Apologetics: Non-Christian Religions
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NEW YORK — Witches are big draws at the box office, on TV — and apparently on college campuses.
While Harry Potter wards off calamity with a flick of his wand, hundreds of students nationwide are casting more than the occasional love spell, as they identify Wicca and other pagan practices as their official religion.
Members of Syracuse University’s Pagan Society lighted candles in the campus chapel, while curious students signed up for a new class on witchcraft. And at the University of Arizona and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, believers can be excused from class on Wiccan holidays.
Anthony Paige, a recent SUNY Purchase College graduate who started a pagan student group there, said Wicca appeals to some college students because “there is no sense of sin.”
“There is a karmic law, but there’s no scorn or condemnation,” said Paige, who was raised a Roman Catholic and whose book Rocking the Goddess, Campus Wicca for the Student Practioner profiles college-age pagans.
Wicca, known as The Craft or witchcraft, is defined as a neo-Pagan nature religion influenced by pre-Christian beliefs that affirms the existence of magic and of both gods and goddesses.
“There is a cultural shift with college students identifying themselves less as religious and more as spiritual,” said the Rev. Thomas Wolfe, dean of Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse.
Wolfe, who worried some would object to having Wiccan rituals performed in the same spiritual center used by Christian, Jewish and Muslim students, said he’s faced no objections.
But evangelist Eric Barger of Take a Stand! Ministries believes Wiccan practices can lead to darker practices among vulnerable young adults.
“Of course, not everyone who delves into white magic or Wicca goes deeper,” Barger said. “But it opens the door to black magic.”
Barger has crusaded against the Harry Potter books through his own writing and in speeches to Christian churches, including a Pennsylvania church that burned the books last year.
Barger said he believes Wiccans have the right to meet and share their views. “But we also have the right to warn people,” he said.
Not all young Wiccans have come out of the broom closet.
Elizabeth, (who didn’t want her last name used) a 24-year-old Georgetown University graduate who was raised Catholic, hasn’t told her parents she’s a practicing Wiccan, and told few people at school about her faith.
“I pretty much practiced as a solitary the entire time I was there,” she said.
Because many Wiccans practice autonomously, it’s difficult to determine how many there are, said Paige.
Some schools now include Wiccan holidays among those celebrated by students, alongside those of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs. Among those schools are the University of Arizona and Lehigh University.
“We acknowledge an individual’s right to engage in their religious practices as they see fit,” said Lehigh spokesman Andrew Stanten. “It is our firm belief that we embrace all kinds of thoughts.”
Many believe pop culture has contributed to the trend. Bookstores have entire sections devoted to Wicca, and films like The Craft and TV shows like Charmed feature prominent witches.
But Wiccans like Elizabeth aren’t convinced mainstream attention is good for her religion. “I really don’t think the TV shows are helping to dispel the stereotypes of witches,” she said.
Alyssa Beall, a Wiccan and graduate student in religion at Syracuse, says although the shows may not be accurate, “they have definitely raised general awareness about the idea that it exists as a religion.”
Beall will teach History of Witchcraft and Magic next semester. The course, which will discuss the meaning of the terms “magic” and “witchcraft,” and their connotations in history, was originally capped at 25 students. It has proved so popular she’s opened it up to 10 more.
Barger said he doesn’t object to such courses — provided they’re taught from a historical perspective and not with the intent to encourage students to practice.
“Young girls want to be involved in witchcraft,” he said. “There is an occult explosion going on around us.”
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican weighed in Monday on feng shui, crystals and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius in a new document designed to address whether you can still be a good Christian while taking yoga class.
“A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age,’” doesn’t give many absolute answers. But while saying some positive things about the New Age movement, it warns that New Agers’ quest for spirituality and inner peace can’t take the place of true Christian religion.
And it highlights some core differences between New Age and Christian thought, particularly regarding the concepts of God, Jesus and sin.
While New Agers are waiting for an era when they are “totally in command of the cosmic laws of nature ... Christians are in a constant state of vigilance, ready for the last days when Christ will come again; their New Age began 2,000 years ago, with Christ,” the document said.
The Vatican said the preliminary document was the result of requests by bishops for guidance on determining whether practices embraced by New Agers, including yoga, meditation and healing by crystals, were compatible with Christianity.
The 90-page booklet, which includes a glossary defining terms like “channeling,” “karma,” and “reincarnation,” urges caution.
Monsignor Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told a news conference many aspects of the New Age movement were viewed positively by the church, such as the importance it places on protecting the environment.
“But if one is brought to this by ascribing ‘divineness’ to the land, that’s another thing,” he said. “Music that relaxes you is good. But if this music empties prayer and prayer turns into just listening to music and falling asleep, it’s no longer prayer.”
The document, which was six years in the making, traces the history of the New Age phenomenon and notes the importance of the 1969 Woodstock festival and the musicial “Hair.”
It defines “Age of Aquarius” as the astrological age that New Agers believe will usher in an era of harmony, justice and peace, following the current “Age of Pisces,” which has been marked by wars and conflicts. The Vatican document is silent on when the “Age of Aquarius” begins.
It lists feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of placing things to ensure a harmonious energy flow, as an “occult” New Age practice that emphasizes “being in tune with nature or the cosmos.”
The document stresses that much of the New Age phenomenon is driven by marketing books, therapies, and crystals, and it notes some consider New Age just a label “for a product created by the application of marketing principles to a religious phenomenon.”
The Vatican didn’t say why the book was coming out now — more than 30 years after the New Age movement took hold in the United States and elsewhere — although it is current enough to acknowledge that yoga and crystals are enormously popular these days.
The booklet attributes such popularity, particularly in the Western world, to a “spiritual hunger of contemporary men and women” unsatisfied with existing religion, political institutions or science.
It offers some practical steps for priests to follow, saying the best way to counter the search for New Age remedies was to highlight the “riches of the Christian spiritual heritage.”
It encourages dialogue with New Agers, but stresses that their credentials must be checked. And it urges caution with groups that host prayer meetings or initiation ceremonies, saying they may lure people into a form of false worship.
The booklet was prepared by Fitzgerald’s council and the Pontifical Council for Culture, with help from the Vatican’s orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
It is not considered to be the Vatican’s final word on the matter. A definitive document will be published once the Vatican receives feedback from dioceses on the provisional one issued Monday.
Dr Williams will be inducted as an honorary druid
The induction of the Archbishop of Wales as a “pagan” druid at the National Eisteddfod next month has prompted criticism from the evangelical wing of the Church of England.
It is widely expected that Dr Rowan Williams will be announced as the successor to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey.
But Dr Williams’ induction as an honorary druid into the Gorsedd of Bards - whose numbers include the Queen, artists, musicians and clergymen - has received veiled criticism from traditionalists in England.
His liberal views have not made him first choice for the Canterbury post in some quarters.
Links with druids have upset the evangelical group Reform, which told The Times newspaper: “christian leaders should concentrate on...the christian faith...rather than dabbling in other things.” Dr Williams recently acknowledged he had ordained a man he knew to be a practicing homosexual.
But he remains the favourite to succeed Dr Carey, who has announced he will retire from the post in October 2002.
He is expected to be confirmed in the role by Prime Minister Tony Blair next week.
Other potential candidates to succeed Dr Carey include the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, and the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali.
If Dr Williams is made Archbishop of Canterbury he would be the first Welshman to hold the position for at least 1,000 years.
Dr Williams will be inducted into the Gorsedd at the National Eisteddfod at St David’s, Pembrokeshire, in August.
The Gorsedd convenes at the site of the National Eisteddfod each year, at a circle of stones - akin to Stonehenge - but members have dismissed any links to ancient druids.
Dr Williams is eligible to become an honorary druid as a Welsh speaker and he will join other clergymen including the retired Roman Catholic Bishop of Menevia, the Right Reverend David Mullins.
A spokesman for Dr Williams said the Gorsedd was nothing like the pagan group critics made it out to be. “Both the eisteddfod and Gorsedd are celebrations of Welsh culture.
“There is nothing in them which is at all anti-christian and Archbishop Rowan is proud to have been honoured in this way.”
Other prominent honorary druids include opera star Bryn Terfel, England cricketer Robert Croft, former Labour Leader in the Lords, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and ex-Welsh rugby stars Gareth Edwards and Ray Gravel.
Former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies was inducted into the Gorsedd in 1998.
According to the National Eisteddfod website, the Gorsedd of Bards was invented by Iolo Morganwg, an eccentric scholars, in 1792, at a ceremony in Primrose Hill, London.
He intended for people to know the Welsh were the direct descendants of Celtic culture and heritage.
The Gorsedd made made its first appearance at the Eisteddfod in Carmarthen in 1819.
Simon Jenkins [KH: a liberal]
This week the Church of England debated empty pews and dog collars and got nowhere. Its next head, Dr Rowan Williams, had more important business. Even before his induction he was fending off backwoodsmen charging him with heresy, opposing war in Iraq and publishing a book of poems. He was, in other words, emerging as a public figure.
His opposite number the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has been no less busy. Summoned to a theological court in Manchester he has been forced by orthodox rabbis to recant his recent book on the diversity of religions. He is accused of condoning polytheism and there are demands for his books to be burnt. Not to be left out, the Roman Catholics are tearing themselves apart over priestly sexuality, and awaiting the doctrinal upheaval likely to follow a new Pope. These may seem storms in a vicarage teacup. They may yet spill into the saucer and stain the tablecloth.
In my blacker moments I have wondered what would follow our ancient democracy. It has had a good run but seems weak and tarnished, as if knowing it has served its time. Politicians, once elected, do nothing to keep it in good repair. The franchise is a quinquennial game show and Parliament a down-market Garrick Club.
What next? What neo-democratic dispensation is on the horizon? I see it as a shambling coalition of party oligarchs, commentators, consultants and celebrities, a sovereignty of the articulate. Influence will depend on who can muscle on to the platform, who can seize the microphone in the breathless 24-hour media conversation that passes for populist government. Today’s religious leaders seem eager for this challenge.
Dr Williams has shown no inclination to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. He is no quiet pastoral don. George Carey greeted controversy as he might a growling whippet, with a hesitant pat on the nose and God’s blessing. I cannot recall any matter on which he offered a strong view. It was not his style. Dr Carey’s successor is of a different cloth. He seizes any passing controversy by the neck and shakes it for sense.
The new Archbishop’s zest for publicity comes from an impenetrable theologian but an accessible writer. A remarkable volume of his poems appears this week. His Church may be on the floor but he seems ready to lift its eyes to the heavens. I love his image of another Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas, in his lonely cottage in North Wales: “Words from a window/ Smoothing the sea, the iron back and forth/ To probe the fugitive wrinkles/ Carving a path down to the lost gate.” I love too his medieval Angharad, “Carrying the chaos of those so breakable hearts . . . giving to us, clear under God’s sky,/ The priesthood of her caring”. The legacy of Donne and Herbert is in good hands.
Dr Sacks is of different mettle. He is a more political operator, adept at sidestepping trick questions. His website motto is epic vapidity: “The future will happen, but it is we who must bring it about.” Yet the Chief Rabbi is in the intellectual rather than ethnic tradition of rabbinical leadership. He may be wary of specificity but not of publicity. He is for war on Iraq but “with safeguards”, carefully chosen to cover every option. He is scrupulous on Israel, but has reportedly found recent events “incompatible with our deepest ideals”, at times making him “very uncomfortable to be a Jew”. This is brave, for a rabbi.
Dr Sacks’s book, The Politics of Hope, was emphatically “a work of politics, not about religion or spirituality”. It was a serious attempt to ask why the bonds of social cohesion in Britain seem to have collapsed under recent Governments. He professes a “lovely friendship” with Gordon Brown, whose deeds in office glaringly contradict the message of his book. But priests have long been susceptible to flattery.
The Chief Rabbi’s latest work, The Dignity of Difference, is more radical. It celebrates religious diversity and pleads that only by each faith respecting all others can religion be harnessed as a force for peace. “No one creed has a monopoly of religious truth,” says this dynamic ecumenist, “in Heaven there is truth, on Earth there are truths”. Dr Sacks has been wounded by his critics claiming that his book, aimed at Gentiles, questions the uniqueness of Judaism. He has now agreed to “a clarification not a retraction” in a new edition, to “reformulate phrases and passages that have been misunderstood”. What new inquisition haunts the heights of Maida Vale?
Religious leaders are well cast for their new public role. They enjoy institutional respect and a measure of invulnerability. They are accustomed to preaching. Their job security frees them from regular accountability. Despite his recent experience, Dr Sacks seems to revel in debate. The media demoralise only those who show they are hurt.
Fewer people may be going to church. The Archbishop and the Chief Rabbi may, like Stalin’s Pope, have no divisions. But Dr Williams leads some one million worshippers and Dr Sacks has 280,000. This beats most politicians. It is a large enough constituency to validate access to the media. Churches are presumed to be opinion factories, quangos of comment. Provided they promise controversy, a mobile pulpit is at their front door. It is called a radio car.
Thought for the Day is now worth any bishopric. The Moral Maze is a weekly sermon for the hard of hearing. Songs of Praise is a virtual Mass. I am sure half Britain thinks that Lionel Blue is the Chief Rabbi and Sister Wendy is head of the Roman Catholic Church.
These new “hierarchs” understand that outspokenness requires argument. The old-fashioned churchman was a servant of public opinion, not its master. He announced that there was justice all round and may the Lord watch over you. Such platitude cuts no ice with the media. An opinion is disseminated only if someone, somewhere, can be found to disagree. That is no criticism of the media. It is the essence of dialogue, the definition of debate.
Dr Williams and Dr Sacks have opinions. We already know where the new Archbishop stands on everything from gay priests to the weapons inspectors in Iraq. He is unlikely to be sprinkling holy water on Tony Blair’s bomber crews as they depart for Baghdad. Both he and Dr Sacks have been accused of heterodoxy, indeed heresy, by their followers. It is ironic that they should both have fallen foul of fundamentalists when both are theological conservatives. They hold firm to the holiness of texts and respect the sanctity of rituals. Neither would be described as morally “relative”.
Religious heresy is like treason, “a question of dates”. Ockham, Erasmus, Cranmer, Keble, Temple, were all considered heretics by some or all. Today these men are woven into the tight cloth of English civilisation. What is sad is that the cries of heresy against both Dr Williams and Dr Sacks are for their espousal of religious tolerance, one of the prouder boasts of British history. Protestants, Catholics and Jews have all been its beneficiaries. The rantings against Dr Williams of the Church Society and the mullah-like edicts of the Manchester rabbis take us back to the intolerance of the early 17th century.
All heterodoxy is welcome. By definition it challenges orthodoxy. Without controversy institutions die and without institutions there is no democracy, just the vote. These new heretics court controversy. A view on the Iraq war, Your Grace? A comment on the Israeli Cabinet, Chief Rabbi? Any views on the firefighters’ strike? The demise of Parliament and the decay of the vocation of politics has left a public voracious for arguments, opinions, points of view. Newspapers are crammed with them.
I do not agree with Yeats that the best lack all conviction and only the worst are full of passionate intensity. But Yeats was a pessimist and timid. He told his poets to keep their mouths shut, “for in truth/ We have no gift to set a statesman right”. Every democrat has that right. All are welcome to the new aristocracy of the articulate. Welcome in particular are intelligent churchmen not in thrall to the powers that be.
Especially welcome are poets. “Squeeze, stretch, strike,” cries the new Primate, “and the equations, sweating, give their answers./ Turn up the heat and choke the roads: come/ to the edge of things and sounds . . . and leave a map vibrating in the cloud.” He is chiding physics, a metaphor for politics. More, please.
Voodoo has been recognised as an official religion in Haiti allowing priests to perform ceremonies from baptisms to marriages.
Voodoo priest Philippe Castera, 48, said he hopes the government’s decree is more than an effort to win popularity amid economic and political troubles.
“In spite of our contribution to Haitian culture, we are still misunderstood and despised,” said Castera.
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide invited voodoo practitioners to register with the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
After swearing an oath before a civil judge, practitioners will be able to legally conduct ceremonies such as marriages and baptisms.
Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, has said he recognises voodoo as a religion like any other.
“An ancestral religion, voodoo is an essential part of national identity,” he said in the decree recognising voodoo.
Voodoo practitioners believe in a supreme God and spirits who link the human with the divine. The spirits are summoned by offerings that include everything from rum to chickens.
Many books and films have depicted voodoo as black magic based on animal and human sacrifices to summon zombies and evil spirits.
“It will take more than a government decree to undo all that malevolence,” Castera said, and suggested that construction of a central voodoo temple would “turn good words into a good deed.”
By any measure, Oprah Winfrey is one of the most successful women in America. Her net worth is now thought to exceed one billion dollars, and her expanding media empire is one of the great success stories of the modern entertainment industry. She recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of “The Oprah Show,” and is committed to a contract that will take the show through its twenty-fifth season. She regularly appears at the top of the “Most Admired Women” listings and has become a cultural icon, complete with her own magazine and product lines. But is there more to the meaning of Oprah Winfrey?
Marcia Z. Nelson sees Oprah as a major American religious leader. In The Gospel According to Oprah, Nelson presents her as the symbol and catalyst for a new American religion. “Oprah Winfrey, talk show host, film producer, and philanthropist, is not ordained. She is neither preacher nor religious professional. Yet her multimedia empire, built over two decades, has given her the scope and stature of an influential leader. Oprah has a prominent pulpit from which to preach,” Nelson insists. Oprah’s television audience of ten million (according to Nielsen ratings) and her magazine readership of 2.7 million together represent a massive media phenomenon. As Nelson explains, “Oprah’s whole enterprise, which includes many media that provide platforms for her gospel as well as sources of income, is vast.” Nelson’s book represents an effort to understand Oprah Winfrey as an exemplar and prophetess of a new form of American religion. In reality, Oprah is probably best understood as a highly-talented representative of the religion of positive thinking that has shaped American culture for at least the last two centuries. In this role, Oprah continues and extends a line of religious thought that replaces the transcendent with the temporal and looks for fulfillment and success as the goods of a satisfying life.
Marcia Z. Nelson is a writer who covers religions and spirituality. In previous works, she has considered various aspects of modern American religion, including contemporary meditation movements. In Oprah Winfrey she has found a figure of such influence and reach that she may well represent the mainstreaming of her own life philosophy.
Of course, Oprah’s primary audience is comprised of women. “Oprah is primarily the voice of women in the middle: middle-class middle Americans,” Nelson explains. Through her television show, magazine, and book club, Oprah reaches out to these women with a message of self-improvement, empowerment, and self-actualization.
Watching “The Oprah Show” is, Nelson insists, something like attending a worship service. “Go to this house of worship and sit down for an inspiring hour that will engage you and give you a lift,” Nelson encourages. “An hour-long show five days a week adds up to a lot more pulpit time per week than the average pastor enjoys, and Oprah commands a lot bigger congregation.”
Nelson’s book is genuinely interesting, offering credible and helpful insights into the Oprah phenomenon. At the same time, Nelson gushes over the meaning of Oprah and seems to celebrate Oprah’s redefinition of religious experience. Indeed, she goes so far as to refer to Oprah as a symbol of spiritual renewal. “In other words, it is not just talk, but talk that’s been tested in life’s fires—talk is testimony,” she asserts. “As Oprah would say, this is about getting real. This is the language of authenticity. A preference for the freshness and vividness of experience over what can seem like the dull dryness of institutional faith is hardly new, of course. Spiritual renewal has ever been thus.”
Oprah Winfrey was born January 29, 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Originally, she lived there on a farm with her mother, Vernita, and her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee. In later years, Vernita was unable to care for Oprah, and she went to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey, in Nashville. Interestingly, Oprah was supposed to have been named Orpah, after the daughter-in-law of Naomi as cited in Ruth 1:14. A misspelling of her name led to the name that has made her famous. She was raised in a Baptist church and developed her speaking ability in the context of the local congregation.
As an adolescent, Oprah was sexually abused by male relatives, became sexually promiscuous, and gave birth to a baby boy, who later died.
She got her big break in broadcasting at age 19 and left her college studies in order to become a TV newscaster. In 1984, she moved to WLS-TV in Chicago and began a local talk show. The show was so popular that it was eventually named for Oprah and then went into national syndication. From those roots, a vast media empire was born.
Nelson is candid in dealing with the way Oprah repackages spirituality. “She translates what religions would term transcendent into something that is inspiring but secular. She would call it a vision of possibilities. She has tried to develop her own unique language, which means talking about values in a secular and inclusive sense in a religiously pluralistic country.”
The Oprah phenomenon is based in self-disclosure, confession, testimony, and talk—lots and lots of talk. Episodes of “The Oprah Show” often deal with abuse, frustration, and the search for fulfillment. Guests are routinely encouraged to confess their wrongdoing, claim their promise, and move into a new phase of their lives, empowered and encouraged by Oprah and the experience of sharing their inner lives with millions of television viewers. In this sense, Oprah’s television show promises something like a secular catharsis—complete with Oprah’s validation of their problems, their desires, and their self-analysis. Nelson suggests that Oprah’s influence is based in her gift for listening and her knowledge that self-disclosure and personal testimony offer a means of liberation. Of course, this dependence upon disclosure and confession also makes for good ratings—and Oprah understands what interests a television audience. As Nelson explains: “On Oprah’s show, abuse may be the subject of a show, followed the next day by an entertainer. However morally laudable or pressing, unrelieved focus on abuse or mistreatment of women or AIDS in Africa or any of the world’s pressing needs doesn’t make for good ratings, either. Without good ratings, the television platform Oprah needs to ‘get people to think about things a little differently’ would vanish.”
In the course of her research, Nelson approached several scholars of American religion, asking them “whether they could think of Oprah as a teacher who advanced a kind of entry-level religion that included the same core values many religions promote.” When Oprah was criticized for offering meaning without community, Nelson counters by suggesting that Oprah’s television show and reading club offer one form of community, even as her expanding presence on the internet promises “virtual community.”
Oprah Winfrey’s approach to life centers in self-analysis and positive thinking. Of course, material abundance also plays a part. “Oprah believes in abundance, a concept not generally associated with religion,” Nelson acknowledges. “A lot of people think of religion as requiring asceticism and poverty—giving up goods, denying personal desires. And for good reason.” By offering a seemingly endless array of product recommendations and endorsements, and by filling her magazine with advertisements for expensive products and services, Oprah clearly associates the good life with material fulfillment.
In keeping with the theme of positive thinking, and with the ideology of spiritual movements of this kind, Oprah’s secularized spirituality includes few rules or moral judgments. “Oprah is famously nonjudgmental and empathetic,” Nelson explains. Even as she features programs on romance, dating, marriage, and parenting, Oprah remains unmarried. Her nonjudgmentalism extends to her own lifestyle, even as she has publicly acknowledged the fact that she lives with her longtime boyfriend, Stedman Graham.
When Oprah refers to God, she is clear to insist that this means no specific god and entails no particular theological commitments. Nelson refers to Oprah’s treatment of religion on her program as “a non-sectarian picture” in which theological content “is present but not primary.” In other words, “God is acknowledged as necessary, but the language doesn’t insist on that. It’s soft sell.”
As Nelson understands the Oprah phenomenon, forgiveness is at the center of Oprah’s message. Nevertheless, Oprah offers forgiveness without atonement. Confession of inadequacy is presented as a sufficient remedy for sin and wrongdoing. God is effectively out of the picture as lawgiver or judge, and there is no room for the cross of Christ as atonement for sin.
“Oprah’s ‘New Age’ talk about spirit was part of her ongoing, ever evolving attempt to find the right words for teachings she learned through religion,” Nelson suggests. “Her spiritually inclusive language is also intended to be unique—the language she alone speaks that makes her inspiring and distinctly herself. For marketing reasons as well as for her own sense of mission, she’s putting her own stamp on the language, on the words she uses, on the culture, where the ‘Oprah effect’ and ‘Oprahfication’ and ‘She Oprah’ed it out of me’ are terms that have been coined to describe her pervasive influence and style.”
Oprah’s faith wears no labels, Nelson insists. Oprah “talks often enough about values that her audience can see she is value driven, even if the values and beliefs don’t wear a specific denominational label,” Nelson observes. As she explains, “Oprah’s clothes may wear labels, but her faith does not.”
New York University professor Paul Vitz once observed, “Contemporary psychology is a form of secular humanism based on the rejection of God and the worship of the self.” In her substitution of psychology for theology, Oprah has become a high priestess and icon of the psychologization of American society. When she features prominent New Age figures on her television show, she helps to mainstream New Age influences and philosophies among millions of Americans. Her substitution of spirituality for biblical Christianity, her promotion of forgiveness without atonement, and her references to a god “without labels” puts her at the epicenter of a seismic cultural earthquake.
At the same time, Oprah cannot be ignored. Marcia Z. Nelson’s new book is intended as a celebration of Oprah’s significance as a harbinger of a new gospel. In the end, the importance of this book is grounded in the fact that it draws attention to Oprah’s influence and cultural impact. Oprah’s newly-packaged positive-thinking spirituality is tailor-made for the empty souls of our postmodern age. She promises meaning without truth, acceptance without judgment, and fulfillment without self-denial. Marcia Z. Nelson is certainly right about one thing—Oprah Winfrey’s “congregation” cannot be ignored.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
by Mike S. Adams
Several months ago, I decided to pick up a copy of The Book of Mormon. I did so because numerous Mormons wanted me to decide for myself whether it was divinely inspired or merely fictional. Now that I’ve made the “wrong” determination, many Mormons are deeply offended. Some say I am just deeply prejudiced against them.
The accusation that I began reading The Book of Mormon with a lack of objectivity is correct. The best neighbor I ever knew as a young boy was Bill Brandt - a devout Mormon. I remember how he worked on my first car (a 1970 GTO) several times without charging labor. He would go to work early at IBM every day so he could come home early and do the same for others. Often, he would work hours past dark to do free mechanical work for members of his congregation and for neighbors who didn’t even share his faith.
Later, my bias in favor of Mormons deepened when a follow named David Lynch joined our faculty at UNCW in 1994. David was the best colleague many in our department can remember having. He was also a devout Mormon.
And, so, when I decided to study the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church I approached the topic in a manner that wasn’t fair. I read The Book of Mormon without giving a fair hearing to books like The God Makers that attacked its basic foundations. When I wanted to learn more about the structure and finances of the church, I read Mormon America: the Power and the Promise – a book that has been praised by Mormons for its objectivity. I also read Standing for Something by Gordon Hinckley in order to hear the LDS president speak on values we hold in common.
When it came time to approach the controversial topic of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, I read a book by the same name written by a Mormon named Juanita Brooks. In so doing, I avoided the more recent and decidedly anti-Mormon account by Sally Denton.
Finally, when it came time to read about the life of Joseph Smith, author of The Book of Mormon, I avoided the anti-Smith biography No Man Knows my History by Fawn M. Brodie. Instead, I read a more favorable account called Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman – a devout Mormon and distinguished historian from Columbia University.
As soon as I began my study of the LDS –a study that would span several months and several thousand pages of reading – I saw evidence of the profound bias Mormons have complained about for decades. My wife joked that she would divorce me if I converted to Mormonism. A Methodist preacher joked (at least I hope he was joking) that he would kill me if I converted to Mormonism - urging me to convert to any religion other than the LDS church. Some Catholic and Protestant students who saw me holding a copy of The Book of Mormon also questioned why I would bother reading a work they considered heretical.
Throughout my study, I consistently heard two harsh accusations levied against Mormons – first, that the LDS Church is a cult, and, second, that the Mormons are not Christians. I reject both of those accusations.
The idea that the LDS church is a cult stems largely from a wildly biased media that focuses on breakaway congregations still practicing polygamy – a practice long rejected by the leadership of the LDS church. I suspect that the feminist influence within the mainstream media intentionally distorts this aspect of Mormonism as a punishment for the lack of an organized feminist movement in the church. (Author’s note: this is not to suggest a conspiracy but, rather, a collective result of individual bigotry).
The idea that Mormons are not Christians is also untenable. No one reading Romans 10:9 and John 14:6 can deny that Mormons are Christians who are saved by faith and destined for heaven. Of course, raising the issue of heaven might not be the best way to bridge the gap between Mormon and non-Mormon Christians. In fact, it leads inevitably to a discussion of the controversial life and revelations of Joseph Smith, Jr.
Joseph Smith will be the sole focus of my next column on Mormonism.
by Mike S. Adams
The fact that Joseph Smith roamed about in upstate New York as a young man searching for the lost treasures of Captain Kidd should have been enough to warn people that he was a few fries short of a happy meal. But his later claims to have received a set of Golden Plates from the Angel Moroni spared him from being seen merely as a quack. Instead, they ensured that he will go down in history as both a fraud and a heretic.
The Golden Plates of the Angel Moroni supposedly disappeared into heaven never to be seen again after Smith transcribed The Book of Mormon. This is but one of the evidentiary problems faced by the Latter-day Saints (LDS). The dearth of archeological evidence supporting the claims of Mormonism is also disturbing given that the events described in the book allegedly took place as late as the fifth century A.D.
That many of my LDS readers place The Book of Mormon in the same category with the Bible is odd, to say the least. While archeology has failed to substantiate The Book of Mormon, the veracity of the Bible - both the Old and New Testaments - has been demonstrated repeatedly in recent years.
Sometimes the discoveries confirming the Bible have been general, such as the evidence suggesting that the world did, in fact, have a single language at one time. Another example is the relatively recent evidence that the Hittites really did exist. Those who said for years that no such people ever existed must now contend with concrete evidence found in modern-day Turkey.
More specific examples include discoveries confirming passages in Samuel which say that after his death Saul’s armor was put in the temple of a Canaanite fertility goddess. Passages in Chronicles say his head was put in the temple of a Philistine corn god. Since the Canaanites and Philistines were enemies, critics of the Bible thought that it was an error to place their temples in close proximity. Now that excavations have placed these two temples side-by-side, the critics have been silenced.
Aside from the wealth of archeological evidence that sets the Bible apart from The Book of Mormon, there is another issue of confirmation by prophecy. The predictions in Psalms - that the hands and feet of Jesus would be pierced, that his bones would be out of joint and that lots would be cast for his garments - are amazing. Zechariah also speaks of the piercing of Jesus in a way that clearly foretells his crucifixion.
Prophecies concerning Jesus’ crucifixion are all the more amazing when one considers that the Roman method of execution had not yet been invented when these passages were written. People were simply stoned to death in Old Testament times. Isaiah 53 alone foretells a dozen amazing details of the crucifixion of Christ. (For further reading see Norman Geisler. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999).
When I was younger, atheists tried to convince me that certain passages from the writings of Nostradamus surpassed the Bible in terms of predictive credibility. For example, the following passage by Nostradamus was said to be a reference to Adolf Hitler: “…Beasts mad with hunger will swim across rivers. Most of the army will be against the Lower Danube [Hister sera]. The great one shall be dragged in an iron cage when the child brother [de Germaine] will observe nothing.”
Years later, I learned that Nostradamus’ predictions were meaningless. Hister was a place, not a person like Hitler. De Germaine represented “near relative,” not the nation of Germany. It seems that the hunger to minimize the uniqueness of the Bible is eternally strong, but the evidence is eternally lacking.
As it stands, the Bible I read as a child stands alone as a document that has the support of prophets looking into the future and archeologists looking into the past. The Book of Mormon has neither.
I wish I could classify the fraud of The Book of Mormon as the thing that bothers me the most about Joseph Smith. But, unfortunately, it is not. And, unfortunately, an enumeration of my other problems with Joseph Smith will have to wait until next week’s column.
by Mike S. Adams
After two columns (I | II) on the subject of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), I am getting lots of requests from Mormons to stop writing about “their” religion. Some are even threatening to stop reading my columns if I don’t stop criticizing “their” religion. But, since I started reading about LDS at “their” request it looks like “they” will have to endure just one more column.
After I was asked to read about (and consider converting to) Mormonism, I came across some rather disturbing accusations against Joseph Smith, Jr. Were he alive today, I would submit the following true/false test to the founder of Mormonism:
1. True or False. Among your 33 well-documented plural wives, there were close to a dozen unions in which the wife was already married to another man.
2. True or False. In your lifetime, you married four different pairs of sisters.
3. True or False. You once married a young woman and also married her mother.
4. True or False. At least one of your plural wives was as young as fourteen.
5. True or False. Some of your marriages were the result of religious coercion secured only after you told the prospective bride that marrying you would ensure the bride’s place in heaven.
6. True or False. You also coerced teenagers into marrying you by promising their families a place in heaven.
7. True or False. You kept fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball from marrying her sweetheart Horace Whitney because you wanted to marry the teenager instead.
8. True or False. You also asked Helen’s father Heber C. Kimball to give you his wife.
9. True or False. Before you eventually married Helen, you gave her a 24-hour deadline to give in to your offer of a place in heaven.
10. True or False. Two years after your death, Helen married her old sweetheart Horace Whitney.
11. True or False. The marriage between Helen and Horace was only temporary because Helen was already sealed by marriage to you for eternity.
12. True or False. Horace Whitney was sealed to an already dead Mormon woman before his “temporary” marriage to Helen.
13. True or False. After her mother died, you approached teenager Lucy Walker with a command that she marry you with the threat of eternal damnation as the punishment if she refused.
14. True or False. The year before you died, you said the following to Lucy: “I will give you until tomorrow to decide (whether to marry me). If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you.”
15. True or False. The Book of Mormon, which you transcribed from the Golden plates given to you by the Angel Moroni says the following: “Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, Saith the Lord.” (Jacob 2:24).
16. True or False. The Book of Mormon, which you transcribed from the Golden plates given to you by the Angel Moroni also says the following: “Hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.” (Jacob 2:27).
It doesn’t seem to make sense to ask questions of a dead man unless you’ve read the following words by Joseph Smith, Jr., taken from his famous Follett Discourse:
“…(W)hen I get my kingdom, I shall present it to my father, so that he may obtain kingdom among kingdom, and it will exalt him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take his place, and thereby become exalted myself.”
At first, I wondered why Mormons were asking me not to broach the subject of Smith’s polygamy. After all, he was a polygamist who transcribed – from sacred Golden plates, no less – pointed criticism of others for the sin of polygamy. So, why shouldn’t a non-polygamist like me criticize a man for polygamy?
Of course, the answer is that some Mormons have decided that Joseph Smith is a God. In other words, they have ceased to be Christian.
It’s being hailed as the greatest archaeological find in the last 60 years. Some are saying the “Gospel of Judas,” a Gnostic text that dates back to the second century, could force a completely different understanding of Christianity, more specifically of Judas and Jesus. But as Collin Hansen of Christianity Today writes: “This is no Christian text .... This new text tells us nothing more about Jesus’ relationship with Judas than does Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The text was originally discovered in Egypt during the 1970s, then circulated among antiquities dealers and ultimately found its way to a safe deposit box in Long Island, New York, where it languished and deteriorated for 16 years. Eventually, it was acquired by a Swiss foundation that formed a joint venture with National Geographic to reconstruct, transcribe, and translate it. National Geographic has now acquired the rights to the document and recently unveiled it for the public.
The Gospel of Judas tells an entirely different story than the one recorded in the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In this writing, Judas is the hero and not the betrayer of Christ. Instead, he is depicted as Christ’s best friend — the only one who really understands Jesus — the one who turns Jesus over to the authorities for crucifixion at His behest — helping Him shed his fleshly body and return to the spirit world.
The teachings of The Gospel of Judas are Gnostic in origin. The Gnostics were a sect that believed only a select group of people was privy to a secret knowledge. The material world to them was a trap — something from which to escape to enter into the spirit world. As Hanson notes, the teachings of the “Cainite Gnostics,” the group responsible for the Gospel of Judas, were characteristic for “rehabilitating disgraced biblical figures, including Cain, the Sodomites, and Judas.” Although Gnostics appeared to be Christian, there is nothing about their teachings that resembled what the apostles actually taught and passed down to the Church.
Despite the fact scholars have always known about the Gospel of Judas and that the early Church rejected it as heresy, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, Jr., notes one of the more significant reasons why many people are making such a big deal of it:
“The resurgence of interest in Gnostic texts such as ... the gospel of Judas is driven by an effort, at least on the part of some figures, to argue that early Christianity had no essential core. Instead, scholars such as Elaine Pagels of Princeton University want to argue that, ‘These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was.’ What Pagels and many other figures argue is that early Christianity was a cauldron of competing theologies, and that ideological and political factors explain why an ‘orthodox’ tradition eventually won, suppressing all competing theologies. Accordingly, these same figures argue that today’s Christians should be open to these variant teachings that had long been suppressed and hidden from view.”
The fact of the matter is, however, that from the earliest times the Church had a functional canon that was authoritative in matters of faith and practice. In his book You Can Trust the Bible, Dr. Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, Illinois, explains how the development of the New Testament Canon actually took place:
1. Letters from the apostles were written and received in the churches; copies were made and circulated.
2. A growing group of books developed that were recognized as inspired Scripture. An important question for their acceptance was: Was the book either written by an apostle or by someone who knew the apostles, and thus had the stamp of apostolic authority?
3. By the end of the first century all 27 books in our present canon were written and received by the churches. Though some of the canonical lists were incomplete, this is not to be interpreted as the rejection of some books but often simply means that some books were unknown in certain areas.
4. To show both agreement and the widespread acceptance of the New Testament books, we should note that by a generation following the end of the apostolic age, every book of the New Testament had been cited as authoritative by some church father.
5. Remaining doubts or debates over certain books continued into the fourth century. As far as historians know, the first time the list of our 27 books appears is in an Easter letter written by Athansius, an outstanding leader of the church in A.D. 367. Obviously, the books were regarded by most churches as authoritative more than 200 years prior to that time.
6. The 27 books of our New Testament were ratified by the Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) and the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397).
Lutzer rightly adds: “These councils neither added nor subtracted books, but simply approved the list of twenty-seven which had already been recognized by the early church. Given the geographical distances, the limitations of communication, and the diverse backgrounds of the churches, such agreement is remarkable.”
Indeed, it was remarkable accord — quite contrary to the argument that genuine early Christianity was “a cauldron of competing theologies, and that ideological and political factors explain why an ‘orthodox’ tradition eventually won, suppressing all competing theologies.”
This also clearly explains why writings like the Gospel of Judas were never recognized as divinely inspired. Such documents were simply too young to have apostolic authority. Moreover, they were inconsistent with the fundamental teachings of the Christian religion.
It is no coincidence that in the last chapter of the last book of the New Testament there is a dire warning. Although the text was intended primarily to refer to the book of Revelation, it nonetheless has a wider application for the Bible as a whole. It reads: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:18-19).
Without question, the canon is closed and all the information needed to know God and live as He requires is contained therein. Those who either promote or embrace some extra-biblical revelation such as the Gospel of Judas betray the truth, even as the real Judas Himself did, and crucify the Son of God afresh.
Rev. Mark H. Creech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.
While teens actively participate in church activities, a new study revealed that most “twentysomethings” disengage from active spiritual lives.
The Barna Group reported that 61 percent of today’s young adults had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged – not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying.
As teens, most people have been found to embrace spirituality with half of teens attending a church-related service or activity in a typical week and more than 75 percent discussing matters of faith with peers. Three out of five teens attend at least one youth group meeting at a church during a typical three-month period, according to the research group, and one-third of teenagers say they participate in a Christian club on campus at some point during a typical school year.
With many Christian leaders calling today’s teens the largest generation, these statistics represent “significant prospects for influencing the nation’s 24 million teens,” stated the report.
Yet, many of them fall away from the active spiritual engagement that was seen during teen years as they enter their twenties, particularly in college. Compared to older adults, twentysomethings have significantly lower levels of church attendance, time spent alone studying and reading the Bible, volunteering to help churches, donations to churches, Sunday school and small group involvement and use of Christian media.
Only one-fifth of twentysomethings have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences while the majority disengaged from church activity. And nearly one-fifth of teens were never significantly reached by a Christian community of faith during their teens and have remained disconnected from the Christian faith.
“There is considerable debate about whether the disengagement of twentysomethings is a lifestage issue – that is, a predictable element in the progression of people’s development as they go through various family, occupational and chronological stages – or whether it is unique to this generation,” said David Kinnaman, the director of the research, in the study. “While there is some truth to both explanations, this debate misses the point, which is that the current state of ministry to twentysomethings is woefully inadequate to address the spiritual needs of millions of young adults.
“These individuals are making significant life choices and determining the patterns and preferences of their spiritual reality while churches wait, generally in vain, for them to return after college or when the kids come. When and if young adults do return to churches, it is difficult to convince them that a passionate pursuit of Christ is anything more than a nice add-on to their cluttered lifestyle.”
While disengaged from religious activity, most twentysomethings still report being committed to the Christian faith. The study showed that 78 percent of them say they are Christians and most also describe themselves as “deeply spiritual.”
Twentysomethings were nearly 70 percent more likely than older adults to strongly assert that if they “cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ, then they will find people and groups that will, and connect with them instead of a local church.” They are also significantly less likely to believe that “a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church.”
Younger adults were found to be just as likely as older Americans to attend special worship events not sponsored by a local church, to participate in a spiritually oriented small group at work, to have a conversation with someone else who holds them accountable for living faith principles, and to attend a house church not associated with a conventional church. The younger crowd, however, visit faith-related websites moreso than adults.
Among those in their twenties and thirties, six percent have beliefs that qualify them as evangelical and 36 percent qualify as born again Christians.
“Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul – not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school,” commented Kinnaman. “There are certainly effective youth ministries across the country, but the levels of disengagement among twentysomethings suggest that youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation. A new standard for viable youth ministry should be – not the number of attenders, the sophistication of the events, or the ‘cool’ factor of the youth group – but whether teens have the commitment, passion and resources to pursue Christ intentionally and whole-heartedly after they leave the youth ministry nest.”
Kinnaman said the research group is doing more studies on what leads to a sustainable faith, but some key observances have already been made. One key suggestion youth workers may consider is to be more personalized in ministry.
“Every teen has different needs, questions and doubts, so helping them to wrestle through those specific issues and to understand God’s unique purpose for their lives is significant. The most effective churches have set up leadership development tracks and mentoring processes to facilitate this type of personalization,” the researcher said.
He continued, describing the importance of helping teens respond to situations and decisions from a biblical viewpoint. Youth groups also have a significant role in training parents to minister to their own children.
“The fact is millions of American teenagers and twentysomethings are alive to God and devoted to His Kingdom,” Kinnaman added. “But the research is also clear that there are significant issues related to the way young people experience and express their faith. Without objectively and strategically addressing those challenges, Christian leaders will miss the opportunity to awaken many more young souls to a life-long zeal for God.”