Monthly Archives: October 2013

Happy Halloween from Everyday Religion!

We don’t often think about religion when we think “Halloween” (though depending on the brand of Christianity, there may be some strong feelings) but Vineet Chander reminds us Diwali – the Hindu festival of lights, a five day festival – often falls around Halloween. Before you go trick or treating, or just treating in the comfort of your own home, check out this piece by Chander at the Huffington Post on navigating Diwali and Halloween as American Hindus.

Happy Halloween, and happy Diwali!

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Tweeting Our Religion: Twitter, Vine, and Faith

interfaithcalendarvinesAs I checked my Twitter feed this morning, I saw a tweet from Huffington Post Religion about a “QUICK interfaith calendar.” Intrigued, I clicked the link and watched the 13 Vines that made up a full year of religious celebrations. Vine is the video component of Twitter, allowing users to record 7 second videos of whatever they want. These days, popular vines tend to feature goofy men and adorable animals, and range from hilarious to R-rated. Yet not all Vines are of 25 year old men singing Disney songs or little kittens. As the Huffington Post tweet I clicked on shows, religion has found its way to the Twitter-verse. What was so cool about the interfaith calendar of 13 Vines was that it captured a slice of the joy, worship, reverence, and ritual of religious life across the world. From Passover to Holi, from Vesak to Hajj to Christmas, we get to see the calendar year in terms of faith. And all because Vine and Twitter allow us to share these experiences with a click of a button.

vineWith more than 200 million Twitter users, and more than 30 million people on Vine, around the world, it is no surprise that religion has a presence on the social media site (or app, depending on what you tweet with). This past Sunday, the Pope’s nine Twitter accounts (tweeting in 9 different languages) hit a combined 10 million followers (Pope Frances is also responsible for the first papal Instagram). Evangelical Christians have taken Twitter by storm, using hashtags like #bible or #jesus, and using the 140 character tweets to give spiritual support to their followers. There are Twitter accounts with names like Daily Zen and Tiny Buddha. Religious events have been “live tweeted,” where participants use a particular hashtag and tweet reactions, questions, and comments in real time. Want daily Bible verses or readings from the Qur’an or wisdom from the Buddha? There’s a Twitter for that.

socialmediainchurchTwitter exists to give people 140 characters, spaces included, to express their thoughts and frustrations and desires. It’s a place of limited context, because what context can you really give in 140 characters? I think Twitter can be an incredible tool for religious groups and people. I run a Twitter for the youth group at the church I work at and I follow the United Methodist Church – they tweet lots of resources. And those Vines I watched today filled me with joy as the faithful everywhere celebrated their divines. But I do think religions and social media are tricky. You have to think about all the different ways your tweets could be interpreted, especially if you have a lot of followers. Just look at the number of tweets from politicians and athletes that have gotten them in hot water, even when they “delete” them. When you engage with social media, you are putting yourself out there. That tweet about women’s clothing honoring God and men (Hockey player Rocco Grimaldi), or the one suggesting religion and sexuality are linked (author Joyce Carol Oats), or the time you tweeted about how you wish people would just stop giving Christians in the U.S. such a hard time? Those may be personal opinion, but the minute you click “Tweet,” they are fair game to be picked, and sometimes shredded, to pieces.

twitterbirdSo should churches encourage their members to tweet about the worship service that morning? Should religious leaders have official Twitter accounts? How do we reconcile the freedom to share beliefs with the harm of offensive language?

How do we successfully tweet our religion?

 

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Painting the Stars: Toward Healing the Rift

painting the starsIt’s another Friday and time to kick off a 5 week series of posts about Painting the Stars: Science, Religion and an Evolving Faith. Painting the Stars is a short-term study that gets participants to critically examine the intersection, and reconciliation, of science and faith. Our first session was this past Tuesday, and just like Jesus Freak, I’ll blog my thoughts and reflections on the videos/readings each week. Up first: Toward Healing the Rift.

brucesanguin

This first section started with a bang, jumping right in with the following statement from Bruce Sanguin: “Any credible spiritual path, including Christianity, must be in an honest conversation with science if it is to be relevant in the 21st century.” And I agree with it whole heartedly. Sanguin goes on to say, “We cannot naively proceed, for example, as though the pre-modern assumptions that informed biblical writers and editors can be applied today without significant interpretation.” I think this gets to one of the biggest obstacles in the science/religion debate: people talk as if what we know about evolution, the earth, and other “basic” scientific knowledge should have been common knowledge at the time of the Old and New Testaments. Once we get past the notion that the biblical worldview was drastically different, scientifically, we can begin to see how science and religion enhance and deepen each other.

tellingthestoryJust like Jesus Freak, there is so much more than can be talked about in one post (or in one 1.5 hour class!). Since this is the first reflection on Painting the Stars, I think we’ll focus on Thomas Berry. Something I believe is crucial when attempting to reconcile science and religion is context. Understanding the Bible means understanding what it was like to be an ancient Jew, to live in a society awaiting the Messiah, and to survive in a harsh environment. When we take statements and stories out of context, part of the story is lost. Thomas Berry articulates this beautifully when he says, “To tell the story of anything, you must tell the story of everything.” When we tell the story of everything, we see where things fit together rather than rub up against each other. Science and Christianity are two narratives, each telling their part of the story. When we are able to get past page one and read the whole book, we see how our scientific understanding of the world cultivates our religious understanding of the world. When we tell the story of everything, we learn so much more.

I want to end with the end of the closing prayer for this session. It speaks not just to Christians but to anyone who feels a divine something at work in the world.

To all that is,
and to all that could be
through the power of the presence
within all things,
we say, Amen.

Come back next week for more science, faith, and the story of everything.

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Snakes in a Church: Dangerous Religious Rituals vs. Freedom of Religion

snake slavation

If you enjoy the National Geographic channel (or are a nerd like me and seek out shows about religion) you may have heard about Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, two Appalachian preachers leading snake handling churches in the mountains. Snake Salvation, a new series following these men and their families, gives American television viewers an insider’s look into the unknown world of the Signs Following congregations nestled in the mountains. If you’ve ever watched Snake Salvation, you know what the men go snake hunting in the brushes and forests, sometimes traveling as far as Texas and Louisiana to find those copperheads and rattlers; and you know that when the spirit calls for you to pick up a snake, the Lord will protect you from harm.

Greg Coots, handling in church

Greg Coots, handling in church

Yet even with the many scenes of successful snake handling in church, there are also times of peril. In one episode, Greg Coots – Jamie Coots’ father and church patriarch – gets bitten in the middle of a service. The 60-something year old man has vowed not to seek medical attention for a snake bite, and we wonder throughout the episode whether Greg will recover or if this will be the end. While he does get better, and handles in church again, it highlights the key criticism leveled at this religious practice – people get hurt. 

I’m going to get back to the danger of religious rituals in a minute, but first a quick overview of the theology behind snake handling. The two churches highlighted in Snake Salvation are the average snake handling church: small, Pentecostal holiness churches tucked away in the rolling hills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Andrew Hamblin

Andrew Hamblin

The congregations are also referred to as Signs Following, as they take literally Mark 16:15-18 (Note: Not all Pentecostal churches are Signs Following. There are many Pentecostal congregations who condemn snake handling). No one really knows how many active handling congregations there are; in most states, snake handling in church is a crime and the pastors of snake handling churches are extremely careful with outsiders.

Snake handling comes from Mark 16:15-18, which reads:

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons;they will speak in new tongues;18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

This passage is at the core of these holiness churches, and the signs are considered evidence of God’s favor and the believer’s righteousness. Driving out demons, speaking in tongues, snake handling, drinking poison, and healing. These are the signs of the Lord.

Pastor Randall Mack Wolford

Snake handling is an extreme test and act of faith. To believe that God will protect you if you handle in His name is pretty incredible. However many people condemn religious snake handlers, pointing to the deaths that have occurred due to snake bites. Just last year, Pastor Randall Mack Wolford died due to a snake bite in church. Many church members across the region have been bit, seeking medical attention. When these bites happen, the media latches onto the snake handling congregation and the press is almost all negative. People are outraged that this ritual continues to be practiced, asking why these crazy Christians don’t see how dangerous it is and why the law isn’t doing more to stop it. And y’all, I am totally on board with this train of thought. Snake handling is a dangerous religious ritual. But in the United States, where we praise our freedom of religion, should we be looking over the shoulder of every holiness church in Appalachia? As I pointed out earlier, not every Pentecostal holiness church is a Signs Following congregation. Should someone go out to every known Pentecostal church and check for snake handling, simply because some take up serpents? There are religious traditions that believe in no or limited Western medicine – do we need to follow every Christian Scientist or Amish family in case they get sick and refuse medical care? That’s like saying we should keep tabs on every Catholic priest in case one performs an exorcism that ends in injury or death. It’s an impossible, and absurd, task.

I don’t want to argue for or against snake handling as a ritual of faith (or for avoiding Western medicine, or for exorcisms). I simply want to take this conversation in a different direction. When you back up and look at the larger discussion of dangerous religious rituals and freedom of religion, I think it makes things a little more complicated. Just because some think your ritual is dangerous, should that negate your freedom to practice whatever religion you want?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. How far is too far? When is freedom of religion revoked? Would you ever handle a snake for God?

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Jesus Freak: Raising the Dead and Final Thoughts

This is the final of five reflections on Sara Miles’ book Jesus Freak. 
Previous posts are Come and SeeFeedingHealing, and Forgiving

481660_cover.inddWe’ve come to the end of Sara Miles’ Jesus Freak, and it was an interesting, thought-provoking read. I recommend it to people who grew up in the church in particular, since Miles’ faith journey begins as a middle-aged adult. This fresh perspective brought my attention to things I had never given much thought to before, like the many ways to heal or the role of communion to feed physically and spiritually or the fact that we are always forgiven by God whether we want to be or not.

The final section of the book talks about raising the dead, perhaps the most metaphorical way to follow Jesus. Can human beings literally raise the dead back to life? No. But Miles would still argue we can raise the dead in many ways.

Here are some ways, after reading Miles, I think the dead can be raised:

  • RaisingtheDeadCelebrating someone’s life after they have died: when we remember joyfully the kindness, the joy, the passion, the funny little nuances of someone’s life, we keep their spirit alive among us
  • Being there for people struggling with addiction or depression or abuse: they may still be physically alive, but part of them had died; by being a source of love, acceptance, and consistency, we can bring people back to a healthy, vibrant life
  • Starting each day with gratitude: when we are thankful for our life, when we express gratitude to our God or to our community, we are immersed in the family of the living and the dead; I think an attitude of thankfulness and gratitude reminds us of those who have come before and those who will come after as part of this world’s community

Raising the dead doesn’t require a miracle. Raising the dead can be as simple as cooking your great-grandmother’s pumpkin pie, or supporting someone as they fight to reclaim their life from addiction and depression and abuse, or raising the dead can be waking up in the morning and remembering that community transcends life and death.

Go feed, heal, forgive, raise the dead, and be a Jesus Freak, no miracles necessary.

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When Religion Meets Comics: Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa and “THE 99”

Graphic novels, comic books, and movies based on comics are insanely popular. With hype surrounding movies such as The Dark Knight Rises (Batman) and Man of Steel (Superman), – and let’s certainly not forget The Avengers – with comic book titans DC and Marvel revamping classic characters and story lines, you would be hard-pressed to find someone in the U.S. who doesn’t know Iron Man, the Hulk, Spiderman, or Catwoman. Whether you devour comic books on a regular basis, or are strongly encouraged by loved ones to at least read the really good ones, or have just seen The Avengers movie and think Captain America is oh so dreamy, you are participating in comic culture.

You might be asking, what in the world does this have to do with religion?? Well, in 2006 Dr. Naif A. Al-Mutawa fused faith with the realm of superheroes when he introduced THE 99, a group of characters from around the world of Middle East descent who exemplify “Islamic archetypes that possess values shared by the entire world” (from The 99’s official website).

the99I love this description of THE 99 from their kid-friendly website:

THE 99 is an international team of young people, each of whom possesses a Noor Stone—an ancient gem of great power and wisdom, created by scholars hundreds of years ago. When bonded with a specific young person, each Noor Stone grants him or her a different gift of power.

THE 99 team performs best—and most frequently—in groups of three, joining their power together in a triad link. Teamwork and cooperation enhances each hero’s abilities, offering each even more of a chance to participate in changing the world for the better.

Each character has a different power they bring to the team: Darr (or John) from the USA can absorb pain; Mumita (or Catarina) from Portugal, has enhanced speed, strength, and agility; Musawwira (or Liza), growing up in Ghana and Harlem, NY,  can create order from chaos; Bari (or Haroun) of South Africa, can heal small ailments and injuries.

There will eventually be 99 heroes, from 99 countries, exemplifying 99 attributes of Allah. With heroes ages 8 to early twenties who all have back stories that involve some challenge or struggle, usually with their powers, and a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, these Islam-inspired comic books are beautiful. Dr. Al-Mutawa does a fantastic job weaving traditional comic book elements – super powers, villains, and crises – with common values shared in countries across the globe – acceptance, respect, compassion – all while developing characters that readers from around the world can relate to.

While the characters and stories are inspired by Islam, Dr. Al-Mutawa provides a narrative that speaks to Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Atheists alike. And contrary to some comments made when THE 99 was first created, these comics are not intended to convert impressionable kids to Islam and denounce the Western world. On the contrary: Dr. Al-Mutawa told Comics Alliance in 2010 that his hope was to confront radical Muslim values and xenophobic imams (“99 Problems But a Cape Ain’t One”) And where did the inspiration for THE 99, other than Islam, come from?

“My next thought was that there had been a fatwa issued against Pokemon in this region. My next thought was, “My God, who are these people, and who appointed them to be spokespeople for Islam?” My next thought was Allah, and how disappointed he must be. My next thought was that Allah had 99 attributes, and that brought me full circle back to Pokemon, which is a concept of 300 attributes.”  (Comics Alliance 2010)

I think creations like this should be more common place, particularly in the United States where a culture of Othering and fear of the foreigner seems to reign. THE 99 counters xenophobia of all sorts, and shows how many forms inter-faith dialogue comes in. Who says inter-faith dialogue has to happen at a round table, or in a conference room? Why not use a comic book to bridge gaps between different traditions, religious and cultural? If I had children, I would happily buy them issues of THE 99, let them watch the animated series, and encourage them to talk about what they read and see. How are we supposed to teach our kids about acceptance and respect for different beliefs, opinions, and behaviors? Just talk at them? (Hint: talking at kids and teens doesn’t generally work real well). THE 99 is a platform for dialogue that appeals to kids and is presented in a way they can understand, drawing on the importance of visual communication.

Comics aren’t just for nerds. Comics aren’t just about violence. Comics aren’t all busty women and bulky men. Comics can send positive and productive messages of teamwork, cooperation, and respect. Comics can deal with weighty issues without attacking cultural, political, or religious groups. Comics can have heroes and heroines that are role models and not just lean, mean, fighting machines. I think it’s time the religious world thinks about distributing more comic books – maybe we’d learn something about our neighbors if we all had publications as well done at THE 99, plus I’d love to see the costume design of Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Atheist superheroes. Hint: there probably wouldn’t be a lot of Spandex.

(While I am not a big comic book reader, I highly recommend checking out THE 99. You can get the first issue, THE 99: Beginnings, for free at Comixology. If you want to hear more from Dr. Al-Mutawa about THE 99, watch his 2010 TED talk)

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The Shiny God of Education

My church is doing a 4-week sermon series called “shiny gods,” based on Mike Slaughter’s Shiny Gods and First devotional studies. The series revolves around idolatry – what it is, why it’s not left in the past with gold calves, and how we can destroy our idols and put God first.

goldencalfAs I sat in church today, with the pastor talking about our 21st century idols, a thought popped into my head. If our idols are things we are “worshipping” or counting on for “salvation” – money, alcohol/drugs, sex, sports, food, work – is education an idol? When we put so much money into education we go into debt, are we being idolatrous? When we tell our kids they need to go to school to make anything of themselves, and when we advocate for quality education, are we worshipping golden calves made of notebooks and pencils?

I love learning. I love school (yes, I know this makes meeducationfirst at least a little crazy). Yet I could construct an argument equating spending thousands of dollars on a 4-year college education to spending thousands of dollars on a fancy car. In both cases, there are cheaper models out there that will get you the basics without paying for the works. A car is just a car, right? A college education is just a college education…right?

What do you think? In our idolatrous culture – and we are, in many ways, idolatrous – is education a dangerous idol? If it’s not an idol, what makes it different than our jobs, our money, or our cars? If it is an idol, what do we do about it? How do we value education in such a way that, if we are a religious person, it glorifies, not replaces, our divine?

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