Of Prayer Vigils and Police Barriers: Protest and Pilgrimage at the Olympics

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, March 24, 2010

The triumph of Canada’s hockey gold medals now a month old and the memories of the Olympics are starting to fade. Watching the Olympics unfold in our own country is an experience in and of itself. I must admit I’m not a sports fan. Even as a child I was usually on the sidelines and unusually drawn to what was happening in the bleachers, rather than the events on field. I like to think that it was my budding anthropologist in me that drew my focus to the spectators rather than the athletes, but I suspect it had more to do with poor hand-eye coordination than it did with future career aspirations. But my interest in the activities on the sidelines remains. And so I passed my time watching the nation watch the Olympics.

And there was certainly a lot to watch. Canada has hosted the Olympics twice previously. However, this time was different, not only because it was the first time Canada claimed a gold medal (fourteen, to be more specific) on its home turf, but also because it marks the first time that we experienced such prominent opposition to our role as hosts of the games. As everyone knows there were numerous protests both in the weeks leading up to the event and throughout the two-week period of the games. Identifying themselves as the Olympic Resistance Movement a conglomeration of indigenous groups, anti-poverty demonstrators and environmental activists joined forces to protest the 2010 Winter Games. The primary slogan of the movement was “no Olympics on stolen Native land,” a reference to continuing disputes concerning treaties and land ownership.

And so I watched and was reminded of my research.

“It sounds like you went on a pilgrimage of sorts,” I wrote to my long-time friend Chris Miller, the chaplain and coordinator of York University’s Student Christian Movement (SCM). Miller and two other student activists from York, along with one of the SCMs national staffers, traveled to Vancouver over Reading Week to meet up with the SCM group at the University of British Columbia and joined the Olympic Resistance Movement. We met up a week ago to talk about his experience.

“Yes, it was, I think, a pilgrimage. There were four of us that travelled together and we became in a way a pilgrim community. We stayed with old friends of mine and connected with her and her family. A lot of us went through hard emotional experiences.”

The Reason for the Pilgrimage: Historic and Contemporary Issues

For Miller, contemporary concerns about the Olympics need to be rooted in their historical context. “This is all from my personal perspective based on things I’ve seen and readings I’ve done. There’s kind of a dark shady-side of the Olympics that we don’t talk about. Baron de Coubertin, who is the French man that invented the Olympics—the modern Olympics, or resurrected them in 1896. He talked about them as a pedagogical tool for giving children something to aspire to in athletics but a second side of this pedagogy was to show the supremacy of Western Europeans over colonised populations (indigenous populations in places where there were Western colonisers). And to use athletics to show Western superiority and dominance. So there was a colonial and fascist root at the bottom of it.”

He went on to identify politically-charged Olympic venues, such as the 1936 so-called “Hitler Olympics” in Germany (where the torch relay was introduced) and the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics: “although not necessarily related to the Olympics being there, the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo and ten years later the Sarajevo Olympic stadium is used as one of the largest morgues seen in the history of humanity after the genocides in the former Yugoslavia.”

More broadly speaking activists raised human rights issues concerning the influx of people to Vancouver and its repercussions. Along with vocalising concerns about potential human-trafficking and safety for sex-trade workers, members of the resistance movement were concerned about Vancouver’s homeless populations. “Wherever the Olympics go there is almost a class-cleanse. Not like an ethnic-cleanse but a class-cleanse of homeless people, people who are on the brink of being homeless, those living in poverty, and lower-classes and even the working-class are cleaned out of cities; they are moved to the suburbs and taken away from view to make cities look nice. It’s literally a cleansing to make them look nice for the international scene.”

Perhaps exposing his religious commitments, Miller also identified lack of community as a problem. “We have these euphoric moments with gold medals, especially with men’s hockey where everyone dances in the streets but the next morning they’re hung-over and angry and their life is just as lonely and isolated as it was before.”
Miller saw the protesters as calling Canadians, especially the leadership, on false sense of national identity.

“We were trying to show that we’re not unified as a country. There are massive problems: our government says they’re working for us but we’re seeing more unemployment than we’ve seen in decades in Canada. People are lonely and broken and we have no community. We have these two weeks where we somehow feel something bigger but it’s vanishing.” The excitement mounts in his voice as he is speaking. “Now that the Olympics are over people are trying to reach back to get those moments of community back, but their lives are still just as empty.”

He pauses for a moment, looks up at me and says softly. “That’s why we were there.”

The Experience

The group from SCM took part in a number of protests and resistance activities throughout their week-long trip in Vancouver. Their first big action attempting to block the torch relay at two points in the city of Vancouver proper in an attempt to draw attention to inner-city needs. Vancouver’s downtown eastside is identified as the poorest urban postal code in Canada, so the intention of the activists was to show that the very presence of the Olympic torch was an affront to more pressing social concerns. Miller explained, “we said this community doesn’t need a seven-billion dollar party, it needs investment in housing, in drug rehabilitation, in detox centres, in social workers.”

Along with the rest of the world, I watched the Opening Ceremonies and read about the various protests, including the so-called ‘Heart-Attacked’ protest, which attempt to restrict access to the Games on the Lion’s Gate Bridge. The group from SCM participated in both of these protests, as well as others. These protests were at times intense, and the extensive police presence was intimidating, but Miller experienced moments that he labels as “profoundly spiritual.” It was during these moments that Miller linked his experience to his understanding of his religious faith.

I asked him to speak about their presence in Vancouver as a religious group. “What did it mean to go specifically with SCM, rather than with another organisation, or by yourself?”

“I think for us as the SCM, we entered into a tradition that goes back through the history of the church and the history of religious groups that sees these links and struggles. Martin Luther King wrote in the Letter from Birmingham Jail that he wasn’t an outside agitator but that he was an invited guest to Birmingham. And they had organisational links through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I think we felt that connection because as Christians we follow one God, a God that is Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining. I believe, and the group out in BC believes, that this is a God of justice and that we are God’s agents working in the world. I think it provides something that sustains us and gives us hope that even through troubles, through fears, through intimidation we believe in a new world and that a new world is here and is also yet to come. It’s hard to put words to it, but there is a connection that goes much more and much deeper than ‘let’s all get together and yell and make trouble in the streets’.

“One of the actions that we did as SCM is that we were there over Ash Wednesday that is the day that marks the beginning of Lent. In Christian liturgical traditions Lent is forty days of preparation leading into Easter and we took part in an Ash Wednesday Mass and had that reminder that ‘from ashes or dust you came and to dust you shall return’. We went from this Mass into a Prayer Vigil March through the UBC campus calling for and praying for an end to homelessness in Vancouver and around the world. We were marching through a university campus singing hymns and praying and reading scriptural verses calling for justice. It was a celebration—it was a lament and a celebration all at once.”

The image of a group of ‘freshly ashed-penitents’ calling for an end to social problems and singing hymns is a compelling one. And while Christian involvement in social justice advocacy and protests is not new (historically Christians have been involved in abolitionist factions, Latin American liberationist movements and more recently in protests against the WTO), what is interesting is that they root their movement in the social contexts of the biblical Jesus narrative. Recently, Christians from both ends of the conservative-liberal divide have appealed to Jesus’ role as a revolutionary and have advocated advocating that Jesus’ message was primarily anti-empire. They replace ‘Rome’ with ‘America’ or ‘capitalism’ and imagine themselves to be following a biblically-derived model.

“It goes right back to Jesus and the disciples countering the Roman Empire itself. We have our empires today that we’re trying to be a resistance force to and we’re met with the same levels of security apparatus. We were told that if we stepped onto certain streets on the UBC campus that we’d be arrested without question, without further warning. We were told that not just the people taking that step would be arrested but different organisers who were trying to control a group. All at once it was a fear that came from the police apparatus but here we were praying and singing. It did raise some awareness from different people. There’s a group just trying to pray and sing but at the same time there was a bunch of police all around with guns, in uniforms, pushing us away and hiding us.

“So there is a symbolism associated with that too. What danger are the Christians who are singing and praying? There’s no danger of us. We’re not going to bomb the hockey arena on campus or run around and smash windows. But I think there is that symbolic danger and so much of the state apparatus and the corporate apparatus, the systems of empire are based so much on symbolism and a constructed sense of power that our singing and praying was such a force to reckon with that they came out with all they had against us on a university campus. A group of students singing and praying was, at least for me, a symbol of what the resistance is and how those two symbols clashed so much.”

Christian Community

Of course it is difficult for contemporary Christians to situate themselves within this framework. While the best of the tradition has certainly aligned itself with the marginalised, one can easily observe the Church’s role, especially in Canada in relation to indigenous rights claims, as a hegemonic power.

“I think that not just in Canada but around the world the Church attaches itself to powerful institutions. Every president of the United States with a couple of exceptions who might have been Deists, have been Christians and look at the destruction that the United States has caused the world in this century and the previous centuries. In Canada we have the churches that carried out the government policies of residential schools. In Spain you have the Catholic Church that aligned itself with the fascist government of Franco. You’ve got the history of the Crusades and the Inquisitions, so there’s this dark side of religion too. We make power an idol; we seek it and we hold it and it’s a huge temptation. I think it takes a really deep and rooted spirituality: a radical spirituality . . . to overcome this temptation. There’s a lot of pressure within religious groups even today to say that resistance movements aren’t true religion, that it’s religion getting involved in politics.”

Miller went on to criticise his own tradition for a failure to speak out against what he perceives to be the injustices surrounding the Olympics.

“I think that’s almost a disservice to true religion which I think calls us to something much more than political power. In the context of the Olympics, one of the things that has really struck me is the unquestioned support, even in the church community. I come from the Anglican tradition and we have a national newspaper in the Anglican Church called the Anglican Journal, and in January and February 2010 the main stories had to do with the Olympics. In January it was on a young woman who is an Anglican from Vancouver who was one of the ‘happiness ambassadors’ on the torch relay. It was a personal interest story about her: how she has ‘the best job in the world’. It speaks to a culture of consumption and consumerism and the creation of a false sense of community. I think as a religions group we’re called to form true and healthy and sustaining communities. It upset me that that’s the story that my church chose to do about the Olympics. In February, right before the Olympics started there was an opinion piece from the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada that spoke about the Olympics and how they are time for us to come together. It referenced Saint Paul and one of his Epistles about the virtues of athleticism, and how this is something we can all strive for.

“I think we missed a great opportunity as a church to really dig deeper and to peel back the layers of the onion and see what’s really at the centre of this. It’s really corporate greed and money. . . . I think we as a church, through promoting the Olympics, have taken a step back with indigenous communities. In 1993, the previous Primate of the Anglican Church, Michael Peers, apologised to the indigenous communities of Canada for the Anglican Church’s participation in the residential schools and said we stole your identity and your image and your culture from you and tried to reform you in our image. I think that’s one of the things that the Olympics are all about is stealing identity and stealing culture. If you look at the merchandise at the Olympics it was all branded as part of Canada’s indigenous peoples. There were souvenir pins of the Inuksuk, which is an Inuit tradition and is way farther north than Vancouver. So it wasn’t even a celebration of the indigenous traditions around Vancouver such as a totem pole. All these key-chains of the Inuksuk and t-shirts and sweat-shirts and hats—there was a whole line of ‘authentic aboriginal products’ which were available in the souvenir shops and online. If you look at the fine print they were all made in China.”

Instead of appropriating cultural artefacts, Miller would have preferred to see the church spend some time reflecting on its identity.

“We missed that as a church. We celebrated the Olympics and were encouraged to come together as a community. I think there is much more that draws us together as a community: celebrations of the Eucharist, of being with members of our parish who are going through hard times, funerals, baptisms, weddings which provides the true community with a foretaste of that community which is to come. Being encouraged to gather around the glow of a television to watch skiing and hockey, I think it numbs our relationships with one another and gives us a false sense of connection. We’re not engaging with one another, we’re spectators. I think the church missed that and that’s been really hard as a member of the church, watching the church’s reaction to things and saying: ‘this isn’t what we’re about.’ We’re not about empty celebrations and stealing aboriginal culture.”

Returning to my question about whether or not the trip to Vancouver was a pilgrimage experience, Miller said that it was.

“There was this connection to place that you don’t get in urban Toronto as a student finishing papers and going to work at another campus. In our fast-paced consumer culture we miss that. Even though we were in another major urban area surrounded by the consumer brand industry and the extremes of it, what we were doing and who we were doing it with connected us to place and there is great meaning in that.

“And then there are some of those small moments in protest. For example, the march on the Friday night where we walked behind the elders: it was cold, it was raining, and we’d been outside for hours. It was an hour and half march followed by an hour-long festival of dancing and songs and performances and speeches. Then we marched for another hour and then stood in front of BC Place where the opening ceremonies were, it had been drizzling the whole time and then the rain picked up and it got quite heavy. As the sun was setting and it was getting a bit colder, someone whom I had met at a couple of the summits and had seen at the other protests opened his backpack and pulled out a bag of chips which he shared with ten of us. I don’t know what meaning that had for him, but coming together in the cold and the rain in a protest with the police all around us and walking behind a group of elders.

“As someone who sees communion or Eucharist as something that is very important to spirituality that was one of the most Eucharistic moments that I’ve ever experienced: coming together, sharing food and saying, ‘we’re in this and what I have is yours.’ It is those sorts of moments that, for me, really emphasis the spirituality. It may not have been a spiritual experience for the person who shared with us but for us as part of a spiritual organisation and part of a faith group who thinks this way; we saw great symbolism in those little moments.”

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Reality TV, reality me.

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, February 12, 2010


This blog post begins with a confession: I love reality television, like really love it —in fact, I might be addicted. As is often the case with graduate students, when I like something, it is for the selfish reason that it reminds me of my project. That’s right! Reality television makes me think about my research on contemporary liberal Protestants. Specifically, it reminds me of the ways that Evangelical Protestant conversion rhetorics are mirrored in non-evangelical environments.

Religion and Reality TV

I am certainly not the first person to note the religious elements of reality TV. Many have commented on the ways which shows like Survivor or Big Brother seem to replicate the liminality of an initiation ceremony à la Victor Turner. Others have taken note of the genre’s explicit religious references: prayers and religious discussions by contestants, the God-like powers provided to the audience who are often given final judgement over the fate of the contestants, the overly ritualised ceremonies of elimination, so on and so forth. Still others have reflected on the fact that after having passed through this period of testing and undue suffering, the contestants are granted celebrity status similar to that of the mythic heroes of old (although whether or not one designates them as heroes or so-called Z-list celebrities depends on one’s own affection or lack thereof for the genre).

The upcoming season of ‘Survivor: Heroes versus Villains’, which premiered last night, is banking on the hero designation from its fan-base. This season features a Manichean casting of the ten most benevolent against the ten most malevolent contestants from past series (the American version of the show is in its twentieth season). Astute observers of the show will note that rather than the familiar slogan: ‘Outwit, Outplay, Outlast’ this season’s catch phrase has apocalyptic undertones: ‘Return, Revenge, Redemption.’ If last night’s episode is meant to set the standard, it is clear that the show is seeking to complicate the hero-villain dichotomy by suggesting that the status of hero is retroactively applied after all the chips have been played.

Their Eyes were Watching Us


Scholars of reality TV (yes, there is a vibrant discourse on the topic) have found that while many cultural commentators dismissively presume that audiences are attracted to reality TV by some sort of sick voyeurism, the majority of viewers tune-in specifically because they seek an experience that is simultaneously authentic and performed. According to Hill (2005) reality shows have “capitalized on this tension between appearance and reality by ensuring that viewers have to judge for themselves which of the contestants are being genuine” (70). This quest for a determined authenticity appeals to the inner-Calvinist, which Weber tells us we all possess as members of Western society, and echoes concerns of the “frozen-chosen” about who is and who is not predestined for salvation.

In reality television the tension between the performed self and the authentic self is addressed in the contestant’s one-on-one interviews with a silent, off-camera interviewee (who stands in for the viewing audience). In CBS’s Big Brother these interviews take place in a special location of the house known as the Diary Room, which is off-limits except for these moments of introspection. In their interviews, contestants reflect upon their actions; these monologues often resemble a confession of sorts explaining, or perhaps justifying, acts of deception within the game. The audience, having been provided with “the whole story,” is therefore able to determine whether or not the deception (dare I say, sin) is forgivable.

The winner is ultimately selected by either the television audience or the other contestants themselves. In Survivor and Big Brother the two finalists are subjected to one final grilling, or judgement, during which they are asked to account for all of their past actions. In this context their past sins are arranged narratologically in such a way that we are made to understand that while they may have deceived so-and-so it was done for the greater glory of the game (evidenced by their position in the final two). With liturgical exactness, all of their past sins are brought to light by the former contestants, and they are ultimately deemed worthy or unworthy—see Susan Hawk’s infamous snake and a rat speech from the finale of the first season of Survivor as an example.

These various depictions and presentations of the self are what I find most fascinating about reality television, as they seem to follow a pattern and adhere to tensions evident in contemporary Protestant narratives of transforming identity (I refer specifically to the conversion experience most popular among evangelical Christians which advocates a new self brought about through the process of having been ‘born again’).

It’s Just a Game; It’s Just your Life


The recognition that “it’s just a game” is common in shows like Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race, which establish themselves as competition-based. A second genre of reality television, the Makeover Show, intersects intimately with the so-called real lives of real people.

Popular series such as TLCs ‘What Not to Wear,’ the Slice Network’s ‘Last Ten Pounds Bootcamp’ or NBC’s ‘The Biggest Loser’ are specifically focused on exposing its subjects failings and enacting a permanent physical, psychological (and moral) transformation. In What Not to Wear, the participants are unknowingly filmed for weeks to expose their many fashion faux-pas and then subjected to 360 degree mirror in which their favourite outfits are mocked and critiqued. They are schooled in the laws of fashion and are then sent out into the world to attempt to abide by the new rules. The initial attempts of the contestants are never successful, and after a tear-filled recognition that they cannot save themselves from their fashion failings, the perfectly assembled co-hosts swoop down to save the day. In the Slice Network’s ‘Lat Ten Pounds Bootcamp’ contestants’ cupboards are raided and their junk-food consuming sins are exposed for all to see. The hosts make the offense especially clear by dumping pounds of lard and sugar on the floor to represent the calories consumed each week by the lethargic glutton. NBC’s hit series ‘The Biggest Loser’ follows a similar pattern: contestants are stripped naked and dramatically confronted by their obesity on a weekly basis. They are asked to account for each calorie consumed and each minute of physical activity. Each week those who lose the least amount of weight are eliminated until the final individual must stand alone in judgement providing a full account of his or her actions. In each instance the problem is recast as a moral dilemma (contestant A does not respect her body; contestant B has a weakness for potato chips; contestant C is living in the past—evidenced by her inability to give up her nineties-styled hair scrunchies and neon pants). These problems and others are overcome by hard work and the right program: as long as she follows the correct diet/exercise/colour coordination she will find relief.

In each instance the champion emerges as a new self–the unfashionable heroine is decked out in the latest trends; Ali Vincent loses 112 lbs in Season Five of The Biggest Loser; and contestant after contestant on The Last Ten Pounds weeps because she is finally able to fit into her wedding dress/string bikini/skinny pants.

The Makeover Show provides a neatly packaged thirty minute/one hour/or season-long transformation of the old self into a new (and better) self. In the end, despite the humiliation, the subject represents his or herself as improved and redeemed. Affirming for the viewing audience that the process was “the best thing ever,” participants understand themselves as having received deliverance from their food/bad fashion/etc. sins. This transformation, they tell us, would have been impossible were it not for the actions of the hosts and the good people at [insert major television network here].

The ultimate thanks, however, goes to the individual herself. She enacts agency and brings about her own physical (moral) transformation. A revelatory moment of self-awareness and an inner-desire for change prompts her to take that initial step, that first act of faith to contact the producers and audition for the show.

The resemblance to Protestant conversion rhetoric is telling; participants in the Makeover Show follow the traditional model for a Christian testimony. The Pauline echoes of the new self are palpable. As with the final vote ceremonies in Survivor and Big Brother, the subject summarises all of the events into a concise and coherent narrative of transformation. The past self is no more as the new and better self emerges; this transformation is visually signified to us by new clothes, better hair and a fitter body, as well as the many declarations that now, at last, they feel fulfilled.

Confession and Obsession


It all starts with that initial recognition that something is not right—the public confession on the part of the reality television subject ensures the ultimate resolution and transformation. So maybe there is still hope for me. I have after all taken the first step. I have confessed my addiction in this very public forum of the Religion Beat Blog – I’ll be waiting for my million dollars and my new and better self but until then I’ll be tuning in to Survivor on Thursday nights.
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Avatar, Ever-After

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, January 13, 2010

I have given up trying to define religion. I agree with most scholars of religion that attempts at defining it lead to generalizations and undermine the importance of a subject matter in which both internal and external tensions exist. Instead, I challenge my students to look at the ways in which religions struggle for legitimacy and authority. My class focuses on the ways in which religious agents and communities produce narratives as a means of constructing and maintaining their worldviews and identities. This was the topic of my most recent lecture on religious representations of civic space and the Epic of Gilgamesh. I was surprised after my most recent lecture when one of my students declared that I absolutely had to see James Cameron’s futuristic, implicitly anti-war, post-colonial, eco-apocalypse, Avatar.

Originally, my inner Luddite had anticipated that the three-hour long movie’s 3-D, stereoscopic imaging technology would leave me dizzy and nauseous, but the student’s insistence and (perhaps) my general graduate student desire to procrastinate actual thesis writing in the name of “research” convinced me to give the new-fangled technology a try.
The film itself is ripe with obvious religious references. Jake Sully, the Christ-figure (see image) is identified as the “chosen one” for the Na’vi tribe (note the use of the ancient Hebrew word for prophet) who live in harmony with nature on the moon-planet, Pandora. Sully is sent by the Sky People (humans) to take the form of one of the Na’vi peoples in order to bring them a specific message. In doing so he learns the ways of the Na’vi people from Neytiri, the daughter of the tribe’s chief who is herself in training to take over from her mother as the spiritual leader of the Omaticaya Clan.
The Na’vi people claim a spiritual connection to all of nature as well as to their mother-goddess, Eywa. Their religious rituals are a complicated, communal affair and they are able to at times tap into the power of Eywa in a tangible way (so as to retrieve memories from their ancestors at the Tree of Souls, or, as at the end of the movie, to transfer Jake Sully’s mind from his human body to his avatar).
Many have already pointed to the religious representations in the film. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat attacks the films “gospel of pantheism” which he argues has been the “religion of choice” for a generation of Hollywood filmmakers: from the Jedi force in George Lucas’ Star Wars to the eco-worship advocated in Disney’s Lion King and Pocahontas. Douhat, apparently, feels that the pantheistic message of the film lacks the credibility of “traditional theism,” which he argues delves into questions of good and evil in a way that nature worship does not.
Some sites have pointed out the more nuanced Judeo-Christian imagery in the film, such as Kwok Pui-Lan, contributor to Religious Dispatches, who detects parallels between the Book of Joshua’s story about the prostitute Rahab. Pui-Lan also links Avatar to what she suggests is a subversive atonement theology influenced by liberation theology (the oppressed Na’vi “rise up in solidarity to fight against the colonizers”).
Responding to Douthat, John Podhoretz points out that the nature-worship and pagan rituals are not necessarily the promotion of a sustainability gospel. Alternatively, he suggests that the Na’vi pantheism is used to give the “special-effects some resonance”— not because it is controversial, but rather because it is “most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”
And certainly, the majority of the viewers in the audience will (and in my opinion, should) cheer for Eywa, the mother-goddess over the militaristic, shock-and-awe tactics of the human (read: American) Sky People. The Sky People are heartless opportunists whereas the Na’vi possess an authentic, unbiased spiritual concern for the well-being of all.
But the religious narrative of the film takes a crucial turn right before the final battle, when our hero, Jake Sully, goes to the Tree of Souls to pray to Eywa. “I’m probably just talking to a tree” he pronounces, but nevertheless he asks that she watch over them and guide them to victory. The heroine, Neytiri, explains that Jake’s request is theologically untenable, our Great Mother does not take sides, Jake. She protects only the balance of life.”
Sully appears to accept Neytiri’s statement and the two venture off to prepare for battle. The underdog Na’vi put up a valiant effort against the Sky People but are on the verge of losing the battle and all hope until the last moment when Eywa intervenes by summing the wildlife of Pandora to join the fight.
This deus ex machina, or perhaps more appropriately, deus ex natura moment suggests a radical departure from the theological/ontological structure of the Na’vi religious economy. Instantly, Eywa is transformed into a deity who is much more readily aligned with the familiar image and actions of the Judeo-Christian God – a deity who takes sides, judges between good and evil and punishes transgressors and rewards the faithful.
This transformation is most clearly symbolized by Sully’s “re-birth” as an Avatar in which he dies in one life (the human) to be reborn as a new self. It is hard to imagine a more Pauline-derived Evangelical metaphysics.
Thus, the battle is won and the Sky People are sent home to their dying planet, Earth. But as viewers, we are left wondering at what cost? Post-colonial theory tells us that once colonial contact has been made there is no returning to a pre-contact existence. Every aspect of a society and culture necessarily react to this exchange. In the case of the religious narratives of the Na’vi, they now must contend with a deity who turns out to be something different than what they originally thought. What is worse is the only one who truly understood their Na’vi deity and her will is an outsider from a different race and planet, not the Na’vi themselves.
Cameron has hinted that he would like to produce a sequel and possibly create a trilogy out of the film. In this case, one wonders how the religious structures and beliefs of the Na’vi have been altered by their interactions with the Sky People? As an anthropologist of religion, I cannot help but wonder whether the Sky People have left more than Jake Sully (and select others) behind? Did they also leave the relational, interventionist God of Christianity, and if so, what lasting effects will this distinctive representation of a deity have upon the cultural narratives of the Na’vi?
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The Origins of Ray Comfort’s Darwin: Text as Authoritative Object

Originally Posted at The Religion Beat, November 30th, 2009

A Crisp Wednesday Afternoon on Campus

University students and free things apparently go hand-in-hand. Pizza is best. Or any kind of food really. But books, especially controversial ones, are guaranteed to attract a crowd. It was just this thinking that enticed throngs of students last week outside the University of Toronto’s Sid Smith Hall (and other campuses across North America).

– Would you like a free 150th anniversary copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species?”

— Indeed, I would.

And indeed I did. My research examines the ways which contemporary Christians interact with texts and the creation of textual identity. While I’m specifically interested in the ways which Christians interact with and evaluate texts from antiquity (those deemed both canonical and non-canonical), I see this specific use of the Origin of Species as an interesting case study through which we can begin to analyse interpretive communities and their understanding of authoritative knowledge.

The Controversy: Ray Comfort’s Online Fame

There have been a plethora of online commentaries, internet blogs posts, and facebook groups featuring the Comfort edition of Origin of Species that highlight the irony and insolence of the Comfort introduction and, of course, point to the fact that this “abridged” version of the text leaves out the four key evidence-for-evolution chapters, aligns Darwin’s theory with Nazi party rhetoric, and condemns other faiths. Those who have not had the opportunity to read up on the controversy can take a look at recent posts at Religion Dispatches, or on the blog of Butler University religion professor James F. McGrath. Also of interest is the counter-site created by the National Centre for Science Education with its pithy title, Don’t Diss Darwin which provides flyers and bookmarks for those who would like to launch a counter counter-Darwin campaign. Those who would like to hear it from the horse’s mouth itself (that is, from Comfort) can watch the well-circulated ‘Atheist Nightmare’ youtube video that earned Comfort the moniker ‘Banana Man’.

Bibles, Sound-bites and Bananas as Objects

In the era of thirty-second sound-bites, Comfort’s over-the-top approach is not surprising, and anyone familiar with Christian evangelism knows that the practice of distribution of texts (bibles and tracts) runs deep in American history.

Indeed, many argue along with Paul C. Gutjahr that it is the bible, over and above geography, political leadership (as in the monarchy), or language, that has served as a cornerstone in the formation of American collective identity. Along the same lines, historian David Paul Nord traces the history of the distribution of biblical texts and tracts (often freely distributed) in antebellum America. Nord reveals that the distribution of texts by various missionary outposts was supported by the both the conviction of sola scriptura, as well as a home-grown emphasis on the democratisation of knowledge which asserted that each individual had the agency and capacity to form a correct opinion once presented with sufficient (in this case biblical) evidence.

More recently the involvement of Christians in the marketing, promotion and distribution of block-buster films and books (most notably Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and the popular Left Behind series) reveals that the market for biblically-themed narratives hold high currency for evangelists who recognise that the bible itself has become a hard sell.

For religious scholars studying evangelistic practices the bible as a text must be considered along-side the bible as object. To quote again from Gutjahr:

One of the most fascinating aspects of the study of the Bible in the United States is how important the material character of the book is in complementing its contents. There are times when a Bible’s packaging is as important to its cultural use as are the words it contains. Often Americans “read” a Bible before they look at its words. The material nature of Bibles can send messages by being displayed on a parlor table, resting on a pulpit, or being used to swear in an incoming president.

For Gutjahr, the role of the bible and its interpretation, publication and distribution accompanies an examination of the message and the medium of other sacred texts in America (e.g., Joseph Smith’s, Book of Mormon; Mary Baker Eddy’s, Science and Health; L. Ron Hubbard’s, Dianetics, as well as the Bhagavad Gita and the Qur’an).

To this list one could add various texts such as the Origin of Species or the works of Richard Dawkins that have become increasingly important to devotees of the so-called New Atheist Movement. In fact, on online atheist discussion boards, the Origin of Species is often suggested as an alternate text for those who are required to swear an oath in court. Like Gutjahr’s assessment of the bible, Darwin’s text is “read” as part of a larger conversation and narrative which originates in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial that dealt with issues surrounding access to education, Christian identity markers and interactions between religious and legal institutions.

The Interpretive Function of the Text

It should not surprise us that the use of a non-Christian text (along with movies, tracts and even blogs) to promote proselytization is an attractive one. What is of interest and demands both scholarly study and popular discussion is the means through which the Origin of Species (albeit in an altered, abridged format) becomes (presumably unintentionally) aligned with sacred texts and made authoritative through this process of distribution. I suspect that Comfort is banking on the fact that while (much like the bible), many people talk about the Origin of Species, very few actually take the time to read it closely. His introduction is clear, plainly written in a large font which stands in sharp contrast to the small font and Victorian style-writing of the rest of the book.

For those who might not even read Comfort’s introduction, the book jacket very clearly refers to evolutionary theory as part of an unfinished investigation which “a wealth of scientific discoveries since 1971” has dismissed.

Indeed as scholars of interpretive communities will tell us, one of the best ways to refute opponents is to draw them into one’s own discourse and translate their terms as unfinished revelation. Comfort does this by suggesting that Darwin’s theory is no longer viable from within the scientific community itself and then offers his reader an alternative worldview which the reader can immediately act upon by praying the sinner’s prayer.

A Working Model

But isn’t this what religion has always done?

Professor Jim Linville reporting on the (somewhat related) Conservative Bible Project points out:

Religions are always innovating, changing and evolving (I just had to get that word in!). Humans create them, consume then and then fiddle with them to make them better suited to their changing needs. Yet, religions are often portrayed as as [sic] timeless. A novelty quickly becomes the way one has always done things. Innovate like hell and do it conservatively.

As an example, Linville points to the suspected ‘deuteronomistic redaction’ of the biblical book of Jeremiah, in which a community with affinity for the book of Deuteronomy reworked certain passages so as to align them more closely with its terms and ideologies.

Similar examples include the gospel writers of Matthew and Luke and their adaptations of the gospel of Mark, the Q-source and other now-lost sources. In fact the author of Luke tells Theophilus that:

I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write and orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:3-4, NRSV).

This suggests that some of sources available to Theophilus are disorderly, problematic or just plain wrong. While it seems unlikely that Luke would have appended his interpretation directly to these “incorrect” accounts (the way that Comfort has done with the Origin of Species), nevertheless, the practices are not dissimilar. Theophilus is presumably aware of alternative versions of the gospel’s narrative and is maybe even relieved to have a text that more clearly aligns with his own religious and ideological sensitivities. Our modern preferences concerning knowledge and ideology leave us horrified by Comfort’s project, but we cannot deny that his is a venture rooted in ancient practices which, over time, (as in the case of the Gospel of Luke) are permitted to stand (by both devotees and scholars) as the normative version of the text.

What remains of interest is the use of Darwin’s text as a dismissed object with which to promote Christianity. I am suggesting that what it appears that Comfort is doing is simultaneously attributing an authoritative (sacred) status to the Origin of Species as an object while also dismissing its worth as an authoritative (scientific) work as a text. I would be interested if readers of The Religion Beat can identify this practice in other contemporary religious (and non-religious) forms and practices.

Scholarly References

Paul C. Gutjahr (2001). “The State of the Discipline: Sacred Texts in the United States,” Book History 4: 335-370.

David Paul Nord (2004). Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

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