Monthly Archives: October 2012

Evangelicals and Halloween

Halloween provides evangelicals with an occasion to position themselves on the cultural landscape in more or less oppositional ways. To use Christian Smith‘s terms, Halloween becomes for some evangelicals a symbolic boundary: by not celebrating it, they assert and maintain a distinctive identity. Other evangelicals, however, make a point of not turning Halloween into a symbolic boundary, or at least of patrolling the boundary less rigorously, thereby signaling a less separatist, more accommodating stance toward the larger American culture. In other words (I’m about to complicate the metaphor horribly, so hang on), by not treating Halloween as a symbolic boundary between themselves and the larger culture, the moderate, pro-Halloween evangelicals draw a different symbolic boundary, one that separates them from the “fundamentalists” who don’t celebrate Halloween.

The following links represent a spectrum from separatist to accommodating.

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Religious controversies in the 2012 presidential race

Shameless self-promotion. The flyer is the creation of the student group who’s organizing the lecture.

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Tori Spelling’s Vodou altar

Many moons ago, I was channel surfing one night and happened upon Tori Spelling receiving a ritual bath from Mama Lola. What follows isn’t that clip, but it’s a different scene in which Mama Lola and another Vodou practitioner, Zaar, help Spelling set up an altar in her home.

It would be interesting to analyze this clip sometime with a class and think about how Vodou is being portrayed. How are viewers meant to respond to this? Is this supposed to be educational–i.e., are viewers supposed to be taking Vodou seriously? Or is this supposed to be amusing–oh, look at the crazy alternative spirituality on which this celebrity is spending her time (and presumably money)? Is the show setting itself to be able to claim to do one while doing the other? Is it intending to do both at once as part of some self-consciously postmodern aesthetic? How should we read the music cues? Are we supposed to empathize with the mocking male friend or find him annoying–a model of how we shouldn’t respond? Are we supposed to sympathize with Zaar’s patience or find him absurdly pretentious? Or is the scene being deliberately put together to authorize divergent reactions for maximal audience appeal?

Bottom line: Is this media depiction good for Vodou?

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Paul Broun and the 46 percent

U.S. Rep. Paul Broun: Evolution a lie ‘from the pit of hell’ (L.A. Times)

My reaction to this story is a big eye roll. That gesture is intended to communicate weary disdain both for Broun’s creationist posturing and for the predictable expressions of horror from people who just can’t fathom how there can be Americans in the 21st century who don’t believe in evolution–much less how such Americans could be walking the halls of Congress.

Yeah, well, that’s just the way the world is, folks. Stop being jaw-on-the-ground shocked about it, and accept it as part of the political facts-of-life you have to live with in this country.

In his L.A. Times piece, reporter Matt Pearce observes that “according to the latest Gallup poll, 46% of Americans think God made humans within the past 10,000 years.” If you find that number eyebrow-raising, take some comfort, perhaps, in this:

If it surprises you to find that nearly half of Americans are, basically, young-earth creationists–that’s because the 46% don’t have cultural influence anywhere close to proportional to their numbers. That’s what I find surprising. Certainly I understand why the existence of the 46% causes scientists and rationalists to sweat. But I don’t see that they have that much to worry about.

Evolutionary science enjoys a position of cultural privilege in America that I’m inclined to call “hegemony”–not that I’m using that Marxian term in a technically correct way, but I like its connotations of domination. Evolutionary science dominates American culture, in such a way as to render the 46% largely invisible. That’s why it’s shocking to people when a member of the 46% pops up in a place like Congress.

But why shouldn’t you find the 46% in places like Congress? If creationists were proportionally represented, nearly half of Congress would think like Broun. The fact that the number probably isn’t that high (though it might be higher than you would like) is a sign of creationist disenfranchisement–or, alternatively, perhaps, a sign that most creationists aren’t inclined to be activists. They’re reconciled, it seems, to living in a culture where their views aren’t taught in public schools, or represented in government, or aired in the media, or accommodated by the courts, as much as you might expect the views of 46% of voters and consumers to be. They seem reconciled, that is, to their dominated status.

I said I intended these remarks to be comforting. By that I meant that if you’re alarmed to learn that 46% of Americans don’t believe in evolution, you can take some comfort in knowing how effectively the 46% are dominated. Like any dominated group, they make trouble from time to time–they start little revolts which have to be stamped down–but evolutionary science clearly has the upper hand in this conflict.

But of course, that’s comforting in a backhanded way. Because I’m asking you to recognize, oh anxious outraged members of the 54%, that you are in fact members of a dominating class. I’m there with you, by the way, in case you were wondering. But I feel just guilty enough about it to reap a pleasant feeling of moral superiority over those of you who hear about Paul Broun and get discombobulated.

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God in the Box

The documentary film God in the Box came to my campus this week. Here’s a trailer:

Two days before the documentary was screened, a version of “the Box” was set up outside the student center, so that students could step inside and record their own “What does God look like to me?” videos. Selections from that footage were then compiled into a short to accompany our campus screening of God in the Box. Two students from courses I’m currently teaching were included in the short, which felt a little weird, I have to say (it was like eavesdropping on them in the confessional), although I felt teacherly pride in how articulate they were (not that I can really claim credit for that).

This documentary is a great artifact for my current research project, which is unpacking the politics of religious pluralism in the U.S. today. By that I mean, I’m interested in analyzing the discourse used by advocates of religious pluralism, so I can identify, denaturalize, and contextualize their underlying assumptions and agendas. This film works well for that because there’s a certain coyness about the way filmmaker discusses his project, both in the film and on its website, which allows me to come in and say: All right, so what exactly is going on here? What are you trying to accomplish with this film?

  • What social problem do you imagine that your project is addressing? (In this case, as with many advocates of pluralism, the filmmaker sees the project as a corrective to conflict around religion–including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, judging from something he said during the Q&A following the screening).
  • How exactly, do you imagine that your project is going to meliorate the problem? (How do you imagine that religious conflict will be averted by audiences watching a movie in which random strangers tell the camera  about their views of God… and in which the author of The Christ Conspiracy pontificates about the unity supposedly underlying all the world’s religions? Sorry, a little editorializing there. Really, though, that was professionally painful to watch.)
  • When you use rhetorical yes/no questions like,  “Is there an emerging, ‘un-organized’ religion or faith developing today?” or, “We think our views of God are accurate, as compared to primitive descriptions of God just a few thousand years ago. But will our descendants, a couple thousand years from now, be looking back on our current interpretations as, just as primitive?”–why do you pose rhetorical questions rather than just making your argument directly? What does that discursive strategy suggest about how you’re trying to position yourself in relation to other parties on the social landscape who speak normatively to audiences about religion? And why do you find those questions relevant to the problem you’re trying to address?
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Chaim Potok on Simchat Torah

In recognition of Simchat Torah, an excerpt from In the Beginning, by American Jewish novelist Chaim Potok. The narrator is a teenager in New York City [I forget which borough; only a New Yorker would be provincial enough to think it matters] who has immersed himself in historical criticism of the Bible, an encounter that both shakes and fascinates him. Near the end of this except, he recalls a childhood friend, an Italian Catholic. The story is set during World War II.

I remember the night in the second week of October when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning.

The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember the white-bearded Torah reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and uncle danced for what seemed to me to be an interminable length of time, circling about one another with their Torah scrolls, advancing upon one another, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my Torah to someone in the crowd, then stood around and watched the dancing. It grew warm inside the small room and I went through the crowd and out the rear door to the back porch. I stood in the darkness and let the air cool my face. I could feel the floor of the porch vibrating to the dancing inside the synagogue. It was a winy fall night, the air clean, the sky vast and filled with stars. [. . .]

The noise inside the synagogue poured out into the night, an undulating, swelling and receding and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with the Torah, holding it close to you, the words of God to Moses at Sinai. I wondered if the gentiles ever danced with their Bible. “Hey, Tony. Do you ever dance with your Bible?”

I had actually spoken the question. I heard the words in the cool dark air. I had not thought to do that. I had not even thought of Tony–yes, I remembered his name: Tony Savanola. I had not thought of him in years. Where was he now? Fighting in the war probably. Or studying for the priesthood and deferred from the draft as I was. Hey, Tony. Do you ever read your Bible? Do you ever hold it to you and know how much you love it?

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God and the Ohio state constitution

I filled out my mail-in ballot this evening for the upcoming election. One of the referendums I had to vote on–the first on the list–was whether or not to hold a new state constitutional convention. That threw me for a loop, since I had heard absolutely nothing about a campaign to push for this. However, consulting some online oracles, I learned that this is routine: Since 1912, there’s been an article in the state constitution which requires that every twenty years, voters be asked whether or not they want to hold a new constitutional convention.

In the process of learning about the Ohio state constitution, I discovered that the preamble reads as follows:

We, the people of the State of Ohio, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, to secure its blessings and promote our common welfare, do establish this Constitution.

This is what the state bill of rights has to say about religion and government. Note the all-important “however” midway through, where Christian hegemony hastens to qualify the guarantees of freedom of conscience.

All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience. No person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or maintain any form of worship, against his consent; and no preference shall be given, by law, to any religious society; nor shall any interference with the rights of conscience be permitted. No religious test shall be required, as a qualification for office, nor shall any person be incompetent to be a witness on account of his religious belief; but nothing herein shall be construed to dispense with oaths and affirmations. Religion, morality, and knowledge, however, being essential to good government, it shall be the duty of the general assembly to pass suitable laws to protect every religious denomination in the peaceable enjoyment of its own mode of public worship, and to encourage schools and the means of instruction.

Note that even in the structure of the text itself, the assertion that religion is “essential to good government” is in tension with the assurance that people cannot be barred from public office or testifying in court “on account of [their] religious belief.” The tension resides in the “however” that the writer(s) used to transition from the “no religious test” clause to the “religion essential to good government” clause. Your religious beliefs are irrelevant to your qualifications for government… but don’t get us wrong: religion is indispensible for good government.

Americans are still trying to figure out how to navigate that tension.

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Balpreet Kaur and european_douchebag

So, quick recap for those who may have missed it: A Reddit user with the handle european_douchebag posted a photo of a bearded Sikh woman with the comment, “i’m not sure what to conclude from this.” The woman, Balpreet Kaur, subsequently responded. (It turns out she’s a student at Ohio State, a couple hours up the road from me.) She explained that as a Sikh, she doesn’t shave in order to honor the sacrality of her divinely bestowed body; she touted this commitment as a way she avoids getting caught up in external appearances, so she can focus instead on making positive change in the world.

European_douchebag then issued an apology–largely preoccupied, it seems to me, with averting negative publicity from Reddit, but including the statements, “Balpreet, I’m sorry for being a closed minded individual. You are a much better person than I am”; “Sikhs, I’m sorry for insulting your culture and way of life”; and “Balpreet’s faith in what she believes is astounding.”


Reddit Users Attempt to Shame Sikh Woman, Get Righteously Schooled (Jezebel.com)
I posted the picture of a Sikh woman on here and I’d like to apologize (european_douchebag’s apology)

At the risk of raining on the pluralist parade (well, okay, I admit, that’s what I do), I’m a little surprised by how vigorously european_douchebag backpedalled. His initial comment about not being sure what to conclude from this is certainly douchey, as one would expect from his handle. But I don’t find the comment all that offensive. “I’m not sure what to conclude from this” would be a reasonable paraphrase of my own reaction to the unexplicated photo. (Indeed, there’s a fascinating conversation waiting to be had about this photo from a religion-and-transgenderism angle. How potentially unexpected that the Sikh prohibition on shaving could lead to the sacralization of a body that transgresses conventional expectations for female bodies.)

So why such emphatic backpedalling on european_douchebag’s part? My hunch: The moment Kaur identified as Sikh, what had been intended as douchey humor fell under the pall of the recent temple shooting. Douchey humor suddenly became liable to being read as grossly insensitive or bigoted–not just the mild bigotry of a self-proclaimed douchebag snickering at a woman with facial hair, but white-supremacy level bigotry. European_douchebag needed to make sure we understood he wasn’t that.

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