Passover’s Newest Spokesperson

There’s a new blog addressing religion and pop culture. It uses visual images to grab your attention and it keeps its commentary short and sweet. Welcome to Beyonceder, where images of Jewish life – ancient and modern – are matched with lyrics from Beyoncè’s many hits.

It seems like it’s all in good fun, and I haven’t seen any backlash from it, but I have to wonder whether this is the best way to celebrate Pesach, or Passover, the eight-day festival celebrating God’s passing over of the Jewish homes and the subsequent Exodus out of Egypt. It could go two ways: on the one hand, there is certainly a case to be made that this blog takes away from the significance of Passover and turns the attention to a secular pop star; on the other hand, using Beyoncè could draw attention to Passover and increase its visibility in a country where Easter dominates.

Is there a message behind Beyonceder or is it simply another product of the American obsession with Beyoncè Knowles? Either way, Beyoncè continues to dominate our culture…who knows, someday she might just run the world.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Rejoicing in Death: The Deterioration of Fred Phelps

If you are old enough to read the news or have a Twitter, you have probably heard of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. WBC is an extreme community known for protesting funerals – of fallen soldiers, politicians, celebrities, LGBTQ leaders (or even just LBGTQ people) – as well as churches, businesses, and other places that Phelps and the WBC see as promoting LGBTQ rights (or enabling them by not doing enough). Picketing in their hometown of Topeka, Kansas and traveling across the United States, WBC attempts to make the world know that “God hates fags,” “God hates America,” and we should all “Pray for more dead soldiers” (all signs commonly held at WBC protests).

Fred Phelps is the patriarch of the church, made up mostly by Phelps’ family members, and films videos from his compound in Kansas “explaining” tragic events as God’s punishment. Thousands of people stand in solidarity against Westboro Baptist Church at protests, united by the extremism of Phelps and his family. For more than 23 years, WBC has protested vigorously against LGBTQ rights and equality. Many would label Westboro Baptist Church as hateful, despicable, and repugnant. But now, Fred Phelps is dying.

According to Nathan Phelps, an estranged son of Fred Phelps, the patriarch is on his deathbed in hospice care in Topeka. A spokesperson from WBC refused to affirm, or deny, the report, saying WBC will not discuss internal church affairs with the media (NPR March 2014). And some are now saying Fred Phelps was excommunicated from the church in August of 2013, though WBC has remained silent on this point.

As the media and the internet have gotten wind of Phelps’ condition, many are rejoicing that WBC’s founder is dying – Gawker posted this article on Sunday morning, and a group has formed on Facebook called “Fred Phelps Death Watch,” already with 1,881 likes. And while I too feel disgust at Westboro Baptist Church, their protests, their theology, and the fact that they claim the label of “Christians,” I also struggle with this response to a person’s death. Fred Phelps may have been a hateful and hate-filled man, but is that a good reason to cheer his death? Does that not echo what Phelps led his group to do, to protest and rejoice in the deaths of people they did not agree with? Or is it different because they are so extreme and the rest of us are not?

You may be one of those cheering at Phelps’ death and you can disagree with everything my last paragraph said and that’s okay with me. I am not condoning a single thing Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps have done, and I will admit that I am not torn up about Phelps’ death. But I also want to recognize that one man’s death will not stop WBC’s actions. One man’s death will not end hatred and bigotry. And by deeming it acceptable to celebrate this one man’s death, we risk employing the tactics of Phelps himself.

Jaweed Kaleem of the Huffington Post has written a fantastic article on this very topic, and I highly recommend it. Check it out here – “If Westboro Baptist’s Fred Phelps Is Dying, Is It Right To Cheer?” Blogger Azariah also has a piece titled “Fred Phelps, You Are Loved,” which is a beautiful articulation of what it means to love our neighbors, even when they are the Westboro Baptist Church.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Believing the Baptized: Spontaneous Baptism and True Faith

In North Carolina, a Southern Baptist church is winning souls for the Lord. Elevation Church and its pastor Steven Furtick have built a reputation as one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s fastest growing and most successful congregations due to the staggering number of people baptized on Sunday mornings. This may not seem significant but the SBC – the largest Protestant denomination in the United States – has seen a steady decline in baptisms over the past decade years. According to a report compiled by Lifeway Christian Resources (an arm of the SBC), 2010 saw a 5% drop in the number of baptisms and a 0.15% decline in membership, a trend all too familiar to many mainline Protestant denominations. Yet Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC reported 3,519 baptisms in the first eight months of 2013 (Huffington Post 2014). That comes out to an average of 440 baptisms every month or 110 every week. Compare this number to the number of  baptisms in all Southern Baptist churches in 2012, which came in at just under 315,000 (Baptist Press 2013). One church, in the first 8 months of 2013, has already baptized the equivalent of 1.1% of all 2012 baptisms in the SBC.

Steven Furtick, lead pastor at Elevation Church

As you are probably not surprised to hear, Elevation Church boasts an average of 14,000 worshippers a week at nine campuses in the Charlotte, NC metro area. And yet, more than 3,000 baptisms in less than a year still seems to be an unusually high number. Others questioned this number, leading to an investigation by NBC Charlotte that revealed Elevation Church may be planting the first responders to the altar call – resulting in the “spontaneous” baptisms – in order to attract more people to the baptismal fount (the report also speculates that Elevation has been concealing financial information from donors and church members). If Elevation Church organizes their baptisms, is the message and meaning behind the sacrament diluted?

It’s important to note that Furtick and Elevation Church are certainly not the first to engage in spontaneous baptism. J.D. Greear writes on this very topic in 2012, stating that spontaneous baptism is actually more biblical (Why We Sometimes Baptize on the Spot, 2012). Many pastors and lay people have taken up the issue, debating whether spontaneous baptisms as genuine commitments to God, whether those being baptized realize the implications of their actions.

I think this is one of those issues in Christian churches that will never, ever have an answer. We simply have to believe that the man or woman or youth being baptized is ready and prepared to take that step. It is no different than personal conversion – who are we to decide whether someone has a conversion experience? Yet just like the Puritans in the 17th century, church-goers and clergy in the 21st century attempt to validate a person’s faith before allowing baptism or membership, looking for so-called signs of a true Christian faith.

In the case of Furtick and Elevation Church, it sounds as if they have bigger problems than simply organizing a few baptisms – the administration and clergy have been under fire for financial purchases and disclosures (or lack thereof). Yet can anyone really judge them on their practice of spontaneous baptism? How is anyone, other than the baptizee, to know whether it’s the right decision and time? Isn’t that the point of faith, to believe and trust without complete justification, especially when it’s not your faith we’re talking about? A Christian’s job is not to judge the worthiness or faith of others, or speculate on whether they are genuine in their faith. A Christian’s job is to grow and continue on one’s own journey of faith, supporting those around them wherever they may be.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Form or Function? Material Christianity in the U.S.

Rosaries. Jewelry. Artwork. If you live in the United States, you have witnessed material Christianity. The “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets, the glittering gold and silver crosses hanging around someone’s neck, the ichthus on the back of a car; this is just a small sample of the thousands of items that make up the material culture of Christianity in the United States.

What is material culture? According to Dr. Jules Prown, a professor of Art History at Yale, material culture can refer to both “the study through artifacts of the beliefs-values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions-of a particular community or society at a given time” and the artifacts or objects themselves (Prown 1982:1). These objects can be virtually anything to which a culture has given value; Prown offers six broad categories of artifacts: art, diversions, adornment, modifications of landscape, applied arts, and devices (Prown 1982:3). By looking at cultural artifacts –  material culture – we can understand more about the life and practices of a particular group.

Religious groups certainly produce material culture and have for hundreds of years. From the introduction of the rosary in the Catholic church (sometime between the 12th and 15th centuries), to 17th century pulpit cushions of the Puritans, to ornate family Bibles in the 19th century, the Christian church has constantly produced sacred objects for consumption. And while Christians – Catholic and Protestant – have always put value into material objects, it seems that American Christians have taken religious consumption to a new level. There are more than 250 Family Christian stores in the United States selling hundreds of Christian books, Bibles, jewelry, and games; hundreds of online stores sell Christian t-shirts with messages ranging from “Jesus Loves You” to “Keep Calm and Pray On”; and you can buy rosaries and crucifixes costing hundreds of dollars. There is no shortage of Christian artifacts in the U.S.

It is tempting to lump all these cultural artifacts together and make observations on American Christianity. Yet when American Christianity is taken as a single unit, significant differences are ignored. With more than 300,000 Christian congregations in the United States, we could spend days sorting through sacred objects and studying the many material cultures within the nation. Here, I’ll tackle just the first major split in American Christianity – Protestant and Roman Catholic.

In his 2002 book The Old Religion in a New World, Mark A. Noll observes that “in the last two centuries, Protestants have been avid producers and consumers of cemetery headstones, religious games for children, religious art, and (in more recent decades) bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, and t-shirts imprinted with religious messages” (259). The Southern Baptists’ True Love Waits popularized purity rings over the past 30 years, and James Avery produces thousands of pieces of Christian-themed jewelry. The material culture of American Protestants leans heavily towards form rather than function, as jewelry and apparel dominate material Protestantism and are rarely parts of religious ritual. 

On the other hand, Roman Catholics also produce and consume sacred objects but have “incorporated into American practice religious uses of material objects” (Noll 2002: 259). The majority of sacred artifacts coming out of the Catholic church are used in worship and prayer – rosaries, statues and images of saints, and elaborate religious festivals are not just visual markers of faith but practical forms of worship for the Catholic community. This is not to say that Catholics do not wear Christian jewelry or t-shirts, or do not put religious bumper stickers on their cars. But there is a tendency in the Catholic church to produce religious objects that have form and function. Perhaps this is because of Catholicism’s deep roots in Europe, where Catholics produced a rich material culture before immigrants even thought about traveling across the Atlantic. 

All cultures produce artifacts, attaching value to things like beads, charms, t-shirts, and artwork. Protestants and Catholics in the United States are no exception, both sides consuming millions of dollars worth of religious paraphernalia every year. Often religious consumption overlaps – jewelry or icons or apparel – yet it is clear that the material Christianity in the United States is not homogenous. Protestant/Catholic is just the first distinction – Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Northern Catholic, Southern Catholic, Pentecostal, Orthodox…each branch of the church produces their own brand of material Christianity.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Great Debate: Bill Nye and Ken Ham on Science in Schools

In the latest round of the clash between evolution and creationism, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and Ken Ham (the founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky) will continue a long debate on science in United States schools.

This particular debate started because of a video of Nye arguing that creationism is not appropriate to teach to children. Adults can believe whatever they want, Nye says, but it’s the education of children Nye is concerned about. As he tells those watching his video,

And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them.

Ham, as the founder of the Creation Museum, saw this as an opportunity to reject evolution, question Nye’s validity, and claim that “it’s really people like Bill Nye who are damaging kids” (Ham’s video response). Ham then invited Nye to the Creation Museum for a good old fashioned verbal throw down, an invitation Nye readily accepted.

What I think is particularly interesting about this debate is Nye’s position that it is unhealthy and inappropriate to teach creationism to children, but that adults can believe whatever they want. It adds a different spin to the discussion – instead of arguing solely about the validity of evolution or creationism, the conversation will, hopefully, focus on each man’s goals for the function and content of the science classroom. However the debate unfolds, I anticipate an exciting evening in Petersburg, Kentucky.

The two men will come face to face at the Creation Museum at 6:00 p.m. CST tonight to debate evolution, creationism, and education. You can watch it for free or follow it on social media using #hamonnye

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Round Two of the Great Texas Textbook Throwdown

Back in October, I wrote about the debate over biology textbooks in Texas and the high number of creationists on the committee making the recommendations (The Great Texas Textbook Throwdown). Just last week the Texas Board of Education made a move to ease tension over this issue, announcing “it will limit the use of citizen review panels and instead give priority to teachers in determining science and history curricula” (NPR Feb 2014, emphasis mine). Teachers and professors will now be given priority when those serving on textbook review panels are selected, and outside experts may be called in if serious objections arise within the panel.

While this is a major blow to many in Texas who hold creationism or intelligent design to be true, it puts much of the power back into the hands of actual educators, where I believe it belongs. Textbooks are only effective tools when the teachers support them and engage with them, otherwise students are not going to recognize them as resources, and they sure won’t take the time to look through them or use them to study.

Time will tell whether these changes will have a significant impact on Texas’ textbook and curricula decisions, particularly in regards to science courses. I think the biggest question is whether having teachers and professors on the review panels will push science textbooks back to evolution, discarding intelligent design. Texas continues to be a state where 34%  on Texans identify as Evangelical Protestant, and another 50% identify as some kind of Christian (Pew Forum on Religion), and where more than one third of adults affirmed creationism in 2010 (Texas Tribune Feb 2010).

Is the Texas Board of Education really taking a step forward? Will the recommended textbooks reflect an increased presence of teachers and professors? Or will we still be seeing intelligent design theories when we help kids with science homework?

Live in Texas? Passionate about the textbook throwdown either way? Find who represents you on the State Board of Education at http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/Home.aspx and let them know your thoughts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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. 

realitypaulwatzlawick

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized