Funny Faith

The entertainment industry is a window through which we might see what it is we value. After all, our mad-money and disposable income are often channeled toward the things we want, as opposed to what we really need. Living near New York City, it is clear that entertainment is also big business. Last night Spider-Man opened on Broadway to decidedly lackluster reviews. The web-slinger has had quite a journey from comic book to the musical stage—sometimes making it big, other times getting squashed. Earlier this week, however, it was The Book of Mormon that was making the news. Winning nine Tony awards, this musical is the first thing to pop up on a Google search when “Book of Mormon” is typed in (at the moment), I suppose, much to Mitt Romney’s chagrin.

A friend recently asked me why people take religion so seriously. To me it seems that it is a matter of historical development. Most religions developed before the culture of leisure took over. As I tell my students each semester, even in the early part of last century most people lived on farms rather than in cities. Time for leisure was rare and life was taken seriously: all work and no play. If we push that back a century, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was started, the effect was even more widespread. Go back to the days of Muhammad, Jesus, or Moses and the struggle to survive gets increasingly more difficult. Religion is a coping mechanism. When worries about food and shelter become less onerous, we can laugh at the path that led us here. Along the way few of us have met radioactive spiders, but most of us have been warmed, singed, or wholly consumed by religion in some form.

Well, in the entertainment industry talent also plays into it. But it has to be the right combination of talent. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have been making the social commentary A-list for several years now. (Bono and the Edge have too, but Broadway just doesn’t seem to be their genre.) Maybe trying to convert those of vastly different culture to white-shirt-and-tie, clean-cut American values is inherently funny. I suspect there is something more at work here. We are allowed to laugh at Mormonism—the other white religion—without too much recrimination. It is safe. What I doubt we’d ever see on Broadway is The Book of Common Prayer: the Musical. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Incredible Hulk lurch onto stage and burst into song.

Everybody dance!

Vital Statistics

While going through a folder looking for some vital record recently I ran across my baptism certificate. The more I pondered this piece of paper the more reflective I became. In this electronic age when you can pay your bills online, keep all your bank records online, apply for and (perhaps) be offered a job online, we still hold stock in simple pieces of paper. Even without a pre-nup, couples are given a piece of paper to prove that they are married. When we’re born the first gift of the government is a birth certificate. Most of us don’t get to see our own death certificates, which, I suppose, is mostly a good thing. With the exception of the latter, we often have occasion to show these official papers to prove we are who we say we are. But what of the baptism certificate? Who do we show it to? Is it for God’s eyes only?

As an occasional dabbler in genealogy I have come to know the value of the family Bible. Sometimes the family tree recorded therein contains records that even the government may lack, often tucked away between the testaments as if we were all Maccabees. It might seem a curious place to keep personal records, but the practice dates back to the time when, if families could not afford to surround themselves with books, they would at least have a Bible. That Bible was a logical place for vital records since many people believed their own lives were recorded in God’s great book and having your name in a Bible was a species of insurance: after all, if God wrote it surely it was good to have your name there.

Like much of commerce, genealogy has now shifted to the Internet. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has extensive online databases available (for a fee). We are all curious about where we’ve come from—how this spark of consciousness got inside this body. We can look at our birth certificate and learn some of the vital statistics, but we know that we are somehow more than the simple blending of gametes to form a zygote. At thresholds along the way we are given papers by which we might later prove ourselves. My box full of diplomas lies moldering away in some mildew-infested closet while on my bookshelf rests a Bible with the record of how it all began. At each major junction some form of religion is there, and more often than not, when it is all over we’ll end up with a piece of paper to prove who we’ve been.

A bureau of vital statistics

Faith Value

An interesting op-ed piece by Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times appeared in today’s newspaper. McManus notes that twenty-eight of the forty-four Presidents of the United States have come from just four mainstream Protestant denominations. This year’s Republican front-runner list contains no mainstream Protestant denominational candidates at all. This McManus takes to reflect a growing tolerance among the American populace, but also shows how deeply rooted religion is in what has become, in a covert way, a theocratic state. Religious sentiment rules politics and savvy politicians know how to play the religion card to achieve the power they crave. As McManus’ column makes clear, when campaign season rolls around candidates begin attending church again. Of course, the average American accepts their sincere proclamations of religious faith at face value.

McManus also points out that the front-runner for the GOP, Mitt Romney, will face some difficulty as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Most evangelical Protestants reject Mormonism from their fold, claiming that they follow a different shepherd or just see everything through rose-colored glasses. Mormonism, however, is among the fastest growing denominations in the country (the claim for fastest is staked by far too many to get an accurate count; it is a safe bet, however, that it is evangelical). Mormons tend to come down on the right side of conservative social issues, but without the seal of mainstream approval, the bid for presidency remains a difficult goal.

The other corollary that McManus points out is that mainstream denominations are losing their place of social prominence. Today it is far more likely that a person refers to a Pentecostal or non-denominational believer (or even a Catholic!) as a “Christian” than they would refer to a Methodist, Presbyterian, or a Lutheran as such. Both the political and religious rules have changed. Americans want a Christian President, but they have lost sight of what that actually means. In the mud-slinging that accompanies any campaign season, suspicions cast on a candidate’s political orthodoxy will be sure to score big points. It is an open question whether a democracy and a theocracy can truly coexist.


Joseph Smith in the Spotlight

Mormons on Broadway? Well, not actual LDSers, but their famous founding document, The Book of Mormon, is now a Broadway show. While I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for The Quran to be produced, holy books have often been utilized by the media as rich venues for timeless tales. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar come to mind as Lloyd Webber adaptations. Godspell, while not as directly scriptural, drew its inspiration from the Gospels (particularly Matthew). Those who lose are those who resist the free press of popular culture.

At the risk of sounding Niebuhrian, the religion that refuses the blessing of society is the one that will fade away. Religions are human institutions, and as such, require human adherents. Critics often claim that popular adaptations of their sacred writ are making fun of the texts, but is not cultural adaptation all about celebrating a story that has won its way into the media and outside the confines of rigid orthodoxy? Which version can be said to be truly alive? This is not theology, it’s theater.

Working with students who have very little background in the Bible, I clearly see the wisdom of taking what are admittedly dry texts and bringing them to life. Religions often founder in the process of mistaking form for substance. Literalism has done more to damage religions that it has to keep them pure. Reviews from the Book of Mormon attest to its appeal, and in a country where the Latter Day Saints are generally considered the second-fastest growing church, the musical is a boon. Trey Parker and Matt Stone can hardly be accused of attempting to convert the heathen, but their show cannot but help to bring this particular denomination into the public eye nearly as much as Mitt Romney’s attempted candidacy will. That’s what I call rose-colored glasses!

You've seen the show, now why not read the book?

Fear of Voodou

The Associated Press fed a story this morning entitled “How an earthquake shook the Haitian’s faith.” Among the aftershocks of last month’s horrific disaster, many groups have ignored Rush Limbaugh’s charitable advice and have gone to Haiti on humanitarian missions. The story reports how many of these groups, generally Christian, dispense their aid outside churches and that many of the native believers in Voodou are being encouraged to convert to mainstream Christianity. Voodou priests are worried about this since, in the words of one, “by rejecting Voodou these people are rejecting their ancestors and history. Voodou is the soul of the Haitian people. Without it, the people are lost.”

Many of the missionaries bearing gifts, among them Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, see Voodou as a strange and pagan religion. The fact is that Voodou is a form of Christianity blended with indigenous African religions during the unfortunate days of slavery. Retaining their African spirits in the guise of Roman Catholic saints, the slaves of the Caribbean developed a religion they could truly believe in as they were forced to “believe” in Catholicism. In mainstream Christianity their religion is viewed with fear and distrust primarily because the religion it blends with is non-European in origin. Most Christians are unaware of the blended variety of their own faith. Early Christian missionaries into Europe found it much easier to convert native gods into saints in order to convince local populations that Christianity wasn’t such as radical a switch as it seemed. The old gods could still be worshiped, only as lesser deities.

In the “New World,” Christianities continued to evolve. Today’s Fundamentalism has very little in common with the Christianities of the first century. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are all religions that have developed in or since the nineteenth century in America, quite often from blends of traditional Christianity and new religious sensibilities. Religion is not immune to evolution, and the history of religions proves that fact beyond any doubt. And yet to those who do not know the origins of Voodou it appears non-Christian and worthy of conversion. Is it not possible to help those of another variety of religion simply because they are humans in need rather than requiring a baptismal certificate in order to claim your daily bread?

A Voodou service from WikiCommons

Constantine’s Dilemma

A time-honored adage educates each generation not to discuss religion or politics in polite company. The reasons for this are transparent; both religion and politics tend to be fiercely held belief systems and clashes between differing parties seldom end without scars and regrets. I recently read Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. Initially my impression is that this book ought to be required reading for members of any political party so that they might find documented evidence of whence the real power struggles lie. It is known by anyone with a modicum of political savvy that the past several presidential elections have been decided on the success of courting voters of the evangelical variety of Christianity. What Blumenthal reveals and other sources confirm is just how intermixed religion and politics have become.

One of the most important books of last year

This is a very thorny issue. America was founded as a nation advocating religious freedom and also as a nation that would open its leadership to any qualified (more-or-less) candidate. Clergy have historically served in politics, but presidential candidates who are actively ordained and practicing their office have been rare. Not so rare in recent years, however, are those who forsake the adage and boldly proclaim their faith as a key to garnering votes. This has led to a public interest and scrutiny of what used to be the extremely private life of an individual. Religious beliefs, quietly held, motivate many people – presidents and politicians included. The difficulty Blumenthal highlights erupts when the genuinely religion-driven charge for political office with the hopes of implementing policy based on their personal faith. Americans have taken a new interest in discovering what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is all about with the recent candidacy of Mitt Romney. We covered that religious landscape in Religion 101. Reading Blumenthal, however, I learned something new about Sarah Palin’s religious convictions.

Deemed “the Third Wave” movement (see also Bruce Wilson’s article in the Huffington Post), Palin’s religion is a variety of Christianity I’d never heard of even with a lifetime in the field of religious studies. What seems clear from the sketchy information available is that the putative wave began in the 1980s (when I was too busy studying religion to notice) with the work of Rev. C. Peter Wagner. Its goal, according to its theologians, is the takeover of first the church and then the world. Not just metaphorically. Since Palin told reporters, according to today’s paper, that she is seriously considering a run for the presidency in 2012, I wonder if it is time for all of us to go back to school and learn a little more about this variety of religious belief. I’m old enough to remember a time when politics was politics and religion was religion, and ne’er the twain did meet. That day is gone, and Americans will find it necessary to learn about religions again to discover the sometimes hidden motives behind politicians’ decisions. Max Blumenthal’s book is an excellent primer, but frankly, I long for the days I still recall when politics and religion had separate, securely locked bedrooms.