Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Yes, Native Americans Shaped European Colony's Religion and Culture

John Fea posted a quick blurb on the Religion in American History blog to highlight an excellent book on early American religion.

Encounters of the Spirit: Native Americans and European Colonial Religion

It seems that Native Americans influenced the early colonists in interesting ways. Here's the publisher's description:
Historians have long been aware that the encounter with Europeans affected all aspects of Native American life. But were Indians the only ones changed by these cross-cultural meetings? Might the newcomers' ways, including their religious beliefs and practices, have also been altered amid their myriad contacts with native peoples?

In Encounters of the Spirit, Richard W. Pointer takes up these intriguing questions in an innovative study of the religious encounter between Indians and Euro-Americans in early America. Exploring a series of episodes across the three centuries of the colonial era and stretching from New Spain to New France and the English settlements, he finds that the flow of cultural influence was more often reciprocal than unidirectional.
Carefully written, historically saturated books like this are always worth checking out. Thanks to Professor Fea, author of

The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America

for pointing out this book. John Fea also keeps up his own blog.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bestselling Eco-Bible - The Green Bible Again Recycles the Word of God

Walk into any Borders or Barnes & Noble and you will find a Bible section filled with specialty Bibles for every age, gender, and lifestyle. Now we have

The Green Bible (NRSV)
A Study Bible for the Green Movement

an ecologically-friendly book,
  • 1440 pages
  • printed on recycled paper
  • uses soy-based ink
  • cotton and linen cover
  • over 1,000 verses printed in green ink
(I love that they've played played on the tradition of printing Jesus's words in red to highlight the "green scriptures" throughout the Bible. A picture of a page from the Psalms is on the left.)

Apparently the first 25,000 copies sold within a few weeks.

Bibles are more than just carriers of Scripture. Bibles are proud badges of identity. We choose Bibles that resonate with us (like the Catholic Study Bible, Teen Study Bible, and the African Heritage Study Bible). We want our Bibles to reflect on what is most important to us.

If you have ever taken time to purchase your own Bible, which one did you choose? What does that Bible say about you?

Even more, we look at other people's Bibles as indicators of who they are. Having the right Bible has often been a test of orthodoxy. NKJV/NASB versions of the Ryrie, Scofield, and the Thompson Chain Reference Bible scream conservative, while the NRSV version of the Annotated Oxford Bible is solidly mainline.

The first green-letter Bible shouts "Green!" And by including writers from a broad spectrum, it tries to side-step theological dogma in order to promote caring for the earth as a spiritual lifestyle. The Green Bible includes essays from N. T. Wright, Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren, Matthew Sleeth, Pope John Paul II, and Wendell Berry. The Green Bible is supported by groups like the Sierra Club, The Humane Society, and the Eco-Justice Program of the National Council of Churches.

Notice how these Bibles are "Study" Bibles? Although the word-translations among these Bibles (whether NIV, ESV, TLB, etc.) is similar. What distinguishes these Bibles are the notes, commentaries, and arrangement of materials inserted throughout the text to reinforce the overall thrust of the book. Editors of these Bibles become the most significant shapers of content. From a cynical perspective, Bible publishers catch trends and associate special edition Bibles with the name of a major personality.

From a more generous perspectives, we know biblical texts are used as launchpoints to discussing different aspect of Christian discipleship. These Bibles become tools for individuals and groups to emphasize various aspects of the faith for various interest and demographic groups.

A bit more on The Green Bible is available from the publisher's website here.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Value of Teen Virginity Pledges Continues to be Questioned

It's no surprise that conservative Christians promote sexual abstinence among teenagers, but many have found interesting they have been fairly effective at drawing their teens into various rallies to make "purity pledges." The program "True Love Waits," for example, gets enthusiastic support from parents and church leaders who hope to keep their kids out of trouble. And there has been government support.

But the effectiveness of such programs has always been questioned.

Today, I found a study published in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics. Using sophisticated data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Janet E. Rosenbaum (post doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) matched students who had taken a virginity pledge with those who hadn't.

Basically, the study indicates that teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have all forms of premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence. Also, because of what the study reports as "negative views on sex," these teens are less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do.

The study also finds that 5 years after taking "virginity pledges" teens say they never made such pledges. This "disavowal" and "disaffinity" seems to indicate that parents and churches have been more effective at getting kids into programs, not in making lifelong commitments.

So, rigorous research does not seem to support that abstinence programs slow the rate of sexual activity. This will again call into question the federal funding of these programs because the stated goals are not being met. But the research I read fails to look at other choices these kids are making as a result of these programs.

My guess is that while critics of these programs may be right in the devastating finding that on average what these programs were supposed to do actually doesn't happen. On the other hand, I would be very interested to know more about the "unintended consequences" of participating in these programs (more so than lack of condom use). How do these programs affect friendship networks? Later church attendance? Identity as "Christian"? And later, what will their attitude be towards parenting? How about suicide rates or grade point average?

Finally, we might be spending more time looking at middle averages and not enough on the outliers. What happens to the "super-pledgers", young people who take up the cause of sexual purity? And what about the "anti-pledgers," those who end up fighting against a program they initially supported?

Findings like this will ultimately be a struggle over values. Perhaps the power of these programs lies in unexpected places. If we can get to understanding what these programs actually do in the lives of teens--and the variety of responses by young adults to these programs over time--then church ministries will change again, maybe focusing less on sexual abstinence and more on sexual identity, personal relationships, and reflections on self-worth.

More on the study can be found reported at the Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Also, for an excellent and up-to-date study on the sexual lives of American teenagers, please see my friend Mark Regnerus' new book:

Interesting and easy to read, this book goes well beyond looking at just abstinence to give a full picture of the relationship between sex and religion among teens.

Davidson College Profiles Author of New Book 'Hollywood Faith'

The folks at Davidson College in North Carolina kindly posted a piece on me and my new book Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church.

You can find more about the new book and my own research at the college website.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

President-Elect Obama - Twentysomething Religion and the New Generation Gap?

A new article from US News and World Report suggests that Obama's election indicates a new generational divide. As others have speculated, there is a very real possibility that the decisive shift among younger voters to embrace more left-centrist ideas, policies, and principles is racially altering the ministry and outreach of American congregations.

From the article:

"The constituency Obama assembled during his campaign has a decided new-generational tilt. The Edison/Mitofsky exit poll tells us that Obama carried voters under age 30 by a margin of 66 percent to 32 percent. On the flip side, by my calculation, he won voters 30 and over by just 50 percent to 49 percent. That means that he won by a larger percent­age among young voters than any president and that among voters older than that, he may not have carried states with a majority of electoral votes.

"In retrospect, the only win­ning Republican strategy would have been to pass a consti­tutional amendment raising the voting age to 35."

Discerning these age-markers is tricky business, but voting patterns offer one quick way of seeing proportions of sympathies between different age groups. For evangelicals, this development signifies a continuing move away from the Religious Right as younger evangelicals simply do not believe the failure to embrace certain conservative policies means the failure to life a God-honoring life.

We have yet to see if a new form of conservatism might grip some proportion of young adults (a new, unanticipated brand of religiously committed young adults?), but today I would predict a diversification of viewpoints that will lead religiously-inclined young adults to apply a label first ("Yes, I'm a democrat...") which is quickly followed by further explanation ("and for me that means...").

I also assume that the perceived success/failure of the Obama presidency will determine whether younger adults decisively maintain their center-left profile. A rejection of such policies may be just around the corner.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Rick Warren-ology - A quick follow up

I posted an article yesterday about Rick Warren, his politics, and the development of Saddleback Community Church on this blog (scroll down a few lines) pointing to an expanded post the Religion in American History blog.

Then today I found an article that just came through the Associated Press (through Google News) that paralleled my own comments about Warren's relationship to other conservative evangelicals.

My original post is here, and the AP article is here. (Hat's off to Scott Thumma at Hartford Seminary who is quoted in the article, a sociologist who really knows this stuff.)  

Modern Money-Lending - On Debt and the Expansion of Evangelical and Non-Denominational Churches

In an interesting article, The New York Times reports on how the contraction of credit is affecting churches -- like those who may have "stretched" their finances to build their buildings.

From the article:

"The rise of nondenominational churches and a resurgence in the evangelical movement also led to more religious institutions seeking to borrow. Churches were often founded in storefronts or school auditoriums, but as they grew, they built sprawling edifices, including so-called mega-churches. At the same time, some older churches lost members as young people went elsewhere, and had to borrow to survive."

"The lenders were, in a sense, betting on the likelihood that a particular pastor could attract a large audience or, in some cases, on the popularity of one denomination over another. But, where those bets were wrong, or too optimistic, congregations found themselves knee-deep in debt and at risk of losing their houses of worship."

I am aware of credit unions and lending agencies out of Southern California that cater to evangelical churches. It wouldn't surprise me if further analysis of church finances from the 1990s to today showed that the visionary impulse of church leaders, the discomfort of constant accomodations to rented facilities, and the preference of many committed church goers for a "regular building" created an affinity between money-lenders (both Christian and non-Christian organizations) and church leaders.

Of course, congregations require financial support to sustain their ministries. Just as other non-profits are also being affected, at the same time of the "contraction" of financial credit we may see a "contraction" of new ministries. We may be seeing a "gap" from 2008 to 20011 of new church starts across the nation.

And yet, who knows? Perhaps instead the opportunism of congregational leaders will excite them to take over the discarded husks of failed auto dealerships. Today's showrooms may become tomorrow's refurbished worship auditoriums. They provide space and ample parking. But it can only happen if they can secure enough money to purchase the land and hire the contractors.

Anyways, the full article can be found here.

Organizing Piles of Books - A New Solution?

Consider this a post-Christmas wish. With this software and the iSight camera on my MacBook as an ISBN scanner, I might be able organize my library (housed in 3 different locations) within a few hours. Could Bookpedia be in my future? Hmmmmm....

Friday, December 26, 2008

Rick Warren-ology -- Some Background on Rick Warren and Saddleback Community Church

Just in time for Barak Obama's inauguration, I wrote a brief article on Rick Warren and Saddleback Community Church as a contributing editor to the Religion in American History blog

"With Pastor Rick Warren's inaugural prayer and the debate surrounding President Obama's invitation for him to give it, I am reminded of how little people really know about Rick Warren and his Southern California church. Warren's abrupt appearance on the political stage have various commentators sweeping this successful church leader into rants reflecting old culture-politics against the Religious Right mingled with a smattering of stereotypes about 'megachurches.'

"To give a bit of background, here's my quick attempt to fill in a few gaps."

The article gives background on the "migrants" to South Orange County and includes some background on the ministry philosophy of Saddleback Community Church as a seeker church in the Los Angeles region.  Saddleback is more than just a West Coast Willow Creek.  

More background on the development of religion in Southern California can be found in my book on Mosaic in Los Angeles and my book on Oasis in Hollywood.  

You can read the full article here.