Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Professor earns award for religious research
For his research on the Family International, OU Professor of Sociology Gary Shepherd received the Thomas Robbins Award for Excellence in Research on New Religious Movements, an award sponsored by the American Academy of Religion. Along with his twin brother Gordon, a professor of sociology at the University of Central Arkansas, Gary studied the communal homes of the religious organization founded in the ‘60s. The Shepherds worked for more than a year and a half to jointly write five papers about their research. They also plan to write two books on related topics over the next several years.
|For their research on the Family International, OU Professor of Sociology Gary Shepherd, and his twin brother Gordon, a professor of sociology at the University of Central Arkansas, received the Thomas Robbins Award for Excellence in Research on New Religious Movements, an award sponsored by the American Academy of Religion. |
The Family International was originally known as the Children of God, a group that initially attracted mostly Hippies from the ‘60s “counter culture” and was a part of the unlikely “Jesus People” movement of that era. Members of the group now live in communal homes all over the world. They don’t have secular jobs and spend their time supporting their households while spreading their version of Christianity in the countries where they live.
Gary visited 15 countries on six continents, spending about a week in each home. He gathered information using a variety of methods, including written surveys and interviews, as well as field observations.
According to the Shepherds, when individual Family International members, homes, or the worldwide organization have issues or questions, they formulate a prayer and wait until they get a response from what they believe to be higher powers. In a group environment, they discuss their problems, pray, discuss the spiritual messages they have received, and then pray to receive further clarification of any ambiguities or contradictions that might have appeared in the original answers they received.
The Family International is governed by a headquarters organization called World Services, which compiles the prophecies related to the overall policies of the group and distributes these to the hundreds of Family homes around the world.
“Whether you are in Uganda or Japan or Canada, from one home to another, their way of life is very similar, very standardized” Gary said. Standardization of values, norms, and practices results in what the Shepherds refer to as a transnational culture — a relatively rare occurrence.
“I’ve sat in on dozens of these types of sessions where they prayed and expected to receive what they call ‘prophecies,’ and there was rarely ever any conflict,” Gary said. “There is a very different set of orientations and attitude that they have when they get together. When they come together they feel they are getting together to reach a consensus, which they attribute to God.”
The Family’s beliefs and practices related to receiving prophetic messages interested the Shepherds as sociologists and religious studies researchers.
“Scholars of religion have rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to study the social components of what many religious groups believe to be divine guidance. We don’t know much about this process,” Gary said, adding that virtually all prophetic founders of religious movements are either dead or inaccessible to researchers. “This was a great opportunity to examine this process, because in The Family International we have direct access to thousands of people doing this every day.”
The Shepherd brothers have been collaborating on research since their undergraduate days. For more than 25 years, they have been working together studying new religious movements, including The Family International over the past 14 years.
“It took a long time to develop a rapport with the group,” Gary said. “We had to develop trust within every home we visited so they felt confident with a stranger coming into their home to study them.”
The Shepherds met with the members of each home at the beginning of their visits or stays and were open and candid with them about their intentions and methods of study. Most welcomed the brothers and opened up an intriguing look into their religion and shared culture.
Four of their papers have been published in the Nova Religio, a peer-reviewed journal of research on new religious movements. Through their work, the Shepherds argued that both the proliferation and “democratization of prophecy” they have documented within the group are unique in the history of organized religion and contribute to consensus, integration and group stability.