Friday, March 6, 2009

Fanatics in Fabric?

A bit about religion & politics! Obama's inaugural nod to "non-believers" woke us up. We're no longer a "Christian nation," but a U.S. where Hindus and Muslims now step up alongside rhetorically yoked "Jews" to march along the 80% or so professed Christians in political or social ritual. I read in the February 27th "Forward" (one of our last in print, it seems; we may have to let it go to save trees and spare cash) yesterday Michael Felsen's "Obama's Faith in 'Non-Believers'."

Felsen, from the avowedly non-religious, leftist-radical (if by time's sepia as burnished as other Yiddishkeit) Workman's Circle/Arbeter Ring, as expected applauds such inclusion next to Approved Monotheists. Add to those reliable People of the Book now Hindus with 300 million gods, nearly as numerous in America (in followers and not deities, although the 1:1 ratio of residents in the 50 States to Indian superpowers does seem neatly appealing in a guardian angel hovering over every American's right shoulder type of set-up) as those claiming Judaism. We're a market for every marketing angle. I see Indian Americans now in ads, black women kissing white men, and all sorts of all-purpose caramel-colored brunettes cavorting. And, Asians seem as some aspire to be the "new Jews" given their prominence in print and on-line photos next to any matters hawked financial or dovishly educational.

A softer pitch, less hectoring, sells to our jittery buyer. Assurances in stability, aimed here or the hereafter. Doctrine rebranded as diversity. Dogma downsized to deals. Consumers remain wary, weary of debt, blamed both for spending and saving. Sinners whether profligate or spendthrift, hoarding up treasures where no moth can go. The parables come back to mind, the Book of Proverbs, hints of hymns and psalms.

In the same issue, Dan Friedman notes (do I alone hear an unattributed allusion echoing Walter Benjamin?) "Jewish Culture in the Age of Electronic Reproducibility." Arts and Culture editor Friedman argues that Judaism works as product placement outside the shul. For,
"as Douglas Rushkoff pointed out in his 2003 book 'Nothing Sacred,' unlike narrow religiosity, Jewish culture is perfectly placed to move into the 21st century, because Jewishness is perfect for this new hybrid world: It’s mobile, it’s democratic and it’s niche."

I recommend Rushkoff's book, by the way. He anticipated well the demand for a less-combative, more adaptable form of post-rabbinic Judaism, able to reach out to those not even darkening a door on the High Holidays. Value-added, tangential, quirky: it's three thousand years of wisdom as alternative product under a stealth label. (I think of hipsters falling for Pabst Blue Ribbon-- the beer my godmother drank out of cans in 1966-- revived as if a "real" downmarket brewery when in fact it's just another conglomerate masking itself from the bleary eye of the tatted and pierced barflies. Like the loft where the trendy afterhours crowd may dally, it's built on old capitalist, corporate industrial, foundations despite the faux-ironic slouch.)

The lack of geography, the necessity for decentralization-- at least post-Temple-- finds Judaism ready to fit into the little nooks of networking and the crannies of technology. Better an add-on app that gives the longing Jewish loft-dweller meaning than, I guess, Kabbalah Water or a red string. Friedman assures us that Judaism's a "high-quality niche," although how you differentiate the substance of the Ein Sof in what Regina Spektor peddles from what Madonna shills leaves me I admit sadly still unenlightened.

Friedman coins as "peercasting" what earlier commentators I've seen have called "podcasting." It's the narrowing of tastes that then can be shared electronically with like-minded folks one-on-one, improving in turn upon "narrowcasting" (think of cable vs. the big three channels). That in turn improved upon what Friedman credits as of course "broadcasting"-- total push, no pull, you the hapless viewer who has to get home by 8 to watch the new episode of "Seinfeld" or else must wait months in hopes of a summer re-run. And, like "Seinfeld," perhaps the larger culture will listen along too to what the fringe folks have to say, "with confidence that the particularity of the story will not prejudice the universality of the issue." Not that he mentions the show. He doesn't. Nothing wrong with that. I'm channelling it and I don't even like it. See the power of the marginal to captivate the majority? See who runs the media;) That's viral!

This "viral" marketing, intriguingly, reminds me of a brave student last term in the same course where his classmate asked me two months ago if I was an atheist. The student presented on Richard Dawkins' concept of the "selfish gene," memes, and the young twenty-ish undergrad touched delicately (within a study more about technological evolution) on how mimetics spread religion as a culturally embedded virus among its carriers. He showed a chart of Christianity, from 1054 onwards, splitting nearly as vigorously as any other organism under the microscope. I wonder if Rushkoff or Friedman thought of this form of a culture, a religion, a Jewish practice, as truly "viral" in the way that the Oxford biologist meant the term?

Zionists, jihadi, Christers, fanatics in fabric: these annoy a lot of sensible people. Even if we often harbor our own illogical tenets, as improbable at least as dianetics, the Book of Mormon, Mohammed's horse-conveyed flight to the Dome of the Rock, or transubstantiation. Yet not even neo-atheists-- except for Hitchens-- get that mad at Buddhists. Harris, in fact, shows no small sympathy for meditation in the Tibetan tradition in "The End of Faith." He's in quite a large crowd among his comparatively few kinsmen, secular though he professes. The well-known overlap with Jewish-born practitioners has been said to be half of all American-born followers of the dharma! Top this with the 15% or so cohort argued by some to be agnostic, atheist, or I guess like me so complicated I lack any census box, and you get, as Bill Maher argued half-successfully in "Religulous" (a film as awkward as its title), a substantial representation of a lot of non-... along with a lot of post-...Christians.

Those Dawkins tried so far unsuccessfully to get re-branded "brights" reach nowhere near, say, Swedish levels of stolid stoic reason. There's humanists, but this term for me gets forced too often into a rigid "secular" adjective by non-believers. This pairing ignores those who possess faith along with an adherence to a nuanced form of humanism. Maybe another Jesuit scientist, Teilhard de Chardin, could help us out here? I only wish I understood his philosophical speculations more. Maybe in 200 years my descendents will. I reckon the spiritual landscape will welcome the advent of the noosphere by then, if we allow our planet to survive long enough to hear this inspiring message. Certainly we need to hear voices that align us within fragile creation. All the talk of Twitter and cellphones and mobbing: will it bring wisdom?

It seems we're eager to follow and share much but with less time to stop and hold. Anyhow, Maher lets out the truth-- without managing to investigate why exactly as he may've wanted to before his snark waylaid his suss-- that Americans by far boast out of all advanced nations the most conspicuously credulous in faith. On the other hand, Rev. Wright aside, Obama foreshadows multicultural America where our children may wander from tradition. Or at least pledge not that allegiance when one's expected to choose one parent's creed over the other's. Look up "Ne Temere" that split many Catholic-Protestant marriages apart in essence if not in fact during last century. Often, as with some relatives of mine a century ago, daughters took the mother's creed, sons that of the father. I wonder what, or if, they really believed, even if they could not have admitted such aloud back then.

This leads to unpredictable families. Felsen reminds us what I doubt got a lot of campaign press. Obama's Muslim father turned atheist. His free-thinking, free-spirited early hippie mother suspected "organized religion." Her parents were "non-practicing Methodists and Baptists" although from that fabled Kansan heartland.

My hunch is that Obama's family's diverse paths in adulthood may become more common for many more Americans than now may think so in the comfort of their churches, mosques, or temples. Or, spas and Starbucks. A majority of voters currently vow never to elect an atheist-- it's easily the most detested category-- but I reckon by another quarter-century, if religious fundamentalism allied with globe-spanning weaponry allows us to survive, this may alter.

In My Father's House, many mansions? Obama's path, although perhaps partially for calculation, partially for meaning, led him back to Christianity. That variety remains one of many options, although it may become less often the one by default we expect of prodigal sons and wayward daughters. Also, which Maher neglects to explore, "organized religion" for the children of hippies and eggheads evolved more nuanced versions than peddled by a Chicago preacher. Dawkins argues that the moderates only further by misguided tolerance the excesses of their more intolerant brethren of whatever denomination. Maher agrees, but this proviso's overwhelmed towards the end of an increasingly shrill cinematic investigation turned entertainment. Therefore, the crucial point that he borrows (if uncredited) from Dawkins lacks nuance. Not that viewers of "Religulous" demand subtlety.

Maher should have given those Jesuits on camera more time (I admit my bias) to explain how one can doubt a scripture based on pre-scientific conceptions, yet still believe. I wanted astronomer Fr. Coyne and the other priest, the big laughing gent in front of St. Peter's, to explain that Ignatian sophistication. I know my college professors-- both Jesuits and ex-Jesuits!-- could have convinced Maher's audience. I'm not sure if Maher would possess the patience.

Dawkins, Harris, Maher, and Hitchens may charge that the clergy could not uphold Darwin and deity and remain truly faithful. Still, I'd have liked to have heard more from those who eschew radical cleavage to the Verbum Dei yet carry out their scholarship as highly educated, yet sincerely devout, adherents. Rather than chasing after crackpots, that direction could have inspired a less silly, but more worthy documentary that might have gotten the Oscar nomination Maher griped about missing during that last spectacular, twelve days ago live from Hollywood. Even if the film would have lacked so much wonderful stock footage, much of it from Budget Films, where Layne and "the boys" toil to find truly devilish clips of angelic awe(fulness).

In his National Prayer Breakfast address a month ago, Obama stressed the Golden Rule. He advocates moral foundations and ethical practices that anyone can attain. Maher's documentary fumbled this warm fuzzy lob, but this Enlightenment emphasis on decency without a fear of a vengeful God or eternal payback, a twist on Pascal's wager, deserves promotion. Certainly familiar, yet oddly hidden.

The venemous quotes Maher featured from the Founding Fathers fulminating against Christian tenets surprised me by their bitterness. What John Adams and Jefferson through the secularized Jews warned us about has come to pass. They still echo, from the margins and the arthouse cinema and the fringe columnists in papers for the minority of a minority of a minority readership today. I wonder if we will ever be able to run as far away from faith as the rationalists urge us to flee. I'm not sure we can stand the heat so far from the haimish kitchen of our forefathers and zaydes. As a recent Forward column's titled: "Deconstructing Cholent."

The prescient cautions now repeat through revived neo-atheists like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, but they remain in their own self-righteousness as a restive, snarling, fervent, and superior cadre. I sympathize with them, but compared to Dante (at least the Paradiso), Khajaduro's sandstone ecstasy, Tara's gaze, or a Celtic filigree's spiral swirl, cold comfort from rational rule or chaos theory even in the contemplation of the helix, Horsehead Nebula, or cancer cell. You accept their logical sums, but they seem so smug to skeptical me as, well, true believers.

(P.S. That erudite, if superior-seeming as they lord their certainty over us doubters no less than pontiffs or imams-- trio marks another footnote tonight. Behind not hijab or chasuble, but between buckram and glue, through pulp and byte, they too thunder their fabrications bound by cloth about men of the cloth. I dared to review "The End of Faith," "The God Delusion," and "god Is Not Great" in a doomed attempt on Amazon at even-handedness. Their authors comprise precisely one-and-a-half Jews, technically if not actively. Harris as the naturally secular one and Hitch as accidentally half by his mother's assimilated side! Add Maher-- Irish Catholic I take from his dad; his non-practicing mom stamps him indelibly halachic. My Irish-Jewish boys, I hope, will inherit more flattering profiles than the comedian-- and his sister-- flaunt! Time will tell.)

Illustration: Charles Allstin Collis. "The Devout Childhood of St. Elizabeth of Hungary." 1852 Pencil drawing. Tate Gallery, London.

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