Miscellaneous Christmas news stories

With Christmas approaching, here’s a miscellany of Christmas-related news stories that crossed my screen recently:

Satanic Temple Wins Battle To Bring Lucifer Display Inside Florida State Capitol” (Huffington Post): These people are obnoxious gadflies, but in a worthy cause. Beelzebub bless them, every one.

73 Percent Of Americans Believe Jesus Was Born To A Virgin” (Huffington Post): I confess to being surprised the figure came out that high. Following a link to Pew’s short report on the larger survey this figure came from, I learned that nearly half of Americans believe that nativity scenes either should not be allowed on government property, or should be allowed only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths (read: menorahs).

They’re Christian, but Christmas is off limits for several faiths (Deseret News): I want to say I’m not a fan of the DesNews (a Mormon-owned paper which is currently trying to buy out its competitor, the Salt Lake Tribune–a Mormon vs. non-Mormon battle dating back to the 19th century). But this was an interesting article about Christian groups that hang back from Christmas–Churches of Christ, Friends, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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From the US Army: Communism as religion

I need to be grading right now, but I’m brooding about the CIA torture report. It’s put me in mind of a text I encountered a couple years ago–an excerpt from a 1989 manual that the US army used at the School of the Americas to train Latin Americans in counterinsurgency, i.e., in how to suppress left-wing movements.

In this particular passage, the author describes Communism as a kind of religion, the explicit implication being that Communists are irrationally committed to their dogmas. (Is the unspoken implication that they’re irredeemable and must therefore be eliminated?)  Note that Catholicism provides the author’s archetype of “religion”–more specifically, of religion as irrational dogma. I find it hard not to read that in light of the long history of American Protestants equating Catholicism with superstition and tyranny. Note, too, that the manual functions as a kind of counterapologetic, aiming to show readers the “fallacies” of Communism as contrasted to “democratic doctrine”–the true religion. (Why did the manual’s author perceive that counterapologetic as necessary?)

My source is the Latin American Working Group.

Communism is “a kind of pseudo-religion, given that it has a founder, a mythology, a sacred book, a clergy, a place of pilgrimage and an inquisition. The founder is Marx; the mythology is communist theory; the sacred book is Das Kapital; the clergy are members of the Communist Party; the place of pilgrimage is Moscow; and the inquisition[,] the state (KGB) and others. Truly, as Marx said, communism is ‘the spectre surrounding Europe.’ Today this spectre is surrounding the whole world. You can’t hope to convince a devoted communist of the errors in his doctrine, but you ought to be able to point out to an impartial person the fallacies of the communist ideology; and you ought to feel more justified in the validity of the democratic doctrine in light of the fallacies you have learned to discover in communist doctrine.”

(“Revolutionary War, Guerillas and Communist Ideology,” 128)

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All Lives Matter? Black Lives Matter?

Lately my husband and I have been attending an Episcopal church in Cincinnati. One of the appeals is that it’s a racially mixed congregation–white, African American, Latino (mostly Guatemalan immigrants). There’s a strong progressive social consciousness: they host a transgender support group; they help immigrants navigate the legal system; a couple Ash Wednesdays ago, the priest led a service calling corporations to repentance; etc.

So it was not surprising when we arrived at church this past Sunday to see a “Black Lives Matter” banner (bilingual, English-Spanish) hanging outside the building. What was surprising to me was the way that the church seemed to feel the need to explain, in a little leaflet tucked inside the program of worship, why they had chosen “Black Lives Matter,” rather than “All Lives Matter.” The reasoning was what you’d expect: Of course all lives matter, but at this particular moment there’s a need to affirm the value of black lives in particular.

What surprised me was the impression the leaflet gave that there were people in the congregation (more specifically, I would assume, in the lay leadership, i.e., the folks who would be deciding to hang the banner) who had voiced reservations about “Black Lives Matter” and had favored “All Lives Matter.” If that is the case, it drives home to me the range of political diversity that exists in this on-balance progressive congregation. That is to say, there would appear to be people in the congregation who favor a color-blind discourse and don’t subscribe to the kind of hermeneutic that sees that discourse as obscuring racial privilege. We’re not all consciousness-raised Berkeley progressives here. And that’s probably healthy. Though I’m glad that “Black Lives Matter” prevailed.

A couple relevant links:

#BlackLivesMatter: Why We Need to Stop Replying ALL LIVES MATTER (Adam Philips) – A blogger with Sojourners critiques the “All Lives Matter” meme.

Black and White; All Lives Matter (Ashley Pratte) – A Christian Post commentator exemplifies what Philips objects to: using the meme to critique and redirect the discourse away from the anti-racism protests. (For her, “All Lives Matter” becomes a plea for empathy for Darren Wilson, a condemnation of black rioters–and an opening to condemn abortion.)

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Stephen Colbert, John McCain, and the New Testament

On December 1, John McCain was on The Colbert Report plugging his new book (in preparation for a presidential run?). As the interview began, Colbert remarked that McCain was one of the last guests who will appear on the show.

“You’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, huh?” McCain responded.

No, no, Colbert assured him. “We have saved the best for last, to paraphrase the Gospel.”

“What chapter in the Bible is that?” McCain laughed–trying to show that he got the joke. (Hey look, young people–I may be old, but I’m still “with it.”)

At which point Colbert spent a few seconds recounting the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned the water to wine, and the master of the feast expressed surprise to the bridegroom that he had saved the best wine to serve at the end. The audience cheered as McCain prepared to recover from his embarrassment.

“How are you going to appeal to Christian conservatives if you don’t know your Gospel, sir?” Colbert jibed.

“Now I remember,” McCain fake-laughed. “Thank you for refreshing my memory.”

Click the link to watch the video–the exchange occurs in about the first minute.

http://media.mtvnservices.com/embed/mgid:arc:video:colbertnation.com:da5f9601-5566-4f8a-896f-364c953ee2fb

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Jehovah’s Witnesses and Thanksgiving

Somehow, a couple of days ago, it occurred to me to wonder whether Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from celebrating Thanksgiving, given the distance they seek to maintain from institutions of nationalism. I knew that they object to the pagan roots of Christmas, Easter, and birthdays–but what about Thanksgiving?

(Quick tangent: The first time I personally encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses was as a teenager while visiting relatives in California for Thanksgiving. Two Witnesses, African American women in perhaps their sixties, knocked on the door, taking advantage of the holiday to find people at home.)

I couldn’t find anything addressing this question on the Watch Tower Society’s official website. But here are some relevant texts I discovered:

* An independent apologist gives three reasons why Witnesses don’t/shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving: (1) real Christians give thanks every day, not just once a year; (2) harvest celebrations have pagan origins; (3) Thanksgiving’s founders, in the 1860s, intended to fuse American patriotism and Christian piety, to which Witnesses object.

* A short article by ex-Witnesses provides several quotations from a 1976 Watchtower article that articulates points 1 and 2, above.

* An “etiquette expert” at Belief.Net advises that your Witness neighbors probably wouldn’t be offended by an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, even if they declined.

* A self-identified “apostate” recounts his first Thanksgiving dinner in this YouTube video:

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Salat before boarding

I’m getting ready to board a flight to take me from the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, in San Diego, back to Ohio so I can be there to teach on Monday and Tuesday. (Yes, I am such a goody-goody, much to my students’ annoyance, no doubt.)

As I wait to board, I’m remembering something that happened… I think it was after last year’s AAR. I was waiting to board a flight, and I ran into an acquaintance from graduate school. He’s Sufi–he always smells like incense (which is pleasant). We chatted for a while. Then, once the airline personnel announced that they would start boarding the first zones soon, my friend got up and retreated to a relatively unobtrusive corner of the waiting area to perform salat.

I glanced around to see if anyone was reacting to the sight. No one did, that I could see.

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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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