambitious agenda that involves theology and praxis, through which he asks Christians "to critically revisit various doctrines" (100), and "to rediscover, re-envision, and reformulate them in a post-imperial, postcolonial, post-Christendom way" (101). This involves a process of critical historical reflection on Christianity as it relates to imperialism and colonialism and how this has contributed to our hostile identity, as well as a possible reformulation of doctrine, liturgy, and missions to reflect our multi-faith, post-Christendom environment.
Some of the major helpful elements in McLaren's proposal include a discussion of Christological hermeneutics of the Bible, pneumatological considerations that contribute to a robust trinitarian framework, liturgical practices such as the emphasis on Resurrection as well as cross and atonement, and friendship and hospitality practices as they relate to missions and the Kingdom or Commonwealth of God. There are areas where ongoing conversation and possible critique presents itself, with one major area being the idea of competitive superiority and religious supremacy. In this area I find myself in agreement and also disagreement with McLaren, and I hope for the opportunity to dialogue with him and other Evangelicals on this and other topics in the book. For further discussion see my more extensive review on this volume (precluded by space limitations in this dual review) at The Englewood Review of Books.
Turning my attention to Eboo Patel's volume, Sacred Ground, the author is well known within the interfaith movement as a popular speaker as well as founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). His desire is to see Americans not "simply coexist in a lukewarm tolerance, but rather actively cooperate and mutually thrive" (xiii) with their religious differences. The book is devoted to Patel's ideas about how we might realize this "promise of American pluralism" (xxv).
Patel begins his volume with a consideration of how American attitudes changed in regards to Islam and religious pluralism after 9/11. He discusses the plans for the construction of the Cordoba House, a community center in New York that conservatives and those on the Religious Right would succeed in framing as the "Ground Zero mosque," an alleged symbol of victory by Islam over America that would encroach upon the sacred space where the Twin Towers stood. This narrative has continued to develop, facilitated by those on the Right, from political leaders like Newt Gingrich (whose troubling shift on this issue for political expediency is discussed in the book), to religious leaders including Evangelicals.
Patel discusses past anti-Catholicism as a parallel to present anti-Islam (which can also be seen in anti-Mormonism), but although this presents a disturbing challenge, Patel sees hope. He notes that "when Evangelicals change, America changes" (56), and he mentions the positive work of certain Evangelicals across the spectrum presenting a different way forward, including Bob Roberts of Northwood Church, Gabe Lyons of Q, and Jim Wallis of Sojourners.
Some of the most helpful sections of this book for Evangelicals come in Patel's discussion of "the science of interfaith cooperation," and how this relates to college and university, as well as seminary students, as key demographic groups that need to be involved in positive forms of interfaith engagement. In regard to the first element, in his chapter on the methods to facilitate change in people, Patel rightly recognizes the need for vision to be accompanied by a process and measurements that maximize impact. He draws upon social change theory, describing an "interfaith triangle" of "attitudes, relationships, and knowledge" (77). Survey results and experiential data indicate that the more individuals know about a given religion, and know someone in a religion, the more positive will be their assessment of that religion and of pluralism.
In terms of the second element involving students, Patel knows through his work at IFYC that
Young people don't like to have their own faiths or the faiths of their friends maligned. They don't view people from different faiths in an inevitable clash of civilizations. They desperately want a vocabulary that helps them stay grounded in their own tradition and relate positively to those from other traditions. (121)
These attitudes are also present in the younger Evangelicals. There are opportunities here for a new form of interfaith education and experience that will meet the needs of Evangelical college and university students, while also being faithful to the Evangelical tradition. Patel also recognizes the significance of seminaries and divinity schools in this process, but here he has identified another challenge. In his speaking in these institutions he discovered the perspective of one Christian professor who concludes:
The church simply has not taught our future leaders a way to articulate a Christian identity in a religiously diverse world. We need a language that maintains our own distinctiveness and truth claims while respecting the goodness in others, and above all, affirming the holiness of relationships. The most prevalent Christian language in the public square is the language of domination. (140)
Interestingly, it is here that the diverse religious backgrounds, foci, and approaches of McLaren and Patel converge. McLaren calls for a benevolent rather than hostile faith identity among Christians, while Patel yearns for a way "to articulate religious identity in a world of diversity in a way that affirms particularity and builds pluralism" (141). They have each identified religious identity without compromise as a central issue, and the need for change in understanding and relationships as way forward. But how can this be done?
If we put these two pieces of the puzzle together, a new way forward for Evangelicals emerges. Through the use of the interfaith triangle, which puts Evangelicals in educational programs combined with relationships through joint service projects, attitudes are changed, relationships are formed, and knowledge of other traditions are increased and perhaps reshaped. In this way faith identities are reshaped as well, so that a shift is made from hostility to benevolence. This model has been utilized among students at Gordon College using the Loving Our Religious Neighbors curriculum of Joshua Daneshforooz, and it is an important part of the work of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.
Brian McLaren and Eboo Patel have written two significant volumes that address one of the key challenges of our post-9/11 world. Those Evangelicals interested in a better understanding other religions as well as their own, in a better way of sharing their faith, and in peacemaking as we love our neighbors as ourselves, are encouraged to add these volumes to their libraries.
Call for papers on “predatory proselytism,” unethical forms of evangelism
Last Updated on Friday, 18 October 2013 01:04
For several years now the tension has been rising between Christian missionaries, mission and evangelistic organizations, and the governments and peoples of countries like India, as has been noted by organizations like the Institute for Global Engagement. At issue is the problem of unethical forms of evangelism, or proselytism, and it is not limited to Christian-Hindu interaction in India. Examples can be found elsewhere, including the United States. In an article in Hinduism Today, Padma Kuppa of the Hindu American Foundation defines predatory proselytism by way of inclusion of various elements: a quid pro quo of material enticement for conversion, misrepresentation and denigration of the religion of the other, and the intentional promotion of religious hatred and violence. In an essay at Patheos, Kuppa adds an asymmetry of power as another defining element. Evangelicals have spent some time addressing these issues, as for example in Elmer John Thiessen’s volume The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (IVP Academic, 2011), but much of the concern and reflection has been related to restrictions on Christian freedom to evangelize rather than on the ethical issues related to predatory proselytism, both in overseas missionary contexts as well as within America’s pluralistic public square.
Call for Submissions
The editor of Sacred Tribes Journal believes that this topic is an important one, and is planning on exploring various facets of it either in a special theme issue of the journal, or through a book if a publisher can be found. It is hoped that a collection of essays can be compiled from a variety of perspectives and disciplines that will address this issue. Submissions are not limited to Evangelical contributors and perspectives, but may also include those who have articulated the concerns of predatory proselytism on the receiving end of these practices. Issues discussed in papers may include the following:
• Perceptions and concerns of Hindus, Muslims, Pagans and others related to predatory proselytism.
• Religious, ethnic, and nationalist concerns about conversion and identity theft.
• Definitional and praxis issues that distinguish between ethical evangelism and predatory proselytism.
• Asymmetry of power issues related to evangelism, particularly between Christians and minority religions in an American Christendom context.
• Considerations related to finding a “middle way” or balance between the twin religious freedoms for proclamation and persuasion as well as freedoms related to a lack of interest in hearing such messages.
• How the issues of predatory proselytism should be factored into interreligious dialogue, as well as missions and evangelism.
Abstracts of no more than 350 words should be sent for review to John Morehead (
). The deadline for abstract submissions is June 15, 2013.
Why Evangelicals Should Read Brian McLaren's New Book
Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 October 2012 16:46
I was recently asked to read and review Brian McLaren's book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (Jericho Books, 2012). As a result, the following review and essay was published at The Englewood Review of Books.
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?:
Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World
Brian D. McLaren
Hardback: Jericho Books, 2012.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Brian McLaren is a prolific author. His most recent volume addresses one of the most important topics of our day as it relates to Christian identity in the midst of a pluralistic and post-9/11 environment. Although McLaren is frequently labeled as liberal, even heretical, by many conservative Evangelicals, it would be a mistake to dismiss his ideas in every instance, and particularly in this volume. In the following I provide a review, conversational interaction, and critique, which includes a recognition of the significant contribution McLaren makes to Evangelical theologies of faith identity and religious interaction, the beginning of a process of conversation with McLaren over some of the issues he raises and suggestions he sets forth, and also an offering of critical feedback for further exploration with McLaren and the broader Evangelical community.
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? purposefully draws upon the fact that the title sounds like the introduction to familiar jokes. But McLaren uses this a rhetorical strategy in order to provide a thought provoking discussion related to his agenda for the church’s reformulation of various areas of theology and praxis. The subject matter should not be understood as a treatise on interreligious dialogue, but instead as addressing pre-dialogue considerations. The central thesis McLaren advances relates to what he labels “Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome,” which he defines as a part of the Christian’s faith identity that involves the extension of hostility or opposition to the other as enemy in regards to those in other religions (19). He expands on this idea with these words:
Our root problem is neither religious difference nor religious identity nor even strong religious identity. Our root problem is the hostility that we often employ to make and keep our identities strong – whether those identities are political, economic, philosophical, scientific, or religious. (emphasis in original) (63)
McLaren hopes that Christians will consider a change of their identity, moving away from the extension of hostility to one that is ”strongly benevolent toward people of other faiths, accepting them not in spite of the religion they love, but with the religion they love” (emphasis in original) (32).
In order to facilitate a new Christian faith identity McLaren lays out an ambitious project that includes doctrinal, liturgical, and missional aspects. Writing with an eye toward Evangelicals, he suggests that Christians need to be willing “to critically revisit” even central doctrines (100), and “to rediscover, reenvision, and reformulate them in a postimperial, postcolonial, post-Christendom way” (101). Such language may cause Evangelicals to assume that McLaren has uncritically imbibed at the well of Postmodernity, but this would be a misreading. Here McLaren rightly recognizes that Christendom has developed through history, and therefore Christian ideas are not shaped in a vacuum, but instead by way of interactions with various intellectual and cultural streams. As such, some of this has been helpful, but along the way problematic elements have been incorporated as well. McLaren attempts to provide a helpful corrective that recognizes the mistakes of the church in the past and present, and which also takes into account the post-Christendom (not post-Christian) context of America and the West, where the church is one religious voice among many, and often viewed with suspicion by those in other religious as well as irreligious traditions.
With the author’s central premise and methodology in mind, we now move to consideration of some of his major ideas.
Evangelicalism and critical self-reflection. One idea that must be recognized at the outset is that Evangelicalism has difficulty in considering critique without reference to demonizing the messenger. As stated previously, McLaren is a controversial figure, and as such he has received his fair share of criticism on a variety of issues. He anticipates additional criticism in relation to this volume, and states that, “If you dare depart from traditional identity categories … you will be seen with suspicion by your former colleagues in that zone” (46). Further, he notes by way of experience that “[r]eligious gatekeepers on websites and in magazines will single us out as liberal, relativist, and weak” (71). McLaren’s thoughts here dovetail with Jason Bivins, who in his book Religion of Fear described Evangelicalism as “preoccupied with boundaries,” through which “the shapes of this tradition’s darkness and its combativeness have often been distinct.” This Evangelical focus on boundaries and combativeness finds a connection to McLaren’s ideas about Evangelical “oppositional religious identity that derives strength from hostility” (57).
Christological hermeneutics. Given Evangelicalism’s emphasis on the Bible, it is appropriate to begin a doctrinal interaction with McLaren as it relates to Scripture. Here the author addresses the pressing issue of hostility and violence in the biblical text (198-199), often ignored by Evangelicals in a process that Philip Jenkins has called “holy amnesia.” McLaren draws upon a Christological hermeneutic demonstrated by Paul’s writings where the Old Testament is quoted but edited in such a way as to reject the violent content. McLaren provides an example through Romans 15:8-18 where Paul quotes and edits Psalm 18:41-49 and Deuteronomy 32:43. McLaren then cites Derek Flood for a description of Pauline hermeneutical methods, where Flood states that, “This is not a case of careless out-of-context proof-texting, it is an artful and deliberate reshaping of these verses…from their original cry for divine violence into a confession of universal culpability that highlights our need for mercy” (201-202). McLaren notes that this is a pattern in Paul’s letters, and he concludes that due to Paul’s experience of Christ, the Old Testament texts are “artfully and deliberately reshaped according to ‘the way of peace,’ which is the way of Christ” (202). McLaren’s recognition of the phenomenon of Scripture, and the way in which Jesus and Paul used the sacred text, is significant. For too long Evangelicals have not delved deeply enough into the phenomenon of Scripture, and as a result have built a foundation for interreligious interactions based upon the wrong texts. This includes hostile texts such as Elijah and his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, Jesus’ rebuke of the Jewish religious leaders, and Paul’s stern warnings against false teachings in the church. In the first instance,
…we can’t tell the story about Elijah (1 Kings 18) calling down fire on the prophets of Baal without hearing Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples for recommending the same violent response to the ‘religiously other’ (Luke 9)….We can’t tell the story of the slaughter of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7) without telling Matthew’s masterful reversal of that story in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15). (194)
McLaren reminds us that “[t]he Bible itself, it seems, has built-in reconciling stories to counteract and disarm the hostile ones, but people who want to justify hostility pick up the hostile ones and choose to minimize the reconciling ones” (195).
Moving to the New Testament texts frequently cited in hostile encounters, these intrareligious texts (rather than interreligious) do not provide a basis for religious engagement across religious traditions. Instead, the example of Jesus in his interactions with Gentiles and Samaritans provide the model, as Bob Robinson has demonstrated in his book Jesus and the Religions. For Evangelicals who raise concerns about the violent passages in the Qur’an, which actually constitute a smaller percentage of the Muslim scriptures than violent passages do in the Bible, this serves as a reminder to take care of the beam in our own eyes before helping our Muslim friends with the speck in theirs. In addition, it also provides a fresh hermeneutical perspective and foundation reformulating Evangelical faith identity, and engaging those in other religions.
Pneumatological considerations. McLaren suggests that Evangelicals draw more heavily upon a theology of the Holy Spirit in constructing a new faith identity. Echoing my sentiments in an essay on theologies of religions for the Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal, McLaren draws upon the scholarship of scholars such as Amos Yong and John Sober Sylvest (151) in their work on the Holy Spirit in application to the religions. This element of McLaren’s proposal is helpful, as I argued in the journal, because it is a “largely neglected facet in the development of a theology of religions, and one that can open up new research trajectories through a robust trinitarianism that not only involves Christological considerations, but also focuses on the work of the Spirit in creation and among human cultures and their religions.” In his application of the Holy Spirit, McLaren “does not deny the presence of unique divine revelation in any one religion,” nor does he “affirm that all religions are the same “(152). Instead, he encourages a reconsideration of religious differences that take cultural particularities into account so that possible complementarity might go alongside the recognition of contradictions between religions and their teachings.
Liturgy and Christ’s Resurrection. McLaren is not only concerned with the possibility of reshaping the church’s doctrine, but also its liturgy. In one section he suggests that we consider Easter “not merely as the resuscitation of a single corpse nearly two millennia ago, but more – as the ongoing resurrection of all humanity through Christ” (175). A few thoughts come to mind here. First, the resurrection should not be construed as mere resuscitation, but instead as a transformation of the body of Christ as the beginning of the New Creation. Second, understood as a body transformed by Spirit, the resurrection of Christ does provide for a broader application, as the Kingdom work begun in Christ will one day be extended in its completion to the totality of the New Heavens and Earth. Finally, Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson have argued in The Cross is Not Enough that the modern church has tended to emphasize the cross of Christ often to the neglect of the resurrection. A “rediscovery” and application of Christ’s resurrection to our faith identity will be helpful in McLaren’s call to “ongoing resurrection from violence to peace, from fear to faith, from hostility to love…” (175).
Missions and the Commonwealth of God. There are several areas in McLaren’s discussion related to missions and the Kingdom or Commonwealth of God that are worthy of exploration. One facet includes his discussion of the value of “subversive friendships,” and rightly critiques the “utilitarian” abuse of friendships (223) found often in Evangelical “friendship evangelism.” He reminds us of the importance of “friendship that crosses boundaries of otherness” (228) so often found in the life of Jesus, the “friend of sinners,” and asks us to imagine the possibilities if more religious people would “cross the roads and other barriers that have separated them, and discover one another as friends” (228).
In this section McLaren also discusses the sensitive issue of interfaith and multifaith worship (241). In reading this section I was reminded of the Frontline documentary Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero which includes the disturbing story of a Lutheran minister who participated in a multifaith memorial service in New York shortly after 9/11. As a result he received a barrage of emails and letters from fellow Lutherans accusing him of compromise and heresy, even labeling him as the real terrorist for his actions. This area of theology and practice must be discussed and navigated carefully by Evangelicals so as to address fears of syncretism, concerns for purity, and concepts of sacred space in worship, while also balancing out the need to work together with those of other religions for the common good. McLaren’s call for adding “with-ness – experiencing solidarity with people of other faith,” to “witness – graciously and confidently sharing our unique, Christ-centered message” (242), is a helpful one in our pluralistic culture that construes interreligious engagement as a way of discipleship that goes beyond mere interreligious dialogue (250).
Competitive superiority and religious supremacy. As mentioned previously, there are areas in this volume where conversations with McLaren would be worthwhile. One area where this is the case is his discussion of “competitive superiority” (137) and “religious supremacy” (257). McLaren rightly warns of the dangers of superiority that has often led to hostility against those in other religions (as well as fellow Christians!), and in his discussion of the incarnation and humility by way of Philippians 2, he suggests that Christians opt for a “preference for others rather than competitive superiority,” which then leads to “disdaining them as inferior, rejecting them as other and enemy” (137). This idea is revisited later in this volume in consideration of new kinds of evangelism. McLaren calls for Christians to avoid religious supremacy through attempts at conversion from one religion to another, but instead suggests that we work toward a shared journey, that for McLaren represents a “deeper conversion” (256-7).
I agree with McLaren that we should not engage in superiority or hostility toward those I other religions, and that this often takes place through evangelism and missions. However, in my view McLaren misses another option, and that is the extension of benevolence toward those in other religions which retains a sense of deep religious convictions, and which recognizes clear differences, but which also at times can seek to persuade when such approaches are welcomed. Such a posture recognizes that there is nothing necessarily wrong with healthy forms of competition, nor a sense of one religion being “better” or “truer” than another. In addition, this alternative does not involve a sense of superiority or hostility.
A New Way Forward for Evangelicals. In his discussion, McLaren shares his vision: “We hope, we dream, we pray that another option will come into view – one that doesn’t pit us against others in hostility, and one that allows us to remain true to our own deepest Christian convictions” (34). Elsewhere he expresses this desire with the hope “that some courageous Evangelicals and Pentecostals will make a break from hostility while retaining their evangelistic passion” (23, footnote 17). I suggest that the realization of McLaren’s dream has already begun. At the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy we have been assembling a like-minded and growing network of Evangelicals who are doing precisely this. We are working with Evangelicals and mainline Protestants
to “Prepare Christians for interreligious understanding and relationships without compromise and in civility through advocacy, education, and conversations.” We have seen our application of the “interfaith triangle” of education, relationship, and attitudes result in the transformation of Christian faith identity from hostile to benevolent.
Brian McLaren has done Evangelicals a great service with the writing of this book. It should be read widely, discussed vigorously, and experimented with radically as Evangelicals continue their journey through the religious pluralism and violence that characterizes the twenty-first century.