Monthly Archives: January 2012

Christian Scientists and SDA on “Family Guy”

I just caught the tail end of an episode of Family Guy in which Lois kidnaps the infant son of Christian Scientist neighbors to take him to a hospital for medical treatment. The episode ends with an impassioned speech outside the hospital in which Lois wins the Christian Scientist parents over with a theological argument: If you’re praying for God to heal your child, doctors and medicine are the answer to your prayer!

The closing speech is presented as a perfectly serious rebuttal to Christian Science: the writers had to inject comic relief into the preachy moment by having Peter comment on the fact that the speech wasn’t comedic. (“So far, so good, Lois. Now try to work in some laughs.”) Apparently this was an issue on which the show’s creators wanted to weigh in.

The same episode included a cutaway gag about Seventh-day Advenists: A Methodist and an Adventist are standing on a street corner. The Methodist explains that he believes in Jesus Christ, etc. The Adventist says: We believe the same things you do, except we worship on Saturday. The Methodist does an absurdly exaggerated double-take (eyeballs leaping out of his sockets) and beats a hasty retreat.

Note that where the cutaway gag satirizes a negative mainstream reaction to a minority religion (Seventh-day Adventists), the thrust of the plot overall is to reinforce criticism of a different minority religion (Christian Scientists). In the moment leading up to the SDA cutaway gag, Lois makes a comment along the lines of: I’m beginning to think that Christian Scientists are a lot crazier than Seventh-day Adventists. It would seem the writers agree.

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“What’s a Protestant?”

I teach an introduction to American religions, which I’ve organized as a historical survey of religious diversity. For the past week, we’ve been working through the settlement of the British colonies, with an emphasis on the various forms of Protestantism imported from Europe. Today, in the last two minutes of class, a student asked me a question he must have been wondering for some time but had probably hesitated to ask for fear of looking foolish. He wanted to know, “What’s a Protestant?”

I want to be clear that in sharing this anecdote, I in no way intend to disparage the student. This post also isn’t a lament about religious illiteracy in the U.S. today, tempting though it is to launch into that song-and-dance. I’m simply struck, from a historical perspective, that this particular student has apparently never moved through a discursive milieu where the term “Protestant” was used in a way that would make its meaning evident. I tend to think of that as “common knowledge,” and I presume that for most Americans it still is; I think this student is atypical. Still, I’m inclined to see this as a sign of the times. A century ago, there were organizations in this country still advocating for the Protestant character of the nation. Now I have a student–a white American student with an English surname, ergo a student who could be descended from WASPs–who doesn’t know what a Protestant is. Robert Baird and Josiah Strong can’t be happy.

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First Hindu chaplain

This news is several months old, but I had the occasion to read up about it recently in connection with an introductory course on American religions I’m teaching.

Military’s first Hindu chaplain brings a diverse background
Launching the First Hindu Military Chaplaincy

A couple sets of questions this story raises for me:

1. What was required, procedurally, for the military to initiate its first Hindu chaplaincy? Did Hindu American communities have to push for this? Did non-Hindus in the military initiate it? Who had to approve it? What would a small minority religion have to do to get this formal recognition–Wiccans, let’s say? Chaplaincies are a kind of limited religious establishment, and I’m intrigued to know how this establishment functions.

2. I was struck by the detail that–if I’m understanding this correctly–Dharm was initially endorsed as a Christian chaplain by the Pentecostal Church of God. If she’d been sponsored by the Episcopal Church, or the United Methodists, I wouldn’t have blinked. I would have thought: Of course, liberal Protestants, pluralist theological tendencies, solicitous toward religious minorities. But the Pentecostal Church of God? That was . . . unexpected. There’s a story there I’d be fascinated to know more about.

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Kosher Indian food

Shortly before the last semester ended, I went out with some colleagues to an Indian restaurant in the nearby urban center. That location had been chosen because one of my colleagues is an observant Jew, and this restaurant is certified kosher. As I understand the situation, it’s one of the few kosher restaurants in our area.

During dinner, the conversation turned to what is required to certify a restaurant as kosher–in particular, how often does the restaurant have to be inspected? My Jewish colleague wasn’t certain, but he figured it must be frequently, at least once a week. That was more frequent than I would have expected. Someone caught the hostess’s eye as she passed and asked her. She said the rabbi came to inspect at least once a day. In fact, she said, he’s here now–and pointed to a table in the back where two youngish middle-aged men in suits were sitting.

My Jewish colleague smiled and shrugged. “It’s a racket.”

“Hey, free Indian food every day,” said the South Asianist.

Later I got to wondering if the presence of images in the restaurant is a potential problem for this Orthodox Jewish-Hindu symbiosis. If the owner has an image of Krishna on display, for instance, or a shrine to Ganesha in the back–would idolatry on the premises render the restaurant halachically unacceptable?

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Desecrating enemy bodies

I will resist the temptation to wax polemical, but the desecration of the bodies of dead Taliban fighters by U.S. Marines–and people’s reactions to the incident–invites analysis. For starters, there must be commentators in peace churches who are arguing that there’s a perverse irony at work in the U.S. government’s official condemnations of the incident: Dead bodies are sacred; living bodies are not. It’s acceptable for soldiers to destroy living people’s bodies; they risk getting in trouble, though, if afterwards they piss on what’s left. Many Americans who regard the latter as deplorable have no problem with the former–someone might suggest that reflects a warped set of values.

I’m reminded of how the military made a point of washing and enshrouding Osama bin Laden’s body, in accordance with Islamic custom, before disposing of it. Treating the bodies of dead enemies in a way that can be represented as respectful appears to be one of the ways that Americans cast themselves as good and honorable and thus legitimate their use of violence.

Pamela Geller interpreted the urination as a parody of “the Islamic ritual of washing and preparing the body for burial.” I doubt–no, hope that the Marines involved hadn’t thought through the semiotics of what they were doing that far. But it’s striking that Geller is prepared to applaud an action that she understands as a literal desecration. The military institutions that the United States has charged with actually carrying out the killing of enemy Muslims at least make a show of treating Islam as sacred; Geller feels no compunctions on that count. Even knowing how vehemently anti-Muslim she is, I confess to being surprised. I would have thought that the forces of pluralism would exert enough of a gravitational pull on her that she would find it prudent to keep her approval of this particular incident out of the public eye. The fact that she doesn’t feel that need is a sign of how tolerated antipathy to Islam has become in American culture. I hadn’t realized our situation was quite that bad. It’s one thing to see outrageously Islamophobic statements being made by local officials somewhere, because you can chalk it up to provinciality; I didn’t realize that people like Geller felt sufficiently emboldened to approve an act of desecration on the national stage.

A similar observation can be made about the fact that the Marines involved seem to have felt so justified in the act that they saw nothing wrong with uploading the video to show a potentially global public what they had done. (I’m assuming that’s the scenario, i.e., that the video wasn’t uploaded by a whistleblower.) What does that tell us about the culture the American Marines in Afghanistan have created among themselves? The U.S. government wants, of course, to represent this incident as an aberration; but it’s not difficult to see why Marines whose lives are constantly endangered by the Taliban would develop a culture of disdain and loathing for the Taliban and their religion. Wouldn’t you have to, to psychologically survive that situation? Americans want to imagine that their soldiers can go to war with Islamic extremists while retaining high ideals of “respect” for Islam and Muslims and human rights in general–because that will make for an “honorable” war, true to American values. I find that an unrealistic expectation to place on people we’re sending out to kill or be killed, and I’m therefore not surprised to find evidence that soldiers don’t live up to it. But as long as Americans imagine it can be done, and is being done, they’ll feel fewer qualms about sending their soldiers off to war.

Okay, so I didn’t stay as neutrally analytical as I’d intended at the outset.

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Orthodox Christmas

On the Julian calendar, today is December 25, ergo Christmas (the Feast of the Nativity). Out of curiosity, I looked up three different Orthodox Christian congregations in nearby Cincinnati to see if they were celebrating Christmas today or had already done so.

Christ the Savior, part of the Orthodox Church in America (a historically Russian Orthodox church gone autocephalous–depending on who you ask), celebrated on the Western date.

Holy Trinity-Saint Nicholas, part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, celebrated on the Western date.

Saint George, part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), celebrated today.

During the Soviet era, ROCOR functioned as a kind of separatist fundamentalist wing of Russian Orthodoxy, so I’m not too surprised that they’re the only church of the three to retain the non-Western date. I’m curious to know if Christ the Savior and Holy Trinity-Saint Nicholas celebrated earlier because they’ve shifted to the revised Julian calendar or have simply adopted the Gregorian: if the former, then one could interpret that as a more modest accommodation to their American milieu. I’m also curious to know when they made the shift and how much internal resistance there was.

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Gordon Hirabayashi

I just heard a story on NPR about Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American who refused to go to the internment camps during World War II and was put in prison instead. NPR interviewed his nephew, who attributed his uncle’s civil disobedience to both his commitment to the Constitution and his Christianity, observing that Gordon’s family had converted to Christianity “even” while they were in Japan.

That detail, and phrasing, caught my ear. The rhetorical effect, I propose, is to reduce perceptions of Hirabayashi as Other. Not only was he second-generation American; not only was he named Gordon, for pete’s sake; not only was he Christian; but his parents had been Christian “even” before coming to America, ergo they had already been that much more Like.

On the one hand, I’m intrigued by how this detail disrupts a potential assumption about Japanese immigrants, i.e., that they’re probably from Buddhist backgrounds. At the same time, if I’m reading this rhetorical effect correctly–and let me here be the first to admit I may be over-reading it–then note what’s happening: American listeners are being invited to recognize Hirabayashi as undeniably “one of us” because he was a Christian.  From the standpoint of promoting pluralism in America, that rhetorical move is . . . nnyehh.

On a related note, let me plug a post that Anne Blankenship, a former colleague of mine at UNC, recently made to the blog Religion in the American West on Christmas celebrations in the internment camps. Fascinating period photos. Anne argues that these images represent a “nuanced expression of resistance and Americanism.”

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“Imagine” Revised

A few minutes ago, the sacred ball dropped at Times Square, carrying the New Year revelers, assembled there at the center of the universe, back into primordial time and thus renewing creation. The king of the city presided at the rite, of course, although the actual officiant was his temporary consort, the high priestess Lady Gaga, masked to conceal her profane identity on this ceremonial occasion.

As part of the accompanying liturgy, Cee  Lo Green sang John Lennon’s hymn “Imagine.” I noticed a change to the lyrics, particularly pertinent to this blog.

The original lyrics:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too . . .

Green sang that last line as:

And all religions true . . .

Green still wanted us to imagine there’s no heaven, though. So while all religions are true, their truth is apparently of a this-worldly, not other-worldly, variety.

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