Dreary holiday parties: Not just for theists anymore!

feats2Allen Salkin brings a playful spirit to his New York Times report about how Festivus is becoming a countercultural tradition in the more ironic circles of American culture. If Festivus sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it had an unusually powerful forum for its birth: An episode of Seinfeld, broadcast in the week before Christmas in 1997.

Salkin describes the genesis of the holiday:

“More and more people are familiar with what Festivus is, and it’s growing,” said Jennifer Galdes, a Chicago restaurant publicist who organized her first Festivus party three years ago. “This year many more people, when they got the invite, responded with, ‘Will there be an airing of the grievances and feats of strength?’”

Those two rituals — accusing others of being a disappointment and wrestling — are traditions of Festivus as explained on the show by the character Frank Costanza. On that episode he tells Kramer that he invented the holiday when his children were young and he found himself in a department store tug of war with another Christmas shopper over a doll. “I realized there had to be a better way,” Frank says.

So he coined the slogan “A Festivus for the rest of us” and formulated the other rules: the holiday occurs on Dec. 23, features a bare aluminum pole instead of a tree and does not end until the head of the family is wrestled to the floor and pinned.

The actual inventor of Festivus is Dan O’Keefe, 76, whose son Daniel, a writer on “Seinfeld,” appropriated a family tradition for the episode. The elder Mr. O’Keefe was stunned to hear that the holiday, which he minted in 1966, is catching on. “Have we accidentally invented a cult?” he wondered.

Chris Walton of Philocrites mentions another alternative holiday: HumanLight, which celebrates “humanity, reason and hope.” HumanLight’s website offers animated e-cards, plus these suggestions on what to include in a celebration:

• Some kind of meal — a potluck dinner is a popular choice.
• A candle-lighting ceremony.
• Short readings (e.g. excerpts from the writings of Robert Ingersoll).
• Educational entertainment for children. One recent event included a professional science demonstration for kids. Some other events featured magicians — who then revealed how their tricks were done.
• Music and song. Original HumanLight songs have been written by Sonny Meadows and Sara Brown, and are available on request. Try something from The Humanist Hymnal or the Anthology of Humanist Songs.
• Dancing: ballroom and/or contemporary.
• Video excerpts from programs such as Evolution, Cosmos, Contact or other films and television programs.
• Hand out (or sell) copies of the Affirmation of Humanism for Kids Coloring Books for children.

The website also offers this link (Windows Media Player required) to a call that HumanLight enthusiast Joe Fox made to Air America’s Morning Sedition.

Host Marc Maron asks Fox some humorous questions during the call, including whether the group bans religious iconography from packages, or whether a HumanLight is in danger of creating a new holiday ritual by bringing the same sweet-potato dish to a potluck for two consecutive years.

“Do you guys ever hang around saying, Wow, isn’t life easier without God?” Maron asked.

“We like to say without superstition,” Fox said, prompting laughter from Maron and cohost Mark Riley.

Ben Mattison wrote in The Gainesville Sun earlier this month that the spirit of HumanLight has made its way to the Sunshine State. Mattison covers the crookedletter cabaret, a comical holiday fundraiser organized by performance artist Sheila Bishop and friends:

“The audience and the performers that Sheila Bishop has been bringing together for years are really quite special,” noted performer Van Choojitarom in an e-mail. “Her audiences are receptive and engaged and truly make it OK for performers to take astonishing risks.”

This year, Choojitarom plans to spoof Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with “A HumanLight Carol,” based on a little-known alternative winter holiday that celebrates secular humanism over traditional Christmas fare.

This year’s holiday crookedletter cabaret may be Bishop’s last for a while; she’s applying to graduate school in New York to attain a master’s degree in performance studies. Among her contributions this year is a somber, spoken-word piece about light, darkness, change and rebirth that centers on often-overlooked holiday ideals.

“Christmas is so big to people even if they’re cynical about consumerism,” she said. “We need something special during this time of year. We need the celebration and the brightness and the sparkle.”

My thanks to Karen at crazygrrl.com for her permission to reproduce one of her wonderful Festivus e-cards.

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There he goes again

Frank Rich is back and he’s still mad about The Passion and all of the hateful fundamentalists who made it one of the cultural events of the year. Once again, Rich’s goal is to paint the story in terms of Christians vs. Jews, rather than reading the evidence in his own reporting that it is largely a collision between traditional believers of many kinds and the powerful blue-zip-code coalition of oldline religious progressives and secularists. Rich says the last thing Americans will see on TV anytime soon is the nuanced, intelligent views of religious liberals. He’s right, sort of. Actually, the last thing Americans will see on TV is moral traditionalists who do not fit into the Falwell-Robertson-Donohue “straw man” chair.

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No laff riots, please, we're British

Atkinson_posterIf you’re a member of the House of Commons and the comedian known for his roles in Mr. Bean and Blackadder opposes you — not once but twice — it’s probably a good time to rethink your proposal.

Rowan Atkinson has clown-stepped forward to defend the undeniable right of comedians to offend any people, including religious believers. Atkinson is opposing those parts of MP David Blunkett’s Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill — which itself sounds like something from a Monty Python sketch — that would outlaw an incitement to religious hatred.

As Sarah Left and Tom Happold report in The Guardian, “The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and anti-racism campaigners have long argued that the law is a necessary protection against extremists who incite violence against Muslims.”

Toby Helm of the Telegraph offers this helpful summary of Atkinson’s argument before a House of Commons committee:

“To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to criticise their religion — that is a right. That is a freedom,” he said.

“The freedom to criticise ideas — any ideas[,] even if they are sincerely held beliefs — is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.

“And the law which attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.

“It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. But in my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended.

In this Guardian report by Sarah Hall and Tania Branigan, an MCB spokesman offers my favorite rhetorical flourish:

Sadiq Khan, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said the bill closed a loophole which meant those who incite hatred against Christians and Muslims could not be prosecuted. “The law will not mean that comedians like Rowan Atkinson cannot take the piss out of religion,” he added.

Sometimes I wish the original version of English prevailed in North America.

As the author of a Christianity Today editorial opposing a religion-based hate-speech law in Illinois, I tend to side more with Atkinson on this.

Indeed, I agree with Andrew Sullivan’s long-held argument that laws limiting speech are not the best way to combat the toxin of hate.

Pop culture note: In an editorial opposing Blunkett’s proposal, the Telegraph refers to a skit in which Atkinson plays the devil sorting newly arrived citizens of hell. Sketches often do not translate well into print, but here’s a text for that skit (see “A Warm Welcome”) and others. As the Complete Guide to Rowan Atkinson mentions, the skit also is available on Rowan Atkinson Live! (1991).

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The Big Three wimp out

ucc adThe three major broadcast TV networks stepped in a deep cowpie by turning away a witty ad from the United Church of Christ, and the UCC likely will gain more attention through news reports than it would have through the ad.

News reports in three major dailies — The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle (where it appeared on the front page, below the fold) — focus on different finer points of the story.

The 30-second ad makes a favored point among liberal Christians: that some churches, by stressing Christianity’s historic teachings on homosexuality, are being exclusive, turning people away or otherwise being spiteful. The ad takes that idea up a notch by depicting a church as excluding a gay couple, a young Latino man and an African American girl.

The ad’s humorous genius is in how it illustrates the concept: two muscular, bald, black-clad bouncers stand outside a church and behind a proverbial velvet rope. One says in a voice of deadpan contempt: “Step aside, please,” “No way, not you” and “I don’t think so.” What American who loves fair play and underdogs could watch this commercial and feel anything other than revulsion for these goons (or the one white married couple they let through the rope)? Is this a church, or Studio 54?

In Michael Paulson’s report for the Globe, one striking detail is that UCC officials did not expect that the commercial could be taken as criticizing any other church:

[The Rev. Nancy S.] Taylor [president of the UCC's Massachusetts Conference] said the ad is not intended to criticize other denominations. She said she showed the ad to members of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, an umbrella organization of Protestant and Orthodox churches, where it drew no criticism.

That detail may say more about the goo-goo atmosphere in councils of churches, even at the state level, than it does about the ad’s content.

Another striking detail from Paulson’s report: Although NBC and CBS have taken the bulk of criticism for flatly rejecting the ad, ABC got off the hook by accepting the ad on its ABC Family cable channel. Otherwise, in the chirpy and conflict-averse spirit of Disney, its parent company, ABC rejects ads from all religious bodies. (One irony here: ABC Family began its life as the 24-hour channel for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, became Fox Family for a time, and still broadcasts The 700 Club a few times a day.)

In the Chronicle, arts and culture critic Steve Winn quotes a UCC minister who sees the long and theocratic arm of the Bush administration yanking the networks’ chains:

“It’s ironic that after a political season awash in commercials based on fear and deception by both parties seen on all the major networks, an ad with a message of welcome and inclusion would be deemed too controversial,” said the Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, in a statement. “What’s going on here?”

The Rev. Kyle Lovett, pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in San Francisco, proposed an answer. On the eve of President Bush’s second term, she said, the networks “can’t afford to go against the administration’s version of Christianity and what counts as moral values and what doesn’t count as moral values.”

In fairness to Lovett, GetReligion is baffled by this explanation from a CBS official mentioned in Paulson’s story: “Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact that the Executive Branch [the Bush administration] has recently proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast.” Since when should legislative actions of the executive branch determine whether a network accepts an ad that violates no decency standards of the FCC?

In the Tribune‘s story, religion professor Alan Wolfe of Boston College raises a concern that we’re likely to hear many times during the next four years:

“CBS and NBC seem to be afraid, not of stirring controversy, but of alienating potential viewers, the kind, moreover, that like to organize boycotts and write letters,” Wolfe said. “There may be a new form of political correctness arising in America, one in which attempts are made to avoid violating the sensibilities, not of women or racial minorities, but of conservative Christians.”

The Tribune also managed to find two conservative Christians who approved of the networks’ decision:

Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, gave a strong thumbs up to the networks’ decision.

He said that in the late 1990s, conservative groups wanted to run a commercial featuring “ex-homosexuals who had been converted back to being heterosexuals.” Under pressure from gay-rights groups, the networks refused to accept the spots.

“At least they’re being consistent,” LaBarbera said.

Karl Maurer, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, also endorsed the networks’ stand, calling the commercials “false advertising.”

“When the Roman soldiers in the Gospel came to Jesus and said, ‘How can I be saved?’ Jesus did not respond, ‘Be inclusive.’ Jesus responded, “Follow the commandments.’”

LaBarbera has a point: When networks reserve the right to turn away any ads they deem too controversial, that sword can cut conservatives as much as liberals.

Nevertheless, the networks would show more integrity — and provide more interesting broadcasts — if they were less skittish about a 30-second ad from the UCC than they are about the Coors twins.

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Oy Joy! It's time for holidaze deadlines again

kosher santa2One of the toughest clauses in the basic religion-beat reporter contract is the one that states: “Thou shalt write at least one or two stories every year during every major religious holiday and these stories may not be recycled more than once a decade.” Ugh.

So, you ask, what constitutes a “major holiday”? That depends, in part, on your market and your editors. As America grows more complex and diverse, the challenge only grows.

One story that has always fascinated me — in the way that train wrecks are fascinating — is the cultural reality that church-state specialists usually call the “December dilemma.” In a post earlier today, Doug described one scene in this annual holiday drama that usually receives some attention in the press. I have written many a Scripps Howard column on these issues, as well.

Everyone knows that the slice-and-dice approach to blending Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice is having a major impact in the public square and at the mall. But to really get America fired up — both the red and blue zones — you need a dose of prime-time sex and soap. This is precisely what may be happening with “Chrismukkah,” the interfaith religious season that is being pushed, with a world-weary wink and jolly cynicism, on the teen-hit series called The O.C., which, for the uncool, is a reference to Orange County, California.

Jonathan Eig takes a look at this would-be phenomenon in The Wall Street Journal. The key figure is a character named Seth Cohen, who has a Protestant mother and a Jewish father. He explains that in his house, no one has to choose between Christmas or Hanukkah. The future belongs to “Chrismukkah,” the new holiday that is “sweeping the nation.”

Eig writes:

In case we needed further proof that life imitates art, “The O.C.” inspired Michelle (the daughter of a minister) and Ron Gompertz (a Reform Jew) of Livingston, Mont., to design their own Chrismukkah cards and register ownership of www.chrismukkah.com. If Chrismukkah is not quite sweeping the nation, it’s at least generating a little cash for the Gompertzes in the windup to this year’s holidays.

“It was one of those moments when a spark goes off,” says Mr. Gompertz, describing what happened when he heard Seth Cohen say “Chrismukkah.” “It was so much more elegant that Hanumas or the other jokey names we’d come up with.”

There are several serious subjects lurking in the background, such as the heated debates among Jews over the effects of intermarriage and families that attempt a half-and-half approach to religious faith. Eig notes that when MixedBlessing Inc. started making interfaith cards a decade ago, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the American Jewish Committee issued a joint statement complaining that interfaith cards diminished the sacred symbols of both faiths.

Yeah, right. Tell that to the people at Fox Television and Hallmark. Truth is, it is a short leap from your local television news anchors sweetly singing the joys of “The Holidays” to popular culture that actively attempts to promote the blending of religions. The only people who are offended are the traditional believers in the various religions who actually take the symbols and doctrines seriously.

Nevertheless, notes Eig, the numbers are on the side of the interfaith merchants, at least on the Jewish side of the mall.

A recent study of America’s 5.2 million Jews showed that nearly half of all Jewish newlyweds had married non-Jews. That’s a huge concern to many Jewish leaders, but it’s jingle-jingle to the ears of Chrismukkah merchants. Interfaith couples have been blending their rituals for ages. The only thing new about Chrismukkah, really, is that it puts a name to something millions of families are already celebrating. So don’t be surprised in the seasons ahead if we get some new holiday songs and a few tree ornaments that swing both ways.

So the O.C. angle is simply sizzle on a story that actually contains some meat. That is what religion writers have to look for this time of year. That sound you hear is the clock ticking and the holiday deadlines approach.

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Mona Lisa frowns


For the French, it’s bound to be the most annoying American phenomenon since the freedom fries fiasco. Tom Hanks reportedly beat out Harrison Ford, George Clooney, and Hugh Jackman to star in the movie adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, to be directed by Ron Howard. Barring complications, the film should be in theatres in early 2006.

And why might this annoy the French, you ask?

Because many who read the book take author Dan Brown’s tongue-in-cheek claims to historical accuracy just a little too seriously. According to a story in the London Telegraph, the ancient, tiny village of Rennes-le-Chateau in southeastern France has been inundated with pilgrims who think that the book was more than a story — and they often refuse to take no for an answer.

Until recently, the local mayor, Jean-Franois L’Huilier, "seemed to be winning the battle against
fortune-seekers who tried to disinter bodies and dynamite holes in the walls of its 11th-century church
looking for relics." But then The Da Vinci Code hit the bestseller lists.

Now the local graveyard has had to be closed down and the body of a long-dead priest whose name appears in the novel has been exhumed and reburied under a "3.5 ton sarcophagus surrounded by five cubic metres of concrete." The mayor explained, with what I’m guessing was a lot of exasperation, "It’ll take one hell of a lot of explosive to get through that."

Nor is L’Huilier being overly paranoid. He calls the would-be Code breakers "a Philistine minority but they come here and stomp all over the place with no respect for anything or anyone." To wit, just last year, some seekers attempted to tunnel into the church.

"It was like something out of a prison escape film. They began digging in the night, put the soil in bags and put the bags in the hole which they covered with a layer of earth so nobody would see during the day. It was only when someone noticed the flower beds moving that we discovered what they were up to," Huilier explained.

This isn’t the first time that the village has had to fend off vandals and treasure seekers. Local lore and some conspiratorial pamphlets in the past have fueled speculation that that there is a treasure hoard, the holy grail, the remains of Mary Magdalene, or even the bones of Christ, buried there somewhere. Here’s hoping that the villagers are up to dealing with the deluge of invaders when Brown’s story comes to the big screen.

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Is there a ghost in "The Incredibles"?

Menu_03OK, do the math. Let’s say that a president wins a second ticket to the White House with the help of a “values vote” coalition built, in part, on people that have very old-fashioned beliefs on issues of morality, family, marriage and the existence of eternal, transcendent moral truths.

Then, before you can say KAPOW!, WHAM! and NEOCON!, there is a movie in multiplexes in which characters are heard claiming that the demise of a marriage is a fate worse than death and that “doubt is a luxury that we cannot afford anymore.”

The Bush army praises strength, marriage and family values. This hit movie praises strength, marriage and family values. Oh my. Could it be?

That’s right. There are people out there in medialand that are quietly worried that “The Incredibles” is a right-wing recruiting device. I mean, the folks at Focus on the Family even like this movie.

Pixar can’t seem to make even a single mistake when it comes to elevating the artistry of animation. Likewise, while illustrating the value of an intact family or the beauty of individuality or the negative results of pride, The Incredibles is, well, incredible.

Needless to say, this is not going to fly over in the pages of The Nation, where Stuart Klawans is not amused by the political — theological? — implications of the Parr family. Part of the problem is that, according to writer-director Brad Bird:

… (The) Parrs’ strange talents are rooted in normal family traits. Fathers are supposed to be strong, so Bob can bench-press a freight engine. Mothers are always being pulled ten ways at once, so Helen is elastic. Young Violet can become invisible, as teenage girls sometimes want to do, and Dash is just a wonderfully energetic little boy, ratcheted up to 200 mph.

Bird’s biggest achievement in The Incredibles is to have inflated family stereotypes to parade-balloon size. His failing is that, in so doing, he also confirmed these stereotypes, and worse. Helen mouths one or two semi-feminist wisecracks but readily gives up her career for a house and kids; women are like that. Bob’s buddy Frozone, the main nonwhite character in the movie, can instantly create ice; black people are cool. The superheroes are in hiding because greedy trial lawyers sued them into retirement; and, while concealed, they chafe at their confinement, like Ayn Rand railing against enforced mediocrity.

The family is the foundation of our society. Freedom is on the march.

And that just cannot be good for America and the world, now can it? Things get even more complex over at the New York Observer, where writers Suzy Hansen and Sheelah Kolhatkar let loose under the cheerfully paranoid headline, “It’s Super Bush!” While it’s clear that they like the film quite a bit and believe that it might even cheer up gloomy blue-zone liberals, they conclude:

While The Incredibles’ battle against conformity and mediocrity screams anti-oppression to some, it’s obviously Randian to others. In that sense, the film is being touted as the latest proof that, on top of everything else, the right wing has even wit and creativity on its side these days: This is a world turned upside-down!

And even as James Carville threw in the white towel in The New York Times on Nov. 9, admitting that he’d finally got the message that the Democrats were nothing but an opposition party, the conservatives were raking in millions of potential philosophical converts at the movies, the way the liberals used to during the Easy Rider-Graduate days of the 1960s, when the right wing couldn’t catch a break in the culture. … It’s very much in the eye of the beholder, but at the moment, to the butt-kicked, discouraged liberal team, the Pixar-built shiny, muscle-bound cartoon characters seem to come very much from the other team.

Ah, but as we like to note from time to time here at GetReligion.org, not all political conservatives are moral and cultural conservates and, for sure, the tensions between the Libertarians and the religious right are only going to increase in the months ahead.

So, is there a “religion” ghost in this blockbuster hit or not? Is the mere fact that a film promotes a traditional view of marriage and family now evidence that its creators are in-the-closet Christian neo-fundamentalists?

What about it? Has anyone out there in readerland seen any reviews or articles about “The Incredibles” directly linking the film to theocrats? Was the Iron Giant a Christ symbol?

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Ponder witches, while the GetReligion crew unpacks

The GetReligion crew has been traveling the last two days to attend planning meetings for this blog and other related projects.

It looks like we might be moving to Oxford, sort of. Details soon. Academic connections take time to work out. We hope to be part of a new effort at the Center for Religion and Public Life, based at Oxford. Tentative title for the overarching project — the Center for Faith and Journalism.

In the meantime, the post 11/2 news continues to sort itself out. To me, it seems as if religion is at the heart of every other story. I’ll have some of my usual reflections on reading newspapers in airports, in a matter of a day or two.

Meanwhile, enjoy these faith-based thoughts from one of the mainstream religious leaders in Hollywood. That would be Barbra, as in Streisand. In terms of East Coast voices, has anyone seen anything new from Frank Rich? (Wait! There he is in my morning email.)

I am not joking. All of the good stories are on the religious left right now.

We Must Have Patience
. . . Barbra Streisand
Posted on November 8, 2004

In response to the results of the Presidential election last week, I would like to share with you a quote from Thomas Jefferson. Although written in 1798, I feel his words speak perfectly to the strong sentiments of frustration and disappointment 48% of the country feel.

“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt . . . If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake.”

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