Monthly Archives: August 2013

Syrian rebels and kittens

I grant that the “religion in America” connection is tenuous–except inasmuch as I suspect that Americans tend to equate Arab militancy with Islamic militancy. But this post arises from my being… struck, let’s say, by how quickly Yahoo News jumped on the propaganda bandwagon once the Obama administration indicated it was considering military action in Syria. The images below come from a Yahoo News slideshow, “Off Duty Syrian Rebels,” whose formula seems to be:

Bearded Middle Eastern men with guns

+   Kittens and children

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Oh. These look like people we could support.

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I wonder if Al Qaeda or the Taliban have ever considered “cute kitten photos” as a p.r. strategy. These guys, again from the Free Syrian Army, haven’t quite mastered the genre yet–still too much of a “call the humane society” vibe in this one.

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To those who find this post tasteless: Yes, I’m aware that what’s happening in Syria is disastrous beyond belief. I’m also aware that the question of how the U.S. should respond is horribly complicated, and I do not envy our current commander-in-chief the decisions that must now be made. Precisely because I know it’s horribly complicated, I resent feeling that someone out there is trying to use photos of kittens and children to arouse a simpler emotional reaction in me. I also resent the fact that my resentment of this apparent media strategy causes me to brush shoulders with people who have a different set of political motives for resenting the strategy–with whom I would rather not brush shoulders.

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“I Have a Dream”

In honor of the 50th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech (by the by, I can’t recall celebrating the anniversary of a speech before, a topic worth thinking about in itself), I’m reproducing below the last part of the speech. This is the part of the speech where King moves from long paragraphs of the kind you’d read from a teleprompter into the cadences associated with black preaching.

I’ve bolded language or imagery that seems most overtly religious to me. This is American civil religion in a Judeo-Christian mode: Declaration of Independence + “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” + multiple Isaiah references + a subtle Daniel allusion + Christian communion imagery and millennialism. Note how he invokes, at the end, the Will Herberg tripartite (Protestant, Catholic, and Jew) to… what? represent? encompass? religious diversity in America.

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I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

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Sacred seal

In the middle of the sidewalk that leads to my office is a giant bronze replica of the university seal. There’s a tradition that if you step on the seal, you’ll fail your finals. I hear guides passing this tradition on all the time to tours of prospective students. At school year’s end, I’ve seen students in their graduation robes jumping up and down on the seal in a celebratory act of desecration.

A couple weeks ago, I was walking to my office, and a cluster of prospective (or maybe newly admitted) students and parents were standing around the seal as the guide explained the taboo. As I walked past them, I abruptly stepped sideways with one foot to tread on the seal, then continued immediately on my way. Parents chuckled. I didn’t catch the guide’s reaction.

I’m not really sure why that kind of civil religion annoys me so much. It’s tempting to overanalyze, but I have other things to do.

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Hopi mural

I’m finalizing syllabi for the coming semester. Lately, I’ve been trying to make my syllabi more visually attractive. For the introductory course I’m teaching on the functions of myth in premodern and modern societies, I decided to use as decoration some details from a mural at the Museum of Northern Arizona that incorporates imagery from Hopi myths my students will be reading. These images were particularly attractive to me because of how they link elements of the myths to challenges of contemporary Hopi life. That’s something I’ll be asking students to think about during the course: how do people in modern societies continue to adapt and reinterpret older myths?

Here are the details I’m using. You can see the entire mural at the museum’s website. The muralists are Michael Kabotie and Delbridge Honanie. I regret that I don’t find a title for the mural on the museum’s website.

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CAIR on Cairo and Stop-and-Frisk

For some reason, I found myself wondering today what CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the major Muslim advocacy group in the U.S., may have been saying about how the U.S. should respond to the situation in Egypt.

(Quick tangent: I’m unsure how to interpret the organization’s name. Is “American-Islamic” pointing to a hyphenated American identity, i.e., we’re Muslims and we’re Americans? Or are “America” and “Islam” being referred to as two separate entities whose relationship CAIR is trying to broker?)

Here’s CAIR’s press release about the Egyptian military’s attacks on protesters. The gist–which in some cases is the subtext–is this: The military should lift its state of emergency, CAIR deplores attacks on Egyptian Christians, and Obama should admit this was a coup and cut off military aid.

In the process of locating that statement, I was intrigued to discover as well this press release in response to the ruling against stop-and-frisk in New York City. That press release includes a “call for increased oversight and investigations of the NYPD’s continued surveillance of American Muslim communities, houses of worship, and student clubs across the mid-Atlantic region. This unconstitutional spying program has interfered with lawful religious practice, cost taxpayers too much, and strained relations between the NYPD and one of the many diverse communities it is meant to serve.”

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Bumper sticker

Bumper stickers intrigue me as an expression of religious identity and religious communication in public space. Here’s one I saw a few months ago. The particular messaging and tone in this case–the cartoony mortal warning–call to mind Jason Bivins’s Religion of Fear.

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How should we interpret the cartooniness? Is it an attempt to soften what the creator knows is a harsh message, thus suggesting a certain degree of discomfort with the message (despite persistent commitment to it)? Is the cartooniness an effort to make this brimstone-style Christianity more hip? Or does it betray a casualness (here’s where I’m thinking of Bivins) about the idea that there are people who, as we speak, are suffering eternal separation from God?

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Lucky Charms and fundamentalist Christians

luckycharmsA while back, my husband saw me eating a bowl of the generic Kroger-brand equivalent of Lucky Charms cereal. (When I indulge in my vices, I indulge cheaply.) Because my husband and I are nerds, talking about the cereal prompted one or the other of us to wonder if there are fundamentalist Christians who don’t want their children eating Lucky Charms for fear of promoting magic–like the fundamentalists who famously disapproved of Harry Potter.

I became genuinely–not cattily–curious about this. Is boycotting Lucky Charms, in fact, a symbolic boundary that some fundamentalist Christians have erected to distinguish themselves from mainstream American culture?

So I went to the Internet, source of all arcane knowledge, and Googled “lucky charms cereal bible.” I figured if there was a website out there citing biblical authority to urge parents  not to buy Lucky Charms for their children, those search terms would turn it up.

Well… It appears that a month ago there was some media flap, to which I was oblivious, about conservative Christians expressing dismay about a Lucky Charms ad released by General Mills in connection with gay pride. So most of my hits were about that. If you, too, missed out on this little cultural fireflash, you can get quickly up to speed over at Mediaite.

But digging through the hits further, I did turn up some curiosities:

* A December 2010 blog post by an evangelical who uses Lucky Charms cereal as a hook to explain why belief in luck is unbiblical:  “Lucky Charms! They’re magically delicious. . . . Do you believe in lucky charms? No, I am no longer talking about the cereal. . . .” He disapproves of lucky charms (lowercase), but if he extends that disapproval to the cereal, he doesn’t actually say so.

* A March 2011 blog post from “The Christian Nerd,” who complains that on St. Patrick’s Day, “everyone focuses on Lucky the leprechaun instead of looking at St. Patrick and his mission and ministry to the people of Ireland.” This post is hard for me to interpret, even after reading more of the blog to get a feel for its tone. I assume there’s an element of tongue-in-cheekness here; but I think he’s sincerely lodging his basic complaint. Again, he’s not actually disapproving of the cereal, but the Lucky Charms leprechaun serves for him as an icon of society’s inattention to the things of God.

* A 2012 memoir about a very young child’s out-of-body visit to heaven. During the visit, Jesus asks her “what I would want if I could have anything in the world.” The child replies that she wants Lucky Charms. Jesus promises her Lucky Charms. Her mother tells her she can only have them if they’re on sale–and the next time they go to the store, the cereal is on sale. This is not parody, in case I need to clarify that. The moral of the anecdote is that “Jesus cares about the thoughts and desires of a two year old. I am grateful for all the Lord provides, with or without Lucky Charms. If you could have anything you wanted, what would you ask the Lord for?”

* The closest I found to an online fundamentalist voice disapproving of Lucky Charms cereal is a countercult website which claims that Jehovah’s Witnesses (who aren’t what we normally mean by “fundamentalist Christians,” I know) won’t eat Lucky Charms because of the association with magic. That sounds plausible to me, but the countercultists don’t provide documentation for the claim.

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