Monday, December 29, 2008

Video of the Week: Winner of the Coveted Crying Monkey Award

Mock trailer from the opening credits of Tropic Thunder.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Religion Writing You Should Read: 2008

GodSpam is extremely psyched to have made The Revealer's Best Religion Writing 2008 (in the rather specific category "Favorite Resurrected Religion Site -- Pop Division"). There's also a great round-up of top religion writers' favorite media of the year at Religion Dispatches. I've been a little distracted this year (a-hem), but here' s a tribute to the best of the books & articles I managed to squeeze into my schedule...


The Family by Jeff Sharlet
Sharlet is the best religion journalist working today, and his eye-opening investigation into American fundamentalist Christianity explains so much about religion and politics that the media otherwise glosses over. If you've ever wondered how the Religious Right became a major political power, or how megachurches that preach the evils of homosexuality and the virtue of wealth descended from a politically radical peasant preaching in the desert, you must read this book.

Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh
With this book, Radosh set out to explore the good, the bad and the ugly of Christian pop culture -- but instead of the comically unbalanced group of zealots he anticipated, he found a complex, sympathetic subculture with an abundance of good and bad ideas. A very funny and enlightening book with a kick-ass website.


The Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau
A beautifully written, heartbreaking novel about the transition of Yiddish culture from the old world to the new one, through the eyes of an immigrant poet.

Ex Machina by Brian K Vaughn

This ongoing comic series -- about a superhero who saves the second tower from falling on 9/11, then become the mayor of New York City -- is a fascinating exploration of morality in the modern world, and it ventured into blatantly religious territory this year when Mayor Hundred had a vision of God.


Gabriel Mckee's film coverage on Religion Dispatches
I am absolutely biased when it comes to the brilliance of SF Gospel author Gabriel Mckee, but thanks to Religion Dispatches, the rest of the world can now appreciate his gift for finding religious messages in such unlikely films as Cloverfield and Funny Games.

"Culting" by Catherine Wessinger on Religion Dispatches
A warning about the perils of labeling any religious sect a 'cult,' this particularly timely article should have been read by every media person assigned to cover the Warren Jeffs scandal.

Does Religion Cause Violence? by William T Cavanaugh
in The Harvard Divinity Bulletin
Okay, technically this article came out last year, but it was sitting on our coffee table for so long that I didn't read it until this year. Cavanaugh takes the common belief that a world without religion would be a world without violence and deconstructs it, beginning with the definition of the word "religion."


Quiverfull by Kathryn Joyce
An even-handed but absolutely terrifying exploration of the "patriarchy movement," this book (which comes out in March) looks at a growing group of Americans who believe that feminism is the chief enemy of Christianity. (Warning: read this and The Family in the same week and you might feel compelled to move far, far away.)

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Worst Nativities Money Can Buy

Behold, the Jawa Nativity...
... the Leprechaun Nativity...

... the Sad Cat Nativity...

... the Inflatable Nativity...
... the Naked Troll Nativity...

... and so, so many others. I couldn't love this bad nativity round-up more -- unless it had buy links.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Brief History of the Virgin Mary's Breasts

Mexican Playboy issued an apology this week for depicting their latest cover model as a sexy Virgin Mary. Although the magazine was released just days before the annual feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Playboy Mexico's publisher has declared, "The image is not and never was intended to portray the Virgin of Guadalupe or any other religious figure. The intent was to reflect a Renaissance-like mood on the cover." So they just picked a random artistic movement and went with it? I'd hate to see their take on Dadaism.

Amazingly, this isn't the year's first news story about Our Lady's naughty bits. In June the official newspaper of the Vatican announced that it was finally time to uncensor religious art that depicts Mary breastfeeding Jesus. Prior to the Protestant prudery (yep, alliteration) of the 1700s, these images were fairly common:

Joovs van Cleve, Virgin and Child, 1525

Rembrandt, The Holy Family, 1634

However, it should be noted that the partially-exposed Virgin wasn't always so sexy. Artists who were afraid of dishonoring the Holy Mother by making her appear too much like an earthly woman often erred in the other direction: they made her breasts look like appendages that no human woman has ever possessed:

Yes, just another day in the life of the Virgin Mary, nursing the infant Jesus from the extra breast on her shoulder.

Friday, December 12, 2008

How the Grinch Stole Atheism

When it comes to separation of church and state, I am 100% in favor. The intrusion of religion into law is deeply dangerous for a free society; religious belief should not be legislated any more than it should be outlawed.

But should it be illegal to celebrate?

To me, Christmas lights in public parks, Passover seders in town halls, and Ramadan specials in grocery stores (note: I do not know of a grocery store that does this) show evidence of a dynamic, diverse America wherein different cultures can exist side-by-side. None of these religious holidays exists for the purpose of condemning anyone; instead, their intention is to uplift. There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to express joy, as long as the celebration is inclusive, not exclusive.

And that's where I've got a problem with the sign that the Freedom from Religion Foundation erected in the capitol building in Olympia, Washington, which declares that "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." While the local government gamely agreed to plunk the sign down next to their Christmas tree, believing that they were legally required to accommodate all viewpoints in a government building, the sign does not belong, because the sign is irrelevant. It does not exist in celebration of any holiday. It doesn't even support any particular belief, except the belief that it's wrong to believe anything. Even worse: it's just mean. It flies in the face of the goodwill gesture that is displaying nativity sets and menorahs. I'm sure the Freedom from Religion Foundation is delighting in the controversy they've deliberately stirred up, which allows them to play the victim card that's usually in the hands of conservative Christians. But it's a hollow victory, attained by a low blow. Separation of church and state is a worthy cause; why forgo the fight for the childish satisfaction of giving all people of faith the finger?

Ironically, the back side of the sign (shown in the second image) contains this poem by Eleanor Wheeler Wilcox:
The World's Need

So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind.
When just the art of being kind
Is all this sad world needs.

Call it atheism, humanism or common sense, but "The World's Need" (unlike the diatribe on the front of the sign) would actually fit in rather well between a nativity scene and a menorah.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You (Unless You Live in New York City)

Now that Fireproof has paved the way for a new genre of big-budget evangelical Christian films, another is on the horizon: Not Easily Broken, based on the novel by megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes. As a cinephile who arrives at the theater early to see all the trailers, I'm intrigued by the way these ultra-conservative Christian movies try to sell themselves as ordinary mainstream films (in the hope, presumably, of converting oblivious non-Christian filmgoers). So how do you know if you're walking into an evangelical cinema-trap? Just watch the trailers closely and look for these tell-tale signs:

1. The "Lifetime Original Movie" vibe.
As noted by Daniel Radosh, all of these films take place in vaguely similar, generic suburban worlds that could double as the set for a very special Tori Spelling film about bulimic baby-snatchers.

2. Main characters who are already married.
No romance or sexual tension here: the leads in these films are already hitched, and the words "wife," "husband", "marriage" and "relationship" appear disproportionately in the dialogue.

Not Easily Broken trailer:

3. Shots of men doing manly things (like firefighting or playing sports), followed by shots of men crying.
The better to embody that "warrior poet" duality that evangelicals are so fond of. WWJD? Play basketball, then cry.

4. Crosses instead of boobs.
In your average Hollywood film trailer, regardless of genre, there's probably a very brief flash of a woman throwing off her clothing, or a couple falling into bed, to demonstrate the film's sex appeal. In Christian movie trailers, these hints of nudity are replaced with blink-and-you'll-miss-it shots of characters praying or churchgoing.

Fireproof trailer:

5. A group sales number after the credits.
Go on, take the whole church!

6.Kirk Cameron
A dead giveaway, every time.

Monday, December 8, 2008

God is Not a Wiki

Image credit: Valleywag.

Relevant has a thought-provoking piece by high school teacher Matt Litton about the relationship between faith and internet searches. Litton fears that the internet's ability to instantly answer any question has made his students less curious, and therefore less open to new knowledge and insight. A self-described evangelical, he wonders if Wikipedia and Google have also compromised our collective ability to deepen our faith through questioning:

Maybe we Christians feel the need to compete with the resources of the information age, maybe we feel like we should have all the answers. Whatever sent us down this path, it’s now clear that many of us are not only afraid to ask tough questions, but we actively discourage curiosity and question-asking. Questions, doubts and uncertainty are portrayed as clear signs of spiritual weakness. We are selling the world our faith as the ultimate answer button. We evangelicals seem to feel the dangerous need to eschew doubt and to offer the Christian faith to the world as the spiritual equivalent of Google.

More important than instant answers, he says, is a willingness to explore our Christian faith through difficult questions:

How do we reconcile faith without questions, faith without doubt, how can our faith grow without curiosity?
Whatever our approach to the Bible, we must concede that God is big enough to handle our curiosity and our questions... The Psalmists, David, Solomon and Job approached God with tough questions, with anger bordering on disrespect, heartfelt, pain-ridden anguish, and it ultimately grew their faith.

Read the whole thing here.

Suffer the Little Children

Bible verse baby rompers for your little Jesus freak. Seriously, what's with all the Christian ducks lately?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

O Little Ducks of Bethlehem

Rubby ducky nativity set, part of Ship of Fools' "12 Days of Kitsch-mas."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

You're the Devil in Disguise. Yes, Santa, I'm Talking to You.

The Christmas season is upon us, and while some people celebrate with eggnog and snowmen, Godspam likes to kick back with Dial-A-Truth Ministries, the earnestly crackpot Evangelical website written by Terry Watkins (no relation). As his contribution to the Christmas spirit, Watkins argues that Santa Claus is actually an alter ego of Lucifer himself. Since you surely don't have time to read his 21,000-word screed, GodSpam has helpfully broken in down for you. Grab your sleighbells -- here we go!

- Santa Claus is allegedly based on St. Nicholas, whose life is "unreliably documented" (as opposed to the other saints, who saved all their receipts) and therefore a lie.

- In fact, Santa Claus is more likely based on the Norse deity Thor, a big bearded Yule-god who likes fire, lives among icebergs, and "drove in a chariot drawn by two white goats called Cracker and Gnasher." So, like Santa, but more metal.

- Regardless of which Pagan god he's based on, Santa has a long association with demons. You know his cute little elves? They originated as "black, hairy, horned, cannibalistic, stick-carrying" devils who'd whip children into submission. (Wikipedia backs this one up.)

- Then of course, there's the fact that SANTA is an anagram of SATAN. This can't be a coincidence, because Terry Watkins did a Google search for 'Satan Claus' and found "over 1,700 hits!" What about the Claus part, you ask? Well, that's either an anagram for Lucas (Lucifer's nickname among his frat buddies) or a sneaky way of writing "claws," and claws, of course, are way more evil than regular hands.

- And you know how you thought "St. Nick" was short for "St Nicholas"? Wrong! It's actually a British nickname for the devil, as well as a verb meaning "to rob or steal," which is totally something the devil would do.

- But Santa Claus looks so sweet and jolly, you say! Well, that's because he's actually trying to imitate Jesus in order to trick you. Think Jesus didn't look like Santa? Once you read these out-of-context Bible verses, you'll have another think coming!

"...the hair of his head like the pure wool . . . " Daniel 7:9
"Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat?" Isaiah 63:1-2

- Coming into the house through chimneys? Living in the North Pole? Making toys? Jesus did all that too! Witness the Bible proof!

"And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man... And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace... " Revelation 1:13-15
"Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary...?" Mark 6:3
"Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the LORD'S house which was toward the north . . . "Ezekiel 8:14

- Furthermore, holly is evil ("the Druids believed the "holy" berries represented the blood of their Goddess"). So is the phrase "ho ho ho" ("In Miracle plays, the devil's common entry line"). And elves. Especially elves.

- In fact, elves are so evil that they live inside Ozzy Osbourne's brain. (Sharon Osbourne is quoted: "He's just got this demon inside of him. He just can't get rid of these little people that live in his head.")

- Finally, Santa Claus is dangerously omnipresent and omnipotent. He knows when you are sleeping! He knows when you're awake! How does he know? HE'S SATAN.

- The article concludes with a quote from an Onion article (seriously) called "Ho! Ho! Ho! I Am God!" Qualifies Terry: "Even though it was written as a blasphemous parody, much truth rings from the article." Quoth The Onion:

"...I'm better than God. I'm jollier, and I give you real toys, not boring old psalms and empty promises you can only collect on when you die. Worship me, not Him! Worship Santa!"

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Video of the Week: Jack Black Plays Jesus (Again)

This new video from Funny or Die, which highlights both economic and theological arguments against Proposition 8 to the tuneful music of Marc Shaiman, features Jack Black as a shrimp-cocktail-munching savior:

Of course, this isn't Jack Black's first appearance as the big J.C.; here he is in Mr. Show's classic Jesus Christ Superstar parody, "Jeepers Creepers Semi-Star":

Always be good except when you're bad
Choose to be happy except when you're sad
Don't quote me on this, don't hold me to that
Is there a God? Don't know for a fact...

Do You Want to Be the Top Hat, the Scottie Dog, or Buddha with a Machine Gun?

In a blatant (and successful) attempt to offend, "Playing Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination" pits armed religious figures against one another in a battle for converts. S. Brent Plate of Religion Dispatches thinks the comparison of religion to a game is an apt one:

Through creative or coercive means, convincing others to follow your way/world and not another has been fundamental to Christianity since the time of Constantine, fundamental to Islam since the time of Muhammad, and fundamental to Buddhism since the Bodhi-Dharma left for the East. There is a certain primal desire to suggest to others that “my world” is the right one. Games, and religions, are about creating ever-new worlds, accompanied by the enticing suggestion to come to my world to play.

Taking it Personally

Illustration by Tom Gauld for The Guardian, via the Cabanon Press website.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Bible in Magazine Form: Still Half the Size of Vogue's Fall Issue

Taking the marketing concept of Revolve and Refuel one step further, Bible Illuminated is a 286-page glossy magazine version of the New Testament.

Some sample images:
I'd very much like to know what Bible verse the polar bear is illustrating.

Gotta Have Faith: Marilynne Robinson

Are religion and science simply two systems that don’t merge?

The debate seems to be between a naive understanding of religion and a naive understanding of science. When people try to debunk religion, it seems to me they are referring to an eighteenth-century notion of what science is. I’m talking about Richard Dawkins here, who has a status that I can’t quite understand. He acts as if the physical world that is manifest to us describes reality exhaustively. On the other side, many of the people who articulate and form religious expression have not acted in good faith. The us-versus-them mentality is a terrible corruption of the whole culture.

You’ve written critically about Dawkins and the other New Atheists. Is it their disdain for religion and championing of pure science that troubles you?

No, I read as much pure science as I can take in. It’s a fact that their thinking does not feel scientific. The whole excitement of science is that it’s always pushing toward the discovery of something that it cannot account for or did not anticipate. The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.
The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.

-- from this excellent Paris Review interview with Marilynne Robinson, via Get Religion.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Losing My Religion: Charlie Kaufman

During a public Q&A after the Seattle premiere, I asked Kaufman about his apparent disinterest in questions of a religious nature. I told him I keep waiting for one of his characters to look beyond broken humanity for consolation and redemption. Why don't these characters ever look for God?

Kaufman answered very directly. “That's sort of like asking me, 'Why aren't they lumberjacks?' The answer is, 'Because I don't write about lumberjacks.'”

While the crowd laughed, Kaufman sought to reassure me. “I'm not making fun of you at all.” He explained that it just doesn't occur to him that he might find any kind of love or grace from a sovereign God. “It just doesn't resonate with me. I don't think God is a guy, or a woman, if God exists at all. But other people around me can relate to me in ways that are tangible.... I read a lot of philosophical stuff about religion, metaphysics, and the universe, and I'm really fascinated with it. But my feelings about it are that there's not an anthropomorphic version of someone watching over us who's going to love me. I could be wrong, but that's who I am. And the stuff that I write about is the stuff that I think about.” --
From an interview in Image Journal, via Being Charlie Kaufman

Love Will Tear Us Apart, Amen

An Episcopalian church in Pennsylvania has introduced a Goth Liturgy to reach out to local teens. I wonder if their congregants are as well-dressed as the Goth churchgoers in Second Life...