Saturday, December 29, 2007

I wonder if O Fortuna is in their hymnal

The Wittenburg Blog post about the broom duel at the Church of the Nativity notes two previous, similar incidents at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This one in 2004 began with someone leaving a door open, and, as one might expect, led to five injuries. This one back in 2002 was sparked by someone moving a chair, and led to eleven injuries. It would appear that there is a list specifying the ownership of every damn thing in the church. I guess the chair was moved by someone from the wrong group, an offense punishable by concussion.

I have an urge to visit one of these churches and request a sermon on the topic of brotherly love.

Because of course Christians aren't supposed to be fighting each other. The properly Christian form of warfare occurs on a spiritual plane. Pope Benedict knows this well:
The Pope has ordered his bishops to set up exorcism squads to tackle the rise of Satanism. Vatican chiefs are concerned at what they see as an increased interest in the occult. They have introduced courses for priests to combat what they call the most extreme form of "Godlessness." Each bishop is to be told to have in his diocese a number of priests trained to fight demonic possession.
The Vatican is particularly concerned that young people are being exposed to the influence of Satanic sects through rock music and the Internet.
Rock music? What is this, the 80s?

I especially like that picture accompanying the article, in which we see Pope B doing what he does best: look creepy. The caption says "Satanism on the rise", and I can't help but see him as looking up to salute it.

(Dawn thinks that Pope B wouldn't look nearly so creepy if it weren't for this scraggly teeth. I think she might have a point. We recommend that he get braces. Nothing looks less threatening than an old dude in braces.)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Church of the Nativity is Thunderdome

Two clerics enter. One cleric leaves.
Members of rival Christian orders have traded blows at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with four people reported wounded in the fray.

Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic priests were sweeping up at the church following the Christmas rites of the Western churches earlier in the week.

Reports say some Orthodox faithful encroached on the Armenian section, prompting pitched battles with brooms.

Intense rivalries at the jointly-run church can set off vicious feuds.

The basilica, built over the grotto in the West Bank town that is the reputed birthplace of Jesus Christ is shared by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian religious authorities.

One report says the dispute started when the Greek Orthodox contingent wanted to place a ladder over the Armenian portion.
Happy Birthday, Jesus!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

On a dark Midwest highway

I ride a long, dark line, in a deep, dark time.

For Christmas is a dark time, and the Indiana toll road is a dark place. At a time like this, in a place like this, a man is given to forking over cash to a fast food chain for the first time in nearly four years, and drinking foul-tasting lightly-coloured water masquerading as coffee.

And a bad brew on a dark road in a dark time can turn a man's mind to dark thoughts....

Dark thoughts, like about how the Pope can get into the news for declaring that terrorism is bad.

Dark thoughts, like about how holy crap can be not only atrocious, but also very creepy (via).

Dark thoughts, like about how crafty Mike Huckabee is to play innocent about his sectarian political ad, spinning it into a little War on Christmas riff (via). Said he to the flock at Cornerstone Church (that being the church of that great fat cat for Christ, John Hagee): "I got in a little trouble this last week because I actually had the audacity to say 'Merry Christmas.'" That's right—and you could be next—unless of course there's someone like Huckabee around to stand up for you.

Don't worry: he may have been in a church, but he said it wasn't a political appearance. And if you can't trust Huckabee to tell the difference, who can you trust?

Not that he's the only one to walk that fine line this season.

For it's a fine line, the line between church and state. But it's a bright one.

Not like the Indiana toll road. No, that's a long, dark line, snaking between Nowhere... and Hell.

(I mean, not literally Hell—just Gary.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

American Christendom: just misunderstood (by the BBC, at least)

My main source for news is the BBC. With respect to the vast majority of current events, it's much more thorough and reliable than anything on this "side of the pond". But one thing BBC reporters really, really don't understand is American Christianity in general, and its intersection with American politics in particular. Maybe this ought to be an object lesson in how stupid people can be about other sorts of people.

I mentioned an example of this before, but here's a more egregious example.

In this article, Justin Webb discusses some trends in American Christendom, trends so drastic as to elicit a remark of "Golly, this is a big change." (That sounds more striking coming out of the mouth of a Brit.)

First, a note about the headline: "Bible bashing dying out in Kansas". Maybe that makes sense in Britainese, but around here you thump bibles. What gets bashed are gays. Bible-thumping, gay-bashing: that's what Kansas is known for.

Moving on:
Hiding in plain sight in this state is a revolution in American Christendom, a change of heart that could see American Protestant churches looking increasingly like their European equivalents.
Well, European churches look empty. Church attendance in America is down, but not exactly—and not in Kansas—down to the single-digit percentage rates you see in some European countries.

OK, so that's not quite his point, but what he's really getting at is no less crazy. The big hook for the article is Fred Phelps, about which he remarks:
The point is that Pastor Phelps and his followers are not much liked by anyone inside or outside Kansas. The "burning at the stake" wing of America's Christian churches - the wing that stresses vengeance over love - is in trouble.
The implication here is that, once upon a time, Phelps was beloved of all American Christians, or at least representative of the spirit of American Christendom; but now the wider part of Christendom has moved on, as is shown by Phelps' recent loss of popularity.

So, part of this is familiar enough. Phelps is the good old standby for those who want to caricature the abysmal state of American Christendom: Look at this bitter and hateful old man without a hint of love or caring in his whole withered soul—wow, aren't American Christians fucked up!

The only problem with this trope is that—as anyone who knows anything knows well—for all his notoriety, Phelps' "church" has always been limited to a few dozen members members of his (extended) family (and not even all of his family). Phelps' current lack of popular support is not evidence of any trend whatsoever. He has always been on the very fringe of the fringiest fringe of American Christendom. (Some would be tempted to place him on the fringe of the Christian Right in particular, but this ignores the fact that some of his stances—for example, that American soldiers deserve to die for the sins of their country—are utter anathema to American conservatives, and anyone else with any sense.)

So much for where Webb thinks American Christendom has been. How about where it's going?

Well, apparently,
Opinion polls suggest that younger evangelical Christians are falling out of love with the "big causes" their churches have championed in recent years, in particular with opposing abortion and supporting the Iraq war.
And Webb visits another church to illustrate how American Christians are increasingly turning their attention away from issues like abortion, and towards such concerns as "human rights and the environment".

About which, here are some instructive comments from Slacktivist a few months back:
The deciding factor for most evangelical voters -- including, based on their own words, the green evangelicals Caron talked to -- is still abortion politics. My guess is that while the folks Caron talked to might prefer a candidate who was both anti-abortion and anti-greenhouse gas, but when that option doesn't present itself, they'll settle for a candidate who is the former but not the latter.
So, sure, the political views of the evangelical "base" of the Republican party are changing somewhat. But not in the way Webb would have it.

The BBC article paints a picture of the average American Christian transforming from a soulless hate machine on the model of Phelps, to a polar bear loving member of Amnesty International. But both halves of this story are completely off.

Now, this is kind of an important topic. American Christendom, and the way in which it interacts with American politics, is a terribly important issue for American politics, which is in turn a pretty important issue for the rest of the world. And, what's more, it's not like Webb and his colleagues are trying to puzzle out the mindset of ancient Sumerians here: once you figure out the 'truck' / 'lorry', 'elevator' / 'lift' thing, and the etiquette for serving peas and beer, inter-cultural communication ought to go pretty smoothly. So this seems like one hell of a blindspot, and there's no excuse for having it. (Incidentally, Webb has in the past remarked upon bias and even anti-Americanism in the BBC's coverage of America, and religion in America—so he is really without excuse here.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Philosophy as childhood trauma

A nine year old writes about his trip to the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association (via):
2 days after Christmas I went to a philosophy confrence [sic]. It was horrible. There were 200 philosophers. They all did weird things. They couldn't make jokes, many had beards.

In the elevator it was worse. Once a philosopher got off on the wrong floor, so said, "wait for me." "We'll take you to the 27th," said another. Nobody laughed. "Get it there are only 10 floors," said some random old guy in a country accent. You get the point it was creepy.

A few days later there was a fire. Only one person was hurt, but everyone did weird things. Like people were standing in the roads, so nonphilosophers had to lead them out. Some people went back into the hotel. Firefighters had to lead them away. Still one guy stayed and had his bags blocking the door. Firefighters told him to move his bags, so he did, but when they left he put them back. I'll never go to a philosophy confrence [sic] again.
Poor kid.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

More about those Baby Killers for Jesus

I mean, the ones from that Guardian article.

1. The article mentions Stepping Stones Nigeria, a UK charity. I couldn't find another organization dealing directly with the issue. So they seem to be the ones to talk to about it, if you're into that kind of thing.

2. Letters to the Editor in response to the original article. One is from the director of the aforementioned charity.

3. Another of the letter writers, J Evans, complains:
...I was alarmed at the general tone of the article, which blames 'American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries' for the spread of fanatical beliefs.

The author fails to grasp the syncretist nature of Christianity in parts of Nigeria. [...] Nowhere in the Bible is violence against children condoned.
The message here is: Christianity is just fine, it's just that it's gotten all mixed up with those backwards Nigerian superstitions.

Point the first: J Evans is forgetting Psalm 137:9:
How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones / Against the rock.
Or this other bit (as mentioned in the original article) Exodus 22:18:
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
(Note how that doesn't specify how old the witch has to be.) Now, you have to be reading the bible pretty poorly to see these as commands for Christians to kill children. But Nigerians don't get the patent on reading the bible poorly. They didn't come up with that all by themselves.

Point the second: Nigerians don't get the patent on syncretism, either. Around here people have no problem professing Christianity while pursuing wealth, even pursuing wealth as if it were a Christian ideal.

Point the third: This whole gig where you get rich through the shameless exploitation of the poor and desperate under pretenses of Christianity, destroying lives so long as it makes you money and you can get away with it--these Nigerian "prophets" didn't make up that stuff, either.

A vote for Huckabee is a vote for Christmas

Oh no, Huckabee's campaign ad has a subliminal cross in it!

Oops, did I call it a "campaign ad"? I meant, "innocuous message of holiday cheer paid for with political campaign dollars and run in the three states with the earliest primaries".

But about that cross: who cares? Of course it was intentional. But, hey, how about the fact that the perfectly explicit, not at all subliminal, content of the ad is something like: God Jesus God Christmas Christ Jesus I'm a Christian (psst, not a Mormon) Jesus Jesus Jesus I like God Christ yay Christianity God P.S. vote for me.

(Paraphrasing roughly there.)

The "subliminal" cross is there to communicate a message, but it's not exactly a hidden message. A blind person could probably listen to that ad and figure out what's happening on screen. "Are they showing a Christmas tree? A cross? Is he wearing a sweater?"

Well, I, for one, applaud this ad: how it repudiates even the slightest pretense, even the thinnest veneer, of actually addressing a genuine political issue; how thoroughly it embraces pure, unadulterated sectarianism; how it expresses with such refreshing honesty the state of so much political discourse in America today. Kudos to Mr Huckabee.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

They will know us by our tattoos

I really couldn't tell the story better than this, so, quoting in full:
The only Christmas story New Yorkers are talking about this week begins with three Jews celebrating Hanukkah at a Manhattan bar, then boarding a Brooklyn-bound subway while carrying a menorah and dreidels. A group of eight men and two women—apparently Christians—then yelled “Merry Christmas!” at them, to which 21-year-old Angelica Krischanvich, a Hunter College student who is not Jewish, replied “Happy Chanukah.” This infuriated the Christian revelers, two of whom stood up to display their Jesus tattoos and to say, charmingly, “You have no savior!” An argument ensued, and Krischanvich said one of the guys spit in her face. Her reply: “Jesus turned the other cheek.” Fighting words apparently, because one of the Christians then pulled a knife and waved it near the face of Maria Parsheva, a 23-year-old Baruch College student. “You dirty Jews, you killed Jesus on Chanukah, you should all die,” was the next remark as a full-bore fight broke out. Walter Adler, the 23-year-old boyfriend of Parsheva, then pulled the emergency brake on the train, and was punched repeatedly for that particular act. While everyone was waiting for police to show up, a Good Samaritan waded in and tried to break up the fight, but mostly just tried to buy some time for Adler. Pushing the men away from the women, he was dogpiled and beaten up. He never even got in a punch, partly because he only stands 5-foot-7 and weighs just 140 pounds. When the police finally boarded the train at DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, they arrested 10 people for assault, menacing, and inciting riot, then asked the four injured people if they needed the hospital. Adler had a broken nose and needed four stitches in his lip, but the Good Samaritan didn’t go to the doctor because he was too busy working two waiter jobs and doesn’t have any health insurance. He’s 20-year-old Hassan Askari, a Muslim.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Suffer little children

American televangelists enrich themselves with junk theology, fraud, and exploitation of the poor.

But, hey, it could be worse.
Children are targets of Nigerian witch hunt

Evangelical pastors are helping to create a terrible new campaign of violence against young Nigerians. Children and babies branded as evil are being abused, abandoned and even murdered while the preachers make money out of the fear of their parents and their communities
See for yourself. (There are pictures.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hagee: God is an unreliable vending machine

After a substantial hiatus, I recently tuned in to TBN, and was richly rewarded with the spectacle of John Hagee laying out crazy TBN vending-machine theology in clear and unequivocal terms. This is stuff which one of our pastors called "pagan idolatry"—no offense meant to pagans, but it's considered poor form for Christians. (And, beyond that, this isn't just bad theology. It is socially-destructive, exploit-the-poor, rich-televangelists-get-richer theology.)

Principle the first: God will give you anything you ask for.

You might have thought that God has a will and judgment of his own. You might even have thought that God's judgment is a bit beyond ours. But a vending machine has no will of its own, can exercise no judgment of its own. And so it is with God.

If you want a promotion, or a good spouse, or money to pay your bills (for example), then just ask God. Stick your prayer in the prayer slot, and God will dispense whatever it is you want.

To prove this principle, Hagee used scripture such as:
Matthew 7:7-8 "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." (Similarly Luke 11:9-10)
Curiously enough, he left out the punchline:
Matthew 7:11 "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!"
Which, in Luke's gospel, gets even more specific:
Luke 11:13 "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?"
Principle the second (I think this is verbatim): "As powerful as God is, He cannot act until you ask."

You might have thought that God, having a will of his own, can do whatever he bloody well feels like whenever he bloody well feels like doing it. So, for example, he might go and get incarnated and born to some insignificant Jewish couple, and then maybe let himself die some ignoble death in some Roman backwater, never mind that no one had ever imagined that the king of kings should do any such thing.

But, well, I don't know about you, but I have never encountered a vending machine that would give me a tasty soft drink until I put in my money and hit one of its big friendly buttons. So it is also with God.

To prove this principle, Hagee referred to James 4:2, "You do not have because you do not ask."

He oddly left out the previous bits of the verse, which tell us that this admonishment comes in response to bad desires: wanting other people's possessions and not being able to get them; lusting and, you know, "not having". He also left out the next verse: "You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures."

Principle the third: God can be slow on the uptake

Vending machines are prone to malfunction. Sometimes things get jammed. Sometimes the button is sticky, and you have to punch it a few times before it catches on. Or, sometimes your bag of chips gets lodged on the end of that screw doohickey, and you have to knock the vending machine around a bit before it'll drop what it owes you. God works in similar fashion.

In order to clarify this point, Hagee discussed (I shit you not) the case of telephone sales, and how it takes something like three or four calls before the average sale is made. This is what Hagee considers a good analogy for prayer.

To prove this principle, he... well, I don't recall how he went about it. To tell the truth, I think maybe he was making all this shit up.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sonnets to Craig

On our way home I retrieved a book from the side of the road, much worse the wear from snow and ice. The title was Sonnets to Craig, and it was by someone named George Sterling. The first sonnet I flipped open to began, "To search thy heart! to know thine every thought! / Craig, art thou yearning for me...." And so on.

As we walked, Dawn and I got to wondering what "George" was doing writing all these overwrought poems to "Craig"--especially since this was clearly a very old book. I noticed that many of the poems were noted as having been written in San Francisco, leading me to the hypothesis that this was actually a work of early gay poetry. This definitely enhanced our appreciation of the work, although we did think it would have been nice if "Craig" had had a more poetic name--pretty much anything other than "Craig" would have been preferable.

Then Dawn went and looked it up. Spoilsport! I liked my story better.

Monday, December 03, 2007

How to celebrate Advent

According to the wiki entry:
In Normandy, farmers employed children under twelve to run through the fields and orchards armed with torches, setting fire to bundles of straw
Now that is a way to get the kids excited about a season. It would be hard to come up with a Christmas present that could top that.