Sunday, October 25, 2015

New Use for Empty Churches

The former Lincoln Road church in Windsor.

Across Canada, churches are closing.

Aging and declining memberships, together with rising costs for repairs, are causing more congregations to walk away from their buildings.

Most of these churches belong to mainline congregations; the United Church alone is losing about 50 churches a year.

At the same time churches are emptying, another faith group is growing—and needs places to meet.

I’m talking about Muslims. With over one million adherents in Canada, it is one of the fastest-growing religions in the country.

The growth is putting pressure on Islamic meetingplaces across Canada.

“We have been experiencing this kind of steady increase for a while,” said Amin Elshorbagy, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, in a 2013 article in the National Post.
“We can see this in terms of the need to expand our infrastructure. Most of our Islamic centres are becoming very crowded.”

If Muslim meetingplaces are crowded, and many churches are empty—well, there’s an opportunity here. And some Muslims and Christians in Canada are taking advantage of it.

In August, the empty Lincoln Road United Church in Windsor, Ont. was sold to the Masjid Noor-Ul-Islam Madressa and Cultural Centre.

In Sydney, Nova Scotia, the unused Holy Redeemer church hall was sold to a group of Muslim families as a prayer and worship centre. 

Now something similar might happen in Winnipeg, where a group of Muslims has indicated an interest in buying the former St. Giles Presbyterian Church on Burrows Avenue. (Which I wrote about earlier on this blog.) 

Some Christians might find this to be unusual, or even unacceptable. But turning sacred spaces from one religion to another is not a new phenomenon.

One of the earliest conversions happened in 705 in Damascus, when a church dedicated to John the Baptist became the Grand Mosque, also known as the Umayyad Mosque.

And the Hagia Sophia in present-day Istanbul had existed for about a thousand years as a church before it was converted into a mosque in 1453 following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

And it isn't only Muslims who have taken over the sacred spaces of others. Christianity has a rich history in this regard, too.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, when missionaries Christianized Europe, one of the common practices was for them to convert pagan shrines. One of the earliest stories involves St. Boniface.

As recounted by Bamber Gascoigne in his book, The Christians, Boniface marched into a pagan shrine in Germany where people worshipped a massive oak tree dedicated to Thor, the god of Thunder.

 Using an axe, he cut it down, and used the wood to build a chapel to St. Peter.

That was then. Today, the conversions are going the other way as Canadian Christianity experiences a profound upheaval.

It’s a win-win situation. Not only can Muslims find new places to worship, the present owners get out from under a financial burden which might threaten to sink them.

And since many of these churches are historic, the other winner is the rest of us, and the communities we live in, as we see these buildings revitalized, repaired and repurposed instead of becoming derelict or torn down.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Canadian Evangelicals, the Conservatives and the Election

One common assumption in Canada is that all evangelicals vote Conservative. Many do, but not all. In fact, when it comes to voting, Canadian evangelicals are very different from their counterparts in the U.S., where to be Evangelical is to be Republican. As we look forward to the Oct. 19 Canadian election, how will they vote? We'll soon know. 

The Internet lit up in July when B.C. Conservative M.P. Wai Young was caught on a recording comparing the Conservative Party to the life and actions of Jesus.

The incident re-kindled fears about whether Stephen Harper is really a closet Evangelical, determined to use a right-wing brand of Christianity to re-shape Canada .

As a writer in The Economist put it: “Stephen Harper is probably the nearest thing that Canada has had in recent times to a prime minister from the religious right.”

In September, reporter Andrew Nikoforuk echoed that concern in an article in The Tyee titled “Stephen Harper’s Covert Evangelicalism.”

In it, he referenced an earlier column where he stated that “Harper's own evangelical beliefs, which are closely aligned with extreme elements of the Republican Party, explained his disinterest in climate change and his government's pointed trashing of environmental science. It also explained his penchant for secrecy and his dislike of the media, environmentalists and other secular groups.”

When it comes to Harper’s faith, I don’t actually know much about it. Apparently, not many others know much about what he believes, either. According to an article by columnist and commentator Michael Coren in The Walrus, those who know Harper best say his Christian beliefs are rather vague, and seldom inform his politics.

While not much has been published about the Prime Minister’s faith—and he doesn’t talk about it—there is research about how Canadian Evangelicals vote. And, despite what some seem to think, they don’t all vote Conservative.

In a 2009 paper for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, authors Don Hutchinson and Rick Hiemstra examined Evangelical voting patterns from 1996-2008. During that time, they found, Evangelicals tended to vote in ways that were similar to other Canadians.
While it’s true that many Evangelicals showed a preference for conservative parties during that time period, “support for all parties other than the Liberal Party of Canada increased just as it did in the general population,” they wrote.
As for why Evangelical support for the Conservatives grew, Hiemstra and Hutchinson say it was more about how former Liberal supporters felt pushed out of that Party by the way it openly dismissed, ridiculed and marginalized their faith—not for any hope-for policy gains from the Conservative Party.

In fact, on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, Evangelicals have been greatly disappointed with the Conservatives for not being willing to re-open those debates.

At the same time Evangelical support for the Conservatives was growing, it was also increasing for the NDP and Greens, albeit at a lower rate, Hiemstra and Hutchinson said. In 2008, the NDP was the second choice for Evangelicals nationally, ahead of the Liberals.

These findings are echoed by a recent book by American author Lydia Bean.
In her 2014 book The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Politics and Partisan Identities in the U.S.and Canada, Bean studied two Evangelical churches in the U.S. and two in Canada . She wanted to find out why Evangelicals in the two countries are so different from one another.

American Evangelicals, have adopted a highly partisan and politicized religion, she wrote. Many of their leaders frequently and openly share partisan political views, communicating that to be a Christian is to be a Republican.

Their religious identity was so allied with the Republicans, she wrote, that it has become “impossible for Evangelicals to identify with the Democratic Party.”

In Canada , however, she found the opposite to be true. Political partisanship and Evangelical piety were almost never combined or promoted in the churches she studied, and no political party was promoted over another.

Partisan rhetoric was also frowned upon, she said, and members of the two Canadian Evangelical churches freely indicated that they supported various political parties.

Prior to publishing her book, Bean was a co-author of a 2008 paper titled “Why Doesn’t Canada Have An American-Style Christian Right?” In it, they wrote that “Canadian and American Evangelicals share similar attitudes about issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, yet Canadian Evangelicals do not appear markedly different than non-Evangelical Canadians in their voting habits or political goals.”

After October 19, we might know if that is still true.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What do Muslims Think About Terrorism? And the Politics of Fear

Sheema Khan.

On Oct. 7, my friend Sheema Khan wrote a poignant column in the Globe and Mail about what it feels like to be a Muslim in Canada today—what with all the talk about the niquab, revoking citizenship and “barbaric cultural practices.Make no mistake,” she wrote, “this divisive strategy is meant to prey upon fear and prejudice . . . Muslims are the low-hanging fruit in the politics of fear. I interviewed Sheema in 2014 on this topic; find that interview below.

Do you ever wonder what Muslims around the world think of terrorist groups like al-Qaida and Boko Haram?

According to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, it turns out that most are just as worried about those groups as everyone else.

The survey, which polled 14,000 Muslims in 14 countries, asked respondents what they thought of al-Qaida, Boko Haram, the Taliban, Hezbollah and Hamas. It found almost universal negative opinions for all of the groups.

Al-Qaida, one of the most notorious of the terrorist groups, was viewed negatively by strong majorities in all 14 countries.

"As well-publicized bouts of violence, from civil war to suicide bombings, plague the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations," Pew stated.

“In most Middle Eastern countries, concern about extremism has increased in the past year," it added.

In Lebanon, which shares a border with Syria, 92 per cent of those interviewed said they were worried about Islamic extremism. Concern has also risen in Jordan and Turkey, and in Pakistan, where 66 per cent are concerned about the same thing.

The survey was conducted before the radical Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized large parts of Iraq and Syria, and before the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Canadian Muslim leader Sheema Khan, a longtime columnist for the Globe and Mail, isn't surprised by the survey.

Like many other Muslims in Canada, she is "horrified" by extremism conducted in the name of her religion.

When asked about extremist groups like ISIL, which are committing acts of horrific violence against in Iraq, she is adamant they don't represent what she knows about Islam.

"I don't recognize my faith in anything they are saying," she says.

She recognizes the Islamic ideas and words they use, she says, noting they are the same ones she uses. "But I don't see anything familiar in them," she says.

As a Canadian, she doesn't want that group—which has called on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to its rule—to "define us" as an Islamic community in Canada.

What worries her is that non-Muslims in Canada might see what ISIL and other extremists are doing and saying, and then think this represents all Muslims.

Muslims, she states, are "not marching to the same drummer."

Like the rest of us, Khan feels "just as helpless" as other Canadians to do anything about the situation.

What she is pledging to do is to help shape what it means to be a Muslim in Canada. In this case, it means creating a peaceful and constructive Islam, one that is "wholly Canadian" and integrated in Canadian society—and Islam that finds Muslims working with other Canadians to address issues such as the environment, poverty and injustice.

"My life and my family is here," she says. Canada is "my country."

Click here for a 2015 report from Pew about Muslim attitudes towards terrorism.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

666 and the End of the World

If you are reading this, the world hasn’t ended—yet. As you may know, a group called the eBibleFellowship based in Sharon Hill, Pa., predicted the world would be annihilated on Oct. 7. They based this on the appearance of the “blood moon” in September, and on the earlier claims of radio preacher Harold Camping that the world would end May 21. 2011. (When that prediction failed to materialize, Camping retired from public life and died in 2013.) This reminded me of another time the world was predicted to end—June 6, 2006 (sixth day of the sixth month of 2006: 666)—and what I wrote about it back then, including how people misunderstand the purpose of the book of Revelations.

If you’re reading this, it means the world didn’t end on Tuesday.

Not that there was any danger it would happen. But a few people were a little anxious as June 6, 2006 drew closer. For them, it was an ominous date—or would that be omenous?—the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year of this century. 666, in other words.

Some people claimed it could be a day of satanic power, perhaps marked by a comet hitting the Earth.

Others believed it could signal the start of Armageddon, or maybe The Rapture—the moment millions of Christians disappear from the earth, leaving non-believers behind. 

Indeed, The Rapture Index, found at, calculates the likelihood that Christ will come back as the highest it's ever been, right into “fasten your seatbelts” territory.

But if it wasn’t the day the world ended, it was still a great marketing opportunity.

20th Century Fox chose that date to release its remake of The Omen, the classic 1970s horror film about a woman who gives birth the child of Satan. 

The heavy metal rock group Slayer used it to launch its Unholy Alliance tour, while the death metal group Deicide, which calls itself “Satan’s favourite band,” released its newest album on what it called “that most unholy of days.”

Not to be outdone, best-selling evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins also selected June 6 as a good day to launch their new book, called the The Rapture, the latest instalment in their Left Behind series.

Some Christian retailers reportedly got into the spirit of things by selling paperback editions of earlier Left Behind books for $6.66.

So what’s up with that number, anyway?

It comes from the book of Revelation, where John writes that the name of the beast is 666. Over the centuries, that has led to widespread speculation about the beast’s identity.

For some Protestants, it has been almost any pope although, in the sixteenth century, some Catholics thought it was Martin Luther). More recently, Ronald Wilson Reagan was a candidate, as is the current U.S. president, George Walker Bush Jr.—their names add up to 666.

In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger was the beast of choice, and prior to that people thought it was Hitler or Mussolini. Also in the running are the ubiquitous UPC bar codes on everything we buy, while some have suggested it’s the World Wide Web.

But most biblical scholars say that John didn’t have any of these people or things in mind when he wrote the book of Revelation—he was referring to the Roman Emperor Nero, who led a terrible persecution of the early church.

They base this on the Hebrew language, where each letter has a numerical value; in Hebrew, Nero’s name equals 666—a bit of code that John’s first century readers would have figured out very quickly.

But not only that, scholars say—John wasn’t writing about the end times at all.

According to Michael Gilmour, who teaches New Testament at Providence College in Otterburne, the book of Revelation isn’t about prophecy or the end of the world. It’s a pastoral book, he says, written for Christians at that time who were experiencing terrible persecution during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian.

“Many people assume that the book of Revelation is about the future, but John is writing to first century churches,” Gilmour says. “He’s writing to a marginalized and persecuted church, trying to comfort and encourage them.”

Brian Froese, who teaches history at Canadian Mennonite University, agrees. “John was writing to Christians in dark and perilous times, pointing to a future of peace and prosperity,” he says.

But if that’s the case, why do so many people today see Revelation as a blueprint for the end times?

Gilmour and Froese say it can be traced back to John Nelson Darby, a 19th century British minister who used verses in the Old and New Testaments to come up with the idea that history is divided into specific periods of time, or dispensations, and that we are now living in the last period of time before Christ returns.

Over the past 35 years, Darby’s ideas have been widely promoted by people like Hal Lindsey, author of the Late Great Planet Earth, and the authors of the Left Behind series.

The main problem with this view, Gilmour says, is that it does “violence to the text,” and those who subscribe to it have to practice “hermeneutical acrobatics” to make all the different verses from the Old and New Testaments fit into their system.

“It pieces disparate things together to make a coherent structure,” adds Froese, but notes that  proponents have to take verses “out of context” to make them fit.

Both Gilmour and Froese hasten to add that this doesn’t mean that Christians can’t apply lessons from the book of Revelation today.

We just have to be careful not to view it as “some mysterious Da Vinci Code-like puzzle,” says Froese.

Adds Gilmour: “All we know is that Christ will return, and we should live in this moment, being faithful and ready.”