Sunday, 29 May 2016

How Christians Can 'Learn the Language' of Islam

Over the past 30 years or so, I’ve done a lot of travelling in Africa, the Middle East, and all around Europe. Needless to say, this necessitated navigating my way through language barriers.

One of my personal habits when I was travelling was to begin by learning how to say one phrase:

‘I don’t speak (insert language).’

Over the years I learned how to say it in French, Polish, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Arabic, Hebrew, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, German, Spanish, and Catalan.

Even in places where everyone assured me that no one would speak English with me (like France), I found that starting a conversation with, say, a shopkeeper or  taxi driver with that phrase in their language got much better results than simply powering ahead in English.

Beyond that simple beginning, it was then a matter of daily adding to your vocabulary through interaction with the locals. I took to keeping a small notebook with me and writing down new vocabulary and phrases as they came up.

‘How do you say, “How much is this”?’

‘How do you say “Thank you”?’

‘What’s your word for “towel”?’

‘Do I use the same word if I’m speaking to a man or a woman?’

At bottom, you can always safely assume that there is a corresponding word or concept in the local language for the word or concept in yours; with a little bit of effort and interaction, you’ll figure out what it is.

I think the same goes for the broader task of approaching another culture or religion. As a theologian with experience working in the field of post-conflict reconciliation, I’ve been particularly interested for some time in the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the events of 11 September 2001, the rise of al-Qa'ida and ISIS and their oppression and massacres of religious minorities, the collapse of the Arab Spring and subsequent wars in Syria and Yemen, and the refugees desperate to reach stable countries in the Americas and Europe have all led to a great deal of tension and hostility between members of both faiths.

Many in the media and politics strenuously tell us that we must fear Muslims in our midst, and two terms keep being invoked to justify that fear:

jihād and sharīʿah.

Those terms leave so many Christians utterly freaked out, which is a real pity. Neither term appears in Christianity… But the ideas do; they’re just referred to differently.

Let’s look at jihād. In Arabic, ‘jihād’ means ‘striving’, ‘applying oneself’, ‘struggling’, ‘persevering’, and therefore can have violent or nonviolent connotations. It appears frequently in the Qur'an, most often to refer to the act of striving to serve the purposes of God on this earth (referred to as the ‘greater jihād’). Nevertheless, it can also refer to armed struggle against wrong doers and enemies of Islam (the ‘lesser jihād’).

Christian doctrine and practice has several similar concepts. As someone who spent years living and working within Evangelical and charismatic Christians, I was constantly hearing about 'taking our cities for God'; 'having dominion over every thought’; 'building a Christ-centered society'; 'spiritual warfare'; and 'making war in the heavenlies'.

Also, in wake of recent US wars in the Middle East, even the militant aspects of jihād have cropped up in some expressions of right-wing Christianity, which has gloried in images of soldiers praying blessings on their ordnance…

  And each other…                                                         

Now, let’s look at Sharīʿah. ‘Sharīʿah’ refers to the moral and religious legal system within Islam, derived both from the text of the Qur'an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In some predominantly-Muslim countries, Sharīʿah directly informs the legal system completely or in part; in others it runs in parallel to the secular code, but carries no legal weight.

Of course, Christianity has its own religious code of law and practice attached to it that may or may not be part of the secular legal code.

For example, there’s no law in the US, the UK, or Ireland prohibiting two unmarried consenting 30 year-olds from engaging in sexual relations; many Christians from a variety of denominations, however, would see it as a serious deviation from the biblical text and from Christian tradition, would insist that those two people get married first, and might ostracize them from their faith community if they didn't;

Even though the state would be satisfied with them going down to a court house, many Christians would see that as a poor substitute to a sacred ceremony performed by a pastor or priest in a church, and might even ostracize them from their faith community if they didn't have a church-sanctioned ceremony;

There’d be no law against serving alcohol after the service, but many Christians- citing the Bible- would frown; some churches wouldn’t allow the alcohol to be served on their premises. They might even ostracize the young couple for having alcohol in their home; the civil authorities would have no such problems with it;

The newlyweds might decide to use contraception for the first few years of their marriage; many conservative Catholics would utterly oppose them, citing the 1968 Papal encyclical Humanae vitae. But no legal action would be taken against the couple by the secular authorities, no matter how much those more dogmatic Catholics might wish it.

In all these examples we see the mixing of secular law and religious law in the lived experience of devout Christians, who wouldn’t use the Arabic term ‘sharīʿah’, even though the principles of both are identical.

There are a lot of Christians out there- like many Muslims- who would like to see their religious traditions made the law of the land, applicable to all, Christian or not; there are many more Christians- like many Muslims- who are embarrassed and appalled at the very idea. Many Irish people remember growing up in ‘Holy, Catholic Ireland’, where Christian Catholic doctrine directly informed the legal code of all citizens, regardless of whether they were Catholic or not. Ask any Dublin Protestant of a certain age about trying to buy condoms or Hollywood film magazines in the 50’s…  

The point is this: it’s time for Christians to start learning the ‘language’ of Islam, humbly and respectfully, in all its complexity and nuance.

We’ll need to begin the process of figuring out how Islamic ideas and practices correspond to ones in our own faith.

We might find out that our ‘languages’ aren’t all that different; that we share many words, concepts, opinions, concerns, and aspirations.

If nothing else, we’ll probably all be a lot less freaked out…

Monday, 23 May 2016

Superhero Theology? What Marvel Movies Might Be Doing to Our Faith and Politics...

For most of my (now getting a little long-ish) life, I’ve been a fan of comics. In fact, at any number of points in my life, I could have been described as a bit of a comic geek. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I liked all comics (I didn’t), but I was very conscious of loving that artistic medium.

It certainly didn’t end with childhood; quite the contrary. Into my college years and beyond, the increase in disposable income only led to a deeper appreciation. 

It also helped that my university years in the mid- to late 80s coincided with one of the most fruitful times for comics. Independent and underground publishers like Dark Horse, Eclipse, Epic, and even the more mainstream publishers Marvel and DC were putting out incredible literature- deep, dark, complex, funny, disturbing, and absurd.

So it’d be perfectly natural to assume that I’m enjoying the huge amounts of superhero movies that have come out over the past few years- the vast interlocking sagas involving the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk, as well as the Batman ‘Dark Knight’ franchise and the ongoing attempts to make a decent Superman flick.

Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not.    

The main reason for that is, as much as I like comics, I’ve never been that interested in superheroes. ‘Superheroes’ and ‘comics’ are often conflated, but there are innumerable examples of the latter that have nothing to do with the former. Aside from a brief, childhood fling with Spider Man, superheroes have never loomed large in my legend.

But the rise of the current crop of big-budget Disney blockbusters cluttering up the multiplexes, as well as the Dark Knight series and the recent Superman films, has got me thinking.

One thing that I noticed is the type of narrative many of these films set up, and how it relates to the rest of our culture and politics. 

For instance, while I’d never attribute the rise of, say, Donald Trump solely to these films, the broad stroke narratives are certainly a bit similar. 

Tony Stark, Iron Man’s alter ego, Batman's Bruce Wayne, and the Fantastic Four all involve billionaires who seem to exist in a world where any crisis can be overcome with seemingly-limitless financial and technical resources and sheer force of will… Oh, and one supposes, no corporate regulation.

Beyond that, the adversaries that the heroes must overcome (particularly in the Marvel sagas) are always nearly-godlike galactic or other-dimensional entities, against which the combat skills of the heroes are perfectly suited. It’s worth noting that many of the most visible candidates in the most recent election cycle (Trump being only the most forthright) have built their campaigns around adversaries that they see as emerging from ‘outside’- Mexicans, China, Muslims, etc. 

Trump augments this litany of outside dangers and enemies with a pronounced monomania; since he is beholden to no interests and is openly disdainful of his own party, the message he puts forth is that he- alone, personally- has the power to overcome danger and evil on behalf of us all.

In Marvel’s theology- and presumably in Trump’s, whatever sops he throws to the Evangelical religious right- we are protected by wealthy, god-like captains of industry with unlimited technology and a  huge force of personal will.

However, in real life, many of the most critical problems that we face- nuclear proliferation, economic inequality, systemic poverty, environmental collapse, climate change, religious and political fundamentalism- come not from outside forces, but are of our own making, and cannot be solved by one person, no matter their personal powers or resources.

Standing opposite the Marvel theology is the Christian one, where the Son of God comes, not as a superman, but as a man, a poor man, Jesus.

Interestingly, Jesus’s miraculous deeds are not spectacular and far reaching, but ordinary, local, personal...

He does not end global hunger; he makes wine at a wedding and multiplies a five-loaf and two-fish lunch;

He does not cure all disease; he heals a woman with the faith and courage to touch him; he spits and makes clay to restore sight;

He doesn’t raise all the dead; he raises a friend and one man’s beloved daughter;

He doesn’t lead a revolution; he finds his tax payment in the mouth of a fish;

He does not defeat his enemies; he surrenders to them;

He does not bring down the Emperor in a great heroic battle; but he urges his followers to love one another, to not repay evil with evil, to be humble, to do good works, and to lift up one’s enemies in the sight of God… and in doing so, he sows the seeds of the fall of all empires, everywhere…

The man Jesus stands in utter contrast to Marvel’s pantheon, and to any political or religious leaders who would seek to emulate them or be thought of in conventional heroic terms.

Jesus is the antithesis of the ‘super-hero’; he is the ‘anti’-hero, the ‘un’-hero.

He came not to save the world, but to point us to salvation- love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness…

Trying to square this with political power- and what it takes to get it- is impossible.

No one who aspires to hold the launch codes of the greatest nuclear arsenal on Earth, brags of their personal fortune, or mocks and belittles their adversaries can claim to be like Jesus, to know him, or to follow him.

Anyone can be a superhero;

Disciples are much rarer…

Sunday, 1 May 2016

'Stumbling Upon' Watership Down

When I read that there's a new film adaptation of Watership Down coming out soon, my first thought was 'why?' I’d seen the 1978 animated film and it’s magnificent.

Well, the makers at the BBC and Netflix have insisted that their version won't be as grim and harrowingly violent as the original. And anyone who has seen the 1978 version of Richard Adams’ classic novel will know that it is quite grim and extremely violent. I sometimes wonder how many people- unacquainted with the novel- went into that film thinking, ‘Ooh! A movie about bunnies!’ What they walked away thinking is anyone’s guess…

Watership Down is a complex and deep story told simply. In it, we encounter the world of a group of rabbits living in the English countryside. We are introduced to their language and their rich mythology and culture. 

We meet Fiver, a seer, who has an apocalyptic vision of destruction and blood. 

Sure enough, soon their warren is wiped out by human developers and Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, and the rest of the group begin a journey in search of another.

It’s a story of survival, violence, power struggles, faith, tradition, strange visions, and the place of death in the midst of life.

The film is animated with simple line drawings and watercolours, looking at times fantastic and at others quite realistic, reinforcing the impression that we’re in the rabbits’ world and are seeing things from their cultural perspective entirely.

Their life is rich, but also dangerous, dark, and difficult.

Some analysis has seen the plot of the book and film, with its epic journey and hope for a hero, nodding to Homer's Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid; I also see echoes of the history and current reality of indigenous peoples- lives and cultures that are rich and detailed, but difficult and precarious at the best of times, now compounded by the arrival of unstoppable and destructive forces, incapable of communication with them and utterly uncaring, simply destroying  the original way of life to suit their own.

Whatever it is, it’s not just a ‘movie about bunnies’…

Beyond thinking that a re-make is unnecessary, when I read the announcement that this version will be considerably less violent, again, I immediately thought, 'why?'

Look, I agree that the original can be very hard going, it’s not for everyone, and even though I firmly believe it is suitable for children, I think parents should be cautious about showing it to their kids.

But that said, I think the grim and violent aspects absolutely need to be there, as much as the hope and humour need to be there.  

The interesting thing is, my parents didn’t ‘allow’ me to see it; I stumbled across it on TV. I wonder how many kids like me encountered Watership Down in the same way. Because even though it has undoubtedly haunted me and a whole generation of kids who also stumbled across it on TV, I don't think that's a bad thing.

It’s actually a great way to discover things. Kids need to ‘stumble upon’ something like Watership Down, and I think we that did are the better for it.

Discovering- ‘stumbling upon’- something all on your own, something complex and just slightly above or below where you are at the moment, is tremendously important to a young person’s development as an individual.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not talking about things that are illegal, harmful, or clearly intended for adults.

But Watership Down- as it was written, and as it was filmed- is for children. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) gave it a ‘U’ certificate, blood, guts, gore, and all…

Parents, teachers, and clergy can all try to tell us that life is sometimes difficult, unfair, and filled with as much despair as there is joy, but there’s nothing like stumbling onto a film like Watership Down all on your own, a parable with all those elements in it in spades, to spark those thoughts in a young mind.

Trying to sanitize it, make it more palatable, less jarring, and you do the work and its intended young audience a disservice.

In the biblical text St. Paul exhorts his readers:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honest, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever things are of good report; think on these things.

Not everything that is true is lovely;

Not everything that is honest is necessarily fun to think about;

Not everything that is pure is good for you;

Not everything of good report is pleasant.

Looked at through this theological ‘lens’, Watership Down is true, and the themes it deals with are ‘true’. Rendering it innocuous makes it just that little bit less true.

So, personally, I would never- ever- consciously show the 1978 Watership Down to my 13 year-old daughter; she is far too sensitive to the pain of living things…

… but neither do I want her to see a sanitized version. I’d rather she missed out on it entirely.

If she ever does see it, I want her to ‘stumble’ across it, like many of us did.

I want it to be a revelation;

Not entirely understood, perhaps not entirely enjoyed;

Demanding complex thought and self-reflection.

She will know a small bit more about truth, honesty, justice, and purity…

And I think she'll hold it closer for having ‘stumbled upon’ it…