Monthly Archives: February 2014

China’s “Divine Culture” performs in America


A couple months ago, the Shen Yun troupe advertised on my campus for upcoming performances in Cincinnati and Dayton–the latter just passed a couple days ago. Shen Yun describes itself as performing classical Chinese dance (albeit blended with Western orchestration). I was intrigued by the way religion was invoked in their promotional literature. Here are some quotations from a brochure that was mailed to me. The bolding is mine.



For thousands of years, China was known as the Divine Land. Its rich culture, said to be from the heavens, valued virtues like integrity, compassion, and tolerance.

Then, under 60 years of communist rule, this glorious culture has been almost destroyed. That is why you cannot see a performance like this in China today.

In 2006, leading Chinese artists from around the world came together in New York with a mission to revive authentic Chinese culture. They formed Shen Yun, and now invite you to witness the divine culture’s return.

The brochure goes on to explain that “Shen Yun” means “the beauty of heavenly beings dancing.” The troupe aims to provide “an experience so beautiful and joyous that it evokes a sense of the heavens.”

I’m intrigued by this linkage, or overlap, or equation, with artistic and religious experience. I blogged a couple years ago about a South Asian dance troupe that similarly characterized their on-campus performance as a “sacred” experience. I wonder: How seriously do the performers take these religious/spiritual claims about their art? How seriously do audiences take it? Is there a cynical Orientalism at work behind the scenes? “Oh yeah, Americans are ga-ga for Eastern mysticism, so be sure to throw the words sacred or divine into your advertising copy.”

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Hobby Lobby and the equality of consciences

A former student sent me this link to an essay in The Atlantic: Will the Roberts Court Follow Its Own Religious-Freedom Precedent?

The author, constitutional law professor Garrett Epps, argues that because the Roberts court has upheld the principle that “when government gives benefits to individuals, and the individuals pass on the benefit to religion, no dissenter is injured, so there’s no [constitutional] violation,” the court needs, for consistency’s sake, to hold that Hobby Lobby suffers no constitutional injury when the government requires it to provide insurance coverage that would allow employees to use contraceptive techniques to which Hobby Lobby owners object on religious grounds. The likeness between the situations doesn’t look as airtight to me as it looks to Epps, so I think the Roberts course could wriggle away from the precedents Epps cites with less hypocrisy than he wants to hang on them. But this is the crux of Epps’s argument:

Many taxpayers, religious and non-religious, object deeply to government aid to Christian schools, but legally, their outraged consciences are not injured by government funding that flows to those schools as a result of “independent choice.” […]

That’s not my rule; it’s the Court’s. And if the conservative majority now says that Hobby Lobby actually can dictate to its employees, they will look like hypocrites.

That’s because to assert a right to control employees’ private choice will be to hold that religious people—or, even more ominously, some favored religious people—are more easily injured than others, that their free-exercise rights trump those of their employees. The Court has insulated benefits to religion from veto by objecting citizens; now the religious want the right to veto on religious grounds benefits that flow to others. All consciences are equal; but some are thus more equal than others.


Muslim Punk

The_TaqwacoresLast week, the Comparative Religion Student Association at my university showed the documentary Taqwacore, about Muslim punk bands. My understanding–i.e., this is the impression the documentary gives–is that these bands were inspired by an imagined Muslim punk subculture created by writer Michael Muhammad Knight in his novel The Taqwacores, which has also now become a film (not to be confused with the documentary). Both films are, for the moment, available on YouTube; click the hyperlinks.

Watching the documentary–which you should see for the segment where the bands crash open-mic night at the annual ISNA convention–I found myself wishing that the filmmakers would tell us more about the grounds on which these young people identify themselves as Muslim. It’s a variation on a question I explored in one of my first AAR presentations: How do people with unconventional religious identities go about persuading people to ascribe the desired religious label to them? I examined that question in the context of gay Mormons: If people are going to call themselves gay Mormons, what do they need to do–or what do they think they need to do–to convince people that they are, in fact, entitled to the label “Mormon”? By the same token, I wondered: If you were to ask these self-identifying punk Muslims on what grounds they can be considered “Muslim,” what would they say? What, in their minds, defines “Muslim” identity?

I’ve begun watching the fictional film The Taqwacores, which does more with the “What makes you a Muslim?” question than the documentary did.

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Exorcism, Skype, and the U.S. presidency


A few days ago, The Daily Beast ran an article about Bob Larson, an Arizona-based minister who performs exorcisms via Skype. He’d been featured in The Huffington Post a few days before that. The Daily Beast piece wasn’t quite as snickery as the Huffington Post‘s: the Daily Beast author, Scott Bixby, noted that exorcism has a “relatively mainstream presence in most Christian sects (ever been baptized? Congratulations–you’ve had an exorcism).” Huffington Post author David Moye ended his piece with a little whipped-up controversy by getting a rival exorcist–head of the International Catholic Association of Exorcists–to cast doubt on the authenticity of Larson’s exorcisms, on the grounds that a truly possessed person wouldn’t sit still in front of a computer screen.

A couple questions that occur to me:

1. Presumably I, the online reader, am supposed to be snickering that there are people living in the modern age–as driven home by the fact that they’re Skyping, OMG–who nevertheless believe in demonic possession. But what does it say about contemporary American culture that these online news stories treating exorcism as laughable exist simultaneously with a film industry that seems to be advertising yet another horror flick about possession every time I go to a cineplex?

2. Did you know that the Book of Occasional Services of the Episcopal Church–the church so modern that it can boast having ordained the first openly gay bishop in the Christian mainline; the church so socially respectable that it runs the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and has produced more U.S. presidents than any other denomination–did you know that that church’s Book of Occasional Services, as published in 2003, includes a rite for exorcism? Well, more precisely, it contains a page explaining that exorcism is a rite of the church, so if a priest believes that someone is possessed, not mentally ill, then they should contact their bishop for directions about how to proceed. I would love to see those instructions.

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Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham

My husband is in the other room, listening to the live stream of the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate occurring now at the Creation Museum, south of us. (We pass it every time we drive to the Cincinnati airport. I’m curious to go, but not curious enough to pay the $30 entrance fee.) I’m half-listening because I feel obligated, since I’m teaching two courses right now that this debate is relevant to. But I can’t actually sit and watch it–it’s too squirm-inducing.

I’m a bit surprised that Nye agreed to the debate, since by doing it he lends Ham a kind of validity, as contrasted to the strategy of acting as if creation science is beneath notice. In terms of the ongoing (it will never end) tension around teaching evolution in public schools, Ham’s proudly fundamentalist style of creation science is beneath notice, since the Supreme Court has already rejected it as unconstitutional. The more pressing challenge comes from intelligent design, which is more modest and not overtly Christian in its claims, although that movement, too, got slapped down in the federal courts a decade ago in Kitzmiller v. Dover.

I wonder: Could Nye be debating Ham in order to link creation science and intelligent design in the public’s mind–an association that intelligent design proponents have been keen to avoid? Or is that too generous a reading of Nye’s capacity for subtlety?

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