muglogo.gifIn the last few weeks in class, we’ve been discussing popular culture, religion, and the media, so Jeff Sharlet’s (of The Revealer) recent article in Rolling Stone and his comments on NPR come at an opportune moment. (BTW, JakeB has a good thing going over at his blog, and Sharlet even responded, so I encourage you to check it out.)

Sharlet’s article documents the alarming growth of a new evangelical youth movement known as Battle Cry, whose mission is to destroy “pop-culture terrorism.” Battle Cry strikes me as being a combination of Billy Graham Crusades, Promise Keepers, and Campus Crusade, only for kids. The leader of the movement, Ron Luce, is hell-bent (literally, it appears) on making sure that the “culture wars” survive at least one more generation. Apparently Luce is terrified that today’s youth will have nothing to contest when they grow into adults. Rest easy, Ron, there’ll be PLENTY, but you may be right that the issues that you think are life and death issues won’t be nearly as interesting or important as they were 15 years ago.

What we’re seeing here is the manifestation of fear, specifically the fear of losing a worldview that was so absolutely central to an earlier generation of a specific “community.” The Evangelical Community has prided itself on being the watchdog of morality since the 1950’s and was ideally placed (historically speaking) to confront what it perceived to be the secularist assault of subsequent decades. However, evangelicals are turning more and more to the more pressing issues that involve ethics and stewardship and justice more than they do individual morality. People like Ron Luce are feeling absolutely betrayed by their heritage, and it takes a media master like Luce to fuse this watchdog-mentality with the flotsam and jetsam of Evangelical Crusades, Billy-Graham and Campus style, and the Promise Keepers into a jihad like Battle Cry that targets the only real audience that has the emotional and hormonal capital to spend on stuff like this: today’s youth.

I’m certainly not going to deny that there is a whole lot of dehumanization and objectification of much of the pop culture that Luce and his Battle Crying minions feel they need to combat. The women’s lingerie industry, a favorite whipping boy (girl?) of Battle Criers and of the evangelical right in general, is a case in point, as Sharlet and Luce both recognize. (As would be the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone, where Sharlet’s article appears!) Objectification of women: bad. But, to deny women the right to take a little pride in their physical appearance, as Luce would seem to advocate, is absurd. Sure, there is wisdom in Jesus’ hyperbolically metaphoric injunction to cut off what causes you to sin, and if —if!–your latest issue of the Victoria’s Secret catalog causes you or your brother to sin, by all means, cancel your subscription, especially if you object to the fetishization of the sex goddesses in the thing. If drinking leads you or your brother/sister/neighbor into a life of sin and debauchery and violence, then cut it. But taken to the extreme, you get brainwashed kids who swear off A+W Root Beer (See the Stones article, referenced above). Reminds me of a fellow my dad once met years ago. Dad: Hey, can I get you a Pepsi? Friend: Nope, thanks, though; gave it up, gave it up when I found the LORD, when Jesus saved me. (pauses) But, I’ll take a beer if you got one of those…

In any case, while Luce’s furious criticism of the “secular media” and of the usual suspects of secularists, abortionists, liberals, Muslims, gays and lesbians, and so forth who are “conspiring” to destroy Christianity is the same schtick we’ve been hearing now for decades, he completely refuses to consider that there are more important issues we need to confront today. And as I’ve said, I think this stems from his own feeling of betrayal by the greater evangelical community. He cannot identify with the contemporary evangelical ethos that is growing on a daily basis, and so, like a jilted lover starving for the eros of his old passion or, like a former community member without a community to return to, (and we’ve all been there), rather than identify with another community he undertakes to practice jihad against his former confreres and form his own.

I use the word jihad here deliberately. Ron Luce and Battle Cry represent the mirror image of militant jihadist movements within Islam, which appeals to the young, the jilted, and the emotionally ideological who believe that everything their leader(s) believe in is under attack by some outside force. It fosters hate for those who are unlike them, and is violently antithetical to Christ’s injunction to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. For those of us who come from an evangelical heritage and who are participating in the growing movement of neo-evangelical ethics centered on justice, stewardship, and compassion, indeed, the culture wars aren’t over, but the site of the battle has shifted. For these neo-evangelicals, the battle for the minds of today’s youth isn’t going to be fought over lingerie and rootbeer and MTV, but over the ideologies of hate and injustice that, knowingly or unknowingly, Ron Luce and his Battle Criers promote in our young people. The trick is to engage without using the weapons of the enemy.

I bring you, for your viewing pleasure, Stephen Prothero’s interview with Jon Stewart on Last Night’s Daily Show. More on this later. Prothero is the author of the little quiz Cumby posted last week, which is from his new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – And Doesn’t.

Fun stuff. More later.

cmatherpreaching.jpgWho benefits? That’s the question that we have to always be asking ourselves when God talk starts showing up on a mass scale. The modern mass media is obviously a willing partner in the way this works, but I thought it might be interesting to point out that religious rhetoric has essentially always been about this. Whether we’re talking about the use of the Bible in public schools or of the personal faith of presidential candidates, the type of rhetoric that serves as sound bites or eye candy is usually of the “us vs them” variety in the extreme. (“How many minds has he polluted??”) So we have to look – and listen – beyond what is being presented prima facie.

Here’s the thing, though. In these kinds of struggles, where issues are cast in terms of being of absolute, rock-bottom religious issues, the God-talk precludes any kind of compromise, negotiation, or middle ground, because it is understood that religious truths and positions are eternal. As a result, the Religious Right, for example, can cast every political issue on which its adherents disagree as a holy struggle for what God wants, which is, of course, always the same thing as what the Right wants. The availability of a mass media who is more than willing to disseminate such sensationalism all but guarantees that this rhetoric will be heard, no matter how much or how little the rhetoric actually speaks for those who actually listen to it. On a more ominous level, when religious rhetoric is used to justify action that is willed by the Ineffable, it becomes the primary tool for justifying any violent action (such as blowing up skyscrapers or invading impoverished nations in the name of national security), since those who support us are on God’s side. Conversely, organizations and governments who find themselves having trouble with certain groups who believe that the minds of young people are being corrupted by rampant secularism (like school boards who fire biology teachers who even mention the Bible in class) have a ready rhetorical weapon at their disposal; simply label the annoying dissenters as religious fanatics. The press comes in, prints the most extreme quotes that it hears, and the governing body is able to dismiss its opponents as religious nutcases who are by definition incapable of reason, and who therefore are not worth wasting time with in responsible discussion of grievances.

None of this is new. Not even the use of the media for these ends. In antiquity, the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings” meant that kings needed to justify their rule to their subject peoples, and the best way to do that was to persuade the subjects that God (or the gods) was/were on his side. Usually this was done in two ways; through success in battle, in which case the king’s victory was attributed to the gods and plastered all over the empire (i.e., published); and through building or restoring temples and sacred rituals, which were also published and distributed. Frequently we find in ancient inscriptions a cause-and-effect relationship between military success and the religious devotion of the ruler. It is not much of a stretch to witness this kind of rhetoric in the 220+ year history of the American Presidency or even in Congress; witness the uproar that ensued after Keith Ellison, an African American Muslim, took his oath of office over the Qur’an rather than the Bible. The mixture of military activity and religious piety is, moreover, abundantly clear in the speeches of George W. Bush.

Rulers in antiquity also found it necessary to occasionally make sure that everyone in the land knew about his or her religious testimony in defense of how he or she conducted his or her life in the eyes of God and how all their actions were undertaken in service to the divine. This kind of self-justification, of course, has been especially prominent during the Bush II administration and with Republicans in general, but as 2008 approaches we are now seeing it more and more Democratic candidates speak openly about their faith. Some are no doubt nothing more or less than insincere politicking, while others, are undoubtedly deeply religious people with sincere faith.

Another point worth mentioning is that ancient texts frequently couch the king’s approval ranking by the gods in terms of how well the ruler carried out the gods’ will and, especially, his or her sacred rites. What is fascinating here is that ancient priests and religious elites who disapproved of a ruler could undermine him or her by propagandizing the failure of the ruler to do the religion of the god in the right way, which would inevitably bring about a national catastrophe if it were left unchecked and which would result in the god(s) leaving altogether. While we don’t really concern ourselves today with strict ritual activity in our churches today per se, there is still a remarkable similarity to the rhetoric here with the way morality is used instead of proper ritual action. We heard Falwell and Robertson blaming the 9/11 attacks on a complete lack of godly morality in the US, in effect saying that God was leaving us as he abandoned the Jerusalem Temple in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Just as ritual infidelity of the society and especially of the ruler betokened national disaster in the ancient world, moral infidelity and secularism makes national catastrophe inevitable, according to this rhetoric. If only the king would restore the old sacrifices, the nation would prosper again … if only the government would make abortions illegal, let our kids pray in school, constitutionally prohibit gay marriage, we won’t have to worry about new national security threats…

Of course, it goes the other way. Kings regularly used religious propaganda to flatter the priests and religious elites in charge of the temples, who not coincidentally served as the bankers and banks of the kingdoms. This kind of rhetoric is, of course, particularly popular during election years, and I have a hunch that 2008 will witness more of this than we’ve ever heard.

Cui bono? Who benefits?

faithsymbolscopy.gifBetween surfing a lot of blogs lately, reading lots of articles and other types of “religious news” pieces, and my own day-to-day work with teaching religion and religious studies, I come across a lot of stuff, some of which leaves me scratching my head, some that leaves me shaking it in disbelief, and, occasionally, some that permits me to nod it, either in agreement or in sleepy boredom.

Two pieces that fall into the “nod” category recently ran across my desk (or, more accurately, my Thinkpad screen). One is USA Today’s piece that reviews Stephen Prothero’s new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, available in bookstores tomorrow. The other is Martin Marty’s short little “op-ed” in today’s Sightings, out of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Marty’s article points out that the US “gets religion wrong” across the board, and he does not simply limit this to politicians. Marty calls out the secular humanists and politicians, but he is fully aware that dedicated, committed religious folks are every bit as part of the failure to get religion “right:” “Fault often lies with religious folk who agitate for the teaching ‘of’ religion – their religion – as normative and exemplary.” He goes on to note that “fault also lies with some tone-deaf academics, including Harvard faculty who ruled up and then ruled down religion requirements in the curriculum. And you can further fault the Rip Van Winkles who have been napping all these years” [note to Marty: many of them are still sound asleep, if not entirely comatose] “since religion came to be central in world affairs.” Marty knows as well as I do that there has scarcely ever been a time in history where religion has not been “central in world affairs,” but his point is well-taken. The general religious public, as much as the politicians, the media, clergy and other religious leaders, and academics are getting an F in religion, which is where Cathy Lynn Grossman’s USA Today article, “Americans get an ‘F’ in religion” comes in. Grossman’s review of Prothero’s new book points out what many academics in the study of religion already know to a certain degree, namely, that religious ignorance is a major problem for the US, and not least in terms of national security. I’m looking forward to reading the book, and Grossman gives enough quotes from it to get a sense of the implications of “bombing” the religion test: “If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because they’re both Muslim, and you’ve been told that Islam is about peace, you won’t understand what’s happening in Iraq. If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know it’s so? If you want to be involved, you need to know what they’re saying. We’re doomed if we don’t understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We can’t outsource this to the demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda” (emphasis mine).

Here’s the rub, and I’m wondering if Prothero will address it in the book. Religious rhetoric is always political rhetoric. When Group A fears that its particular identity or worldview or ethical code is under assault by Groups B-Z, the Religious Rhetoric comes out. The thing is that Americans are bombing the test and failing the grade in the subject, so that the religious rhetoric being employed is ineffectual at best and downright dangerous at its (literally) terrifying and terrorizing worst. Rather than provide a forum for edifying debate, rhetorical ignorance, especially from the mouths of sophists like John Shelby Spong, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Sam Hill, and of politicians and influential media personalities generally, sets the stage for a demonizing condemnation based completely on falsehoods, lies, half-truths, and misunderstandings, either willful or unintentional, all to ensure that “we” are ok, even if “we” are not necessarily in positions of power and influence. When we think we’re threatened, we need a scapegoat, and that scapegoat has had many faces.

The cure for religious ignorance isn’t religious or cultural relativism, but neither is it more indoctrination. It also matters little whether the individual believes in God or not or whether he or she is a committed and active member of a religious community. God’s existence isn’t the issue here, and neither is the argument that “religion” is historically more responsible for the world’s violence than any other factor and, accordingly, should be done away with. Religion is not going anywhere, and this is true regardless of whether God really exists or not. Rather than spend our time focusing on all the differences between “our” religion and “their” religion and using those as points of attack, we should be figuring out what the similarities are between us and what our mutual concerns are, both spiritually and “earthly,” and learning how each religious tradition addresses those concerns using their particular cultural expressions from their own wells of tradition. Then, and only then, can we start a dialog that discusses differences without demonizing the Other. Contrary to the popular expressions of relativistic religious pluralism, religions are not all saying the same thing. Religious traditions, including those in the same larger tradition (such as Sunni, Shi’a or Ahmadiyya Muslims in Islam or Baptist, Holiness, or Catholic denominations in Christianity) began with different answers to problems that are common to our humanity and yet which are also unique to specific historical and cultural circumstances, and they express these differently today and have entirely different goals and objectives now than they did when they started.

The immediate challenge, as I see it, is combating ignorance of our own traditions, whether we profess to be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or anything else. Prothero’s book may be a good start, but this can’t simply be the domain of academics. It needs to get into our houses of worship, our families, and, yes, our schools. We simply have to start with the basics of our own traditions and with those religions that so clearly have an impact on our current global situation. If we fail to at least understand who “we” are, we’re going to continue to bomb a lot more than just Religion 101.

Just ask the Iraqis.

Statue of Slave Breaking the ChainsWhen I was in seminary a few years back, Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe wrote an editorial on why US Presidents can’t bring themselves to apologize for more than 200 years of institutional slavery in this country, which was founded on Judeo-Christian / biblical ethics and Enlightenment rationalism. (You can read this piece here.) Now, Virginia’s legislature has passed an official apology for their role in not only slavery but in the injustice of Native Americans as well.

This raises the question of whether this apology has any value beyond a token one, and what kind of implications might this have? Does the apology open the door for remuneration of some sort? What kind of serious amends might be asked for, and what kind might be granted? How should the churches respond? It seems to me that this is an opportunity for us to examine our individual and church consciences and remember that we’re all culpable, even us Scandinavian immigrants, for injustice and unspeakable evil, and our holy and sacred scriptures are absolutely capable of being misinterpreted to defend these acts.