How we got here

HdChristopher Caldwell has written a cover story for the current Weekly Standard that’s a tour d’horizon of the Netherlands, a society on the verge of remaking itself in response to Theo van Gogh’s murder.

The country, writes Caldwell, was not all that long ago "a society with a high level of religious affiliation and intensity." The political structure as of the middle of the last century "empowered church-affiliated organizations to perform temporal tasks created a mighty role for religion."

Because of the magnified role of religion in the public square, the sociological shakeup that turned everything inside out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, "which was seen as a revolution against class in Britain, against de Gaulle in France, against the World War II generation in Germany, and against Vietnam in the United States — was seen in Holland as a rebellion against church authority."

The conflict produced a "libertine public square" that the country is now famous for, including "legalized prostitution, hashish in the ‘coffee shops,’ [a] laissez-faire immigration policy, [and] a law enforcement system whereunder you get 120 hours of community service for threatening to kill someone."

The last gripe refers to paltry sentence handed out to a man who police identify as "Farid A." He posted a picture of Dutch pol Geert Wilders to an Islamist website urging that "Wilders must be punished with death for his fascistic comments about Islam, Muslims, and the Palestinian cause."

Wilders has gone into hiding under police protection, and he’s far from the only local pol to do so. At the same time, the popularity of politicians like Wilders, who favors sharp limits on Muslim immigration and restrictions on the Muslim religion, has increased dramatically. The coming crackdown may make the Patriot Act look like the Magna Carta.

The "essential fact" about the country’s legal structure and outlook, Caldwell explains, "is that most Dutch people don’t like it. Eighty percent of Netherlanders tell pollsters their country is ‘too tolerant.’" Somehow I’ve a feeling that won’t be the case for long.

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Christmas Wars 2004: Why not try equal access?

SantagraveSo what do you think? Should Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer create a national network called "Jews for Christmas"?

Personally, I think it would be a great idea. I would volunteer to help start "Christians for Hanukkah" and I think lots of other traditional Christians would sign up immediately.

As Krauthammer’s recent column — "Just Leave Christmas Alone" — made clear, many of this year’s Christmas culture war skirmishes have nothing to do with tolerance and very little to do with the separation of church and state. They are simply cat fights between armies of liberal fundamentalists and conservative fundamentalists. He chose to pick on the anti-Christmas left, but pick up almost any newspaper these days and there will be a story in it somewhere about the latest outbreaks on the right. (More on that in a minute.) As always, anyone seeking a tidal wave of links to these new reports can hit the Christianity Today Weblog.

From my outpost in South Florida, I took special delight in Krauthammer’s salute to an especially insane rationale given for the banning of one nativity scene in a public place down here in the subtropics. Here is the item in context:

School districts in New Jersey and Florida ban Christmas carols. The mayor of Somerville, Mass., apologizes for "mistakenly" referring to the town’s "holiday party" as a "Christmas party." The Broward and Fashion malls in South Florida put up a Hanukah menorah but no nativity scene. The manager of one of the malls explains: Hanukah commemorates a battle and not a religious event, though he hastens to add, "I really don’t know a lot about it." He does not. Hanukah commemorates a miracle, and there is no event more "religious" than a miracle.

Then again, the cultural steamroller called "The Holidays" has done almost as much damage to the actual religious traditions of Hanukkah as it has to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Once upon a time, Hanukkah was a smaller Jewish holiday reminding Jews not to compromise their faith when facing pressures to assimilate into a dominant culture. Today, Hanukkah is a giant, major holiday because it is close to the holiday previously known as Christmas. Religious history doesn’t get any more ironic than that.

The key to the current Christmas wars, according to Krauthammer, is that some Americans seem uncomfortable with the concept of equal access to the public square.There are a few right-wing Christian yahoos out there, but the overwhelming majority of traditional Christians are not furious about the emergence of other religious symbols in public life. They are mad about something else. Here is Krauthammer on this reality:

Some Americans get angry at parents who want to ban carols because they tremble that their kids might feel "different" and "uncomfortable" should they, God forbid, hear Christian music sung at their school. I feel pity. What kind of fragile religious identity have they bequeathed their children that it should be threatened by exposure to carols?

I’m struck by the fact that you almost never find Orthodox Jews complaining about a Christmas creche in the public square. That is because their children, steeped in the richness of their own religious tradition, know who they are and are not threatened by Christians celebrating their religion in public. They are enlarged by it.

ManageremptyWithin the past few days, both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have spilled lots of ink on this topic and others related to it. The news hook right now has been provided by evangelical groups that are striving — to one degree or another — to use protests and their economic clout to push Christmas back into the marketplace — literally. Here’s the lead from reporter Ellen Barry’s feature in the Los Angeles Times.

RALEIGH, N.C. — This year, as Christmas season swung into gear, Pastor Patrick Wooden’s followers fanned out to shopping malls across Raleigh to deliver a muscular message of holiday cheer: As Christian shoppers, they would like to be greeted with the phrase "Merry Christmas" — not a bland "Happy Holidays" — and stores that failed to do so would risk losing their business.

Nearly six weeks later, some citizens in Raleigh are seething over what they see as an attempt to force religion into the public square. But others say "Merry Christmas" is rolling off their tongues more easily and more often than in previous years.

There are stacks of other anecdotes through which avid readers can chew in this report and in its New York Times counterpart, with spears being rattled left and right. I was especially struck by the calm, constructive Episcopal priest who compares evangelical efforts to push shoppers toward pro-Christmas businesses to Nazi Party requirements that Jews identify themselves by wearing yellow stars. Oh, that and the Maplewood, N.J., school district’s decision to ban instrumental versions of Christmas carols. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was zapped for the sin of mentioning the words "Christmas Eve."

What is going on? New York Times reporter Kate Zernike has the best summary I have seen so far:

. . . (The) demands to bring back Christmas are not simply part of an age-old culture war, with the A.C.L.U. in one corner and evangelicals in the other. There is also a more moderate force, asking whether the country has gone too far in its quest to be inclusive of all faiths. Why, they ask, must a Christmas tree become a holiday tree? And is singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in a school performance more offensive than singing "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel"? …

Over the years, schools, governments and even department stores have toned down the mention of Christmas after complaints from Jews and others who felt excluded by a holiday they did not celebrate. "The basic proposition is that people have the right to send their children to the public schools without having them evangelized for someone else’s religion," said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Those opposed to even secular celebrations of Christmas, he said, "see the increasing strength of the religious right and worry about everything they’ve gained over the last generation being rolled back."

That’s the ticket. There is, you see, a valid cultural reason to discriminate against any expressions of Christianity, even the most watered-down, commercialized and secularized — because an oppressive Christian majority is on the march.

Beware the slippery slope that leads to theocracy. Tolerance and our nation’s actual equal access laws are too dangerous. Ditto for free speech, even if that free speech offends almost no one.

So is there a solution to all of this? No way. Anything anyone does right now is going to stir up more venom and that will produce more headlines. Let me stress that these stories are valid and that reporters need to strive to find sane voices on both sides. Believe me, they are out there.

But for starters, what would happen if church leaders stopped whining about the lack of an equal-access creche in the public square (even though their complaints are often valid) and simply put glowing decorations wherever they wished on church properties and private land? What if they organized choirs of carollers to sing on public sidewalks and in other acceptable open-air environments? What if schools offered students a chance to study the actual contents of the religious traditions that touch this season? Why not? It’s worth a try.

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Fab five for 2004

Bob Carlton of The Corner, cribbing an idea from A Penny For, has generously invited various bloggers to cite their five favorite pieces from 2004.

These are mine:

Johnny Cash’s table fellowship

Spalding Gray, RIP

Jimmy Swaggart and the hairy swamp monkey

Crisco-free Ashcroft

Would Richard Hooker support gay marriage?

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Seeking forgiveness

ForgiveDavid Crumm, a veteran religion writer and columnist at the Detroit Free Press, makes an ingenious gift suggestion for Christmas: Offer a heartfelt apology to somebody.

Crumm turns to the Rev. Robert Dulin Jr., pastor of the Metropolitan Church of God, to explain the difference between a real apology and a fake:

He straightened up, summoned a deep baritone and declared with wooden authority, “If what I have said or done might have offended anyone, then I am sorry.”

He laughed derisively. “That’s not an apology! That’s an explanation mixed up with an excuse!”

In an essay on fighting in marriage, my friend Gray Temple Jr., longtime rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, reflects on five steps toward offering a person real forgiveness. This step is what has best challenged me:

4. Pray and intend the other’s prosperity
Persistent anger is pretty close to what ancient primitive people meant by a “curse.” In praying for another’s prosperity, we break whatever curse we’d laid on them. I suppose that is a form of blessing, but I’ve found that when I try to bless someone who has hurt me I wind up doing something like this: “O God, bless So-and-So with some insight into his own obnoxious character.” Rather than pray such a prayer — a religious-looking curse — I find it best to pray, “O God, you know what he needs and wants; please supply them both richly. When I see him prosper and happy, I’ll know you have listened to me.” That’s very difficult, but you can do it if you clench your teeth.

Early in my life, my father taught me a valuable lesson in asking people’s forgiveness: Seek it quickly, and seek it face to face. Once, when I had insulted the principal of a Catholic boys’ high school with my reckless driving, my father insisted that I make an appointment with that principal and ask his forgiveness face to face. It was mortifying and, because this good priest extended forgiveness readily, it was glorious.

Help us out, readers: Do you have any favorite stories of forgiveness — whether of seeking it or extending it?

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An amazingly bookish "anti-intellectual"

BernardPriya Jain has published a fascinating essay in Salon, which holds up the 12th-century lovers Abelard and Heloise as icons for religious progressives in the 21st century. Jain bases her essay on a biography of the couple published by British journalist James Burge earlier this year.

Here’s a good summary of where Jain takes the argument:

While the era’s worldview was dramatically different from our own, its political battles were strikingly similar. The reform movement, which you might call the religious right of its day, believed that not only sex but also sexual fantasies were inherently evil, and enforced chastity was high on its agenda. It saw the prostitution, fornication and even the women’s fashion of pointy shoes as evidence of a corrupt society. Burge, a documentary filmmaker for the BBC and Discovery Channel, puts the controversial love story of Abelard and Heloise squarely in the middle of this movement, and the result is a riveting study of faith and sex, set against a conservative uprising so familiar it will make you gasp with recognition.

Pointy shoes aside, this paragraph is what made me gasp, though not with recognition:

In his second trial, Abelard faced his archenemy, Bernard of Clairvaux, the head of the Cistercians. They were a reformist monastic order that would become the most influential in Christendom, and Bernard was the George W. Bush of their movement. He “was accustomed to having people listen to him and then eventually agree,” Burge writes. Bernard was deeply anti-intellectual, casting Abelard as elitist, overeducated and anti-religious.

Here is a sample of what the Biographical Dictionary of Christian Theologians (Hendrickson, 2002) has to say about Bernard of Clairvaux:

Bernard published numerous treatises on the spiritual life. Between 1124 and 1125, he published his first treatise, The Steps of Humility and Pride, which expands on the discussion of humility in Benedict’s Rule. During this time he also published Four Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin. In 1125, he addressed the conflict between the Cistercians and the Cluniacs concernng the Cistercian interpretation of the Rule. In this work, he rebuked the Cistercians for complacency, satirized Cluniac customs, and encouraged simplicity in ecclesiastical art and architecture.

 . . . Bernard’s writings evidence a thorough education in Scripture, the classics, and the Fathers, which permeates his vision of the Christian life. While Bernard adapted his style to his audience, he constantly emphasized the theme that God is love and that this love alone can satisfy the longings of the human soul. Bernard’s soteriology centers on the grace-full capacity for restoration of the human soul to the likeness of God.

I’ll leave it to others to debate Jain’s repeated complaint that Burge “pulls back” from the nitty-gritty details of Abelard and Heloise’s lovemaking, including what Jain takes as Heloise’s enthusiasm for S&M-level submission.

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Desist and apologize for your blaspheming ways

Trouble_with_islamWas I ever ahead of the curve on this one. Last October, when I was still assistant managing editor of the American Spectator, we ran a piece on the website by Kathy Shaidle (of Relapsed Catholic fame) about Irshad Manji, the Toronto-based writer who had just written the book The Trouble With Islam.

According to the article, Manji is "Canada’s most famous Muslim lesbian feminist." Shaidle interviewed Manji on day ten of her Canadian book tour and speculated that the author would be a big deal when she launched her American tour this January. My favorite bit from the piece was a quote from Manji’s website. An angry correspondent wrote in with the following:

Do you think that just because you have a mind, you should use it? Desist and apologize for your blaspheming ways while you still have a chance. People like you should not exist. It is no wonder there is a hell. Enjoy your short stay in this world, for God only knows what is coming for you.

Fast forward to this month, well over a year after the Shaidle piece. The December 20 issue of Newsweek has a piece by an alphabet soup of staff writers. Titled "Rocking the Casbah," the article talks about the efforts of female Muslims to reform Islam — from Manji to GetReligion favorite Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Newsweek identifies Manji and Ali as the two loudest voices in a growing chorus, though it doesn’t identify many other singers in the choir. The authors admit that "their message and their lifestyles are so far from the torpid Muslim mainstream they’re almost in the desert." However, it is "precisely because" (not just "because") Manji and company are "taking such radical stands," that there is some hope they might create "space for more moderate voices to be heard and accepted."

The only thing is, Newsweek presents very little evidence that this is in any way likely to happen. Ali is famous for renouncing Islam and speaking out against the growing influence of the religion in the Netherlands, as waves of immigrants challenge the post-Christian status quo. She is currently in hiding under 24-hour police guard, because she cooperated with Theo van Gogh’s auto-fatwa of a film.

Manji has an audience, but it’s mostly made up of Western liberals and conservatives, who are concerned over the clash between "modernity" and Islam (though her book is available to download in Arabic for free). She has hired a bodyguard, replaced her regular windows with bulletproof glass, and the Globe and Mail got hold of a letter from her book publisher to the Canadian government asking for police protection.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe and the emerging Methodists

Our_lady_of_guadalupeOne of the trend stories right now in hip evangelicalism centers on what is called the "emerging church," a concept that is rooted in postmodernism and is just as hard to define.

Wait a minute. Can something be "rooted" in postmodernism?

Anyway, you might be wondering: What, precisely, is an emerging church? Is this a kind of megachurch for people who know "The Matrix" by heart? Are these churches for evangelicals with NPR coffee mugs on their desks?

I need to admit right up front that I have not been able to grasp this concept, in part because I am a premodern church kind of guy. Still, I am fascinated by the people involved in this post-contemporary church, post-suburban megachurch movement. I think they are searching for something real in our media-saturated culture.

One aspect of this movement that troubles me is its emphasis on taking pieces of ancient Christian art and worship and then, blender style, combining them into something that is brand new and very Protestant, yet the people involved in the service think that what they are doing is very old and even catholic, with a small or a large "c." Here is a glimpse into one such church from a column I did not so long ago.

The first thing people do after entering the quiet sanctuary is pause at a table to light prayer candles for friends and loved ones, the tiny flames adding to the glow of nearby candle trees.

The ministers wear oat-colored, hooded robes tied at the waist with ropes and guide their flock through ancient prayers, a litany of confession and silent meditations marked by a series of bells. Hymns are accompanied by an ensemble that includes fiddle, acoustic guitar, wind chimes, pennywhistles, a Bodhran and even bagpipes. . . .

This is not your typical Southern Baptist service. Nevertheless, this Celtic service is held every Sunday at this historic church in Lynchburg, Va.

This is not, needless to say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s church in that fair city. This is a "moderate" Baptist church with gender-neutral liturgies, progressive politics and lots of other, well, NPR-coffee-mug traits. It is trying to embrace symbols, but not sacraments, ancient traditions, but not the ancient doctrines. It’s a postmodern thing. For another glimpse of this movement, click here.

For some time now, I have been wondering when this trend might swing over to the true religious left. Now, I realize — believe me, I realize — that all kinds of experimental, even syncretistic things are already happening over there. That’s not what I am talking about. I am not talking about taking pieces of non-Christian faiths and splicing them into Christian life and worship.

If you want to see this kind of liberalism in full flight, check out the website of the St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in, where else, San Francisco. This is the congregation that has made headlines with its elaborate, dance-driven Eucharists and its giant Eastern Orthodox-style iconography of "dancing saints" — which when finished will include Charles Darwin, Cesar Chavez, John Coltrane, Martha Graham (naturally), Eleanor Roosevelt and many, many others. Some people consider this church’s approach brilliant. Others see it as heresy and, to boot, a deeply offensive warping of the traditions of other believers. But, hey, it is free speech.

As you might guess, all of this is prologue to an interesting religion-news article from the mainstream press (seeing as how that is the purpose of this blog). The Chicago Tribune recently dug into what happened when a United Methodist congregation decided — with a nod to its Hispanic members — to bring a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe into its sanctuary. On top of that, the congregation actually decided to use some elements of Catholic spirituality.

Well, it was hard to mix Methodists and the rosary. Reporter Manya A. Brachear noted that some of the charter members of the Amor de Dios United Methodist Church immediately hit the doors — headed out.

Pastors of other Hispanic Methodist congregations objected too. They said praying to the Virgin equaled idolatry. And Roman Catholics in the neighborhood worried that the church might be selling itself as something it was not.

Still, Rev. Jose Landaverde allowed the statue to stay. He says he sees no harm in embracing a tradition — the Virgin is an unofficial national symbol of Mexico — that might bring people closer to God.

"It’s coming from the people, which is the real presence of the Holy Spirit," said Landaverde, 31, a student pastor from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. "You cannot bring theological debates to the people when they need spiritual assistance."

Ah, but there is the question. Did this well-meaning mainline Protestant pioneer bring Catholic theology into his sanctuary, or merely a comforting statue with powerful cultural symbolism? This is not an insignificant question for mainline Protestants, who have seen their churches age and fade in an era of increasingly cultural diversity.

So what does it really mean, when a Protestant congregation celebrates a novena in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, parading a "2-foot-high statue around the neighborhood, singing songs and reciting the rosary"?

Other United Methodists — including Hispanics, as well as Anglos — believe that this is going too far. They told the Tribune the statue might even be seen as a sign of oppression, meaning the oppression of Protestants by Catholics in Mexico. The local Catholic pastor feared that the Methodists were merely pretending to be something they are not. Might some Hispanics be confused, not unlike the Jews who respond to High Holy Day ads for "Messianic Jewish" churches? Or is Our Lady of Guadalupe "merely" a cultural or even political symbol?

The article raised more questions than it answered. I hope the Tribune keeps an eye on this trend and, in the future, even asks doctrinal, as well as cultural, questions.

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Macy's II

Macys_3As we were hoping earlier, Religion News Service has deigned to cover the efforts of the Committee to Save Merry Christmas.

The group’s founder, Manuel Zamorano, insists that he doesn’t have “any desire to hurt anybody’s bonuses, anybody’s income, anybody’s Christmas. But I don’t want these retailers to simply use us and sell to us at Christmas and never actually say ‘Merry Christmas.’”

To that end, he urges that people boycott all Federated Department Stores, including Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, until they incorporate the phrase “Merry Christmas” into their advertising.

A spokeswoman for the chain, who may get a lump of coal this year, shrugged off calls for customers to refuse to shop at the stores: “People are always boycotting. It’s sort of like get in line and take a number.”

RNS reports that the chain has no “formal policy” on “Merry Christmas” and that it encourages “clerks to be inclusive of all shoppers.” Translation: Though the advertising will be as secular as Santa, clerks will not be disciplined for saying Merry Christmas to shoppers, unless, you know, someone takes offense.

But reporter Kevin Eckstrom finds the protesters much more interesting than the protest. He explains,

While Zamorano’s boycott has yet to pick up any real steam, his campaign reflects a growing resentment among many Christians that creeping secularism now has its sights set on Christmas. It’s part of the annual “December dilemma” for people who say the birth of Jesus Christ is increasingly overshadowed by excessive commercialism.

Frustrated over nativity scenes that are unwelcome in public squares, Salvation Army kettles that have been banned from Target stores and school “holiday” plays that feature Hanukkah songs but no “Away in a Manger,” they’ve had enough. And Macy’s will be the first to pay.

But the story ultimately comes down on the side of the take-Christ-out-of-Christmas crowd:

“I don’t know if it ever had an extremely strong religious component in America,” said Karal Ann Marling, a University of Minnesota art historian whose book, “Merry Christmas!” chronicled the evolution of Christmas. It has always been “more secular than sacred,” she said.

In early America, religious celebrations of Christmas were shunned by many Puritan-minded Protestants, and Dec. 25 was a relatively quiet feast day for liturgical Catholics and Anglicans. It wasn’t until about 1850 that trees and gifts entered the scene, and merchants really caught on by the 1880s, around the time Macy’s unveiled its landmark storefront windows brimming with holiday goods.

Leigh Schmidt, a professor of religion at Princeton University, said there have always been “mixed motives” for celebrating Christmas, from families who celebrate its sacred roots to retailers mindful of their bottom line.

“They’re all overlapping,” he said. “The churches get more into it, the family customs become more involved, the stores start to get into it. It all goes together, it all overlaps.”

Bah humbug, says Zamorano, who insists he will not budge.

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