An iPhone Convert in More Ways than One

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, May 24, 2010

I’m a Blackberry girl. My closest friends and family can attest to the fact that my BB and I are rarely apart from each other. My partner has an iPhone, and I occasionally go over to the dark side. In all honesty, it has better (cooler) applications. To date my favourite iPhone app is the Ocarina (iPhone flute), or it was, until I discovered iChristian, a free application which “contains the minimum required information to become a Christian.”

The App leads the would-be believer through the standard evangelical message of salvation citing scriptural evidence of God’s love (John 3:16), human sinfulness (Romans 3:23 and 6:23) and the necessity of sacrificial atonement (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:8-9). The App concludes with the common image of Jesus standing at the door of the potential adherent’s heart (Revelation 3:20). Our tech-savvy convert is invited to receive Jesus and pray the Sinner’s Prayer (see previous link) through which she assumes the Christian identity as a ‘child of God’ (John 1:12). The newly minted Christian is then instructed to follow up on their commitment:
  • Tell someone else about your faith in Christ.
  • Spend time with God each day. It does not have to be a long period of time. Just develop the daily habit of praying to Him and reading His Word. Ask God to increase your faith and your understanding of the Bible.
  • Seek fellowship with other Christians. Develop a group of Christian friends to answer your questions and support you.
  • Find a local church where you can worship God.
Interestingly, the new believer is not directed to be baptised which is common in most online salvation templates (both those used by Christians to convert their friends, family and strangers and those, like the iChristian application, which guide the user through the process on her own).

Upon completion of the conversion process the believer “may register as a Christian” and have his or her name and email address listed on the website of the company that created the App.

Materiality and Transcendence

The use of the cell phone for religious activities has been documented by Inken Mädler (2008) whose work focuses on the way that cell phones represent for adolescents a means by which they generate and express identity. She examines the ways that the cell phones function as both a medium for religious symbols and a (lived) religious symbol itself. Mädler argues that the cell phone serves as a venue in which relationships might be created and ordered. Many of the teens in her study reported that they felt an intimate connection to their cell phone, and it served as a “symbol of the self” (18) and a storehouse of “sacred memories” of the individual’s biography (19). We develop, Mädler argues, in relation to physical items.

The use of the cell phone as a material location for Christian conversion is not all that surprising or even innovative (the Gideon’s have been leaving bibles in hotel rooms for over a century hoping that a would-be convert might lead himself—or, as they would have it, be led by God—through the conversion experience). For Protestant evangelicals, especially, the iChristian application complements their emphasis on solitary introspection, which stands in opposition to the preferences of other forms of Christianity emphasising community or clerical authoritarianism. With this in mind, I suggest that the iChristian phone application reflects a conflict between materiality and transcendence, which anthropologist of Christianity Webb Keane (2007) identifies as one of the core concerns of Protestantism. He points out that while Protestant conversion has paradoxically served as a model for enacting agency (a paradox since, theologically speaking, the agency should be God’s), it remains a human activity in which human practices enable self-transformation (see Keane 2007: 56; see also Keane 2002).

i[am]Christian

Both Keane and Mädler point to interiority as the primary concern of their subjects and examine the way that material objects become a location for a process involving self-generation and transformation to occur. The iPhone itself is an ideal venue for these themes, as Mädler’s research specifically suggests. Indeed, the very name of the iPhone, with the first-person personal pronoun at the beginning, lends itself to the process (I assume that this is not merely a coincidence but rather represents clever market research). The iChristian application continues this linguistic word play by registering the user on an international list of individuals who have likewise pursued salvation and may proudly declare (in 200 characters or less) that “I am a Christian” through the iChristian app. This pronouncement that transformation has occurred is an important part of the contemporary evangelical conversion process (see Stromberg 1993; note that the first directive for the new adherent is to share their faith/status with someone else).

In the ancient world this declaration, “I am a Christian” served to generate a new identity. As Judith Lieu (2002) explains the term ‘Christian’ itself is used infrequently and perhaps we could say anachronistically in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16). The term gains currency among would-be martyrs for whom explicitly stating, “I am a Christian” was the appropriate response to an interrogator in early Christian martyr literature. In fact, according to Lieu, “the label ‘Christian’ belonged pre-eminently to the martyrs,” who even in death emulate Jesus but less so to other Christians (2002: 221). Lieu explains that in this literature an understanding of those who die as Christians are not conceived of as victims but rather as agents through whom “a new way of understanding is created and maintained.” She goes on to argue that from the perspective of the text, “the determinative moment is not the death, however extended or graphic, nor even the preceding torture; rather it is the declaration Christiana sum (2002: 213). This performative spoken declaration is so powerful, according to Lieu, that for some well-known martyrs (e.g. Perpetua, Tertulian and Polycarp) the statement “I am a Christian” is represented as a self-conception in which ‘Christian’ surpasses and subverts ethnic, national, civic or familial identities (in the case of Perpetua, her father is so distraught at this new identity that he comes close to physically assaulting her and gouging out her eyes).

This emphasis on the performative statement as indicative of an inner transformation is one of the core characteristics of contemporary evangelicalism. From the perspective of the iChristian app, I was able to nonverbally transform my partner into a Christian by clicking a few hyperlinks, scrolling through the Sinner’s Prayer and sending his name to the app’s designer. Contemporary evangelicals, for the most part, do not have to worry about eye gouging as a result of the declaration but I may need to when my partner finds out that I also sent them his email address (the app promised, but did not deliver, a certificate indicating his new status).

References:

Keane, Webb (2002). “Sincerity, “Modernity,” and the Protestants.” Cultural Anthropology 17(1): 65-92.

Keane, Webb (2007). Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lieu, Judith (2002). Neither Greek nor Jew: Constructing Early Christianity. New York: T &T Clark.

Mädler, Inken (2008). “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In On Cell Phones. About the Materiality of Life-World as a Challenge for Religious Education.” Pp. 13-23 in Lived Religion: Conceptual, Empirical and Practical-Theological Approaches: Essays in Honor of Hans-Günter Heimbrock. (eds). Heinz Streib, Astrid Dinter and Kerstin Söderblom. Leiden: Brill.

Stromberg, Peter G. (1993). Language and Self-transformation: A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press.




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

31 08 2010

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.”





Avatar, Ever-After

31 08 2010

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?




The Origins of Ray Comfort’s Darwin: Text as Authoritative Object

30 08 2010

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.








Savage Minds

Notes and Queries in Anthropology

Culture on the Edge

Studies in Identity Formation