Indoctrination vs Education: A Debate on Religion Taught in Schools

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Religion being taught in schools has been regarded as a violation of church and state since the beginning of the 20th century, but have we been avoiding a subject that is needed in public school just as much as any other humanity? I am not talking about indoctrinating children; I am taking about learning the cultural systems of varied religious groups in order to better understand the people within America, and the world. But can religion be taught objectively, as Abington Township v. Schempp endorses, or will teachers use this subject to oppress social groups that have opposing beliefs?

Why should we teach religion in the first place? America has been known as a religious refuge and thus is well-rounded when it comes to diversity but are Americans aware of their fellow citizens cultural beliefs? Research has shown that the majority of Americans are religiously illiterate. This is alarming considering how important religion is to foreign policy in the United States. Religion is a key factor to understanding each other and understanding leads to a more tolerant population which is in everyone’s best interest. Joseph Laycock, a graduate from Harvard Divinity School, believes it is vital to teach religion in schools. Laylock points out in his article that although Abington Township v. Schempp had banned Bible readings in public school Justice Clark stated that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion.

“Religious literacy is essential for the smooth functioning of a pluralistic democracy in a shrinking world. The issue is not only understanding the world “out there,” beyond American shores, but also understanding our own society, which is increasingly religiously diverse.” Mark A. Chancey

Many people are wary of teaching religion in school, and believe that the First Amendment prohibits the inclusion of religion in any way. Because of how the Supreme Court has ruled in the past on cases relating to religion and public education, state school officials do not want to face the challenge of integrating religious history and practice into the course work and would rather exclude it then risk facing a costly lawsuit. So how do you effectively incorporate religious courses without crossing the constitutional line by promoting certain religious perspectives over others and religion over non-religion? Mark A. Chancey who conducted a survey of Texas Bible classes in public schools for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund found that many schools achieved this blend of religion and school by:

  • Relying on resources informed by a broad range of biblical scholarship, not just the scholars of one particular religious community.
  • Informing students about the unique features of the Bibles of different traditions (Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox).
  • Being intentional in exposing students to biblical translations associated with different religious traditions.
  • Being sensitive to the different ways various religious communities have interpreted particular passages and did not present one tradition’s interpretation as normative.
  • Recognizing the importance of biblical texts as ancient historical sources without lapsing into a tone of assumed historicity.
  • Discussing the Bible’s moral and theological claims without presenting them as authoritative for the students.
  • Recognizing that the Bible is not a science textbook.
  • Treating Judaism as a religion in its own right and not merely as the foil or background for Christianity.

Creating a curriculum that focusses on these points will achieve the goal of creating an electorate that is religiously literate without crossing the court’s interpretation of separation of church and state.

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Still though people are opponents to teaching religion in schools. In the past groups used the image of Christ as a white man to advance their social and political agenda. Many people fear that if religion becomes a part the public school’s curriculum that I teachers will use it in the same way. Others believe it will infringe on a parents right to guide the religious practices and views of their child. And the fear of legal intervention because of crossing a line drawn by the court system.

These fears are all valid but ultimately should not be of great concern. A large portion of the United States concerns itself with equality and would not be silent if such an event happened. Teaching religious curriculum in school is not a way to “indoctrinate” but to “educate” and would not overstep into the parents right to rear its child in a certain manner. Finally as long as schools stay within the guidelines drawn by Chancey they should have no problem with creating a religion class as a part of their required courses.

Learning religion in public schools is as necessary as history in understanding the world, past and present events, and each other. To ignore it because the fear of offending someone is an injustice to the students in America that are already well behind in religious literacy. Religious education must include information about all the world’s religions, and about atheism as well and should not avoid mentioning problems in religious beliefs in order to properly and rightfully inform students.  Children benefit from seeing all sides of an argument.

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Christian Denominations: One Faith or Separate Religions?

Throughout history, Christianity has been at the forefront of America’s religious culture, and that still holds true for the present. It is the most popular religion in the United States today—in fact, the PewResearch Religious Landscape Survey shows that nearly 78.4% of American adults identify themselves as Christians—but is this religion really one unified faith? There is something to be said about the fact that the poll lists major denominations as separate entities (even dividing Evangelical Protestants and Mainline Protestants), and what is even more interesting is the sheer number of subcategories listed under each tradition. Many varying beliefs comprise most American religions (“Catholic,” “Jehovah’s Witness,” “Other World Religions,” and “Don’t Know/Refused” were the only traditions in the PewResearch survey that did not have subcategories listed), but Christianity’s ubiquitous differences are undoubtedly the most prominent.

Why is it that Christianity in America seems to be defined by contrasting theology? Can it really be classified as one unified faith, or are the differences enough to call the varying denominations separate religions? A great example of this concept is illustrated in this episode of Cheers, where a married couple fears for the sustainability of their relationship due to religious differences—specifically differences of denomination.

In this dramatized example of religious tension in America, Kelly and Woody are not even of different faiths. Not only are they both Christian, but they are also both Lutheran—they simply belong to different subsets within the Lutheran church. If the seemingly minor contrasts between the Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod and the Lutheran Church of America are large enough to cause inter-personal issues such as these, what is there to say about Christian denominations as a whole? Woody’s statement that he and Kelly are “from different religions” seems to be a comical exaggeration, but is there actually merit to this claim?

In America: Religions & Religion, Albanese defines a religious system in terms of four variables: creed, code, cultus, and community. A comparison of denominations of the Christian faith would in fact show that there are distinct differences in each of these categories. The creeds, or explanations about the meaning of life, vary if even by a small factor. This is illustrated humorously in the above Cheers episode. The codes, or rules for everyday living, are very distinct among denominations too. How often in Christian culture are people arguing about how others of the same faith are living? The cultuses, or rituals to act out the understandings of the creeds and codes, most certainly differ; each denomination has a different idea about baptism, communion, worship, prayer, and other church rituals. The variance in community is the most prominent, as tight-knit church culture is pervasive in Christianity today.

So if each category in Albanese’s definition of a religious system is different for each denomination in the Christian faith, does this make each one a separate religion? This is a possibility to think about, but the answer may be deeper than just generic characterization. According to studied definition, people of Christian faith may belong to many different religions; yet they identify themselves with each other, bonding over a sense of shared beliefs. It follows that this idea of common community and personal connection does not come from the strict categories that Albanese and other religious scholars put forth to attempt to define religion; it comes from the idea that they have unified faith. Many endeavors have been made to characterize and explain religion, but it seems that even ones as broad as Albanese’s fall short when it comes to conundrums like denominations within Christianity. Defining religion is a difficult undertaking; even the most prominent example of religion in America doesn’t seem to fit perfectly into a label. Maybe this is a result of identifying the term with the wrong definition. Perhaps faith and religion are two very different matters, or perhaps denominations are simply examples of “religion inception” (religions within the main religion of Christianity); either way, the lines appear to be blurred, and maybe they always will be.

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Out With Hippie Jesus, in With Sexy Jesus

The above clip from Hamlet 2 is the recommended soundtrack for this post.

As we continue to move through the history of Jesus in American culture, the authors of Color of Christ, Ed Blum and Paul Harvey, have been busy weighing in on the new movie Son of God. At the Huffington Post, Blum and Harvey (or as I call them, Blarvey) discuss the homo-social moments of intimacy in the new Jesus biopic. Meanwhile, at the Atlantic, they ask whatever happened to hippie Jesus?

Apart from Blum and Harvey, Jezebel has posted its own list of the sexiest Jesuses in American cinema. It’s a tragedy they left this guy off the list:

Why must Jesus be sexy? And why have we tired of the hippie Christ? Stay tuned to see if the class has any thoughts about sexy, hippie, Jesus…

The Battle of Faith-Based Films

From left to right: Son of God, Heaven Is for Real, and Noah

From left to right: Son of God, Heaven Is for Real, and Noah

Hollywood is Hell on Earth. This is what some Christians, at least in the South, would have you believe. Many of these people view Hollywood as a place filled with celebrities whose views have long strayed from those of mainstream Americans. A place used as a scapegoat for the “downfall of America.” A place where Christianity is almost nonexistent. A place not to be looked up to in any way. Oh yeah, and that place where all your favorite movies originate.

For years, Christians have complained about the lack of Bible-related films coming out of Hollywood. That is not the case this year. In 2014, there will be four major, religion-themed movies coming to a theater near you: Son of God, Noah, Heaven Is for Real, and Exodus. One would think Christians might be satisfied with so many of these films being released soon, but that is not exactly the case. Seemingly every time a Bible-related film hits theaters, there are numerous religious organizations lining up to criticize the storyline or accuracy of the movie. Paramount, the studio releasing Noah, recently announced that the following clarification would be included with the film:

The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.

I mean, it’s not like Hollywood has a track record of embellishing the narrative of a “based on true events” movie.  Dr. Jerry Johnson, President of the NRB, summarizes the Christian viewpoint in his article about Noah as, “If the world made it, we are against it, and can provide the list to tell you why.” Instead of continually trying to pick a fight with Hollywood, Christians ought to embrace the fact that the film industry is spending millions of dollars to essentially tell the story of the Jesus and the Bible.

In a similar article, Phil Cooke makes the case for why Christians should support the movie Noah, and other comparable movies. For starters, the story of Noah written in the Bible is fairly short. As with many parts of the Bible, this story leaves many blanks unfilled and leaves the imagination with room to wander. This means that in order to create a feature film, some creative freedom must be left to the writers and producers. This does not discount the entire story as worthless, though. Instead, this introduces a new viewpoint, perhaps never considered by the person watching. Furthermore, I know it may be hard for some to fathom, but there are a seemingly infinite number of interpretations of the Bible. This could be embraced as a way to promote an open dialogue about Christ and the many forms that He takes in different cultures.

These movies are not intended to replace the Bible. Instead of complaining about trivial details, Christians should look to use these movies as a facilitator for nonbelievers. The art of filmmaking has the power to reach an audience untouched by the Christian community. These movies could lead to someone picking up a Bible for the first time in their lives. And, in the end, is that not what all Christians want?

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Focus on the “Feel Good”

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When Candace Chellew-Hodge, the author of “Millenials Invent New Religion: No Hell, No Priests, No Punishment”, asked her students to create a new religion as a class project, she was perplexed by their creations. Still, she was more even more intrigued by what they did not create. Most student groups included meditation as a practice of their religions but used it as a way to get in touch with themselves rather than a god. Prayer was used in a similar way for students to make personal gain rather than talk to a higher being. Additionally, all the student groups left out spiritual leaders and religious group meetings while not even mentioning the idea of a hell. These students were driven away from modeling their made-up religions after prominent religions in America because of the hypocrisy they have witnessed in those religions. The students do not want spiritual leaders to tell them what they should and should not be doing, because they believe those leaders are contradicting their own advice. Furthermore, the students see religions such as Christianity as too judgmental and restrictive. With all of the current controversy on whether acts like homosexuality and abortion are acceptable by the Bible’s rules, the students sought a religion where people could do as they please. That freedom includes leaving a religious practice, joining another, and returning to the previous religion later. Candace Chellew-Hodge makes the point that without the threat of consequences and without any real discipline, followers of these made-up religions will not know what it is like to suffer for their belief system. She says that without suffering, people will not only become distant from the higher being they worship but also from one another. Her argument made me think of the slaves’ religion described in The Color of Christ. The slaves were whipped and beaten by their owners, yet they somehow held onto their faith. They related to a Christ who suffered that same beating and died so that they could one day be free. The students’ religions allow them a freedom in this life that would not cause them to look forward and strive for that freedom in the next life that the slaves longed for. Although, the students are in a much more privileged position than the slaves were. Since they have not encountered the same type of suffering as the slaves, the students might not even be able to comprehend that type of hardship. The students live out their extremely carefree lives on Earth, so how could they expect the afterlife to be any different? On the other hand, the slaves knew the realities of true misery, and that allowed them to believe in an eternal hell for sinners.

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When I was searching for an image for this post, I found this quote by Abraham Lincoln, and it also made me think of some things that Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum mention in the The Color of Christ. For instance, “Like so many leaders of the American Revolution and in the early Republic, Lincoln wanted to acknowledge the divine without being trapped by the particulars of Jesus” (128). Although Lincoln might have kept from stating his specific ideas about Christ and religion to avoid stepping on the toes of people in a fragile nation, it is also possible that Lincoln had the same “feel good” ideals that the students in Candace Chellew-Hodge’s class had come up with for their religions. Lincoln’s religion was possibly one of self discovery and fulfillment like the students’ hypothetical religions, and freeing the slaves could have been an example of his “doing good to feel good” as a part of that religion.

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Grains of Salt and Degrees of Faith: What Makes a Miracle?

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Miracles in America.

How do you really know whether something is real? Espeically in the age of dime-store card tricks and photo shop, it seems we cannot even trust our own eyes half the time. Beyond that, though, there is also so much suspicion regarding such things.  With this in mind, where can miracles actually come into our lives? In his article, “The power of miracles: Naples’s prodigious blood,” BBC ‘Heart and Soul’ correspondent and former friar Mark Dowd tries to find a good answer.

Taking what he calls “a very large dose of salt to accompany [him],” Dowd explores the credentials of a few ‘miracles’ throughout the world and especially Italy, ranging from the Neapolitan feast of San Gennaro (or, Saint Januarius) in which a vile of the saint’s ancient blood can turn from a 5th century solid back into liquid form.  to the supposedly posthumously healing of Pope John Paul II, and even a comparatively much ‘smaller’ and substantially lesser-known miracle in an Italian suburb in which a man (Signor D’Alfonso) was brought out of a comma through the praying ferocity his sister-in-law, a nun, who organized prayers for him.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these stories is that all of them are either confirmed or toted as real miracles not just by Dowd, but also by the Vatican and other faithful. The scope of the miracles ranges incredibly, as does their respective celebration and their acceptance. For example, while thousands gather in the streets to witness whether or not Saint Januarius’s blood will change and consider it a moving miracle if it does, many – including Dowd – would “like to [examine] the phials and their contents several hours beforehand” to be sure the change was not mere illusion.

On a similar note, although Signor D’Alfonso’s case has been holistically confirmed in the Vatican through multipe medical testimonies, he rarely speaks of the event in fear that it “will be misinterpreted as mere vulgar ‘magic’ rather than as an invitation to deepen one’s faith because of a sign.” In efforts to canonize Pope John Paul II, many must also sort through and investigate uowards of 3,800 claims of his extraordinary posthumous intervention in believers’ lives.

Ultimately, Dowd’s experience leads him to state that miracles much be viewed “through the eyes of faith” and while I agree, the term feels a bit overly-simplistic. Clearly what makes up a miracle (and how people should incorporate such miracles into their lives) varies tremendously depending on the person, like all ‘faith.’

To return once again to The Color of Christ, the face of God is ever-changing, both through how he is seen and shared. The original missionaries in America, Catholics appropriately enough, brought with them a god or god image of rules and statures, of colonizing rather than adaptive faith, much the same way the ritualistic observation of the saint’s blood in Naples  remains fairly uniform for decades at least. In contrast, the Moravians brought a more malleable interpretation of Christ and Christian faith, with more of a focus on the sacrificial and healing capacity of Jesus, which fit more easily into the lives and culture of Native Americans than the mission-based image given by the early Catholics the way that Pope John Paul II’s healings and the miracle for Signor D’Alfonso are significantly more individual. Rather than basing the variance of such miracles on the “eye of faith” then, we might also consider the lens of circumstance. After all there is a substantial difference between witnessing a miracle in the middle of a Church festival, and seeing one at home or in a hospital room.

Feast of San Gennaro in Naples

This of course, does not mean that any miracle is less important, or that any image of Christianity should be dismissed. Despite their differences after all, the Jesuits, Protestants and Catholics of old (and those to whom they witnessed) were brought to the same God. These miracles happened somehow and are real to someone.

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Looking For Answers: Christianity’s Dynamic Shape

As time changes, so does religion. As new questions are asked, many people search for answers through Christ. However, the “same” Christ, along with his teachings, can be viewed, imagined, and interpreted with vast differences, causing immense friction. Throughout American history, religion and Jesus have played a large role on both sides of wars and debates, each side claiming Christ as an advocate for their actions. As presented in The Color of Christ by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, during the Civil War, the voices of white supremacy claimed that the Golden Rule “only applied within one’s own race” and that it “should take into account status, power, and position.” The slaves and abolitionists, however, believed that it applied to all men and that, according to Christian religion, everyone should love their neighbors as themselves. No matter what the disagreement, having Christ and the Bible as support for opposing sides creates a lot of disagreement and a dynamic Christ, raising a lot of questions about the true meaning of Christianity.

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In singer/songwriter Noah Gundersen’s song “Jesus, Jesus” (cleanest version), a lot of modern confusion in the religious world is brought to light. For example, Gundersen questions certain Christian claims about judgment of others. He sings, “If all the heathens burn in hell, do all their children burn as well? What about the Muslims, and the gays, and the unwed mothers?” Matters regarding Muslims (especially in relation to the War on Terror) and homosexuality are modern topics in which religious interpretation plays a huge role. If one views Christ as a lover of all men and the Golden Rule as applicable to everyone, it seems as though these issues wouldn’t be issues at all. However, just as there was in the Civil War, there are opposing sides to each topic, along with substantial biblical claims gathered in support, causing tension and often times uncertainty among Christians.

When it comes to religion in war, it’s presence in the War on Terror reaches far beyond the United States borders. In the Civil War, the religious difference was merely in opposing views of Christ and Christianity in America. However, the Golden Rule in regards to the War on Terror deals not only with religious difference in America, but racial and religious difference with another country. So how does an American Christian interpret the Golden Rule in this situation? Does the Golden Rule only apply to one’s own people, one’s own religion? Or does doing unto others as they would to do unto you apply to everyone regardless of their actions, ethnicity, and belief system? In “Religious fundamentalism in the ‘War on Terror,’” Murtaza Hussain states that Chris Kyle, author of American Sniper, calls Iraqis “savages”, claiming that “the world is a better place without [them] taking American lives” and that he wished he had killed more. His reasoning for wanting to kill Iraqis is that they have killed so many Americans. As someone who “was deeply religious and saw the Iraq War through that prism,” the Golden Rule as the abolitionists during the Civil War had viewed it, is contradicted in his reasoning. If he is appalled by the Iraqis killing of Americans, killing the Iraqis is not treating them as he would like him and his fellow Americans to be treated. Kyle’s Christianity must take on a different shape for him, one that he believes is its true meaning and that advocates his actions.

In relation to the topic of other religions, Deuteronomy 13: 6-10 claims that anyone who entices you away from the Lord to serve other gods shall be killed. Perhaps passages like these are behind certain people’s condemnation of other religious beleifs. But some would say it is contradictory to and raises questions about other parts of Christianity, like loving your neighbor as yourself. But, then again, what defines a “neighbor”? It also raises the question of whether or not others, Muslims for example, are essentially worshipping the “same” god as Christians, but that is another topic entirely. This theme of contradiction, though, is also prevalent in the debate over homosexuality as a sin. In a clip of The West Wing, Dr. Jacobs states that the Bible (Leviticus 18:22) calls homosexuality an abomination. Her literal interpretation of the Bible leads her to believe that this is true. However, the President presents her with many contradictions by recalling other bible passages that are not followed literally in modern day. For example, one passage claims that people should be burned for wearing garments made of two different threads. While the clip takes an obvious side of the debate, I am using it in an objective sense, to raise the undeniable issue of contradiction in interpretation. Here, not only is there contradiction in the sense that some people interpret the Bible literally while others do not, but there is also contradiction within each interpretation as well. The lines become extremely blurred.

As time progresses, religion is molded in the face of modernity and the blurred lines that come with it. As new conflicts and questions arise, Christ and Christianity begin to take new, different, and often opposing shapes. But, to many, there is not a definite shape, only confusion. And to those people, people questioning Christianity like Gundersen, it seems that the only way to understand what it’s all about is to meet with Jesus for coffee.

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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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_ITmHdTgOQ

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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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