Category Archives: religion

The I-35 Connection

I stumbled onto the most amazing video this weekend while mindlessly surfing to try and unwind from waaaay too many hours working. The Minneapolis connection was irresistible even though the story is nothing but bizarre. Here we have the theory, by a group of fundamentalist Christians in Texas, suggesting that the I-35(W) bridge collapse last summer in Minneapolis is actually related to a prophesy in the bible, book of Isaiah, chapter 35. The text of the verse is here (verse 8):

A highway will be there, a roadway, And it will be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean will not travel on it, But it will be for him who walks that way, And fools will not wander on it.

They claim that since it’s Isaiah 35 this “highway of holiness” is interstate 35 (I-35). Ummm. Okay, I’m not sure I see it. But let’s see what they’re talking about. They say since I-35 is the “highway of holiness,” they want to purify the length of it, including things like shutting down strip clubs. They have a whole website here. called “Light the Highway” and apparently from the video this means standing on the side of the freeway in small groups and doing some old fashioned “yes Jesus” wild prayerful yelling and screaming. I particularly liked the section on the website consisting of “prophecies for I-35” along with the cobbled together, more or less random listing of reasons why this particular interstate requires “intercession”–including the Minneapolis bridge collapse. The scientist in me reads their story (here, related to the video above) and wonders whether their list of tragedies along I-35 really is a statistical aberration–I’m guessing not. I’m guessing, just a gut instinct here, that along the full length of any 1000+ mile stretch of interstate in the US, passing through a number of large cities and towns, you could find a comparable list of bad things that have happened over the years. What can I say, this is the sort of ‘logic’ that earns American Christian fundamentalists well-deserved ridicule. Of course, they’re in Texas, a well-known breeding ground for illogical thought.

Comments on American Christianity

I stumbled on this in the blogosphere today:

http://mjackson75.wordpress.com/2007/07/31/american-christianity/ 

and found it terribly interesting… apparently I am not the only person around who wonders if the Christian church in the US is somehow going in a different direction from (a) the rest of the west, (b) the rest of the world and (c) the rest of recorded history.

Politics and the church

An AP article yesterday, “Religion looms large over 2008 race,” reminds us that in the US, where there is supposed to be separation of church and state, the line of this separation is getting blurred. The issue of religion is increasingly important in the presidential race, and things have changed fast since the 1960s when last the issue was substantially discussed in the Kennedy context, although interestingly and in stark contrast, apparently not much discussion occurred when Mitt Romney’s father ran for office.

Living in the UK, I find that people are really surprised and unaware of the possibility of religious “one issue voters”. I will not comment further than to say that choosing a candidate for any office solely on the basis of a pro-life/pro-choice stance seems extremely short-sighted and makes a mockery of the democratic process. Then again, a good friend of mine confessed once that she votes for any female candidate above any other candidate. Another one issue voting strategy… perhaps one that I support a bit myself, but regardless, perhaps not embracing the true spirit of the democratic process.

I have commented previously that I find there exists a sort of peer pressure when it comes to the expression of religious feeling in the US. I suspect this same sort of peer pressure is influencing the words of the presidential candidates:

All the Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls have been grilled on their religious beliefs. Most seem eager to talk publicly about their faith as they actively court religious voters.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasizes her Methodist upbringing and says her faith helped her repair her marriage.

Chief rival Sen. Barack Obama frequently uses the language of religion and proclaims a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. The Illinois Democrat – whose middle name is “Hussein” – scoffs at suggestions of Muslim leanings because he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. He is a member of the United Church of Christ.

In the most recent Democratic debate, a pastor in a YouTube video asked Democrat John Edwards to defend his use of religion to deny gay marriage. The former North Carolina senator – a Methodist – talked about his faith and his “enormous conflict” over the issue

Republican Sen. John McCain, an Episcopalian, says, “I do believe that we are unique and that God loves us.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, emphasizes his belief that “God created the heavens and the earth. To me, it’s pretty simple.”

The interesting exception to this rule of religious blather is Giuliani, but look at the revealing way in which the AP writer explores this:

Unlike the others, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a divorced Roman Catholic who favors abortion rights, sidesteps such questions, claiming one’s relationship with God is a private matter. But he attended Catholic schools and at one point considered being a priest.

The AP writer actually appears to be trying to infuse religion where Giuliani has tried to keep it out. This is part of what’s wrong with America! As for me, I’m with Giuliani. All of this showboating and showcasing ones supposedly personal faith makes me queasy. If faith is an important part of your life, you won’t feel the need to go around telling that to any reporter who is within hearing distance. Clearly the candidates are doing so because they feel that this is turning into another single issue on which voters will turn, and that is really a damning verdict on the greater American populace.

Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants, oh my!

Having visited a number of ornately over-decorated Catholic churches in Liguria, and seen on walls in Italy autographed and framed pictures of various popes as though they were movie stars, this latest notice from the Vatican caught my eye.

This both amused and saddened me.   Amused, because I was raised in the protestant mid-west where I was taught from a young age that it was Catholics who were not actually Christians, only protestants were.  Something about it being cult-ish to venerate Mary and the saints.

My amusement aside, though, it does make me sad to see this sort of thing being said by the pope, with the implication that the worldwide community of Catholics are supposed to agree.   My problems with the Catholic church are many and deep and my education on the similarities and differences between the Anglican and Catholic churches  is still continuing.  My upbringing was within a specific branch of evangelical protestantism that is off to one side of the bell-curve from the mainstream.  But seriously, do we really need to promote this sort of Shia-vs-Sunni divide within the Christian church?  How does that actually help?

More on US Megachurches

Happy Sunday!  In honor (honour) of the sabbath, a few links further to the discussion of US Megachurches and their differences from churches in the UK (and from more mainline churches in the US perhaps as well):

A scholarly work (from Scott Thumma, PhD) in which it is argued that:

  • “If there is a common message shared by all megachurches, it is that they want to portray what they do as more vital than other congregations, somehow better than “ordinary” Christianity.”

If there is one take-home message from my personal experiences with the American megachurches it would be this one, and it’s from this attitude that I derive my distaste. Perhaps my comments about the church in the US and UK are quite specific to megachurches vs quite traditional C of E practices, as was pointed out, although I would argue that many smaller protestant churches in the US are now emulating the megachurches (especially with drama, praise songs and support groups).

The Christian Science Monitor also comments on the rise of the American megachurch. Noted both here and in the Economist article I linked to previously is the issue of the missing cross, which is one of my major problems with the phenomenon as a whole: the underpinnings of Christianity are getting lost in the shuffle.  I have no doubts that in any church, anywhere on the globe, there are Christians with pure hearts and solid faith and I am not trying to argue that all that are involved with this phenomenon are corrupt in some way.  But the fact that the megachurches are non-denominational–or effectively too large to be dominated by any traditional parish church structure–means that they are free to move away from doctrine at will.

I have two other serious qualms with the modern megachurch movement.  One is with the taking on of a capitalist business model.  One of the links from the previous post was to a website called “http://www.churchexecutive.com/” and I think if we have gotten to that point of the business model, then it’s time to take away the special tax status of churches in the US and treat them like any other business.  They really become not that different than medical insurance companies in the strange grey area between being for-profit and not-for-profit.  The other qualm I have is with the political involvement of churches in the US.  Apparently again this has some bearing on a church’s tax status as is seen in recent news reports (here, here).  I had not realized the convergence of these two issues onto American tax law until I started digging around on the web for links for this post!

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.

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.