25 April 2011

Mi Patrimonio Mexicano (My Mexican Heritage) - now bilingual

Recently, a dear friend from my two years in Mexico contacted me and asked me to write more frequently in Spanish, so I thought that I would take that opportunity for this particular topic.  The English can be found in full below.

Hace unos días, un amigo querido que conocí durante mis dos años en Mexíco me escribió y me pidió que escribiera mas frecuentemente en el español, entonces pienso que este es el momento apropiado con este tema.  La traduccion plena se encuentra mas abajo.

Mi esposa y yo tenemos un hábito que, a lo mejor, parece muy extraño a nuestros amigos americanos.  Durante la Semana Santa y las fiestas navideñas, muy a menudo nos encontrarás sentado en la sofá o la cama, viendo programas de television en el idioma español que muestran ceremonias de el catolicismo.  Esta semana pasada, pasamos la noche de viernes viendo una emisión de La Pasión de Iztapalapa, una tradicion de casi 180 años.  Tambien vimos un poquito de las estaciones de la cruz por el papa Benedicto XVI desde Roma.  Y cada 12 de diciembre, nos puede encontrar viendo el espectáculo de las mañanitas a la Virgen de Guadalupe desde su basilica en la Ciudad de México.  Aunque no creemos en todas las cosas que estos acontecimientos simbolicen, y aunque estas ceremonias no pertenecen a nuestra nacionalidad o communidad religiosa, sentimos un respecto profundo y nostalgia por estas tradiciones porque los dos pasamos mucho tiempo entre el pueblo mexicano, y como resultado, desarrollamos un amor grande por esta gente.  (Yo era misionero en la Misión México Tampico por dos años y mi esposa vivia en Guadalajara por unos años cuando era joven, y despues servía como misionera en el estado de Washington entre los trabajadores inmigrantes, que eran mexicanos en mayor parte.)  Yo siento muy fuerte "de estar en casa" con estas tradiciones culturales, aun cuando no son mias, y este sentimiento va más alla de las casualidades de mi país natal.  Y porque pertenecemos a una iglesia que está tan pobre en liturgia, especialmente en cuanto a la Semana Santa, debemos agarrarlo dondequiera se encuentra.

My wife and I have a habit that likely seems strange to most of our American friends.  During Holy Week and the season of Christmas, you will not infrequently find us watching Spanish-language television broadcasts of Roman Catholic religious services.  Just this past week, we spent our Friday night viewing a broadcast of the Passion Play of Itztapalapa, a tradition nearly 180 years old.  We also watched a portion of Pope Benedict XVI's Stations of the Cross from the Colosseum in Rome.  On any December 12, you can probably catch us watching the birthday celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe from the basilica in Mexico City.  Even though we do not believe in all of the things that these events symbolize, and that these ceremonies do not belong to either our nationalities or our religious community, we both feel respect and nostalgia for these traditions because of time that we both spent among the Mexican people, and the deep love that we developed as a result.  (I was a missionary in the Tampico Mexico area for two years and my wife lived in Guadalajara for a time as a child, then served a mission in Washington state among migrant workers, many of who were Mexican).  I know that feel a deep sense of belonging in cultural traditions not technically my own which transcends the accidents of my place of birth.  And since we belong to a church that is poor in liturgy, particularly surrounding the Easter season, we will take it wherever we can get it.

18 April 2011

Two recent religion book reviews

My wife encouraged me to add more book reviews to my blogging habits, so I thought I would give that a try.

Just wanted to add two quick book reviews here-

The first is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by David Campbell and Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame).  So much has been written about this book elsewhere, that I do not have anything to add to the conversation-- other than that it has my unequivocal recommendation.  The authors do an incredible job of weaving sociological and statistical insights with detailed on-the-ground observations and vignettes that give the text a very complete scope.  For a book that relies heavily on statistics, it is remarkably easy to read.  I have neither seen nor heard of another such accessible text that gives such a good picture not just of where American religion is today, but where it is going.

The second book is The Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat, a historian at Georgia State University.  While I also liked this book, I would add that it is mis-titled.  The title should have been A History of How Religious Persons Violated Other Americans' Freedom, which after all, is a pretty good title for a book, and could have been one quite a bit longer than this one, weighing in at a slim 294 pages.  The author sets for himself the purpose to explode myths of religious freedom on both the political left and the right-- first, that there is and has been a strict separation (or wall) between church and state and secondly, that religion is indispensable, both then and now, to the preservation of American freedom.  (Sehat also adds a third myth- the myth of religious decline, meaning that religion was once important to the American project, but has ceased to be so).  It strikes me that the first myth is an essentially historical question (Did the Founders establish a wall between church and state?), while the second represents a question of analysis that will necessarily evoke value judgments about the nature of "religion" and "freedom."  Though the two questions do not quite stand directly on par, the author gets credit for achieving the goals that he has set out for himself, though in a way that will undoubtedly be more pleasing to partisans of one side more than the other.

Sehat traces the history of American religious conduct since prior to the American Revolution up to the present time, purportedly by examining the stories of those who fell outside of the religious mainstream.  This is a kind of historical reading, though the eyes of dissenters, pioneered by Howard Zinn and others, and I thought more could have been done with it here, particularly with non-Christian Americans.  He manages to disprove the liberal myth of separation by identifying and examining the persistent influence of something he terms the "moral establishment," which is a loose group, changing in composition over time, but generally representing the mean of American religious life.  At the same time, the myth of religion's contribution to the progress of freedom is disproven by simply showing what a nasty piece of work the moral establishment was (and is), due to its reliance on, as the author terms it, "coercion" rather than more democratic means of "consensus."

The truth as Sehat recognizes it is that religion has consistently been tied into American history, politics, and society, but most frequently to the detriment of American freedom.  Here we miss what would have been a worthwhile leap out of the straight historical narrative of is (or was) and into the ethical framework of ought, a leap with which I understand some historians are predictably uncomfortable.  But the question remains worth asking: should a more solid separation of church and state been enforced? (which is to say nothing of who or how it would have been enforced, given that large portions of the most powerful institutions in American life either constituted or were heavily dominated by, the moral establishment)  Or likewise, what should have changed about American religious practice to make it a more positive contributor to American freedom?

Looking to this latter question, one area I would like to see further research and analysis is the capitalist-industrial-evangelical fusion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wherein large portions of the moral establishment acquiesced in and promoted the demands of capital over and against labor, and took the side of the mighty property owners against the working class.  Can we imagine an alternative form of the moral establishment which took the rights of labor and the welfare of the working class as a guiding principle?  Roman Catholicism did this, but at the time, as a minority under suspicion, it did not yet form part of the moral establishment.  Likewise, there are plenty of examples of religious communities operating under principles of religious socialism or collectivism (e.g. the Mormon United Order, the Oneida Community, the Amana colonies), but none achieved size or longevity of any kind and most were later subsumed by the capitalist hegemony.  What religious tenets or other accidents of history needed to change to create a group that could have served this purpose?

Despite feeling that Sehat could have gone farther (and that it was somewhat misleadingly titled), The Myth of American Religious Freedom is still a worthwhile read, particularly in an age such as our own, shot through with religious conflict, bad history, and Founder-worship.

12 April 2011

Extreme Advertising

On Monday, Amazon announced that it would begin selling its Kindle e-reader device at a $25 discount.  The new pricing comes with a catch-- the newly discounted device, given an Orwellian name like "Kindle with Special Offers" loads your Kindle with ads that replace the current author portrait screen savers and run in the Kindle home screen.  For now, Amazon promises that ads will not be placed within e-books, though one wonders for how long such a promise will be kept.

In the past two weeks, we have seen two other ad-related blowups-- first, the fight over the fifth season of Mad Men had at least something to do with the network's desire to see more produce placement in the show (a show about the 1960s no less) and second, the lawsuit over Time Warner Cable's allowing customers to stream their cable channels to an iPad tablet (which almost certainly has something to do with lost ad revenue for content providers).  For someone who loves books and loves reading, it is distressing to see the ad wars carry over into books.  When I read, I want as few distractions as possible and I specifically don't want a reminder that there is some other non-book thing which I should be wanting to buy at this very moment.

My wife can tell you that I love A1 Steak Sauce.  Indeed, I put A1 on many things that are not steak or even meat, including french fries, tater tots, and even the occasional baked potato.  I sometimes joke with my wife that to me, these things are mere "A1 Delivery Vehicles."  The point is that I don't want my books, TV shows, movies, theater, etc. to merely become "Ad Delivery Vehicles."  But it looks like we are increasingly entering a world in which nothing is worth doing for itself, but only as a means for rabid capitalists to point us towards some other commodity, which practically makes Mad Men a vehicle for prophecy itself.