Snow Angels as “Zen”

I’m teaching a course on minority American religions in which we just wrapped up a unit on Buddhism. Yesterday, as the class was meeting, our first snowfall was drifting past the windows, distracting students. The snowfall had made me pretty giddy, too; I performed a couple verses of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” with dramatizing gestures and soft shoe, as class was beginning. (Video of that display has not surfaced online, to my knowledge.)

At five minutes to dismissal time, after we’d finished dissecting a video about the Hsi Lai temple in Los Angeles (which will be the subject of my next post to this blog), I said: Okay, folks, officially I have you for five more minutes, but I’ll let you go early if you promise to do something “zen.” I hasten to add here that I was consciously using “zen” in its now-popularized meaning of “quirky” or “bizarre” (as in The Daily Show‘s “moment of zen”). We had discussed in a previous session how that usage arose from the post-1950s and -1960s surge in Zen’s popularity among majority Americans and thus their passing familiarity with the tradition of koans.

Anyway, back to my speech to the class: I told them I’d let them go early if they promised to do something “zen”–specifically, if they would make snow angels. In fact, I said, improvising off the looks of disbelief I was getting, if you send me a selfie of you making a snow angel, I will give you an extra participation point. Boy, did that create a happy buzz. (Students invariably overestimate the mathematical significance of an extra credit point. Are people in general suckers for things “extra,” or is that a more particularly American cultural trait?)

So now I have photos of students making snow angels showing up in my inbox. “Practicing my zen!” was one student’s subject line–which would itself be an interesting cultural artifact to unpack: In what sense is she “practicing” zen? What’s meant by that possessive pronoun “my”? And, of course, what popularized perceptions/conceptions of “zen” have I now reinforced in her mind?

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Halal at Walmart

The student newspaper announced today that our local Walmart will now be selling halal meat, sparing Muslim students a two-hour round trip to the nearest provider in Cincinnati. Store management made the choice in response to a student petition. Our local Kroger (the major supermarket chain, for those in other parts of the country) and the Moon Co-op (which caters to the locally grown, organic crowd) have not responded to the petition, according to the article.

Read the story here: Walmart to sell halal meat option

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Interfaith dialogue…. courtesy of the campus secularists

This past week, I moderated an “interfaith panel” organized by our campus’s Secular Students group. The scare quotes are because it turned out not to be a conventional panel, where there are a few designated panelists fielding questions from the audience. Instead everyone sat around in a circle and passed me questions on index cards, which I was supposed to then select and toss out for anyone in the room to respond to. I ran with that, but I also ran a tight ship–moved on to a new question as soon as the discussion has shrunk down to an interchange between two or three people; chose only open-ended questions to pose to the group, not the kinds of questions that serve as pointed challenges. At one point I told an evangelical and a Jew that their increasingly impassioned interchange was predictably scripted, and if they wanted to finish performing that particular timeworn debate, they should take it outside.

The participants were overwhelmingly secularists–since their group had sponsored the event–with conservative evangelicals being the second largest group (though none of them identified as the e-word; they were mostly “Reformed Christians,” plus a campus minister who was simply a “follower of Jesus”). There was also a stray Catholic, a Reform Jew who heads up our campus’s Chabad group (yep, I had the same reaction), and a “Hindu agnostic.” Naturally, the conversation was mostly secularists and evangelicals justifying themselves to one another, which may not be far off as an accurate microcosm as that generation’s religious demographics.

As the evening ended, I told the group that interfaith dialogue interests me, as an object of study, because of what goes on under the surface of the conventional explanations for why people come together to engage in this activity–to promote better understanding, to reduce interreligious friction, etc. Inevitably, there’s more than that going on whenever people get together for interfaith dialogue. For instance, I said, some Christian participants had used this opportunity to do some witnessing; and I was holding a stack of index cards which included some questions that looked like secularists trying to poke holes in theism.  I wasn’t judging that, I added, but it did mean that there was something more complicated going on this evening than simply people coming to understand one another better. So, I asked: What do you all think happened here tonight? Why were you willing to dedicate the past hour and a half to this activity?

Their answers were disappointing to me–a series of conventional little pluralist testimonials about how much they appreciated being able to sit down and gain a better understanding of people who were different from them. I don’t recall that anyone commented on how much they appreciated being able to articulate their own beliefs to people who they feel frequently misunderstand them. Nor did anyone say they valued this event as a chance to raise the profile of their group on a campus where they feel invisible and marginalized.

A student then turned the tables: What did I think of what had happened here? “It was . . . interesting,” I said, and then paused to figure out how to explain why I felt so tepid about it. I’m fundamentally skeptical about the value of these kinds of events, I said. You came together, you had some kind of “experience,” you get to feel noble about what you did here–and now you’ll walk out and go on living your lives just as you did before. The student who appeared to be in charge of the Secular Students club nodded and said, “Yeah”–like that had been precisely what they set out to do.

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Halloween + Day of the Dead fantasy

So it seems like there’s this unspoken rule that you can decorate your house for Halloween up to, what?, a week early. You can carve your jack 0′lanterns, you can have them sitting out on the front porch. But you wouldn’t leave the jack o’lanterns sitting out lit at night until Halloween. Which means you get to enjoy the fruits of your creativity for only one night. And then if you don’t take the jack o’lantern down, along with any other Halloween decorations, within the next day, you feel like a desultory neighbor, ’cause, you know, Halloween’s over.

Contrast that to Christmas. I can put up a Christmas tree on, like, Thanksgiving weekend, and I can put lights up outside my house, and I can light everything up for the world to see a month before December 25 and then for a couple weeks afterward. Why can’t Halloween linger that way–just a little?

So today I get online, and I see Google’s Day-of-the-Dead-ified logo, and suddenly I’m having this fantasy of a pluralistic future in which Halloween and Day of the Dead bleed together, in popular culture, to form this three-day holiday that starts October 31 with the Celtic jack o’lanterns and trick-and-treating (that is Celtic, right?) but doesn’t finish until November 2, when maybe people add to their jack o’lantern displays–which they’ve kept lighting for the past two nights–some magnolias and votive candles and comical skeleton figurines (which Mexican markets with any savvy should be stocking this time of year, yes?), and sugar skulls show up as a seasonal treat at school and work (because in my fantasy you can buy those now in your Anglo-owned supermarket, even here in heartland America).

I wanna do this next year. I want a three-day, Celtic-plus-Mexican, Halloween-to-Day-of-the-Dead celebration.

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Taqueria Misa

My husband picked up La Vanguardia Hoy, the regional Spanish-language newspaper, while he was in Cincinnati earlier this week. My eye was caught by an announcement of an upcoming Mass in honor of St. Jude, to be held at La Tienda y Taquería La Canasta (a Mexican market/restaurant). October 28 is Jude’s feast day; the article implies that this Mass is behind held as the culmination of a novena in Jude’s honor.

What intrigues me is the use of the taquería as the venue for the Mass. Why not a church? Why this commercial location? The uncaptioned photo accompanying the article, which I’m guessing shows a Mass from a previous year, includes a Latino-looking man in what appear to be clerical robes, which would suggest that the “misa” really is a Mass, not a lay-led devotion.

La Vanguardia Hoy, Oct. 16, 2014

La Vanguardia Hoy, Oct. 16, 2014

I’m curious to go. This is what La Canasta looks like from the outside:

As photographed by Google Maps

As photographed by Google Maps

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Ferguson clergy call police to repent

I was leafing just now through a free copy of USA Today, and this headline in particular caught my eye: “Clergy, activist arrested in ‘Ferguson October’ march.”

“Moral Monday,” as the activists called it, began at Wellspring Church in Ferguson. The demonstrators walked two blocks to the police station in heavy rain as leaders with bullhorns read the names of people killed by police nationwide….

Clergy members then faced the police officers and asked them to confess their sins and repent for the deaths of black youths.

“We are saying that these officers are members of our society and that they are part of a racist and sinful system,” [Rev. Osagyefo] Sekou said. “We are offering them the opportunity to repent and to be reconciled into our community.”

Sekou and Cornell West were subsequently arrested for crossing a police line.

An open-ended question (not a rhetorical one, though obviously my posing the question implies that I see the possibility for a certain answer): The non-violent black civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s prominently featured participation from ministers, rabbis, nuns. Does Sekou’s call to repentance carry today the same level of moral/rhetorical force that, I presume, the nuns at Selma carried? If not, why not?

Nuns marching at Selma, 1965

Nuns marching at Selma, 1965

Clergy protesting in Ferguson, Sept. 29, 2014

Clergy protesting in Ferguson, Sept. 29, 2014

Cornell West marching in Ferguson with clergy, Oct. 13, 2014

Cornell West marching in Ferguson with clergy, Oct. 13, 2014

I just found this article in The Guardian which speaks to the question I posed: Ferguson activists reject religious leaders’ platitudes.

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Joan of Ox(ford)

The student paper at my campus ran this editorial cartoon in yesterday’s issue. (Click the image for a larger version.) I’m intrigued by how dense the cartoon is with Catholic imagery. Are most students here able to “read” that imagery? Note especially where the Virgin Mary is saying, “I didn’t exist. You do…” To “get” that comment would require a pretty substantial level of iconographic literacy.

(I think that’s supposed to be the Virgin Mary, anyway. She’s riding a dragon reminiscent of the Beast from Revelation–the one the Whore rides–which is confusing–unless a rather obscure comment is being made about the juxtaposition of the Virgin and the Whore as images of femininity–or unless there’s an iconographic reference I’m missing out on because the imagery is that dense.)

cartoon-662x1024

By Chris Curme

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The Road to Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby flyer corrected

On Wednesday, I gave an on-campus presentation titled, “The Road to Hobby Lobby.” I was interested in tracing the connection between Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Oregon v. Smith, the 1990 peyote case in which a 5-4 majority represented by Antonin Scalia rejected the strict scrutiny standard for “free exercise” cases. As a result of that case, Hobby Lobby couldn’t appeal to the First Amendment in claiming a violation of their religious freedom; they appealed instead to RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the 1993 law that required the federal government to observe the strict scrutiny standard since the Court had held that the Constitution didn’t require it. RFRA passed with broad support across the political spectrum, but in recent years, religious conservatives have invoked RFRA to ends that dismay progressives–as in the Hobby Lobby decision. (I’ve blogged about this before.)

Here are the concluding slides from my PowerPoint presentation. They sum up “the road to Hobby Lobby,” along with what I see as the central irony of the situation:

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John 8:32 on campus

I was in my office on campus today (yes, on a Saturday), grading papers. At one point I looked out my window at an arch that cuts through my building. Over the arch is a quotation from the New Testament, John 8:32. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” I thought: Why have I never blogged about this?

The arch as seen through my window. Taken with the cheap digital camera on my MP3 player, so the slogan's illegible.

The arch as seen through my window. Taken with the cheap digital camera on my MP3 player, so the slogan’s illegible.

Upham_Archway

A legible version.

I’m not aware that there’s any other building on campus adorned with a biblical quotation. The building was constructed shortly after World War II, so I assume we should attribute the quotation to the “religion boom” that also inscribed the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The John 8:32 quote has the virtue of being biblical yet non-descript–hinting at a Christian or Judeo-Christian heritage while leaving the contents of “the truth” wide open. Perfect for 1950s-era religious liberalism.

While surfing the web for photos of the arch, I discovered a student essay published in the campus newspaper last year. The student, a conservative Christian evidently, complains that too many at the university no longer believe in absolute truth. Thus 1950s-era religious liberalism has become a nostalgic refuge for 21st-century Christian conservatism.

Recently I was walking under the famous Upham Hall arch. [...] I have made this walk countless times, but on this occasion the block letter words spanning across the apex of the arch caught my attention. Coldly graven into the moss-tinted cement were the words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” I was surprised the iconic Miami building had these words boldly posted on it. Ironically, many of the professors and students who work and study between the walls of Upham Hall do not believe in Truth. [...]

The engraved words about truth now perched across Upham Hall were once spoken by Jesus 2,000 years ago. Interestingly, near the time of his crucifixion he was asked the same question many of us are still asking today. [...] Pilate showed an indifference to what Jesus had to reply, revealing he did not really want an answer to his question. I wonder sometimes if we truly want an answer. Do we really want to know truth? Or are we satisfied asking the question, reveling in our sophistication, but not waiting around to hear a coherent answer? Until we decide we want to know the truth, we will never find the answer, and words about truth will continue to be cold, meaningless and moss-covered symbols on our campus.

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John Eliot’s “Indian Dialogues”

In my intro course to American religion, we recently read some excerpts from John Eliot’s “Indian Dialogues,” written around 1670. The dialogues were intended to help train Native converts to Christianity (Massachusett converts to Puritanism, to be more precise) to serve as missionaries to their people. In the imagined dialogue, a missionary named Piumbukhou returns to a village called Nashaurreg (apparently after an absence of 20 years, based on clues dropped during the conversation), where he tries to explain to his relatives why their traditions are now dung in his mouth compared to the sweet honey of Christianity. The style of Piumbukhou’s preaching feels quintessentially Puritan–systematized, long-winded, and, let’s be frank, boring except when he’s unleashing polarizing metaphors to condemn unregenerate Native ways (like the dung/honey metaphor I just paraphrased).

I presume that the questions and challenges posed to Piumbukhou by his Native interlocutors are based on questions Eliot had actually encountered. I was particularly intrigued, therefore, by this interchange. (Note that the non-Christian Natives, unlike the Christianized Piumbukhou, don’t get names.)

KINSMAN. [...] But how shall I know that you say true? Our forefathers were (many of them) wise men, and we have wise men now living. They all delight in these our delights. They have taught us nothing about our soul, and God, and heaven, and hell, and joy and torment in the life to come. Are you wiser than our fathers? May not we rather think that English men have invented these stories to amaze us and fear us out of our old customs, and bring us to stand in awe of them, that they might wipe us of our lands, and drive us into corners, to seek new ways of living, and new places too? And be beholding to them for that which is our own, and was ours, before we knew them.

ALL. You say right.

Note that Eliot represents this as a generally held suspicion on the part of the Natives: “All” the spectators agree with the Kinsman. Eliot’s response, in the mouth of Piumbukhou:

PIUM. The Book of God is no invention of Englishmen. It is the holy law of God himself, which was given unto man by God, before Englishmen had any knowledge of God; and all the knowledge which they have, they have it out of the Book of God. And this book is given to us as well as to them [...] Yet this is also true, that we have great cause to be thankful to the English, and to thank God for them. For they had a good country of their own, but by ships sailing into these parts of the world, they heard of us, and of our country, and of our nakedness, ignorance of God, and wild condition. God put it into their hearts to desire them to come hither, and teach us the good knowledge of God; and their King gave them leave so to do, and in our country to have their liberty to serve God according to the word of God. And being come hither, we gave them leave freely to live among us. They have purchased of us a great part of those lands which they possess. They love us, they do us right, and no wrong willingly. If any do us wrong, it is without the consent of their rulers, and upon our complaints our wrongs are righted. They are (many of them, especially the ruling part) good men, and desire to do us good.

Eliot seems a touch sensitive here. “We could have stayed back in England, where things were fine for us,” he insists, “but instead we crossed the ocean to bring the gospel to you naked, wild savages out of the goodness of our hearts”–except, of course, being a good Calvinist, he has to clarify that God put that goodness in their hearts. I note that Eliot feels the need to invoke two different sources of legitimation for English colonization: first, the charter that the Puritans received from the king of England; but of course that doesn’t mean squat to the Massachusetts, so he adds, “Plus, you gave us permission to live here.” And, he continues, we’ve paid for, um, “a great part,” at least, of the lands we now possess.

Eventually a “kinswoman” tries to shut Piumbukhou down this way:

KINSWOMAN. You make long and learned discourses to us which we do not well understand. I think our best answer is to stop your mouth, and fill your belly with a good supper, and when your belly is full you will be content to take rest yourself, and give us leave to be at rest from these gastering and heart-trembling discourses. We are well as we are, and desire not to be troubled with these new wise sayings.

“Here–accept our hospitality, and stop trying to push your religion onto us.” A losing strategy–in the imagined dialogues and in real life.

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