Monday, February 11, 2008

Faith and Religion

Longtime friend and fellow blogger Thoughts From the Sugar Bowl webmaster Torch posted the following regarding faith and religion.

Religion sets boundaries. Faith transcends them.

Religion is a set of rules. Faith is a relationship.

Religion is static. Faith is dynamic, always changing.

Religion encourages conservativism. Faith encourages progress.

Religion seeks to tell you what you cannot do. Faith gives you the freedom to do anything.

Religion starts wars. Faith ends them.

Religion says “we’ll love you if you look like us.” Faith says “we love you just the way you are.”

Religion hates the sin. Faith loves the sinner.

I understand where Torch and many others are coming from when they say this. Torch has good reason to dislike organized religion. Lots of folks do. But to say one thing is faith, and another religion, is as false a dichotomy as Philip Pullman saying he doesn't write fantasy just so he doesn't have to belong to the same club as C.S. Lewis. I know wonderfully "spiritual" people who attend very conservative and traditional churches. I also know legalistic "religious" types who don't attend church.

I guess it depends on our definition of religion; however, coming up with a definition for religion is easier said than done. To illustrate just how slippery an undertaking the definition of the word “religion” has proven to be, religious scholars Carl Olson and Willi Braun share nearly identical anecdotal examples recalling undergraduate students enrolled in introductory religion courses producing a multiplicity of definitions for the study or nature of religion. Olson goes on to catalogue a few scholarly opinions on the nature of religion, such as Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, who attempted a definition others found “useful” while Wilfred Cantwell Smith saw the definition of religion as “ultimately unnecessary”. Given the anecdotes alongside the scholar’s polarized opinion on the usefulness of the definition of religion, the reader is to understand that this is not an easily reconcilable issue. As Braun quotes Jonathan Smith as saying, it isn’t that religion lacks a definition, but that “it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways”.

I like atheist scholar Bruce Lincoln's definition as "that discourse whose defining characteristics are the practice of speaking of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal." In effect, anyone can have religion, and just about anything can be religion. Emile Durkheim stated that "all known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed the words profane and sacred." Durkheim went on to suggest that by "sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called gods or spirits; a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word anything can be sacred".

So the 'spiritual' person, who has 'faith' and not 'religion' has a religion (according to Lincoln and Durkheim) wherein going to a building, being part of an institution, wearing a suit to religious assemblies and having an imposed ethical code is profane. Being able to have a beer at a Bible Study, not have to get up Sunday morning, not having fights with other believers over issues like drums vs. piano are sacred. Torch's manifesto states that religion sets boundaries, but to demarcate between 'faith' and 'religion' is a boundary. It implies we know the right way of doing things and those who don't are religious pharisees. I blame Bono personally, for saying "I don't see Jesus Christ as being in any part of a religion. Religion is the Temple after God has left it". Nice, neat and tidy. Religion= bad. Spirituality or faith = good.

The trouble here is that we've elevated ourselves when we make that sort of distinction, and become guilty of the same sort of elitist supercilious gaze we accuse the "religious" of. And what's really meant by "religion" when we boil this all down? The Sunday School teacher who threw Bibles as a means of discipline? The church board that fired you? The pastor who made you confess a premarital pregnancy or extramarital affair to the whole bloody church assembly? The parent who disowned you when they found out your were gay? The institution who refused you a job because you were a divorcee? Let's be honest. We don't mean religion. We mean churches, mosques and synagogues. Organized religion vs. disorganized I guess.

There is an associated outworking of this "faith vs. religion" "spirituality vs. church" dichotomy, the movement to denounce current modes of Christian church practice based upon the idea that the church was perfect and pristine in the first century, and somewhere between the apostles and the Emergent Church, everything got utterly fucked up. I've been web-branded as a "leader in the Emergent Church movement", which is not exactly true. It's fair to say that I've advocated for what the Emergent Church was becoming ten years ago, but after working an extremely traditional Mennonite church while simultaneously volunteering as a leader in an Emergent church, I've come to a conclusion. Neither had any magic formula to save Christianity in the new Millennium. Both had very similar codependencies which were only different on the surface; the traditional church resisted services where contemporary music was employed while the emergent church resisted services where traditional music was employed. Same problem, different tempo.

This movement to discern the original, pristine, apostolic church is a misguided one from the outset for a number of reasons. Firstly, the apostolic church was not pristine. It was as messed up as the church is today. They fought over different issues to be sure, but we have the record of those fights in the Bible itself; do Good Christians whittle their penis down slightly or not? Do Good Christians wear their hair like temple prostitutes? Beyond the Bible, one finds archaeological evidence in architecture and artwork that shows how the early church struggled with where to meet. Sure, it says in Acts they met in homes, but does that mean it was the only place they met? We know the early church met in synagogues as well, and later appropriated the use of the Roman public assembly halls for conducting church services.

There's no arguing its a crying shame that many Christians attribute "church" to the building they attend their services in. And yes, there are likely many syncretic elements within the traditional church; but I think the implication given by these well-meaning Christians when they make the statement that the church lost it's way nearly 2000 years ago is that God is some sort of anal retentive pygmy deity who a) likes his worship to be "just so" and b) can't do anything about it when things get off the track - he has to wait until geniuses like Frank Viola come along to set us all straight. Poor God.

It's sheer arrogance. I've been reading this sort of shit since I was a teenager; the Catholics were wrong in all our Baptist literature. And I thought, "so who the hell was right for the 1400 years between Christ and Luther?" There will always be syncretism; our faith, our spirituality, our religion inhabits and informs our everyday comings and goings because we embody that faith, spirituality or religion. So if you embody your religion (faith or spirituality or whichever bitchin' buzzword you want to use for having a trendy Bible Study with your emergent friends at a coffee shop) in a traditional, institutional way, then you are practicing a traditional, institutional Christianity. Just because one person reads their Bible along with the Common Book of Prayer while at church on Sunday mornings doesn't make them less spiritual than the person who reads their Bible alongside Rob Bell's latest book at Starbuck's on Thursday. Calling one 'religious' and the other 'spiritual' is bullshit. Calling this 'faith' and that 'dogma' is bullshit too. We all practice religion. Hockey Night in Canada is a ritual many Canadians observe with the religious fervor of a Muslim extremist. Atheists pushing to keep prayer out of schools are as religious as the people trying to get prayer put back in. They all talk with transcendent and eternal authority about things which at the end of the day are eternal and transcendent (the atheist will take umbrage here I'm sure, but they can bite me; many atheists talk about the origin of the universe like they had front row seats and were sitting sipping a spritzer in a lawn chair when the Big Bang went down).

As with all my rants, this is less "together" than I wish it were, but I needed to get this out. I've just seen one too many books or articles on the subject in the last year and I'm fed up. I don't give a damn if you want to practice your religion while downing a pint at the local pub, or meeting in someone's living room. Go for it. I won't be standing in your way. Just quit thinking you're the ultimate experience in Christian faith because you don't meet in a church building. Quit making a distinction between your experience and others' based upon whether or not your club has a name and fees and a central office.

I've said it before here at Gotthammer, but it apparently bears repeating. Sheep and shitheads come in all shapes and sizes, and organized religion does not have the monopoly on either. You can find shitheads everywhere; there are Jewish shitheads, Christian shitheads and Atheist shitheads. For all their "and harm ye none, do as you will", I am certain there are even Wiccan shitheads, and if anyone has a right to call what they do "spirituality" and not "religion" it would be them, given that they still aren't recognized as an official religion in the United States (that's what doing religion skyclad will get you). It isn't religion that is the problem. The shitheads are.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

2008 Films I'm Looking Forward To

Last year I saw only a handful of films in theater, but of the 7 films I started out the year looking forward to, I've seen 6, though half of those were on DVD. Nevertheless, while being a parent keeps me from seeing films when they're released, I remain an avid movie fan. And I'm excited about some of what this year has to offer in film. Given what passes for good film according to the Academy, I apparently like slumming it, as I have seen none of the films up for the major awards, and with the exception of Sweeney Todd, am in no hurry to see any of them.

My 2008 "movies I wanna see" list:

1. The Orphanage - Guillermo Del Toro produced it, and the trailer gives me shivers. To quote Bill Cosby, "Come on, scare me to death, I'm ready..."
2. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - I couldn't give a rat's ass what Lewis purists said about the first film - I liked it, and I love the series of books. Go rent the BBC live-action adaptations if you want pure. You'll get an animatronic lion who isn't very animatronic in the bargain.
3. The Dark Knight - with Heath Ledger's untimely passing the trailer has taken on a more sinister note; making a psychotic villain your final legacy as an actor wouldn't be anyone's intention, but Ledger looks to have given a final brilliant performance by all appearances. If it even just matches the first film, it'll be stellar.
4. Hancock - I love Will Smith. I love superheroes. I love the idea of Will Smith as a homeless, apathetic superhero. 'Nuff said.
5. Iron Man - undoubtedly my fave trailer of the past few months. And who better to play alcoholic multi-billionaire Tony Stark than the recovering alcoholic Robert Downey Jr.? Besides, the armor is the shit, and an updated version of Sabbath's eponymous tune can't be a bad thing.
6. Cloverfield - Godzilla meets Lovecraft's monsters meets the uncanny via You-tube style mise-en-scene. I'm in.
7. The Incredible Hulk - This time I can only hope Hulk gets ANG-RY instead of Ang Lee.
8. Hellboy II: The Golden Army - Guillermo Del Toro is one of my top 5 directors of all time. I love the way he thinks, and he did an outstanding job with the first film in this franchise. The tone of the visuals echoes Pan's Labyrinth, but with the volume turned up to 11.
9. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - Do I Really Need to Say Why I'm Looking Forward to Another Harry Potter Film? And joy! It's a Christmas release!
10. James Bond 22 - Sean Who? Roger Less, not Moore! Remington Brosnan? I'm all about Daniel Craig as the most authentic Bond yet. It's not to say I don't love the rest for what they were and what they brought to the franchise, but Bond needed to get into the 21st century, and Casino Royale pulled that off in spades. Here's a raised glass (Shaken not Stirred) in the hope that Bond 22 is as superb.
11. Star Trek - I'm hoping this film adopts the reboot ethos of Battlestar Galactica, and does an amazing job of reinventing the Star Trek universe (which has been in need of an overhaul since "Deep Space Nine". If it does, maybe George Lucas would consider letting someone else do the same with Star Wars.
12. Fanboys - In lieu of a reboot of Star Wars, I'll take this comedy about some nerds who go on a road trip to steal a copy of Ep 1 for their dying friend.
13. Comanche Moon - it's a direct to video western adapting Larry McMurtry's prequel to his brilliant "Lonesome Dove". None of the other adaptations have stood up to the original television miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, but with Steve Zahn playing a younger Gus McCrae and Karl Urban playing Woodrow Call, this one will be worth checking out.