Sep 30, 2012

The hospitality of saints

With open arms

St. Remigius -- "apostle to the Franks" and the Archbishop of Reims (437-533) -- in a chapel on top of Wurmlingen Berg. The chapel is named after Remigius, though what connection he has to the hilltop church in Southern Germany I do not know.

St. Remigius' day, coincidentally, is tomorrow.

Sep 29, 2012

'Going to glory'

Going to glory

A notebook preacher.

Sep 28, 2012

'Stop the car'

In its opening weekend a year ago, Courageous, an independent Christian film produced by the film-making ministry of a Ga. Baptist church, brought in more than $9 million in ticket sales. Nearly $8,000 tickets were sold per theater showing the film. The film's budget was only $2 million, in part because half the actors were church volunteers.

Courageous earned eight times its budget in 10 days.

In the four months before Courageous was released on DVD, ticket sales in the US reached a total of more than $34 million.

All of which is only by way of assessing cultural impact.

The director, Alex Kendrick, whose title at the church where he works is associate pastor of media, has been quoted as saying: "They say we're preaching to the choir, but you know what? Sometimes the choir needs a good reminder."

Sep 27, 2012

The religious shape of capitalism

A new study published in Management Science is making a very Max Weber-like claim about the essential differences of religions affecting engagements with capitalism & shaping capitalism.

According to the University of Georgia and Southern Methodist University study, mutual funds are done differently in areas dominated by Catholics than they are in areas dominated by Protestants. The study says that difference is best explained by the respective natures of the different versions of Christianity.

From the abstract:
"Funds located in low-Protestant or high-Catholic areas exhibit significantly higher fund return volatilities. [...] Risk-taking associated with local religious beliefs manifests in higher portfolio concentrations, higher portfolio turnover, more aggressive interim trading, and more "tournament" risk-shifting behaviors, but not over-weighting risky individual stocks. Overall, our results suggest that local religious beliefs have significant influences on mutual fund behaviors."
One of the study's authors told CNN that Baptists in particular make a difference.

The theory, here, is that Baptists are more suspicious of promises of "great solutions" and "great returns," and that, in certain concentrations, that suspicion is adopted by the whole culture.

It will be interesting to see if this holds up & how far the study goes in attempting to explain the data. There's a real statistical difference, apparently, but the more useful/interesting part of the study for religion will be if there's any good argument as to why. Weber's own version of this idea that religion shapes economics, which was an inversion of Marx's claim, has the tendency to seem really persuasive on a certain level, but to not withstand a lot of detailed historical analysis.

A bit of Weber, from the classic The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, written in 1904 and '05:

When a Nazi converts to Islam

He wore a beard, but not a full beard.

He walked to prayers at the nearby mosque.

He read the Quran, but in his own native German rather than the original Arabic.

These are the hints we have to the content of the new-found faith of a dying Nazi. The few facts. They are cryptic, almost incidental, and stubbornly ambiguous. The Nazi doctor known as Dr. Death and the Butcher of Mauthausen spent the last dozen years of his life as a Muslim. He converted, and declared himself changed, a man of faith. What that means, though, is anything but clear.

The 50-year hunt for Aribert Ferdinand Heim ended last week when a German court in Baden Baden decreed he died in Egypt in 1992. Evidence Heim died in Cairo emerged three years ago, but was only confirmed by district court judges on Friday, as reported by Der Spiegel and the New York Times.

With that ruling, certain facts about Heim's years in hiding become clear:

It's known he fled in 1962, abandoning his wife and son and his gynecology practice in Southern Germany when investigators came to his house while he wasn’t home, escaping prosecution for war crimes. He went to France, then Spain, Morocco, Libya, and finally to Cairo on a tourist visa. He changed his name to Tarek Hussein Farid. He learned Arabic and lived in a hotel, away from the other Western ex-pats and the small community of Germans in the more middle class neighborhoods. He converted in Islam in 1980.

But “he converted” meaning what, exactly?

Sep 26, 2012

How the religious right really thinks?

In some quarters this Ralph Reed questionnaire is being reported as evidence of the true Religious Right zeitgeist. How things really are. This is how Reed frames the issue, the "Obama question" and this coming election, and that's supposed to mean that's how it really is for those Reed supposedly can get out to vote.

Reed is, after all, "Romney's best hope for rallying evangelical voters."

Or not.

I'm not much impressed by the Freudian-slip school of interpretation.

Sep 24, 2012

The dopplenamers of American religion

I happened across what's now one of my favorite American religion dopplenamers today, in a Denver Post story about students arrested while advocating for the legalization of marijuana.

Jonathan Edwards, protesting at the University of Colorado at Boulder:

Some other fantastic American religion dopplenamers:

Sep 23, 2012

He generally regretted

"Over on Second Street, the Methodist congregation was singing. The town of Bonners made no other sound. Grainier still went to services some rare times, when a trip to town coincided. People spoke nicely to him there, people recognized him from the days when he'd attended with Gladys, but he generally regretted going. He very often wept in church. Living up in the Moyea with plenty of small chores to distract him, he forgot he was a sad mad. When the hymns began, he remembered."
-- Denis Johnson, Train Dreams

Sep 21, 2012


Sep 20, 2012

The Derrida point

"I was wondering myself where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point so that I do not know any longer where I am going."
-- Jacques Derrida, in response to a question after his 1966 presentation of "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" at Johns Hopkins University, which was a critical event in the history of theory in the United States.

It's a funny comment because, from one standpoint, this is Derrida confirming & affirming a main line of attack on Derrida, that is that he is most essentially an obfuscationist. From another, tho., the comment is the enactment or demonstration of exactly the critical sort of problematic at issue in all of Derrida's thinking.

Sep 19, 2012

German prayers in America

Meeting notes taken in the late 1930s -- that seems to be the very last remnant of the German language in the history of the German United Evangelical Synod of the North America.

Everything official was in English, at that point. There was just one last meeting where one old churchman kept notes in German.

There is no German United Evangelical Synod of North America today. The church joined with the Reformed Church -- itself formerly the German Reformed Church -- in 1934. Then that church, the Evangelical and Reformed Church, joined with the Congregational Churches in 1957 to become the United Church of Christ. Even before that series of ecumenical mergers, though, what was once an immigrant church with a strong ethnic, "Old World" identity had accommodated and assimilated, jettisoning its Germanness, according to History of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, over the course of about 90 years.

That story is the story of immigrant assimilation in America.

Sep 18, 2012

Old Christian radicals

Art Gish also authored Hebron Journal: Stories of Nonviolent Peacemaking, The New Left and Christian Radicalism, and a number of other books on Christian community, Christian living, and anabaptist radicalism. He died in a farming accident several months after this documentary was made.

Peggy Gish has written on her time as a peace activist in Iraq in Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace. She was the first to report U.S. abuses of detainees in Abu Graib, and extensively documented the testimonies of Iraqis detained and abused by U.S. troops. Today she continues her work with the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Gishes belonged to the Church of the Brethern.

The bewildering denseness of an archbishop

There's an insistent denseness to the American Catholic hierarchy that I don't understand. It's baffling.  

How is it that an archbishop can, one moment, be completely cavalier about how the church knowingly put children under the care and supervision of predators, and then, the next moment, earnestly insist on the church's concern for those who were abused?

Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia, did exactly this in an interview last week, when he spoke with the National Catholic Reporter after a "tumultuous first year on the job."

Sep 17, 2012

What good does religion do in politics?

"Current distrust of the role of religion in politics, is focused upon the divisive force of hot button issues, such as abortion, gay and lesbian rights, school prayer, 'family values,' the putative 'secularization' of American society, the role of the religious right in electoral politics, all polarized by the intemperate, and emotional, if not vitriolic, language of print, radio, television, and internet commentators, who increase the size and arouse the emotions of their audiences by frequently belittling, ridiculing, and demonizing those with whom they disagree. In this atmosphere, comity, trust, civility, and fellow regard, necessary habits for democratic discourse cannot thrive. Recently, I was browsing in my local bookstore, when two clerks, who knew I taught courses in religion, confronted me with an urgent question:  'What good does religion do in politics?' They clearly were agitated by some issue of the so-called 'culture wars' featured in the news that morning. As I paused, they added 'in 25 words or less.'
"'I don’t need 25,' I replied. 'My answer is Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.' 
"They were surprised and then nodded, 'O.K. but they were exceptions,' as if I'd cheated. They were, of course, right King and Parks were exceptional, but they are exemplary of the values of citizenship which we ought to try to emulate. And both were inspired and motivated by the religious institutions and values of African-American social Christianity."
-- Albert J. Raboteau, a leading scholar of African-American religion and winner of the James W.C. Pennington Award, on the hope of religion in politics.

Read the full speech: "Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement: As Precedent for Religion in U.S. Politics."

The odd non-relation of the economy & religious construction

Despite signs of an economic recovery in other sectors of construction, religious construction has not picked up again. 

The stats from the US Department of Commerce show that the economic recovery -- sluggish though it may be -- isn't notable at all in spending on construction of houses of worship. The rate of decline with this construction spending isn't steep as it has been at some points since the economic crisis, but things are still moving in the downward direction. 

In the Spring, there was no hint of a reversal to the downward trend. Now, with two more month's worth of data, there's still no sign that spending on religious construction in America will do anything other than continue to decrease. The Summer just hasn't seen a significant uptick in construction spending by religious organizations. 

Given that construction typically increases in Summer months, and that religious construction has not increased this Summer, it doesn't seem likely that there religious construction will increase anytime soon. 

In January 2012, religious organizations spent a bit over $4 billion on construction. That dipped to $3.8 billion in April, $3.9 in May, and came in at $3.8 in June and $3.9 in July, according to the Department of Commerce numbers.

This means the market for religious construction is not responding to the economy in the same way the markets for residential and non-residential construction are responding. One can see the recovery in the statistics for private, non-government spending on other sorts of construction. But not with religious construction. 

Perhaps the era of construction of houses of worship is over in America. Certainly it now seems it was an era, rather than just being normalcy. 

It's difficult to imagine the near future will witness construction spending of the volume seen even during the recession. It's seems less likely still to see how these numbers might again reach the heights they did a decade ago, when nearly $9 billion per month was spent on religious construction in the United States.

The most recent numbers continue to support the point I made in July that there doesn't seem to be any clear relationship between economic conditions and religious construction. The decline in religious construction spending doesn't neatly correlate to the economic crisis, and the economic recovery doesn't   appear to have any bearing on religious construction either. 

It's just not clear what material conditions are conducive to religious construction. There's a kind of strange disconnect between the economy and this sector of the construction market. 

Sep 16, 2012

The very, very basic problem of scientism

"Scientism" is the idea that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge, subject to experiments, empirical verification, and so on. It is "the view that all answerable questions are empirical."

Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and the author of A Universe from Nothing, recently argued for (and, more, from) this position in The Guardian. He argued that philosophy should be replaced by science, since answers, to count as answers, have to be science's answers. What some might see as science's "imperialism," he said, is actually "merely distinguishing between questions that are answerable and those that aren't. To first approximation, all the answerable ones end up moving into the domain of empirical knowledge, aka science."

Beneath Round Mountain

Beneath Round Mountain

In the Swabian Alps for a Saturday.

Sep 14, 2012

The religion of Hobby Lobby

The 28th lawsuit against the Obama Administration's "birth control mandate" was filed this week. This one was filed of behalf the chain of arts-and-crafts stores, Hobby Lobby.

According to Christianity Today, Hobby Lobby is "the first non-Catholic business to file suit."

While the question of what it means, exactly, for a for-profit corporation to "have a religion" is still not clear to me, this case also involves the question of what, specifically, Hobby Lobby's religion is supposed to be. It's not Catholicism, but what is it? The document filed in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City is fairly vague on this point. It says "evangelical," mentions "Jesus Christ" and "biblical," but does not specify a church, nor any authority the Obama administration could have consulted for case-specific clarification of the religion's position on moral issues relating to insurance coverage and birth control methods.

Moral issues which, judging just by the explanations offered by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty lawyers, are complicated:

According to the suit, the arts and crafts store's specific religion is not opposed to birth control per se, but only to birth control that is "abortion causing." This means specifically birth control that prevents fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. Moreover, the company's religion not only prohibits those who adhere to the religion from themselves using such forms of birth control, but also, "forbid[s] them from participating in, providing access to, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise supporting abortion-causing drugs and devices."

The breadth of "otherwise supporting" is obviously problematic. It's the kind of injunction with implications that would have to carefully explicated by a religion's ethicists and theologians.

But who are the authoritative experts of Hobby Lobby's religion?

Sep 13, 2012

Ritual, money, & the death of a pet

By some accounts, the function of religion in daily life, and especially of religious ritual, is to lend solemnity to otherwise puny, pallid human moments.

I think of this as the Peter Ivanovich theory of religion, named after a character in Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Iliyich. Ivanovich, at the start of the story, finds himself at a funeral and "like everyone else on such occasions, entered feeling uncertain what he would have to do. All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to cross oneself."

This is religion as a response to what could be called existential awkwardness. Ritual being what you do when you don't know what to do. The idea is that religion and/or ritual serve to mark, to recognize the seriousness and importance of a moment that would, without that mark, not seem that important at all. There is, in the act, an insistence that something is important and meaningful, despite how it might seem.

This is how I would see pet funerals, the practice of treating deceased pets to the same processes and ceremonies traditionally reserved for humans.

Sep 12, 2012

The exorcist in the American imagination

What does an exorcist look like?

A Roman Catholic priest, if you believe the movies.

There are exceptions. The very recent Sam Raimi film Possession makes the unusual move of having the demons and exorcists be Jewish. In The Last Exorcism, from 2010, the exorcist was a white-suit wearing Southern evangelical. There are also demon films like the Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine and the Denzel Washington vehicle Fallen where the hero isn't a cleric at all.

For the most part, though, exorcist movies depict exorcists as what sociologist Michael W. Cuneo calls "hero priests."

Pretty much the entire list of "best exorcism films" has Catholic exorcists. From The Exorcist and it's sequels and prequels to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, from The Amityville Horror to [Rec]2 and The Rite, the exorcists of the American imagination are Roman priests.

But why?

Sep 11, 2012

Striking balance

Striking balance

Sep 8, 2012

'We gospel rappin'

Christian rap has topped the itunes' charts this week, with the release of Lecrae's album, Gravity, which opens, fittingly, with Lecrae rapping that he writes "songs for the perishin' and parishoners." Gravity was ranked as most-downloaded hip-hop/rap album, and the most-downloaded overall. Sales were expected to reach 60,000 units the first week, "easily a first for a Christian rapper" according to Time.

Lecrae raps on the album about such sales numbers and his own outsized talent -- as per usual, for the genre -- but then calling all that a "power trip," detracting from the fact this is all controlled by God:
And now with every sale I'm feeling my head swell
Well I'm a genius in my dreams
Even if I was, it was stitched inside my genes
I'm self-inflated, self infatuated
And somehow I convinced myself I finally made it
The truth is I was made like the mob
Geppetto put my together -- my strings lead to God

Sep 7, 2012

No attainment for you

"Who is said to have no-thought? and who not-born?
If really not-born, there is no no-birth either;
Ask a machine-man and find out if this is not so;
As long as you seek Buddhahood, specifically exercising yourself for it, there is no attainment for you."

--Yoka Daishi's "Realization-Way-Song"



Sep 5, 2012

Exorcists in America

How many Christian exorcists are there in America?

A new study, which bills itself as "the first of its kind to empirically investigate the practice of Christian exorcism in North America," identified 316 exorcists in the U.S.

Of those, 170 filled out a questionnaire for the psychometrics study, 140 were willing to be interviewed, and 15, randomly chosen, were interviewed.

The study is really interesting, and as far as I know the first of its kind. The findings are difficult to evaluate, though, if one doesn't know if the subjects of the study are representative of the field of exorcists as a whole. And it's difficult to know if the 170 studied in the article published by the Journal of Christian Ministry are representative if one doesn't know how many there are total. How the question of representativeness is answered dramatically changes the claim this study can legitimately make for its findings. The stronger possible claim -- i.e., that this is "how Christian exorcism is practiced in America today" -- depends on this sample of 170 being representative. A weaker version -- e.g., this is how some Christian exorcists practice exorcism -- would still be really interesting, though obviously much more circumspect.

So how many exorcists are there? What do we know about the number?

Sep 4, 2012



The fastest-growing faith

One of the many examples where, when you actually understand the math behind the idea, it seems less significant than everyone makes it out to be.

Sep 2, 2012

I am engaged in taking away

Five hours later and
I come into a room
where a clock ticks.
I find a pillow to
muffle the sounds I make.
I am engaged in taking away
from God his sound.
The pigeons somewhere
above me, the cough
a man makes down the hall,
the flap of wings
below me, the squeak
of sparrows in the alley.

-- John Weiners, A Poem for Record Players

Sep 1, 2012

Rituals for remembering

Rituals for remembering