Saturday, March 15, 2008

Extreme Make-over

It seems religion is changing, sometimes in a big way if you look really closely. Take Christianity: now that the flock is starting to think, some church views have not held up to scrutiny. In fact, the latest Pew poll on Religion and Public Life showed major declines in mainstream denominations such as Roman Catholicism, Methodism and Lutheranism. The findings reported by WSJ revealed that: "Nearly half [44%] of adults in the U.S. have switched faith other than the one in which they were raised or have dropped affiliation with any organized religion. . . the study also found that more than one-third of respondents were raised Roman Catholic had left the faith as adults [the largest loss among all the churches.] Yet, the overall number of Catholics in the U.S. has remained steady--about 25% of adults--buttressed by a wave of Catholic Latinos immigration" (2-26-08, D1.)

Further, over half of the Jews and members of the various protestant churches polled are over the age of 50, which should be an alarming statistic to any church bent on survival. The poll went on to say, however, evangelicals make up a goodly portion of the protestants and are gaining adherents. Why, asked the pollsters?

According to a Boston University professor, it's because these churches "draw members by appealing to their day-to-day concerns. Its not hellfire and damnation being preached." And as we know, many politicians have taken note of this vocal religious segment--so, these congregates might like the attention.

The God Who Wasn't There, the Michael Moore-like documentary currently making the rounds, may be emblematic of these shifting religious attitudes. Newsweek said the movie "irreverently lays out the case that Jesus Christ never existed."
According to the website
"Bowling for Columbine did it to the gun culture. Super Size Me did it to the fast food. Now The God Who Wasn't There does it to religion. Holding modern Christianity up to a bright spotlight, this bold and often hilarious new film asks the questions few dare to ask. See the movie the Los Angeles Times calls 'provocative - to put it mildly.' Hold onto your faith. It's in for a bumpy ride."
That Jesus Christ wasn't God is one set of beliefs and held by many. That He did not exist at all is the more radical tenet of this DVD, narrated by a former fundamentalist and others who share his less-than-mainstream opinion. This controversial movie can be purchased from for only $16.99 for anyone interested in what a radical former-fundamentalist had to say about Jesus, or the lack thereof. On the other hand, maybe the money would be better spent on a charity of your choice. I'm sure The Hunger Site would accept the donation with a welcoming hand.

Except for secular Europe where churchgoing has been down for years, religion still plays a defining role in the everyday life of the normal world citizens--sometimes for the good and sometimes not.

While the Roman Catholic Church for the most part left its inter-meddling days behind in the Middle Ages, it still has schizophrenic moments. For example, under what circumstances would a Rwandan priest order a church with 1500 people inside to be burned and then bulldozed by militiamen? We may never know, but this very crime landed a Roman Catholic cleric in jail for life--a sentence handed down by a war-crimes U.N. Tribunal currently holding court in Rwanda. The original sentence of 15 years was extended to life when the guilty priest appealed his conviction. The account of the incident was horrifying:
"The tribunal said it convicted Seromba for his role in the destruction of the church in Nyange Parish, and the consequent death of approximately 1500 Tutsis sheltered inside. Seromba was convicted of leading a militia that attacked the people and poured fuel through the roof of the church, while police threw grenades inside. After failing to kill everyone inside the church, Seromba ordered it to be demolished."
According to the AP News story today, many Rwandans have turned away from the Roman Catholic Church angered by such acts of violence and the Church's actions during the genocide. Do you think?

On the other hand, another AP News story today related that Qatar (pronounced like guitar or gutter, take your pick) was opening its first Roman Catholic Church. A picture of the magnificent $15 million structure in Doha showed that Catholics in this Muslim country will finally have a place to formally worship. The often outspoken Emir of Qatar personally donated the land and gave his blessing, which he hoped would go a long way in securing the 2016 Olympics. Church construction for several protestant denominations was also underway, apparently for the same reason. Expatriates make up 70% of Qatar's population and have immigrated from the Philippines and other Asian nations. These are the folks for whom these new churches are intended. Jews are apparently still not welcome.

Although some have criticized the Emir's moves, others have applauded them. Since 1995 when he overthrow his conservative father in a coup, Shiek Hamad has been an enlightened mover and shaker in this tiny country, which sits on the largest gas reserve in the world.
"The country's most ambitious move to open up to the world has come through sports. Each year, Qatar now hosts dozens of sporting events for men and women. It held the 2006 Asian games and hopes to win the 2016 summer Olympics. The emirate last month also became the first Arab state to welcome a Israeli athlete for a competition, despite a regional boycott of Israel."
Also religiously enlightened are two movements in the Muslim world to open the arts to women. As you may remember from my previous blog about transgender men in Pakistan, the arts have not always been open to Muslim females. That is slowly changing.

In Afghanistan, a woman actually made it to the semifinals in the Afghani version of American Idol called Afghan Star. The show, now in its third year, has been controversial from the start because it promoted singing and other aspects of modernity, like white leather jackets and funky hairstyles (yes, even in Afghanistan.)

Now amazingly, a traditionally-garbed women made it to third place and will most likely secure a recording contract, like other finalist have done in the past. Afghan Star is the most popular show in the country and many watch it from crowded sidewalks and tiny storefronts.
Some say it is helping woman progress and shows the "peaceful side of Afghanistan." No one would argue that art could help build a peaceful culture, something which has been lacking in this war-torn country for several decades.

In Baghdad, a school of ballet is trying to do the same, although with a bit more difficulty. The author, Melik Kaylan, began his WSJ article with the words:
"In a conflict zone, you train your emotions to resist all kinds of horrors and suddenly you can be unmanned by an unexpected moment of grace. At the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet, a handful of 6-year-old beginners attempt the plie stance: Two little girls in pink leotards and bunned hair, four boys in white T-shirts and black shorts."
So begins the tale of this dangerous artistic endeavor in this war-torn Muslim country. It is only with a great amount of spunk and courage that the Iraqi female teacher, dressed in a leotard even in the presence of men, conducts her lessons each day. What's more, under her determined tutelage, the classes have begun to grow. This advance was only made possible after the area became more secure following the surge, but this does not stop the criminals who have occasionally kidnapped students for ransom.

Although the ballet school has its ups and downs, the National Symphony Orchestra and National Theater and Film directorate are flourishing. Ironically, all of these artistic institutions were opened under the secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. In the process of democratizing the country, they have been made a bit more insecure because of a backlash from religious fundamentalists. It is expected, however, that the arts will thrive again.

And finally, Buddhists continue to take a beating in Myanmar, where the UN's special envoy has been told to stay home because of his outspoken criticism of the regime in power. A bit farther north in Tibet, Buddhist monks not to be outdone by their southern counterparts, protested against China this week in a rare move. The Dalai Lama urged both sides to avoid violence, but his words came too late in the capital of Llasa where crowds burned shops and were then pummeled with tear gas by Chinese troops.

Rumors had it that 70 were killed and 1000 arrested. According to the AP News today, European Union officials "urged restraint" on the Chinese, but had no intention of boycotting the Olympics over the incident. Actor Richard Gere, long an advocate for a free Tibet, was quoted as saying: "They've [Tibetans] been brutally repressed for 50 years, 55 years, close to six decades. When you repress the people, they will explode. All people will explode."

But that is the point, is it not? There is no enlightenment without crises, whether it is the falling church census in the United States, a 6-year-old Muslim ballet dancer in Baghdad kidnapped by criminals, or the repression of Buddhists by a communist regime.

Maybe that means it's time for an extreme religious make-over, like on that reality TV show. Can't say I've ever watched it, but have heard that it transforms ugly ducklings into va--va--voom mommas who are more in step with the current cultural norms of beauty. Letting a little truth and beauty in the doors of religion might be refreshing, and enlightening. It's something that's never been tried, but it could be time, wouldn't you say?

Of note: The starkly beautiful photo from my sister M. Huffman reminded me of the Light due to pour into the stead institutions of the churches in the coming era. The current crises are the precursors of this magnificent event, prophesied to be overseen by Jesus himself. He did watch that video about himself and chuckled--won't they be surprised.

Today's Weather Report: I can feel the spring in the air. It's warm today and melting. One of the cats brought in a bird. Poor bird, happy cat. More than a foot of snow still on the ground, though. Tomorrow an ice fishing party on the lake, maybe one of the last. The ice out there is still a couple of feet thick.

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