Monthly Archives: February 2014

White Jesus, is that you?

It was opening night of the 2013 Yeezus tour, and rapper Kanye West surprised fans with a dramatic intro to his set. Etherial classical music filled the stadium while a man stood on stage wearing a jeweled black mask. Suddenly, a tall, white, barefoot, bearded man in a long white robe made his way across the stage. As this man approached, the lights around brightened and the image of Jesus was revealed. The masked man removed his disguise, and the crowd cheered on none other than Kanye West. In awe of Jesus, Kanye asked, “White Jesus, is that you?” Jesus then engaged in dialogue with Kanye, revealed that he is there to “show people the light- the light of truth in you [Kanye]”, and slowly exited the stage. Then, Kanye fell to his knees as the beat to his hit single “Jesus Walks” stirred the crowd.

Fans were both surprised and confused as to why Kanye would employ a Jesus impersonator to perform on tour with him. In his interview with San Francisco’s Wild 94.9 JV Show, Kanye stated that bringing Jesus on stage was just another example of the artistry similar to Michelangelo painting Jesus in the Sistine chapel, a sculptor crafting a masterpiece, or an actor performing in a play. Kanye emphasized in this interview that what makes Christianity special and important to him is that he (and other followers) are freely allowed to portray and create images of holy figures. Although there has been controversy around the incident, West ensured fans that he believed his heart was in the right place, and that God knew that his intentions were good. 

Kanye’s Roman Catholic upbringing reinforces his idea that an actor playing Jesus isn’t something that should be seen as controversial.  Like the Jesuits in early America, discussed in “The Color of Christ” by Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum, West puts emphasis on the power of the physical images of Christ. Not only does he hire a man to play Jesus on stage, but he also wears jeweled interpretations of Jesus’s face and incorporates symbols like light, crosses, halos, and fire into his music video for “Jesus Walks”. These “icons” serve as a symbol of faith for Kanye, and they make the idea of Jesus more tangible and relatable. Unlike the Puritans in early America, West has created physical representations of Jesus which support his belief that people can easily talk to Jesus, walk with Jesus, and have a relationship with him. For Kanye, these physical symbols create an emotional connection and a feeling of closeness to Jesus. West also has similar theological ideas as the Native Americans influenced by the French Jesuits. These Native Americans took the image of Jesus (a “man-god”) that the Jesuits had and combined that image with their own concept of a great hunter that they bargained and exchanged with. Similarly, Kanye creates an image of Jesus that resembles a regular man that can be talked to, walked with, and befriended. The goal, for Kanye, is to create an image and idea of Jesus that reflects the closeness felt by friends or family (a “Jesus is my homeboy” idea) because that’s the image he feels most comfortable relating to. This could be seen as a way to reach out to those who normally wouldn’t experience Jesus in everyday life (like some of the groups addressed in “Jesus Walks”) or to provide a new face to a religion that can be seen as intolerant, hateful, and exclusive toward the groups of people that primarily listen to Kanye West’s music.

The interesting aspects of West’s opening performance were not only that the Jesus was white, but that Kanye specifically called him “White Jesus”. Why employ a white male to represent Jesus when in the music video for “Jesus Walks” the people persecuting the African Americans are white? Other groups of people are mentioned in the lyrics and varying races shown in the music video, but they all represent the different types of typical sinners like hustlers, drug dealers, and strippers. These groups of people are encouraged to walk with Jesus and listen to his words. The main race relation in question is that between the Whites and the African Americans. White security guards with large guns beat and pat down the chained, African American men while another white man cuts down wood to create a cross to burn (in the video, he is eventually revealed to be wear KKK-like garb). This image of race relations created by Kanye is similar to the image in “The Color of Christ” from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the image, two African American slaves are beating another African American slave. Jesus and the slaveowner are present but on the sides of the scene (Jesus on the left and the slaveowner on the right). Both Jesus and the slaveowner are white in color, but the slaveowner has a more open, dominant role in the picture seen by the face that he is facing forward, exposing more of his body. Through this own style of art (music videos and concert tours), Kanye West creates this same picture which forces us to ask questions about race relations and religion despite the amount of progress people believe has been made.

In the case of “Jesus Walks”, the slaveowner is represented by the men with guns in the video, Jesus is represented by the barefoot, bearded actor used on tour, and the beaten slave (other Jesus-like character) would be represented by West. When the Jesus character on West’s tour enters the stage, he promises that the audience will be shown the light and truth which lies within Kanye. Therefore, Kanye is the truth and the light, and is god-like in the way that he can lead others to walk with this White Jesus. What is it that makes him personify Jesus as white? Is it his Catholic upbringing which would have shown him pictures of a white Jesus? West makes the point in “Jesus Walks” that topics like sex, drugs, and alcohol cover the media and music, but he received doubt and criticism for mentioning Jesus. Therefore, this White Jesus could represent an image easily accepted by the media, a white male, combined with the more chaotic rap music components. There are many controversies surrounding Kanye West’s work, but it can’t be denied that he forces us to take a step back and analyze the relationship between the seemingly opposite worlds of religion and rap.

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The Growing Diversity of African-American Faith

As a class, since we began reading The Color of Christ by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, we have spent a good amount of time talking about African-American faith. Typically, when talking about this subject most of the information we read covers African-American Christianity from slavery on, but a recent article from The Huffington Post and a follow up interview from NPR hosted by Mitchel Martin show that more African-Americans than ever are now choosing the create their own paths and explore the many faiths that are practiced in America. Many African-Americans, even those that were raised Christian, are now seeking new religions experiences for numerous different reasons. The article above touches on the diverse group of religions African-Americans now practice, but it does not and could not possibly on every different faith that is now practiced by the entire population of black Americans.

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In the Huffington Post article, the author states, “Considerable attention has already been given to the role of Christianity and Islam as religious influences, but the diversity of religious traditions practiced within the African-American community extends beyond those two traditions.” The author then backs up this statement by giving us nine examples of African-Americans that practice different religions. Hearing from African-Americans that are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Atheist, Hindu, Christian, and Pagan allows us to believe that the the effects from the christianizing of Blacks that occurred in during the times of slavery in America may have begun to wear off. One example provided is the story behind Black, Jewish, and Homosexual rapper Yitz Jordan (above). In his life, Jordan faced discrimination for sexual preference, skin color, and religious background, but despite the negativity, the Jewish community accepted Jordan into their religion in 2004. Jordan, like fellow black, Jewish rapper Drake, embraces everything that he is and is as proud to a part of the Black community as he is to be part of the LGBT community and the Jewish community. Jordan can be seen talking about his religion, his rapping, and his life below.

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African American Religious Association

The vast diversity of African-American faith is highlighted by the story of Timothy Conley who practices Baha’i religion. Growing up, Conley, just like a large amount of African-American children was a Christian that worshipped at an all black church. The way he grew up ultimately led Conley to seek a more diverse place to worship, “That’s what’s great about the Baha’i tradition, the promotion of this diversity. And being a part of a religion that promotes humanity and not such a focus on race, it is refreshing.” (Huffington Post). As you can see in the chart to the left, African-Americans truly are branching out when it comes to religious preference. Yes, Christianity is still the preference for most, but it is no longer the preference of an overwhelmingly large amount of African-Americans like it once was. As time goes on America is becoming more and more diverse. This growing diversity can be seen through: the acceptance of other races, the acceptance of the LBGT community, and now the acceptance of countless religions.

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Bird Jesus and the Rise of a Religion in a Week

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On February 13th, a social experiment began. An anonymously-run account on Twitch.tv, a website that streams media live, set up a stream for a play-through of Pokémon Red Version, which is a popular game released in America in 1998. Here’s the trick: the viewers control the gameplay by typing key commands into the chat feature of the site. Some special coding allows for these commands to go directly into the game. Essentially, instead of one player controlling the game, it’s a collaborative effort on the parts of everyone who comments. The project is called “Twitch Plays Pokémon”, and can be found here.

A week into the experiment, nothing was going as expected. The project gained rapid popularity with a peak of over 120,000 viewers, drawing massive attention and creating utter chaos. In spite of the conflicting orders by viewers in the chat box, the group was able to make tremendous progress in the game—but this wasn’t the only surprising outcome.

Somehow, Twitch Plays Pokémon has created an entire religion for itself. This is made complete with plenty of conflict, lore, and schisms to boot. Here is the “definitive religion chart” posted by the Twitch Plays Pokémon Facebook page on February 22nd. It’s messy and complicated and almost impossible for anyone who isn’t directly involved to understand—but those who are there contributing to this saga don’t only understand it, they feel it.

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One of many elaborate histories of TPP religion.

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Stained glass window featuring the prominent figures of TPP religion.

Anyone who has watched the live stream would be able to identify themselves to you by their denomination—and justify their stance, too. You can find Anarchists who serve the “Great Helix Fossil” and find their salvation in “Bird Jesus”. In contrast, you may stumble across those who follow the “False Prophet” Flareon and worship the Dome Fossil as their god, citing Democracy as the right path. These two groups struggle against each other for control of the game. Twitch Plays Pokémon, after less than a week of playing, was no longer about playing a video game. This social experiment became its own religion, and then started its own religious war.

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Viewers create art imitating established religious symbols.

According to the definition of a religious system in America: Religion and Religions by Catherine L. Albanese, the products of Twitch Plays Pokémon are indeed classifiable as a religious system. The Albanese definition from the introduction of the book states that religions that include creeds, codes, cultuses, and communities are considered religious systems. Because of the heavy borrowing from Christianity, the Twitch Plays Pokémon religion fulfills the creeds, codes, and cultus aspects with terminology and practice almost identical to those of Christianity—just substitute the names of major figures. The community facet is the only portion of the religious system that was present even before the religious themes became prominent. The community was there from the very beginning of the game online.

How does something like this happen? Something as simple as a group of people working through a video game together has very rapidly generated an entire slough of religious denominations each with their own histories, legends, philosophies, and even artwork. From a Religious Studies standpoint, this is remarkable. So many questions can be asked about this experiment and its products, but the most glaring is this: Why religion?

Why would an internet-based, collaborative video game play-through turn itself into an elaborate religious system? Why not stop at the themes of Anarchy and Democracy and create a political climate? What about keeping to the norms of internet culture, or sticking to the theme of Pokémon games? The incorporation of religion could have happened for several reasons, but the total religious overhaul was entirely unprecedented—and it all started from a game for kids.

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The Racial Makeup of American Churches

After visiting a predominately African-American church as a child, I had a question: “Why is our church mostly white, and theirs mostly black?” Reverend Thomas Barclay, the new head of the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God had a similar experience with Assembly of God churches.  Since being elected four years ago, he has now tried to bring the two denominations together. While they are not yet trying to merge, they still intend to try to bring the two denominations closer.  The UPCAG has around 70 predominately black churches in America and a couple other countries.  The Assembly of God operates over 360,000 worldwide churches with around 300 predominantly black churches in the US.  

Reverend Thomas Barclay, the man behind the coming together of the UPCAG and the Assembly of God.

Reverend Thomas Barclay, the man behind the coming together of the UPCAG and the Assembly of God.

While I am not Pentecostal, I can still relate to the racial differences in churches.  Growing up in South Georgia, I was raised in a very traditional Southern Baptist Church.  We had black members who attended regularly, however they were by far the minority, as 99% of the congregation was white.  However, being in South Georgia I had many friend who attended predominately African-American churches, and I visited with them on many occasions.  The style and feeling is so different between the two, that I was uncomfortable at their church and they were uncomfortable at mine.  It had nothing to do with race, it had to do with the style of worship and praise you grew up in.

A recent poll of Senior Pastors on diversity.

A recent poll of Senior Pastors on diversity.

A recent LifeWay Research poll shows that 85% of Senior Pastors when asked said that every church should strive to be racially diverse, but only 13% said their church had more than one predominant racial or ethnic group in their congregation.   Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research said that this is due, in part to human nature because, “Everybody wants diversity, but many don’t want to be around people who are different.”  While I do not agree with this statement entirely, I do think there is some truth to it.  While most people do prefer to be around people like them, I would like to believe that many other people are more comfortable with anyone that worships the same God being in the pew beside them.

In America: Religions and Religion by Catherine Albanese, we talked about historical churches during slavery, and how while many slave owners brought their slaves to church with them, there was also a large slave religion in the background, sometimes even unknown by the slave owners.  As the last blog post pointed out, most churches in Tuscaloosa were integrated before the Civil War and slave owners and slaves worshiped side by side, however today Tuscaloosa’s churches, like most around America are predominately one racial or ethnic makeup.  However, this time period in American history also divided lots of religions and denominations in America, because of the issue of slavery.  Segregation is the time period where, like the rest of America, the church you attended was decided by color.  Although in present day America, a black man and a white man can sit side by side at a diner, they are still most likely not going to sit side by side in church, even if they adhere to the exact same religion.

Even when a church is multi-racial in America, they do not tend to stay that way.  In this slightly dated, but still relevant CNN Article, some stories from interracial congregations are shared.  Pastors of interracial churches share that, when preaching and even talking in normal conversation to their congregation, they have to pay careful attention to what they say, because one slip of the tongue could start a firestorm.  They share that it is like being in a campaign.  The article says that, just like in normal culture, skirmishes can still arise over who’s in power and racial issues like interracial dating.  Curtiss Paul DeYoung, co-author of United by Faith, which examines interracial churches, was once the pastor of an interracial church in Minnesota but as he puts it, “I left after five years, I was worn out from the battles”.  The church he was a pastor at eventually went all black.

This raises a question in my mind.  While yes, most people believe that all churches should strive to be interracial as the poll pointed out, is it really a bad thing if they are not? Shouldn’t people be allowed to worship wherever they feel comfortable?  As long as no one is forbidding people to worship in interracial setting, is it such a bad thing if people don’t?  I just feel that people should worship where they feel comfortable, and if that is in a small intimate sanctuary full of people exactly like them or a mega church with many races and ethnicities represented, they are free to do so.

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Everywhere and Nowhere: Slavery on the University Campus

Yesterday in class, as we begin to read about the antebellum period in The Color of Christ, we went on a brief tour of a few slavery related sites on the campus here at UA. We started with an exhibit at Gorgas Library curated by religious studies major, Benjamin Flax. Flax has exhibited a number of documents related to slaves owned or rented by the university and its faculty in the nineteenth century. What stood out to me as we walked around and read the receipts and glanced at the entries in the trustees’ records was the banality of it all. Prices, hours, projects. Nothing special. Just the running of an institution. The university rented a slave named William, who was a talented blacksmith, to build a fence around the Gorgas House.  Institutional growth.

Our class was lucky enough to have Amy Chen from the university special collections library give us some context for the exhibit. Dr. Chen explained how UA’s use of slave labor was not out of the ordinary. The banality of slave labor at UA reflects the banality of slave labor throughout higher education in the nineteenth century. The University of Virginia, University of South Carolina, University of North Carolina, Emory University (where I earned my Ph.D.) and even universities in the North have their own slavery histories. It was everywhere in the antebellum United States.

We walked from Gorgas Library down the quad to the President’s Mansions,. Then we walked behind the mansion.

Here we found the slave quarters. Surrounded by shrubs and with a small rose garden in front, the white painted structures are surprisingly quaint. This one pictured, on the east side of the mansion grounds, is unmarked. Only two students in our class knew it was there or what it was. It was hidden in plain sight–perfectly manicured yet utterly unexplained. I had heard there was a marker explaining what the four small houses are but it I didn’t see it.

After the slave quarters, we walked back up the quad to the Biology Building. Next to the biology building is a small graveyard with this plaque in front of it.

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Again, only a couple students had ever seen this. It’s everywhere. And nowhere.

We then returned to where we started, Manly Hall, the building where we have class each week. Manly Hall is named for Basil Manly, the second president of the university. Manly was a Baptist minister and he was everywhere. He was the pastor at First Baptist in Charleston, South Carolina during the call for nullification (the city where I earned my B.A. and which has its own tangled history or slavery). He led the southern Baptists out of their denominational ties with the North. He swore in Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He owned 38 slaves. He preached an 1845 sermon “Duties of Masters and Servants” where he argued that slavery “made slaves happy and industrious and masters prosperous and beneficent.” He was everywhere.

And here the stories of slavery, religion and the University of Alabama intersect–in my office and my classroom in Manly Hall. We know Basil Manly’s religion. It was a southern Baptist religion that preached submission, social order, and freedom in the next life. We know his Jesus. And we teach religion in his Hall.

But what do we know of the religious life of the slaves in those white cabins? Who was their Jesus? In his local history, A History of the Black Church in Tuscaloosa, Forrest Moore notes that most churches in Tuscaloosa were integrated before the Civil War. Slaves worshiped alongside their masters in Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches. But what about outside the white dominated churches? What was the slave religion of the university? According to Moore there were 10, 145 slaves in Tuscaloosa county in 1860. Did they meet in hush arbors? Were there black congregations? Was the invisible institution everywhere or nowhere? The university wasn’t a plantation and many of the slaves in town did domestic or skilled labor. How did the small urban setting of Tuscaloosa shape religios practice of slaves? Were there sermons preached in those white cabins? Songs sung? These are the questions I ask in Basil Manly Hall.

(De)Facing Jesus: Reconstructing Religion (and God) in the Battle for Social Change

From 2003-2004, a little-known dramatic comedy from creator Brian Fuller aired on Showtime. Called Dead Like Me, the show followed a small group of grim reapers as they struggled with everyday life, like finding and keeping jobs, relationships, etc.; it also showed how they struggled to help reaped souls cross over. While mostly flippant and fanciful, the show also dealt with deeper subjects of loss, grief, and sometimes, prejudice. One episode in particular called “The Shallow End” dealt with a would-be transsexual named Stan, who was killed in the waiting room for his sex-change consultation. In a particularly powerful clip, Stan posthumously confronts his grief not with how he was died, but how he was forced to live, and takes it out on Jesus.

At first glance it may seem as though the clip has little to do with what I have dubbed the “Defacing” and “Reconstructing” of the image of God and religion in society. That is, until around the 1:28 mark. At that point, Stan says that he wants to forgive God for having made him live life as a man instead of a woman, but that God must “tell [Stan] he’s sorry first,” and suddenly the stain-glass Jesus above him shatters because of children throwing rocks outside.

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Look familiar? It should.

     

Above is perhaps one of the most striking images of September 15, 1963, the day four little African American girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. The world never forgot the events of that day, and the image itself lived on in popular imagination, even opening Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey’s acclaimed book, The Color of Christ. While I do not mean to suggest that kids throwing rocks in a TV show and white Christian men actually bombing a church and killing children in real life are similar, the image of the shattered icon clearly still holds meaning today as a symbol of social tension, minority oppression, and (hopefully) change.

First, the image evokes social tension if for nothing else than the sheer violence of the acts. The face of Jesus was defaced because of a bomb in ’63 afterall, and though the image from Dead Like Me is only marginally violent, the violence faced for LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender/Transsexual) individuals is indeed great today. Huffington Post’s executive religion editor Paul Brandeis Raushenbusch points out worldwide violence and discrimination, as well as the church’s role in the violence  in a recent article. In Nigeria, for example, homosexual unions are now considered crimes, and a group of men were beaten by a mob there this past weekend. In Kansas, a law has been proposed to make workplace discrimination based on sexual preference legal.

Secondly, as Blum and Harvey suggest, many in 1963 found the battered image emblematic of Christ (and Christianity)’s powerlessness or worse, the church’s oppression. When it comes to social injustice, both images come from places of pain and recall the effects of minority violence. The idea that a black church should be shepherded by a white Jesus in the first place seems a bit ludicrous and oppressive to many like Anne Moore after the bombing. If Jesus was white like the bombers and oppressors, if he did nothing to stop it, then how could African Americans feel wholly or comfortable in their church again anyway? Similarly, Raushenbusch suggests that Christians are partly to blame for worldwide LGBT oppression if for nothing else than the church’s own “complicity.” He goes on to cite many discriminatory and church-sanctioned laws around the world and within the USA.  Ignatius Kaigama, an Archbishop, agrees with the laws in Nigeria for example, and the laws of Kansas are being pushed for “under the banner of ‘religious freedom.'”

That said, however, Blum and Harvey also cite how, in the wake of the bombing, the ever-eloquent James Baldwin saw the shattered Christ as an opportunity as Baldwin states:

“The absence of the face is something of an achievement [and…] If Christ has no face, then perhaps it is time that we … give him a new face.”

In the same vein, despite the violence and hatred that inspired his article, Raushenbush clearly still believes there is hope, pointing out that others like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, have taken this opportunity to reconfigure who Christ is and those things for which he stands today with quotes like, “‘anybody who doesn’t show love towards gay and lesbian people…are not just homophobic…they are Godophobic.’” Still others like Archbishop Desmond Tutu say that, “I would not worship a God who is homophobic.” Heck, Raushenbush himself is an ordained minister and outspoken voice for equal rights. In other words, these men — like Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. before them — are changing their views of God and humanity coming out of the violence that happening around the world today.

To end, I would like to end with an image which Blum and Harvey describe in Color’s prologue, but never actually show, that of the 16th Street Baptist Church’s reconstructed Jesus.

It may seem silly to think of now, but the shattered Jesus was indeed reconstructed in such a way that would have made Baldwin proud. Firstly, his air seems at once stronger, and secondly – being on a cross – more engaged with the suffering of his congregation, more relatable. The image also gives a certain hope for how perceptions of Jesus and Christianity can change and adapt today. While these reconfigured images are incomplete and may not seem like much, they are. While these problems may seem far from over or insurmountable, they are not.

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Water to Wine and Wine to Beer: The Role of the Bar in Religious Combination

header4“Praise the Lord and pass the beer”- decidedly unexpected words to overhear between hymns and sermons. However, Brett McCracken describes the emerging trend of “bar churches,” religious gatherings and services that take place in the comfortable, slightly disarming setting of a traditional bar. Churches like the North Brooklyn Vineyard or Fort Worth’s Kyrie advertise themselves as unorthodox beer-friendly places of worship aimed at reaching the common man. These holy ale-houses serve as communal meeting places filled with daily debates and the casual exchange of ideas. Some churches don’t go as far as establishing an actual service in the bar, but rather focus on Bible studies or ministries with a more alcohol-friendly policy.

Beer and Christianity are not as historically antithetical as you might think. Early Christian monks drank their own homemade beer in lieu of often unsanitary water that spread disease. Monasteries were places of refuge for weary travelers, offering safety, food and drink. Beer and wine were safe and necessary parts of everyday life. The more recent Puritans brought at least 10,000 gallons of beer and 120 barrels of malt to produce even more upon arrival at the New World. Like the monastic brewers, Puritans brewed beer as a way to enjoy already boiled water- which was known to be both safe and unpleasantly tasteless. To be clear- the Puritans did (over)enjoy their alcohol, but the emphasis on beer was due to both necessity and enjoyment. In true American immigrant fashion, the Puritans brought both their religion, and their cultural affinity for beer.

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But in the long and complex narrative of American religious history, why is this small, recent movement significant? Is it a short-lived movement doomed to attract only craft beer aficionados and self-proclaimed edgy Christians? McCracken suggests that the trend is not new, but a return to an older tradition of beer and Christianity. However, the modern relationship is clearly not born of necessity- few people go to bars because they’re worried about their safety. The importance of this trend is not even found in the beer itself, but rather in setting and community in which it is consumed.

Tom Smilie, writer and brewer, explains how beer and bars have allowed him to share and receive ideas. “Sometimes I’ll go alone to a bar and have a great conversation with a person about sports, politics and most often religion.” The bar as a meeting place is important because it creates a space for honest, simple conversation about important cultural ideas. Bars can be seen as a microcosm of their surrounding areas- concentrated pockets of diversity within the larger cultural framework.

In America: Religions & Religion, Catherine Albanese describes the way that different immigrant religious groups interacted in the American religious history narrative. Religious combination between different groups was facilitated by diversity and proximity. American postpluralism, or the borrowing of ideas and practices, resulted increasingly from the new closeness that mass immigration brought. A similar yet culturally microscopic phenomenon takes place in American taverns and pubs that bring together people who would otherwise never speak freely in the ordered structure of a formal church. Scott Sullivan, owner of the Greenbush Brewing Company in Sawyer, Michigan, offers his observations. “We are the community gathering place…I’ll often have a pastor sitting next to an atheist talking about all sorts of things, which isn’t something that can happen in a conventional church setting.”

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The true value of the beer Christianity movement can be seen in the sense of community and simplicity it evokes. It is important to consider the kind of local religious combination that makes up postpluralism on a macroscopic cultural level. This local religious combination is seen not in political arenas or imposing cathedrals, but the mundane places that frame everyday interactions between the common people of America. After all, according to the wisdom of author Ernest Hemingway, “If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.”

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The Changing Faces of Marvel and America

ImageEarlier this month, Marvel released the first issue of Ms. Marvel starring Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American teenager. Khan is the first Muslim-American superhero to star in a Marvel comic, though Marvel has featured other Muslim-American characters in the past. The former Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, has been rebranded as Captain Marvel, a member of the Avengers, leaving the role of Ms. Marvel to be filled by Khan. 

The series is written by G. Willow Wilson, an American convert to Islam. In an interview with NPR this January, Wilson says she initially, “wasn’t sure that the world was kind of ready for a character like this,” but that she has tried to create an authentic character. In creating Kamala’s character, Wilson worked closely with editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker. Amanat revealed in a video for the Washington Post that the inspiration for a Muslim-American lead character actually came from a conversation between herself and Wacker, about her experience growing up as a Muslim-American. Wilson said the three “spent a lot of time before [they] actually sat down to script the series working on background issues so that she felt like a real human being. “

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Wilson said readers can expect the typical action of a comic book, combined with new challenges unique to Kamala’s immigrant family background. Her family members range from more traditional Muslims, like Kamala’s brother, to more “relaxed” Muslims, like Kamala. But the overarching storyline is one of changing identity, both of Ms. Marvel’s change from white, blonde Carol Danvers to Muslim-American Kamala Khan, and Kamala Khan’s change from normal teenager to superhero.

Marvel’s decision to have a Muslim-American girl star in her own comic will face criticism from some parties for being “un-American,” but perhaps these critics are wrong. If we look at the changing face of superheroes like we look at the changing face of Jesus, we can see a pattern of change of identity central to American religion. Just as the portrayal of Jesus changes as the face of American religion and culture changes, so does the portrayal of other “superhuman” figures.

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In their book The Color of Christ, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey discuss how differences in Jesus’s appearance over time reflect the view of Jesus Americans held at that moment in time. During the early colonial period in New England, where many Puritans immigrated seeking religious freedom, visual representations of Jesus could not be found, because the Puritans believed that to look to an image of Jesus would constitute breaking the second commandment. However, in Catholic areas, Jesus was often depicted as bloody, and to many Native Americans in French-settled areas, Jesus was portrayed as a “Manitou,” or powerful hunter spirit. Visions of Jesus were changed by every group of people who came into contact with him, and his image came to reflect the views of these groups of people. Eventually, Jesus came to be known as the white man depicted in Warner Salman’s famous Head of Christ (shown above) in 1941. To Blum and Harvey, this showed that, “by wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face,” and you’ll notice that this depiction came to the forefront of the American depiction of Jesus just before the civil rights movement began. 

Though they are in no way recognized as a part of any organized religion I know of, superheroes are still seen as important, prominent, though fictional, figures in American culture, just as Jesus is. Can’t they represent the changing landscape of religion in America, just as images of Jesus represents the view of Christians in America? Perhaps Marvel’s choice better reflects the landscape of America today than past comic series have. As people continue to immigrate to the United States, bringing with them their own religions and traditions, it becomes impossible to ignore the growing number of non-white, non-christians in America, and the need for our superheroes to represent that changing face of American religion. 

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The Ultimate Confluence: Michael Sam and the Spirit of Christ in America

In his famous book Crossings and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion, religious studies scholar Thomas Tweed describes religions as “confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering” (Tweed). I can think of no better modern example of that idea than the subject matter behind Adam Ericksen’s blog post for God’s Politics entitled “How a Gay Football Player Could Help Redeem the Church”. Michael Sam’s coming out,  and his future as potentially the first gay professional football player, according to Ericksen, has a distinctly Christ-like feel to it.

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Let’s first consider for a second all of the ideas wrapped up in that one title. I want to break it down phrase by phrase.

Michael Sam is gay. Not only is he gay, but he is now in a unique position of prominence in America. Sam’s now famous homosexuality goes along with Catherine L. Albanese’s description of “nations within nations” in her book America: Religions and Religion. According to a Williams Institute study in 2011, about 3.5 percent of Americans identify as LGBT, which is over eight million people. Sam, whether he intended  to be or not, is now a pioneer for the LGBT “nation” in America.

That nation, by Sam’s coming out, is expanding its reach occupationally. Now we are into the “Football Player” portion of Erickson’s title. Through Sam, being openly gay will now be tested on its most popular stage. 111.5 million people watched the Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago, and the league set a record this season by generating over 10 billion dollars in revenue. Needless to say, Sam’s audience is both loyal and eager, and he will certainly have a lot of eyeballs on whatever he does in his rookie season.

The confusing part of Ericksen’s title, at least to me, was the last one. How could a gay football player “redeem” the church? As a protestant Christian myself, I am very hesitant to use the word “redeem” about anyone. Where did we get to the point in America, considering the original state of the American protestant church, that the idea of a redemptive gay football player could even be possible? It seems bizarre, but I think Albanese’s narrative of “manyness” as well as Americanization both apply in this context.

Ericksen’s post seeks to prove the point that Sam’s attitude in and of itself is an example of a Christ-like sense of self-assuredness and gentleness.

“Michael Sam is the right person to be in the spotlight not just for promoting gay rights, but because, when it comes to a sense of identity, he is a good model for the church to follow.” – Adam Erickson, God’s Politics

Sam first came out to his coach prior to the 2013 season, then his teammates, and then, as of last week, to the world. Ericksen’s main point in his article is that his handling of his sudden fame, which brought with its inception a lot of attention both positive and negative, is an excellent example of humility and acceptance for Christians to follow. He describes how Sam’s ability to resist the urge to “mirror” the hostility pointed towards him, and how he embraces the idea that Christians should “take responsibility for how we respond to that negativity” (Ericksen). Sam’s example of a man being confident in who he is, as well as accepting of the criticism of others, is the Christian example according to Ericksen.

As I believe Albanese and Tweed would observe it, this story is a massive collision and collaboration of sexual identity, racial identity, and occupational identity, all observed from a Protestant perspective. Even in the midst of a story that seemingly goes against what the modern conservative church would promote as “redemptive”, the 21st century Americanization of protestant Christianity has allowed us to observe stories like this through a Christian lens, and write blog posts that address them explicitly as such. Where else could you find a story about an openly gay black man who plays a game for a living written by a white male who sees his story as a model of Christ? Only in an America full of confluence.

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Gaga Over Gaga

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In America: Religions and Religion, Catherine Albanese defines ordinary religion as “the religion that is more or less synonymous with culture.”  Each culture has its own style of music, and most people would probably consider music a part of their ordinary religion. Furthermore, many religions also use music as a form of worship in their extraordinary religions, or “the religion that helps people to transcend, or move beyond, their everyday culture and concerns.”

Lady Gaga intertwines music as a part of extraordinary and ordinary religions by singing songs that are played on the radio for people of every religion to hear, but she also sings about a Christian God who loves all people. Gaga focuses on painting an image of a God who accepts all sexualities, including lesbians, gays, transgenders, and bisexuals. For example, in her song “Born This Way,” Gaga sings “There’s nothin’ wrong with lovin’ who you are, ’cause he made you perfect, babe.” These lyrics are a prime example of Gaga’s actions that are angering conservative Christians, who believe that the Bible teaches relationships should be strictly between a man and a woman. Furthermore, Gaga pushes the boundaries of the extraordinary religion that she identifies herself with. In her music video to the song “Judas,” Lady Gaga sexualizes Jesus Christ, bathes with him, and suggests adultery. Again, this video is shockingly offensive to Christians that believe that Jesus was able to die for our sins because he lived a sinless life. The Jesus in Lady Gaga’s music video clearly gives into temptations.

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In Idol Worship: The Beatitudes of Gaga, Xarissa Holdaway describes how Lady Gaga has become a sort of idol to people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community. Holdaway says, “Her act, living at the intersection of camp’s sheer excess, queer theory’s rejection of heteronormative gender roles, and Christ’s admonishment to love our neighbor and the stranger equally, goes well beyond style and stagecraft.” This is where her music transcends that of ordinary religion into extraordinary religion. Catherine Albanese states that extraordinary religions must have creeds, codes, cultuses, and communities. For Lady Gaga, her creed would be that of all Christians: Get to Heaven. But, Gaga believes in a very accepting God that allows all types of people into Heaven, and that is where her creed speaks to her followers who she labels “monsters.” Next, the creed would simply state “love yourself,” because Lady Gaga believes that is of utmost importance. The code for Gaga’s monsters  in this hypothetical religion has looser rules than that of conservative Christianity, as Gaga disregards normal gender roles. Whether or not Gaga’s followers have all of the components required to be considered an extraordinary religion, they certainly have cultuses. Gaga’s concerts give monsters a feeling of freedom in a place where they feel they can truly be themselves because Lady Gaga has given them permission to do so. Lastly, the community in this case consists of those people who see Lady Gaga as their idol. This community centers around her and her openness  and acceptance. Whether or not Lady Gaga and her followers can actually be considered an extraordinary religion, this example proves how people today are willing to turn to almost anyone or anything to feel accepted into that community that Albanese mentions.

Lady Gaga and her concerts remind me of the sacramentalism Albanese mentions in her chapter on Catholicism. She says, “A sacrament is a place where a divine world is experienced as breaking into the human one.” Moreover, Roman Catholics believed that any object could become a sacrament and would allow them to experience God’s grace. Gaga’s followers seem to have turned her concerts into a sacrament. In that open environment, people of all kinds are able to experience the grace of God that Lady Gaga sings about.

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