Borrowing vs. appropriation

In an interview with Religion News Service, author Liz Bucar talks about the difference between religious (mis)appropriation, and religious borrowing:

“Religious borrowing has always existed. It’s certainly a big part of the way religion in America is experienced and consumed, especially if you think about the spiritual but not religious or the nones. Some forms of cross-tradition borrowing are positive. For me, borrowing is the bigger category and appropriation is the problematic form. And the reason it’s problematic, for me, is when the borrowing happens in conditions of injustice, oppression and power inequities. That’s what generates harm.”

In fact, we might say that syncretic religions (and most religions have at least some syncretic elements in them) depend on religious borrowing.

But it’s religious misappropriation that we have to be concerned with. And I believe Unitarian Universalists are particularly prone to religious misappropriation. Here’s Liz Bucar again:

“I think that progressive secularists, a community which the academy is full of and which I’d probably identify with, haven’t always been understanding of religious communities or thought of them as a source for what human flourishing can look like. They often think about religious communities as problems to be solved, or as people ruled by hierarchical institutions or arcane rules and doctrines. This position sets them up for maybe not being as respectful or deferential to religious claims as they could be.”

Honestly, this sounds like Unitarian Universalists. We look a lot like progressive secularists. Many of us treat religion as a problem to be solved, rather than a source of human flourishing. We set ourselves up to be less than respectful to other religions — even perhaps less than respectful to our own religion.

Recent web browsing

Some links from my recent web browsing:

Are We Allies?

Foluke Ifejola Adebisi has an excellent blog post on “the concept of allyship against injustice.” In other words, what does it mean to be a “white ally,” or any other kind of ally? Adebisi makes an intersting disctintion between allyship as being, and allyship as doing:

“I think what is important is that we move away from thinking of allyship as something we are, but instead think of it as something we do, each time we do something. Each time we want to contribute to a particular struggle for justice, we must decide what must be done in the moment, irrespective of what we have done before or what type of person we think we are.”

I came away from this blog post thinking that if I hear someone saying they are an ally, this may not mean much. I’m going to watch what they do instead of listen to what they say they are.

Jew or Judean?

Marginalia hosts a scholarly debate on how to translate ioudaioi in texts from the last centuries BCE and the first few centuries CE. Does it mean Jew or Judean? While this may seem like a big argument over a trivial detail, the scholars involved claim the stakes are higher than you’d think.

For example, if you translate ioudaioi in the Gospel of John as “Jew,” then that could reinforce one of the foundations of Christian anti-Semitism. The ioudaioi, the Jews, killed Jesus. Whereas if you translate ioudaioi as “Judean,” someone from the land of Judea, maybe you can undermine that foundation of anti-Semitism.

But other scholars argue that in some texts, ioudaioi is better translated into modern English as “Jew,” sometimes as “Judean.” It all depends on the context. And we don’t want to inject anachronisms into translations.

Another point comes up: Is it anachronistic to talk about Judaism as a religion in this era? Was Judaism more of an ethnic identity than a religion? (In a related story, Haaretz reports on archaelogist Yonatan Adler’s new book that advances the claim that the archaelogical record does not show evidence for Jusdaism as a religion before the 2nd century BCE.)

Dare You Fight?

Editor Neal caren is creating an online collection of W. E. B. DuBois’s articles for The Crisis. These articles were written between 1914 and 1934, and many have not been collected previously.

DuBois’s essays are fascinating to read. His articles for The Crisis sounds radical even by today’s standards.

Invasion

Australian librarian Hugh Rundle writes about the exodus of people from Twitter to Mastodon. He titles his blog post “Home invasion: Mastodon’s Eternal September begins.” As a Mastodon user of fairly long standing, he describes how he has experienced the influx of Twitterers:

“It’s not entirely the Twitter people’s fault. They’ve been taught to behave in certain ways. To chase likes and retweets/boosts. To promote themselves. To perform. All of that sort of thing is anathema to most of the people who were on Mastodon a week ago…. To the Mastodon locals it feels like a busload of Kontiki tourists just arrived, blundering around yelling at each other and complaining that they don’t know how to order room service.”

Although I’m most emphatically not a Twitter user (I left Twitter in 2014, not in 2022), I am a new Mastodon user. I hope the Mastodon users don’t see me as behaving badly….

“The quarrel is with the organized part…”

Religion New Service reports on religiosity trends in the US, as found in the 2021 General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS concluded that religious participation declined rapidly during the COVID pandemic. But Michael Hout, professor of sociology at New York University, and two colleagues raise questions about that conclusion. Participation in organized religion may have declined, but in their interpretation of the data, religiosity did not decline as much.

The article raises questions of survey methodology, which are fascinating in themselves. For example, in-person surveys and online surveys have different strengths, and produce different results. And people are less likely to want to participate in surveys these days, because social media allows a better outlet for people’s opinions.

As fascinating as the discussion of methodology was, I was more interested in a couple of Hout’s conclusions.

First, that the decline in participation in organized religion has come mostly among occasional attenders — what I call “CEO Christians” or “Christmas and Easter Only Christians.”

Second, according to Hout, “Atheism is not what’s happening. If we think of organized religion as a conjoined thing, the quarrel is with the organized part, not the religion.”

Both these conclusions sound correct to me. So I’d be interested in a survey that attempted to find out why people “quarrel with the organized part, not the religion.” Are people turned off because of abuse scandals? because organized religion doesn’t feel authentic any more? because of trends outlined by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone? because people have more choices with their leisure time? because of trends towards hyper-individualism? because religions are organizing in new ways (e.g., network Christianity) not found by surveys? because surveys have a biased understanding of “religiosity” that is not keeping up with the way people are living their religion?

Buildings of religious communities in Oshkosh

As we went around Oshkosh this afternoon, I stopped to photograph six buildings that house religious communities.

It was strange to see how deserted most of these buildings looked on Sunday afternoon. The Christian churches presumably had a lot of activity this morning, but by afternoon the building were dark, the parking lots empty. Even the yoga studio was dark and empty. The masjid was the only building with life: a handful of men using leaf blowers; they were clearly volunteers, because they worked at a relaxed pace and weren’t wearing work clothes.

I like the way the shape of Immanuel Lutheran Church echos the flat midwestern landscape.

Suburban streetscape with modernist church building from the late twentieth century.
Immanuel Lutheran Church, 338 N. Eagle St., Oshkosh

The masjid of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has the most attractive site of any of the buildings I photographed today, with the lovely trees surrounding it. I’m fond of the white fence on the left hand side, which appears to enclose a playground; it balances the minaret on the other side.

Suburban streetscape, modest one story brick building with white portico and a small minaret on one end.
Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, 300 N. Eagle St., Oshkosh

Visually, the most striking aspect of Zion Lutheran Church is the large white cross. It is about as tall as the utility poles along the street. The bright digital sign provides a welcome spot of color on a gray Wisconsin day.

Suburban streetscape, large one story building with low brick wall and gently sloping undulating roof. A large freestanding white cross is as tall as nearby utility poles
Zion Lutheran Church, 400 N. Sawyer St., Oshkosh

The Algome Boulevard Methodist Church, built in 1870, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is an imposing but friendly building. The siting is lovely: the building sits between two streets that meet at about a 60 degree angle, adding drama to an already dramatic building.

Older suburban or urban streetscape, large stone building with an imposing steeple
Algoma Boulevard United Methodist Church, 174 Algome Blvd., Oshkosh. This building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I interpret the word “religious” in a broad sense; from my perspective, yoga studios look and act a lot like religious communities. Embody Yoga & Pilates occupies a storefront in the old downtown section of Oshkosh. The bright and cheerful sign on the window livens up the streetscape.

Urban streetscape, two story brick building with two storefronts on the first floor, one of which has a sign for a yoga studio
Embody Yoga & Pilates, 579 N. Main St., Oshkosh

The imposing mass of the High Ave. location of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish sits on a sloping lot. I like the way the red sign anchors the lot at the lower end (there’s a matching red sign on the upper side of the lot, not visible in the photograph). The somewhat austere building is softened by the trees and bushes planted around it.

A modernist building viewed across an empty parking lot.
Most Blessed Sacrament Parish (Roman Catholic), 435 High Ave., Oshkosh

Each of these buildings uses a muted color palette consisting mostly of earth colors, with occasional bright accents. Most of these building echo the flatness of the Wisconsin landscape. The two Lutheran churches send up nothing more than delicate crosses into the sky; the masjid has a modest minaret lower than the surrounding trees; the yoga studio maintains its modest presence in the first floor only; the Catholic church, though surprisingly large, still fits into the flat landscape. Only the Algoma Boulevard Methodist church rises up in a large mass, though its gray color keeps it from standing out too much.

Finding common ground

In the May, 2022, issue of “St. Anthony Messenger,” a publication of Franciscan Media (Roman Catholic), there was an article by Mark P. Shea titled “I’d Like To Say: Stop Weaponizing the Eucharist.” For those of us who take a pro-choice position, this article contains some observations that we could perhaps agree with. Like this:

“Our [U.S.] abortion policy is, in fact, a triumph of libertarian thinking and the free market. Women can abort or not as they wish…. What drive abortion is not the state but economic pressure. Abortion is primarily pursued as an economic relief valve by women who feel they cannot afford to raise a child. The number one abortifacient in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute, is poverty.”

Those of us in the pro-choice camp who are uncomfortable with libertarianism can find a lot to agree with in this statement. Obviously, we want to include other, less common, reasons for abortion (rape, non-viable foetus, extreme birth defects, etc.). But if we want to work towards finding common ground in a polarized political landscape, this would be a good starting point — provide adequate economic support for all pregnant women, and adequate economic support for all families with babies and children and teenagers. The libertarian, free-market approach to raising children is not working.

To prove his point, Shea goes on to note:

“There came a precipitous drop in abortion rates in the 1990s. The reason had nothing to do with the [U.S. Supreme] Court. It was due to Clinton-era policies that took economic pressure to abort off lower-income women. Far from ‘promoting’ abortion, the goal during the Clinon years was, in the words of the administration, to make abortion ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ And the numbers show that Clinton’s policies, in fact, achieved the pro-life goal of reducing abortion.’

I am no fan of Bill Clinton, or his administration. But I agree with Shea that this Clinton-era policy was a good one. This could serve as a common policy goal that could be supported by pro-life and pro-choice advocates together.

Unfortunately, now that Roe has been struck down, I think there may be less incentive for pro-life advocates to work together with us to develop public policies that support families with children. Nevertheless, I feel this is an area where we should be working hard to find common ground in our polarized country. I hope we can make the case that libertarian, free-market policies are not good for children, regardless of the legal status of abortion.

2020 U.S. Religion Census nears completion

Religion News Service (RNS) reports on some preliminary conclusions from the the 2020 U.S. Religion Census. This decennial census has been carried out since the 1950s, by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

As expected, the number of “adherents” (persons affiliated with a local congregation) has declined since the last such census. But religious groups that have a lot fo immigrants are doing quite well.

For example, Roman Catholics have grown modestly, from 59 million adherents to 61 million adherents. But essentially all that growth comes from Hispanic immigrants. RNS reports: “‘If you took away the Hispanic population in the Catholic Church, it would look as bad as mainline denominations,’ said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research….”

A more striking example: American Muslims. RNS interviewed Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, about Muslims in the U.S. RNW summarizes Bagby’s thoughts as follows: “Muslims may be in a kind of golden age in the U.S. They are younger than the American population overall, and the Boomers among them are financially well off and able to contribute to the construction of new mosques.”

Also worth noting from the RNS report: They interviewed Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, who said: “Denominational brands have weakened, and divisions have increased over issues such as female clergy or sexual orientation….” Unitarian Universalism may be somewhat insulated from these trends, since we generally agree with each other on female clergy and sexual orientation (we had those fights in the last century). But I suspect we are still affected by the weakening of denominational brands.

I’ll be watching the website for the 2020 census, to see when the full report is finally released.

Mastodon

I’ve been looking for a better social media outlet for a while now. I stopped using Twitter years ago because it got too nasty. I’ve stayed on Facebook mostly because I have a lot of friends from Sacred Harp singing there — but Facebook is mostly an ugly place, and I don’t like the way they steal all our data. Several years ago, I tried Diaspora, an open source decentralized social media project, and while I liked the software architecture, there wasn’t enough content to interest me.

Over the past few months, I’ve been hearing about Mastodon, another open source de-centralized social media project. I checked it out, but it felt like too much work, so I let it drop. Then yesterday I logged onto Facebook to check on a Sacred Harp singing, and the Facebook algorithm placed some unpleasant content where I had to see it. Time to take another look at Mastodon.

And yesterday, it turned out, was the day when there was a huge migration of academics and others from Twitter to Mastodon.

Screen grab from Mastodon showing graph of uptick of people joining Mastodon yesterday

Many local Mastodon servers (known as “instances”) were overwhelmed, and stopped accepting new accounts. But I finally found an instance I liked, which was open, and set up an account.

Wow.

So. Much. Better. Than. FB or Twitter.

Mastodon does not have some creepy opaque algorithm controlling what you get to see. If you want to see every post (called “toots” on Mastodon), you see them in chronological order. If you want to see every toot on your local instance, same thing. If you want to read just the toots from the people you’re following, you get to see them all, in chronological order.

There are lots of interesting people on Mastodon. I found quite a few academics. A robust community of amateur radio operators. Lots of science fiction fans. Tons of political junkies. Most major news outlets are now doing something on Mastodon.

Screen grab of my Mastodon home page, today at about 10:30 a.m.

It would be nice to see more Unitarian Universalists on Mastodon. I think it could be a better match for our values than the big commercial social media companies. If you set up an account, Mastodon relies heavily on hashtags, and the Unitarian Universalist hashtag appears to be #UU — include that in your profile so the rest of us can find you.

Admittedly, Mastodon is not for everyone. While it’s relatively easy to use, there is definitely more of a learning curve than with the commercial social media outlets. Nor is it a replacement for Twitter or Facebook — it is different from both. But for me (so far), it’s much better than the cesspools of Facebook or Twitter.

Depictions of Pangu

I’ve been searching online for depictions of Pangu, a creator deity in Chinese folk religion. So far, I’ve found lots of video game and anime and cartoon depictions of Pangu, which appear to be more or less commercial, and generally from an outsider perspective. But I’ve found few depictions done by religio-cultural insiders. This is probably in part because I’m searching for Pangu using English, and Anglophones don’t appear to be very interested in deities from Chinese folk religion.

But I have found a few interesting depictions of Pangu. Like this sketch in a Chinese manuscript dated c. 1900, currently in the collection of the Library of Congress:

Tian-gong Yuan. “Pangu Kaitian Pidi” (Pangu Creating the World) from Tui Bei Quan Tu, 1820, copied by Wu-Yi Chao Xie, circa 1900. Manuscript. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress (33.1) www.loc.gov/exhibits/world/images/images/s33.1.jpg

Then there’s this depiction of Pangu. Note the horns on his head.

Pangu. Digitally enhanced image from the Sancia Tuhui (1607), as reprinted in Li Ung Bin, Outlines of Chinese History (Shanghai, 1914).

(I had to do a lot of digital repair to the image above; the scan that’s widely available online was apparently made from a poorly done print. I tried to remain as true to the original as I could, but this is really a recreation rather than a direct copy of the original.)

Finally, here’s my favorite depiction of Pangu. Like the previous depiction, he has horns on his head, a beard, and a sort of shoulder cape made of leaves (?).

Temple dedicated to Pangu in Zhunan, Miaoli, China. Digitally enhanced public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

There’s another depiction of Pangu, plus a retelling of a creation story featuring him, over at my curriculum site.

I still have not idea of what Pangu worship looks like, or what it involves. Chinese folk religion is one of those religions where Westerners have a real blind spot. Which makes it hard to find out much of anything about Pangu.

Race, religion, and imperialism

In the past couple of years there has been a resurgence of interest in the connections between racism, religion, and imperialism. But these connections have been a topic of conversation for over half a century. Today, were more likely to talk about colonialism, but the connections are the same. Here’s theologian Benjamin E. May in 1954:

“Race and color did not count in the early existence of the Protestant church. It was when modern Western imperialism began to explore and exploit the colored peoples of Africa, Asia, and America that the beginning of segregation and discrimination based on color was intitiated. It was then that color was associated with ‘inferiority’ and white with ‘superiority.'”

— address by Benjamin E. Mays, Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Ill., August 21, 1954; quoted in Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950, p. 427

Robot tells the story of the Rich Young Man

A decade ago, a small software company called XtraNormal allowed you to make free animated videos online. You’d choose a character, input some text, pick a few gestures, and the software would do the rest, posting the final video on Youtube.

I thought this was a great idea. I started out with a video of a robot telling the story from the Gospel of Thomas, ch. 97, the parable of the empty jar. Then I did a video of a robot telling the story of the rich young man from the Gospel of Mark, ch. 10. By the time I thought about it again, XtraNormal had stopped giving away their services, and had converted everything to Windows-only software. I wouldn’t have minded buying their software, but I’d be damned if I’d buy a Windows machine just to run their software. So I only made those two videos.

I never posted the second video on my blog, so here it is, ten years late:

(Note that I moved this video, and the first video, from Youtube to Vimeo. During the move, I improved the audio a little, and tightened up the editing a bit.)