Friday, July 29, 2011

Religion Friday: Mormonism

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, was founded by Joseph Smith in New York in the mid-1800s. According to tradition, Smith was conflicted over the many sects of Christianity. This was in the 1830s, when frontier America was in a religious frenzy known as the Second Great Awakening. Smith prayed to God, asking which church was the right church; the answer was none. An angel name Moroni revealed golden plates with another testament of the Bible (Book of Mormon), detailing the history of a Jewish tribe and Christ in North America. Smith wrote other books like Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price.

The Mormons were attacked and pushed out west by locals for many years. They tried to reclaim what they felt was Zion/the Garden of Eden in Jackson County, Missouri, but were violently thrown out. They eventually settled in the Utah territory. The head of the church is in Salt Lake City. They believe in a continuing revelation, meaning prophets exist in modern times. Today, there are over 14 million followers.
Mormons believe that everyone is a literal spirit-child of God. The spirit exists before and after this life and will become like a god/goddess. Families are not only important in this life but stay together afterwards as well. Because the family is eternal, it is the core of the faith. Mormons tend to have larger families than average, and they participate in family activities together, such as the well-known Family Home Evening. Couples that get married in a temple are also sealed together so that the marriage will continue into the afterlife.

Most people probably know the LDS Church by its missionaries. Young men who hold a priesthood (are in good standing with the church) are required to go on a two year mission. Women are allowed to go on 18-month missions, but it is not required. Missionaries travel in pairs and are often seen going door-to-door sharing the Book of Mormon. I can’t say that this is the most effective way to win over converts, at least around here, I admire the missionaries. I think the mission has almost as much to do with strengthening and deepening the faith of the already faithful than gaining new members.

The most controversial issue with the Mormon faith is actually a principle that hasn’t been practiced by the LDS Church since Utah became a state: polygamy. Joseph Smith first supported monogamy, but had the revelation that plural marriage was ordained by God, also citing the commonality of plural marriage in the Old Testament. It was believed that a man needed multiple wives to reach the top level of heaven in the afterlife. The U.S. government refused to grant statehood to Utah until this practice was stopped. Some fundamental sects of Mormonism believe the LDS Church sold out its beliefs for statehood, while the LDS Church maintains that new revelations from a prophet led to the end of the practice.

Mormons consider themselves Christians, so why did I include this in the religion tour since I’m focusing on faiths other than Christianity? While I do believe that the LDS Church does share a love of Christ and Christian themes with most Christian denominations, the addition of another testament marks it as a distinctly different faith in my eyes. Just as the New Testament makes Christians separate from Jews, the Book of Mormon places the LDS Church outside of the big umbrella of Christian sects. It is a bigger divide than just different interpretations.

While there are many things about Joseph Smith I don’t believe/don’t agree with, the story of how he first came to start a church really touches me. The Second Great Awakening was probably a scary time, and I can understand the confusion of which church is speaking the Truth when so many travelling pastors are saying different things with a “turn or burn” rhetoric. And I do think that if God answered the question, “Which church has it right?” the answer would indeed be, “None.” Not that the Christian churches are wrong in their teachings, but that no church has it exactly right. They are fallible and subject to human interpretation and interference. It doesn’t mean that someone can’t have a genuine relationship with God in that church. It just means churches should recognize that they aren’t perfect or 100% right, and they should strive to perfect the church’s relationship with God as well as the individual’s.

Next Friday: Baha'i. This will be the conclusion of the World Religion Tour.

[The figure is of the angel Moroni, which sits atop some of the LDS temples.]

Friday, July 22, 2011

Religion Friday: Druze

Druze is a small faith of just over a million followers primarily in Syria and Lebanon. It holds a mix of beliefs from various monotheistic faiths. I can see how in the Middle East, it’s easy to be surrounded by the many monotheistic faiths and earn to incorporate them all into one. The full name of the faith is Unitarian Druze. Druze started as a movement out of Ismailism in the 11th century. Ismailism was a sect of Shia Islam that focused on the mystical path. Greek philosophy and the Gnostics were also influential.

They believe many of the teachings in holy books are symbols, some only intended for intellectuals. There are three levels of understanding religious teachings: the Zahir which is accessible to anyone who hears it, the Batin which is accessible to those questioning and searching, and the Anagoge which is inaccessible to most. Only a few enlightened people who fully understand the nature of the universe can access the Anagoge and fully participate in all ceremonies.

The Druze tend to live in isolated communities. They discourage converts or marrying outside of the faith. Yet they also practice the custom of taqiya, concealing or disguising beliefs if in danger. During times of persecution, some would try to blend in with the majority Muslim community.

The Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha is also celebrated in the Druze faith. The festival commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son before God provided a ram instead. Families have a meat sacrifice divided into three parts. The family keeps one third, friends or neighbors are given a third, and the poor and needy receive the last third.

The Druze refer to themselves simply as monotheists. They acknowledge the one God but seek for deeper ways to understand Him through many teachings. So while the faith sounds similar to Unitarianism, the rigidness of their communities and hierarchy of who can receive the deepest insights prevents many people from knowing much about the faith.

[The Druze star has five colors: green for the universal mind, red for the universal soul, yellow for the Word, blue for cause/precedent, and white for effect/actuality.]

Next Friday: Mormonism

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

This past Sunday, my pastor returned to the pulpit after an 8-week break. Every seven years, the church provides this long sabbatical to the senior pastor because, seriously, pastors have got to have one of the most emotional and time-consuming jobs out there; we don’t want ours to burn out. He seemed refreshed and glad to be back, and we were glad to have him back. A little absence can do wonders for relationships.

His sermon was pretty much a “thank-you” to the church. And it reminded me that I don’t voice my appreciation enough. My church has done a lot for me, and I’m truly blessed to have been raised in such a church. Multiple things I’m grateful for:

1. Rearing: I admit it—I slept through my own baptism. Hey, I was four-months-old. While I have no actual memory of the event, I still consider it highly important. I keep my certificate of baptism in my Bible. When there are baptisms at church, I participate with the rest of the congregation in promising to help raise this child in the church, and I know that once the church promised that to me as well. At third grade, the church gave me my own Bible. This is also the age most kids start taking communion. Though there is no official notation at this age, there is the understanding that you are becoming responsible for your faith, and the church is there to help you out. At sixth grade, I went through confirmation class, which included having an adult mentor. The mentors/confirmans don’t get to pick each other, but they almost always seem a good match. The mentors usually are members of the congregation who don’t currently have children in the programs, who are looking to connect with the youth in the church. They’re fulfilling that promise made 11 years ago to watch over the child’s spiritual development. And when young graduate high school, the church goes all out. Our Senior Sunday is dedicated to them, through the sermon, music, potluck lunch. Their mentors give them a gift from the church. I can’t express how much better Senior Sunday is than actual graduation. And I’ve only mentioned the mile markers.

2. Intellect + Faith: I joined the church on Easter Sunday 2001. I don’t remember the date. I’m not even sure if it was March or April. Evangelicals would be ashamed since knowing the exact moment of professing Christ as Lord and Savior seems really important with them. I do remember I wore a blue dress and white platform sandals and the silver cross my mentor had given me. And I remember touching the baptismal water as a remembrance of my baptism and making the profession of faith. It wasn’t an altar call; it wasn’t emotional. We had practiced earlier to know exactly what we were saying and agreeing to. It was the result of weeks of study. But that didn’t make it less sincere. I don’t like making decisions without knowing exactly what I’m getting into. But I also don’t like being told what to think/feel. That’s why the slower, more intellectual path to confirmation suits me so well. And I don’t need to get my emotions toyed with every Sunday morning. I want insight and communion, not ranting and waving and tears. Faith goes beyond reasoning in many ways, but it’s not purely hormonal reaction. My church promotes looking at the context of the Bible and church history to better understand the faith. Individuals are responsible for looking deeper into the aspects that they need to. The introvert in me loves the calm, reasoned approach to faith that picks my mind as well as my heart.

3. Family: Mega-churches make me cringe. No offense to people who actually get something meaningful out of them (and clearly lots do), but I like going to a church where I know 95% of the people there. 100% would be even better. In high school, my youth group was about 20-25 kids. We knew each other really well, making for a great group cohesion. I have people in the church that I consider family because we grew up so close both in and out of the church walls. The closeness and sincerity of the church community spills out into the larger community. I know these people on deeper levels than I could from any other context. Plus the potlucks are like awesome family reunions. My church is large enough to sustain itself plus various missions, but small enough that no one gets lost in the crowd. The denomination itself is like this too; everyone knows everyone, or at least someone from that church. One big family.

4. Concern: I went through a rough time a few months ago, and it was the first time I truly appreciated the concern for me people of the church had. I don’t know how they knew the right things to say (there are no secrets in small towns, so I wasn’t surprised they knew the situations). I still have some of the note cards sitting on my desk as a reminder that people who aren’t even my close friends are thinking of me and there to help me when I’m down. Some of the women’s circles mail cards to college students just to let them know the home church hasn’t forgotten about them. It’s the little gestures a note or a sincere “How are you doing?” that mean the most sometimes. (Though I got so sick of “Have you been able to get a job?” It was even more annoying knowing that it was coming from the right place so I couldn’t even be upset as the asker. Bless them.)

5. Liturgy: I think I’ve mentioned before how much I appreciate ritual. My church follows the traditional liturgical calendar, and though I hate the shade of green we use for Ordinary Time, I normally don’t mind it because it’s part of the ritual. It’s not about pleasing my tastes but being part of the Church. I like Advent and Lent and Holy Week. I like reciting the Apostles’ Creed and singing the Doxology. I’ve heard people say that such repetition is boring and at worst, insincere. It’s only insincere if you don’t mean it each and every time. Yes, it’s easy to go through the motions in such a setting, but that’s why it’s important to reflect on the words and recite them with your whole heart each time. And I’ve gone through the motions plenty of times at contemporary services, so it goes both ways. It’s about finding the worship style that gets you to God best.

6. In-fighting: There isn’t any. Nothing big that results in splits or people having to chooses sides or anything like that.

7. Random History: My church is known in town for the cannonball lodged right above the front door. During the Civil War the (uncompleted) church was serving as a stables/hospital and got caught in some crossfire. It’s just a unique quirk I like. Also, the building literally sits on the corner of Main Street and Church Street. It’s almost enough to make my metaphor-loving mind explode.

While I’ve lately been feeling drawn to a different kind of church for spiritual reasons, it doesn’t change the love I have for my home church. I love it so much that thinking of leaving for the right reasons is still almost an impossible decision. Even if I do go, I appreciate the support of my church family and the solid foundation I was brought up on.

So thank you, GCPC!

(Seriously, this was a summery. I started writing and realized I could gush on and on about my church. This is as concise as I could do.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Religion Friday: Islam

Oh, Islam. That religion everyone around here talks about but few actually know. Actually, over a billion followers know quite a bit. It is the second largest and the fastest growing religion in the world. And like every large religion, it has its share of fundamentalists that has given the faith an extreme and suspicious reputation.

But Islam is one of the religions of Abraham, meaning there is plenty in common for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to share. Islam was founded by the prophet Mohammad. In 610, he was visiting a cave on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where he was visited by an angel who told him that he was to be a prophet. He preached that people should follow the one true God (Allah) instead of pagan gods or materialism. He was believed to be the last of a long line of prophets, including Moses and Jesus. It’s interesting to note here that Muslims believe Jesus to be a prophet; they believe in the virgin birth and that he did many miracles, just not that He is the son of God. Of all non-Christian faiths, I’d say Islam views Jesus the most favorably.

Islamic practices center around the 5 Pillars: confession of faith, prayer (5 times a day), fasting, pilgrimage, alms. Ramadan is the month of fasting, where adults abstain from sunrise to sunset. It falls on the ninth month of their calendar, marking the month the Koran was revealed to the people. The Koran is the sacred text which is believed to have been revealed to Mohammad over his life’s work as prophet. Muslims believe the text to be literally from Allah, therefore, it remains in its original seventh century Arabic. This universal use of traditional Arabic for religious purposes, in my opinion, is what makes the Islamic faith so strong across so many of the Arab states. Just as Catholic Mass is pretty much the same universally, reading of the Koran is familiar across the borders of nation or language.

Islam literally means “submission,” which basically sums up the faith. The purpose of life is to submit to Allah through the 5 Pillars to attain His favor. Humans are born good, but are distracted from Allah by material or selfish means. Submission will fix the soul.

Muslims face toward Mecca during their five daily prayers, as this is where Mohammad first spoke with the angel. They worship in mosques led by imams, or spiritual leaders, but there is no hierarchy beyond that in the faith (although some nations that are Muslim have political/spiritual hierarchies). There are two main braches of Islam: Sunni and Shiite which split over the debate of who would lead the faith after the death of Mohammad.

While the West generally holds a negative view of Islam for cultural reasons (sexism, polygamy, distrust of West, fundamental jihadists), there is some aspects of Islam I admire, specifically the concentration of submission. While a relationship with God should be personal, it’s not all about you. Faith should bring you peace, but it doesn’t guarantee you get what you want. Many Christians see the rapid growth and spread of Islam (especially into Europe) and the jihadists and think Islam is Christianity biggest enemy. I would place it third. It certainly had the momentum to take over Europe, which has been the Christian stronghold for centuries. In that respect, I would acknowledge it as a threat. Number two would be secularism. Islam is only taking over Europe because natural-born Europeans have rapidly declining faith (and birth rate). Secularism is what takes Christians away. The lack of belief in anything is also growing rapidly. The mistrust of religious institutions, the doubts of the supernatural, the arrogance of not acknowledging a higher being is a threat to all religions, not just Christianity. But threat number one to Christianity as an institution, of course, is ourselves. The fractioning and inner-fighting among Christians pushes people away. How can Christianity be The Way, The Truth when there are over 30,000 ways and 30,000 variations of truth? And the number one threat to Christianity as a faith is forgetting the basics: belief, devotion, humility, charity. If we paid attention to our Muslim neighbors instead of protest against their veils and mosques, maybe we could learn some valuable lessons in submission, inshallah.

Next Friday: Druze

[The star and crescent symbol is the most well-known symbol for Islam, appearing on many Muslim nations’ flags. However, it is not a religious symbol, but a leftover icon of the Ottoman Empire, who used the symbol wherever it spread the faith. The image itself was probably taken by the empire from an earlier, polytheistic faith.]

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Love is the best kind of Magic

The last Harry Potter film opens tonight, and anyone that knows me knows I love my Harry Potter. I’m not upset about it being the last movie or feel like it’s the end of an era, because to me, that era ended four years ago when the seventh book was released just after my high school graduation. The movies are just visual a la mode next to a very rich cake.

But every time there is a new Potter book or movie, there are the arguments. Is Potter a demonic series luring children into the occult, or is Potter a Christian allegory? There is even a class at Yale that studies the theology within the series. Even the people who haven't read the books (that's you, most people against them), have a strong reaction. There is something powerful within those pages.

Up until the seventh book, my stance was that the series was not particularly Christian (compared to say, the Narnia series), but there were clear Christian morals in it. Love battling evil and ultimately triumphing? Christians don’t have a monopoly on the good beating evil story, but we definitely have it. Magic has been used in stories for generations, especially in moral-giving fairy tales. It doesn’t mean children suddenly reject God and think they can fly on broomsticks. To think that is seriously underestimating the capacity of children’s understanding.

But the seventh book drew me even further in the direction I already suspected. (Spoiler alert, though if you haven’t read the books by now, it’s sort of your own fault if someone reveals the ending. Rosebud is a sled.) In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry must find and destroy the seven horcruxes while also searching for the three deathly hallows that are told to conquer death. (This is a lot of props to keep up with. I won’t even go into the importance of 3 and 7 throughout the books.) Horcruxes are used by a person trying to work outside of the realm of nature and morality. A person has to commit an act of dark magic so bad (murder) that it literally splits his soul. It’s the ultimate of sin, coming from the desire to gain control over the (presumably good) natural order of the world. The result of distancing one’s soul so harshly is becoming alive, but less than human, incapable of the emotions and qualities that make humans good. The Hallows are from a wizarding children’s story (and if you haven’t read Tales of Beedle the Bard, you should!) where three brothers receive gifts from Death. Long story short, the moral of the tale is that to conquer death, one must embrace it and “greet Death as an old friend.”

Harry has to embrace death in order for Voldemort to be defeated. He walks up to Voldemort for the sake of the world and lets himself be killed. And then lives again.

Throughout the book, Harry is referred to as The Boy Who Lived. But in Deathly Hallows, he becomes an even more obvious Christ-symbol in his sacrifice and “resurrection.” (You can debate whether he actually died, but he clearly went to another place, spoke to those who had died before him, and came back.)

Harry: "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

I think another essential element of the series is the free will of the characters. Harry is fulfilling a prophecy, but it is one that Neville could have been burdened with just as easily. Nothing was cast in stone. Chapters of book six are dedicated to the history of Tom Riddle. If he were purely evil, this would be unnecessary, but it is laid out that Tom was evil by an unfortunate series of events coupled with bad decisions. And even after he has separated his soul into many parts, he is never so far that he can’t be redeemed. The soul can be repaired through remorse, and Harry even offers Voldemort a chance to redeem himself. (He doesn’t.)

Tom chose to take the path of evil, while Harry, also given a troubled childhood and similar choices, chooses good. And it is not an easy choice for him. He struggles with the burdens of being the “chosen one,” usually saying how he isn’t fit for that responsibility. But the community supporting him makes him capable of goodness beyond what one lone wizard could ever accomplish alone.

Most characters in the series are well-rounded. They have their flaws and temptations. Some choose the wrong side for very well-intentioned reasons. In the end, some see the errs of their ways and work to amend the wrong they have done (Severus Snape, the Malfoys). Who Harry sometimes views as just “the enemy” isn’t really so much more evil than he is, but someone else struggling through with very weighty burdens. In turn, those Harry idealized have less than sqeaky clean pasts (Dumbledore, Sirius).

By the end of the book, the Christian allusions (not to mention a couple of verses of the New Testament thrown in there) were so obvious to me, it baffled me that secular readers would still accept it. But they did, because the struggle of good versus evil is universal. It just goes by different names. As explained to Harry in the first book, "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." Children’s literature like this puts names to the universal battle, and opens children up to elements of the world unseen. I think that squarely puts the series on the side of good.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Religion Friday: Norse Myths

Norse mythology is a complex narrative, going into the origins of the gods and containing nine different realms, including Asgard, the land of the gods, and Midgard, the land of humans. It’s no wonder that the complexity, the number of magical creatures (elves, dwarves, giants), and the history of epic battles continues to be a source for so much literature written today.
According to the Sagas and Eddas, brother-gods Odin, Vili, and Ve were walking along the sands of the ocean, they came across two logs, one from an ash tree and one from an elm. Odin breathed life into them, while Vili and Ve gave them the abilities they would need such as the five senses, intelligence, and speech. The woman was called Embla, and the man was called Ask. While Odin was the most important of the gods, there were gods for work, family, agriculture, wine, etc. and people would pray to these gods for help.
There were no temples. Worship was primarily done at altars in the home or in sacred groves (trees grown in a specific shape resembling walls). There is some evidence of piled stone altars as well. Animals, and sometimes humans, were sacrificed to please the gods. Human sacrifice was not common however. It was usually done out of desperation during famine, though according to Sturluson (he is explained later) writings, the Swedish King Aun had sacrificed nine of his sons in an effort to prolong his life until his subjects stopped him from killing his last son Egil. Swedish kings sacrificed males every ninth year during the Yule sacrifices.

When trying to look up information on Norse mythos, it was easier to find comparisons of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings than anything of the Norse faith by itself. That is because the religion of the Norse has fallen into the myth category. It is now looked on more as a cultural artifact than a practiced belief. In a culture that greatly valued individualism, the human hero tale was held in almost as high significance as stories of the gods. While the figures of Odin and Thor recall the Greco-Roman gods, in truth, the Norse faith is much more similar to Celtic pagan beliefs.

So why is so little known about the actual faith of these people? In short, Christianity. As Rome and Christianity spread over the region, the new faith replaced the old. Hundreds of years later when men began to write the legends, the oral traditions were 1. changed to fit a Christian narrative 2. changed to point out how opposite (a.k.a. wrong) they were from the Christian narrative or 3. simply made up. Much of what is known about Norse beliefs comes from the writings of Snorri Sturluson, a Christian in the thirteenth century.

It’s impossible to ignore the influence of other religions, especially when a foreign religion is forced on a native people. They will adapt their familiar traditions to the new faith. Why is Christmas in December instead of April? Surrounding cultures (Roman, Iranian, Celtic, and yes, Norse) had sun festivals around the winter solace, and it was much easier to get them to turn their already established holiday into a Christian one instead of halting the holiday altogether. Same idea with Halloween/All Saints’ Day and colored eggs at Easter.

It’s wasn’t like Christianity wasn’t already infused with lots of Jewish ideas.

I’m quite aware some aspects of Christianity are from other faiths. But that doesn’t change my faith. It’s good to be educated on where the origins of some beliefs are, but there is no reason to cut out all outside influences in an attempt to purify a religion. It would be like taking the Latin and French and German out of English. You’d be left with a language more original, but it wouldn’t be English anymore.

I don’t know what the Forn Sior "Old Custom" was before the Christian influence. It wasn’t recorded until well after the Christianization of that part of the world. It’s unfortunate not to have a full picture of how it was in its unaltered form. However, the version we have now has touched people’s hearts and imaginations. It’s inspired operas, book series, and even board games that have shaped European culture. Even unpracticed religions can hold values and truths that help people.

Next Friday: Islam