Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, and founder of The Revealer, has done new reporting on the connection between American religious conservatives and the proposed anti-gay legislation in Uganda.  The connection comes through an organization called “The Family.”  As Sharlet’s book details, The Family is a secretive fundamentalist organization dating from the 1930s that seeks to cultivate political leaders with a combination of quirky theology and conservative policy.  Among other endeavors, they provide housing for senators and congressmen, run Bible studies, and host the annual National Prayer Breakfast.  On Fresh Air this week, Sharlet discussed the role of The Family in Uganda.  A nice summary of this matter can be found at Episcopal Cafe.  Take a look.  But be forewarned—it’s scary.


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Last night I saw the Coen Brothers’ new film, A Serious Man. It’s quite brilliant and thoughtful in a whole slew of ways, from the fact that it opens with a quote from Rashi and 10 minutes of perfect Yiddish to its incessant interrogation of faith, human behavior and the indeterminacy of both.

But this post is about a lampshade. A strategically placed lampshade.

One of the most striking qualities of the film is its pitch-perfect reconstruction of Jewish material culture in the late 1960s-early 1970s. I recognized — viscerally recognized — so much of the film’s aesthetic from the rabbis’ tchochke-full offices to the vast modern terrain of the synagogue sanctuary to the awkward phrasing of a bar mitzvah boy’s Torah reading. Every element in this film was so well crafted, so thoughtful, so precise in its calibration, that this lampshade stood out.

The lampshade appears in a scene in which the main character goes to see his rabbi about his ongoing existential crisis, and has to see the junior rabbi, instead. On the wall of the junior rabbi’s office is a map of Israel. I grew up in synagogues and classrooms that had that pink-and-yellow Carta map of Israel on the wall. It — like so much else about this film — is unmistakable. But, the middle of this map, from about Haifa in the north to about Kibbutz Yotvata in the south, is obscured by a precisely well-placed lampshade.

The lampshade obscured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the whole of the geography that has been at the center of so much contention since Israel began its occupation in 1967. A pre-1967 map would have depicted the State of Israel with the Green Line as its boundary, and with Gaza as part of Egypt and the West Bank as part of Jordan. The scene, which cuts back and forth between the characters in conversation, shows the map a whole bunch of times, and each time, there is the lampshade.

The lampshade is the Coen Brothers’ version of the blurring technology that covers other, similarly contentious… umm… parts when they appear on television. In this case the issue isn’t modesty — it’s politics. It’s history. It’s memory. It’s the ongoing reluctance of much of American Jewry to acknowledge the complicated history of the State of Israel, and the realities of historically contingent and shifting borders. Frankly, it’s a cop out that reveals that even the most scrupulous attention to historical detail will always reveal its present-orientation.

Instead of holding fast to their delicate, exquisite reconstruction of 1960s Jewish life, the Coen Brothers cave in to the demands and fears of early 21st century.

Even the past still has a present.

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In recent days we have seen a rather alarming convergence of events related to homosexuality, religion, and globalization.  Currently under debate in the Ugandan Parliament is a bill that would extended the country’s already draconian anti-gay laws, calling in some cases for the death penalty for homosexuals.

As horrifying as this is, it gets worse, since the Ugandan authorities responsible for this proposed legislation have received direct and indirect support from a variety of American and Western forces.  First, those in the US pouring money into Maine to repeal its marriage equality legislation—which is on the ballot today—have over the years also made alliances with anti-gay forces in Uganda. American megachurch pastor Rick Warren once touted his relationships with those in Uganda now pushing these measure, for example, though he claims to have disassociated himself from them in recent years.

Second, religious leaders of the Anglican Church in Uganda have been vocal supporters of the legislation, and Pope Benedict XVI gave these very same religious forces a major boost last week.  The Pope announced that he would create a special arrangement for disaffected Anglican priests, and their congregations, to join the Roman Catholic Church.  Brushing aside decades of painstaking talks between the world’s two largest Christian bodies, Benedict chose to welcome even married Anglicans into the Roman fold.

The reason some Anglicans might want to join the Roman Church, though never stated directly, is obvious to anyone following recent developments in the global Anglican communion:  conservatives are upset by the ordination of women and, more recently, of open, non-celibate homosexuals. Many of those most upset about the movement toward full inclusion of gay and lesbians Anglicans are leaders of the Anglican Church in Africa, including in Uganda.   This recent announcement from Rome is strictly designed to bolster the antigay forces at work in the Anglican Church, including those in Africa.

American and Europeans church bodies have done many good things in Africa in recent years, including advocating for the vast increases in public health aid money implemented by the Bush administration.  Nevertheless, the Pope, American evangelical anti-gay advocates, and conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians in the the UK and the US are all implicated in direct and indirect ways in these outrageous developments in Uganda.

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This Day in History

One hundred and sixty-five years ago today, on October 22, 1844, the world was supposed to end.  As you may have noticed, it did not, and while humanity’s continued plodding may be a source of relief to you and me, to the most fervent believers in the October 22nd scenario, the failure of history to climax on that date became known as the Great Disappointment.   Nearly a quarter million otherwise very normal Americans heard the preaching of William Miller, a farmer from Upstate New York, and came to believe, with him, that the Bible foretold Christ’s return to earth on a fall day more than eighteen hundred years since his last appearance.

We, of course, are too sophisticated to believe in such hooey.  The wonderfully smart students in my class on apocalypticism in American culture are sensitive enough to look for meaning—psychological and sociological, mostly—in the tale of the Millerites, but they, and I, also can’t help express a bit of condescension at the rubes who sold their farms and embarrassed themselves in anticipation of the end.

But we sophisticates must tread lightly here.  In my more sober moments I am tempted to call the Miller phenomenon an example of “irrational exuberance,” recognizing that it was no more irrational or exuberant than our own millennial dreams.  The very markets about which Alan Greenspan spoke when he coined the term have proven that.  Mr. Greenspan himself—our William Miller, disgraced prophet of bliss—has been forced to recant, telling Congress a year ago this week that the Crash of 2008 revealed a “flaw” in his previously unassailable faith in self-regulating markets.  A year has passed, and little has been done to learn the lessons of 2008, the lessons of Greenspan’s flaw.  After the Great Disappointment, the vast majority of Millerites returned to their farms, families, and lives; we, on the other hand, continue to wait on the mountaintop. The Millerites are looking less and less crazy all the time.

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