Monthly Archives: December 2012

Billboard: Sunbeam Bakers, Christmas 2012

My second-ever post to this blog, a little over a year ago, featured a Sunbeam Bakers billboard that caught my eye on a rural highway outside Cincinnati. The billboard, which I had never seen before, featured a praying child and the message “Not by bread alone – Matthew 4:4 – Deuteronomy 8:3.”

I was soon informed by a visitor to the blog that the billboard is an annual tradition. I also discovered that the tradition is significant enough to some people that they search online for photos of sightings of the billboard–as a result of which, that particular blog post became one of my most visited in early December of this year.

By coincidence, I happened to drive past the billboard a few days ago in a Cincinnati neighborhood. As a favor to the billboard’s fans, here are a couple of photos:



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Merry Christmas from the Isaac M. Wise Temple

Drove into Cincinnati on Christmas Day. (A great day for it because there wasn’t any traffic and the parking was free.) Standing on the steps of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral–awesome name, and I’m not being snarky when I say that–we looked across the street to the Isaac M. Wise Temple, a.k.a, the Plum Street Temple, arguably the birthplace of Reform Judaism in America. We could see that the temple had put a sign out sometime shortly before, but now tucked away behind the railing. (Vandalized, maybe? It seemed to have been crudely dismantled.) The birthplace of Reform Judaism was wishing the Catholic archbishop of Cincinnati and his flock a Merry Christmas.


The sign in context: It’s tucked behind the sidewalk railing near the door to your right It looked like it had originally been in a stand on the sidewalk.


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Xmas music — sacred and secular

When I was growing up, my parents owned a four-LP collection of Christmas music put out by Reader’s Digest. The collection separated the kind of Christmas music we might call “sacred” from the kind of Christmas music we might call “secular.” That is, all the songs about Santa Claus and snow were on two of the records, while all the songs about Jesus were on the other two. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” wouldn’t be followed by “For unto Us a Child Is Born” unless you changed records: the two categories had been segregated.

Contrast that to the Karen Carpenter Christmas album my husband purchased on CD a few years back. (I’m making my husband take the rap for this purchase because I don’t wish to be thought of as that kind of gay.) The collection opens with a medley that freely combines the kinds of music that my parents’ Reader’s Digest collection had segregated. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” segues into “Happy Holidays”; “Silent Night” is followed by “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”–I may not be remembering the examples accurately, but they accurately convey the kind of thing we’re talking about.

I’m intrigued by this as a lens for thinking about the construction of the categories “religious” and “secular” (or “sacred” and “profane”). The people at Reader’s Digest were clearly operating with a consciousness of those categories, as evidenced by their evident desire to keep the categories separated. I don’t know how the creators of the Karen Carpenter medley stood in relation to the categories. Did they understand themselves as mixing “sacred” and “secular” Christmas music? Or were they not even thinking in terms of those categories to begin with? In other words, did they not distinguish, in their minds, between “sacred” and “secular” Christmas music? Was it all just one category for them–“Christmas music”? And if it was all just one category, would it make more sense to understand that category as “sacred” or “secular”? Does pairing “Silent Night” with “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” secularize the former or sacralize the latter? Or do those categories simply become unhelpful at this point for neutral analytical purposes, serving only to imply a value judgment for or against the pairing?

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Obama, Newtown, and civil religion

This isn’t really the time for a full-blown analysis, but at some point in the future, it would be worth doing a close read of the President’s address at the Newtown prayer service as an artifact of American civil religion. I think a case is waiting to be made that this is not civil religion as described by Robert Bellah back in the 1960s: Obama’s address was more distinctively Christian. There was a pluralist note, when Obama said that “all the world’s religions” start with questions about the meaning of life. But the speech began and ended with quotations from the New Testament (one from the NIV, the other from the ESV, whatever those choices might betoken).


More Santa humor

Courtesy of the New Yorker:


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Virgin tree, Salt Lake City

In observance of the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, today’s post is about the “Virgin tree” in Salt Lake City. This is my recollection of the origin story as it was passed orally to me by someone who had heard it from the woman in question: A woman waiting for the bus looked up and saw that on the stump of a branch recently removed by the city was a stain in the shape of the Virgin of Guadalupe. As word spread, people transformed the bus stop into a popular shrine, leaving votive candles all over the bus stop benches. Someone built wooden steps leading up to the stump; city officials worried this was unsafe, so the city replaced the wooden steps with metal ones. They also moved the bus stop.

Shortly before the 2002 Winter Olympics, someone vandalized the tree, gouging out the stain. The shrine persisted, however; as sap accumulated in the gouged-out area, people collected it for healing.

Remembering SLC’s “Mary tree” (Salt Lake Tribune)

This YouTube video shows the tree and the gouged-out stump, along with a photo someone had left showing the original stain. The guys who made the video are assholes (as you’ll see if you watch), but at least they’ve left us some decent footage.

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War on Hanukkah

I had originally conceived this to be a lightly humorous post, but then events took a sad turn.

Last Saturday, my husband and I were walking up and down the historic Main Street (except they call it High Street here) with a Jewish colleague. We were admiring the Christmas lights as evening fell–or rather, my husband and I were admiring the Christmas lights; my colleague was kvetching about how “in your face” Christmas felt to him.

We got to the grassy lawn that I’m guessing from the grazing animal statues was once the town commons. There’s a big evergreen tree growing at one end of the commons, which had been decked out with lights. Across the lawn, there was a big electric menorah. One of the lights on the menorah was burned out, which prompted my colleague to joke that he hadn’t realized we were in the seventh night of Hanukkah already.

Then I realized that the old cannon which happens to stand in front of the evergreen-turned-Christmas-tree happened to be pointing in the direction of the menorah. The (presumably) unintentional effect was that the cannon seemed to be firing on the menorah in defense of the Christmas tree. “Look!” I said. “Christmas has declared war on Hanukkah.”

We all had a loud laugh over that one, and I cajoled my husband into taking a photo. Click to enlarge. You can make out the cannon in front of the tree at the far end of the lawn.


The sad turn to the story is that the next day, my husband and I were again out for a walk up and down Main Street . . . and we saw that sometime during the last 12-18 hours, someone had vandalized the menorah, ripping out several of the candlesticks. The menorah has since been entirely removed.

I’m assuming it was drunken student mayhem, not anti-Semitism per se.


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Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day

I woke up this morning and found that according to my calendar, today is “Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.” I don’t remember having ever seen that observance marked on a calendar before. Then, when I went to school, I found the university’s flag at half-mast–I’m guessing for Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

Am I oblivious, or has this been going on for a long time? When did Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day become one of the “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” in the liturgical calendar of American civil religion?

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The Last Judgment

From this week’s New Yorker:

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Glenn Beck: Obama as Antichrist?

So, for those who missed it: Glenn Beck has won some time back in the mainstream media spotlight for auctioning a parody art piece, “Obama in Pee Pee.” The parody is an immediate reaction to The Truth, by Michael D’Antuono, which is supposed to be a rebuke to conservative media critics of Obama (like Beck); Beck’s parody also references Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. The logic of Beck’s parody, as he himself articulated it, is: “Everybody on the left, they are so open and tolerant, and they just don’t like it when people complain about taking the image of the savior and putting him in pee pee. But the savior Obama in pee pee? Oh no, that’s just too much.”


Glenn Beck’s “Obama in Pee Pee”

Michael D'Antuono's The Truth

Michael D’Antuono’s The Truth

Andres Serrano's Piss Christ

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ

Clearly Beck is resentful of Serrano’s treatment of an image of Christ, and resentful of liberals who defend Serrano’s art. I’m less clear what to conclude about what Beck is saying by plugging Obama in for Christ. Obviously he takes a dim view of liberals who, as he sees it, revere Obama as a “savior.” But… why is that, exactly?

See, “Obama in Pee Pee” reminds me of another piece of art by a Tea Party Mormon: Jon McNaughton’s painting One Nation under Socialism, which a few weeks ago I argued casts Obama as a kind of anti-Christ figure:

Jon McNaughton's One Nation under God and One Nation under Socialism

Jon McNaughton’s One Nation under God (left) and One Nation under Socialism (right)

In light of McNaughton’s painting, and other examples of far-right voices literally equating Obama with the Antichrist, I’m left wondering: When Glenn Beck plugs Obama into a parody of Piss Christ and says, in effect, “All right, liberals, let’s see how you like it when someone disrespects your savior”–what is he implying, exactly? Is he saying that it’s absurd for liberals to elevate the president–any president–to the level of some kind of messiah? Or is he saying it’s absurd to elevate Obama specifically to that level because Obama is, in fact, metaphorically if not quite literally, an anti-Christ? As a corollary to that second possibility: Would Beck invest a (sufficiently) conservative president with the messianic aura that he perceives liberals to be assigning to Obama?

I don’t pose this as a rhetorical question: I’m genuinely uncertain. Both options seem plausible. I don’t know which one is actually running through Beck’s mind.

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