Monthly Archives: January 2014

When Religion Meets Comics, Part II: Graphic Novels As Religious Literature

When we think about religious literature, many of us will list publications like the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Torah. After these sacred texts, we may add things like the writings of classic theologians, pamphlets and brochures about salvation and Jesus Christ, or controversial books written by religious and non-religious alike – The God Delusion, Love Wins, the Left Behind series.

Yet there is another branch of religious literature we are likely to overlook, and that is the graphic novel. I’ve written about the intersection of comics and religion before (When Religion Meets Comics) but graphic novels with religious messages – both positive and negative – are receiving growing attention from the religious, secular, and academic communities alike, and have much to offer for those who take the time to consume them.

One of the most well-known religiously oriented graphic novels is Craig Thompson’s Blankets. Published in 2003, Blankets tackles Thompson’s fundamentalist Christian upbringing, time spent at Christian camps, and the evolution of faith in one person. More than 500 pages of drawings and speech bubbles reveal a reflection on the struggle between inherited religious beliefs and finding your own path of meaning, between your faith and your experiences.

Since 2003, more and more graphic novels fall into the category of religious literature. Christian publishing houses have churned out graphic novels and comics to teach biblical lessons, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a powerful work used to teach students about the Holocaust (it was a required text in my freshman seminar class), and Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood brings readers into Marjane Satrapi’s experiences growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.

These graphic novels aren’t just being consumed by the general population. Academics have recognized the validity of graphic novels and their contribution to the study of religion – Tufts University offered a course called Religion and the Graphic Novel and the June 2009 issue of Theological Librarianship included the work “Drawing on God: Theology in Graphic Novels.”

Yet it is important to note that not all graphic novels eagerly embrace religious faith and belief. I am in the midst of Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus, a story following the clone of Jesus Christ and his journey to a punk rock atheism. In a 2013 interview, Murphy tells Crave Online about the inspiration and fuel behind Punk Rock Jesus:

As the years passed, I left Christianity and became an atheist – instead of reading the Bible, I began reading about science. At some point, I was reading about the advancements in cloning, asked myself, “whom would the first clone be?,” decided that in the US, it would be Jesus…At first, PRJ became away to funnel my atheist rage. But eventually I learned to pull back a little – I realized that if I was too preachy, I’d lose a lot of readers, and then NO message would get through.

Murphy turns the religious graphic novel on its head but in a beautifully creative way. It is firmly grounded in atheism but allows each reader to see parts of themselves in the different characters, regardless of whether they adhere to a particular religious tradition. As a person who identifies as a Christian, I am finding parts of each character, including the atheist Jesus Christ, that resonate with me and my experiences. I can be a religious person, read this graphic novel, appreciate and reflect on it, and remain a religious person.

Though Murphy is an atheist, Punk Rock Jesus is about more than the abandonment of faith. As Murphy says in a Q&A with Amazon.com“The trick was to write something that pushed believers to question their religion, but not in a way that abandoned them.” Sure, the clone of Jesus Christ turns into the unbelieving frontman of a punk rock band, but the bigger story is how to cope when our beliefs and our reality seem to be at odds. For Murphy, the result was to let go of his religion and embrace science. Others hold more tightly to their faith. Some will always struggle and fight, never really finding peace of mind or heart. There is not a single right way to reconcile belief and experience. That, I think, is why it is important to recognize how Punk Rock Jesus, Blankets, and other religiously minded graphic novels and comics can function as guides to stronger convictions, new knowledge, and meaningful conversation. 

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Yeezianity and Other Faiths: The Challenge of Defining Religion

Over time, the word of “religion” has been discussed, defined, and debated. The sociologist Èmile Durkheim defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them” (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life). Paul Tillich says religion is “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life” (The Spiritual Situation in our Technical Society). William James pronounced religion to be “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (The Varieties of Religion Experience). Hundreds of scholars have come up with their own definitions of religion, some much more detailed than others, and there has yet to be a single, universal definition.

Why is the definition, or lack thereof, of religion important? Without one accepted definition, almost anything can be presented as a religion. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Pastafarianism, has grown in visibility and popularity since it sprung up in 2005; scholars have written and discussed sports – particularly football  and baseball – as forms of religion; parts of the United States appear to adhere to civil religion, “worshipping” the American flag and military; and Yeezianity made its debut just a few days ago, as followers of Yeezus – Kanye West’s alter ego – are united in their love of the celebrity.

While Yeezianity is a joke, Pastafarianism and the religion of sports are not. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a group of critical thinkers who proclaim they are “not anti-religion, we are anti- crazy nonsense done in the name of religion” (http://www.venganza.org/about/). Many papers and books have been written by reputable scholars about the parallels between sports teams, their fans, and traditional religious groups – the collective experience of winning, or losing, a big game can seem a lot like the collective experience of worship. And the practice of reverence towards the American flag and the U.S. military is common in many parts of the country, particularly in the South. Many definitions of “religion” allow these examples to be classified as religions, and it is a rich area of religious studies.

Yet these examples, with a lack of emphasis on the divine, are not the only things to be excluded in some ideas of religion. There are many Christians who proclaim that Islam, with 1.6 billion followers across the world, is not a religion. Within Judaism and Christianity, certain fringe groups are rejected by the larger church and not considered valid expressions of religion. The Mormon church has often been the subject of ridicule from adherents to other “traditional” religions. There are thousands of people who believe in a variety of deities, rituals, and lifestyles, and who are told their religions and their faiths are invalid.

Without a universal definition of religion (and the word “religion” was imposed by Westerners on a variety of cultures without such a word), we are free to decide what qualifies as religion and what does not. It’s a blessing and a curse, it allows for freedom and oppression. 

What is religion? Religion is.

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Spiritual Nourishment in 60 Minutes: Worship and the Clock

As I sat in church this past Sunday, I admit to checking my watch. It was baptism remembrance Sunday and each person in the sanctuary was invited to come to the front and be touched with water to remind them of their baptism (or in anticipation, if they had not yet been baptized). It was wonderful but did take a while for everyone to make their way down to the front and back to their seats. We sang the four hymns printed in the bulletin…twice. By the time the ushers were invited to come forward and collect the offering, it was already noon and people were slowly slipping out. I stayed for the remainder of the service but it got me thinking about the expectations about how long worship should be and why religious people have – or do not have – unspoken rules about lengths of services.

In my experiences of United Methodist worship, I can count on one hand the number of times a service ran longer than one hour. There seems to be an unspoken rule in many, if not all, mainline Protestant churches that if your service isn’t over when the clocks ticks past the hour mark, you can’t be surprised when people begin to quietly gather their things and slip out to make those Sunday afternoon plans. Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches often limit Sunday mass to an hour, unless it is a major church holiday like Easter or Christmas. Even Jewish synagogues tend to keep their Friday night worship to 60 minutes, though it doesn’t seem as common a practice as in Christian churches.

When was it decided that we can, no have to accomplish worship in one hour? Why are we surprised when we get out of church “early” or “late”? Not all communities of faith have these constraints on time during worship, in fact many traditions pay little attention to the length of worship and prayer. I’ll give you two examples from two very different sets of beliefs.

Our first example takes us to Arkansas: in college I visited a Pentecostal church on a Sunday morning and spent two hours singings, listening to the pastor, and hearing testimonials from church members who felt moved to speak. No one seemed hurried or impatient; this was just a normal Sunday morning.

For our second example, we simply look to our Muslim neighbors. American Muslims spend however long they need to in prayer throughout the day, and weekly community prayers at mosques around the country can last for 30 minutes or an hour or less or more.

What do both of these examples have in common? Worship and prayer lasts as long as the pastor or imam or congregants feel the Holy Spirit or God or Allah working among them. It doesn’t matter if the service or prayer lasts 30 minutes or an hour or three hours because these faith communities put their feelings of their divine being ahead of their watches and schedules. We sit through sporting events and movies and concerts that are more than an hour. We watch television shows and feel satisfied in less than an hour. So why do we continue to pack our worship into a specific amount of time? I think a lot of it has to do with how busy the average American is every single day. Jobs, school, families, sports, running errands…many of us use those weekend hours to get as much done as we can in our personal lives before the work week or school week starts back again.

But wait…don’t we go to the synagogue or church to slow down and be renewed? Isn’t it a time to step out of our over-scheduled lives and dwell in the sacred and the divine? Where we learn and teach and grow in our relationships with our faith communities? Should we really be annoyed when the service goes over an hour or excited when we get out early? Maybe 60 minutes is all we need to be renewed and replenished, but I wouldn’t bet on the Holy Spirit keeping time.

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Satan and the Ten Commandments: A Monumental Face-off in Oklahoma

On the grounds of the Texas state capitol building, a monument of the Ten Commandments stands near the rose garden. At the Oklahoma state capitol, a controversial Ten Commandments statue was erected in 2012, and another religious group is making an attempt to add another monument to the Oklahoma capitol grounds. According to the group submitting the proposal claims the new monument will be a symbol of religious freedom, embodied by a “7-ft.-tall (2.1 m) sculpture would feature Satan depicted in the form of Baphomet, a bearded, goat-headed, winged hominid with horns seated on a throne beneath a pentagram with two smiling children to either side” (Oklahoma: Satanic Temple Unveils Monument for Capitol | TIME.com).

The Satanic Temple – the New York based group behind the proposal – believe if the Ten Commandments can sit on the capitol grounds, there is no reason any other religious monuments cannot be erected as well. Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the Satanic Temple, told the L.A. Times that, “more than anything, we feel our monument is meant to be a historical marker celebrating the scapegoats, marginalized and demonized minority” (LA Times, Jan 2014). The ACLU has come out in support the religious group’s mission – though the ACLU’s goal is to keep church and state separate, Brady Henderson (the legal director of the Oklahoma chapter)  says when these situations do arise, they fight for religious neutrality. The ACLU is currently suing the State of Oklahoma to remove the Ten Commandments monument, and that lawsuit is pending.

There are plenty who oppose the proposed statue of Satan, including many Oklahoma lawmakers. Joe Griffin, the communications director for Oklahoma’s speak of the House told the L.A. Times that “displays at the Capitol are intended to represent the values of the people of Oklahoma and memorialize those who have worked to build and preserve our freedoms,” and that “this proposed monument does not meet those standards and, in this office’s opinion, is not appropriate at the Capitol” (LA Times, Jan 2014). Brian Bingman, Senate President Pro Tempore, has state that the Satanic Temple’s proposal is likely to be “nothing more than a political stunt that would not be in keeping with the traditions and values of Oklahomans” (LA Times, Jan 2014).

Even with Oklahoma politicians speaking out against the monument, people from around the country are supporting the Satanic Temple – through Indiegogo, the group has raised more than $20,000 in just a month. Many Americans are also vehemently opposed to the idea, and agree with Rep. Earl Sears (R-Bartlesville), who was quoted saying, “This is a faith-based nation and a faith-based state…I think it is very offensive (the Satanic Temple) would contemplate or even have this kind of conversation” (Deseret News, Dec 2013).

This monument proposal has again sparked the age-long debate about the relationship between government and religion. Like the ACLU, I would hope that when religions are given monuments or prayers or holidays in the political sphere, they are treated equally. I know, of course, that this is rarely the case in the United States – millions of are convinced the U.S.A. has always been, and will always be, a Christian Nation, even in the face of growing religious diversity in every state. Until we teach pluralism in our schools, until we recognize that we can accept religious beliefs of all sorts without approving of it, and until we understand that the Founding Fathers did not want to form an exclusively Christian nation will these monument proposals cease to be surrounded by controversy.

What will we be shocked about next time – a monument of the Torah? A statue of a Hindu god or goddess? We will never all be on the same page, one of the beauties of humanity is that we are all individual thinkers, but maybe we can get in the same chapter…or at least the same book. 

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