Tintinnabulation

On a summer’s day when I can work with the windows open, I hear the bells of a local church.  We haven’t been in our current location long enough to know for sure, but they seem to come from the direction of the United Methodists.  Around noon each day they ring out hymn tunes to which I often find myself filling in the words.  These are traditional hymns that I’ve known from childhood, and there’s an easy familiarity about hearing them, although my own spiritual journey may have taken me in different directions.  The sound of bells is so pleasant, I think, that nobody really objects.  Then I wonder about what I thought.

Music in public places does impact other people.  Consider the heavy metal or rap booming out of a passing car with the stereo turned up too high for human consumption.  Or jazz in the park.  Music impacts other people.  What, I wonder, is the message those of other religions hear along with these old hymns?  Do they suggest more than the praise of the locals for their version of the Almighty?  Is there some subtle proselytizing going on?  Is the music for members of the parish only, or can outsiders hear it and be free of obligation?  In many ways this encapsulates, I believe, the conflicts rife throughout our nation.  Traditionalists who see nothing wrong with “white” Christianity spreading its message but who object to a mosque being built in their community would likely find church bells comforting, even if they personally don’t attend.  Those from the outside, meanwhile, hear a message of cultural superiority.

Some sects feel compelled to praise God vocally, often and enthusiastically.  Their religion insists they do so.  Hymns ringing from the steeple, even if they’re not exactly your brand, participate in that mandate.  The deity likes to be adored.    (Think Psalms.)  This specific divinity, however, isn’t alone.  Perhaps beyond the bounds of where these sound waves flatten out to inaudibility, there are others with religious beliefs often older.  They too have rules about how to behave.  They may not be friendly to those who come bearing a new message of a new truth.  Globalization follows in the wake of technology and no god beyond the laws of physics oversees tech.  Our smartphones have made the world a much smaller place.  In such tight quarters, sounds carry.  Church bells, innocent as they seem, may be heard as a war cry.  But I wouldn’t suggest such things on a day so pleasant that I can work with my windows open and listen to the bells.

Rumors of Wars

Now that Black Friday and Thanksgiving are behind us, the holiday season compels us to think of what comes next. Whether it is Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanza, people are preparing to celebrate during the longest nights of the year, hoping to encourage light to return. It is a most primitive urge. Darkness is easy to come by; light takes a little more effort. In the western world the season was largely instituted by the celebration of Christmas, although this took many, many years to catch on. Now it is a begrudging nod in the direction of workers who spend more and more of their time on the job since the internet makes it difficult to claim that we are unavailable. Smart phones, smart watches, tablets, and computers are ubiquitous, so access to work email is only a click away. In any case, the holiday season invariably brings stories of offended people to the surface.

A recent piece in The Baxter Bulletin, sent to me by my wife, rehearses the story of Baxter County, Arkansas and the challenge against a nativity scene on a courthouse lawn. Such stories always seem to me to be cases with no winners. A courthouse should remain neutral territory, but the nativity scene hardly seems an offensive weapon. I can’t claim to know a great deal about the history of creche scenes, but it doesn’t appear likely that they were ever covert attempts to convert. They were celebrations, and nobody has a problem with them as long as they’re kept on private property or church garths. I do wonder, however, if driving them out of public sight really has any purpose. We all know that this time of year is gearing up to holidays when the ordinary takes the back seat for a few days and we can stop the rat race and reflect on a wonderful myth of biblical proportions.

Tree, bush, or asherah?

Tree, bush, or asherah?

Similar stories are unfolding in countless venues now that December is practically here. Even stopping into Starbucks for a cup of coffee can land you in the middle of a culture war. It would seem to me that in this troubled world we might instead try to focus on peace. Whether or not the story of the manger has any historicity at all, the fact is the first century was a period of extreme unrest. This was a moment to pause and imagine what a world without war might be like. Now the holidays have become an occasion for declaring a new kind of sniping war about who has the right to make reference to a legendary event. Or where they may do so. In some cases there may be legitimate cause for concern. Most of the time, however, only those fixated on belligerence manage to draw everyone in to a fractured fairy tale of a holiday season where money is at stake.

For the Sake of Fighting

Different opinions can be used for discussion or destruction. In the formal context of government, the declaration of war is—or should be—an option of last resort. Increasingly language of belligerence is status quo ante when religion is the topic. “Culture Wars” is a thinly veiled reference to the profound disagreement between social conservatism, associated with Evangelical Christianity, and progressive policies, often affiliated with nones and mainline Christian traditions that don’t wish to be left behind. For years, decades, no one side can declare victory, for example, in the debate over whether America was founded as a Christian nation. Two news stories I saw this past week addressed just that question. Fox News ran a story about a Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina, that has decided to fly the Christian flag over the stars and bars until, well, I guess the Second Coming. Protesting the legalization of gay marriage, the congregation wants the message, aided by Fox News, to spread that in at least this corner of the country, God comes first.

The other story, on CNN, asks the question directly: “Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?” With five professors answering the question there’s bound to be differing opinions but all agree that this isn’t a simple yes or no answer. The even larger question, it seems, is how can the founders’ religious orientations help us to avoid cultural wars? Isn’t the fact that we’re still searching historical documentation over two centuries later an answer in itself? Maybe they didn’t tell us directly because it was none of our business. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson are quoted on both sides of the debate. Their cultural context was Christian, but as all the five scholars agree, the question didn’t become a live one until the nineteenth century. Seems that we got along a century without knowing.

The “Culture Wars” may have been there, of course, but the need for a term only arose in the late 1980’s and early ’90’s. The divide had been simmering since the end of the ’50’s, however. Leave it to Beaver versus Star Trek: the Next Generation. The media has never been shy about telling us what to think. Difference of opinion is as natural as a pre-frontal cortex. Peaceful coexistence, however, doesn’t sell newspaper or commercial airtime or space. We want the thrill of danger, the chance to declare that, unlike the adversary, we are clearly in the right. Maybe if we changed the metaphor the rhetoric might catch up. In the meanwhile, battle comes to mind. Ironically, the Bible is a place that suggests peaceful solutions to many disagreements, but neither side thinks to look there for guidance.

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Driving the Point

“I drive my car, it is a witness. My license plate, it states my business.” The words are from a song by one of the most creative Christian Rock groups ever, Daniel Amos. While I don’t listen to Christian Rock much anymore, I’ve always appreciated the fresh outlook of this particular band, which was, at least in the ‘80s, ahead of the curve. The lyrics came back to me when reading about a legal suit in New Jersey concerning vanity plates. Like many states, New Jersey has rules against offensive words being spelled out on license plates. When a woman applied for a license reading “8THEIST” it was rejected as “offensive to good taste and decency,” according to a story in NJ.com by Thomas Zambito. Trying the application with “BAPTIST” led to no objections. Others have tried other variations on the word “atheist” and have come up with rejections as well. In a country that prides itself on religious freedom, this is ironic, to say the least.

I’m a bit too pragmatic for vanity plates, or even bumper stickers. Having had to commute long distances after being dismissed from my post at Nashotah House, I often thought that I didn’t want people to know too much about me by the decoration of my car. The culture wars, played out a few years ago by Jesus fish, Darwin fish, Jesus sharks eating Darwin fish, and so on, seemed an opportunity for aggression to me. Already when I’m driving and someone cuts me off or does some dangerous maneuver in traffic, they frequently bear some paraphernalia advertising Jesus on their bumper. Maybe it’s a prayer for protection that allows for stupid driving. It certainly isn’t a witness to the “others first” theology that characterized Jesus’ teaching.

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Is it an affront to decency to be an atheist, or only to advertise being one? The culture wars that plague the United States are based on instant prejudices that make decisions about a person without bothering to witness their behavior. Behavior, after all, is the true measure of goodness. Even higher education is not immune to this system, especially in religion departments. We only want to be surrounded by those who believe like us. Somewhere in this unholy mix is the neglected idea of doing the right thing. Ours is a culture in love with appearances. We object when Muslims want to build a mosque. We object when Roman Catholics run for President. Weren’t not even sure that we really trust the Presbyterian next door. Our differences, one of the historic strengths of this country, have become a liability. Especially when behind the wheel. How different driving would be if we’d just assume that no what the vehicle says, it is piloted by a human being just like us, no matter who they believe the co-pilot might be.

X-mas Time

As predictable as crocuses in early spring are the controversies that crop up around holiday billboards. Even living in the quite blue state of New Jersey, I see plenty of advocating for the keeping of Christ in Christmas that the “keep Christ in Christie” campaign seems to lack. This year, however, the American Atheists billboard kerfuffle has shifted to Memphis and Nashville. There protests have been lodged that using children on “holidays for all” billboards is a kind of exploitation. And as we all prepare for the visit of baby Jesus, or Santa Claus, or any variety of mythical nighttime visitors, American Atheists are only asking that we all share the presents. It is an odd kind of culture war. Christmas, as we’ve long known, predates Christ. The holiday was usurped from pagan tradition and baptized into a holy day that was barely observed until the nineteenth century. The commercialization of the holiday gave it the current shape we recognize, and some Christian groups feel compelled to reclaim it in a kind of cultural crusade that will only end with complete acquiescence.

This is a holy war in which neither side is right. In the work-a-day world that I inhabit Christmas is above all a long weekend with a respite from the drudgery of a long commute to ensure that the system continues. Thousands stream into New York City, which, amazingly, does seem to transform for the holidays. The city that is, for most of the year, cold and heartless, suddenly displays a more human face. Giant wreaths and tall trees appear, bright decorations hang in windows. Menorahs and dreidels become manifest. Signs of Kwanzaa or other solstice-related holidays are evident for those who know how to spot them. People in general seem more generous than usual. Even many businesses relax their time-grabbing strictures a bit. Christmas did not begin as a Christian holiday, nor, it seems, will it ever be fully supersessionist.

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Celebration, I would suggest, is worth celebrating. Should atheists use a poster-child for the secular celebration of the holiday season? Should Christians have displays of mangers on church property where all passers by can see? Should Mensch on a Bench be displayed in stores? Should Santa be advocating for corporate giants who only want us to spend? Perhaps the answers are obvious. In my mind they are. We gather our families in, and in the northern style that has always resonated deeply with me, we look out the window and await the coming of the purifying snow.