Jul 30, 2011

& I dreamed all night about a beautiful girl

Religious experience; cinematic experience

Tree of Life got me thinking -- there's a very rare, specific sort of film that's about what it's like to be religious. Not just religious sub-themes or motifs, or one character like an angry preacher or judgemental neighbor lady, or there's a metaphor in the film that's religious or like that. But actually a good depiction of the experience.

My list of 5, the best movies I know about the experience of faith and the struggle of same:

1) Tree of Life (Episcopal)
About the emergence of the sense of guilt and shame in a boy. Also, the beginning of the universe, the end, theodicy, questions to an eternal void, wanting to kill your father, aching with love for your mother, hurting your brother, the choice between nature and grace and saying paraphrases of scripture in a whisper to the world.

2) The Apostle (Pentecostal)
Best line: "I always call you Jesus, you always call me Sonny." Seriously, the only film I can think of that focuses so much on a "personal relationship with Jesus" (or at all), and one of the more extreme variety, yet still accurately and sympathetically portrayed. Sure it's crazy when someone talks to God all the time, but not crazy like a killer, but more often like a widower talking to his wife who's gone. And, sometimes, like a firce argument with the unseen.



Jul 29, 2011

Hazarding a picture: a survey of U.S. religions right now

Note: To end my "Introduction to American Religious History" class, I gave students a quick, sketchy survey of the religious landscape in the US today. Most freshman-level textbooks tend to have a metanarrative and give a teleological account of American religion(s), and they also tend to place that telos about 10 years before the book came out. Recent text books, e.g., often stop the story with information that was current in the '90s, concluding around the time of the terrorist attacks of 2001. I wanted to take my students past the telos, so to speak, and bring them up to the messy present with this brief overview of what's happening now, even up to as recently as the day before the class.

I gave them two warnings before presenting my survey:

Warning 1: this stuff is so recent that there’s no consensus on what’s actually happening. Or what’s important. This is, then, a kind of hazarded guess. This is what, in journalism, they call a “first draft of history.” It’s what I *think* is going on, and scholars will revise it (and I will revise it) in ten years, a hundred years and so on.

Warning 2: because this is a hazarded guess, my own position in the world is more problematic. I naturally know more about some things going on right now than I do others – some moves in the religious worlds, right now, I have a thorough understanding of, others it’s more cursory. This is always true, re: limitations and the problem of positionality, but if we’re talking about the Civil War, say, I have the same kind of access to every side, all the positions are more or less equally available to me through documents, etc. With the current moment, I have a lot of access and a lot of ways of knowing what’s going on in some places, where other places are very closed off. I tried/try to note that when that happens.

What I wanted generally to do was look at the various religious groups in order of size – largest to smallest, according to Pew's religious landscape report – and with each one give something that has been public about them recently, like a news story, and then, to the extent that I could, say what I think is going on within the faith community, marking the internal struggles or tensions and the forces at work. What I'm trying to give a sense of here is 1) the cultural position of a given religion and 2) any movement or tensions that might give us a sense of what's happening next.

This is *now,* so it's messy, obviously, but that's part of the point, part of what might create interest for further study, and part of what, really, I want my students to be wrestling with.

I promised my students I would post it, especially so they'd have access to the links, videos, etc. This also seems like it might be useful to others as well, so I make it available here.

I suspect, too, that some of my readers are actually more familiar with some of these groups than I am, and would appreciate feedback. I will be revising this next semester, and using some revision of it semi-regularly, as I teach "Introduction to American Religious History", from pre-European contact all the way up to the present.


Evangelicals - 26.3% of the population.



The dominant group in American religion today is Evangelicals, and the dominant thing that's going on is "seeker friendly" movements, Church growth movements, etc. Megachurches have been a major story since the '90s. More relevant right now is the growth of non-denominational churches. The largest group of Evangelicals is Baptists, with 10.8 percent; the 2nd largest and fastest growing is non-denominational.

Jul 27, 2011

'Attitudes may not exist in a coherent form'

Quantitative data alone does not make for solid research; it's necessary, as good as data is, to question it.

This is esp. the case with the kind of data generally available in religious studies, data about religious practices & beliefs that people have, etc. Survey data & self reporting -- while useful, & often all we have -- has to be carefully examined & cautiously used.

Q.v., from a paper by two University of Chicago academics:
"simple manipulations can a affect how people process and interpret questions ... people attempt to provide answers consistent with the ones they have already given in the survey."

"the social nature of the survey procedure also appears to play a big role in shaping answers to subjective questioning. Respondents want to avoid looking bad in front of the interviewer."

"the most devastating problem with subjective questions, however, is the possibility that attitudes may not exist in a coherent form ... measured attitudes are quite unstable over time."
The whole thing is worth a read, esp. as this kind of data is used all the time in establishing public opinion, legitimating positions, etc.

5 questions for 50 atheists



1. Given that this is a big game of "Not My Job," why scientists? Why these scientific disciplines (not a lot of botanists or chemists here, but quite a bias towards physicists)? Would it be valuable to hear 50 experts on, say, international politics pronounce on God? Expert hostage negotiators on science? What is the expertise being used?

Jul 25, 2011

Angst & longing markets

In a really good piece on growing up with Christian Contemporary Music, and then growing out of Christian Contemporary Music, Meghan O’Gieblyn goes beyond contrasting "authentic" and "knock-off" music.

Describing her "conversion," watching the music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- "This was crack, and I’d been wasting my time sniffing glue" -- she then notes the choice, for a Christian kid in the '90s, wasn't between real and fake, or (simply) between propaganda and art, or between safe and dangerous. The choice was between music markets:

Jul 24, 2011

Fragile faith

... "fragilization" here means only that the issue of a possible change of belief is kept alive for us in a way which has few precedents in earlier ages; and as a consequence, there are more "conversions" in both directions in the lives of individuals, and between generations. But this says nothing about the firmness or depth of the faith (or atheist belief) once espoused. On the contrary, the faith which confronts alternatives can be deeper and stronger.
-- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, pg 808

Jul 20, 2011

A sketch of an idea re: religion-marketplace intermediation

1)
Religion is where people make meaning – a definitional claim.

Market activities need meaning.
e.g. work is meaningless for Weber’s menial laborer, who is then not a good worker

Q. Why do you buy something that’s expensive?
Q. Why do you buy something that’s cheap?
(See how the answer uses terminology that’s not strictly economic.)

Religion is used for this (Wurthnow on Weber).

a) Wal-Mart’s use of the language of “service” and “servant leadership” sanctifies menial work (Moreton)
b) Wal-Mart’s use of the language of “value” sanctifies shopping.

Thus: “Market” is modified/mediated/filtered through religion. It wears the clothing of religious language.

Jul 18, 2011

Pluralism pop quiz

American adherants of which religious tradition are more likely to say that "many religions lead to eternal life": Evangelical Christians, or Muslims?

Impractical religion & beatified bee bearders

In thinking about religion as therapeutic -- whether this is scholars or journalists giving this as the reason, or religious people themselves explaining why they do what they do -- one of the things that's lost is the sense of religion as something people do just because.

Made functional, religion is made rational, devoted and dedicated solely and entirely to human flourishing. Which, in a way, means it's only about that which is immanent. Certainly religion can be that and is about that, in some cases, but we ought not lose the sense of religion as sometimes oriented towards transcendence.

This is like the difference between food that's good and food that's good for you.

Religion can act just like the latter, something you bear down and just do, but there are lots and lots of examples where it's understood more like the former. Where it's actually understood to be kind of absurd, as good for itself, having no practical effects at all. There are cases in which a religious act can only be understood as experienced as having no reason beyond itself.

It's important to sometimes talk about religion as an activity that doesn't have a point.

Jul 11, 2011

The tragedy of Wittgenstein's photographs

Wittgenstein, maybe more than anyone, wanted out of philosophy.

He gave it up repeatedly: he found ways out.

He would be an architect, a peasant, a brick layer, a teacher. He would be an ascetic somehow, like Tolstoy his hero, giving it all up as he gave up his fortune, going away, finding the stern peace he was looking for, the religion he compared to the silence at the depth of the sea, which would remain silent no matter how high the waves on the surface would be.

He wanted to do exactly what Bertrand Russell accused him of doing, to pull off "an abnegation of his own best talent." Abnegation like a monk.

Of course, his philosophy itself was about this -- about making it possible to give up philosophy. He used the simile of a lock: philosophy is like a lock. He used the simile too of a combination for a lock: philosophy is the thing that opens the lock that is philosophy.

Making philosophy both the lock and the combination isn't a slip, either. The one image + the other is actually right. It's the point, for him, and exactly the problem. If the key is also the lock, then the act of unlocking also locks, as that which unlocks the lock is also itself a lock -- even the lock -- and thus the problem reasserts, the solution being another instantiation of the problem.

And this ends up being, for him, philosophy.

There's tragedy in this. The tragic life of Ludwig ... it's as if philosophy has infected him, has infected everything about him.

He found ways out, but "out" was still always in.

Which is what happens with his photographs.

I'm a good person

Q.: "[T]here are millions of crimes and millions of criminals. But is there some unifying element among the type of people who become murderers? What is the fundamental difference between the kind of person who kills someone and the kind of person who never could?"

Bill James, author of Popular Murder, A.: "That's an interesting question. In a lot of true crime stories, you will see that someone testifies for the defendant and talks about what a good person they are, and that this person could never commit the crime in question. I would like to think of myself as someone who would never commit a crime. I'm sure a lot of people would. But I don't think that's a good argument for anything. If I was on a jury, the claim that the accused was "too good a person" to commit the crime would not be an argument I would buy. Rabbis commit crimes. Ministers. Priests commit terrible crimes. Now, are they committing these crimes because they're not really good people and they're just pretending to be good, or are they truly good people who simply fail to deal with certain situations?"

Jul 8, 2011

Of manly men and weasels

In the rise of Fundamentalism in the early 20th century, the rhetoric was exclusionary. That's the defining feature of Fundamentalism, as much as anything. The rhetoric worked by dint of exclusion, by ruling out other possibilities, so that "Christian" was understood to only mean and necessarily mean one thing and not another.

The arguments were structured particularly so that the other side, the opposition, was not just wrong, or at least never merely wrong but always something more than wrong. "They're wrong, but more than that ... they hate God" and so on. The opposing arguments of modernist or mainline Christians were framed as being in bad faith, for example, as secret Trojan-horse atheism. The Fundamentalist rhetoric worked this way -- rephrasing, re-framing, re-interpreting non-fundamentalism as impossible, as not really Christian, as more than wrong.

That's not to say, however, that's all that was going on with the rhetoric.

For example: look at the other thing that's going on in the Fundamentalist's rhetorical use of the word "weasel."

Jul 3, 2011

From the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters

Politics, identity & public prayer 2

The Call2Fall evangelical prayer event this Sunday is not the most controversial prayer event of the summer. Nor even the most political.

Though the over-identification and even conflation of Christianity with a very particular kind of politics makes many uncomfortable, this weekend's event hasn't gotten news attention, hasn't caused an upset or created any brouhaha.

It just didn't crossed any of the intracultural borders where fights get started.

The big prayer event of the summer, in terms of controversy and attention, is Texas Gov. Rick Perry's The Response.

Jul 1, 2011

Politics, identity & public prayer

A lot of very political prayer has been organized for this Sunday.

Across America, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, churches -- by my count 2,440 of them, most identifiably Evangelical -- have been organized to all together pray about "America's rapid moral and spiritual decline over the last 50 years." They're specifically targeting the "new depths of depravity," i.e. legalized same-sex marriage and the health care bill passed last year.

It's not clear, though, if you're sitting in one of these churches, when they pray for 3 minutes or 5 during the regularly-scheduled service on Sunday morning, that that's what you'll hear.

It's quite possible that, through the whole effort, no one will explicitly say what is being prayed for.

This is because what they're praying for isn't the essential point. The politics is actually secondary; the construction of an identity is primary.

Most of the rhetoric around the prayers and in the prayers themselves will not be about any socio-political issues, but about the saying of the prayers and those saying them.