McChristianity

Christianity isn’t known for its sense of humor.  The same can be said of other religions as well, of course.  What else should we expect concerning belief systems that claim eternal consequences?  A story by Colin Dwyer on NPR explains that the Haifa Museum of Art had to remove a sculpture titled “McJesus” due to public violence.  The sculpture depicts a crucified Ronald McDonald, and a number of althoughs follow: although Haifa is in Israel a large number of Christians protested.  Although the practice of crucifixion was uncomfortably common in ancient days it has come to be associated with one particular case.  Although the message might be interpreted as a condemnation of commercialism, protestors took it to be aimed at their faith.  Perhaps it was.  Artists can be notoriously ambiguous in that way.

Ronald McDonald is a liminal, if ubiquitous figure.  Instantly recognizable, he has been challenged before as a threat to christendom.  I once heard a priest lament that children recognized the golden arches more than the cross.  Well, that’s not surprising—we don’t go around telling our kids about crucifixion daily.  (Or shouldn’t.)  A massive Ronnie, on the other hand, floats down Manhattan every Thanksgiving Day.  He’s on posters, commercials, and 42nd Street.  He’s the patron saint of branding.  With his garish clashing color palette, his red and yellow never mix to orange and they linger in our minds to ensure us that no matter where we might be there’s always cheap, if unhealthy, food nearby.  Mr. McDonald has become a religious symbol of capitalism.

Even as a child I noticed the great deal of excitement that accompanied the opening of the local McDonald’s.  In a small, corroded corner of the rust belt, families piled into cars to drive to Oil City to see this wonder.  It was like an epiphany.  Eating out that the poor could afford.  Just about everything in downtown Oil City is now closed, but the last time I was there that McDonald’s still stood.  Back in Haifa an ironic depiction led to real violence.  Angry Christians carrying stones couldn’t see the statue as a condemnation of consumer culture.  Their beleaguered religion was at risk.  Blood flowed and the art piece was removed and packed off to Finland.  Although the point of the display was to question religious appropriation in the support of consumerism, and although that message could ultimately support the teachings of the religion it evokes, the branding came across all wrong.  Church is your kind of place…

Such a Happy Place

I fear anyone named Ronald. Being named’s something a kid can’t help, I know, but associations run deep and irrational fears are the flavor of the day. When a friend sent me a link to the original Ronald McDonald clown concept, I had to look. Now, I’m not one of those people who’s afraid of clowns. I know that perhaps puts me in the minority. In college I was introduced to, and even rebooted a club for, Christian clowns. Back in the days of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, many were exegeting Paul’s phrase “fool for Christ” in a new way—the way of the clown. I’ve never been a particularly smiley guy, but I do research things before getting involved. Not only did I read about Christian clowns, I read about the history of clowning itself. It helped that this was before people started dressing up like clowns to assault others in imitation of cheap horror.

Clowns, it should come as no surprise, were originally peasants. The name itself means “rustic,” or “laborer,” even in classical languages, just as it does in English. The affluent have, it seems, always liked to laugh at the poor. The clods could be expected to goof up time and again and their brainless antics would humor the bored, but entitled classes. Buffoons becoming missionaries took a somewhat tortured path through a culture that cast religion in a rather stern, harsh tone. Children of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were trying to say “lighten up,” laugh about your beliefs. Isn’t that what Paul said? Tertullian wrote, “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est”—believe by all means because it’s absurd— didn’t he?

In my greasepaint and mismatched clothes I joined a troop of unspeaking clowns, acting out stories of kindness and good will. We were, after all, made from dirt (the laborer tills the soil, and the word clown comes from the same root at “clod”). We like to think things might’ve evolved since then, but when we turn on the news we see that although it’s no longer Ronald, the antics of the plutocrats haven’t changed since my college days. What d’ya think of that Star Wars defense initiative? After all, we call “Mutually Assured Destruction” a doctrine, and doctrines have their origins in church councils. Ronald McDonald is recognized by his painted face. Beneath the makeup, however, he’s just a man. A clown has no business being leader of the free world. And yes, I’ll take fries with that. Supersize it, will ya?

Christian Cookie

During my childhood and adolescence, we didn’t eat out. Of course, food didn’t cost nearly as much then, and it was cheaper to cook raw ingredients at home than it was to buy something exotic that someone else had made. I clearly remember our first trip to McDonalds—it seemed so strange to buy food already prepared. It was so unusual that we went with our neighbors in a kind of exploratory posse, discovering this strange world of pre-cooked food. College, eventually, introduced me to the idea that, if done reasonably, eating out could be a reasonable choice. Particularly if you were wanting to impress a girl. Still, most of my meals were in the dining hall, and trips to restaurants were generally reserved for special occasions. Although Chinese food was known to me, it wasn’t readily available in rural western Pennsylvania. I did encounter my first fortune cookie in college.

thumb_IMG_2185_1024There was something vaguely unsettling about a cookie that could tell your future. Prophetic comestibles were relatively unknown to me. Of course, the whimsical aphorisms seldom indicated any misfortune. They were more like horoscopes, harmless and often amusing. Recently we had carry-out Chinese. I’d noticed that over time fortune cookies had become more and more banal and less and less predictive. They claimed to know something about the world and I was supposed to believe because, well, would a cookie ever try to steer you wrong? My wife cracked open her cookie to find the “fortune” a single word: “Hallelujah!” An evangelical dessert? Was she destined to win the lottery? Perhaps we should play the lucky numbers on the next Powerball?

This really shouldn’t be bothering me, but what exactly was that cookie trying to tell us? It can’t be easy, I realize, to come up with millions of bits of advice so that those who often eat out don’t get the same prediction twice, but what if a Buddhist had ended up with this sweet? Or a Confucian? “Hallelujah” is, by its nature, a Judeo-Christian expression. Even so, it only occurs in two books of the Bible: Psalms and Revelation. My sneaking suspicion is that my culture is being pandered to. A bit of internet research revealed that Chinese fortune cookies are actually a Japanese recipe and were likely invented in the United States. They date back to the 1890s, at the earliest. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised then, at my wife being evangelized by her dessert. She does work for the Girl Scouts, after all, and they know a thing or two about the amazing abilities of the humble cookie.

Hot Pants

Over a decade ago now, the populace was buzzing about Stella Liebeck’s suit against McDonald’s. You may remember the case. Liebeck was handed very hot coffee through a drive-up window in one of those flimsy cups, and suffered second-degree burns when it spilled in her lap. The incident spawned a documentary movie and even a New York Times retro report a couple of years ago. No doubt the injury was serious enough to cause medical treatment including skin grafts, and McDonald’s does, as we all know, process its customers just like it processes everything; you can’t serve over 100 billion burgers and be the world’s second largest private employer without process. Food injuries in a world of business feeding can be serious. “Eating out” is a way of life for many and when people eat out they take their religion with them. That’s why Hiram Jimenez’s case is so interesting.

According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Jimenez decided to bow in prayer over a plate of sizzling steak fajitas at Appleby’s. For those who’ve never witnessed fajitas being served, they are an attention-demanding dish, served loudly steaming and popping with smoke rising up forever and heads being turned. I suspect that’s part of the appeal. According to the paper, Jimenez bowed over his food and the grease popped, burning his face, causing him to knock the plate of food onto his lap. None of the burns left scars, and a Superior Court here in New Jersey found the restaurant not negligent as the danger was “open and obvious.” What makes this story so interesting is not the injury but the cause behind it. Food being hot is somewhat universal. Praying in restaurants, however, is an evangelical cultural practice.

Growing up with evangelical friends, I learned to pray in restaurants. (My family was of rather humble circumstances and we didn’t eat at restaurants.) Partly it was in actual thankfulness, but clearly it was partly also in show. We were witnessing by invoking our gustatory gratitude. For being literalists, we didn’t take Jesus’ injunction to go into the closet and shut the door before praying too seriously. The culture around public prayer involves bowing. The bow is a mammalian display of submission. Thy will be done. In the biblical world being thrown into a blazing furnace for public displays of faith didn’t lead to lawsuits. Everyone knows infernos are hot. I can’t help but wonder whether a martyr complex is at play here. A praying customer is doing what his religion demands and gets burned for it. Yeah, I know what that feels like. And, I suspect, so do countless others who find no hearing in courts at all.

Photo credit: Bryan Hong (Brybry26), Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Bryan Hong (Brybry26), Wikipedia Commons