Tag Archives: public space

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

Advertisements
Tagged , , ,

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?

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 , ,

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.

Tagged ,

John 8:32 on campus

I was in my office on campus today (yes, on a Saturday), grading papers. At one point I looked out my window at an arch that cuts through my building. Over the arch is a quotation from the New Testament, John 8:32. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” I thought: Why have I never blogged about this?

The arch as seen through my window. Taken with the cheap digital camera on my MP3 player, so the slogan's illegible.

The arch as seen through my window. Taken with the cheap digital camera on my MP3 player, so the slogan’s illegible.

Upham_Archway

A legible version.

I’m not aware that there’s any other building on campus adorned with a biblical quotation. The building was constructed shortly after World War II, so I assume we should attribute the quotation to the “religion boom” that also inscribed the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The John 8:32 quote has the virtue of being biblical yet non-descript–hinting at a Christian or Judeo-Christian heritage while leaving the contents of “the truth” wide open. Perfect for 1950s-era religious liberalism.

While surfing the web for photos of the arch, I discovered a student essay published in the campus newspaper last year. The student, a conservative Christian evidently, complains that too many at the university no longer believe in absolute truth. Thus 1950s-era religious liberalism has become a nostalgic refuge for 21st-century Christian conservatism.

Recently I was walking under the famous Upham Hall arch. […] I have made this walk countless times, but on this occasion the block letter words spanning across the apex of the arch caught my attention. Coldly graven into the moss-tinted cement were the words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” I was surprised the iconic Miami building had these words boldly posted on it. Ironically, many of the professors and students who work and study between the walls of Upham Hall do not believe in Truth. […]

The engraved words about truth now perched across Upham Hall were once spoken by Jesus 2,000 years ago. Interestingly, near the time of his crucifixion he was asked the same question many of us are still asking today. […] Pilate showed an indifference to what Jesus had to reply, revealing he did not really want an answer to his question. I wonder sometimes if we truly want an answer. Do we really want to know truth? Or are we satisfied asking the question, reveling in our sophistication, but not waiting around to hear a coherent answer? Until we decide we want to know the truth, we will never find the answer, and words about truth will continue to be cold, meaningless and moss-covered symbols on our campus.

Tagged , ,

Bumper Stickers: Window to the Soul

A few days ago, my husband found the following note on our windshield when he came out of the gym. The handwriting appears to be that of a young woman, presumably a student from campus.

I love your bumper sticks, you seem like you would have a great soul. Let’s be friends

Her phone number followed.

(By the way: “Bumper sticks”? I’d never encountered that usage.)

I’ve mentioned elsewhere my own interest in bumper stickers as a form of religious expression in public space. These are the bumper stickers on which the note-writer was basing her conclusions about the greatness of my soul. Most of these are my husband’s responsibility more than mine, though I don’t object to any of them.

IMAG0541We haven’t responded to the invitation to call the note-writer–it just doesn’t seem appropriate, although I worry that not responding could be potentially wounding.

Some weeks ago, someone left a tract on our windshield written by a Seventh-day Adventist criticizing the ecumenical movement. We appeared to be the only targets–i.e., tracts hadn’t been left on the cars around us–so I’m guessing this was a response to the “Coexist” bumper sticker.

coming-one-world-church-192x300

Tagged , ,

Praying the Steps in Cincinnati

Yesterday evening, Good Friday, my husband and I drove into Cincinnati to observe (in the sense of “to watch”) an annual tradition we’d read about: the praying of the steps. People climb a series of stairways leading to Holy Cross-Immaculata, a Catholic church at the top of Mount Adams. On each step, people pause to recite a prayer, traditionally a Hail Mary or an Our Father–or both. This Good Friday tradition dates back to the 1860s or early 1870s.  People start the climb, often referred to as a pilgrimage, as early as the midnight dividing Thursday and Friday.

event_348032302

There’s a short version and a long version of the climb. The long version begins at the base of Mount Adams, not far from the river, and involves a pedestrian bridge crossing a freeway. The short version begins in what’s become an upscale residential-business neighborhood below the church. (Most of the businesses appeared to be pubs.) The long version must take between two and three hours to complete: as my husband and I came back down the stairs after doing our own prayer-less climb, we passed people we’d already passed on the way up, who an hour later were still working on the first stretch that would get them to where the short climb begins.

As we began the long version of the climb, we found ourselves sharing the stairs with a smattering of pilgrims and a few joggers. When we got to the beginning of the short version, we found a long line of people waiting to climb those steps, so we took a “back route” through an alley to get to the top of the hill and the church. Here’s a video of our arrival.

The dog, by the way, was supposed to be making the climb in penance for having recently murdered a baby bunny; but as you see, she was in a more festive than penitential mood. (For the record, it’s not me you hear panting in the video. The one of us who was most winded, ironically, was the one of us who’s most faithful about getting to the gym.)

The  church was originally a German parish, Immaculata. There was a Passionist monastery just a couple of blocks away which served an Irish parish, Holy Cross. During the 1970s, as a result of the hemorrhaging of priests and brothers following Vatican II, the monastery was shut down and the two parishes were joined into Holy Cross-Immaculata. The Immaculata church still has its nineteenth century artwork. Over the altar is painted the word AMERIKA, which on closer inspection turns out to be the last word of a prayer on a scroll above it. The prayer reads in German:

O Mary, without sin conceived, pray for the conversion of this land… AMERICA.

Not the vision of a “Christian America” we’re most used to encountering.

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 , , ,

Religion Out Loud

9780814708071_FullToday I’m plugging the work of a colleague: Religion Out Loud, a new book by Isaac Weiner, who was in my doctoral program at UNC Chapel Hill. This book is an outgrowth of his dissertation, which examined a controversy around a mosque in Michigan being allowed by the city to broadcast the call to prayer. For those not in the academic loop: Weiner’s work is part of a recent trend to think theoretically about religion and the senses. Most of that work thus far has paid attention to religion and sight, or religion and visual culture–i.e., the use of imagery in religion. Weiner is interested in sound as a feature of religions. More specifically, he’s interested in sound as a feature of religions that becomes the occasion for interreligious conflict and negotiation.

I hope I’m not embarrassing him by saying this, but I remember talking with Isaac some years back about an early version of his dissertation project, which at that point was going to be a study of legal controversies around religion in the U.S., chosen to represent all five senses. In retrospect that sounds gimmicky–which no doubt has a lot to do with why the project evolved in a more narrowly defined direction–but I thought then, and still think, that such a study would have been an interesting way to help make students more conscious of religion as an embodied reality, not just a question of “what X group believes.” It would make for an interesting class discussion anyway: What does religion, or a given religion, sound like? Smell like? Taste like? What are its textures?

Isaac’s book is potentially useful for multiple classes I teach related to the experience of religious minorities in America, so I’ve ordered away for an exam copy–which I am eagerly awaiting, NYU Press.

Tagged , ,

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.

IMAG0220det

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?

Tagged ,