Losing Religion

 

As time progresses we can see a shift away from religion. People are no longer clinging to it in times of trial and tragedy, no longer looking to it to give thanks. It is slowly becoming an institution that no longer functions in society. A recent study has shown that there has been an increase in how many people identify as being non-religious. It shows that young people are more likely to take this stance, with over 70% of the non-religious being under the age of 50. The unaffiliated group also experienced the largest growth making up a fifth of U.S. adults.

Yusuf

The onset of the information age is a huge contributor to why people are steering away from religion. One of the people spoken to by NPR Yusuf Ahmad (raised Muslim) cites the reason for his leaving the church was due to his disbelief in the stories. People can no longer believe in a book that claims a man would sacrifice his son because a voice in his head told him too (the story of Abraham). For me and many people alike it is hard to fully believe in something that I have been taught cannot be true. People are taking a logical approach to believing in religion, in a similar way to David Hume’s critique of miracles

                “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which I endeavors to establish…We are faced with a choice between two possible miracles A) that a violation of our uniform experience has actually occurred as reported or B) that the testimony of the witness is false”

People tend to choose the latter option because it is easier to not believe than to have to try and put faith in something that claims to have done the impossible. The knowledge we have today does not allow us to put our faith into religion because many of the claims made by religious texts are said to be impossible.

Another reason for this shift is social issues. Many religions have a strict set of moral codes that directly conflict with the beliefs of more liberal thinking people. It is hard for adults to stay a part of an organization that finds something fundamentally wrong that you support such as abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, pre-marital sex, drugs, and women’s rights. If you are gay how can you be expected to voluntarily participate in services that condemn you, of course you would leave your religion. A single mother who gets pregnant has an abortion then goes to church only to hear how abortion is murder, of course she would leave. Women who see how this institution does not recognize their rights as equal humans will not stay in this culture. A decline in religious affiliation is on the rise.

Perez

Before the information age most people only knew their religion that they had been indoctrinated with since they were young. It is all they knew. They were not much aware of other religions, and were not aware of exactly how miraculous the miracles they learned about were. Now with the ability to learn anything at your fingertips with the aide of the internet many people know that there are countless religions in the world and the question of which one is the true religion is much more complicated. So instead of choosing one religion they choose none. There is no longer the need to explain how the world works, we know much of how it works. The need for community is drifting away as other outlets become available. The ex-Seventh Day Adventist Rigoberto Perez finds his community with his fellow veterans and does not have to turn to church.

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American Christianity: A Story of Pick-and-Choose Protestantism

The Affordable Care Act has constantly been making headlines since its inception back in 2009, and now is no exception. As previously mentioned on this blog, Hobby Lobby, an American crafts company, has a case against the Obamacare contraception mandate that is headed to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby is not the only organization complaining about this apparent infringement on its freedom of religion—there have been several other cases like this one in the past.

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Americans protest Obamacare on the grounds of religious freedom.

Hobby Lobby is an Evangelical company, so it only makes sense that it would fit the Evangelical political mold in its displeasure with certain contraceptives that are believed to be similar to abortions in their use. But have Evangelicals always thought this way? As Jamelle Bouie, author of the Slate.com article entitled “God Does Not Regard the Fetus as a Soul”, tells it, Evangelicals certainly have not always been “obsessed” with abortion and contraception. As the article explains, Evangelicals—and most other Protestant Christians—in America, at the time of Roe v. Wade, were actually quite apathetic to abortion. Some Evangelical denominations, namely the Southern Baptists, openly preached during the 1960s and 1970s that the use of abortions in most situations was perfectly acceptable. It wasn’t the Evangelicals, but the Catholics who firmly discouraged abortion consistently throughout these culturally-turbulent decades. By the 1980s, however, most Evangelical and other conservative Christian denominations came to join forces with their Catholic counterparts and advocate the moral flaws inherent with abortion.

But how can such a change happen, and in so short of a time?

The American attitude has always been one of freedom and preservation of the individual. Among the first settlers of what would become the United States were those who sought religious freedom. Those men and women would inevitably establish a Protestant America, a trend that remains even to this day—51.3% of Americans self-identify as Protestant Christians, according to the most recent PewResearch Report on American religious affiliation. Why has Protestantism thrived throughout American history, even with over two centuries of immigration introducing other denominations and religions to the public?

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Some of Protestantism’s many denominations and how they’ve evolved across time.

Protestantism and the American identity grew together as the country established itself. America has been a hotbed of Protestant thought, fostering the creation or maintenance of several thousand denominations, by some estimates. The ideals of both American thought and Protestant thought are essentially the same. They were founded off the same notion.

America was founded as a result of the Enlightenment and revolutionary philosophical ideas. Freedom was essential to the new nation. To be able to do as one wished was fundamental in the United States, and it still is to this day. Protestantism was founded as a result of the Reformation, which was also a revolution—but instead of rebelling against the British Monarch, the people were revolting against the established Catholic Church. This was the first step in forming what has become characteristic of what it is to be American: the ability to pick and choose what an individual wanted to belief. It was one of the first radical events to occur in the western world on the front of individualism.

America is a pick-and-choose nation. An individual’s ideals and preferences are almost sacred in this country. This environment has created the perfect setting for a religion as subjective as Protestant Christianity to thrive in.

Because of this, American Christianity is especially subject to change with the times, or, as Bouie put it, to not be “immune to the winds of the world around [it]”. American Protestants are especially vulnerable to this cultural-moral shifting, but American Catholics are not necessarily exempt, either.

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Breakdown of American Catholic legal views on abortion according to the Pew Research Forum.

Catholicism, unlike Protestantism, has maintained the same doctrine throughout the existence of the Church. It is required that Catholics follow this teaching in order to be in full communion with the Church. That doesn’t stop American Catholics from falling victim to their national environment, though: according to the PewResearch Forum, 16% of all American Catholics believe abortion is legal in all cases, and 32% believe it is legal in most cases. This is a far cry from the Vatican’s official teaching.

The American atmosphere is one that is inherently Protestant. Its very nature is to change and pick and choose its own ideals, and no two people are guaranteed to have the same ideals. Any religion introduced to America is almost guaranteed, upon some degree of assimilation, to become a little bit more Protestant and a little bit more American—those two things may not be quite as different as they seem. As Catherine Albanese puts it in her book America: Religions and Religion, there is a Protestant cultural establishment. All subsequent religions must either fight through or conform to this American, Protestant institution.

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Jewish Americans and the Democratic Party

ImageA common stereotype involving Jewish Americans is that they are single-issue voters whose support goes to the candidate with the most hawkish views on Israel. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the Republican Party is generally the more pro-Israel party. So how many times in the last 100 years have Republican Presidential candidates won the Jewish vote? Once. In 1920, James Cox lost the Jewish vote as well as the Presidency to Warren G. Harding. Since then, Democrats have claimed the majority of the Jewish vote in 23 straight Presidential elections.

Leading up to the 2012 Presidential Election, media reports (Like this one titled “Does Obama have a Jewish Voter Problem?”) began to question if Barack Obama was losing the Jewish vote. This thought process originated following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s staunch rebuke of President Obama’s proposal for Israel to accept 1967 borders with Palestine. The media speculation intensified when a Republican won the special election for New York’s 9th congressional district, which encompasses large Jewish communities, for the first time in almost 90 years. Ultimately, though, it was all for naught as Obama still won 69% of the Jewish vote. And although this was the lowest percentage since 1988, it was still a commanding victory for Democrats.

So why do Jewish Americans continually vote for the Democratic Party? Continue reading

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Passover and Immigrants

The Jewish festival of Passover begins next week. During Passover there is a tradition called the Seder (“order”) Meal where the story of the Israelites being delivered from captivity in Egypt is retold. The overall story is the same, generally, for Seder Meals, but there are many different variations for the Haggadah, the Seder narrative.

Huffington Post recently published an article of “25 Alternative Haggadahs” , one of which was a narrative that focused on justice of immigrants.

In class and our walkthrough of Albanese’s book “America: Religions and Religion” we have looked at the combination of religion and immigration and how the two affect each other. We have discussed a good bit of how immigration has affected religion in America. Because different peoples have come to America different religions have been introduced. Freedom of religion is no longer just a nice way to say we can tolerate all Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, but now religions with different gods and sacred texts are involved. It became a practice instead of simply an idea.

One thing we have not focused on as much, though, is how religion has affected immigration. One of the 25 unique Haggadahs mentioned in the Huffington Post article is one named “Immigrant Roots, Immigrant Rights.” This Seder narrative, written by Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) located in Washington D.C., walks through the story of Passover and the deliverance from Egyptian bondage, but there are additional readings. These additions range from personal stories of immigrants’ struggles for justice after coming to America, information about laws and bills written for rights of immigrants, and ties between the Passover story itself with modern day injustice and oppression.

This Haggadah calls for the Jewish people to recognize that they were once foreigners with no rights and challenges the community to stand up for immigrants of all kinds. At the end of the packet, there is a page full of campaigns and projects led by the JUFJ in order to help aid immigrants in its community.

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Like I said before, in class we have looked a lot at how immigration has influenced religion, and now it’s neat to see how religion can influence immigration.

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The new and old faces of Noah: what do they mean, and which is your favorite?

Darren Aronofsky’s new movie Noah is one of the biggest movies of this year so far, and is the latest in the line of films about the Old Testament hero. Each incarnation of the story has its own feel and personality, and puts forth the narrative through a unique social lens.

For instance, Reverend Otis Moss III’s article entitled “A Biblical Review of Noah”, Moss states that Aronofosky’s Noah is “daring, powerful, and imaginative”, but also that it “expands the story” of the Bible. (Moss) Noah is more real than biblical, and the story of the Great Flood is a much more human.

“The filmmaker weaves a story more in line with St. Augustine’s struggle and Elie Wiesel’s crisis of faith. Noah demands the audience to think and feel. We are forced to look at the film with head and heart.” (Moss)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-otis-moss-iii/a-biblical-review-of-noah_b_5056256.html

Our class has spent the last few weeks reading Edward Blum and Paul Harvey’s book The Color of Christ, which describes and evaluates different depictions of Jesus throughout American history, especially in terms of race. We also spent time looking at different representations of Jesus throughout the history of film. We watched bits and pieces of movies like “Passion of the Christ”, “Son of God”, “Godspell”, and “The Last Temptation of Christ”, and evaluated the meaning(s) behind their depictions of Christ. Dr. Altman then asked us a thought-provoking question: which Jesus was our favorite? As far as Noah is concerned, I would like to use a similar thought process to examine a character who has been re-invented through film almost as many times as Jesus.

Here are a few cinematic representations of Noah.

 

Noah’s Ark (1928 – Michael Curtiz) http://youtu.be/8Mjtr6V5hCE

This is the “Wizard of Oz” meets “All Quiet on the Western Front” version of Noah. The film begins with the story of World War I, and the characters in the story are developed in the narrative of the days leading up to and during the war. When a comparison is made between the “flood” of blood in World War one and Noah, the frame of the film shifts, and the characters take on different identities (see Wizard of Oz reference) in the time of the Great Flood. I think that the anachronistic use of the biblical story is similarly used in Upton Sinclair’s They Call me Carpenter: A Tale of the Second Coming, which Blum cites in The Color of Christ. Sinclair’s “Carpenter” combines the story and ideology of Jesus with the racial tension of 1920′s Los Angeles. Similarly, “Noah’s Ark” synthesizes the violence and terror of World War I with the wrath of God in the story of Noah. George O’Brien’s more serious, stoic (and uncomfortably romantic) Noah embodies the drama of the silent movie era, and portrays the helplessness of both a soldier and a sheperd of the Great Flood.

George O'brien's scantily dressed and stressed out Noah.

George O’brien’s scantily dressed and stressed out Noah.

 

Noah’s Ark (1999 TV Miniseries – John Irvin) http://youtu.be/xD6B8aPTS68

This is the first instance I could find where “bearded Noah” shows up. This TV miniseries on NBC was very highly rated (the second of the three parts set a one-night ratings record that wasn’t reached again until 2004) but was shamed critically, and is banned in Malaysia. Jon Voight’s down-home Noah was blended into the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah by the creative team, and the movie’s creative expansion of the story embodies what Blum refers to as the “deity in the digital age”. In this chapter, Blum describes the debate over Jesus’s race in the Campus Crusade film Jesus (1979). Blum makes the point that at in terms of the white, American-accented Jesus Campus Crusade chose to use, “Biblical or geographical accuracy, it appeared, was less vital than familiarity.” (Blum 257) The 1999 Noah movie continued the “white noah” narrative, which is maybe even more confusing (and, some would say, arbitrary) than that of  the coloration of Jesus. Why is Noah always white? Who made the casting decision to put the Midnight Cowboy into the Old Testament

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Jon Voight’s extremely loyal and frequently confused Noah. Complete with Macaw.

 

Evan Almighty (2007 – Tom Shadyac) http://youtu.be/PnUvSn9pVaA

Two things: I know that his name in the movie isn’t Noah, and the movie itself was awful. However, this modern depiction of the Noah story, regardless of how ridiculous it was, Steve Carell builds an ark, and his commitment to God demonstrates a choice between the sacred and the profane. Similar to the Tony Danza Noah, (which regrettably isn’t featured and regrettably is also terrible)  Steve Carell’s Evan Baxter/Noah is a man called out of his suburban life by God to build an ark for an impending flood. Here is a situation where the protagonists are called to abandon their earthly lives to protect their people from an impending disaster. These stories provide a modern setting for Noah and the perceived distinction between the Durkheimian profane (earthly lives, success) with the sacred (misssion from God, earth-swallowing flood). Also, the director’s name sounds like it came out of the book of Judges.

Bearded Steve Carell as Congressman Evan Baxter. Having a beard makes you Noah, right?

Steve Carell as Congressman Evan Baxter. Having a beard makes you Noah, right?

 

The Bible (2013 – History Channel) http://youtu.be/ol8LDTR2yPs

I only included this Noah because he sounds like he belongs in  How to Train your Dragon. William Wallace Noah isn’t on the screen for very long, but he does tell the entire story of Genesis in about three minutes. That seems like a good way to start a show about the Bible. He is white and has a beard, though. I still can’t figure that out.

Scottish Noah has a beard too, and he really enjoys eating haggis.

Scottish Noah has a beard too. And he really enjoys eating haggis. And playing the bagpipes.

 

Noah (2014 – Darren Aronofsky) http://youtu.be/e0qrtdPejxg

Russell Crowe Noah is exactly what one might expect Russell Crowe Noah to be. Gladiator Noah. He is virile, powerful, and burdened by the power of his task. However, in a modern, politically correct twist, Noah does not hear the voice of God explicitly. The audience instead sees the “nudge of God on Noah’s spirit.”  (Moss)  I think that this modern, less divine version of the story is what its current audience wants to see. I think that this manly Noah, who is constrained by the limits of humanity as the rest of us,  relates directly to how Blum described the making of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. In The Passion,  Jesus was “buff and bright”(Blum 261), and seemed to “symbolize America.”

 “Instead of the Sunday school tale of the ark and animals, we are given a grownup story of a family struggling to be faithful, obedient, loving, and compassionate, in the face of widespread intolerable evil. The story of Noah has inspired and provoked our consciousness for thousands of years, and a modern artist, Darren Aronofsky, has been possessed by the story once again.” (Moss)

I think this Noah is the way that America would like to see themselves in that situation. Noah is driven by his devotion to his family, and his devotion in building the ark is a reflection of his paternal instinct. He builds an ark, and he looks like an ark-builder. He is human, and he is shown in the movie as being exactly that.

Russell Crowe's Noah. A burly, bulky, ark-building, bearded badass. He's the team captain.

Russell Crowe’s Noah. A burly, bulky, ark-building, bearded badass. He’s the team captain.

 

Even if you didn’t want to, you now have an in-depth knowledge of cinematic Noahs and what they represent. I’ll ask the same question that was asked to us: which Noah is your favorite, and why? Which one is the most accurate, and which one speaks to you?

 

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A Flood of Opinions

“From #hotjesus to Russell Crowe in Noah, Hollywood mines scriptures for scripts” reads the headline of an article on theStar.com. Many have talked about how 2014 is the year for biblical movies. From The Son of God all the way to Exodus premiering in December, the year is packed full of the Bible.

Many people would come to believe that, in general, Christians would enjoy this and love how biblical stories and themes are becoming major films with big names, but that may not be the case. As we have talked much about in class, and especially during our study of The Color of Christ, there are multiple depictions of religions and their stories. As one can see, with differing depictions come differing opinions – some modest and some not so much. This weekend the new movie Noah released and as one can imagine, the opinions of this movie span the spectrum.

In a Fox News video, Jonathan Morris comments on how the Noah Movie doesn’t mention the word “God” at all and instead uses the word “creator.” This has been a fairly large debate on Fox News recently. In a separate interview Director Darren Aronofsky talks about how this was a different time entirely in history where it is a “magical and fantastical world” which would produce different choices in many areas including language.

After the beginning of the backlash, some Christians began bringing up the other side saying that it’s a Hollywood adaption and that people should not be so uptight about it. In an article on Christian Post entitled “Noah Movie: Why Christians Should Stop Complaining About Biblical Movies and Watch Them,” Marty Duren writes about how the movie was never intended to be direct adaption of the story in the Bible. He says that instead of fighting it, Christians should be glad the that “cultural bridges” are being built for the gospel. He writes, “Why destroy the bridge rather than walking over it? The gospel travels more easily over a bridge than over a chasm.”

While we are in the midst of controversy and people getting angry, why not throw in some satire, right? From the Christian Post Phil Cooke writes, “The Noah Movie Opened This Weekend. Christians: Run For the Hills.” This article includes quotes such as, “After Friday’s opening, be ready for millions of Christians to turn away from the faith,” and, “This movie will be the most catastrophic event since the crucifixion.” Again, obviously satire, but one individuals commented “Amen!” There is also a twitter account @FakeJDGreear which pokes fun at issues like this.

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Should a Christian, Jew, or Muslim look at this film and be appalled by its inaccuracy to the text? Should they be excited about the text being mentioned at all and take every ounce as a step towards others being enlightened? Or should they look at this film as a film and nothing else? Who knows?! All one can do is understand that the choice made by people will be determined by many different facets – religious background, views of his or her family, geographic location, etc.

People think differently. People see differently. People choose differently. And as we have seen in our studies of American Religion, this is not something new.

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Hobby Lobby takes their Religious Freedom Fight to the Supreme Court

If you have paid any attention to the political scene in America lately, you will proabably have heard about Obamacare, as it is colloquially known, or the Affordable Care Act.  It has been making waves for a number of political reasons, but a key religious freedom argument has arisen from it.  Hobby Lobby has sued the governement (or actually Kathleen Sebelius who is the Secretary of Health and Human Services) over being forced to provide contraception that they, and the FDA, have deemed could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting on the uterine wall, which is “technincally” an abortion and against Steve Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, and his family’s Christian beliefs.

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Hobby Lobby is a Crafts Company owned by Steve Green and his family.

In this article from Religion News Services, they discuss not only Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which is being heard by the Supreme Court this month, but also Steve Green’s religion.  The first oral arguments are scheduled to be heard March 25th.  For years, even before the mandate was sent out, Hobby Lobby has been providing 16 of the 20 FDA approved contraception methods as part of their insurance plan.  They merely have an issue with the others, specifically IUD’s and pills like the Plan B pill.  There grounds are that these could technically result in an abortion, and since abortion is against their Christian beliefs, they should not be required to pay for it.  What the case really boils down to, in my opinion, is does Hobby Lobby as a corporation have the same protection under the First Amendment as a person.

 

There is no doubt that Hobby Lobby, much like Chick-fil-a is an overtly Christian company.  Not only are they closed on Sunday, but on their Hours sign, for Sunday it says “Closed Sunday to allow employees time for family and worship”, but they also refuse to do business with companies that promote alcohol.  The Green Family Foundation is even opening a Bible Museum in Washington DC that will display thousands of ancient texts.  There is no denying that the Hobby Lobby Corporation as a whole is clearly an overtly Christian Corporation and should be afforded the same rights as a person. 

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Hobby Lobby is closed Sunday for “family and worship”

When we were reading Albanese’s book, we also discussed in class how the first amendment in America was unlike anything that had ever been done before.  There was to be a complete distinction between the religion in America and the government in America.  The question this case is raising, is how far does the protection given in the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.  Hobby Lobby is claiming that the government forcing them to pay for things that violate their religion is a breach of the Free Exercise Clause, specifically “Congress shall make no law [...] prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

 

The reason Hobby Lobby might have a chance is that Hobby Lobby is filed as a Closely Held Corporation.  This means that they are owned by a few select individuals, which in the case of Hobby Lobby, and in most Closely Held Corporations, is almost entirely members of the Green family.  This basically means that even though it is a large corporation, it is still a family owned business, and since the family members are the people who are liable for the company, they technically are the company. 

 

No matter what way this turns out, it will be a landmark case in the religious freedoms in America at this time.  Be sure to look out in the coming future about the results of this case.

 

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The Truth Behind True Detective’s Voodoo

True Detective, HBO’s new hit series, just completed its first season, and the dark, gritty drama has become a highly debated topic for many different reasons. One area that has created more controversy than most is the fact that the plot is entirely based around religious themes. Two detectives played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson find themselves tracking a murderous Satanic cult that is heavily influenced by voodoo. Not surprisingly, this murder mystery takes place in the boon docks of Louisiana, where voodoo first started in America.

 maxresdefault Catherine Albanese states in America: Religion and Religions that, “voodoo had been present in French Louisiana since its early days, when blacks had come from the Indies” (Albanese 141). Throughout the early to mid 1800s voodoo grew in Louisiana and began to spread across the south. As voodoo spread, New Orleans became known as a sort of “hotbed” for voodoo in America. Voodoo themes and practice can still be seen in the city and other parts of Louisiana today. With all this being true, it is fair to wonder if the voodoo recreated in True Detective is based on some of the voodoo that was, and still is, being practiced in Louisiana.  All the answers to these questions can be found in Joseph Laycock’s article that goes in depth on the two mythologies that writer Nic Pizzolato used to create True Detective.img_1219

According to Laycock, Pizzolato’s first source when writing the show was an actual murder case that came out of Louisiana in 2005. Much like the case in the show, this case involved a Satanic cult that used animal sacrifices and child molestation in their voodoo based rituals. Pizzolato using an actual case gives the religious scenes that are depicted on the show credibility, but the second source he uses, The Yellow King by Robert W. Chambers, is what makes True Detective a fictional show. The Yellow King is a fictional book, but as Author Kent David Kelly told Laycock, it urges its readers to question if it is based off actual events and voodoo practices. It is this question of fact or fiction that has made the show so controversial and left its viewers asking to know more. Pizzolato managed to hold onto the book’s compelling and questionable background when adapting it’s themes into his show. True Detective fans have all the right to question the show and ask for more as the show left all of its viewers wanting to know how much truth is depicted in it, but its probable that even Pizzalato doesn’t have an answer for them. When the main source for a script is a book about voodoo that is believed by some to be fact and others to be fiction, then clearly the same questions that surround the book will surround the show. Therefore, as sad as it is for True Detective fans (like myself), we must stop digging for the answer of whats true or not and just appreciate the fact that Pizzolato seems to accurately depict some of the voodoo practices and themes that have been practiced in America since early in the 19th century.

The trailer alone speaks to how much this series revolves around voodoo religion.

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Ash Wednesday and Public Christianity

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Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the forty days of Lent on the Christian calendar, has been celebrated for centuries in many churches. As a representation of repentance and dependence on Jesus, Christians across America come together to be blessed with the words of Genesis 3:19 and marked with ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. The ritual is not uncommon and widely practiced in American church culture, but what happens when it is taken to the general public, outside the confines of a strictly Christian sanctuary? Ashes To Go, a national organization that was started about seven years ago, has done just that: church officials bring ashes to public places, blessing people as they pass by and marking them with the symbolic cross of ashes.

We take ashes to the street corner because that reminder of need, humility, and healing shouldn’t be confined to a church building.  We probably need it more when we are in the middle of our daily business! The ashes we receive are to remind us throughout the day of our need for God, and of God’s call to us.

Ashes To Go, as seen in the above quote taken from their national website, is all about the mission to remind people of their need for repentance, even if that reminder comes in the middle of a crowded urban street corner. On the national website for the organization, stories of joyful reactions and “smiles of gratitude” are described. But America is not a country of one-sided opinions, and in fact many negative responses have been shared in a number of articles about this national phenomenon since its beginning. One particular piece in The Washington Post by Michelle Boorstein features both sides of the argument, noting that even though the majority of people walking by Ashes To Go at Union Station would identify themselves as Christians, the reactions to being asked to represent this faith on their foreheads seemed to vary.

But why do so many people object to the idea of making this ritual public for those who would like to participate, and why are so many of those objecting people Christians themselves? According to Boorstein’s article, the many Americans who call themselves “unaffiliated” with any particular religious group include a portion of Christians. As the custom of wearing the ash cross for Lent is mainly associated with what the article calls “traditional Christian denominations,” it follows that people of the Christian faith who do not want to be associated with specified tradition would in fact not want to take part in such a conventional practice. But this simply cannot account for all the Christians passing by Ashes To Go at Union Station who were not willing to participate in what is widely accepted as customary for their faith. Why were people hesitant to proclaim their religion in such a way that it could literally be seen on their foreheads?

The answer may lie in American culture today. In a country that emphasizes religious and cultural freedom, it is not surprising to find that people are hesitant to show what they truly believe in such a straightforward fashion. Modern culture in America is seemingly geared toward imaging and outward appearance. How a person looks or what a person wears is paramount to the way that person is viewed by society. For example, someone sporting large, dark-framed glasses and colored, tight-fitting jeans might be labeled in American culture as a hipster. Outsiders may associate this identification with any number of characteristics and connotations, whether they are true or not. In the same way, many people, including Christians, could be opposed to being branded by a cross on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday. The implications that come with being publicly labeled as a Christian are enough to make some believers pass by the Ashes To Go station rather than receive the blessing.

In her book America: Religions & Religion, Catherine Albanese continuously returns to the theme of religious change brought on by an evolving environment and America’s “manyness.” The effect of national religious diversity and changing culture can be seen even today. The controversy of Ashes To Go and public labeling of faith illustrates just how much American culture can influence religious perception.

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The Vagrant Messiah- A Sculpture Worth a Thousand Words

In Davidson, North Carolina, a homeless man has stirred up more of a commotion than a typical bum. Resolute and unmoving, the figure lays, almost entirely obscured by a blanket, on a 7-foot park bench just outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. One resident driving by the man has called the police after seeing him- afraid for the safety of the neighborhood. But he does not answer questions or demands. He does not move to show his face. And he certainly doesn’t do anything about the gaping crucifixion wounds on his feet.

Already rejected by two well-established Catholic cathedrals in Toronto and New York, Timothy Schmalz’ “Jesus the Homeless” statue has recently found a permanent home in the fairly wealthy North Carolina neighborhood. Residents and church patrons have had mixed reactions to the installation of the artwork, viewing the statue as either inspirational or inappropriate. Rev. David E. Buck, rector at St. Alban’s, speaks strongly in favor of the statue, saying, “We’re reminded of what our ultimate calling is as Christians, as people of faith, to do what we can individually and systematically to eliminate homelessness.” Other residents have commented that the affluence of the surrounding neighborhood has blinded residents to the  problem of homelessness. The statue has been blessed by an enthusiastic Pope Francis.

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Cindy Castano Swannack, the woman who recently reported the statue to the police, is not so enthusiastic. Swannack asserts that the message of the sculpture is inappropriate, arguing that Jesus should be standing over a homeless man as a protector- not a vagrant. “Jesus is not a vagrant, Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help,” she said, “We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy.” The statue has also been described as creepy, ugly, and uncomfortably similar to the Grim Reaper. Unfortunately for Swannack, Biblically-described Jesus described himself (at least rhetorically) as homeless. Whether or not Jesus was literally homeless is less certain, but Jesus is described as a servant, personified in the downtrodden, and ultimately executed as a criminal. It is certain that Jesus’ role is more complex than that of a protector- he repeatedly describes himself as one of the lowly and destitute.

Could it be that dissenters are uncomfortable with an actual visual of these beliefs? Is it easier to accept pictures of an appealing #hotjesus rather than an inconvenient homeless Jesus? It’s unlikely that Swannack has similar disagreements with the Bible verses that describe Jesus as a needy outsider. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” An actualizing aspect of images of Jesus is either far less pronounced or absent in written descriptions or discussions about the Christ. To create an image that explicitly shows a representation of Christ as one of of the downtrodden makes the underlying social issues too real and difficult to abstract.

The white Jesus on the cover of the illustrated edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853).

The white Jesus on the cover of the illustrated edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853).

A resistance towards physical depictions of an oppressed Messiah is nothing new. Blum and Harvey, in The Color of Christ, describe the religious arguments between pro-abolition and pro-slavery advocates. They argue that while the pro-slavery side won the battle of the Bible, the pro-abolition side won the “joust for Jesus.” It was easy to prove that Christ was an opponent of slavery. It was also easy to align Jesus with slaves themselves. Slaves became Christ-like figures, most famously in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the similarities between Christ and African slaves shown in literature were not seen as appropriate and fitting to abolitionists, visual depictions of a black slave Christ are notably absent from the historical narrative. Even illustrations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin show a distinctly pale white Jesus disapproving of slave beatings. Jesus could be a slave symbolically, he could be described as colored, but even in reference to slavery he was always visually depicted as a physically removed white man.

Time and cultural shifts have made Christians more open to a visually colored Christ. But it still seems that words are more acceptable than images. Words can be (mis)interpreted. Words are seen as less absolute, more theoretical and symbolic. It is harder to misinterpret or ignore the implications of a direct portrait of Christ. Even widespread iconoclastic Protestantism gave way to the raw, captivating power behind an image of Christ that simply isn’t present in a lengthy theologically-dense sermon. It is true that words can be a more precise tool for describing complex ideas- but Christian resistance to difficult images of Christ prove the undeniable superiority of a picture to make uncomfortable comparisons real and relevant.

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