Findings & Footnotes – March 2018

    • Church Planting in Post-Christian Soil (Oxford University Press, $35), by Christopher James, reports from the unlikely ground zero of church planting in the U.S.—Seattle. Although much of the book is a theology and ecclesiology of church planting, it is based on James’ extensive research of new churches in a city known as the epicenter of unchurched Americans (some of the findings from James’ study were reported in the April 2016 issue of RW). James conducted a survey of 105 new churches founded since 2001 and then categorized them into four broad types: “Great Commission Team,” which are mission-based evangelical congregations; “Household of the Spirit,” mainly charismatic-Pentecostal worship-centered churches; “New Community,” including mainline and “emerging” worship and community-centered churches; and “Neighborhood Incarnation,” community and mission-centered congregations.

      James’ survey of the congregations finds that they are in the most diverse and gentrified sections of Seattle and tend to be predominantly evangelical. The book focuses on and sees the most promise in the neighborhood related congregations, finding that they are adaptable to a diversity of theological perspectives and are relevant to concerns about building ties between surrounding communities and churches. James is upbeat about his findings, especially the high survival rate of these new churches, believing that Seattle is something of a bellwether for the rest of the country; just as it was a leader in the emergence of the non-affiliated, he argues that these kinds of church plants (and new combinations of these various models) can flourish in more receptive religious “ecologies” or environments in other cities.

    • There is considerable turmoil in the conservative Protestant world, at least among its intellectual elite, about evangelical identity and even the use of the term “evangelical” ever since surveys have shown a large segment of these Christians voted for Donald Trump. The new book Still Evangelical? (InterVarsity Press, $15.99), edited by Mark Labberton, reflects this mood of evangelical questioning and even disillusionment, as contributing scholars dissect the diffuse movement and ask whether they still find a place in it. On one hand, Labberton views the current controversy as one of a “fundamentalist” contingent being misrepresented as the wider evangelical movement by the media and other opinion-makers. On the other hand, he acknowledges that “many white evangelicals, particularly in the central and southern states, made an alliance with the unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump. In an iconoclastic and populist eruption of desire for ideological change in our national narrative around issues of class, race, gender, religion, government, nation, and globalization, 81 percent of white evangelicals reportedly voted in support of Trump. Many white evangelicals voted out of protest and rejection of the liberalizing effects of the Democratic Party, and particularly of Hillary Clinton.”The rest of the chapters—several by immigrant and minority scholars—tend to differentiate what is considered forward-looking evangelicalism from what are seen as the distortions of the tradition—American exceptionalism, the embrace of anti-immigrant policies, and white nationalism—with little attempt to create a unifying new image for such a diverse movement. Mark Galli concludes on a more self-critical note by admitting that the contributors represent an evangelical elite that excludes evangelicals of lower classes: “They don’t write books or give speeches; they don’t attend conferences of evangelicals for social justice or evangelicals for immigration reform. They are deeply suspicious of mainstream media. And a lot of them voted for Donald Trump.”
    • Atheists in American Politics (Lexington Books, $90), by Richard J. Meagher, ably chronicles and analyzes the past, present, and future of atheist organizing and politics in the U.S. It does an especially good job of tracing how this diffuse movement has, on the one hand, gained a good deal of political and social capital in the last two decades, yet, on the other hand, has been beset by problems of infighting and, until very recently, lack of resources. The use of the Internet by both elite (such as the “New Atheists”) and lay atheists was a decisive step in secularist political organizing. In fact, it was only when the movement took advantage of new communication technologies in the early 2000s that it was able to form such a successful lobbying organization as the Secularist Coalition of America. Its adaptation of identity politics and the gay rights movement’s strategy of “coming out of the closet” was another innovation that gave organized secularism some traction in American society (even as such a posture has been criticized by secularists who see atheism more as a philosophy than an identity).The author’s use of discourse and textual analysis, particularly of early American atheist publications, is particularly impressive, including chapters on atheists and communism and on the activism of Madelyn Murray O’Hare. The chronological structure of the book makes sense and adds to the author’s argument that today’s atheist activism builds on earlier approaches. While Meagher captures the sharp polemics and debates over “intersectional concerns,” namely feminism, he could have done more on the recent split between activists and those involved in community building efforts, including the use of ritual (such as the Sunday Assembly). The author speculates that the “opportunity” given to secularists by the more liberal political culture in the U.S. up until 2016 (as well as the related but not identical phenomenon of the rise of the non-affiliated or the “nones”) could well be upset by the rise of conservative populism and the Trump era.
    • RW has already reported on sociologists Giuseppe Giordan and Adam Possamai’s work on contemporary exorcism (see October 2016 issue), but further aspects of this phenomenon are explored in their new book, Sociology of Exorcism in Late Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan, $54.99). The theme of demonic possession had never disappeared in the contemporary world, but it became a component of mainstream popular culture in the 1970s with the famous movie The Exorcist (1973). While there is no way to assess whether there are more people believed to be possessed today than in previous decades, the authors claim that there has been an increase in the number of people believing in the reality of possession. When interviewing priests in an Italian diocese where an exorcist had given them access to his files, the authors noticed that the younger priests (between 30 and 45 years of age) tended to believe most strongly in the existence of the devil and of demonic possession. Since the end of the last century there has been a renewed interest in exorcism, not only by the Catholic Church but also the Anglicans. The International Association of Exorcists (IAE) was founded by Catholic priests in 1991 and was recognized by the Congregation for Clergy in 2014.According to the authors, the growing number of religious professionals of various denominations who point out the presence of the devil “create an over-awareness of the devil in general consciousness.” Exorcism tends to reinforce the strength of a religion and its effectiveness in the eyes of believers. An interesting chapter pays attention to exorcism as a field of competition between religious groups. Despite similarities (and influences on Catholic Charismatic groups), Roman Catholic priests working as exorcists tend to emphasize the difference between rituals of blessing and liberation and Pentecostal rituals of deliverance; they are also critical of aspects they see as closer to theatrical performances. The authors see it as the Catholic Church “branding its own style of deliverance ministry.” Some Catholic professionals acknowledge that there are people being afflicted by the devil more than they are possessed and admit that their “rituals that do not seem as effervescent as those delivered by Pentecostals.” In most cases, institutional exorcists deem the problems reported by patients to be of a different nature than possession. In their case study in an Italian diocese, the authors found rituals of blessing and rituals of liberation to be practiced much more frequently than exorcism itself (only 5 percent of the cases). The case study pays attention to an “institutional” exorcist, complying with the regulations of the institution. But the authors are aware that there are other types of exorcists, acting outside of the boundaries of a religious institution, and that it might be a good idea to pay attention to them in the future.
    • The Decline of Established Christianity in the Western World (Routledge, $140), edited by Paul Silas Peterson, brings together theologians, anthropologists, philosophers, church historians, religious studies scholars, and sociologists to wrestle with the reality of religious decline, even if they are more critical about an overarching trajectory of inevitable non-belief and religious indifference. Peterson, a German church historian, acknowledges a dramatically shrinking Christian presence in Europe and a diminishment of vitality in places like the U.S. as signs of irreversible secularization. Interestingly, the sociologists tend to take a more skeptical stance toward secularization. Eva Hamburg of Uppsala University uses Sweden as a case study, arguing that the Church of Sweden has so adapted to secular culture that it creates further religious indifference that is only reversed by immigrant religion and congregations that heavily stress religious socialization of the younger generations. The most unique part of the book lies in those chapters addressing how religious decline and secularization are treated by theologians and religious practitioners.In a later chapter, Peterson writes that the tendency of liberal theologians to see secularization as a way of realizing human liberation has receded, especially as hard-core secularists (such as the New Atheism), who see no place for churches or the transcendent at all, have taken up this project in earnest. But somechurches and theologians have sought numerous reasons and remedies for Christian decline—from its being the result of a legitimate reaction to overbearing and legalistic churches to that of a failure to adapt to modern and postmodern culture. Others have accepted a future as a minority or counterculture even as Christianity expands in the global South. These diverse responses to secularization are fleshed out in a case study on religious indifference in Germany. German theologians and clergy are calling for an “ecumenism of the third kind” that seeks to create a special kind of mission to the indifferent (those who see no need for any religious faith). This can mean creating new rituals for weddings between believers and the indifferent, as the Catholics have done, or developing the idea of “vicarious religion” as a way for Christians to mediate on behalf of their non-believing friends and families in their churches. The overall tone, however, of the more theological chapters, such as one on decline in Canada, seems to be one of resignation and the idea of churches becoming a small voice among many working for human betterment.