The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken

11 08 2008

The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken: The New Politics of Religion in the United States
Jeffrey W. Robbins & Neal Magee, editors
Continuum, April 2008, 237 pages, $19.95

By Derek Beres

When George W. Bush cited Jesus Christ as being the most influential political philosopher that he identified with in a 1999 Republican primary debate, a significant turn in media attention to religious matters took place. To question how far religion and politics has ever truly been separated in America is too much a stretch for this—or any—single book. Yet with pre-millennial blues and, subsequently, 9/11 dominating our press, the role religion plays in the US (and, by extension, the world) has been broadcast widely and loudly over the last nine years.

The sleeping giant that has awoken is, of course, religion, here focused on the Christian right and evangelical movements. Yet this collection of essays is not necessarily “for” or “against” our religious choices; most of the authors do an excellent job at playing both scholar and devil’s advocate when taking into consideration the society-at-large, and how we are meant to prosper or suffer by the politics of religion (and vice-versa). As is made out early in the text, this is not a book that has been split by the usual media coverage of religion, taking the sides of the fundamentalist factions or the burgeoning atheism movement that has grown in its wake.

In fact, Sam Harris is only mentioned once in passing, while authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do not appear. To the contrary, documentaries like Jesus Camp and other critiques of fundamentalist fury pass unmentioned, while megachurch pastors like Joel Osteen are barely discussed. Instead we have weighty looks at consumerist capitalism and prophetic evangelicalism, the history of the Civil War, and how the theories of Jacques Lacan can accurately describe the current situation from an early childhood developmental perspective.

Using Thomas Paine’s ironic rise and fall from public grace as a steppingstone to show why democracy is a process and not a manufactured product, pressed and ready for wearing, Jeffrey W. Robbins submits an elucidating essay that considers how the democratic struggle that began with the Revolutionary War continues today. He calls to our attention that religion, like politics, is often in the hands of the translator, and when that translation is in the interest of the person instead of the prophecy, something is amiss. This sentiment is echoed throughout the pages of this collection in various forms.

Read the full review in PopMatters.


Idiocracy: A Depraved and Hilarious Tale of Corporate Conspiracy

12 05 2008

By Jill Ettinger

In Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy, America’s future is overrun by a country full of, well, you guessed it (hopefully), idiots. A garishly branded White House is home to a porn-star president championing the nation deeper into a terminal identity crisis and a terrifying degree of blind patriotism for corporate agendas.

The anti-intellectual future-culture lacks ambition outside of watching monster truck racing, TV programs like “Ow, My Balls!” while getting cracked out on tubs of junk food glop, shopping in city-size Costco stores (character “Frito” went to law school there) or stopping in a Starbucks where they serve up sex in addition to lattes. Judge’s message, like in his classic flick Office Space (or any of the Beavis & Butthead episodes), is a goofy and colorful over-dramatization, and although this theatrical flop is set several hundred calendar pages still to come, it clearly parallels today’s state of the nation.

In his humorous stay-the-course commentary on our relationship with corporations, Judge depicts a future that is a conglomerated landscape where virtually everything is branded with some obscene corporate logo, as big businesses have grown even bigger and more invested in our dependency on their products, regardless of whether they’re safe or effective. Brawndo: The Thirst Mutilator is the Gatorade-like green beverage of choice found everywhere. Water is relegated to importance only in toilet flushing while drinking fountains dispense Brawndo to a subservient nation, half of whom also work for the manufacturer.

Read the full story on Reality Sandwich here.

Seeking Security Outside My Homeland, Inside My Country

23 04 2008

By Derek Beres

By the time the Fourteenth Dalai Lama fled Tibet in March, 1959, he had gone through a steady period of disillusion with Chinese officials, who had been offering much lip service to communism — a philosophy he thought was, in theory, practical and promising. The reality of those officials, spearheaded by one of the twentieth century’s most villainous characters, Chairman Mao, was anything but what he initially expected.

One of their unusual practices was a constant concern for his “safety,” as if leaving the Potala Palace at all was a constant threat on his life. At first the man formerly known as Lhamo Thondup was surprised at their generosity concerning his welfare. When they began suggesting that native Tibetans posed a threat, he knew something was suspicious. This was proven when these officials invited him to a dance performance at their post in Lhasa, telling him to arrive in secrecy (an impossibility for a man in his position). The citizenry found out, and united–tens of thousands of them — they blocked the entrance to the Palace so he could not leave. In the ensuing chaos sponsored by the Chinese army, he fled, eventually setting up camp at Dharamsala, where he resides today.

While in Paris this weekend, both of my cards — a bank-issued Visa ATM and a Mastercard–were denied after having used them once each. This put me in a tough situation, whereby I had to borrow money. Upon returning, I called Bank of America to find out what was going on. Turns out that they have implemented a new security measure to battle fraudulent claims. This is understandable — last year they successfully blocked a $930 charge to a Wal-Mart in Texas, after two smaller charges went through. (The timing was horrific, though — I had just landed in Alabama to lecture at the state university, and found myself having to borrow from my hosts.)

Fraud is a serious crime that is truly bothersome. That someone would steal the numbers of my account and go on a Wal-Mart shopping spree, after spending $35 at two different “wings” restaurants (on a vegetarian’s card, no less), is sad and depressing. Yet equally bothersome was the Bank of America representative’s assurance that all this was for my “personal safety” (a point she reiterated numerous times). She did not mention the article in today’s NY Times that stated the bank “raised its credit loss provisions to $6.01 billion from $1.24 billion,” and had a 77% decrease in its quarterly profit.

Click here to read the full blog on the Huffington Post

A Light is Born: Jesus, Jeremiah & Sam

1 04 2008

By Derek Beres

I find it interesting that between two polarities being expressed regarding the role of religion in mainstream politics — the recent over-saturation of Barack Obama’s affiliations/non-affiliations with Jeremiah Wright, and the elucidating essay by Sam Harris on this site — there has not been any discussion of religious symbols and what they represent. This is not to fault any party aforementioned. Obama/Wright stick to a very broad and easily digestable understanding of faith, in which God is a man or spirit of some sort, and plays with humans like humans play with pets. Harris’s work has always been about the dangers of faith, especially blind faith, where we give credence to an abstract idea without investigating the actual effects those beliefs create in the world.

Yet religion has always been about symbolism, and it is in the personification of ideas that we “miss the mark,” which is an original meaning of the word “sin.” That is, taking universal ideas and limiting them to one or a few particular historical individuals, instead of comprehending and integrating the symbols into our life in the here and now. Hence, Jesus did this or that, and the best we can do today is mimic that idea; we will never touch the perfection by which he did it anyway. It’s no wonder that people involved in this sort of religion feel both 1) disempowered by the world and their place in it, and 2) immediately hateful toward anyone that questions their beliefs.

There’s little surprise that in such a reading of popular Christianity that the entire spectacle takes place in the underworld–the birth of Jesus, which roughly corresponds (and more traditionally, exactly corresponds) to the winter solstice, and his death and resurrection, which falls near the spring equinox. The soul of the Christian is literally in darkness: winter. This is a very old motif, used some time before the Jesus figure in the story of Osiris, as well as the underworld quest of Gilgamesh. A similar idea was employed in Persephone and Hades. All these examples deal with the barren soil and the “resurrection” of agriculture in spring. It is the sun’s descent and rebirthing, which in turn gives us nourishment through grain and greens, when soil is once again virginal, ready to bring forth fruit.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post here

In Search of Teachers, Not Presidents

4 03 2008

By Derek Beres

While the Democratic debate has turned into an all-out popularity contest, and the most-discussed issues continue to be the economy, oil and war, there are two topics that none of the three candidates have really honed in on. They all spend a lot of time dancing around the perimeters, yet they never touch the essence of them. In fact, I’m not sure any of them even know what the essence is.

The two that I’m referring to are healthcare and the environment. Obviously healthcare is a huge concern, and has been addressed continually. Both Clinton and Obama support universal healthcare (well, wait — since when is America the universe?), and plan on having everybody insured if they were to gain the throne. McCain says the same, that we “can and must” cover everyone. It’s a hopeful idea, and one we can appreciate, especially given that numerous other countries already have this system in place without having to use it as a political platform. But of all three candidates, only one (McCain) even mentions the word “nutrition,” and makes some sort of claim to try to stop problems before they start — at the very bottom of his list.

Like our healthcare system already, everything is geared around curing, and not preventing. This sort-of thinking is what has led us to acquire what nutrition expert Colin Campbell calls “diseases of affluence,” illnesses that define the way Americans die in our times; namely: heart disease and cancer. (Not surprisingly, the third highest killer of Americans is the healthcare system itself, through faulty prescriptions, botched surgeries and wrongful diagnoses). In The China Study he not only shows why the way we approach nutrition is misguided, but that it is actually helping promote diseases like the aforementioned. He does not conclude that these nutritive guidelines — high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate meals — create the illness, but the way many Americans eat is certainly helping move us down the line a lot quicker, and more painfully.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post.

Yes We Can?

22 02 2008

By Derek Beres

In 1976, Bob Marley released Rastaman Vibration, which included what has become of his most memorable songs, “War.” In it he took the text of Ethiopian king Haile Selassie’s 1963 UN Conference speech and set it to music. The song (like the speech itself), while geared toward the liberation and uprising of Africans who had been colonized by European forces for nearly a century (and enslaved for many more), featured universal sentiments about social and political freedom. Notions such as “lasting peace,” “world citizenship” and “international morality” were entwined with reminders about the social and political stability of Mozambique and Angola, making the universal and the particular inseparable. Such was Marley’s legacy, turning political empowerment into sonic sorcery. His music was truly an agent of change, as the man behind the sound involved himself heavily in the plight of his peers.

Outside of the importance of content is the music itself — “War” is a damn good song: hard horn stabs, lax and precise hi hat behind a pounding bass drum, the easy swagger of Nesta’s skanking guitar. And of course, that undeniable and irreplaceable growl. Marley knew that the message and the medium were one and the same; he could not, as politically motivated songs have the knack of doing, compromise the musicality for the meaning. He knew that the musicality is the meaning, and to reach the hearts and minds of his audience, musical integrity was the primary concern.

Perhaps we cannot expect so much of musicians — Bob Marley was, in so many ways, unique unto himself. And yet when listening to the Barack Obama-inspired speech/song, “Yes We Can,” I can only shake my head at what is, from a musical standpoint, a blatant attempt of reaching the lowest common denominator. Such “superstar” cause songs are not new, and in this number’s glossy strains and overly impassioned vocals one is reminded of “We Are the World,” a record which exposed America to the famine trouble in Ethiopia — the same land Selassie once ruled over — while playing for the widest possible audience via radio waves and MTV.

In itself, popular music is indefinable. It has recognizable traits, and relies on certain formulas, though just exactly what “pop” means is rather elusive. When considering it, I always reflect back on what bass player Bill Laswell told me a few years ago: the four-minute song is not music, but a business idea. Of course, this does not apply to every four-minute piece of music; “War” clocked in at 3:37, for one. But the 4:30 “Yes We Can,” produced by Black Eyed Peas member, certainly falls into that category. While it may be argued that it is a political, and not business, idea, I cannot see the difference between the two.

Read the full blog on Huffington Post.

Evolution is Not a Belief

8 01 2008

By Derek Beres

In his article, What is it about Mormonism?, Noah Feldman gives a general summation of the history of Mormon belief and culture, one that began with a starry-eyed, gold-seeking “prophet,” turned into a rite of persecution in every state the growing movement traveled to, and has resulted in a financially prosperous, though little understood, business and religious venture. One point that is extremely relevant to the current election is brought up:

“Facing a traditional American anti-Catholicism, John F. Kennedy gave a speech during the 1960 presidential campaign declaring his private religion irrelevant to his qualifications for public office.”

This is a convenient bluff, but it fails to recognize one fundamental reality: your theology is going to dictate your perspective. Take, for example, the fact that Mike Huckabee does not “believe” in evolution. Thing is, evolution is not something to believe in. Paraphrasing Daniel Dennett, people fail to recognize that evolution is as certain as the fact that water is H2O. That babies are born as a result of two people having sex and the reality that when a virus enters your system, you will be sick, are not questions of belief. Why do then harass evolution in such a manner, when it is as basic as these other examples?

Of course Kennedy would make such a statement regarding religion – he was a politician! Beloved or not, there’s a reason why term “political maneuvering” is relevant to many situations. Mitt Romney’s speech, essentially attempting to appease a Mormon-defying or -uncertain crowd, was filled with the same excuses. If you are a Mormon, it is integral to your theology that you believe a man dug up gold tablets that stated that Jesus returned to earth, in Missouri in fact, a few centuries after his first visit), and will come again (very soon!) to Independence, Missouri, to lead the righteous against the wicked. Mind you, these gold tablets were inscribed in some form of Egyptian that Smith intuitively translated, as he did not initially know what they meant. Oh, and the tablets no longer exist, as he had to give him back to the angel Moroni for safe-keeping.

Read the full blog on Sound Against Flame.