Tag Archives: United States

Why Care About Those Trees? They’re All the Way in Israel

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, and I apologize for that. I am experiencing a severe case of “can’t make myself do it”-itis.

This will be short, but I did come across this blog post and it was really intriguing. Ben Irwin tells us that “earlier this week, the Israeli government bulldozed 1,500 fruit trees on a family farm near Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus” (Ben Irwin, May 21 2014). Allegedly the trees were on state land, though the Nassar family – the owners of the land, upon which sits Tent of Nations – argue otherwise. While the Nassars were awaiting a court decision, someone decided to go ahead with the removal and illegally uprooted the more than 1,000 trees. 

Now, the only reason I heard about this happening is because I follow Ben Irwin’s blog and it popped up. However, Irwin believes that if this very situation happened in the United States, everyone would know about it. Why? Because the Nassars and the Tent of Nations farm are evangelical Christians.

Irwin challenges American Christians to think about what exactly the body of Christ means. And though this instance focuses on Christianity, I can imagine the very same reaction (or lack thereof) if this happened to any mainstream religious group. We make lots of noise when someone or their land is threatened because of religious beliefs…but only when it happens at home.

Read Irwin’s post and others he’s written at his blog, benirwin.wordpress.com

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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.

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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.

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Happy Holidays to All?

It’s Christmas day in the Christian world, Jews celebrated Hanukkah at the beginning of the month, and Kwanzaa begins tomorrow. It’s the season of giving and sharing in many faiths this December, and yet there are roughly 1 million people in the United States who won’t be wishing anyone a happy holiday. All over the country, Jehovah’s Witnesses spent the day without presents or Christmas songs or nativity scenes. This branch of Christianity – which does not believe in the Trinity and holds up the Bible as a divinely written and infallible text (BBC Religions) – asserts that Jesus commanded the disciples to observe his death, not his birth and Christmas is both a pagan celebration and lacks biblical support (Why Don’t Jehovah’s Witnesses Celebrate Christmas?).

Furthermore, the disciples and the early church did not celebrate Christmas, and God certainly couldn’t approve of a holiday rooted in pagan ritual. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official website – jw.org – it is simply a myth that Jehovah’s Witnesses miss out on the generosity and spirit of giving at Christmas time. Jehovah’s Witnesses seek to be generous and giving every single day; why would they need a special day or time of year to express the commandment to love their neighbors?

While many of us may not think about Jehovah’s Witnesses, except to comment on that time they came to our door, they are a substantial part of the population in this country. We are doing better to incorporate and highlight the holidays of other religions – Hanukkah, Diwali, Eid al-Fitr – but what do we do about those who don’t observe any religious holidays?

When we wish people “Happy Holidays” in order to cover all our bases, we are being inconsiderate towards Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who choose not to partake in the winter festivities. Though “Happy Holidays” is certainly safer than “Merry Christmas,” we have to remember that it doesn’t cover all our bases. If someone tells you they don’t celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, wish them a wonderful day, a great weekend, or a fantastic afternoon. You can start singing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” as soon as you wave goodbye.

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Advent Begins: How Will You Wait?

For the Christian world, the season of Advent began this past Sunday. A time of waiting and preparing for the birth of the Christ Child, Advent is often trampled on by the consumerism of Christmas shopping, spending more and more to show love for friends and families. Christians forget to stop and read the Christmas story, or their eyes glaze over when the pastor starts talking about peace, love, hope, and joy. Yet this is the time time when Christians are supposed to be preparing their hearts and minds and homes for Jesus Christ, and while it can be incredibly difficult to push back against the consumer culture of the United States, it is possible. And it’s rewarding.

Many American Christians experienced the Advent Calendar, the box with 25 doors hiding chocolate or little treats, one for each day of Advent. My family did Advent calendars for years, but they never meant anything more than Christmas was coming and I got chocolate every single day. Maybe it’s time to rethink Advent Calendars. Instead of some material treat, some little gift, maybe each day offers up a scripture or and action. Sure, it’s not a piece of chocolate (and somehow, those generic chocolates taste so good in December), but Christmas isn’t about chocolate. It’s about the incarnation. It’s about God working through a little family, a bunch of shepherds, and some wise men. It’s about God working through us to give more and love more, spending less time in the mall and more time in prayer and reflection.

Need some inspiration? Here are some things you can do this Advent season.

  • Bake cookies with someone you love.
  • Instead of writing a letter to Santa (or making a list of the gifts we want this year), make a list of all the things you want to give this December. They don’t all have to be material – some of the best gifts aren’t things we can attach a dollar value to.
  • Serve a meal at a local soup kitchen or volunteer at a food bank.
  • Spend 10 minutes in silence, offering prayers of patience.
  • Watch a Christmas movie – my personal favorite is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” featuring Hermey the Elf.
  • Listen to Christmas music while you read or cook or clean the house. Pandora Radio has hundreds of free stations with every kind of holiday music you can think of.
  • Re-read the Christmas story and see what sticks out to you. You can find two versions in the Bible: Matthew 1:18-2:12 and Luke 2:1-20.

Let’s rethink Advent together.

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Thanksgivukkah: What Will You Eat on November 28?

For the first time since 1888, Thanksgiving Day and the first full day of Hanukkah will both occur on November 28th, 2013. Clearly, this is only exciting for American Jews who celebrate both holidays, but plans for this special occurrence are already in motion. According to an article on The Star (thestar.com), “more than 1,000 people are expected to gather in Los Angeles to celebrate the first — and likely only — Thanksgivukkah Festival with ‘light, liberty and latkes.'” Other manifestations of Thanksgivukkah include menurkies – turkey-shaped menorahs, pumpkin latkes, and Rabbi David Paskin’s “The Ballad of Thanksgivukkah” (Huffington Post).

Dana Gitell, a major source of the Thanksgivukkah Facebook buzz, draws parallels between the stories of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah:

“There are amazing similarities between the Pilgrims’ quest for religious freedom and what the Maccabees were fighting for. This a great opportunity for Jewish Americans to celebrate this country and for everyone to acknowledge the greatness of our shared religious freedoms.” (Source: NY Daily News)

Many Jewish Americans are thrilled to have Judaism in the spotlight in a different way this year. Usually Hanukkah falls around Christmas and is often assumed to be pretty much the same. With the hype and discussion surrounding Thanksgivukkah, Judaism has been catapulted into the scene, reminding Americans of the Jewish presence in this country. Thanksgivukkah is an opportunity of interfaith dialogue, as Americans of all stripes gather around the table. It’s “an invitation to celebrate the places where Jewishness enriches America, and where America enriches the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Mishael Zion, and the topic of gratitude and giving thanks seems to be a key place where these two celebrations converge.

Where the gratitude expressed on Thanksgiving can be fleeting, the emphasis on gratitude during Hanukkah is rooted in the rich history and stories told during the Festival of Lights. Rabbi Zion sees Thanksgivukkah as a time to “turn a generation of immediate gratification into one of rooted gratitude.” As the American family, Jewish or not, sits around eating turkey and mashed potatoes or latkes, they can share stories of gratitude for things beyond here and now.

There has been little critique of Thanksgivukkah, or at least very little that I could find, and I don’t think that’s surprising. In the U.S., Thanksgiving focuses on our shared past with the Pilgrims. Whether you were born in the United States or not, there seems to be a sense of unity on the fourth Thursday of every November. This year, I think November 28th will be an even more perfect day to put aside the walls we put up around those different than us – in religion, race, ethnicity, gender, class, culture – and give thanks to the great diversity of the United States.

 

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What Congress Believes

Back in August, Buzzfeed released a series of maps reflecting the religious identifications of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. According to the article, 31 religious traditions (and 26 variations of Christianity) are represented among the members of the House. Catholics lead the way, claiming 136 members of the House, followed by four major Protestant denominations (Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian).

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Here are some highlights from the maps:

  • Of Hawaii’s two members, Colleen Hanabusa is a Buddhist and Tulsi Gabbard is the first and only Hindu to serve in the House.
  • Mormon representation is almost exclusively in Utah and Idaho, with a few members in California and Arizona claiming the Mormon tradition. In addition, Utah and Idaho are the only states with more than one seat to be represented by members claiming a single religious tradition.
  • There are two Muslim members of the House:  Keith Ellison, Minnesota and Andre Carson, Indiana; Ellison was the first Muslim to be elected to Congress in 2006, followed by Carson in 2008.
  • Catholics dominate the Christian representation of the House, both as the largest group and the most wide-spread

There are two points I think these maps raise – the first, that “separation of church and state” is not as easy as it may sound; with only 7 out of 435 representatives identifying as Unspecified/None, religious beliefs have a strong presence in Congress. Those who identity as Unspecified/None make decisions are just as influenced by their lack of religious identification than those who claim Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

The second point is that the distribution of religious traditions reveals cultural characteristics of the United States. If Mormon members of the House are concentrated in Idaho and Utah, it tells us these states are hubs for Mormon voters. When we learn that the Southern U.S. is represented in the House by Christians almost exclusively, it comes as no surprise that the first Hindu and first two Muslim members of the House were elected in Hawaii and the Mid-West.
Check out the maps for yourself, and see what religion your House Representative claims – are you really being represented?

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