Aug 28, 2013

Like a Sunday outing



The March on Washington, 50 years ago and today, is sometimes thought of quite sentimentally. The United News International reported at the time that the mix of religion and politics was "like a Sunday outing."

That's sometimes how it's presented now, too. In memory, in celebration, in appropriation of the image and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the radicalism of the argument, its religion and its politics, is often transformed into something inspirationally sentimental -- and more or less meaningless.

It's worthwhile to remember, though, that the religion at the March involved invocations of the prophets. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of justice "rolling down like water" and the day when "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." Such language can be understood as vague and inspirational, but it was, in the context of the protest, a radical claim of divine upheaval. And not just in a general, abstract sense, either.

The prophets were invoked to specific ends. The rhetoric was in support of specific policies. The March on Washington involved some concrete demands.

Aug 27, 2013

Evangelicalism's Hitchcock: Russell S. Doughten Jr., 1927 - 2013

Russell S. Doughten, Jr., a film producer who influenced evangelicals' relationship to movies, died last week. He was 86.

The pivotal moment of Doughten's life came during the premier of the 1968 film he produced, Fever Heat, a stock car racing movie starring Nick Adams. As the film was showing, as Doughten later recalled, he felt convicted he wasn't doing what he was supposed to be doing. He wanted to make movies that were meaningful, and had a purpose, not thrillers with tag lines like "I'm a woman, Ace. And I do everything women do ..."

Doughten watched and thought, "This is a nice film, people are enjoying it and all, but it doesn't lift up Jesus Christ."

He had started in evangelical movie making in the 1950s, working on children's gospel programs for television and low-budget productions for the fundamentalist evangelist Percy Crawford, who founded The King's College and started the nations' first coast-to-coast religious TV broadcast. Then in 1957, Doughten joined the production of the sic-fi classic, The Blob. According to Jeff Sharlet's book, The Family, the idea for the film was thought-up at a National Prayer Breakfast, and was backed by right wing religious businessmen. They saw the gooey monster as a metaphor for Communism, and the film as a way to spread the message about the dangers of that ideology. That may be true, but Doughten saw the film as secular, and saw himself as turning away from religious movies.

"I was thinking," he recalled, "that I needed to make secular films in order to master the technique, the nature of film."

After The Blob, though, and then producing The Hostage in 1967, about a boy who stows away on a moving truck driven by criminals, and Fever Heat in 1968, Doughten was done with secular cinema.


Aug 26, 2013

Tax the churches

Blogger and journalist Matt Yglesias offers an economic argument for taxing churches:
even insofar as tax subsidies do target the true faith they're still a pretty bad idea. The basic problem with subsidized religion is that there's no reason to believe that religion-related expenditures enhance productivity. When a factory spends more money on plant and equipment then it can produce more goods per worker. But soul-saving doesn't really work this way. Upgrading a church's physical plant doesn't enhance the soul-saving capacity of its clergy. You just get a nicer building or a grander Christmas pageant.
At the same time, Yglesias grants that those who want the current tax code's prohibition on politicking from the pulpit lifted are basically right. The law -- though apparently unenforced now for a number of years --   trades special non-tax status for the restriction of speech from the pulpit. Specifically, 501(c)(3) groups are not allowed to officially endorse a candidate and political activities can't be a "substantial" part of their activity.

A growing number of politically oriented pastors, mostly evangelicals, have agitated to end this law. Yglesias thinks they're basically right: "trying to say that churches should get subsidy when they don't endorse candidates is de facto a kind of subsidy to religious doctrines whose views happen to lack strong partisan implications .... That's perverse. Just make everyone pay taxes."

Though most religious leaders are unlikely to like this idea, at least one big figure on the religious right agrees. None other than former presidential contender and pastor Mike Huckabee has actually argued that churches should voluntary choose the status Yglesias is suggesting as policy.

"Freedom," Huckabee said, "is more important that government financial favors."

Aug 24, 2013

'a final and glorious windup'


The Evening Statesman, Walla Walla, Wash., 1909:
PORTLAND, Me.,  Sept. 14 -- The north pole was discovered just in the nick of time. After 10.20.30 a. m. tomorrow there won't be any north pole. Incidentally, there won't be any world. This statement is made on the authority of the leader of Maine's most famous sect, The Holy Ghost and Us society, who predicts that the world and all that is in it will come to a final and glorious windup tomorrow morning. The prophecy was made at Cape Town, Africa, where the founder of the peculiar sect stopped over while on his recently completed holy junket. He is the Rev. Frank Sandford, alias 'Elijah, the Uncrowned King,' as he prefers to be known.  
Today the Holy Ghost and Us society followers are making preparations to don the pure white robes, go up to the housetops of their colony in Shiloh and await the dread moment.  
When it comes they expect to see the sky go to smash, the earth dashed into smithereens and they themselves transported into the realms of bliss, while all others pass into destruction. 
The apocalyptic expectation came, incidentally, six years after Sandford declared himself to be "the prophet-prince-priest who is to prepare the Kingdom for the Christ ... the man who as a prophet is called in the Bible 'Elijah,' and as a prince is called 'David,' and as a priest is called 'Tsemach,' or 'The Branch," and required his followers to sign on to that declaration.

It came nine years after Charles Parham ended his association with Sandford. There is evidence Parham modeled Bethel Bible School, in Topeka, Kan., the birthplace of Pentecostalism, after Sanford's Shiloh. Shiloh was also the first place Parham witnessed xenolalia, though Sandford and the people of Holy Ghost and Us did not believe the ecstatic experience of speaking in tongues was a sign of sanctification. It was the doctrine of "first evidence" that divided Pentecostalism from other branches of the holiness movement, and proto-pentecostal groups like Sandford's.

Aug 22, 2013

Religion and politics in maps


There are 435 members of the US House of Representatives. Asked about their religious affiliation, the Congressman and women give 31 different answers.

BuzzFeed reports: 
There are 31 religions represented in the House, including 26 different sects of Christianity. Catholics make up the largest group with 136 members, followed by Baptists with 66 members, Methodists with 45 members, Anglicans/Episcopalians with 35 members, Presbyterians with 28 members, and Jews with 22 members. There is only one atheist.
Fourteen maps show some of the different religion's geographical representations.

There all sorts of interesting things that can be seen with these maps. With Lutheran representatives, for example, one finds they're mostly concentrated in areas with historically high emigration from Lutheran countries, specifically Germany and Sweden: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Central Texas. Wyoming didn't have any particular influx of Germans or Swedes, but did have a number of Finnish miners who settled there in the 1860s, and the Church of Finland is Lutheran.

There are also some outliers, where the Lutheran representative wouldn't likely be explained by historic emigration patterns, such as California, Washington, Maine. Maybe Colorado? This makes sense too, because Lutheranism isn't just an ethnic church -- both the church and the people who brought it to America have integrated into America, and can be found across the country. The map is, actually, a kind of good representation of Lutheranism in the US. It's an interestingly idiosyncratic way to look at that.

And there are 13 others, each which brings up interesting questions.

Why are there no Catholics in Congress from the Rocky Mountain states? Why aren't Presbyterians more regionally concentrated, like Baptists and Methodists? What explains the smattering of Midwestern Jewish representatives? How come there are no Episcopalians from along the Mississippi or in the plains states, though there are Episcopalian representatives from other areas of the South and West?

Aug 21, 2013

Birthday Girl

Those with 'no particular religion' were never particularly religious

There's been a lot of confusion about the "nones," the religiously unaffiliated, and a big need to interrogate interpretations of that rising demographic.

A panel of expert on survey research on US religion, assembled earlier this month by the Pew Research Center, offers some of the clearest explication I have seen of the "nones." A transcript of that panel is now available. The take-away: the rise of the "nones" isn't nothing, but it is less significant than has commonly been understood. Religious practices, beliefs and values have more or less remained constant in the last 40 years. The percentages of people who say that religion is very important to them have remained more or less constant. The percentages of people who say that religion isn't important in their lives have also remained pretty steady.

What's changed is self-identification. That is, it's easier now to say one is not religiously affiliated.

Alternatively, it's harder now to say one is religiously affiliated.

Aug 20, 2013

The Bible in America


More than three-quarters of Americans believe morals are declining. Of those, nearly a third say the cause is not enough Bible reading, according to a Barna Group study done for the American Bible Society. 

Other highlights:
  • 26 percent say they read the Bible four times per week or more.
  • 61 percent say they wish they read the Bible more.
  • 38 percent say they read the King James Version.
  • The verses most cited as favorite were John 3:16 (20 percent), Psalm 23 (9 percent) and Jeremiah 29:11 (2 percent). 
  • The average American home has about 4 Bibles. 
  • 12 percent of Americans say they don't own a Bible.
  • The percentage of Americans who don't own a Bible has increased by four points in the last decade.
  • The percentage of Americans who say the Bible is sacred literature has declined by 6 points in the last two years. 
  • 49 percent believe the Bible is without error, but more than half of those do not believe everything in the Bible is to be taken "literally, word for word."
  • 6 percent of Americans say there are no holy books. 
  • 10 percent of regular Bible readers ages 18-28 say Revelation is their favorite book. 
The report, State of the Bible in 2013, can be found here.


Aug 19, 2013

When women's rights were opposed to African American's

The saying is that politics makes strange bedfellows. Sometimes, though, it also divides coalitions, turning allies into enemies. That's what happened in the campaign for women's right to vote and for American American's right to vote. 

This week marks the 93rd anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which stated that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." The road to that amendment was complicated, sometimes crazy and morally conflicted.

In one peculiar episode, those advocating for African American rights ended up opposing women's rights, and those advocating women's rights ended up opposing American American's. This even though, only a short time earlier, the two movements had been deeply connected, even interdependent.

How that happened:
[B]y the spring of 1866, the women’s cause, as [Elizabeth Candy] Stanton had said, was in deep water. So [Susan B.] Anthony and Stanton, along with their allies in the abolitionist movement -- including Frederick Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher, and the radical editor Theodore Tilton -- formed the American Equal Rights Association for white and black men and women to lobby the government for universal equal rights for all, male and female, black and white. Eloquent as ever, Douglass declared, 'The right of woman to vote is as sacred in my judgment as that of man, and I am quite willing at any time to hold up both hands in favor of this right.' 
The path to securing that right had just been made more difficult, though: the Fourteenth Amendment had introduced the category of 'male' into the Constitution, where it had never been used before. 'If that word "male" be inserted,' Stanton gloomily warned, 'it will take us at least a century to get it out.' 
Why not guarantee voting rights to all adult persons -- or, better yet, to citizens? she wanted to know. 'The disfranchised all make the same demand, and the same logic and justice which secures suffrage for one class gives it to all,' Stanton explained. She and Anthony hoped to have another friend in the popular orator Anna Dickinson. Douglass credited Dickinson, along with Theodore Tilton, for articulating what would become the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing black male suffrage, and she was also praised for educating the public about it. But Dickinson linked arms with moderate Republicans, who, along with many former abolitionists, unceremoniously reminded Stanton and Anthony that this was the 'Negro’s hour.' This was the nation’s hour, Stanton replied. 
Everyone walks through the door or no one walks through the door, she said. Wendell Phillips disagreed with Stanton. The spokesman for the independent voter, the disenfranchised, and the cause of black equality, Phillips was not ready to speak up for women; he reiterated that the ladies' turn would come; they just needed to wait. He did not object to the enfranchisement of women per se, he said, but he thought that campaigning for 'woman suffrage' (as it was called) undercut the case for black males. One reform at a time. Stanton was furious. 'If the two millions of southern black women are not to be secured in their rights of person, property, wages, and children,' she said, 'then their emancipation is but another form of slavery.'

Aug 17, 2013

'The people of God in a world called Egypt'

Larry Eskridge on how the Jesus People movement affected evangelical's relationship with popular culture:
Before the Jesus People evangelicalism had a very nervous, if not downright oppositional, relationship to 'worldly entertainments' and all the allures of popular and youth culture. The Jesus movement, however, was much more comfortable in baptizing popular/youth culture and making a Christianized version that could be put forward as a means to both evangelize unbelieving youth and build up the kids who came from evangelical homes and churches. There was, and still is, opposition to this way of handling these boundaries between 'the World' and 'The Church,' but to a large degree, the Jesus People marked a revolution in handling these relationships.

In terms of the particular historical moment, the Jesus movement’s biggest bottom line was in generational terms: it played a major role in keeping evangelicalism together by providing a much easier path for a lot of people -- particularly evangelical kids raised in the church -- to navigate the massive changes that buffeted American society and culture during that period. The Jesus People had a degree of 'with-it-ness' and a cultural cache that the larger movement certainly didn't possess going into the late '60s. I think it's fair to say that if the Jesus People hadn't come along when they did the evangelical church would have been nowhere near as formidable a force throughout American culture come the 1980s and beyond.
This aspect of the movement -- and of the way evangelicalism changed in the 1970s -- also seems critical to the reception of both Hal Lindsey and Francis Schaeffer. Eskridge is right, I think, that the Jesus People movement is critical to the history of evangelicals at the end of the 20th century. His book God's Forever Family is well worth checking out.

Below, Keith Green preaching about Exodus at one of the last Jesus People festivals, Jesus West Coast '80. As Green sums up the message, it's exactly what Eskridge is talking about: negotiating cultural engagements. Being separate, but relevant.

"This is about you and I," Green says. "The people of God in a world called Egypt. Or a spiritual sodom. Figure that one out."

Aug 16, 2013

Jerry Jenkins asks, 'Why Nicolas Cage?'

It's not exactly an endorsement, but one of the writers of Left Behind is willing to defending the controversial casting choice in the forthcoming remake of the movie.

And he's willing to at least associate with the film. On the second day of the reboot's filming, Jerry Jenkins visited the set, posed in the cockpit of the plane, joked about how he would not be a good choice for the lead, and met the cast and crew:

Photo: Cloud Ten Pictures. 
L-R: Evangelist Sammy Tippett, unidentified, producer Paul Lalonde and author Jerry Jenkins. 
Tim LaHaye, who conceived the series, has said this remake of Left Behind involves the worst script he's ever read, is nothing like the book, and has no redemptive content.

Jenkins, who wrote the mammoth bestseller, has not commented on the film. He did diss the last one, though, calling it a church-basement movie. Both he and LaHaye thought the movie version of Left Behind should be a big budget, mass market production, rather than something that went direct to DVD and was marketed to Christian youth groups.

The remake is being produced by the same company as the 2001 version, but the company's plans for the film seems different this time.

The movie is being directed by Vic Armstrong, a famous stuntman-turned-director. There's an estimated budget of $15 million, compared to $2 million in 2001. And Nicolas Cage is starring as the man who, when the story starts, has his "fully loaded 747" on autopilot and is thinking about cheating on his wife.

Jenkins hasn't said what he thinks of all this, but he did go on set and seemed excited about Cage.

His report of his visit:
Jenkins also commented on his facebook page, a few days later, defending Cage to Left Behind and Kirk Cameron fans. Jenkins wrote,
Nicolas Cage was selected by the Left Behind filmmakers for his role because of his talent in the same way you might choose a surgeon or a mechanic. If you're a fan [of Left Behind], honor him by spelling his name correctly and realizing that he likely has people who find references to him in social media like this, thus, your comments could easily find their way back to him. You don't have to agree with the choice or be a fan, but I'm sure you'll want to be respectful.
It's a little bit of an endorsement.

In the book, incidentally, Jenkins writes that the pilot looked like Robert Redford.

Aug 15, 2013

The religious rights of corporations to go to the Supreme Court

SCOTUSblog  reports:
A ruling last month by the Third Circuit Court, rejecting a challenge to the new health care law’s nationwide mandate of birth control health insurance for workers, will stand. By a seven-to-five vote on Wednesday, that court refused to reconsider the case before all of the active judges. Now that there is a split on the issue in federal appeals courts, a question now arises with regard to which case will get to the Supreme Court first. 
The Third Circuit’s panel ruling, and a separate decision by the en banc Tenth Circuit Court, came in cases involving profit-making business firms run by religiously devout families who oppose birth control measures as a matter of their faiths. The two appeals courts differ on a key constitutional point: can a profit-making business engage in the practice of religious beliefs? The Third Circuit said no, while the Tenth Circuit said yes. 
If, as expected, the issue is taken on to the Supreme Court, it will confront the Justices for the first time with the scope of religious rights -- if any -- that a business firm may claim, seeking protection under the First Amendment.
In both cases -- Hobby Lobby Inc. vs. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. vs. Health and Human Services -- the for-profit companies are owned by a single family that has identified religious purposes guiding their business practices. They have argued that they not just privately religious, but that the corporations they own are religious as well, and the corporations' religious rights must be protected under the First Amendment.

The Obama administration acknowledges that corporations can have religious rights. Many churches are corporations. The administration argues, however, that corporations can't be considered to have religions if they're also engaged in turning a profit. The plaintiff's in these cases, on the other hand, argue that their religion requires that they exercise their religion in their business endeavors.

Government advised to allow politics in the pulpit

Fourteen religious leaders -- mostly evangelicals with conservative political leanings -- filed a report with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, Wednesday, arguing for tax code reform that would allow churches to endorse political candidates.

As it currently stands, 501(c)(3) groups such as churches are exempt from paying taxes and can offer donors tax deductions on charitable contributions. They also don't have to file tax returns, which other non-profit groups do. They are forbidden, however, from engaging in political campaigns. They cannot give money to candidates and they cannot endorse candidates. They can lobby legislators, attempting to influence legislation, and can make statements about political issues, but only as long as that is not a "substantial" part of their regular activities.

Some churches skirt these issues, giving coded and indirect endorsements. In recent years, more than 1,000 Christian pastors have organized to break the law on a designated Sunday in an act of civil disobedience. They have sent recordings of their overtly electioneering sermons to the IRS to try to start a legal battle. These pastors believe that they should have the right to the non-profit tax status without having to sacrifice political speech.

The IRS has not responded to the provocations.

Audits of religious groups' election-related activities seem to have stopped in 2009, for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

There have been questions about who within the IRS is empowered to authorize an audit, if anyone. The rules require a regional commissioner to authorize the audit of a 501(c)(3), but bureaucratic reorganization left the IRS without any regional commissioners. The last known audit -- where a pastor endorsed Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann from the pulpit -- was thrown out of court because of the authorization question. Since then, there have been no known cases of enforcement, despite some flagrant violations of the law.

The Commission on the Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations cites the IRS' failure to enforce the rules as one of the reasons the "electioneering prohibition" should be killed.

Other reasons:
  • The official guidelines are vague, and put a chill on permissible free speech.
  • The IRS has not enforced the rules in any consistent way.
  • For some faith communities, political engagement is part of their culture and history. 
The group -- which includes representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Esperanza, Cru, and Chik-fil-A's charitable arm, the Cathy Family Foundation -- concludes that the "status quo is untenable."

Aug 14, 2013

Romeikes don't have to return to Germany

The German homeschooling family seeking asylum in the United States, arguing that homeschoolers should be treated as a protected class under immigration law, may soon be deported. Currently, the Home School Legal Defense Association is appealing the case to the Supreme Court. If the court declines to hear the case or if it is heard and Uwe and Hannelore Romeike lose, they and their family will have to leave the US.

That doesn't mean they have to go back to Germany, however.

Most of the conservative, Christian and homeschooling-friendly news outlets that have reported on this case have published lightly rewritten press releases from the legal association defending the Romeikes. They have repeated the claim that if the Romeikes are deported, they will be forced to return to Germany. In Germany, the Romeikes faced mounting fines and could face legal proceedings for their refusal to send their children to public or private school. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, the family's only options are that hostile environment or US asylum.

Given that the whole legal case was orchestrated by HSLDA as a test case to affect US law, and as part of an international expansion strategy, and given that the organization has used the case to raise awareness and funds in the US, the group is not an unbiased source of information.

On this, the HSLDA is wrong.

Aug 13, 2013

Karl Barth the Civil War buff

Karl Barth spent seven weeks in the US on a coast-to-coast tour in 1962. He was 75 at the time, recently retired and widely renowned.

He met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the trip. He publicly criticized the treatment of African Americans and made controversial statements about American prisons. He recoiled at the corporate sponsorship of TV programs. He got his picture on the cover of Time Magazine and saw two Edward Albee plays. He said the Statue of Liberty should inspire a theology of freedom, but that "That Lady needs certainly a little (or perhaps even a good bit) of demythologization!"

He lectured to crowded halls and received honorary doctorates and debated with other theologians.

And, also, he went down to the James River in Virginia and shot a Confederate Civil War rifle.


Aug 10, 2013

Anticipating the tone of the new Left Behind

"Some folks," said Nicolas Cage, star of the forthcoming remake of Left Behind, sometimes "think that we're not in on the joke."

He wasn't talking about Left Behind specifically. Cage was promoting his latest release, a serial killer story set in Alaska, and talking about his career. He talked about the Nic Cage memes, and critical responses to The Wicker Man, and his reputation generally. But could that comment could also apply to the Left Behind reboot?

Fan-produced promotional art
for the Left Behind remake
The filming of Left Behind, the blockbusting series of books that fictionalized an evangelical understanding of the imminent apocalypse, got started this weekend. It's been eight years since the third installment of the original series, a low budget affair that was panned by the few critics who bothered to review it. The series reboot has a bigger budget -- an estimated $15 million -- a mainstream distribution deal, more than 10,000 likes on Facebook, and a cast not associated with church basement movies or Christian television.

There's a good bit of information available about the forthcoming rapture remake, but one thing that isn't clear right now is what tone it will take.

Is there a joke here?

Is there a layer or level at which this will be all irony?

Perhaps the whole thing will be very serious, and ridiculous in that way. Certainly the previous Left Behind films were presented in that fashion, as B movies for youth group showings. Some of the same production people are involved.

There's some evidence, though, that the people making this movie are having fun with it. It's difficult to tell, but the question is there. Will the new Left Behind be a campy send-up of of the story that, as Yale English professor Amy Hungerford pointed out, has the aesthetics of an action flick and is occasionally oddly erotically charged?

It's possible this film will be more like Bubba Ho-Tep or Snakes on a Plane than the last Left Behind or, say, Fireproof.

For one thing, the co-author and originator of the ideas of the mega-bestselling evangelical apocalypse novels has said that he's read the script and he hates it. "It's probably the worst script I've ever read," LeHaye said to the Christian Post. "There is no redemptive value to this movie."

Aug 8, 2013

Snake handlers embrace media attention


The National Geographic channel is planning a show on two Tennessee men and their communities struggling to keep the snake-handling faith. Titled Snake Salvation, it's scheduled to debut in September.

Bob Smietena of the Tennessean reports:
A crew from National Geographic Television followed the two preachers in the fall of 2012 and the spring and summer of 2013. Sixteen episodes are planned so far, said executive producer Matthew Testa.

Testa said that because their faith is dangerous and illegal to practice in most states, serpent-handing congregations have been wary of the media in the past. By getting to know [Jamie] Coots and [Andrew] Hamblin, he said, viewers will get a view into a unique religious culture.  
'We live at a time when, because of the Internet and television, we are all becoming more and more alike,' he said. 'To find a really distinct American subculture is incredibly rare.'
Coots, for his part, told the Tennessean that he hopes the show helps people realize there's more to snake-handling churches than handling snakes, featuring the day-to-day struggles of living out their faith.

Aug 7, 2013

Robert Bellah and the 'religious turn'

A little noted episode in Robert Bellah's career, from the New York Times obituary:
As a result of Professor Bellah’s abiding concern with religion, his work did not find favor in all scholarly quarters.

In 1973, after he had been named to a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., many of the institute's faculty -- whose members were overwhelmingly scientists and mathematicians -- called his scholarly credentials into question.

The apparent reason, Professor Bellah's colleagues said this week, was that in the ardently secular canon of the hard sciences, religion was deemed an insufficiently rigorous subject for scholarly scrutiny. Professor Bellah renounced the appointment and remained at Berkeley.
Steven Tipton, professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory University and one of Bellah's co-authors on Habits of the Heart, told the New York Times that Bellah's work "shows how religion is enacted in history and cannot be grasped outside it," which is to say, it's a real subject for scholarship.

It's common to hear talk of the "religious turn" in academia. Not sure there's a better example of the dramatic difference in how religion is treated in academia now than the distance between Bellah's conflict at Princeton in '73 and his reputation at his death in '13.

"Modern America has a soul, not only a body," Tipton said, "and Bellah probed that soul more deeply and subtly than anyone in his field or his time."

Aug 6, 2013

Religious art's religious (?) evocations

When is art religious? When is art religious art?

According to some recent reviews, the religiousness of art resides in its ability to put an audience in a particular emotional state, a state similar to that of a church service. Art is deemed religious, by these critics, because it has the power to move people in ways similar to how people are moved in a church.

One example of this: Morgan Meis, writing on the recent art installation "Aten Reign" at the Guggenheim in New York City, finds a link between art and church in the way the art turns observers into practitioners. Meis writes:
The direct connection between [James] Turrell’s art and the practices of Quaker worship are obvious.

So obvious, that I’d like to suggest that the best way to approach and interpret Turrell’s installation at the Guggenheim is to say it is a Quaker meeting. Observe, if you will, what happens when people enter the ground floor of the museum. They stop and look up. They see that the spirals of the Guggenheim have been transformed into a glowing light installation. They roam around for a minute or so looking up. Then they find a space to lie down on the floor. Generally, they stop talking. They watch the glowing lights and the luminescent egg. This silent watching goes on for many minutes. More than ten minutes. More than fifteen minutes for many people, and more than that for others.

In other words, James Turrell has managed to get people in New York City to lie on the floor silently meditating.
For his part, Turrell has been more hesitant on the "obvious" connection between his faith and his art. I share that hesitancy. It seems to me to be too easy to make too much of the connection.

Aug 2, 2013

Robert Bellah, 1927 - 2013

Robert Bellah, a sociologist whose work deeply informed the study of American religion, died on Wednesday from complications following heart surgery. He was 86.

Bellah's original work focused on Japan, but his work on modern individualism and civil religion -- a term he's credited with popularizing -- have been absolutely critical to those thinking about religion in the contemporary American context. According to Jeffery Alexander, of Yale's Center for Cultural Sociology, Bellah was the last living founder of cultural sociology, and "there's a sense in which every contemporary sociologist is Bellah's child, niece, or nephew." Something similar could be said for those studying 20th and 21st century American religiosity as well. In an important way, thinking about religion in American public life and thinking about spirituality in Americans' private lives is thinking after Bellah.

A significant thrust of Bellah's work was a moral critique of the forces that prevent and undermine group belonging, paired with a critique of what he saw as misuses of such group belonging.

He told the Berkeleyan in 2006 "group belonging is inherently a fulfillment of our humanity, [and] the idea of living totally alone, totally in isolation, is totally unnatural." For Bellah, that belief was undergirded by both the Christian practice of communion and the sociology of Emilé Durkheim.