The OF Blog: A religious-type post

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A religious-type post

J.M. McDermott's post yesterday about the Christian Fiction section of bookstores reminded me of something that had been vaguely troubling me in recent weeks in regards to the relationships that religious faiths (and if I use certain forms of Christianity here and barely touch upon other faiths, it is only because I'm most familiar with it) have with their societies and how such attitudes are expressed in literature.

Over the past twenty years or so (or as far back as I can remember seeing such a development) there seems to be this increased segregation (not saying it wasn't there before then, only that it had become much more prevalent after the 1980s) of "Christian" media (books, music, TV, radio, movies, etc.) from other media forms. But more than that, but such "Christian" outlets started to reflect a tinier and tinier sliver of the religious spectrum. One couldn't be marketed in most "Christian" outlets if one were outspoken in his/her belief that evolution was "true." One could be castigated in certain corners if one had a fairly tolerant (or "permissive," as some commentators would have labeled this) attitude in regards to the LGBT community. And let us not forget the various "street preachers" who would rail, in their best impersonations of the odious Fred Phelps, about how everyone who was not "with them" was somehow "against them" and thus would be condemned to a fiery Hell. And this is even leaving aside the various "missions" to convert Catholics to Christianity...

While there is rightly much to condemn about such attitudes, sometimes I am left wondering if perhaps that vocal minority has been so successful in appropriating the label of "Christian" to themselves as to leave others such as myself, a Catholic convert strongly influenced by Liberation Theology, out in the cold. It is odd, having attempted to read the rather horrid Left Behind series (I stopped after the first; shoddy dialogue, cardboard characterization, disjointed plotting, all of which is topped with a religious theology that insults my own faith at every turn does not make for a conducive reading experience), feeling that there are those who nominally are part of the same religious faith as me who are so strident in their attempts to enforce their own viewpoints that they try to steamroll over 1950+ years of recorded differences in Christian belief and worship in an attempt to proclaim their version of Christianity as the "only true faith."

Irritating as this is, it becomes doubly frustrating when those who are not Christians for whatever reason tend to conflate others such as myself into this same category. Yes, there are those who do differentiate, but often it feels like an afterthought; the main thrust is that the association of "Christian" is with a narrow subset of Evangelical Protestants who deny natural selection, evolution, those whose idea of "pro-life" is to protect the fetus by murdering or condemning those who believe otherwise, not to mention those who use the religious trappings to enrich their bank accounts. Sometimes when I'm reading a story in which religious elements are introduced, I get this sense of a bigoted, narrow-minded faction that is so based on an author's conception of "Christians" (again, the minority strain somehow dominating the outsider's viewpoint of the whole) as to be rather transparent in many cases.

But this post isn't merely one expressing an irritation or one that seeks to have a self-defensive tone. I didn't check in my brain when I switched faiths and became Catholic five years ago (for those curious, it was the combination of ritual and an emphasis on using reason that appealed to me), nor do I believe others who believe otherwise checked theirs in. Religion is one of the most complex and pervasive things in human societies, yet I fear that too often we reduce it to a cipher, something that can be somehow quantified in an "easy to follow" directional approach. Yet such an attitude risks major distortions. I know only a few Muslims, all of them Sunnis. From what I've observed and from what they've told me in conversations, Islam can be quite peaceful, both for the internal state of the believer and also in the societal sense. Yet there are those who associate the religion with violence, because of the actions of those who are so desperate and confused that they act without regard for themselves or for others. This too leaves to unfortunate tarrings, such as the one that was made in the William Sanders controversy a couple of weeks ago.

Sadly, there are those who have concluded that "religion" itself (whatever that might mean) is at fault and in blog posts, forum commentaries, stories, etc., said attitudes are repeated. Yes, I know there is some justification for being sickened and repulsed by the actions of a few, but it does get rather irritating at times being lumped in with the hardcore intolerant zealots just because of a shared general belief in a Trinity. Sometimes, I can't help but wonder if in many parts of the world (not just the US), there isn't as much to gain anymore by sharing in a dialogue with others about differences of opinion, including faith. Armed camps don't make for peace, and seeing "Christian Fiction" sections and the boorishness of a Richard Dawkins being praised certainly doesn't help matters. Makes me wonder if the root of this, both in real-life and in writings on said subjects, is a fear and mistrust of the Other.

Perhaps those reading this will have things to add, things to share? I'm curious and I rarely bite...


Liviu said...

I would not worry about the attitudes of a minority of morons whether religious fundamentalists or secular fundamentalists.

I am of rite Romanian Orthodox which is a part of Eastern Orthodoxy - this and Catholicism are quite similar except that in "our" view the Pope is just another Patriarch equal in theory at least with the Patriarchs of Moscow, Athens, Bucharest, Sofia, Belgrade and so on..., the rest of the differences are minor as the multitude of Greco-Catholic or Uniate churches that appeared through history that kept Eastern rite/practices but switched allegiance to the Pope showed - , but I think of myself as Christian in the original sense before the ritual appeared for social and political reasons - and I strongly believe that Christianity survived quite a few upheavals in its time and it can incorporate any and all modern science - not the rantings of Dawkins which I found profoundly boring, or for that matter the idiocies of the Creationists which are worse, but the hard fact based science without any problems.

If you are interested in these topics, you could go and check Hans Kung for example - has a superb new book The Beginning of all Things: Science of Religion, or on the science side, Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson, Reverend and Physics PhD John Polkinghorne

I used to be very interested in these things, was graduate assistant at a course on Science and Religion that studied the authors above and others, but ultimately I realized that once you get over the simplistic and false view of science/religion conflict, mutual exclusivness and such - and those authors will convince you, the rest is still mystery and likely to remain so in our lifetimes

Milorad Pavic in Second Body has some cool ideas on these things too..

Lsrry said...

I'm somewhat familiar in passing with Eastern Orthodoxy and I do agree the differences are quite minor, with that pesky "filioque" being the biggest difference besides the Papal claims over the years. Do agree about the incorporation of science into theology, as it's just frustrating that a few loud-mouthed Creationists lead to other, more moderate Christians being lumped in with them.

I'll look into those books in the near future - thanks for the tips :D

Liviu said...

From my understanding filioque is a later addition to the Creed and even the Catholic Church acknowledges that, though it uses it, while the Orthodox and Uniate churches do not. I think that in all matters the Uniate churches kept the Orthodox rites - including requiring marriage of priests to get a parish, local language for Mass or more precise Liturgy as it's called by us - I attended both and Mass is a pleasure to attend since it's relatively short, but sometimes the Liturgy takes forever - and just acknowledge the papal supremacy.

In my family I had a grandfather on my father side who was a Uniate priest before the Communist takeover when they jailed all such and then forced them to become Orthodox or renounce priesthood, and an Orthodox priest great-grandfather on my mother side.

Lsrry said...

Interesting. After reading (again) about the monophysites, monothelites, Paulians, and others, I'm finding myself more and more fascinated about how various Christian groups struggled to define just what it was they believed in. True, there were the expected atrocities, but beyond that, what they created from that search for understanding was just stunning in regards to texts, buildings, and mosaics. I'd like to attend an Eastern Rite Mass sometime, just to see the differences and similarities.

SQT said...

I tried to read a "Left Behind" book before and it was hideous. The heavy handedness of the message was appalling. Even more appalling is it's success.

I like religious themes in novels but I don't like condemning one belief or another. It's more about exploring what we do with faith than the faith itself that I find compelling.

Lsrry said...

I've tried to talk with my immediate family about why that series was just appalling, but quickly gave up. Same thing in regards to why televangelists like John Hagee are not the end-all, be-alls of Christianity. But the LB books just take everything to a whole new level.

Jeff C said...

This is more of an aside...but I did the exact same opposite of you, Larry. I grew up Catholic, and in college "switched" to Baptist. Now I go to a non-demoninational church in west nashville. The original reason I switched away from Catholicsm is the same reason you switched to it. For me, the rituals, after many years, took something away. I found i was going through the service, just repeating things I had memorized without actually thinking about what it was I was saying. So..just wanted to comment on how we made the "opposite" switch kinda based on some of the same reasons. I will say that i sometimes miss the "rituals"..especially at christmas.

Lsrry said...


I totally understand, as my family are usually either Methodists or Baptists and I grew up immersed in that setting, to the point where I wanted something else. I've found (and I suspect it's the same with you, based on what you've said) that by switching to a religious group that is more conducive to personal needs, it allows for a more open-minded approach to other practices and faiths, no? :D

Anonymous said...

I was baptized Orthodox, but having lived in a non-practicing family I don't know much about rituals and all that. I always tell myself I'll attend Easter mass one year to see what the big deal is :) (But I don't have high hopes, all the services I've been forced to attend so far were either boring or annoying to the point of getting seriously pissed off by the ideas. Don't even get me started on the marriage ritual...)

Anyway, as you know, I managed to read the first LB book and I had the same reaction, although for different reasons. The idea that one religion is "true" is... let's say unconceivable to me... comes with being an agnostic, well :P And I felt that characters that started out as interesting were dumbed down the second they "saw the light" or whatever - if that's what religion is supposed to be, no thank you.

But that book did bring one thing: further understanding of the religious creeds in question. My knowledge of the Catholic side is very limited and I was assuming that all Catholics believe the ideas in LB.

On another slightly related note, I loved what Sanderson did with Elantris. I was very surprised to find out that a Mormon (weird religion, conservative people - this is what I thought) wrote a book that was so critical of organized religion.

Lsrry said...

Sanderson is an interesting case - he's more liberal than the average practicing Mormon, but more conservative than say someone like me. As for the rituals, I view it this way: forcing people to go through something that is antithetical or confusing to them never really helps. I became a Catholic because I attended a Mass (my first) with a friend of mine and I was curious to see what it was about. I just went in wide-eyed and enjoyed it and decided it was for me. But having been on the other side of things (becoming so irritated with Protestant services that I stopped going for most of 10 years), I've found that if something works for someone, it's best to encourage that and not to browbeat someone into following just one single way.

And no, the LB people pretty much view Catholics as being minions of the Antichrist. Roll your eyes, as needed :P

Anonymous said...

I still find it funny that the Catholic Antichrist in the book was Romanian, from a country which is 95% or so percent Orthodox :D

Lsrry said...

Yeah, and let's not forget his name. Carpathia? How unoriginal...and stupid :P

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