From Religious Threats and Tricks to Treats
Let's consider the Mormons in more depth. There has been much media buzz lately about the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and its decision to remove Mormonism from its list of "cult" groups. Many fear that the BGEA has let political expediency overshadow a commitment to truth. Another perspective might be that this provides the BGEA and Evangelicalism an opportunity to reconsider the pejorative label of "cult" in favor of more helpful, descriptive, clarifying, and illuminating terms and means of engagement that further understanding and remove unnecessary obstacles to persuasive and winsome communication of the gospel. We need not fear the loss of another monster from our list of those we oppose. An understanding of our differences will not go away, only the objectification of the religious other as an enemy to conquer. Would it not be far more constructive to relate to those who believe differently than we do as friends?
For those of us Evangelicals who will admit we create our monsters and recognize who these monsters are, can we learn anything from them as a result? We think the answer is a resounding yes. In his book Monster Theory, Jeffrey Cohen suggests that, "Monsters provide a key to understanding the culture that spawned them." In other words, our monsters say a great deal about us. In the case involving Evangelicals, perhaps our monsters say far more about us than they say about the "religious other." In what follows we briefly sketch out what we might profitably learn about ourselves in light of our monsters and how we need to wake up from these nightmares and come face to face with those we fear in search of true understanding and more constructive forms of engagement. We need to be concerned for the following dynamics and issues:
1) An Awareness of Faith Identity Construction. Just as the United States has defined itself in the past by way of what it is opposed to, formerly Communism and now the War on Terror, so too Evangelicals (hearkening back to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the early 20th century) tend to define their faith identity by way of opposition, including hostility toward those in other religions.
2) Attentiveness to Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. It is often the case that we go to war with those we fear. Unfortunately, there are times in our lives when we lash out at those we feel threatened by, preempting a strike against them, even if they have not instigated a fight or challenged us. It should come as no surprise that when we fear the religious other, the religious other will often come to fear us. We should be attentive to this dynamic and seek to guard against projection. Fixating on destructive myths involving monsters will own lead to them becoming reality.
3) Admonition to Bearing True Witness. Given Evangelicalism's commitment to truth, it is troubling that many of our popular depictions of other religions are so filled with misrepresentations and involve our selection of and focus on the most unflattering aspects of these traditions possible. In so doing we risk being unfaithful to God's desire that we not bear false witness against our neighbors (Ex. 20:16; Mt. 19:18). Moreover, we risk the same thing happening to us: if we engage in false witness concerning the "religious other," we should not expect that they will reflect upon us in the most favorable light. Those who live by the monstrous mythmaking sword will die by that sword at the hands of their own monsters.
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture, and director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins, at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is also a Charter Member of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. Dr. Metzger's most recent book is Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths.
John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and has been involved in interreligious dialogue for many years in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism. He is editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.