The Look of Catholics

Emily Clark

Last month, Paul asked me to review Anthony Burke Smith's recent book The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War. This is an enjoyable book and a really fun read. In particular, for those who teach courses on Catholicism in the US, this book would be a good option for undergraduates since it uses the familiar medium of popular culture.

According to Smith, American popular culture had “gone Catholic crazy at midcentury.” For Smith, popular culture matters because looking at representations by Catholics and of Catholics during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, elucidates “the cultural struggle over national definition.” At first, this may read as yet another rehash of an oversimplified interpretation of Will Herberg’s famous Protestant, Catholic, Jew, but Smith’s book goes deeper than that. Rather than argue that Catholics were merely integrated into the realm of acceptable identity, Smith’s foray into popular culture illustrates how a new American identity was fashioned from the Great Depression to the Cold War and that Catholicism played a significant and formative role in this development. The visual depiction of Catholics offered an embodiment of American values, patriotism, and anxieties. During the 1930s, Catholics represented the necessity of reform pluralism, and afterwards they characterized the conservative focus on religion, home, and family. Catholicism went from symbol of a “socially reformist vision of America” through “Catholic communalism” to “more conservative visions of the nation” through “images of Catholic community and authority,” and this development shows the malleability and flexibility of Catholic identity and imagination in the development of a new national identity.

In the 1930s, the urban parish priest represented the urban, ethnic, working-class Catholic population, and this population was the center of reform politics. Urban savvy and crime fighting, the priests in films like Angels with Dirty Faces reflected Catholicism’s ability to be a voice of moral authority and social reform. However, this image of the priest as “the cultural twin” of “the famed ethnic mobster,” changed with Bing Crosby’s depiction of a youthful and modern parish priest who is also “the hip denizen of the wider world” in 1944’s Going My Way. Father O’Malley is a “cool” priest, accessible and popular because he reflected a changed, modernized, revitalized Catholicism that can relate with outsiders, adversity, youth, and all social challenges and changes. The image of the priest changed again with the popularity of Fulton Sheen’s media shows like television’s Life is Worth Living. Sheen’s appeal came from his ability to connect with the post-immigrant generation searching for their own cultural identity apart from their parents’ enclave (much like the “immigrants’ daughters” in Orsi’s Thank You St. Jude). Sheen highlighted the traditional American values of family and home more generally, and, more specifically “the anti-modern Catholic romance of spiritual rejuvenation and moral adventure.” Anti-communism certainly played a role in Sheen’s message for America was a symbol of virtue, and the soul of the nation was at stake with the epic battle between America and communism. Though these priest examples range from movie characters to an actual auxiliary bishop, they elucidate the evolving “look” of the Catholic clergy in America and how their support of reformist and then consensual visions of America developed alongside the rest of the nation.

Along with this transformation in the depiction of priests, Smith tracks the changing focus of Catholic movie directors. Directors like Leo McCarey and John Ford also illuminate the changing “look” of Catholics from more liberal interests in social reform in the 1930s to traditional consensus in postwar America. The book’s middle chapter focuses on the portrayal of Catholics in Life magazine from that of odd, alien outsiders who practice an exotic religion to a symbol of patriotism, community, and moral strength. In Smith’s words, “voyeuristic treatment of Catholicism in the thirties thus gave way to patriotic and affirmative imagery during the forties.”

Smith’s work raises some interesting questions. The Look of Catholics illustrates how Catholics were portrayed in the products of popular culture, but I still have questions regarding the consumption of that popular culture. Going My Way was a very popular and successful movie, but did it really change the way the general American populace felt about priests? Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life encourages us to focus on the actions of the consumers – what they do with the products they take from the society around them. Though de Certeau largely viewed popular culture through his theoretical lens of strategies and tactics, this focus on how the consumer uses popular culture (as opposed to the notion that they passively receive it) raises questions about the everyday reception of Smith’s movie, television, magazine, and radio examples. His analysis of the way Catholics were portrayed is fascinating and the relationship of their “look” to developing notions of American political identity is illuminating, but what about the everyday non-Catholic consumer of these products? In 1946, one disgruntled Protestant movie go-er asked the Motion Pictures Producers’ Association “How much longer do we have to tolerant Catholic pictures?” Smith uses this letter and the existence of others like it to note “the cultural significance of popular Catholic films,” and while some complained, “many moviegoers liked Hollywood’s Catholics.” Clearly, the success of these films proves that many Americans – Catholic or otherwise – enjoyed them, but I kept wanting Smith to go one step deeper in their reception and consumption.

I also couldn’t help but wonder about American Catholic support for fascism in the 1930s and how that would affect their portrayals in popular culture. Peter D’Agostino’s Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from the Risorgimento to Fascism counters the progressively assimilationist narrative of American Catholicism by providing a history of “the Roman Question,” or American Catholics’ concern over the loss of the pope’s temporal and geographic sovereignty of the Papal States. When Mussolini supported Catholicism and joined the pope in his struggle against Liberal Italy, he secured Vatican City for the pope and resolved the Roman Question. This encouraged both large sectors of Italian-American Catholics and the Catholic population in general to begin “preaching fascism.” In fact, D’Agostino identifies the anti-Fascist Catholic spokesmen of the 1930s as “lonely.” Smith argues that the “look” of Catholics in popular culture reflected larger issues in national identity and political conflict, but Catholic concerns of papal sovereignty and their support of Fascist Italy – perhaps the most politically pressing issue in American Catholicism for D’Agostino – never surface among Smith’s popular culture sources. Maybe fascism was there, maybe it wasn't, but if D'Agostino is correct, fascism should be part of any conversation regarding national definition, politics, and Catholics in this time period.

Though D’Agostino’s work may ask questions of Smith’s book, the two narratives together provide a new way to look at Catholics and consensus at midcentury. According to D’Agostino, after World War II many Catholics were quick to say that they had always been anti-Fascist. Concurrently, popular culture increasingly portrayed Catholics as the epitome of national identity – an ethnically and religiously plural society that together extolled family, religion, moral character, personal faith, and national pride. In both books, the idea of American identity did not just slowly encapsulate Catholics in an inevitable progressive fashion; rather, the creation of consensus and the inclusion of Catholics in it was a more active process, which Catholics took part in, and in doing so, they helped remake American identity.

Half-handed Cloud at Eastern Nazarene College

Randall Stephens

In the Boston area? Make it over to the ENC history department on Wed night for a mini-concert by Half-handed Cloud. The skinny . . .

The History Department is proud to present indie-pop singer songwriter John Ringhofer/Half-handed Cloud, who will be performing in the Cameron Center, OC Campus, Rm 107, at 7:00pm on Wed, Aug 3. Half-handed Cloud, Ringhofer's one-man band, has released a number of CDs and records in the last decade. Brimming with historical and theological themes, his music explores the fringes of art rock and micro-pop. His CDs are available through the Asthmatic Kitty and Sounds Familyre labels.

Ringhofer has won high praise from critics. "In the last few years there has been a gravitation from tried-and-true rock paradigms," says a New York Times reporter, "driven both by boredom with the increasingly threadbare conventions of indie rock and by a sincere, if playful, rediscovery of experimentalists as diverse as Van Dyke Parks and Philip Glass." The writer ranked Ringhofer as one of "the boldest of these" artists. Paste magazine calls Ringhofer "the master of intricately fragmented art pop, with four full-length releases so tightly constructed that individual moments can hardly be extracted without compromising their elaborate song-suite structures."

Ringhofer has toured widely with his band and as a trombonist for the critically-acclaimed Sufjan Stevens. And . . . Ringhofer also knows more about the roots of God Rock (late 60s-early 70s) than anyone I know. I think that shows in his ebullient songs. He mixes it up. A dash of Phil Keaggy, and helpings of Ween, Biff Rose, Larry Norman, late-90s Of Montreal, and Doktor Kosmos. He made me an incredible comp some years back that included some amazingly trippy Jesus People tunes.

The doors of the department will be blown off, or unhinged. Donations for the artist are welcome at the event.

Jesus, the Ramones, and Michele Bachmann Send me 29th Birthday Greetings!


Paul Harvey

In a few hours I'm turning 29 (give or take a little, like 21 years), and better blog now before, rather than after, decanting the birthday present.

It's so nice to get birthday greetings already first from Jesus, about whom Ed Blum and I have recently written a book, culminating, as it had to, with Jesus and the Devil duking it out in the ring in an episode of South Park. And The Ramones also checked in with a wonderful birthday greeting for me (we'll go out on that below).

Almost as exciting, Michele Bachmann called in to offer me free reparative therapy (for my blog addiction, that is); Grover Norquist checked in and said for my birthday he already had given me his long-wanted present of drowning effective governance in the bathtub; Speaker Boehner already called to say he'll send me some additional revenue in exchange for my vote; and Rick Perry called to give me a special invitation to his big Prayer Rally (sponsored by the American Family Association, in Houston on August 6th! I sent my regrets, told him I was "needing to spend more time with my family," and assured him I would be sending Historianess in my stead.

Anyway, turning off all media for a few days, so see you all next week on the other side of a mid-life crisis! Until then, let's go out with some Ramones -- after a week in the news like the last one, we all wanna be sedated.

Mormons, Pagans and ‘Post-Modern Polygamy’

By John L. Crow

One may ask what do Mormons and modern Pagans have in common in today’s religious marketplace? A recent post by a prominent Pagan blogger tells us: multiple-partner marriages. Last Tuesday, Jason Pitzl-Waters, who writes The Wild Hunt blog, posted about a recent Mormon polygamy case in Canada and the impact that they might have on Pagans in Canada and potentially the U.S. While paganism is not known for polygamy, it has a widely known association with polyamory. (As one example, see Raven Kaldera's book, Pagan Polyamory: Becoming a Tribe of Hearts.) For those not familiar with the term, polyamory is defined by Maura I. Strassberg, Associate Professor of Drake University Law
School, as:
a form of commitment which is flexible and responsive to the needs and interests of the individuals involved, rather than a rigid institution imposed in cookie cutter fashion on everyone, this new polygamy reflects postmodern critiques of patriarchy, gender, heterosexuality and genetic parenthood.
Strassberg calls polyamory a kind of ‘post-modern polygamy.’ This is not the only term used. She points to the web site/magazine, Loving More, a polyamory advocacy site, as a place where the numerous polyamory-related terms are defined. Other terms Loving More adds include: Poly-Family, “a group polyamorous people all the people living in or sharing life experiences in the same home or household”; Poly activist, “a person interested in taking action intended to counteract the political, social and religious enforcement of monogamy”; and One True Way Polyamorist, “a person who believes there is only one right way to be polyamorous often based on their own moral judgments (most believe there are many ways to be poly).”

This kind of diversity and specificity is not always appreciated by others. As Pitzl-Waters points out in his blog post, legal authorities have rarely cared to make a difference between polygamy and polyamory. He quotes Craig Jones, lead attorney for the British Columbia Attorney General’s office as saying, “When multi-partner, conjugal relationships are like ‘duplicative marriages,’ they are criminal regardless of whether the individuals are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.” It is this legal status that is causing the concern in pagan communities.

At a time when many celebrate the recent legalization of same-sex marriages in New York state, some question if the celebration is premature or what same-sex marriage legalization means for other types of marriage. This issue is certainly the one discussed by Strassberg in her 2003 essay in The Capital University Law Review where she notes,
The emergence of polyamory suggests that continuing efforts to legitimize same-sex marriage may raise questions about whether legalizing the marriage of same-sex partners would force the future legalization of polyamorous group marriages. (31.3, 443).
It is these concerns over future restrictions/prosecution that emerged within the pagan blogosphere. Within two-days, Pitzl-Waters’ post has received over 100 comments and other pagans have continued the conversation on their blogs and forums. (For examples see here and here.) Pitzl-Waters also mentioned the possibility of pagans working in tandem with Mormons to legally challenge marriage restrictions, and some think there is common ground to be found. However others, as quoted by Pitzl-Waters, have their doubts.
I can conceive of legal efforts which serve both groups’ interests, but I have difficulty imagining it politically. The movements have different cultural aims and have different relationships with the society at large. People in each movement tend to find the practices of the other distasteful, making any alliance fraught. Both groups would hesitate to focus only on tactics which support both groups. Both groups may fear that it will compromise their efforts if the public foresees benefits to the other group.
In June 2007 published an essay discussing a retreat in central Florida for people practicing polyamory. The essay quotes a 2002 survey conducted by Loving More which claims that while 87% of those who took the survey where raised as Christian, approximately 30% of the respondents converted to paganism. It also stated that one retreat workshop was entitled “Poly and Christianity.” (This certainly would be an interesting topic for someone’s dissertation!)

The issues regarding sexual relationships, marriage and religion are not new to scholars of American religious history. We can point to Oneida, The People’s Temple, and many other groups who encouraged or demanded various sexual and marital practices. Yet there is a tendency today to think that polygamy is primarily a Mormon issue. If Pitzl-Water’s blog post and the ensuing discussions are any indication, polygamy, polyamory and multiple-partner marriage are clearly issues that concern American paganism too.

“Sick of Your Dancing, Sick of Your Chanting”: Shannon and the Clams, Indonesian Throat Singing, and Emotive Religion


by Charity Carney

My husband and I celebrated our second anniversary in San Francisco last week and discovered that Oakland can be awesome. It’s produced one of the most interesting music scenes on the West Coast in my estimation, with Berkeley radio pumping out track after track of whacked-out punk rock (like Hunx and the Punx) as well as some interesting international music. Other stations in the area seem bound to the round-the-clock beach music or CCR, but 90.2 FM is taking risks and putting out sounds that are at once seemingly disjointed but also deeply connected in the sources that they tap.

Two songs (Shannon and the Clams’ “The Cult Song” and a track from Arrington De Dionyso’s “Malaikat Dan Singa”) immediately followed each other on the station and served as the impetus for a new masculinity post. Crazy, but true. Shannon and the Clams are an Oakland-based group that blend Buddy Holly with the Ramones with a girl-group vibe. Their “The Cult Song” can be heard here. The lyrics reference some of the most infamous moments in American cult history (“sick of your Nikes, sick of your Kool-Aid”) and declare a defiance of radical religion. At the same time, the chorus includes a chanting “ooga booga” background that is some sort of cartoonish impression of stereotyped African religious intonations. It’s a mish mash of racism, rejection of religion, and female empowerment, with the female lead vocalist repeating “I Don’t Wanna Be in Your Cult No More!”

Backed up next to this track was Arrington De Dionyso’s throat singing—not an Oakland product but shipped in from Indonesia. “Malaikat Dan Singa” is an example of this rather dark spiritual vocal styling and the video for it (watch it here) includes imagery of an art gallery with the artist drawing figures of women and men that are sexually charged and bizarrely childish and violent. The music is connected to De Dionyso’s past band (aptly titled “Old Time Relijun”) that was rooted in “shapeshifting, shamanic practices, animal possession, and magnetism” (according to this excellent article at Tiny Mix Tapes) and this new record continues to follow these spiritual obsessions, with de Dionyso blaring out the Indonesian words in a deep, masculine, trance-like drone.

What came to mind as I listened to these two tracks was the power of spiritual emoting and the gendered differences that exist in various cultures and religious groups when it comes to evoking religious feelings/power. The Indonesian throat singer has no hesitation in his voice as he forces the notes out of his throat, almost sounding like he’s ripping his vocal chords to shreds. Shannon (and her Clams) give us another sense of spiritual power—they remind us of the male-led cults of the 20th century United States. Even as the song rejects these movements, it also uses them and forces us to collectively remember the pop power of these radical religious groups. I see in both songs and both traditions (if I can use that to describe the American cult tradition) the tendency for masculine control of many spiritual practices and the feminine following of male religious leaders. I also see a disturbing connection that the radio station may or may not have meant to make between cults and Indonesian religious practices. The “ooga boogas” mock “Malaikat Dan Singa” in a way and force a connection where there was not one in the first place.

Summer/Fall issue of Fides et Historia

Randall Stephens

Donald Yerxa and I have taken the editorial reins of Fides et Historia, as editor and associate editor respectively. We look forward to exploring themes that the Conference on Faith and History has long been interested in, and branching out in some new directions as well.

We're putting together the Summer/Fall 2011 issue now, which will be available in November. This includes forums on religious belief and the historian's craft as well as a series of review essays and dozens of book reviews. Future issues will include a roundtable on "Beyond the Protestant Nation: Religion and the Narrative of American History"--organized by Chris Cantwell, with Robert Orsi, Richard Bushman, Catherine Albanese, Wallace Best and Lila Berwin--and another roundtable on bracketing faith and doing history. Fides will also continue to feature research articles and occasional interviews. Back and current issues will now be available through ATLA and EBSCO.

Here's our first table of contents (and the new cover that I designed):

Fides et Historia, Volume 43, No. 2, Summer/Fall 2011

From the Editor
Donald A. Yerxa

Forum: Reconciling the Historian’s
Craft and Religious Commitment


Mormon History Inside Out
Richard Lyman Bushman

Historians' Metaphysical Beliefs and the Writing of Confessional Histories
Brad Gregory

Coming to Terms as a Christian Historian with F. H. Bradley
Mark A. Noll

Writing Religious History as a Believer
Anthea Butler

The Wrong Question! Please Change the Subject!
David A. Hollinger

A Response to Bushman, Gregory, and Noll
Bruce Kuklick

Reflections on Reconciling Religious Belief and the Historian’s Craft
Paul E. Kerry

Roundtable: Confessing History


Confessing History: In Retrospect
Jay Green

Confessing History: Prospect
Eric Miller

Rick Kennedy

Donald A. Yerxa

Review Essays:

Catholic Approaches to Faith and History
Christopher Shannon

War’s Providence
Chris Beneke

Media Review:

God in America (WGBH, American Experience, Frontline)
Maura Jane Farrelly

On Teaching with God in America
Randall J. Stephens

Book Reviews

Fix the Economy GOD’$ WAY: Dave Ramsey’s Great Christian Recovery

Paul Harvey

During last night's disheartening tit-for-tat between President Obama and Speaker Boehner, the Speaker said "I've always believed that the bigger the government, the smaller the people." My snarkier side immediately thought, well then, the GI Bill turned the "Greatest Generation" into Lilliputians.

But more seriously, I'm interested in the religious history of the elements feeding the current budget stalemate and the respective economic philosophies of the various sides. One of those, I believe, is the significant influence of the Christian megastar financial advisor Dave Ramsey, whose radio show I have listened to for years (and whom I've written about very briefly here before). Last week, Ramsey held a sort of pep talk simulcast over the Web worldwide, called "The Great Recovery," which outlined his views of God's plans for economic recovery.

Over at Religion Dispatches today, I have a piece examining his philosophy, popularity, and political influence in terms of translating personal financial advice into nostrums of public policy. His plan is God's plan, and only God's plan will lead to economic recovery -- a familiar sentiment in American Protestant economic thought, to put it mildly. And a sentiment that provides a kind of theological base for the Tea Party caucus in Congress, whose members integrate much more religious thought into their worldview than is often understood. Anyway, a brief excerpt below, then follow the rest at the jump:

Wielding the Book of Proverbs and Zig Ziglar, where others might clutch their Friedrich Von Hayek or Milton Friedman, Ramsey provides a compelling theology of Tea Party national economic policy: Government spending is sinful, and arises from a national turning away from God’s ways of dealing with money; sin originated in the New Deal, the “first time in history” that people looked to the government and not to themselves for employment; and it is only the heroic efforts of private entrepreneurs, operating preferably without any government interference but with a strong Christian morality, that prevents exploitation and mandates helping others, that will restore both the spiritual and financial health of the country. John Galt, meet Jesus Christ

Continue reading . . . .

Update: Sara Mayeux has a really interesting post here on why credit card analogies, oversimplified as they may be, dominate fiscal debate -- very helpful for understanding Ramsey's basic trope of household finance = national finance, and also Obama's invocation of the same concept last night.

What is a Christian Terrorist?

So, this isn't our normal fare here at RiAH, but I couldn't help but draw attention to the concern over the language of Christian terrorism in the American media coverage/speculation about the recent terrorist actions in Norway. What is it about the label "Christian terrorism/terrorist" that bothers so? And how does domestic terror in the U.S. also get coded? (Hat tips to Paul Harvey, Matt Hedstrom, John Koyles, Jeremy Russell, and Mike Altman for links and Facebook conversations that lead to this post.)

Kelly Baker

“We now live in an age of unprecedented violence….Reliance on coercive power as the primary method of convincing others corrodes the moral fiber of society, creating a world shorn of human sensitivity, justice and a stable order….The penchant for stereotyping the other is frequent, true self-examination is uncommon. ”—Deepak Tripathi

On July 22, 76 people died in a bombing in Oslo and an attack on a Labor Party summer camp on the island of Utoya in Norway. The Guardian labeled the event “one of the worst atrocities in recent European history.” The Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik stands accused of both attacks, and yes, he admitted committing both crimes while also labeling them “atrocious” and “necessary.” Though media speculation suggested early on that the bombing in Oslo was an act of Muslim terrorism, the accused Breivik is not a Muslim. Rather the “terrorist” in question is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white guy with reported ties to both the European Far Right and Christian fundamentalism. At Religion Dispatches, Mark Juergensmeyer pushes the analysis further by pointing out that Breivik, like Timothy McVeigh, is not just a terrorist but a Christian terrorist. He writes poignantly:

If bin Laden is a Muslim terrorist, Breivik and McVeigh are surely Christian ones. Breivik was fascinated with the Crusades and imagined himself to be a member of the Knights Templar, the crusader army of a thousand years ago. But in an imagined cosmic warfare time is suspended, and history is transcended as the activists imagine themselves to be acting out timeless roles in a sacred drama.

For Juergensmeyer, both young, white, “self-enlisted soldiers” believed that their acts would “triggers a great battle to rescue society from the liberal forces of multiculturalism that allowed non-Christians and non-Whites positions of acceptability.” Both were the opening salvo in a battle to save their respective societies from the lethal grip of leftist politics/policies that they believed prevented white Christian men from attaining their rightful places of power and dominance. While Juergensmeyer and the European news outlets have no problem identifying Breivik with Christianity, specifically Christian fundamentalism, there is a hesitation, a slip even, in some American news coverage. What does it mean that he might be a Christian terrorist? Why would we associate Christianity with a “madman”, “a “lone gun man”, or a deranged individual? What is at stake in associating Christianity with terror? At USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman queries:

Who here knows exactly what's meant by Norwegian Christian fundamentalist?…Is he a terrorist because he's Christian or a Christian who happens to be a terrorist or, if he's a terrorist, can he really be a Christian at all? And isn't that exactly the same points Muslims make about terrorists who claim to be Islamic?

The desire to separate Breivik’s terrorist actions from his religious affiliation is telling. Note Grossman’s central question: can a terrorist really be Christian? These questions assume that terrorism and Christianity can easily be parsed out. They are separate becomes a statement of fact. This “fact” then obscures that religion and terror can be intimately bound, informed, constructed, and embodied. The desire to separate says more than the separation. The rhetorical move suggests the clear hesitation in binding Christianity to a powerful word such as terrorism. (I’ve written on why we need to focus on this before here and here.) What emerges as more important, however, is the desire to ignore Breivik and the tragedy he created. Separation leads the way to obfuscation.

On his radio show, Glenn Beck labeled Breivik a “mad man” while also making it clear to listeners that the European Right and the American Right are not comparable (to which I say, what?). Moreover, Beck uses the tragedy to make larger claims about the threat of Islam, multi-culturalism, and the Left in general. “Multi-culturalism and political correctness are killing Europe” rather than the hostility and anger about such that pushed Breivik into defensive action. Beck further claims that the summer camp was a political camp akin to the “Hitler Youth.” His quick reference to Hitler shifts the focus from the massacre of teenagers to the so-called dangerous politics of the camp. He further asks, “Who would do political camps for kids?” The answer seems to be only liberals, who thus endanger their own children. (For the entirety of Beck’s opinions on Oslo and Utoya, click here.)

The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial about how the Oslo bombing was committed by extremist Muslims. Today, they provide an opinion piece by Bruce Bawer, who writes about the threat of “radical Islam” for Europe. Breivik reportedly admired his writings on the Islamic threat. Bawer begins by stating that he, like “pretty much everyone,” imagined that the “Islamic terrorists” bombed Olso. Importantly, he shifts gears to argue that Europe’s multiculturalism is to blame for Breivik’s actions. If Europe continues down the path to “Islamization,” then Bawer assures the reader that extremists like Breivik will continue to act. After all, Europe isn’t protecting citizens from the “rise of Islam.” For both Beck and Bawer, the accused terrorist is not the most important component of a tragedy that claimed 76 lives. Rather, these actions (while “atrocious” and “necessary” in Breivik’s own terms) become the stepping stones to critique Islam’s so-called threat to both Europe and America as well as a way to bash the despised political correctness that supposedly suffocates modern culture. The real tragedy is the larger fragmentation of society because of dreaded multi-culturalism's attachment to diversity and difference, not the loss of life. A white Norwegian man killing fellow Norwegians to defend the nation (and even a continent) from its citizens gets lost in the translation. A white Christian extremist becomes an outlier, and there is no articulation of the possibility of Christian terrorism. It doesn’t exist in this rhetorical overindulgence.

Obscuring the obvious questions becomes part of a certain nationalist agenda, in which Muslims remain deeply wed to terrorism. In the case of Oslo and Utoya, Muslims and terror were invoked (and continue to be invoked) in spite of the fact that no Muslims were involved. Ignoring even the possibility of Christian terror ignores the way in which terrorism has political, racial, and religious baggage. By making Breivik simply a crazy individual, we avoid not only his act of Christian terrorism but also the daisy chain of white Christian (male) terrorism in Europe and the U.S. We should quit labeling these events as sporadic, random, and loosely connected, and instead, wonder what connects McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, the Hutaree (white Christian militia), Breivik, and the Ku Klux Klan. The answer might be a potent imagining of white Christian nationalism that assumes only white men can defend, save, and destroy us. Thus, they act, retaliate, and harm to recreate/fight for a fabled white Christian nation (or continent), free from the troubling demands of diversity. The yearning to get back to a moment of power and dominance (even though, in many instances, white men are still the folks in power) leads to not only inflamed and insensitive rhetoric but also violence and brutality. Perhaps, we should find the connections in their imaginings to understand why they fight/maim for a “cosmic battle” between good and evil. Perhaps, we should rid ourselves of the assumptions about Muslims and terrorism because with these casual assumptions we might never be able to reckon with the possibility, much less the reality of Christian terrorists.

"Our Answer is More Democracy"

Paul Harvey

All of us at RiAH send our solidarity and support to our Norwegian correspondent and friend Hilde Løvdal, whose missives about her sojourn in Colorado Springs, about the Transatlantic Tea Party in Norway, and about evangelical culture in Norway (along with her fun updates on concerts by the Oslo Soul Children) have graced our blog here in the past. Hilde is just finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Oslo, located just a very short distance from the area of the murderous blast in the city.

We share in the the shock and the grief, but celebrate the words of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg: ""Our answer is more democracy, more openness to show that we will not be stopped by this kind of violence."

The Güzel but Zor Turkish Language

Editor's Note: Happy to post the following travelogue from our well-traveled Senior Lutheran Correspondent Jon Pahl, whose book Empires of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence, recently published by NYU Press, was the subject of discussion and an interview on our blog.

Over the past several months Jon has been spanning the globe from Indonesia to Turkey, perhaps still licking his wounds from the suffering I administered to him on the basketball courts of Valparaiso, Indiana back in the early 90s. He sends along the following reflections on his experiences in Istanbul. This is a little bit off the usual topics for our blog, but consider this some lazy summer blog reading, like a Calvin Trillin essay in the New Yorker.

by Jon Pahl, in Istanbul

In 1880, Mark Twain published an essay destined to be famous. “The Awful German Language,” in A Tramp Abroad, lampooned the difficulty Twain experienced learning German. It is very funny. I remember laughing out loud to the point of tears the first time I read it, at Regenstein Library of The University of Chicago.

Twain’s essay comes to mind because I have been living in Istanbul for two weeks trying to learn some Turkish. In Turkish, as in German, verbs come at the end of sentences, and word order is generally reversed from English. This makes Turkish difficult (zor). But the language is also beautiful (güzel). Twain hit more than a few ethnocentric notes in his piece, and it clearly reflects, in retrospect, the stereotype that eventually became “the ugly American.” The essay’s humor mutes its xenophobia, but “The Awful German Language” also reveals a moment in time when America’s empire began to swing into power.

My own take on Turkish, as a twenty-first century American, is quite different from Twain’s take on German in the nineteenth century—and not only because I lack his satirical gifts. I am studying the language as I begin research for an English language biography of the influential but controversial Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen. My experience of the language invariably is filtered through my reading of Gülen’s Sufi-inspired thought.

Contemporary Turkish is a modern creation. It emerged along with the Republic in the early twentieth-century, and it was a cornerstone in Ataturk’s attempt to unify (and imagine) a new nation as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. I have argued elsewhere (in a review of Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence—see that Turkey’s post-imperial reality offers many lessons for Americans. Some of the most profound of the things we might learn from Turkey may be revealed in the structure and harmonies of the language. I make no claim that these structures are unique to Turkish, but they can help me articulate six insights I have noted in the course of living here in Istanbul for a brief stretch.

First, in Turkish, relationships trump subjective assertions. Subjects and objects are juxtaposed in most sentences. This makes the relationship between subject and object primary, and the action of an individual secondary. The subject of a sentence, such as “I,” is often dropped completely and embedded within a verb. For instance, take the verb sevmek, “to love.” To say “I love you” one can say “Ben seni seviyorum” (literally, “I you love”). But more frequently one would hear simply: “Seni Seviyorum.” Here, the “I” doing the loving is not the primary thing; the “I” is embedded within the love (as the ending, “um.”) Despite Atatürk’s attempt to extinguish Sufism in Turkey, I am willing to wager that this linguistic structure reveals the deep influence of Sufi Islam—historically important across Turkey. For Sufis, the ego is illusion. There is no “you and me,” but there are moments in time marked by relationships, and, ideally, by love.

Secondly, there is a poetic rhythm to Turkish that reflects what I have taken to calling “oral mimesis,” and in which I find a sign of the famous Turkish hospitality that I have experienced on all four of my visits here. The most evident form of this feature of Turkish is called “vowel harmony.” Endings to adjectives and verbs that convey the nature of a relationship (like that “um” in seviyor) vary depending upon the last vowel in a word. Thus, to add an “I” to a transitive verb might mean adding um, im (eem), üm (yewm), or ım (uhm), depending on the last verb preceding the ending. I’m barely beginning to figure this out after two weeks of study, but what it produces is a rhyming quality to the language that means sounds mirror each other. Thus, for example, the adjective “güzel” takes “i” (pronounced like the long English “-e”) for its endings. This means that if I wanted to say “You are beautiful” (something I’ve often thought here in Istanbul!) I might say: “Sen güzelsin” (phonetically—“sen gew-sel-seen”). I think that has a very nice ring to it. Such oral (and aural) mimesis is common throughout the language, in manifold everyday exchanges and encounters. It’s like a smile returning a smile, linguistically, and builds into ordinary language a verbal form of hospitality.

Thirdly, assigning of gender is not primary in Turkish. Unlike in German, nouns don’t take genders, and the third person singular pronoun “o” can mean either “he, she, or it.” I know that for some Turkish feminists there is a sense that masculine is the default gender. For instance, Mustafa Kemal is honored with the name “Atatürk” (“Father of the Turks”). There is not, so far as I know, a similar equivalent for women (the “Mother of the Turks?”) But in the structure of the language, identity is grounded in something other than in gender. This lack of gender differentiation was clearly part of Atatürk’s modernization project—which might explain in part why issues such as veiling continue to be so contested in contemporary Turkish society, as Pamuk’s novel Snow vividly explores. One of my American Muslim students explained to me that she wore the hijab because “I want people to see me as a Muslim before they see me as a woman.” But in Turkey, wearing the veil has actually become an assertion of gender differentiation—and hence, a counter-cultural statement. The language, at least as I understand it so far, however, implies structural equality.

Fourthly, Turkish operates by what one of my teachers (a Ukrainian named Tarkan) called “mathematical logic,” but in which I see a military precision that produces a guarded (if not conspiratorial) mentalité that competes with the hospitality I alluded to earlier. My brain hurts after three hours of Turkish class, not only because I have little skill at mathematics, but also because the calculus is so complex that my efforts to intuit “the answers” are frustrated by the intensity of the process. Such intensity, and a less-than-transparent set of rules to govern it, marks one of the challenges contemporary Turkey faces in its efforts to “democratize.” The military is often described as the “guardian” of modern Turkey. Some people here are worried about how religion (notoriously NOT mathematically precise) might undermine this custodial responsibility. Whether a balance can be struck between the poetic intuitions and revelations of, say, The Holy Qur’an, and the guarded, militarily precise structures that are embedded in modern Turkish may hold the key to the most hotly debated questions in the country today. The optimistic answer is that the debates are underway. But recent imprisonments of military leaders and journalists, and recurrent brutal (and covert) military coups over the course of the twentieth-century, suggest that a balance between poetic trust and military security will not be easy to achieve. If, however, Turkey effectively forges a new Constitution (as is proposed under the current government), and if a way is found to welcome Turkey into the European Union as its first majority Muslim nation, then the case for Turkey as a model for the kind of societies that might emerge from “the Muslim Spring” will surely be strengthened.

Fifth, as the tension between hospitable and conspiratorial mentalities might suggest, Turkish seems to me to embrace opposites in often paradoxical ways. As someone who has written a book with the word paradox in its title (Paradox Lost), I might rightly be accused on this point of reading something into the language that’s not there. But I don’t think this is merely a projection. In a review session with another one of our beloved teachers, named Musa, we spent nearly an hour tracing the various opposites we had learned together over two weeks: burada-şurada, “here-there;” sıcak-soğuk, “hot-cold;” sol-sağ, “left-right,” and so forth.

As it happens, in my spare time I’m reading a novel by the Turkish feminist author Elif Shafak. The book is entitled The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi. It’s a fabulous read. The evening after our review of opposites in the classroom, I came across the following passage, which Shafak places in the mouth of Rumi, the 13th century Sufi: “’God created suffering so that joy might appear through its opposite,’ Rumi said. ‘Things become manifest through opposites. Since God has no opposite, He remains hidden.’” Here, the “natural” human tendency to frame opposites (joy-suffering, friend-enemy, Christian-Muslim) gives way to a Turkish Sufi tendency to transcend them.

For one last way to clarify this point, consider the poem Bedava, by the early twentieth-century Istanbul poet Orhan Veli. I was taught the poem by a group of Polish students who were studying with me (our class is a veritable United Nations—with students from Italy, Spain, Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Syria, Singapore, Serbia, and Poland—among others). Everyone I’ve asked in Istanbul knows Bedava, including the cleaning ladies in my hotel. I’ll include the Turkish first, then offer a translation:

Bedava yaşıyoruz, bedava;

Hava bedava, bulut bedava;
Dere tepe bedava;
Yağmur çamur bedava;
Otomobillerin dışı,
Sinamaların kapısı,
Camekânlar bedava;
Peynir ekmek değil ama
Acı su bedava;
Kelle fiyatına hürriyet,
Esirlik bedava;
Bedava yaşıyoruz, bedava.

For free we live, for free;
The air is for free, the clouds are for free;
Valleys and hills for free;
The rain, the mud, for free;
The outside of cars,
The doors of the cinemas
The shop windows for free;
Bread and butter aren't free but still water is for free;
Freedom can cost your head,
Imprisoned for free;
For free we live, for free.

The lines just before the end are the paradoxical kicker. What seems to be a nice, romantic ode to the cliché that “the best things in life are free” in fact embraces a somber warning. Freedom might cost us our “heads.” We could be imprisoned, “for free.” The affirmations of the opening lines gradually give way, as modern consumerism and (implicitly) the State takeover, to a fatalistic prospect that is only redeemed with hope in the last line.

Bedava, then, does not simply mean “freedom” in a political sense (the Turkish word for that is Hürriyet). And, in the context of the poem, I am tempted to translate Bedava as something like “bound free,” “captive free,” or a similar paradox. It is this conjunction of hope and fatalism that I find intriguing and promising both in the structure of the language, and in Turkish culture.

Finally, then, what I have learned so far is that Turkey might be a budding model of the post-modern reconciliation of secularity and religion. It is too simple to call this simply “Sufism;” Turkey’s economic growth of 11% in the last quarter depended on some quite secular practices. Yet the practices of hizmet (service) among those inspired by Fethullah Gülen bridge secular and sacred modes of life. For example, Turks inspired by Gülen have built schools in more than eighty countries, including in some of the poorest places on earth. These schools follow the secular curricula of their host countries and embrace both scientific education and interreligious dialogue (I have visited such schools in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America). What we’re dealing with here is Greg Mortensen’s Thirty Cups of Tea without the administrative incompetence (and without the publisher’s marketing budget). Such a capacity to juxtapose secularity and spirituality—perhaps woven into the very fabric of contemporary Turkish language and culture—is an important if not vital lesson for Americans, and probably for many others around the world.

One last set of experiences might clarify the possibilities. Not far from the hotel where I am staying in the borough of Şişli is the local shopping mall—Istanbul Cevahir. Naturally, given my earlier work on malls as modern “sacred places,” I had to visit. When I did, I found what I expected: a fountain out front; trees, a bright skylight, and neon inside; and a six-story labyrinthine design with two levels of food courts that quickly got me lost. My disorientation triggered the desire to acquire that malls exist to inspire wherever they are built. I spent way more than I expected in the bookstore.

And yet, barely a block away from the Cevahir is the Şişli Cami (mosque). It’s a lovely, serene place—in stark contrast to the mall. When I attended early afternoon prayer last Sunday (since my plans to attend a local church fell through), well over a hundred brothers participated. As is customary, we washed at the ablution fountain just outside the mosque, and removed our shoes to go inside. After the prayer ended, I walked out into the mosque courtyard where as I wandered about I noticed a casket shrouded in black cloth laying on a table under a canopy. I had stumbled onto a funeral. Gradually men gathered in lines under the canopy; women stood behind. We were still; silent in respect for one who had died. After a few minutes, and a few prayers, people began to drift away, and I joined them.

The coexistence of these two places—of bumptious commerce that invites unlimited desire and quiet prayer that acknowledges the limit of death—signals a juxtaposition of the secular and sacred that all humans struggle to negotiate. How these two places co-exist in Istanbul became somewhat clearer to me one day last week. After our three hour morning class, with my brain still throbbing, I set out for Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia). As I walked through the massive gates, onto the ancient stone floors, under the stunning dome, I imagined the prayers of my ancestors in the Christian faith rising like incense for well over a millennium in this very spot.

Then, that night I attended a concert at Istanbul Open Air Theater. This performance space is built like a Roman amphitheater into the side of a hill, with a lovely view over the Bosphorus. It was a beautiful night with almost a full moon. The concert was sold out, and I couldn’t afford tickets anyway, so I stood on a terrace with a great view overlooking the theater, for free. I could hear fine. I was joined by the four Polish students from my class, and there we met a fascinating architect and Istanbul resident who described himself as a pagan Communist Muslim environmentalist.

The evening’s concert—part of the 2011 Istanbul Jazz Festival--culminated in a 90 minute set by Natalie Cole, who sang one of my favorite songs: “This Will Be.” By then, I was in the theater—having walked in, for free, and under the guidance of my new friend, to a seat about 20 rows from the front. I sang along with Natalie Cole, as did many of the three thousand who were in attendance, perhaps in a language they understood no more than I understand Turkish: “This will be, an everlasting love. . . .” It was, in the words of another song Cole performed, unforgettable.

Somehow, between the mall and the mosque and Ayasofya and “This Will Be” in a Roman-like amphitheater in the ancient city of Istanbul, it all seemed to come together. Maybe it was just the nearly full moon, and the great music, and the beer a friendly vendor sold to us while standing on the terrace. But I couldn’t help but think that somehow in this fascinating conjunction of experiences lay the possibilities for much of the rest of the world, even as I continue to struggle to learn the güzel, but zor, Turkish language.

Dante for Dentists: The Resurrection of Christian History Magazine


by Elesha Coffman

Back before I started graduate school, and thus (ironically) before I had any idea what I was talking about, I edited a magazine called Christian History. Each quarterly issue focused on a person or theme, ranging just in my short years on staff from St. Antony and the Desert Fathers to the Huguenots, Dante to Historiography, religion in the American West to Thomas Aquinas. The magazine occupied a unique position as a bridge between the academy and “the rest of the world,” as most of the authors were scholars while most of the readers were—if I remember our market research aright—pastors, teachers, and dentists. A few years after I left, the magazine was shuttered for lack of revenue. I was sad to see it go.

Long story short, the organization that launched the magazine nearly 30 years ago, the Christian History Institute, has resurrected the title. They have already published a 100th issue (many subscribers kept all of their back-issues, so numbering mattered more than publication date), a timely history of the King James Bible, and they are now seeking input on future issue topics. I pass this information along both because some readers of this blog might wish to check out the magazine and because the topical survey offers insight into the interests of non-scholarly readers. The potential topics survey recipients were asked to rate are:

George Muller
Amy Carmichael
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
History of Worship Music
The church’s involvement in the abolition of slavery in America
Vatican II’s impact on the worldwide church
History of Catechism (Early Church, Luther, etc.)
History of Presbyterianism
The Christian face of Ellis Island
Philip Schaff, the “father of church history”
The modern history of Christian charity
The African Church Fathers: Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement, Origen, Athanasius
History of Baptism
Charlemagne, 9th century Holy Roman Emperor
Women mystics of the middle ages: Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena
George Fox, William Penn, and the Quakers

I have no idea which topics will score highest or actually be published in coming years. If I were still editor, I would have drafted a rather different list, though this one has several strong entries. Overall, the list reaffirms two things I learned through my experience at the magazine:

1. There are people outside the academy who care about religious history—and you can find a lot of them in churches. It is a persistent concern of mine that religion scholars’ fight for credibility in the (presumed) secular academy has cut them off from a still strongly religious public. I’m not saying that the public with an appetite for rigorous yet accessible church history is huge, but Christian History enjoyed a circulation of just under 50,000 when I was there, and that’s a whole lot more people than a university press can get to read a monograph.

2. 2. 2. Lay readers do not need to be pandered to. For every History of Worship Music Christian History delivered right over the plate, it also pitched a curveball like Solzhenitsyn. We used to call the latter “broccoli” issues, but we served them up the best we could, and the percentage of subscribers who intended to renew stayed in the 90s. The proposed topic that polled the best during my tenure was Aquinas—and my readers were overwhelmingly evangelical Protestants.

I wish the folks at CHI luck, reconnecting with that audience of educated non-specialists we academics too often fail to reach.

Wednesday Round-Up: Must Read Edition

Kelly Baker

While Paul is away, the blog will go on (and on) with a new series on religion and masculinity (see Charity's first post here) and the long overdue return of the Gender and the American Religious Historian series. We have to keep all you readers busy, so y'all breathe a deep sigh of relief when Paul returns. Anyone, contributor or guest poster, who would like to submit posts to either the masculinity or the gender series, please send it along to kellyjbaker (at) gmail (dot) com. The more the merrier!

Happy Wednesday everybody! Here are some must-reads for the middle of the week.

First, the Center for the Study of Religion & American culture posted the proceedings from the second biennial conference. The proceedings from the 2009 meeting are also available. RiAH bloggers provided our thoughts on the conference (Elesha's here and here, Janine's here, Paul's here and mine), and now, the excellent papers are available to all of you who missed the lively conference.

Second, check out our own John Fea's "Can the Study of History Heal the Culture Wars?" at Patheos. Here's a snippet:
...I could not help but wonder if the thing that ails us most is not our failure to engage in activism, but our failure to understand and empathize with those with whom we might disagree. Perhaps our failure to bringing reconciliation and healing to our divided culture is, at its core, a failure of liberal learning, particularly as it relates to the study of history. Christians and secularists can team up in social justice projects, and Barack Obama can give stirring speeches about ending the Red State-Blue State divide, but until the American people develop the discipline of listening to one another, we will remain stalled in our attempts at reconciliation.

Third, Craig Martin interviews Manuel A. Vásquez about his More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford 2010), which I will be reviewing a bit later for the blog. Martin describes Vásquez's project in these terms:

More than Belief
is very much a “theory” book, as it provides a comprehensive introduction to modern and postmodern theories (feminist, anthropological, sociological, philosophical, psychological, neuroscientific, etc.) relevant to the study of that thing we call “religion.” Along the way Vásquez criticizes each theory considered, selects the best elements of each that he finds worth saving, and synthesizes the useful remainders into his own general theory of religion. What was astonishing to me about the book was the scope: Vásquez moves from the mind/body problem in Plato and Descartes to the rejection of dualism by Spinoza and Nietzsche, to the origins of phenomenology in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, to social constructionism in Foucault and Butler, to Deleuze and Haraway, to cognitive science of religion, and so forth (this list includes highlights from only the first half of the book—I wasn’t joking when I said “comprehensive”!). Vásquez ends up arriving at a naturalist but non-reductive materialist theory that emphasizes embodiment, practice, and global social networks.

And here's Vásquez on the role of theory in the study of religion:
Today, I am far more skeptical that theory can solve all social problems. Although some of my Jesuit teachers were killed by the military during the Salvadoran civil war precisely because of their ideas, I am keenly aware that there is always a painful gap between theory and practice (even when theorizing is a form of practice). Moreover, I do not see the theorist as some sort of Sartrean emancipatory hero, always choosing freedom over bad faith. As Bourdieu tells us, being an authoritative theorist requires a habitus, a habitus that is formed by one’s privileged trajectory in the fields of knowledge production. Still, I do theory as a critical engagement with particular problems or impasses. I agree with Foucault that theory should be driven by a “limit-attitude,” a situated “permanent critique of ourselves.” It should grow out of “our impatience for liberty.” As such, theory should be a passionate endeavor “oriented toward the ‘contemporary limits of the necessary,’ that is, toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.” This normative stance, which implies that theory should be useful not just in academia, but, to the extent possible, to our being-in-the-world, is a corollary of a materialist epistemology that stresses immanent becoming.

For more the rest of Martin and Vásquez's conversation, parts one and two are available.

Religious Leaders and Gay Marriage

Randall Stephens

Several days ago NPR featured a story on "Pastor Debates Moral Issues Of Gay Marriage." In the wake of the legal decision in New York, news outlets across the country have been interviewing and polling pastors and congregants on the subject.

"The campaign for same-sex marriage and civil unions have already scored some significant legal victories recently," comments Michel Martin. "As we just heard a few minutes ago, Rhode Island just accepted a measure to allow civil unions for same-sex couples. Later this month, same-sex couples in New York will be legally allowed to marry. . . .

Bishop HARRY JACKSON, JR. [senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Maryland just outside Washington, D.C.]: Well, I still believe that spiritually we're dealing with whether we're going to inculcate a pro-gay lifestyle culture. Nobody wants anybody to be discriminated against or hurt, in terms of employment or any of those kinds of things. I think in many places, the legal issues are settled. The moral issues still remain."

What do the Pope, Obama, and Johnny Rotten Have in Common?: Observations on Gender and the Antichrist

by Charity Carney

Thanks to Kelly Baker for suggesting a series on masculinity and religion during Paul's hiatus. Here's the first of my installment.

Americans’ fascination with the Antichrist has only grown over the past decade with an increasing number of pop culture references and politicized rhetoric surrounding the evil symbol of a coming Armageddon. Obama was/is accused by some as being the Antichrist—Obama beginning as relatively unknown politician who rose to power swiftly and won the hearts of many Americans with a message of hope. He made promises that were too good to be true, many said, and some accused him of acting like a messiah to lure unsuspecting Americans into his trap. (Google “Obama and Antichrist” if you haven’t before. It’s amazing what people can do with Photoshop.) The racialized overtones of this depiction of the president cannot be overlooked. Many Americans were terrified of Obama’s candidacy and election because he was an “other” in their worldview and so their fear blossomed into anger and denouncements of the “Yes We Can” Man as evil. Racist motivations aside, Antichrist accusations and personas have power (to scare, to motivate, and to actually empower) and much of that power resides in the masculine meme of the position.

White Women, Rape and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960 as well as cultural works on more recent America like Michelle Alexander’s thought-provoking new book, The New Jim Crow). But beyond the masculine world of racialized sexuality and crime there are other gendered factors that contribute to the current Antichrist discourse.

An alternative view of the Antichrist is that promoted by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). Current Republican presidential candidate contender Michelle Bachman once belonged to this group but recently demanded a written statement from the synod about a year ago asserting that she was no longer affiliated with them or their anti-Catholic beliefs. The WELS doctrine regarding the Antichrist states:

“Since Scripture teaches that the Antichrist would be revealed and gives the marks by which the Antichrist is to be recognized, and since this prophecy has been clearly fulfilled in the history and development of the Roman Papacy, it is Scripture which reveals that the Papacy is the Antichrist.”

The Pope is perhaps the most powerful religious figurehead alive in the Western world and by imbuing him with the religious authority of the Antichrist, the WELS has given him even more influence, although that is obviously not their intention (see for the full story). The Pope and Catholics and many other Christians (including Lutherans) certainly do not view the Papal position as connected to the Antichrist, but the debate alone grants the Papacy more power because it is simply being debated. The Pope and the Catholic leadership, too, have a preponderance of masculine authority despite their sworn celibacy. The Church has maintained its commitment to male authority since its founding and continues to rely on an all-male cast of Pope, Cardinals, and priests, etc., giving nuns duties that reflect a more maternal role (teaching and nursing, for instance). The Pope, I contend, would not be accused of being the Antichrist if it was not necessarily a male occupation and if the Catholic Church did not imbue it with masculine power.

And it is here where I will play “devil’s advocate” (pun, sadly enough, intended): Antichrist imagery can also be used as a hyper-masculine badge of honor. Take, for example, the role that Antichrist played in the punk music scene of the 1970s. The Sex Pistols’ lead singer, Johnny Rotten, even went so far as to declare himself an antichrist in “Anarchy in the UK”:

I am an anti-christ

I am an anarchist

Don't know what I want but

I know how to get it

I wanna destroy the passerby caus’ I

I wanna BE anarchy!”

The Sex Pistols might have been Nietzsche’s favorite band. In The Antichrist, the nihilist wrote: “What is good?—Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.” Ultimately, the concept of an Antichrist is a positive one to Nietzsche because it empowers man to challenge a blundering God whom impedes science and knowledge. Although Nietzsche is not speaking directly of the biblical Antichrist, he is pressing the notion that anti-Christian, anti-God, anti-religious views are what give men control and intellect. The Antichrist may be the supremely masculine symbol—with power and virility and ferocity representing his most cited characteristics.

The dangers of this discourse, however, are immense. As seen with Obama, declaring a public personality to be the Antichrist only engages widespread animosity and fear, which, when combined, can lead to vehement and violent reactions. So maybe the WELS should reconsider its charged doctrine concerning the Pope as well as those who have labeled the president as the Antichrist.

newer post older post