Monthly Archives: May 2007

The church in the US and UK

And no, I do not mean a world tour by an Australian rock band!

I have commented previously on the emotional nature of some aspects of the American super-church phenomenon, and I was reminded of this again recently when asked by an American Christian if the Church of England Christians were actually Christians. Now aside from my amusement that such a question is reminiscent of the Bill Clinton line “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” the question does have some interesting angles for consideration in terms of the large perceived differences of the Christian communities in the US and the UK.

Kate Fox tackles this subject for the English in Watching the English, in the chapter “Rites of Passage,” writing:

  • “In any case, the Church of England is the least religious church on Earth. It is notoriously woolly-minded, tolerant to a fault and amiably non-prescriptive. To put yourself down as ‘C of E’ (we prefer to use the abbreviation whenever possible, in speech as well as on forms, as the word ‘church’ sounds a bit religious, and ‘England’ might seem a bit patriotic) on a census or application form, as is customary, does not imply any religious observance or beliefs whatsoever — not even a belief in the existence of God.”

Now this is a bit tricky taken out of the context of the rest of the book, as the book’s overall tone is as self-deprecating as anything I have read and this paragraph is no exception. But anecdotally this sort of perception of attitude towards Christianity is prevalent across much of Europe and the developed world, and America comes across as the strange exception.

My axiom (not a theory, not sure it could even be tested by its very nature) is that in reality, the differences between the two are not great, but the public faces are very different. The nature of the churches themselves then help to amplify this public face distinction resulting in propagation of the prevailing attitude.

In either country, there are a number, some small-ish proportion of the population, that are fervently religious Christians and who attend church regularly and seriously, with deep philosophical thought, soul-searching, and other hallmarks of devotion. The remaining fraction who do attend church in the US do so for other reasons than pure devotion, instead behaving in a certain manner to identify with this peer group of strongly identifying Christians.

I would propose that peer pressure causes people who are less religious to choose to strongly identify as Christians in the US because it is “the thing to do.” The structure of the modern church in America makes it really easy (and even painless) to do so. The ultra-conservative relgious types get lots of TV face time, lots of media attention, and therefore start to seem normal. Money is spent on super church buildings and creationist museums and this is seen as good. A recent article in the Economist argues that in these churches the message of God is actually disappearing in favor of the American love of capitalism–these are churches made to serve the congregation, not congregations meeting to serve God. So it is working, and people in the US like the churches (with their bookstores, foodcourts and sports fields) more or less independent of God or Christianity.

I suspect that the average real attitude is little different than in the UK. Here, the default position is more ambivalent to the point that people downplay any religious feelings they have, or at least do not feel the need to ‘share’ it with complete strangers, to the point of appearing ambivalent as in the extreme case of the Kate Fox comment above. The peer pressure is not pro-church but anti-religion, especially within certain circles. The Church of England is clearly far less consumer-friendly than many US churches; traditions are followed, hymns are sung, and old Catholic style rules exist (divorced people are not routinely allowed religious ceremonies to become re-married). The lack of a rock-star sensibility changes the job of the church’s officient, and the traditional style of worship contrasts sharply with the pop-song-and-drama approach. The whole UK church experience is steeped in history and based on a tradition that does not involve changing dramatically to please the “customers.” So the church itself plays into the hand of the peer pressure favoring ambivalence by not becoming “fun” like American church.

It’s an interesting question as to whether or not this UK approach represents a somehow lesser Christianity compared with the version popular in the US right now. I know what I think.

Books in the genre “travel memoir”

I just finished re-reading one of my favorite books, “An Italian Affair” by Laura Fraser. I am literally on my third copy of this; I had ‘loaned’ out the previous two. I was reading it recently for two reasons, (1) this new copy came courtesy of my sister when she visited earlier in the merry month of May, and (2) I am finally going to visit Italy for the first time, in about six weeks, and I am starting to get really excited about that trip.

This book is my very favorite of three books I love in this genre of “travel memoir,” all three of which involve a single woman travelling alone in Europe. Here are my one sentence summaries:

  1. Laura Fraser, “An Italian Affair,” An American divorcee meets a French art professor in Italy, and meets him for romantic interludes in different cities around the world over the course of the next few years.
  2. Sarah Turnbull, “Almost French,” An Australian woman spending a year travelling meets a Frenchman in Bucharest and eventually moves to Paris to start a life with him.
  3. Alice Steinbach, “Without Reservations,” An American divorcee meets a Japanese man in Paris and meets him for romantic interludes in different cities around the world over the course of the next few years. (There’s a sequel, “Educating Alice” with the continuing adventures)

In all three cases, I read the books before I had ever even visited Europe, so on some level these were fantasies and on some level they became slightly prophetic when I started travelling alone in Europe. (Except that I never managed to meet either a handsome French or Japanese man along the way…) In all three cases there was an obvious romantic component but the real and primary themes of the books were self-discovery. Although I have optimistically gone on to read other books in this genre (Italy and France seem to be particularly well-represented) I have never found another that I like as well as these three.

America and the Creationist Museum

Just when I start to feel safe in identifying as an American in the UK, something comes along to make me cringe. The big news from yesterday concerned the opening of a “Creationist Museum” in Kentucky in the US. The idea that there is sufficient support and resources available to encourage such an effort–the museum is listed as costing $27 million and that’s a lot of money in any currency–is somewhat shocking given the pure propaganda context of the place. The whole thing plays into the hands of those who wish to dismiss Americans as nuts in general and American Christians as strange outliers in the developed world. There are shocking statistics about the way that American society as a whole does not actually benefit from religion, and although I take most social science research with a grain of salt, I think there is some scope for serious thought here.

In a strangely timed coincidence, I was at a discussion last night concerning the book, “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins (which is probably the book mentioned at the close of the article). The book has gotten mixed reviews but been very popular, and I do plan to read it when time is available (perhaps on an upcoming long-haul flight). It seems to me that there is a decent point made by Dawkins about the religious indoctrination of children and I suspect (but don’t know for certain) that this is a major factor in things like the Creationist museum. A strange sort of peer pressure in the US makes it not just okay to believe in things like this (young-earth pseudo-science) that contradict common sense, science and experience, but also mandatory to demonstrate these “values” publicly and boldly–with a $27 million Creationist museum as a good example of money that could have been better spent on something to help with the actual ills in American society.

Update: See a nicely complementary piece on the Onion.

Parents, crackers and movies

I have just sent my parents back towards London and the airports after their long weekend visit in the UK; they will return to the US tomorrow. We have toured massive medieval churches and generally tried to stay warm and dry indoors; this weekend’s bank holiday weather was strangely more like November than nearly June. The only clue to the imminent summer solstice was daylight at 4 am.  I was extremely fortunate that they brought me a box of my favorite guilty-pleasure crackers as well as a portable DVD player that will play my small collection of region 1 movies, many of which are 1940s classics involving one or more of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Bing Crosby.

I am probably even more grateful for the DVD player than for the crackers. My laptop computer had been changed back and forth as many times as was allowed, and I had been buying new movies here so my shelf contains a terrible and terribly eclectic mix of discs from regions 1 and 2. I truly believe the whole system is remarkably silly. I know the movie companies have a real piracy problem in China, but do we really need to discriminate between the US and UK, two English-speaking members of the G8?

While I’m ranting on movies, why do movies come out on different dates in the US and UK? I saw “Becoming Jane” a few months ago but it won’t be released in the US until later this summer. I read a review of “The upside of anger” in a magazine a few weeks ago–released in the US in 2005, it was just debuting in the UK in 2007. Apparently there’s globalization and then there’s Hollywood…

Expats and Changing Cultural Identity

My sister has posted on her blog an interesting discussion of cultural identity through the eyes of Mandopop fanaticism (the subject of her blog being a Taiwanese pop band and other related topics).

The specific subject of her post is my own Chinese music obsession of the moment, Wang Leehom, and his adaptation of a song about Chinese heritage to reflect his own family story. I won’t paraphrase more than that; her words regarding the song itself are more articulate than mine could be on this subject. The Cliff Notes version of the accompanying story is that Leehom is an American-Born Chinese (ABC) who has moved back to East Asia, learned Chinese, and become re-associated with his cultural heritage instead of becoming immersed in the great American melting pot. What caught my eye about the post was her comments about not feeling similarly about our own northern European heritage; this led me to think more generally about the expat experience.

I was never particularly prone to identify myself as “American” in my European travels prior to moving to England; if anything I hoped to be mistaken for something other than an American (especially once the Iraq “war” started). In America, and apparently in contrast with my sister, I identified pretty strongly with my grandparents’ European roots. Our grandparents were all approximately 100% descended from a single European country (give or take the odd outlier in the family tree) and both our grandmothers were the first generation born in the US.

I think it goes without saying that the generation that migrates and the first generation born in the new country are most likely to reflect their prior roots. Interestingly, sometimes in the modern US it is not uncommon for the first generation born as American to distance themselves from their background and assume a strong position of American solidarity, which is perhaps why the Leehom story is such an interesting contrast. (Although it also parallels the experiences of one of my first-generation American friends, and his own recent and difficult attempts to learn his mother tongue.)

Having moved away from America, I suddenly seem to have switched allegiance from my European roots to my American ones. I rely on my American-ness as a crutch when I have a difficult time with something in the UK. My personality is too bold and I’m too forward? Blame it on being American. I’m too capitalist in my approach to my job? It’s definitely because I’m American, what did you expect, really?

I wonder how this will play out in the longer term. Will I continue to associate myself with America, or will there come a time when I return to feeling more at home in the UK? Will I be able to think of myself as a Norwegian transplant with a temporary three generation bump outside Europe? I hope so. I get tired of feeling American all the time.

Another brilliantly delusional Guardian story

The article starts with a dramatic statement:

“Britain has become a nation addicted to flying”

and continues from there to discuss the relationships between long haul flight, short haul flight, climate change, increased travel taxes and carbon offsets.

Okay let’s start from the beginning.

  1. This is an island. It is remarkably difficult to get off said island without flying and it is unlikely that concerns about climate change are likely to alter that simple fact.
  2. Although I think the train system here is quite remarkable, it does struggle to compete price-wise. Some examples that spring to mind: a round trip flight London to Dublin set me back £24. The rail fare to the airport (30 miles) to take the flight ran £15. My trip to Nottingham last week was nearly £50. A colleague in Nottingham who was from Glasgow ran me through the numbers and both in terms of time and cost, it was orders of magnitude easier to fly to Glasgow than to take the train.
  3. Increased taxes on air travel are unlikely to tip the balance against air travel in an era of increasing globalization.

While the economics of the rail-air-environmental debate will rage on ad nauseum, point 1 is unlikely to change any time soon. This is a small over-crowded island and people are aching to leave it on occasion, both for work and for pleasure. What is unclear to me is why there is such an apparent divergence in the rail vs airfares in terms of price per mile traveled even without leaving this island. Until the Ryanairs of the world cease to exist, even for medium-haul travel on this island the low-cost airlines seem likely to win this battle. The environmental war will simply have to be waged on other fronts.

Wearing my ‘New York Face’ in the UK

Twice in the last two weeks I have gotten myself into trouble by wearing my “New York Face” in the UK. That is, I was walking down the street facing straight ahead, minding my own business, and not making eye contact with total strangers on the street. I also tend not to speak back to large burly British men, even when (or perhaps especially when) spoken to. It was this lack of response that caused a mild uproar in both cases. One ‘gentleman’ called me a c*nt and the other called me a “fat cow” when I did not respond to approaches beginning with “excuse me, miss” on the street. These experiences have led me to believe that the Brits are really in favor of extremes. They are either extraordinarily polite or stunningly rude with very little or no middle ground. And apparently my “New York Face” is not considered an appropriate visage for England.