Agents of Renewal: Redemptive Journalism, Sympathetic Ethnography, and Faithful Witness in World Religions

Global Scholars Canada supports Christians professors who work mostly in under-serviced public universities worldwide. But our professors’ worldview, pedagogy, and ethic are very closely aligned with the approach a Christian professor brings to a Christian university setting. One way to say it is this: whatever the discipline, no matter what aspect of human culture or the physical universe they study, their Christian faith is an integral part of their engagement with the subject matter. Christian students and teachers seek to be agents of renewal and faithfulness in whatever corner of the planet they study. Put differently, they do not just do intellectual labour: they seek to transform things for the common good and God’s glory.

A few examples, all that relate to my local Christian university, Redeemer University, where I am adjunct faculty.

1. Redemptive Journalism

First of all, just a few months ago Redeemer gave the distinguished alumni award to Angela Bick, editor of the Christian Courier, a 75-year-old newspaper and now website. The Courier pursues an ethic of “redemptive journalism”–with “news, clues, and kingdom views” on current events, the arts, and theology. I recently wrote an article celebrating her achievements here, (as a contributing editor to the newspaper).

There you will read Bick saying that absorbing all the news of the world is daunting, and it is tempting to go for the sensational headline. But she orients herself differently: “this notion of ‘redemptive journalism’ keeps me from being overwhelmed by its pain and suffering; it encourages me to look for those places where God is bringing healing, hope and restoration. And where we are invited to join him!”

2. Sympathetic Ethnography

My own research on a megachurch leader and its publication as The Subversive Evangelical (McGill-Queens 2019) was recently featured on the university alumni pages here under the title “Why So Serious?” The literature on megachurches can be quite cynical and fall into simple frameworks of “consumer religion” but my book is no arm chair critique. I attended The Meeting House megachurch for more than 2 years, attended five small groups and interviewed about 82 people associated with the church before I put my ideas together on megachurch life. I wanted to understand the people and their hopes and dreams and not just follow the stereotypes–even if they are academic critiques.

This methodology, what you might call a “sympathetic ethnography”, is not promotion for their church or simply transcribing what they think about themselves. It is finding patterns and a fresh sociological language for describing them—in a way that the attendees could say seems a fair assessment. It is still critical at points, and doesn’t shy away from the critical literature, but shows that what goes not in one particular megachurch may be more than just a neo-liberal capitalist liturgy, as assumed by theories of “McDonaldized religion” and “Disneyfication” of church. Such analysis has its place, but it needs to be tested on the ground where people worship, teach, and practise their faith. What I primarily found, rather than simply consumerized religion, was a deeply ironic posture towards religion itself.

This approach is not unique to me, but for me it arises out of my faith, which urges me to seek truth, love my neighbour, and still nurture a prophetic edge.

The Meeting House megachurch in Oakville, Ontario. The charismatic preacher is Bruxy Cavey, the subject of my PhD.
A poster explaining the refugee sponsor program for the Hamilton campus of The Meeting House.

3. Faithful Witness with World Religions

I have taught the World Religions course at Redeemer for for 13 years now, off and on. My PhD from the University of Waterloo was in a program entitled “Religious Diversity in North America” and covered the gamut of world religions as they manifest on this continent, and so I bring a regional “lived religion” approach to my teaching. In a world where religious differences can escalate to all-out war, and in a deliberately multi-cultural country like Canada, it is important to study our deep differences and find the common ground.

One thing I impress on my students in this course is the ninth commandment: you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. This cuts in two ways for the subject matter. In one sense, we ought not to characterize the faith of our neighbour in ways that they themselves would not find accurate. Granted, there are a wide diversity of adherents to say, Islam, and they have fierce disagreements among themselves. But we certainly ought to steer clear of caricatures and stereotypes, seeking to be “sympathetic ethnographers” who retain their own critical Christian take.

To be a faithful witness in a multi-ethnic world, however, can also mean that we ought to give the best account of our own faith, too. This means not only giving the deepest, most winsome and accurate description we can of our Lord, but also doing so in a way that models a properly confident faith and robust neighbourly love. So we avoid being aggressively argumentative, instead being “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). That doesn’t mean avoiding points of contrast, but it does suggest having good timing for such disagreement!

I confess I haven’t always lived up to this code myself, but such can be an opportunity to talk about contrition, repentance, forgiveness and grace—key teachings in the Christian tradition, exemplified in Jesus call, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near” (Matt. 4:17). Faithful witness—in both grace and truth—is certainly a high calling in the subject of world religions and is not for the faint of heart.

The Christian school our kids attend was too small, and it was bought by the local mosque. Read my story of the new Islamic school here. They are expanding!

So: here are three small examples of the integrality of faith and scholarship—faith and cultural endeavours, and all from one small university in Ontario.

2 thoughts on “Agents of Renewal: Redemptive Journalism, Sympathetic Ethnography, and Faithful Witness in World Religions

  1. I like sympathetic ethnography. I used it in my dissertation on Carl Rogers’ basic intent and his psychotherapeutic approach. I see that is how Al Wolters also operates. I think it is an example of Christian analysis.


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