Lambert Wilson as Christian (left) and Michael Lonsdale as Luc, flanking a villager
A little-noted outgrowth of the current wave of popular upheaval sweeping the Arab world is that Algeria’s nearly 20 year rein of martial law has been lifted. Most of the 1990s were marked by a savage civil war that pitted a variety of Islamist insurgent groups against Algeria’s military regime and against each other. By the time it petered out early in the 2000′s, the massacre of whole villages, urban bombings, shootouts and assassinations had claimed 150,000 to 200,000 lives.
Eventually, this conflict engulfed the French Cistercian Trappist monastery situated in a remote village, where its monks were much loved by their Muslim-Arab neighbors. They incorporated them into their everyday lives, even inviting them to family weddings and other life-cycle events.
Michael Lonsdale, the dignified bilingual French actor, plays Luc, the elderly monk and physician who ran a much-needed medical clinic. From the vantage point of his once secular life, Luc is charmingly depicted providing advice on love to a village girl who tends the abbey grounds and seeks out his wisdom.
Last week the atheist blogosphere lit up with reports that Molly Norris, the Seattle cartoonist who inadvertently inspired “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD), had been forced to change her identity and go into hiding due to death threats she received from extremists.
How did these same bloggers who promoted EDMD respond to this news? They expressed sadness and frustration. And who wouldn’t? Poor Norris – imagine having to give up everything you knew because your life was in danger. They are right to condemn those who have targeted her.
However, many also used it as yet another opportunity to take broad swipes at Muslims.
For example, popular atheist writer P.Z. Myers addressed Islam as if it were a single entity, writing: “Come on, Islam. Targeting defenseless cartoonists is your latest adventure in bravery? That’s pathetic. It’s bad enough to be the religion of hate, but to be the religion of cowardice ought to leave you feeling ashamed.”
I’m disappointed at such assessments, and I have a feeling Norris would be too. After EDMD took off, she insisted that she did not wish for it to become a movement. In a post on her now defunct website, Norris asked people to try to find common ground with others instead, adding: “The vitriol this ‘day’ has brought out… is offensive to the Muslims who did nothing to endanger our right to expression in the first place. I apologize to people of Muslim faith and ask that this ‘day’ be called off.”
I live in Espanola, New Mexico, a town of 9,000 people, mostly Hispanic and Native American, with a lot of churches but without a Jewish synagogue. I live in an agrarian mestizo community: most of my neighbors are of mixed Spanish and Native American descent dating from the arrival of Juan de Onate in the 16th century. Leaders in my community worry about passing their cultural heritage on to the next generation in the face of industrial encroachment. Rio Arriba County reminds me of Israel at the time of Akiva, immediately preceding the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.
Although I invited my Hispanic Rio Arriba colleagues to my son’s Bar Mitzvah, none came. Many of my more urbane Hispanic friends in Santa Fe were present. They lived in “the city.” Many had moved away for college and then returned. They were familiar with Jews. I wish I could explain the significance of the B’nai Mitzvah to my struggling agrarian friends. It has helped the Jewish people to maintain our identity in exile for thousands of years.
Last week, I had the privilege of reading from my novel, Hold Love Strong, at Pete’s Candystore, a great venue in Brooklyn, a few blocks from 334 Manhattan Avenue, where once I lived in the middle of a friend’s apartment and often climbed the fire escape to the roof where I began to piece my life back together; or rather, began the process of reflection and self-possession necessary for living a full and meaningful life. After I read, Nadia and I had the chance to speak with Mira Jacobs, one of the curators of the event and a mother to a one-and-a-half-year-old son, Zakir, a name that means remembering and/or grateful. Talking about new motherhood, pregnancy, and childbirth, Nadia repeated a phrase a friend had recently said to her, and although she meant it in reference to having a baby, it is, I think, at the very core to the solutions of our present social and political problems, and thus what we — those of us who wish for a peaceful, humane world if not for ourselves then for our children — must do and anchor ourselves to in order for there to be the chance for the world we can imagine, the world we deserve.
“Be ready,” she said, “for overwhelming joy.”
When I was a child, my family celebrated Christian holidays in a fairly standard secular way, decorating a tree on Christmas and hunting eggs on Easter, not to mention joining in the customary consumption of marshmallow peeps, “jelly bird eggs” (whatever those are), and other foods invented by companies with a clever eye for turning a profit from a holiday.
My version of Easter lacks the radical Christian religiosity that Nichola laid out in her recent post about Good Friday as a time “to look at the crucifixions necessary to preserve the fiction of Pax Americana, or any false peace maintained by force, whether violent or hegemonic.” It lacks the progressive rethinking of the resurrection narrative that Rabbi Lerner highlighted in his spiritual wisdom of the week post with a quotation from Peter Rollins. But it’s still one of my favorite holidays of the year.
On its surface, the humanist Easter I grew up with may have seemed drained of meaning to religious onlookers, but it was actually highly ritualized and deep in its own way. I want to share my family’s three main rituals — an Easter eve afternoon of collaborative egg art, the collective reading aloud of a surprisingly feminist bunny book from the 1930s, and a morning of romping, outdoor egg hunts in bitter spring weather — as a resource for nonreligious families who want to celebrate a secular Easter that’s about more than just candy.
Why is there an olive on the Seder plate? Why is there an orange on the seder plate? And how can the liberation story of Passover relate to our modern-day struggles against oppression? Traditional Passover haggadot (the books of readings used at seder services) are full of answers but not to these questions. But then again, most seder plates don’t have olives and oranges on them …
I’m always interested in efforts to reclaim, reinvent, or renew religious holidays in ways that make them newly sustaining and politically energizing, so I was excited to learn through my friend Traci of a radical, anti-racist haggadah full of poetic writing and ideas about how to find new relevance and depth in the rituals of Passover: “The Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah Zine” by Micah Bazant and Dara Silverman. The authors intentionally did not copyright the piece and have made it available for free on the web, encouraging people to print it out and use it as the basis for a “choose-your-own-adventure progressive seder.” Traci used the zine as the basis for a joyful and politicized seder that I had the pleasure of participating in earlier this week.
by: Joshua Stanton on March 4th, 2010 | Comments Off
On February 24, Rev. Paul Raushenbush issued a call for articles entitled “Dear Religious (and Sane) America” to inaugurate the launch of the Huffington Post’s new religion section. According to the article,
HuffPost Religion is dedicated to providing a provocative, respectful, and hopefully productive forum for addressing the ways in which religion intersects our personal, communal, national and international life. HuffPost Religion will demonstrate the vibrant diversity of religious traditions, perspectives and experiences that exist alongside and inform one another in America and throughout the world.
Huffington is clearly trying to expand its reach and become one of the big players in religion media, much as it already has in politics, popular culture, and even business. Based on initial responses to the section, it appears to be well on its way.
In one image a winged bird flaps her wings but remains rooted to the ground. In another a fork-headed monster rushes by, a small bird fluttering at its heart. Nearby a masked bundle of writing appears to be stuck in a toilet bowl.
These are just a few of the uncanny creatures that emerged three years ago when some friends and I started playing “exquisite corpse,” a collaborative drawing game invented by surrealists in the 1920s.
So many of the drawings evoke unexpected scenes of constraint. The creatures are tangled up in themselves. They’re tangled up in each other. They’re tangled up in the surrounding environment. But unlike most images of constraint in pop culture today, most of the drawings portray structural constraints (such as the bird’s physical rootedness in the ground) rather than overt scenes of domination. Many of the surrealist creatures seem oddly joyful and calm despite their limitations.
The subtle entanglements in these pictures are not unlike the constraints that global political, social, and economic forces exert on radical efforts to build a more just and caring world.
(To see more collaborative drawings, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery.)
The idea “to be religious is to be a theist” as Christopher Hitchens stated in his debate with Lorenzo Albacete is a quite ethnocentric claim. It is true that in the West we have often associated a theistic God with religion, but this neglects Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism and numerous religious traditions which have adopted a deistic, pantheistic, panentheistic or other understanding of God. And as I pointed out in my critique of Hitchens last week, Unitarian Universalism contains 19% of people who identify as atheist/agnostic.
In the over 140 comments I received from my post “Christopher Hitchens: The Orthodox Protestant Atheist” both on the Tikkun site and in the version crossposted on Alternet.org there was both surprise and disbelief that atheists could be religious leaders. I described how I am in seminary at Starr King School for the Minstry studying alongside atheists and agnostics who are in training to become religious leaders and ministers. This seemed to be an oxymoron as for some of the respondents all religion is evil and always associated with God. So I thought it would be helpful to include a few statements from atheist students in seminary studying to be religious leaders.
From a fellow atheist seminarian at Starr King:
First, I think there is a difference between being an atheist and being anti-religious. They are orthogonal. There is also a difference between being anti-religious and being opposed to the effects of particular religious traditions. These terms should not be conflated. Since when did not believing in God mean that you are opposed to other people believing in God and or practicing religion regardless of whether they believe? I am an atheist. Just to be clear, by that I mean I don’t believe that there is a god, a higher consciousness, or a spirit. I am also opposed to the effects of certain religious traditions. But I am not by any means anti-religious. I don’t deny the value that religion or religious practice, (whether actual belief in god and the afterlife, or simply liking the pretty candles at mass and multiple opportunities for community) brings to people including myself. Religion has a lot to offer and to deny that is to deny the complexity of the human condition.
Despite having engaged in numerous debates with Christians, Muslims and Jews across the liberal/conservative spectrum Christopher Hitchens still holds to an amazingly ignorant understanding of the liberal religious heritage. His understanding of who is and who isn’t a Christian is perhaps the most disappointing and surprising piece of evidence for his myopic interpretation of religion. While rejecting conservative Christians’ theological claims about God, the Bible and Jesus, he accepts their understanding of who is and is not able to be considered a Christian. In a recent interview with Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian Universalist minister and self-professed liberal Christian, Christopher Hitchens paraphrased C.S. Lewis to explain the boundaries of who constitutes a Christian. It’s not surprising then that a recent blog post by Dr. Ray Pritchard of “Keep Believing Ministries” for a conservative Christian site called Crosswalk was entitled, “Christopher Hitchens Gets it Exactly Right.”
During a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, noted atheist Christopher Hitchens laid down some seriously good theology… In one of the delicious ironies of our time, an outspoken atheist grasps the central tenet of Christianity better than many Christians do. What you believe about Jesus Christ really does make a difference.
What did Hitchens say?
Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?
Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.
Why is Hitchens so quick to accept such an orthodox interpretation of the boundaries of Christianity? His brain seems to short-circuit when he has to think about religion in complex ways. He wants to hold firmly to an either/or dichotomy–the very same one which he is critiquing fundamentalism for. In debates he has stated that he is “Protestant atheist” meaning that he recognizes the validity of the various reformation movements which liberalized, expanded and diversified Christianity. But which denomination of protestant atheist is he? This isn’t clear but it is apparently not one which falls outside of his or C.S. Lewis’s orthodox boundaries of inclusion/exclusion. Isn’t is shocking that of all people, Christopher Hitchens is in agreement with the many forces in history which have led to the extermination, torture and destruction of “heretics” for simply believing the “wrong” form of Christianity? Since when is Hitchens so concerned about who is and isn’t a Christian?