its-the-great-pumpkin-charlie-brown-youre-not-elected-charlie-brown--20061101033906296-000A riff on an old holiday favorite:

Scene: Moments after being fooled into his annual place-kick attempt by Lucy, a depressed Charlie Brown shuffles over to Lucy’s psychiatric help booth. After paying his co-pay, the dialog ensues.

Lucy: Well, now, what seems to be the trouble?

Charlie Brown: I feel depressed. Every year it’s the same. It’s Halloween again, and I always get a bag full of rocks, I get made fun of and made a model for a pumpkin carving, I never get to share the fun with my best friend Linus because he’s always freezing out in the pumpkin patch, and I always worry about my baby sister, who misses all the fun.

Lucy: Well, the very fact that you realize you are feeling this way indicates you are not too far gone. We need to pinpoint your fears. Maybe you have wiccaphobia. This is fear of witches.

Charlie Brown: I don’t think that’s quite it.

Lucy: Or maybe you have phasmophobia, which is fear of ghosts.

Charlie Brown: Well, sort of, but I’m not sure.

Lucy: Or perhaps you have coimetrophobia. This is the fear of cemeteries.

Charlie Brown: No, that’s not it.

Lucy: Or maybe you have Samhainophobia. Do you think you have Samhainophobia?

Charlie Brown: What’s Samhainophobia?

Lucy: The fear of Halloween!

Charlie Brown: THAT’S IT!!!!!

End Scene

Ol’ Chuck isn’t alone. In fact, I would suggest even that the fear of Halloween itself is a strong part of contemporary Halloween lore.  Which is why we get reports like this and studies like this. It used to be mostly evangelical Christians who demonstrated such open disdain for Halloween, which I wrote about as part of my blog entry from exactly two years ago. In that post, I wrote

Instead of remembering the sacred aspect of Halloween, many Christians prefer to avoid it all together as a glorification of evil, a notion to which I’m kinda sympathetic, but when I start working with this as religious phenomena, I’m accused of trivializing evil rather than recognize the vestiges of anything sacred in it. So I’m trivializing evil here, but the same routine vis-a-vis Christmas leads to trivializing the sacred, and usually by the same crowd of critics.

The most frequent response among evangelicals has, historically, been to “domesticate” Halloween by keeping observance of it in the home on the one hand and to limit the activity to more of a celebration of autumn, change of season, and the beginning of harvest. Jack o Lantern’s are welcome, as long as they aren’t too scary looking (or gross, or completely inappropriate…). Churches, and now schools, sponsor costumed Harvest Festivals, complete with bonfires and cookouts, games, and, of course, candy.

I love this, because it’s so ironic, because this taming and domestication of Halloween (especially by Christians and churches concerned with the “playing with evil” and the emphasis on death, the grotesque, the monstrous, and the demonic) is a return to the origins of Halloween in the Celtic festival of Samhain. We don’t know much about Samhain; in fact, we know a lot less than many Halloween fanatics think we know. Certainly it is very old, and likely pre-dates Christianity; at the very least it pre-dates Christian missionary activity to Celtic peoples in Europe (who were not only located in Ireland). What we know comes from much later Irish sagas and legends that were not written until the 9th -12th centuries, many hundreds of years after the arrival of missionaries such as St. Patrick (5th century). By the time they were written, the Church was well-aware of the festival and did everything it could to figure out a way to incorporate it into its own calendar of liturgical feast days, starting with the Feast of All Saints on November 1, then All Souls’ Day on November 2. In Middle English, “All Saints” translated into “All Hallows”, which still means “sanctified” or “holy,” and the evening before became “All Hallow’s Even, or “Hallowe’en,” corresponding exactly with the celebration of ancient Samhain.

So much for the church’s efforts there; but what did Samhain entail, and what carryovers are there now in today’s “domestication” of Halloween? Samhain was the first day of the new year in the Celtic calendar and was the first day of winter, marking the end of the farmer’s year. Everything had to be harvested, stored, and eaten, and it was a time for partying and big bonfires. It was also the beginning of the darkest season of the year, and when vegetation dies. In the Irish sagas, everything revolved around Samhain; wars fought, journeys started, and heroes are born. We find in the sagas tales of heros going door-to-door, begging for treats and food on Samhain, an ancestor of our own trick-or-treating tradition. It is also on Samhain that the doors of the underworld are open, just as it they are now for horror flicks at the theatres. In another saga, a race of supernatural creatures demand tribute from the new harvest from humans on Samhain, who leave out food at the entrance to their homes by hanging the harvest on the doors, thresholds, and crossings for their supernatural overlords.

What about dear old Jack? Jack was a blacksmith who, the story goes, was too evil to get into heaven but too smart to remain in hell; he tricks the devil into kicking him out of hell, and on his way out the door, grabs a handful of burning coal (or straw, according to various traditions) and puts it into the pumpkin he’s been eating, using this as his lantern as he wanders the world between the world above and the underworld, and on Samhain’s Eve, when all the doors are open, he comes and goes at will.

Anyhow. I could go all Bakhtin here and go into the importance of masquerading, transitional spaces, and carnivale and so forth, which is so important as well. I’m happy to do so in the comments, if there are any. But I just wanted to point out that the Samhainophobia that is now part of the Halloween experience has ironically led to a return to Halloween’s pagan origins more than it has “tamed” or even “Christianized” the holiday. So go out and enjoy it tonight!

Touchdown Jesus?!… professional sports qualifies as religion, the Super Bowl is the religion’s annual holiday, and now offers its own monastic retreat houses.

Awesome. Too bad the Saints aren’t playing.

ashuramain01.jpgRan across this in today’s Washington Post online: “Bloody Ritual, Modern Meaning.” Check it out; it’s a short take on the passion of Imam Husain (a grandson of Prophet Muhammad) as observed and commemorated during the week of the tenth of Muharram. The Ashura festival, as it is also called, combines extensive liturgies and dramatic passion plays re-enacting Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala (in Iraq) at the hands of Umayyad caliphs from Damascus in 680 AD/CE, or in Islamic reckoning, 61 AH. The WashPost piece focuses on its ritual observance in Kabul.

Like most universal rites of commemoration, the Ashura practices vary from location to location, but there are always passion plays of the event, and there are always ritual displays of mourning for Husain, and it is this that studies and documentaries tend to highlight, condemn, and criticize as being offensive to modern sensibilities. The mourning rites involve symbolic mortification of the body, and the methods involve everything from rhythmic beating of the chest to serious flagellation using knives whipped over the back. Religion scholars have long noted the similarities of these types of practices to medieval Christian ritual processions of penance.

But such comparisons miss the point of Ashura. It is true that there are some similarities between the martyrdom of Jesus and the martyrdom of Husain, and both have come to have cosmic significance in Christian and Muslim (especially Shi’a Muslim) ethos and worldview. Both stories likewise served as identity markers and the memory of them are celebrated as foundational for the community memory. Still, the point is not the blood-letting in itself, but rather to protest an unjust death brought about by the injustice of spreading tyranny.

In the class I’m teaching on Holidays, one of the points we’re discussing now is the inherent and latent power of holidays to function in the service of the status quo AND to protest and challenge it. And in fact, when we dig deep enough to the narratives underlying many of our holidays, the story is, more often than not, a story that challenges power, and that in succeeding generations, that story is smothered over with re-interpretations to maintain the social order and try to minimize the potential that holidays have to upset the status quo of those in power. In other words, holidays and ritual celebrations in holidays are extremely dangerous, and the more visible the expression of this the ritual is, the greater the potential for the latent and suppressed power to challenge tyranny, empire, exploitation, consumption, and so on, is feared. It is for this reason that many holidays throughout history have been outlawed by governments or at least severely restricted and monitored (e.g., the Passover in the first century).

The WashPost article highlights this by electing to point out the Ashura observance in Kabul, which is one of the most bloody and violent locations for the annual commemoration of the 10th of Muharram. The effect is to stir up fear, and judging from the comments on the site by other readers, it seems to work. Unfortunately. Because Ashura and Muharram have a lot to teach those of us outside of Islam. Our Muslim brothers and sisters here provide us with an example analoguous to the passion of Jesus as a righteous act that symbolizes the rejection of the abuse of power and empire in a way that our (meaning, my own tradition of Christian) lame passion plays have totally lost. Understand, I don’t advocate self-flagellation with sharp instruments, as in Muslim practices of matam or medieval flagellant movements, any more than I advocate self-crucifixion as an acceptable imitation of Christ. Instead, I advocate recognizing the ability of our religious observance of holidays to challenge the abuses of imperialism, and I can think of no better public example of this than the rites of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram. It is a demonstration of a passion for justice. Prophetic justice.

Grinch in the Aedificium!I’m home from church, listening to a random selection of some of my Christmas music and thinking about various aspects of Christmas and Advent, Church, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, and so on. Coffee with cinnamon with a nip of butterscotch schnapps.

Random thought #1. Second week of Advent lights a candle representing Hope. Like last week, the question has to be “What are we hoping for?” Can it be the same thing as waiting? Is it the same thing as expecting? I’m hoping that the Church may experience the Gospel anew. But do I expect it? Not especially. I expect more of the same, but I certainly am not hoping for it. Hope is the audacity to dream of and perhaps even prophesy the unexpected, the utterly new, the totally absurd. Hope is holding a newborn in your hands today and just dreaming the dream that the child lives and that you can leave him or her a world that is a little more like the Kingdom of God than it was when you found it.

Random thought #2. One can’t be faulted for thinking from time to time that graduate education is a Faustian bargain that may very well cost you your religious soul.

Random thought #3. Christmas is easily the most icon-saturated period of time in the entire year. There are more festivals and rituals that go with this season in America than any other American holiday. Most of these do not occur in the churches, but on civic spaces like malls, buildings, family dining rooms, state houses, and public squares and parks.

Random thought #4. What does transpire in the specific sphere of religion is always the happy, feel-good story of the Christ-child’s Nativity. The story itself, should we actually care to look at it carefully, is anything but. Indeed, the birth of the Savior is something worth celebrating and should be celebrated with joy and revelry, as the Romans celebrated the birthday of their own savior Caesar. But the story cannot lose any more context for its meaning than it already has. The Christ was born under empire, and the Gospels describe the Nativity in counter-imperial terms. His birth challenged the Empire of the World; considering America’s position as a 21st century Rome, we need to hear this story challenge us and unsettle us, lest a new Caesar or Herod order another massacre of innocents. Again. And again.

Random thought #5. Many of us know that the songs, images, icons, and general “folkloric” celebrations of Christmas have little or nothing to do with Christianity and the churches over the last 1800 years or so. We also know that much of our Christmas symbolism are “baptized” forms of ancient European and Mediterranean popular culture, and for this reason many Christians of more fundamentalist stripes, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and independent fundamentalist baptists, refuse to observe the holiday because it’s a pagan and Catholic thing, not a Biblical one. There’s a long history of this in the US, particularly from the Colonial Era and into the nineteenth century. But there have always been those who, even while recognizing the ancient pagan provenance of so much Christmas practice and symbolism, have baptized and re-christened the symbols into all Christian icons. Example: the candy cane, simply a confectionary convenience in shape, became a shepherd’s crook. Holly and Ivy became Christ’s crown of thorns and his drops of blood. Four calling birds and the other twelve days of Christmas became the four Gospels. And so on.

All well and good. But there comes a point where it’s too easy to re-christen anything and everything, and what bugs me about this is that the same principles are used to justify the all-pervasive practices of consumption that the Christmas season celebrates and perpetuates. It just galls me that many Christians, individual and collective, try to harmonize a system like this of gross capitalist injustice and advocacy of empire with a faith whose scriptures, which we supposedly consider to be fundamental to our identity, condemns this very thing. Ugh.

Random thought #6. It’s not healthy to watch the Grinch, Charlie Brown, any version of Dickens’ ChristmasI killed it…Oh, everything I touched gets ruined! Carol, and the New Line Nativity Film all in the same week. It’s even worse if you read them in connection with the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. Result: blogs like this. time of the year evokes a lot of emotions and feelings within us. For some of us there is a sense of nostalgia for being close to family. For others, we might feel the almost magical warmth of Christmas events and the coming of the New Year. For others, we start feeling the excitement of the beginning of college hoops, football bowl games, the merciful end of the Orange’s football season, and so on. We feel the closing of once cycle and the new beginnings of another with the annual celebration of Harvesting and of sharing the abundance that God has given us with others, as in Thanksgiving meals and the giving of gifts during Christmas. With this time of year, one season of our lives comes to a close, and another begins.

We celebrate Thanksgiving this week, and with the Thanksgiving season we also enter a few others as well. We enter, for example, the Christmas season; I would imagine that, if you’re like me and my family, you’ll be starting to decorate your house, pull out the greenery, and finally succumb to turning your radio dial to Sunny 102.5 for non-stop, 24/7 Christmas and holiday music.

Related to this is, of course, the “holiday shopping” season, which in reality starts now around Columbus Day rather than Black Friday. And it is fitting that, with this being a seasonal crossing between the old and the new, the Holiday Shopping season participates in this cycle in that there is no other time of year when we are in the full-fledged mode of “Out with the old, and in with the new!” With the Holiday Shopping season, we are absolutely bombarded with advertising assuring us that we really do need NEW and IMPROVED! “this-that-and-the-other-thing.” We’re sucked into the idea that we have to have to get rid of something that might be perfectly good and replace it with a new item. The whole season can awaken the cynic in us that not only starts questioning whether our new and improved lives and gadgets are really any better than we had it a year ago. The omnipresence of advertising and of commercial icons (Nike “swoosh,” Coke, Pepsi, etc) dulls our ability to recognize that which is truly new from the simply repackaged, and when the truly new does finally arrive, we often fail to recognize it, and be thankful and grateful for it. We would feel much better, I think, if the truly new would really advertise itself as such in such a way to shock us into recognizing it, so that we CAN respond appropriately with blessing and thanksgiving.

We’re in luck. Today’s lections from Isaiah and Luke, in particular, give us God’s advertising, and they are so counter-cultural and contrary to our most deeply-seeded common sense that we find it hard to take them seriously. The evangelist reports Jesus’ apocalyptic words in Luke 21 to us on the pretext of prophesying the destruction of the Jewish Temple; he uses vivid imagery the does not, in fact, describe anything in a satisfying, “feel-good” way. Unless we have an apocalyptic fetish, neither should we think of any of these images as anything to look forward to; certainly the earliest Christians did not.

What I want to suggest here is that, far from advertising anything “new,” no matter how bleak and destructive, Jesus here is advertising in no uncertain terms the eternal state of affairs in the world. Really, how can “wars and insurrections,” “nations rising against nations,” empires taking arms against empires, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other “dreadful signs” from heaven be advertising anything new? Are arrests and persecutions and betrayals of Christians for religious or political reasons anything new?

Advertisements specialize in imagery and depend on our familiarity with their logos, slogans, and products in order to have any effect. In this they function like icons and have tremendous staying power. In Luke today, Jesus employs the truth of these icons to advertise for all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear the way the world is today. He refuses to sugarcoat the first century, much like the ancient prophets refused to sugarcoat the state of the world in which Israel and God’s called ones found themselves in. As prophecy from the mouth of Jesus and in the context of his pronouncements on the Kingdom of God, Luke’s description of the world carries the force of the “always already” and “to come” at the same time.

So much for one kind of God’s advertising; small wonder that these things would either be glorified out of all proportion to the rest of Christ’s and the Prophets’ discourses on the Kingdom of God, or these messages are systematically and institutionally suppressed or ignored out of not wanting to appear offensive or pessimistic about the state of the world (this, of course, is the classic liberal, “progressive” heritage). But I should like to remind us all that this is not at all the only advertisement we find; instead, I want to remind us that this season of the old coming to a close and the new day dawning, both in commercial Christmas and Thanksgiving, the season of Advent is even now on our doorstep waiting to disrupt the state of the everyday.

What advertisements do we have to represent and “sell” God’s newness during the season about to break upon upon us? How will God shock us and upset us? We have seen that Jesus’ advertising strategy sells us nothing new, but more of the old; it awakens, evokes, our desire for the New.

The passage of Isaiah is one of the most outrageous advertisements of God’s Newness, a newness that, like Jesus’ Kingdom of God, is always already and to come if we but know where to look, put faith where it belongs, and do what we are commanded to do. And here we see the other element of advertising; the idea that what is being presented is so outrageous, so out of touch with our reality, so absurd to our financial sensibilities that we cannot help ourselves but desire what the advertisement is trying to tell us we want more than anything else. And the most effective ads even cause us to contemplate doing anything, even sacrificing whatever we have or who we believe we are, in order to have what it wants us to have.

What is God’s ad here? Let this sink in, and let it inform our Holiday sensibility here, especially with Thanksgiving, and Advent, and Christmas. There will be a new earth, a new Jerusalem. Not a repackaging in better boxes of what is already there; but utter newness of the earth and the heart of the people of God’s calling. There will no longer be the sound of weeping or tears of sadness. There won’t be any homeless, nor will there be those oppressed or terrorized by life today to cry out for still more deliverance. There will be rejoicing and thanksgiving, because in God’s new world there will not be any infant mortality or elderly men and women outliving their lives or widows or young men who die in war, for there will no longer be wars fought. There will be rejoicing and thanksgiving because there will no longer be the outrage of eminent domain or foreclosures on homes, and those who build will live; those who plant will reap, and those who harvest will eat and have abundance. The big will no longer consume the small, and all will live under their own vine and fig tree.

Is the Advertisement of God’s newness in Isaiah, the Advent of abundance, blessing, thanksgiving, and gratitude, too much to hope for? Isn’t it worth selling ourselves out to God’s newness, to be seduced by this advertisement, to make this an Always Already and speed up the To Come?

Advent and Thanksgiving are both upon us. May we share our abundance in the spirit of newness, and may our Thanksgiving be an advertisement to that which we, as people of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, have always already, and may our expectation of his coming stir in us and in those who know us, a new season of Hope. And Life. And faithful abundance.

Samhain play Well, I’m kinda more and more becoming aware that the study of religion can be a no-win or even a lose-lose situation. (And yes, I have – presumably – completed my written comprehensive exams, so I’m looking forward to blogtharsis again.) My primary objective in my work is to encourage anyone who listens to me or reads what I write to rethink certain conceptions, conventions, and whatever, and obviously, doing this in “religion” is to tread in some dangerous waters. If I were a so-called secularist, which I most emphatically am not, as anyone who knows me and who reads this blog is fully aware, I wouldn’t care that this is a minefield. I’d simply say my piece, denounce those who damn me as a heretic or a liberal or whatever else anyone might want to call me, and move on to the next thing.But that’s not why I study religion. I’m not trying to simply secularize old “religious” holidays or explain away anything of my own, or anyone else’s tradition. I do not make my starting point the social, human nature of religious faith and practice, although it is absolutely this. I assume this. But I start more from the other side, that religion as such is the experience and search for the sacred in life as much as, if not more than, it is anything else.

But this is precisely where we (those of us “in the guild”) get in trouble. When I talk or teach or write about the Christmas holiday, for example, and draw out the history of social transformation of this ancient holy day and criticize contemporary participation in the Christmas festival as not being particularly “Christian” and certainly not very “biblical,” I get accused of secularizing a genuine Christian holiday in a way that offends Christians by robbing it of everything that is Christian about it on the one hand and promoting the social and commercial carnivalism on the other. I’m not doing either. I’m assuming from the start that the Christian holiday was a day that marked off, for the faithful, remembrance and recollection by those who shared the Christian identity of one of its foundational stories, and that while the story itself is usually well known through cultural preservation of it, its meaning has been lost. It’s been lost for a long time. In pointing out the social and carnival nature of the Christmas season, I’m not championing it; I’m pointing out the phenomenon, from a historical and mnemonic perspective, that has overshadowed the sacred nature of Christmas, and criticizing it from the same perspective and arguing that the Nativity story, understood in its own context of the first century, challenges the very thing that Christmas has become.

Today, obviously, is Halloween, or, as it was once known, All Hallow’s Eve. I get it here too. On what used to be a day/night observed to “scare off” the demonic and protect the Saints and places of God by spooking the evil away (literally, scaring the hell out of the spirit world), we now have it that the night is, in good social carnival fashion, the very opposite, when we raise hell just for the hell of it. Instead of remembering the sacred aspect of Halloween, many Christians prefer to avoid it all together as a glorification of evil, a notion to which I’m kinda sympathetic, but when I start working with this as religious phenomena, I’m accused of trivializing evil rather than recognize the vestiges of anything sacred in it. So I’m trivializing evil here, but the same routine vis-a-vis Christmas leads to trivializing the sacred, and usually by the same crowd of critics.

I think the most irksome thing is the accusations of academics and professors who try to sensitively treat aspects of religion as being arrogant know-it-alls who seem to setting themselves up to play God. Perhaps, but goshdarnit, we are professors, and we do profess to know something that isn’t usually “in the public domain,” so to speak. But when folks in our guild of academic religionists, theologians, and, heck, even pastors, come to conclusions that challenge what other people hold dear and which are ends in themselves, I have to say it sure as heck is not the professors who act like the arrogant SOB know-it-alls picking fights, or not only us.

What it comes down to is that there are a lot of people who psychologically can’t handle it very well when someone tells them they’re wrong, or rather the particular perspective or understanding of something religious that has been a part of their life for years, and my approach, especially in the sensitive souls of my students, is to avoid doing so as much as possible. Like I said, the sacred is the starting point; it’s human relation, interaction, and so on with the sacred that makes the study and teaching of religion worthwhile, and we all have different experiences with the sacred. For folks in this category, because my “mission” is to stir things up, like any self-respecting academic, please know that I’d rather not bug you, because I’m sure I’d be nothing but trouble for anyone who already thinks they’ve got it all together. But for those who, like me, are disappointed with the desacralization of our religious heritage, I would hope that we academics, professors, and “know-it-alls” can be allies here, not adversaries.