Monthly Archives: December 2011

Sharing public space

While visiting Cincinnati’s Eden Park today, I happened on a large creche outside the Conservatory. The creche itself was underwhelming, but I was intrigued by the signage accompanying it. I presume it’s intended to double as advertising for the sponsoring business and as an attempt to preempt church-state difficulties, in part by framing the creche as historic. There’s rich material for close reading and rhetorical analysis here.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Conservatory, Chabad was staking a claim to this public space on behalf of Judaism. (Am I alone in being surprised by how plain this menorah is? Aesthetically, the result leaves much to be desired; I’d prefer a kitschy look to this industrial one.) Note that no attempt is made here to “secularize” the display, e.g., by making a claim to historic significance or by marking the display as the work of a business rather than a religious organization.

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Demonic reflections for Christmastide

After being subjected to a trailer for The Devil Inside while watching TV on Christmas day, I got to thinking: Why are exorcism films always about Catholics, never charismatic evangelicals, even though demons and exorcisms figure more prominently in the lived religion of the latter?

An obvious answer is that exorcism films are a modern twist on the Gothic horror genre, which historically is grounded in Catholic imagery filtered through a Protestant imagination. But as an academic, I have a self-preserving professional instinct to problematize easy answers (what would I have to write about otherwise?). So let me toss this idea out there:

Part of the mystique of The Devil Inside is its claim to be based on a true story. Well, if you want ostensibly true stories about exorcism, charismatic evangelicals can provide them in spades. Two problems, though.

First, those stories wouldn’t involve the deliciously dark aesthetic afforded by bringing Catholicism into the picture: a mysterious, foreign, hierarchical institution; the suspicion of cover-ups; arcane historical lore; formal rites involving material props like holy water and maybe some spoken Latin. You’d lose the Gothic aura, in other words.

The second, and bigger, problem with making a “true story” movie based on exorcism among charismatic evangelicals is that it would be a movie about charismatic evangelicals. It would be a movie about people like those you see in televangelism. It wouldn’t be about sophisticated Northeasterners or Europeans. For that reason, I hypothesize, producers would worry that they couldn’t sell the story to audiences: audiences wouldn’t be able to identify with the protagonists or to achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary to immerse themselves enjoyably in the story. The premise would just seem absurd, as televangelism seems absurd.

Such, I reiterate, is how I imagine producers imagining that audiences would respond. For certain audiences, of course, such a film would be thoroughly plausible and relate-able. But those audiences aren’t the public that major film studios have in mind as they craft their cultural products.

What I’m intrigued to know is: Do charismatic evangelicals who practice exorcism find a film like The Devil Inside plausible? Would its Gothic anti-Catholic overtones resonate with them? Alternatively, would they see the film as trivializing the reality of demonic possession–or as glorying in darkness?

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Billboard: Sunbeam Bakers

Sunbeam Bakers billboard

Saw this billboard while doing some last-minute Christmas shopping. I’m intrigued by the rhetoric of it. I presume the ad is intended as a form of witness. But is the company also operating on the hope that their display of piety will attract a particular customer demographic? And does it?

Also, is it pertinent that I saw this billboard on a rural highway? Or is that a misleading (if maliciously satisfying) stereotype?

Finally, is the child intentionally androgynous? And in light of that question, have the owners of this company made any political donations that could be construed as ironic?

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Christmas

A couple days ago, I was interviewed by a local reporter who was doing a story about how Americans celebrate Christmas. As she described the story to me, it sounded like she was moving in the vein of “Is commercialism overtaking the religious meaning of the season?” I gave her a condensed version of the history of Christmas presented by Leigh Schmidt in Consumer Rites. The interview left me with some lingering questions of my own:

1. Christmas as lived religion. Initially the reporter wanted to know if I could provide insight into how American families celebrate Christmas now. I told her I was only in a position to pass along some historical perspective. But her question would make for interesting research. In what ways do contemporary Americans incorporate religious elements into their Christmas celebrations, particularly in the home? It would be an interesting window into “lived religion.”

2. “De-ethnicized” Christmas customs. I just finished teaching a class in American religious history that had ethnicity and immigration as major themes. Perhaps for that reason, as I was rereading Schmidt in preparation for talking with the reporter, I was struck by the fact that now widely conventional American Christmas customs were borrowed from the Dutch (Santa Claus) and the Germans (Christmas trees). I’d be interested in knowing more about how self-conscious Americans were at first about the “ethnic” quality of these customs. And by what process were these customs de-ethnicized? It looks to me like what happened would be analogous to Americans today widely adopting the custom of the posadas, in the process ceasing to think of it as a specifically Mexican Christmas custom, just as Americans no longer think of Santa Claus as a Dutch Christmas custom.

3. Christmas and American Catholics. As I was explaining to the reporter how Protestants from Calvinist backgrounds gradually lost their suspicion of Christmas as a “Catholic” holiday, she asked me how 19th-century Catholics in the U.S. celebrated Christmas. I had no idea–Schmidt’s focus is on Protestants–but it is an intriguing question. At what point did Catholics embrace the emerging aesthetic of an “American” Christmas? I would imagine that different ethnic immigrant groups embraced it on different timelines, as part of the assimilation process.

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