Monthly Archives: April 2012

Out on a Limb

A blast from the past–a clip from Shirley MacLaine’s ostensibly autobiographical made-for-TV movie, Out on a Limb. I showed this clip to one of my classes last week to accompany a discussion of counterculture and New Age religions. The realization that this clip is older than most of my students drives home to me my age in a way I could do without.

Earlier during the same class session, students had tittered through our reading of texts by the “Jesus freaks.” But after they watched this clip, the mood in the classroom seemed more somber. I wish we’d had time to talk about that reaction. Were students “thrown” by the supernatural claims–e.g., the channeled Pleiadian driving the car? Did the clip leave them wondering, “Is this real?” Did the straight face I maintained while pointing out characteristic elements of MacLaine’s New Age worldview leave students wondering if I think this is real, making them cautious about their own reactions? Do I have evangelical students inclined to interpret these claims as demonic?

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Demographic Winter

My university is celebrating “Intercontinental Week.” This is the poster I see as I walk across campus:

The first time I saw the poster, I blinked because for a second I thought I was seeing this image:

Demographic Winter is a documentary produced by a trio of Mormon filmmakers to support the work of the World Congress of Families, a American-based organization that describes itself as “an international network of pro-family organizations, scholars, leaders and people of goodwill from more than 60 countries that seek to restore the natural family as the fundamental social unit.” The documentary’s argument, supported by interviews with scholars associated with the WCF, is that falling birthrates, especially in developed nations, are precipitating a demographic crisis where we’ll have large aging populations without enough younger people to support them or replenish the population. This picture of the future contrasts, of course, with fears about global overpopulation–fears that the film asserts reflect a fundamental misapprehension of what’s really happening. The subtext is that people need to return to the pro-natal values that have been eroded, since the 1960s, by a rise in women working outside the home, the sexual revolution, liberalized divorce laws, and inaccurate beliefs about overpopulation (which the filmmakers regard as something approaching a conspiracy).

At the 2011 annual meeting of the American Studies Association, I sat on a panel with two colleagues, Sandra Garner and Rita Trimble, that analyzed Demographic Winter and two other documentaries by the same filmmakers. I said that this film exemplifies what legal scholars Doris Buss and Didi Herman call the “globalization” and “intellectualization” of Christian right politics. Like the WCF, whose work it supports, Demographic Winter represents the coming together of conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims to create an interreligious pro-family movement that seeks to influence policy in the United Nations and around the world. Whether you applaud this movement or deplore it, it’s an important development in global politics. In my own work, I call this kind of interreligious collaboration “conservative pluralism.” Some of those who advocate this kind of collaboration call it “ecumenical jihad.”

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Marketing halal

My husband is coeliac and therefore requires gluten-free foods. This evening, he was trying a new brand of gluten-free chicken tenders from a company called Saffron Road. I noticed that the box was marked “halal certified.” I flipped over to the back of the box and found the following explanation:

Saffron Road celebrates the memorable meals and mutual values families and friends of all cultures share around the dinner table. . . . All our chickens are Certified Humane and sourced from small sustainably run farms with 100% vegetarian feed and are never given antibiotics. Our Halal tradition demands their proper care and welfare.

Halal is a tradition that has nourished billions of people over the last 1,400 years. Halal promotes the sacred practices of respect for the land, fair treatment for farmers, humane treatment of livestock and wholesome food to eat. You’ll be amazed how good such carefully prepared food tastes and how it genuinely replenishes the body and soul!

I’m intrigued to see how halal is being marketed as world cuisine, organic food, and fair trade. I’m also intrigued that there are no overt references to Islam–although the reference to “billions of people over the last 1,400 years” and to “sacred practices” hints at that. Why the circumlocution? An attempt to avoid controversy? A complicated bid to pitch the food as culturally specific (for the sake of the “world cuisine” appeal) while avoiding association with a specific religion (which might impede the effort to crossover to a non-Muslim clientele)? Note how the company pitches halal as an expression of “mutual values” shared by “families and friends of all cultures.”

I’m curious to know–has kosher food ever been cross-marketed like this?

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Touchdown Jesus

Today I fielded a call from a reporter at the student newspaper looking for a religion professor who could help her interpret the “Touchdown Jesus” statue. I hadn’t heard of this until she asked about it; apparently it’s located on the other side of our county. Was located, I should say; it burned down a couple of years ago. The church that erected it has announced plans to build a replacement.

"Touchdown Jesus"

"Touchdown Jesus" a.k.a. "King of Kings"

I tried to explain to the student reporter that the question, “What does the statue mean?” presupposes that it has one meaning, whereas it’s in the nature of public art that while the people who put it up may intend it to mean one thing, they can’t control what it will mean to passersby. That problematic is especially relevant in this case, because the church has apparently announced (so the reporter told me) that the replacement statue will have a different design. As she explained it to me, the new statue will show Jesus’ entire figure, and his hands will be outstretched toward the passing highway, not uplifted to heaven. I read that shift as a sign that the church was unhappy with how the old statue ended up being interpreted–i.e., they didn’t appreciate the “Touchdown Jesus” moniker. (Officially, the statue was called “King of Kings.”)

Anyway, with the caveat in place that the statue doesn’t have just one meaning, I offered the student some possible evocations that I thought the church might intend, based on precedents in Christian art and scripture. According to the reporter’s description, the new statue will be standing on pillars in the water; perhaps, I suggested, that was meant to call to mind Jesus walking on the water. The association with water might suggest Jesus as the “waters of life.” (I’ve since learned that the pond serves as a baptismal font.) The old statue, I told her, did strike me as unusual, since I’m more used to seeing Jesus depicted in sculpture with arms stretched out (as if on the cross) or down (displaying the wounds, reaching down to the viewer). The uplifted arms seemed to suggest that Jesus was reaching up to God–perhaps receiving power from God, thus becoming a model for the Spirit-infused believer.

I suspect I told her way more than she’d wanted–I have a way of doing that. She probably just wanted a simple iconographic key: this equals that. One meaning, neatly decoded.

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South Park on Passover

South Park takes on the Passover story, telling it from the point of view of the Egyptians–along with cartoonishly gruesome images of little lambs having their throats slit, which I will now never be able to get out of my head. (For some reason, those images bother me more than the depictions of human children’s heads exploding that appear in the same clip; but analyzing the logic of that reaction will be a task for another occasion.)

Watch the clip

By coincidence, we were discussing this story last week in my class on myth as part of a unit on the persistence and adaptation of ancient myths in modern societies. We used Chabad’s English Haggadah to represent a traditional seder and then compared it to the Reconstructionists’ New American Haggadah to see how the latter had adjusted the telling/performance of the myth to reflect modern sensibilities and promote a distinctively American Jewish identity.

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Good Friday vacation?

I’m at school, between classes. Campus seems unusually quiet. One of my students told me, in my first class this morning, that she had an easier time than usual finding parking. (The student is Muslim, as it happens–she asked me to explain to her what Good Friday is.) Another student emailed me to say she’s gone home early for Easter. Oh–and there’s another.

My university, in Ohio, doesn’t suspend classes for Good Friday. We did get Good Friday off, though, when I was attending grad school in North Carolina. Presumably to avoid church-state problems, the break was called “Spring Holiday” (not to be confused with “Spring Break”). But the Spring Holiday always “happened” to fall on Good Friday.

I can’t remember if, when I lived in the Dominican Republic, schools let out for Holy Week. I just poked around online–it looks like schools there get the whole week off. Ah, the advantages of living in a predominantly Catholic, rather than Protestant, country. Of course, there are trade-offs.

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