Praying the Steps in Cincinnati

Yesterday evening, Good Friday, my husband and I drove into Cincinnati to observe (in the sense of “to watch”) an annual tradition we’d read about: the praying of the steps. People climb a series of stairways leading to Holy Cross-Immaculata, a Catholic church at the top of Mount Adams. On each step, people pause to recite a prayer, traditionally a Hail Mary or an Our Father–or both. This Good Friday tradition dates back to the 1860s or early 1870s.  People start the climb, often referred to as a pilgrimage, as early as the midnight dividing Thursday and Friday.


There’s a short version and a long version of the climb. The long version begins at the base of Mount Adams, not far from the river, and involves a pedestrian bridge crossing a freeway. The short version begins in what’s become an upscale residential-business neighborhood below the church. (Most of the businesses appeared to be pubs.) The long version must take between two and three hours to complete: as my husband and I came back down the stairs after doing our own prayer-less climb, we passed people we’d already passed on the way up, who an hour later were still working on the first stretch that would get them to where the short climb begins.

As we began the long version of the climb, we found ourselves sharing the stairs with a smattering of pilgrims and a few joggers. When we got to the beginning of the short version, we found a long line of people waiting to climb those steps, so we took a “back route” through an alley to get to the top of the hill and the church. Here’s a video of our arrival.

The dog, by the way, was supposed to be making the climb in penance for having recently murdered a baby bunny; but as you see, she was in a more festive than penitential mood. (For the record, it’s not me you hear panting in the video. The one of us who was most winded, ironically, was the one of us who’s most faithful about getting to the gym.)

The  church was originally a German parish, Immaculata. There was a Passionist monastery just a couple of blocks away which served an Irish parish, Holy Cross. During the 1970s, as a result of the hemorrhaging of priests and brothers following Vatican II, the monastery was shut down and the two parishes were joined into Holy Cross-Immaculata. The Immaculata church still has its nineteenth century artwork. Over the altar is painted the word AMERIKA, which on closer inspection turns out to be the last word of a prayer on a scroll above it. The prayer reads in German:

O Mary, without sin conceived, pray for the conversion of this land… AMERICA.

Not the vision of a “Christian America” we’re most used to encountering.

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Klingon for Pesach

So I’ve been trying to think what ProjectilePluralism-ish topic I could post about in honor of Pesach–and just now I saw the following exchange on my Facebook wall. I’m copy-and-pasting the comments but omitting names to protect the light-minded.


Qapla’! In case you are invited to a Klingon seder tomorrow night, here is the first of the Four Questions restored to its proper Klingon: Chay’ raMmey latlh pIm ramvam?

Next question: how to modify the scansion to fit the Mah Nishtana melody.

Just add some extra syllables. You can add “qoH,” meaning “[you] fool” as an interjection at any point. I would add it at the end and repeat “ramvam qoH” twice. Note that “latIh” is two syllables, “LAT-IH.”

Major life regrets: I never got my dad to translate the four questions into Hindi for me.

Sadly, Klingon will not be spoken at tonight’s Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Memorial, since contacts with extraterrestrials are regarded as occultist and demonic!

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Who ordains women?

This weekend, the “Ordain Women” movement within Mormonism received a surprising amount of national media attention. I have a hunch that the media’s interest was driven partly by the LDS Church’s efforts to prevent the story from gaining media attention, i.e., by barring journalists from Temple Square so they couldn’t photograph women being turned away when they tried to gain admission to the male-only priesthood session. If you tell journalists they’re no longer allowed to go somewhere they’re used to going, you’re pretty much guaranteeing they’ll become interested in what you don’t want them to document.


The “Ordain Women” news stories made me think of this slide, which I created a couple years ago for a PowerPoint presentation on the history of women’s ordination in the United States. The slide lists the 10 largest Christian denominations in the U.S., according to the 2012 National Council of Churches yearbook. The green checks indicate denominations that ordain women, and the red X’s indicate denominations that don’t, as best I could determine. The Baptist denominations were tricky to categorize because of their congregationalist style of governance, but I assigned those denominations an X if I found that the national body had gone on record as disapproving women in pastoral authority.

Note that of the 10 largest denominations, only half ordain women. And of the 5 largest, only 1 ordains women (at least as of 2012–I think there’s been some reshuffling in the ranking since then). As I put it when speaking to a group of Mormon women last year: Women’s ordination is common, but I wouldn’t say it’s the norm.

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Fred Phelps

Some contrarian thoughts in the wake of Fred Phelps’s death:

1. Fred Phelps and the WBC have not been good for gay rights. I’ve seen gay folks asserting otherwise in the past few days, the logic being that Phelps’s vehement homophobia generated sympathy for gay/lesbian people by reaction.

Speaking as a gay man, I’m not really buying that argument. Certainly I’m appreciative of the straight allies who have participated in counterprotests against the WBC to show solidarity with gay/lesbian people. But I’m not convinced that we’ve done ourselves a favor by turning Phelps and the WBC into the number-one symbol of homophobia in America. Precisely because the WBC is so extreme, it’s easy for people who aren’t so vehemently homophobic to assure themselves–and the public at large–that they’re not homophobic; they don’t hate gay/lesbian people; their opposition to homosexuality is motivated by love, etc. But we’re trying to convince people of precisely the opposite.

If the goal is to stigmatize homophobia, keep the spotlight on the more mundane varieties of homophobia, the varieties that still enjoy mainstream cultural status, not on figures who are clearly marginal. Phelps and the WBC are easy to stigmatize; there are bigger fish to fry.

2. Fred Phelps was right: If you believe in hell, you believe in a God who hates people. That thought occurred to me last week after watching an online video clip in which Phelps justified his “God hates…” slogans by pointing to the Bible. Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated, he quoted. God hates sinners, not just sin. God doesn’t send people’s sins to hell; he sends the people to hell.

I think Phelps’s logic here is right on, with the crucial exception that this logic is why I, as a religious liberal, reject the notion of hell. Phelps, on the other hand, embraced the notion and then, unlike most contemporary American believers in hell, did not scruple to follow it through to its logical conclusion: a God who wills for people to suffer eternal torment has to be said to hate those people. If you believe otherwise–if you believe that the statement “God consigns individuals to eternal torment” is consistent with the statement “God loves those individuals”–then you have, in my opinion, an extremely twisted understanding of love. You therefore should not, as far as I’m concerned, be trusted to raise children for fear of what violence you might inflict on them in the name of love.

3. I, too, might be willing to carry a sign that begins “God hates…” Or at least I feel I ought to have the guts to appear in public carrying such a sign.

When the WBC protested at my university a couple years ago, I didn’t join any of the public counterprotests because of the position I laid out in point 1, above. But I felt agitated enough to want to generate some kind of counterdiscourse. So on the day of the WBC’s protest, I pasted the walls of my office with signs declaring things like “God hates homophobia,” “God hates poverty,” “God hates oppression,” “God hates racism,” “God hates slavery,” “God hates abuse,” etc. The objects of those statements were all abstract things, not people. But they are all statements that I consider theologically correct.

When I walked over to the student center to observe the WBC protest and counterprotests, I was unnerved by how angry the crowd was. Kudos to WBC for standing their ground in the face of that anger and for having the discipline to silently take it. It quickly became clear to me that most of the counterprotesters, including the honor guard vrooming back and forth on motorbikes, were outraged not by the WBC’s “God hates fags” message but by their “God hates America” message. “USA! USA!” the largely male crowd kept chanting.

So, I thought… The WBC’s great offense is that they have wounded your nationalistic pride. That realization put me in a bind, because I could envision myself in a situation where counterprotesters were shouting me down with patriotic cries of “USA! USA!” I don’t think God has a problem with America’s increasingly liberalized laws regarding homosexuality. But I do think there are plenty of things God is displeased with our nation for. I wouldn’t say “God hates America.” But I’ve stood in public to declare that “God deplores America’s use of a doctrine of preemptive strikes to justify going to war in Iraq.” I was standing in front of a friendly crowd when I said it, though. Fred Phelps has me beat on that count.

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Who’s afraid of Carry Nation?

Carrie_NationOn Monday, we were discussing the temperance and Prohibition movements in my introduction to American religious history. One of our readings was Carry Nation’s account of how God inspired her to go to Kiowa and smash saloons. When I popped onto the Internet to show students this photo of Nation, a male student in the front row expressed surprise that our reading had described men as cowering in the corner when she started doing her work. Why were they so afraid? She looks like such a little old woman, he said.

“She was throwing bricks!” I replied. “If an elderly woman walked through our classroom doorway and started hurling bricks, I’m willing to bet your reaction would not be to rush her, no matter how diminutive she was.”

He didn’t look convinced, so I turned toward the blackboard as if I were about to write something down–then I whipped around and flung the chalk across the room. It smashed into pieces against the wall (safely above students’ heads, I hasten to add). After the startled cries had transitioned into nervous laughter, I said, “That was a piece of chalk, people. Imagine what you’d be feeling right now if I’d thrown a brick.”

Little old women with bricks and hatchets need to get some respect, dammit.

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Ian Barbour and my sci-fi students

I’m in the middle of grading midterm exams for my 100-level “Religion and Science Fiction” course. The course uses science fiction as a lens onto different ways that people in modern societies understand the relationship between religion and science. Before we actually start looking at works of science fiction, I work students through a unit intended to give them a theoretical vocabulary for talking about science and religion. As part of that unit, we discuss philosopher of religion Ian Barbour’s classic fourfold typology for religion-science relations: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. I have students write short reflections articulating their own understanding of the relationship; then they have to classify their reflections using Barbour’s typology.

For one segment of the midterm exam, I presented students with (anonymous) quotations I had collected from a few of their reflections and asked them to tell me which of Barbour’s four models each quotation represented. The students whose exams I’ve graded so far have done well on this activity. I was pleased that all four of Barbour’s categories were represented among my students’ reflections: that fact helped drive home to the students how diverse people’s thinking about this question is–although if I’m recalling correctly, conflict and independence were the two most represented categories in this class by far.

If you’re familiar with the Barbour typology, can you match the students’ quotations to the correct category? Here are the quotations and instructions as they appeared on the exam. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for the answers.

On the next page you will find five quotations. Each comes from an Engagement reflection written by a student in this class. In the blank provided, write down which of the four models from Barbour’s typology the quotation exemplifies: conflict, independence, dialogue, or integration.

Note: There is at least one quotation to represent each of the four models. You will need to use one of the models more than once. If you would like to jot down a brief note to justify your answer, you may do so; but that is not required.  

I believe that religion and the scriptures from most religions are used for teaching moral lessons. While on the other hand, science is used to explain the physical world around us, and how and why it works in the ways that it does. . . . I do not see why these two very different entities need to have some type of connection or relationship.

5. ______________________________

As a science major I am always surrounded by and studying everything that my religion contradicts. . . . I am a strong believer that you either believe in creationism or evolution. I don’t believe you can have full commitment to both.

6. ______________________________

I myself am a very religious person and I still believe that God did create everything. I think that God created evolution. There is a way that evolution could be real and there is a reason for how everything turned out to be. God made everything in a certain way, from him creating the big bang to him creating evolution.

7. ______________________________

Many scientists believe that what occurs in our world can only come from science and that religion is somewhat of a superstition. Vice versa, religious people believe that science is very materialistic and that it refutes reality outside of the physical world. . . . [But] I do not think that heaven and hell and angels are superstitious [nor do I] think that every scientific teaching is correct, such as Darwinism. . . . This is where certain aspects of each must be carefully considered, and both sides must realize that not everything both believe can be correct.

8. ______________________________

I believe strictly in the Bible, and do not theorize or interpret anything that conflicts with what is explicitly stated in the Bible. For example, I disagree with theories involving a big bang or a god that uses a big bang to create a universe. I also disagree with the idea of evolution or a god that uses evolution to create humans.

9. ______________________________

5. independence   6. conflict   7. integration   8. dialogue   9. conflict

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Ash Wednesday in a diverse society

Two days ago, I met my husband for a noon-hour Ash Wednesday service at the Episcopal church close to campus. I told him about an exchange I’d had after one of my morning classes with a student who was already wearing an ash cross on his forehead. We’ve been discussing in class how heavily invested 19th-century American Protestants were in setting themselves over against Catholics as a self-defining Other (with attendant difficulties for American Catholics). My student told me that he found himself thinking about that history when his pastor announced that he would be conducting an Ash Wednesday service: this is, evidently, a Low Church group, so there was some rumbling in the congregation about observing such a “Catholic” tradition.

After the service, my husband dropped me back off at campus. I headed quickly for my office so I could wash the cross off my forehead: I wasn’t comfortable wearing it on my professional turf. I wouldn’t have been thrilled about parading around in public with an ash cross anyway, but I was particularly uncomfortable walking around a state university that way in my role as professor. One church I used to get ashed in, back in grad school, had the custom of wiping the cross off during communion. Their argument was that it didn’t make much sense to go walking around “ashed” after having just listened to a Gospel reading about not performing your piety to be seen of others.

It occurred to me that Ash Wednesday is one of the few Western Christian practices that, as an American, I have to “squeeze” into my work day. The school calendar is set up in this country to give me Sundays off. Christmas is not just a national holiday but a federal one. When I was in North Carolina, my state university actually gave us Good Friday off (under the guise of “Spring Holiday”). Even certain saints’ days have been absorbed into the cultural calendar: St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, All Hallows Eve. Easter and Lent are a little trickier, culturally, because they’re based on a lunar rather than a solar calendar, so you don’t automatically know what date they’ll come up on this year. On the other hand, Mardi Gras and Easter are observed “commercially,” so they still leave a big cultural footprint, even if that footprint isn’t always planted on the same day of the calendar.

It’s different, of course, if you’re Eastern Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, in which case you regularly face the problem of having to keep track of where your lunar holidays fall in relation to America’s Western Christian solar calendar, most likely without the mnemonic benefit of having those holidays observed in the “seasonal” aisle of your supermarket. As my husband and I were walking pass the Hillel Center on the way to the car, I thought: The minor inconvenience I faced today of having to squeeze an Ash Wednesday service into my lunch hour is a little taste of what my Orthodox Jewish colleague goes through with all of his religious holidays.

As we passed the Hillel Center, my husband asked, “Have you ever been inside?” I haven’t–and I experienced a moment of unease that my husband was about to propose we pop in at that moment for a look. Walking into a synagogue while wearing an ash cross on my forehead would feel even more uncomfortable than wearing it on campus. However pluralistic the folks at Hillel might be, history casts a long, cold shadow.

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China’s “Divine Culture” performs in America


A couple months ago, the Shen Yun troupe advertised on my campus for upcoming performances in Cincinnati and Dayton–the latter just passed a couple days ago. Shen Yun describes itself as performing classical Chinese dance (albeit blended with Western orchestration). I was intrigued by the way religion was invoked in their promotional literature. Here are some quotations from a brochure that was mailed to me. The bolding is mine.



For thousands of years, China was known as the Divine Land. Its rich culture, said to be from the heavens, valued virtues like integrity, compassion, and tolerance.

Then, under 60 years of communist rule, this glorious culture has been almost destroyed. That is why you cannot see a performance like this in China today.

In 2006, leading Chinese artists from around the world came together in New York with a mission to revive authentic Chinese culture. They formed Shen Yun, and now invite you to witness the divine culture’s return.

The brochure goes on to explain that “Shen Yun” means “the beauty of heavenly beings dancing.” The troupe aims to provide “an experience so beautiful and joyous that it evokes a sense of the heavens.”

I’m intrigued by this linkage, or overlap, or equation, with artistic and religious experience. I blogged a couple years ago about a South Asian dance troupe that similarly characterized their on-campus performance as a “sacred” experience. I wonder: How seriously do the performers take these religious/spiritual claims about their art? How seriously do audiences take it? Is there a cynical Orientalism at work behind the scenes? “Oh yeah, Americans are ga-ga for Eastern mysticism, so be sure to throw the words sacred or divine into your advertising copy.”

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Hobby Lobby and the equality of consciences

A former student sent me this link to an essay in The Atlantic: Will the Roberts Court Follow Its Own Religious-Freedom Precedent?

The author, constitutional law professor Garrett Epps, argues that because the Roberts court has upheld the principle that “when government gives benefits to individuals, and the individuals pass on the benefit to religion, no dissenter is injured, so there’s no [constitutional] violation,” the court needs, for consistency’s sake, to hold that Hobby Lobby suffers no constitutional injury when the government requires it to provide insurance coverage that would allow employees to use contraceptive techniques to which Hobby Lobby owners object on religious grounds. The likeness between the situations doesn’t look as airtight to me as it looks to Epps, so I think the Roberts course could wriggle away from the precedents Epps cites with less hypocrisy than he wants to hang on them. But this is the crux of Epps’s argument:

Many taxpayers, religious and non-religious, object deeply to government aid to Christian schools, but legally, their outraged consciences are not injured by government funding that flows to those schools as a result of “independent choice.” [...]

That’s not my rule; it’s the Court’s. And if the conservative majority now says that Hobby Lobby actually can dictate to its employees, they will look like hypocrites.

That’s because to assert a right to control employees’ private choice will be to hold that religious people—or, even more ominously, some favored religious people—are more easily injured than others, that their free-exercise rights trump those of their employees. The Court has insulated benefits to religion from veto by objecting citizens; now the religious want the right to veto on religious grounds benefits that flow to others. All consciences are equal; but some are thus more equal than others.


Muslim Punk

The_TaqwacoresLast week, the Comparative Religion Student Association at my university showed the documentary Taqwacore, about Muslim punk bands. My understanding–i.e., this is the impression the documentary gives–is that these bands were inspired by an imagined Muslim punk subculture created by writer Michael Muhammad Knight in his novel The Taqwacores, which has also now become a film (not to be confused with the documentary). Both films are, for the moment, available on YouTube; click the hyperlinks.

Watching the documentary–which you should see for the segment where the bands crash open-mic night at the annual ISNA convention–I found myself wishing that the filmmakers would tell us more about the grounds on which these young people identify themselves as Muslim. It’s a variation on a question I explored in one of my first AAR presentations: How do people with unconventional religious identities go about persuading people to ascribe the desired religious label to them? I examined that question in the context of gay Mormons: If people are going to call themselves gay Mormons, what do they need to do–or what do they think they need to do–to convince people that they are, in fact, entitled to the label “Mormon”? By the same token, I wondered: If you were to ask these self-identifying punk Muslims on what grounds they can be considered “Muslim,” what would they say? What, in their minds, defines “Muslim” identity?

I’ve begun watching the fictional film The Taqwacores, which does more with the “What makes you a Muslim?” question than the documentary did.

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