Religion Today

Monday, April 16, 2007

February 2006: Europe's "Imus Moment"

A new term was coined last week, namely, “Imus moment,” as in “You’ve just had an ‘Imus moment.’” It refers to a comment which someone utters, usually thoughtlessly, which viciously insults members of a social sub-class—often ethnic or religious. These utterances receive different responses. Some Imus moments go unnoticed or unheard by members of the insulted group, while some are heard but pass unremarked even though hearers may be upset. A full-blown Imus moment occurs when the hurtful remarks are protested by increasingly large numbers of people and result in serious consequences for the speaker, as media star Don Imus learned to his cost.

Societies, nations, and even continents can have their own Imus moments. A year ago February, Europe and the Arab world was convulsed over cartoons published by a Danish newspaper insulting Muhammad, the founder of Islam. When protestors demanded an apology, the paper refused and sounded the cry of freedom of speech. Other European papers echoed the cry, reprinting the cartoons themselves. Muslims around the world erupted in outrage, with protests continuing for weeks. Most came off peacefully, although a few became violent with attacks on embassies and casualties among the protesters.

At the time, many commentators in the West were puzzled by the massive response to the cartoons. Not only was “freedom of speech” held up as an important value, but many observed that most social groups found themselves offended by something in the media at some time. Everyone could be insulted; Muslims were not being singled out. Westerners could not understand why this one insult caused such a ruckus.

It was Europe’s Imus moment. To understand what that means, let’s start with a look at the key elements of the Imus debacle.

Don Imus, radio star of CBS’s “Imus in the Morning” (a show simulcast on MSNBC), is (was) a shock jock. As the Rutgers’s women’s basketball team were winning the NCAA championship, he used ghetto slang to call them whores. Many people protested this remark, whites as well as blacks. Imus apologized. Several times. In several ways. The apologies revealed, however, that he just didn’t get it. The protests continued and eventually both MSNBC and CBS cancelled the program.

Imus and his employers were puzzled by the response. After all, he made his living by insulting people. Over the last two decades, he has made offensive remarks about Hispanics and Blacks, Jews and Catholics, Evangelicals and women, to name just a few. Despite this, he has been lauded by the media and politicians; Time magazine even ranked him as one of the 25 most influential people in the USA in 1997. His show had a strong audience and was a big money maker.

What Imus’ comment about the women’s basketball team and the Danish Muhammad cartoons have in common is that the insults were over the line. After Imus’ history of insults, implying that these accomplished basketball players were only good on their backs was too much for a African-American community that has endured white degradation since slavery.

Similarly, publishing cartoons insulting Islam’s founder was too much for Muslims. When the paper refused to apologize and other European papers compounded the situation, this was the final straw in a history of insults extending for centuries. It was more extreme than the Imus event because the perpetrators did not apologize (with a few exceptions, France Soir newspaper being the most prominent); instead they trumpeted their actions as righteous.

In both cases, the insults occurred in big-money media outlets, radio and TV for Imus and major newspapers for the cartoons. These establishment sources of culture lent a legitimacy to the insults that fanned the flames of anger. The differences, again, stem from the fact that in the Imus case, the media backed down and in the cartoon case they did not.

Why the different responses? Because African-Americans are more integrated into American society and business, especially the media business, than Muslims are in Europe. Both NBC and CBS made it clear that their own employees, many of whom are black and some of whom are executives, did not think Imus represented the company well. By contrast, few Muslims have influential voices in European society and in the media companies. Indeed, many Europeans view Muslims as outsiders and hence not requiring the same engagement and respect. It was this lack of engagement that caused the wider scale of the protests.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Religions: Which is better, education or ignorance?

Americans’ ignorance of religion and what to do about it was a big topic in March. At the beginning of the month, the media hyped Stephen Prothero’s new book “Religious Literacy: What every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t.” Then mid-March saw Time Magazine’s feature story “The Case for Teaching the Bible,” by David Van Biema. Finally, on the month’s last day, Stanley Fish responded to Van Biema with a New York Times column titled “Religion without Truth.” Although Fish does not address Prothero directly, the two clash swords on the question of whether it is possible to educate people about religion.

Stephen Prothero, chair of the religion department at Boston University, opens his book by describing results from religion literacy surveys. He observes that less than half of American adults can name one of the four gospels or the first book of the Bible. Most people surveyed believe Jesus was born in Jerusalem. Evangelicals do only slightly better than the general populace: 44% can recognize a phrase from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God”) as opposed to 37% of other people surveyed. But in a recent Gallup poll, fewer born-again teen-agers knew that Paul was blinded during a vision on the way to Damascus than did students attending private schools.

When the subject changes from the Bible to Christian history, the results are worse. And when other world religions are brought into the picture, poll respondents know even less.

Given this woeful lack of religious knowledge in an age when religions and religious rhetoric seem to dominate public discussion and international events, Prothero argues that Americans need to improve their knowledge of religious matters. Most importantly, what is needed is a return of religion to the K-12 classroom. This should happen in the form of academic education about world religions, rather than as a platform for proselytizing or catechism.

This is where Van Biema’s article comes in. He explores various schools’ attempts to teach about the Bible in a balanced manner without advocacy. He finds some teachers manage to do it successfully. His essay ends by calling for the expansion of education about the Bible and religions.

The crux of both Prothero’s and Van Biema’s call for the reintroduction of education about religions into public schools is that the subject be taught by bracketing the religions’ (and the Bible’s) truth claims. All religions claim to present the truth about ultimate reality, about God(s), creation, and the place of humanity in it. The problem is that these claims differ. Indeed, they differ among most denominations of Christianity. To prevent continual squabbling about which religion’s claims are correct (an irresolvable debate), the class would teach about what different religions (or branches of a single religion) believe, but not address the question of whether or not those beliefs were true.

Stanley Fish leaps in at this point, roundly criticizing Van Biema and Prothero for gutting the heart of Judaism and Christianity. It is the truth claims of these religions, Fish argues, that give each its identity. “Take them away and all you have is an empty shell….If you’re going to cut the heart out of it, why study it at all?”

At first reading, Fish’s argument resonates strongly. But upon further consideration it fails to add up.

First, all religions claim the truth. If we extended Fish’s logic and studied none of them, then we would never understand a sizeable portion of human belief, action and knowledge. Since religion is one of the three most influential forces in human decision making (along with family and finances), that leaves a lot of ignorance about what motivates human beings.

Second, Fish misunderstands Prothero and Van Biema when they talk about avoiding the question of truth claims. Fish holds up truth claims in general as the problem. Not so. What is bracketed out is the consideration of whether to assent or dissent from those claims. Fish fears the mere existence of calls for belief, while the academic study of religion embraces those calls. It sees in them the essence of a religion and races to study them, to understand the specifics of what people are being called to agree with. But it holds that one can study truth claims without having to address the question of believe in them.

In this world daily news reports reveal how religions and religious people impact our lives, the survival of our children depends on understanding the world’s religions, both at home and abroad. We should find ways to educate our children in the beliefs and practices of the world’s religions, as well as their own.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Episcopalians, Christians, and Scripture

At their recent meeting in Tanzania, the Anglican Communion delivered its American member, officially called The Episcopal Church, an ultimatum. Stop blessing homosexual unions and ordaining gay clergy, or else! The official reason for this position is the argument that the American church has forsaken the Bible and its instructions about homosexuality. The ultimatum by the other Anglican provinces calls for the Episcopalians to return to their biblical roots.
This international squabble over Scripture and its applicability is only the most recent instance of the problems Christians face when they try to hold the Bible and modernity together. All Scripture is sacred, but it is not all relevant. All forms of Christianity pick and choose, in a reverent manner to be sure, which biblical guidelines apply to them and which do not.
Why is this? The Bible is a large book; indeed it is a library of books written at different times, by different people, in different languages, for different purposes. As in any library, its contents often provide contradictory rules. Take divorce, for example. Some Bible passages permit it, some do not. The Episcopalian, Methodist, and many other Protestant churches follow the former, while the Catholic Church follows the latter.
But Scriptural rules are often rejected for other reasons. Sometimes rejection comes when biblical principles are applied in new ways. Take slavery for example. The Bible lays out rules for the practice of slavery in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, slavery is not only sanctioned, but Paul tells slaves to remain satisfied with their condition and to accept as sufficient their spiritual freedom in Christ. Despite the clear biblical passages that accept slavery, the Christian world turned against slavery and ultimately outlawed it, believing that it violated the principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself.
William Wilberforce, an evangelical Anglican whose drive to outlaw slavery in Britain is portrayed in the recent film "Amazing Grace," denied the relevance of explicit biblical statements about slavery. The same is true of the American anti-slavery movement of the 19th century. Today nearly all American Christians agree that the biblical passages about slavery are not only wrong, they are immoral.
Other times, scriptural rules are rejected because society has changed. Sometimes these changes are even led by Christians. In the 19th century, American Christian women were ardent supporters of evangelizing the world for Christianity. They successfully created and ran large organizations to send out missionaries and support them.
In the United States itself, women formed organizations pursing temperance, legal rights, and the vote. Through these activities, women discovered that they could have a successful life outside the home. This transformed American society. By the second half of the 20th century, women were active in all levels of society. From the company boardroom to the university classroom, from blue collar to white collar, from business to medicine to science, women are now seen has having the same rights and same abilities as men.
In this world, many Christian denominations left behind the biblical strictures against women talking in church and becoming religious leaders. Many churches ordained women as pastors and clergy, and even made them bishops. Even in evangelical denominations where ordination did not take place, women became teachers. They lead not only missions and Sunday schools but large meetings, camps, and retreats, as the Oscar-nominated documentary "Jesus Camp" makes clear. Again, this has all taken place against the explicit rules of the Bible.
Since it is clear that the Bible can be set aside if people so choose, the question is whether or not they choose to do so. To return to the Anglicans and Episcopalians, it is obvious that the American Episcopalian church has transformed itself in ways that side with equal treatment of all humans but go against explicit scriptural statements.
In the dispute with the worldwide Anglican Communion, the countries whose church is most angry against the Americans are those that have not set aside the biblical rules against female participation in public worship; they have no female priests. Ironically, this includes all the African churches who agree that slavery is immoral and have rejected the biblical passages supporting it. In their calls for adherence to the Bible, they overlook their own rejection of Scripture. The debate over gays in the Anglican church is thus primarily about how Christians should treat their fellow human beings and only then about whether Scripture is relevant to that question.