Tag Archives: Christianity

Ganesha at the art museum

This is an entirely random post. I discovered in my files a couple weeks ago this photo I’d taken during a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art sometime last year. This piece was in their Gallery One, an exhibition designed to serve as a basic intro to art.

My photo of the museum's Ganesha.

My photo of the museum’s Ganesha. (Well, okay, actually my husband’s photo, since I haven’t yet broken down and purchased a smart phone with a decent camera.)

What struck me about this piece was the way that a religious artifact was being “repackaged” for purposes of purely aesthetic admiration–even as traces of its devotional use remained. Note the incense bowl at the foot of the statue. Also, if I recall correctly–this would have been why I was so keen to photograph the statue–the plaque identifying the object noted that the local Hindu temple had dressed the statue for the museum.

The museum's online photo of the same statue.

The museum’s online photo of the same statue.

Upstairs, where the museum’s collection of medieval and Renaissance Christian icons was, the museum had not preserved analogous traces of those religious artifacts’ devotional function–no unlit candles before the icons, no plaques explaining that the icons had been blessed by a local Catholic bishop. I don’t intend that observation to serve as an expression of “reverse discrimination”-style Christian aggrievement. But the question is worth posing in a neutral tone: Why the difference?

Advertisements
Tagged , ,

Duke Divinity School on the adhan controversy

In response to the controversy over Duke University granting, then rescinding, permission for their Muslim student group to make the traditional call for prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower, the head of Duke’s divinity school has issued a letter defending the university’s decision to rescind permission. Time magazine has reported on this. The letter itself can be read here.

In the interest of bringing clarity to the on-going discussion of this issue—that is to say, in the interest of shoveling aside the bullsh*t—I’m providing below a paraphrase of the dean’s letter. It’s admittedly a very loose paraphrase, but I’m confident I’ve accurately captured the heart of what the dean is saying. Again, you can read the original letter here.

*************************

Dear members and friends of the Duke Divinity School community—especially our valued donors:

First, let me make clear that this controversy has nothing to do with us. We at the Divinity School have no control over what happens at the Duke Chapel, a state of affairs that might strike you as ill-advised in retrospect, and perhaps the administration ought to rethink it. At any rate, if we had been in charge, I can assure you none of this would have happened. We have our own chapel here in the Divinity School, which is used strictly for Christian worship. “Faithful Trinitarian Christian worship,” I mean—no Unitarians, or Mormons, or Oneness Pentecostals, or anyone else heretical.

The fact that this controversy has nothing to do with the Divinity School isn’t going to prevent me from sounding off about it. But because I’m not responsible, please direct your outrage to the foolish administrator who is: Christie Lorr Sapp, the University’s Associate Dean for Religious Life, at christie.lorr@duke.edu. Fill her inbox with your hate mail. I’ve made damn sure not to put my email address anywhere on this letter.

Now, before we get to the points I’m most invested in making, let’s get the obligatory disclaimers out of the way: Obviously Duke University values diverse religious traditions—and we at the Divinity School go along with that, too, as long as those other religions keep to their own turf. Obviously, I’m appalled by the hateful and even threatening things people have been saying. No need to mention names, certainly no one nationally prominent headquartered here in North Carolina. But come on, people, you’re making Christians look bad! And obviously, Muslims at Duke should not be held responsible for the behavior of Muslims elsewhere in the world—their terrible, terrible behavior. Millions of Christians are being persecuted in Islamic societies today. They’re prohibited from practicing their faith. Did you know that? Millions. When is there going to be a rally on the quad protesting that?

But look, here’s the fundamentally important thing: The Duke Chapel is Christian turf. That’s what this issue boils down to. Plain and simple. The chapel is a “Christian place of worship.” Not a “neutral space” to be used for purposes of “interfaith hospitality.” Which could raise the question of why the Muslim students are being allowed to pray there at all . . . but I won’t raise that question here. Let’s just stay focused on the call to prayer. As long as the Muslim students worship in the basement, where no one can see them—or hear them—we at the Divinity School raise no objections. For now.

But letting the chapel’s bell tower be used as a minaret—that’s another matter. Because how will that be perceived in parts of the world where Muslims are persecuting Christians? You might as well hang a banner on the chapel that says, “Go, Islamic State!” I realize, of course, that Muslims here perceive the situation as communicating hostility toward them, and I lament that. Really, I’m tearing up about it as I write this. But it’s a question of priorities: How the situation is perceived by Muslims here is not as important as how it might be perceived by Christians on the other side of the globe. Nor as important as how it might be perceived by certain generous Divinity School donors (generous when it comes to money, at least).

Again, let me be clear. We’re not Islamophobes here at the Divinity School. We’ve hosted Muslim representatives for interfaith dialogue—Jews, too, for that matter. We even have a Muslim who teaches at the Divinity School. (Team-teaches, I mean; it’s not like we leave him alone with our students.) We’re proud to have on our faculty Davis Marschall, a leading specialist in Christian-Muslim relations, someone who would certainly know better—ahem—than to countenance anything that might give the appearance of blurring interfaith boundaries in a way that could trigger conservative Christian outrage. Regretfully, Professor Marschall was not consulted about the propriety of letting Muslims use the Duke Chapel for the call to prayer. He didn’t even know it was under consideration. Someone might expect that a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations would be in close enough touch with the university’s Muslim student group to stay apprized of such a development; but Professor Marschall has bigger fish to fry. Still, I can’t understand why no one thought to reach out to him about this.

I hope I’ve cleared up any misconceptions about the Divinity School’s responsibility for this sorry debacle. I hope, too, I’ve made clear that while we at the Divinity School bear no ill will toward Muslims (those millions of persecuted Christians notwithstanding), we firmly oppose allowing them to borrow Christian houses of worship. To our valued donors: Please keep those checks coming!

Grace and peace be with you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Richard P. Hayes
Dean

Tagged , , ,

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.

IMAG0595dt

Tagged , ,

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.

Tagged , , ,

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

Tagged ,

Who ordains women?

This weekend, the “Ordain Women” movement within Mormonism received a surprising amount of national media attention. I have a hunch that the media’s interest was driven partly by the LDS Church’s efforts to prevent the story from gaining media attention, i.e., by barring journalists from Temple Square so they couldn’t photograph women being turned away when they tried to gain admission to the male-only priesthood session. If you tell journalists they’re no longer allowed to go somewhere they’re used to going, you’re pretty much guaranteeing they’ll become interested in what you don’t want them to document.

4fz9vj8rcbw

The “Ordain Women” news stories made me think of this slide, which I created a couple years ago for a PowerPoint presentation on the history of women’s ordination in the United States. The slide lists the 10 largest Christian denominations in the U.S., according to the 2012 National Council of Churches yearbook. The green checks indicate denominations that ordain women, and the red X’s indicate denominations that don’t, as best I could determine. The Baptist denominations were tricky to categorize because of their congregationalist style of governance, but I assigned those denominations an X if I found that the national body had gone on record as disapproving women in pastoral authority.

Note that of the 10 largest denominations, only half ordain women. And of the 5 largest, only 1 ordains women (at least as of 2012–I think there’s been some reshuffling in the ranking since then). As I put it when speaking to a group of Mormon women last year: Women’s ordination is common, but I wouldn’t say it’s the norm.

Tagged , ,

Fred Phelps

Some contrarian thoughts in the wake of Fred Phelps’s death:

1. Fred Phelps and the WBC have not been good for gay rights. I’ve seen gay folks asserting otherwise in the past few days, the logic being that Phelps’s vehement homophobia generated sympathy for gay/lesbian people by reaction.

Speaking as a gay man, I’m not really buying that argument. Certainly I’m appreciative of the straight allies who have participated in counterprotests against the WBC to show solidarity with gay/lesbian people. But I’m not convinced that we’ve done ourselves a favor by turning Phelps and the WBC into the number-one symbol of homophobia in America. Precisely because the WBC is so extreme, it’s easy for people who aren’t so vehemently homophobic to assure themselves–and the public at large–that they’re not homophobic; they don’t hate gay/lesbian people; their opposition to homosexuality is motivated by love, etc. But we’re trying to convince people of precisely the opposite.

If the goal is to stigmatize homophobia, keep the spotlight on the more mundane varieties of homophobia, the varieties that still enjoy mainstream cultural status, not on figures who are clearly marginal. Phelps and the WBC are easy to stigmatize; there are bigger fish to fry.

2. Fred Phelps was right: If you believe in hell, you believe in a God who hates people. That thought occurred to me last week after watching an online video clip in which Phelps justified his “God hates…” slogans by pointing to the Bible. Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated, he quoted. God hates sinners, not just sin. God doesn’t send people’s sins to hell; he sends the people to hell.

I think Phelps’s logic here is right on, with the crucial exception that this logic is why I, as a religious liberal, reject the notion of hell. Phelps, on the other hand, embraced the notion and then, unlike most contemporary American believers in hell, did not scruple to follow it through to its logical conclusion: a God who wills for people to suffer eternal torment has to be said to hate those people. If you believe otherwise–if you believe that the statement “God consigns individuals to eternal torment” is consistent with the statement “God loves those individuals”–then you have, in my opinion, an extremely twisted understanding of love. You therefore should not, as far as I’m concerned, be trusted to raise children for fear of what violence you might inflict on them in the name of love.

3. I, too, might be willing to carry a sign that begins “God hates…” Or at least I feel I ought to have the guts to appear in public carrying such a sign.

When the WBC protested at my university a couple years ago, I didn’t join any of the public counterprotests because of the position I laid out in point 1, above. But I felt agitated enough to want to generate some kind of counterdiscourse. So on the day of the WBC’s protest, I pasted the walls of my office with signs declaring things like “God hates homophobia,” “God hates poverty,” “God hates oppression,” “God hates racism,” “God hates slavery,” “God hates abuse,” etc. The objects of those statements were all abstract things, not people. But they are all statements that I consider theologically correct.

When I walked over to the student center to observe the WBC protest and counterprotests, I was unnerved by how angry the crowd was. Kudos to WBC for standing their ground in the face of that anger and for having the discipline to silently take it. It quickly became clear to me that most of the counterprotesters, including the honor guard vrooming back and forth on motorbikes, were outraged not by the WBC’s “God hates fags” message but by their “God hates America” message. “USA! USA!” the largely male crowd kept chanting.

So, I thought… The WBC’s great offense is that they have wounded your nationalistic pride. That realization put me in a bind, because I could envision myself in a situation where counterprotesters were shouting me down with patriotic cries of “USA! USA!” I don’t think God has a problem with America’s increasingly liberalized laws regarding homosexuality. But I do think there are plenty of things God is displeased with our nation for. I wouldn’t say “God hates America.” But I’ve stood in public to declare that “God deplores America’s use of a doctrine of preemptive strikes to justify going to war in Iraq.” I was standing in front of a friendly crowd when I said it, though. Fred Phelps has me beat on that count.

Tagged , ,

Ash Wednesday in a diverse society

Two days ago, I met my husband for a noon-hour Ash Wednesday service at the Episcopal church close to campus. I told him about an exchange I’d had after one of my morning classes with a student who was already wearing an ash cross on his forehead. We’ve been discussing in class how heavily invested 19th-century American Protestants were in setting themselves over against Catholics as a self-defining Other (with attendant difficulties for American Catholics). My student told me that he found himself thinking about that history when his pastor announced that he would be conducting an Ash Wednesday service: this is, evidently, a Low Church group, so there was some rumbling in the congregation about observing such a “Catholic” tradition.

After the service, my husband dropped me back off at campus. I headed quickly for my office so I could wash the cross off my forehead: I wasn’t comfortable wearing it on my professional turf. I wouldn’t have been thrilled about parading around in public with an ash cross anyway, but I was particularly uncomfortable walking around a state university that way in my role as professor. One church I used to get ashed in, back in grad school, had the custom of wiping the cross off during communion. Their argument was that it didn’t make much sense to go walking around “ashed” after having just listened to a Gospel reading about not performing your piety to be seen of others.

It occurred to me that Ash Wednesday is one of the few Western Christian practices that, as an American, I have to “squeeze” into my work day. The school calendar is set up in this country to give me Sundays off. Christmas is not just a national holiday but a federal one. When I was in North Carolina, my state university actually gave us Good Friday off (under the guise of “Spring Holiday”). Even certain saints’ days have been absorbed into the cultural calendar: St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, All Hallows Eve. Easter and Lent are a little trickier, culturally, because they’re based on a lunar rather than a solar calendar, so you don’t automatically know what date they’ll come up on this year. On the other hand, Mardi Gras and Easter are observed “commercially,” so they still leave a big cultural footprint, even if that footprint isn’t always planted on the same day of the calendar.

It’s different, of course, if you’re Eastern Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, in which case you regularly face the problem of having to keep track of where your lunar holidays fall in relation to America’s Western Christian solar calendar, most likely without the mnemonic benefit of having those holidays observed in the “seasonal” aisle of your supermarket. As my husband and I were walking pass the Hillel Center on the way to the car, I thought: The minor inconvenience I faced today of having to squeeze an Ash Wednesday service into my lunch hour is a little taste of what my Orthodox Jewish colleague goes through with all of his religious holidays.

As we passed the Hillel Center, my husband asked, “Have you ever been inside?” I haven’t–and I experienced a moment of unease that my husband was about to propose we pop in at that moment for a look. Walking into a synagogue while wearing an ash cross on my forehead would feel even more uncomfortable than wearing it on campus. However pluralistic the folks at Hillel might be, history casts a long, cold shadow.

Tagged , , ,

Exorcism, Skype, and the U.S. presidency

1391694764401.cached

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.

Tagged , , ,

God in America: Of God and Caesar

v07739acrasLast spring, I began posting reviews of the 6-episode Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. I realized recently that I never reviewed episode 6, “Of God and Caesar.” So let’s do it:

Summary: Unlike most other episodes, this one doesn’t divide neatly into “acts.” But the general storyline is this: In the wake of the 1960s, conservative evangelicals become politically mobilized: Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, George W. Bush. At the same time, though, the religious landscape is becoming more diverse: Hindus, Muslims, Latinos–both Catholic and evangelical. More Americans are religiously unaffiliated or “spiritual, not religious.” A new generation of evangelicals is paying more attention to the environment, AIDS, and poverty. There’s disillusion in the evangelical right–did we sell our souls for political gain? Meanwhile, Democrats are discovering God and reaching out to values voters, which brings us up to Obama.

Over a hopeful soundtrack, the documentary wraps everything up with Stephen Prothero saying that Americans continue to value the notion that they’re a special people with a special connection to God, but what that means and who’s included are still subjects of ongoing debate.

Likes: This episode covers topics that I include in the final, post-1960s, unit of my introductory American religious history survey: Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims, Latinos, and the culture wars. Since my life is contemporary with the emergence and development of the religious right, I suspect that I assume students know more about that movement and its history than they do; this episode gives a reasonably nuanced overview. The documentary-makers had plenty of footage to work with, of course, including clips of Francis Schaeffer’s films, which I’ve read about but never seen–that was interesting. Players in the religious right appear as talking heads: Pat Robertson, Ed Dobson, Frank Schaeffer, Richard Cizik.

Dislikes: Apart from a nod to Catholics as the originators of American anti-abortion activism and the final presentation of Obama as reaching out to some nebulous group called “values voters,” religion in politics is portrayed in this episode as basically synonymous with evangelical activism, as represented by Francis Schaeffer, Moral Majority, and the Christian Coalition more specifically. Granted that the evangelical right stands at the center of “culture war” conservatism. Nevertheless, I favor in my teaching Robert Wuthnow’s model of a conservative-liberal divide that cuts across the entire religious landscape, resulting in the formation of new interreligious coalitions on both sides of the line–and pressing some religious groups to awkwardly straddle the faultline. Examples: Catholics pursuing a politics based on the “seamless web of life,” which doesn’t transpose well into the categories of “liberal” and “conservative” as conventionally used in American politics today; or socially conservative Muslims who agree with conservative evangelicals on many issues but are alienated by “Christian America” rhetoric and evangelical Islamophobia.

Basically, I want students to understand that “conservative-liberal” has become a very important axis for understanding American religion today, but I don’t want them thinking just “evangelical” when they think “conservative,” a tendency that this documentary would reinforce.

In the final moments of the documentary, Prothero says: This moment in American religious life is about pluralism. We’re making the space bigger, extending the sacred canopy over more people. But we don’t have a narrative for this yet. Will we come up with one? What’s the story going to be? To Prothero and the makers of this documentary, I would say: Certainly God in America doesn’t give us that new, pluralistic story; it’s good that you appear to recognize that. May I (bitchily) suggest that part of the reason we don’t have a new narrative yet is that documentaries like this one continue to place Protestants at the center of the story, with other religious groups, when they appear, orbiting around the Protestants? If you want a narrative about religious pluralism in America, then a more radical decentering is needed than anyone involved in this project was evidently willing to hazard or creative enough to imagine.

Tagged , , , , , , ,