Faith and violence

23 03 2010

I listened to a recent NPR story about whether the Bible is more violent than the Koran. I am not going to throw my hat in the ring regarding that question. But this did make me wonder why, particularly among contemporary people in the developed world, violence and religion are seen as no longer going together, as if violence is no longer a part of people’s daily lives.

It also strikes me as odd that certain folks are surprised that many criminals are still religious, even the really bad ones. I was reading a recent USA Today story about the cult to Jesus Malverde in Mexico, and he seems to get dubbed the “patron saint of the narcos” on both sides of the border, as if all the drug smugglers only venerate him since they feel that they have “crossed over to the dark side” and can’t ask any other heavenly intercessor for a favor. I would speculate that these people do not “theologize” along such Manichean lines, and they are just as likely to have a medal of St. Jude around their neck as they are one of Jesus Malverde or Santa Muerte. Such dichotomies between official religion and what people actually do seem only to comfort a certain sector of the self-proclaimed literati. I never take them seriously.

Defending the indefensible

18 02 2010

I will go ahead and curmudgeonly indulge in saying that I don’t know reiki from saki. But a recent segment on Religion and Ethics News Weekly (a show that I watch, often while wincing), brought up many issues that I have addressed on this blog and elsewhere regarding the nature of religion, metaphysics, and healing. In the battle between un-habited New Age nuns and the U.S. Council of Bishops, in unlikely fashion I am coming to the defense of the nuns. It’s not that I like ambient music, fancy Asian energies, or liberal religious who seem to just need a good old fashioned Baltimore Catechism brainwashing session. I rather dislike all of these things, actually, but I dislike a-historical metaphysical rationalism even more, and bishops are not high up on my list either.
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Judica me, Deus…

28 01 2010

Sometimes the real life friends I have chosen to make say the darndest things. I had a half-Mexican friend who, after many twists and turns in life, had decided to finally embrace Protestantism. One time, we went out for pizza. While talking about modern Christianity, the conversation turned to how modern Christians tend to regard God as some plush toy they display prominently in a curio cabinet. God loves you, He’s not going to get mad at you. He is perfectly harmless. To this total lack of seriousness, the failure to take seriously the vengeful God of the Bible, he said:

“God is Santa Muerte.”
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All the Church news that’s fit to print

20 01 2010

The thought of Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx is examined in this rather perceptive article in the New York Times about the Church in the last seventy years.

I thought this quote in particular to be the most pertinent:

Like many Catholic theologians who influenced the council, Father Schillebeeckx had reacted against the neo-scholastic theology that the church adopted in the 19th century as a bulwark against hostile modern ideas. Distilled from the thought of Thomas Aquinas but frequently handed on without any examination of Aquinas’s writings or their medieval context, this neo-scholasticism articulated the faith in series of abstract concepts and propositions presented as absolute, ahistorical and immutable.

Father Schillebeeckx found alternative intellectual resources in modern phenomenology, with its meticulous attention to the actual experience of consciousness. And by studying Aquinas in his medieval context, he recovered a Thomism that expounded the presence and mystery of God in far less rationalistic and conceptual ways than did its neo-scholastic versions.

Of course, a lot of these thoughts are rather broad generalizations. But for me, they articulate again that, in many ways, the Catholicism of the pre-Vatican II Church was not all that old. Such things as frequent Communion, Gregorian chant, militant reactionary social teaching, and Baltimore Catechism-style formulations of the faith were just as much a product of modernity and its scholarship as the thought of Loisy or the public services of Taizé.
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On the margins of theology – III

19 10 2009


photo credit

On magic (black, white, and various shades of gray)

Veracruz is known as the “witch capital” of Mexico. Many of the esoteric movements in underground Mexican Catholicism are believed to have started there. For those who know their history, you will also know that it was near Veracruz that Cortes first landed, beginning the conquest of all of Mexico and its subjugation to the powers of altar and crown. The reasons for the reputation of Veracruz, however, do not have to do solely with survivals of autochthonous tendencies in the religious consciousness of the people. Equally important are the contributions of European and African elements. If anything, some of the more bizarre practices in Mexican “folk Catholicism” have less to do with indigenous belief than with the survival of religious elements that the Spaniards brought with them from the Old World.
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On the margins of theology – 2.5

1 10 2009


The lodestone cultus in Mexico

The men in Mexico still carry lodestones to give them success and great virility. They regard the stone as a living being, every Friday placing it in water, then in the Sun, and giving it iron filings to “eat”. However, they also believe that this stone has a devil inside and will not enter a church with it. Another belief is that if a lodestone is rubbed on a knife blade, anyone wounded by that blade will die of the poison left there.

-found here

Some may discount the above as coming from a disreputable source, or think that it is the result of some bizarre “New Age” thinking influencing the minds of Mexican men. The only problem with such a supposition is that the cult to the lodestone is an established “tradition” in many parts of Mexico, and I have even translated a prayer to it here.

Isabel Kelly, in her book, Folk Practices in North Mexico, has a significant section on the lodestone cultus. Although she speculates that it is a “recent cult” (keep in mind that the field work for this book was done in 1953), she nevertheless goes into quite a bit of detail regarding how it manifested itself in daily life. The “theology” behind it is stricly oral (of course), and oddly based on dubious Christological origins, as was explained to the anthropologist by an herbalist in Torreon:

The [lodestone] is where Christ is kneeling. Have you not seen the picture? A “light” woman [presumably Mary Magdalene. The Libro de San Cipriano twice mentions “the Samaritan woman” in connection with the lodestone] cut a piece of the stone for luck…
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On the margins of theology – II

21 09 2009

pacho villa

The primitive ontology of the Laguna region of Mexico in the 1950’s

In the year 1953, my mother was born on the U.S. – Mexico border, in the town of Sullivan City, Texas. Within three months, she and her parents returned to their native village of Florencia, in the state of Coahuila, just outside the city of Torreon, in what is known as the Laguna region of northern Mexico.

That same year, an American anthropologist, Isabel Kelly, began to do field studies into the healing practices and popular beliefs in that same region of Mexico. She would later compile these into a small book titled, Folk Practices in North Mexico: Birth Customs, Folk Medicine, and Spiritualism in the Laguna Zone. While her book appears more as a series of field notes, almost verbatim accounts of various practices from the area around the city of Torreon, they reveal that the popular vision of the world was shaped by various cross currents, both ancient and modern, that informed the how people from my mother’s homeland dealt with the various travails of their harsh existence.
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Botanica moments

22 07 2009


1. I went to a rather scary botanica in east Oakland right before I left California. Saw a lot of interesting stuff, and they had dozens of statues of Santa Muerte. If that had been the first botanica I had ever visited, I would have been really creeped out by it.

In the back, next to the consulting room (botanicas tend to do a lot of that kind of business), there were two twin niches: one to the Virgin of Guadalupe, another to la Santa Muerte, all decked out as if she were a Virgin. If I had a camera, and was permitted to take a picture, I would have. The contrast between the “light Mother” and “dark Mother” was Jungian theory in living, folk Catholic color. They were going to have a “fiesta de Santa Muerte”, but I could not make it, since by then I had left California.

2. Not quite a botanica, but something similar: it was at the New Orleans Spiritual Voudou Temple, which if you go in the entrance, looks like a botanica with a New Age flavor and ridiculously overpriced. Anyway, I took advantage of their offer to go into the “altar room”, though few ceremonies actually take place there. As I entered and exited, I noticed a large doll dressed in white with a mitre on its head.

“Hey,” I thought to myself, “that’s John Paul II.” I was too afraid to ask my guide about the doll, but I was not surprised to see him there. So you know, at least in one place in New Orleans, a Voudou priestess invokes the spirit of the late Pontiff. JP-2, we love u!

There is an actual botanica up the street a bit from downtown, but it mostly deals in candle magic and statues. Plus, it has more of the original, Cuban santeria / palo mayombe flavor to it. It has a particularly impressive statue of St. Lazarus, or Babalu-aye.

3. AG and I went on a tour of the French Quarter that ended at St. Louis No. 1 cemetery and the tomb of Marie Laveau. There is still devotion in the city to the Voudou Queen, and various piles of Mardi Gras beads and trinkets were left at the foot of her free standing grave. But I noticed another offering on the side of the tomb that was a little odd: a copy of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. I hope her devotees will bring her better reading material in the future.

On Free Market Faith

4 07 2009


Picked this one up over at Owen’s blog, from the editor of Commonweal, Paul Baumann. Some excerpts:

…Where once it was widely assumed that modernity and its handmaiden “secularization” would kill off religion, the reports of God’s death turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, Micklethwait and Wooldridge assure us, “the very things that were supposed to destroy religion—democracy and markets, technology and reason—are apparently combining to make it stronger.” Europe was wrong, and America right. Irreligion in Europe is the anomaly, and the “hot religion” (namely Evangelical Protestantism) of the United States is the future. “American-style religion” is very much here to stay, and on the whole that is a good thing—especially for business…

God Is Back traces this church model to the revivals or “awakenings” of the nineteenth century as well as the pragmatic outreach and organization of the Methodist Church, once the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. We follow Evangelical Protestantism’s ups and downs like a stock price, from Prohibition and the Scopes trial to George W. Bush and right up to the current moment. (The crestfallen reaction of conservative evangelicals and Catholics to Barack Obama’s election gets little attention, however.) Faced with the challenge of marketing faith in a postindustrial society, contemporary American “pastorpreneurs” have turned to sophisticated business models for inspiration and instruction. As God Is Back notes, Willow Creek Community Church, the famed Illinois megachurch, boasts two MBAs on its large administrative staff, and an operation that caters to virtually all the needs of its members, from food courts to addiction counseling. “Willow Creek,” the authors write, “is based on the same principle as all successful businesses: putting the customer first.” It is a principle they see being followed by Evangelical, Pentecostal, and even some Catholic churches around the world.
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Vintage Catholic Culture

9 06 2009


I spent my weekend chatting a lot with Mr. G (AG’s father). Unlike me, and much like my own father, Mr. G. is a man of practical skill and sensibility. From a black sharecropping family in southern Louisiana, he worked his way up to being an important petrochemical engineer with an international company that all of you would recognize. In spite of this, he can still regale us with tails from the countryside, and having visited his family in rural Opelousas, I can very well know where he is coming from.

A much different story was when I woke up Monday morning and read an essay by the Catholic writer Anthony Esolen (linked by Daniel Mitsui’s blog) about the complete absence of culture in our modern America. As is the case with many things I read by such authors, I feel their pain. After all, what average American would want to read half the stuff I post here? If anything, more Americans would read people gripe about not having a culture than read an essay about ballet, poetry, or iconography (I don’t write to be popular. Seriously.) At the same time, however, I find the whole idea of “city slickers” being nostalgic for peasant life, of reading a few verses of Dante before they bring in the harvest, to be really, really quaint. Maybe these people aren’t used to waking up at the crack of dawn because that rooster won’t shut up, going out in the fields and dipping your hands in some ice cold fruits or vegetables. Maybe they don’t know what it means to sleep eight to a room, or to have hands bloodied at the end of the day from being cut by the “fruits of the earth”. But my parents know, and AG’s father knows, and to some extent, I know. It was an edifying experience, but not necessarily one I want my children to have.
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