Adhan at Duke . . . oops, nope

A couple days ago, former fellow UNC alums posted to Facebook the news that Duke (where many of us took classes) had granted permission for Muslim students to perform the adhan–the call of prayer–from atop the campus’s iconic chapel bell tower. (A weekly Friday prayer service is held in the chapel basement.) “How nice,” I thought. “Good for the Dukies.”

Now the word is out that the administration has rescinded permission. A key player in that abrupt reversal is Franklin Graham, who lambasted the adhan plan on Facebook, then elaborated to the news media as follows:

“As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” Graham wrote on Facebook.

In an interview Thursday before the reversal, Graham told The Charlotte Observer that Duke should not allow the chapel to be used for the call to prayer. “It’s wrong because it’s a different god,” he said. “Using the bell tower, that signifies worship of Jesus Christ. Using (it) as a minaret is wrong.”

Graham did say Muslim students should be allowed to worship on campus. “Let Duke donate the land and let Saudi Arabia build a mosque for them.”

And referencing the recent terrorist attacks in France, Graham added, “Islam is not a religion of peace.”

(Charlotte Observer, Jan. 15, 2015)

The inevitable irony: Omid Safi reports that threats of violence were made against people at Duke by opponents of the adhan plan.

And who says Duke is losing its historic Christian identity?

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Still an ethnic church, but…

Last month, my husband and I attended a posada organized by Guatemalan immigrants living in the Price Hill area of Cincinnati. Afterward, we took the dog (who was waiting bundled up in the car) for a little walk down the street. On the corner was an old church. A sign in German carved over the door identified it as the First German Evangelical Protestant Church, founded in 1886. However, the German immigrants long since became upwardly mobile and moved out. The building is now in the hands of a different ethnic minority: new signage, in Spanish, identified the building as home to the Hispanic Nazareth Evangelical Church. Still an “evangelical” group–but in a different sense of the word.

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Santa at the manger

A house down the street from mine put up this nativity scene on their front lawn. I’ve fantasized before about something like this–a nativity scene with Santa, and reindeer, and Frosty, and scarf-wearing penguins.

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Miscellaneous Christmas news stories

With Christmas approaching, here’s a miscellany of Christmas-related news stories that crossed my screen recently:

Satanic Temple Wins Battle To Bring Lucifer Display Inside Florida State Capitol” (Huffington Post): These people are obnoxious gadflies, but in a worthy cause. Beelzebub bless them, every one.

73 Percent Of Americans Believe Jesus Was Born To A Virgin” (Huffington Post): I confess to being surprised the figure came out that high. Following a link to Pew’s short report on the larger survey this figure came from, I learned that nearly half of Americans believe that nativity scenes either should not be allowed on government property, or should be allowed only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths (read: menorahs).

They’re Christian, but Christmas is off limits for several faiths (Deseret News): I want to say I’m not a fan of the DesNews (a Mormon-owned paper which is currently trying to buy out its competitor, the Salt Lake Tribune–a Mormon vs. non-Mormon battle dating back to the 19th century). But this was an interesting article about Christian groups that hang back from Christmas–Churches of Christ, Friends, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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From the US Army: Communism as religion

I need to be grading right now, but I’m brooding about the CIA torture report. It’s put me in mind of a text I encountered a couple years ago–an excerpt from a 1989 manual that the US army used at the School of the Americas to train Latin Americans in counterinsurgency, i.e., in how to suppress left-wing movements.

In this particular passage, the author describes Communism as a kind of religion, the explicit implication being that Communists are irrationally committed to their dogmas. (Is the unspoken implication that they’re irredeemable and must therefore be eliminated?)  Note that Catholicism provides the author’s archetype of “religion”–more specifically, of religion as irrational dogma. I find it hard not to read that in light of the long history of American Protestants equating Catholicism with superstition and tyranny. Note, too, that the manual functions as a kind of counterapologetic, aiming to show readers the “fallacies” of Communism as contrasted to “democratic doctrine”–the true religion. (Why did the manual’s author perceive that counterapologetic as necessary?)

My source is the Latin American Working Group.

Communism is “a kind of pseudo-religion, given that it has a founder, a mythology, a sacred book, a clergy, a place of pilgrimage and an inquisition. The founder is Marx; the mythology is communist theory; the sacred book is Das Kapital; the clergy are members of the Communist Party; the place of pilgrimage is Moscow; and the inquisition[,] the state (KGB) and others. Truly, as Marx said, communism is ‘the spectre surrounding Europe.’ Today this spectre is surrounding the whole world. You can’t hope to convince a devoted communist of the errors in his doctrine, but you ought to be able to point out to an impartial person the fallacies of the communist ideology; and you ought to feel more justified in the validity of the democratic doctrine in light of the fallacies you have learned to discover in communist doctrine.”

(“Revolutionary War, Guerillas and Communist Ideology,” 128)

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All Lives Matter? Black Lives Matter?

Lately my husband and I have been attending an Episcopal church in Cincinnati. One of the appeals is that it’s a racially mixed congregation–white, African American, Latino (mostly Guatemalan immigrants). There’s a strong progressive social consciousness: they host a transgender support group; they help immigrants navigate the legal system; a couple Ash Wednesdays ago, the priest led a service calling corporations to repentance; etc.

So it was not surprising when we arrived at church this past Sunday to see a “Black Lives Matter” banner (bilingual, English-Spanish) hanging outside the building. What was surprising to me was the way that the church seemed to feel the need to explain, in a little leaflet tucked inside the program of worship, why they had chosen “Black Lives Matter,” rather than “All Lives Matter.” The reasoning was what you’d expect: Of course all lives matter, but at this particular moment there’s a need to affirm the value of black lives in particular.

What surprised me was the impression the leaflet gave that there were people in the congregation (more specifically, I would assume, in the lay leadership, i.e., the folks who would be deciding to hang the banner) who had voiced reservations about “Black Lives Matter” and had favored “All Lives Matter.” If that is the case, it drives home to me the range of political diversity that exists in this on-balance progressive congregation. That is to say, there would appear to be people in the congregation who favor a color-blind discourse and don’t subscribe to the kind of hermeneutic that sees that discourse as obscuring racial privilege. We’re not all consciousness-raised Berkeley progressives here. And that’s probably healthy. Though I’m glad that “Black Lives Matter” prevailed.

A couple relevant links:

#BlackLivesMatter: Why We Need to Stop Replying ALL LIVES MATTER (Adam Philips) – A blogger with Sojourners critiques the “All Lives Matter” meme.

Black and White; All Lives Matter (Ashley Pratte) – A Christian Post commentator exemplifies what Philips objects to: using the meme to critique and redirect the discourse away from the anti-racism protests. (For her, “All Lives Matter” becomes a plea for empathy for Darren Wilson, a condemnation of black rioters–and an opening to condemn abortion.)

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Stephen Colbert, John McCain, and the New Testament

On December 1, John McCain was on The Colbert Report plugging his new book (in preparation for a presidential run?). As the interview began, Colbert remarked that McCain was one of the last guests who will appear on the show.

“You’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, huh?” McCain responded.

No, no, Colbert assured him. “We have saved the best for last, to paraphrase the Gospel.”

“What chapter in the Bible is that?” McCain laughed–trying to show that he got the joke. (Hey look, young people–I may be old, but I’m still “with it.”)

At which point Colbert spent a few seconds recounting the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned the water to wine, and the master of the feast expressed surprise to the bridegroom that he had saved the best wine to serve at the end. The audience cheered as McCain prepared to recover from his embarrassment.

“How are you going to appeal to Christian conservatives if you don’t know your Gospel, sir?” Colbert jibed.

“Now I remember,” McCain fake-laughed. “Thank you for refreshing my memory.”

Click the link to watch the video–the exchange occurs in about the first minute.

http://media.mtvnservices.com/embed/mgid:arc:video:colbertnation.com:da5f9601-5566-4f8a-896f-364c953ee2fb

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Jehovah’s Witnesses and Thanksgiving

Somehow, a couple of days ago, it occurred to me to wonder whether Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from celebrating Thanksgiving, given the distance they seek to maintain from institutions of nationalism. I knew that they object to the pagan roots of Christmas, Easter, and birthdays–but what about Thanksgiving?

(Quick tangent: The first time I personally encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses was as a teenager while visiting relatives in California for Thanksgiving. Two Witnesses, African American women in perhaps their sixties, knocked on the door, taking advantage of the holiday to find people at home.)

I couldn’t find anything addressing this question on the Watch Tower Society’s official website. But here are some relevant texts I discovered:

* An independent apologist gives three reasons why Witnesses don’t/shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving: (1) real Christians give thanks every day, not just once a year; (2) harvest celebrations have pagan origins; (3) Thanksgiving’s founders, in the 1860s, intended to fuse American patriotism and Christian piety, to which Witnesses object.

* A short article by ex-Witnesses provides several quotations from a 1976 Watchtower article that articulates points 1 and 2, above.

* An “etiquette expert” at Belief.Net advises that your Witness neighbors probably wouldn’t be offended by an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, even if they declined.

* A self-identified “apostate” recounts his first Thanksgiving dinner in this YouTube video:

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Salat before boarding

I’m getting ready to board a flight to take me from the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, in San Diego, back to Ohio so I can be there to teach on Monday and Tuesday. (Yes, I am such a goody-goody, much to my students’ annoyance, no doubt.)

As I wait to board, I’m remembering something that happened… I think it was after last year’s AAR. I was waiting to board a flight, and I ran into an acquaintance from graduate school. He’s Sufi–he always smells like incense (which is pleasant). We chatted for a while. Then, once the airline personnel announced that they would start boarding the first zones soon, my friend got up and retreated to a relatively unobtrusive corner of the waiting area to perform salat.

I glanced around to see if anyone was reacting to the sight. No one did, that I could see.

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Snow Angels as “Zen”

I’m teaching a course on minority American religions in which we just wrapped up a unit on Buddhism. Yesterday, as the class was meeting, our first snowfall was drifting past the windows, distracting students. The snowfall had made me pretty giddy, too; I performed a couple verses of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” with dramatizing gestures and soft shoe, as class was beginning. (Video of that display has not surfaced online, to my knowledge.)

At five minutes to dismissal time, after we’d finished dissecting a video about the Hsi Lai temple in Los Angeles (which will be the subject of my next post to this blog), I said: Okay, folks, officially I have you for five more minutes, but I’ll let you go early if you promise to do something “zen.” I hasten to add here that I was consciously using “zen” in its now-popularized meaning of “quirky” or “bizarre” (as in The Daily Show‘s “moment of zen”). We had discussed in a previous session how that usage arose from the post-1950s and -1960s surge in Zen’s popularity among majority Americans and thus their passing familiarity with the tradition of koans.

Anyway, back to my speech to the class: I told them I’d let them go early if they promised to do something “zen”–specifically, if they would make snow angels. In fact, I said, improvising off the looks of disbelief I was getting, if you send me a selfie of you making a snow angel, I will give you an extra participation point. Boy, did that create a happy buzz. (Students invariably overestimate the mathematical significance of an extra credit point. Are people in general suckers for things “extra,” or is that a more particularly American cultural trait?)

So now I have photos of students making snow angels showing up in my inbox. “Practicing my zen!” was one student’s subject line–which would itself be an interesting cultural artifact to unpack: In what sense is she “practicing” zen? What’s meant by that possessive pronoun “my”? And, of course, what popularized perceptions/conceptions of “zen” have I now reinforced in her mind?

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