Friday, February 28, 2014

The Face of Christ: No Movie Star Good Looks?

Diogo Morgado as Jesus in Son of God.

The new movie Son of God is out. Like most other movies on this subject, Jesus is an impossibly handsome white man—the opposite of what the real Jesus likely looked like over 2,000 years ago.

In the most recent cinematic version, by the husband-and-wife team of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett of History Channel’s The Bible fame, Jesus is what a Toronto Star movie critic calls a “chill” messiah, with “great hair, a perfect pearly smile” and a “laid back bearing.”

It reminded me of a column I wrote back in 2009 about forensic research into what a typical Palestinian man in Jesus’ era might have looked like. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t look the Jesus in the movie Son of God.

When you think of Jesus, do you imagine him as a muscled biker, with the word “father” tattooed on his bulging bicep?

How about as a sweat-glistened boxer, leaning on the ropes after a successful fight?

Or maybe as a laughing bridegroom in a tuxedo, hugging a flower girl?

Those are some of the images that American artist Stephen Sawyer sees when he thinks of Jesus.  

Jesus the boxer.

Through his “Art for God” series, Sawyer wants to “reflect the life and teachings of Jesus in the 21st Century.”

Of course, nobody knows what Jesus looked liked. But we can be pretty sure he didn’t look like the Jesus in Sawyer’s paintings—a fair-skinned white Anglo-Saxon with an angular face, long, brown hair and movie star good looks.

Sawyer’s rendition of Jesus hearkens back to Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, the famous picture of a handsome fair-skinned Jesus with the upturned gaze and long flowing hair.

Sallman's Head of Christ.

Created by Sallman in 1924, the rendition went on to become the best-known representation of Jesus throughout much of the last century, gracing many a North American living room.

When many people today think of Christ, it is that painting that comes to mind.

Both Sawyer and Sallman have it wrong—as do the makers of the new movie the Son of God.

In 2002, forensic scientists created a model of what Jesus could have looked like, based on ancient skulls from the region near Jerusalem where Jesus lived and preached.

Using specialized computer programs, they came up with a model of a typical Jewish man of Jesus’ era. For eye and hair colour, they used drawings found at various first-century archeological sites.

The result, which was broadcast on the 2001 BBC in a show titled The Son of God, was a man with a broad face, curly hair, a short beard and dark eyes—a typical middle eastern man, in other words.

And what Jesus might have
really looked like.

"It's not the face of Jesus, but how he is likely to have looked given the scientific information we've got," said Lorraine Heggessey of the BBC. "That's what people from that area of the world looked like at that time."

In fact, the image of Jesus has been a rather fluid thing over the centuries, reflecting the political, cultural and other realities and imaginings of various times and places.

He was been portrayed as emperor and ruler by the ancient Romans and Byzantines, and as a clown and counter-culture figure in the musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.  

The Black Jesus.

African-Americans also have their own image of Jesus, and he's also been portrayed as a revolutionary or a liberator, freeing the oppressed. 

The Che Guevera Jesus.

“There is a Christ for every age," says Neil MacGregor art historian and director of the Great Britain’s National Gallery.

For series presenter Jeremy Bowen, the computer-generated image of Christ should look familiar to anyone who has travelled in Palestine or Israel.

 "He was a Middle Eastern Jew. If you go to Jerusalem today, a lot of people look like that."

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Evangelism And Aid Don’t Mix

(Someone recently asked me about the issue of aid and evangelism. My answer was simple: The two don't mix. It reminded me of a column I wrote in 2005, after the December, 2004 southeast Asian tsunami, and some of the fallout from groups that did mix the two.)

I once worked as an orderly in the intensive care unit of a Catholic hospital. During training, we were told that staff members were not permitted to do any proselytizing among patients—no exceptions.

At first glance, this made no sense—what better place to talk about God than a hospital? That’s the place where people are sick, maybe even dying, and might be most interested in things like salvation and eternity.

But the rule was sound. It was put in place to protect patients, who were terribly vulnerable, from staff—however well-meaning we might be.

After all, patients couldn’t escape if they didn’t want to hear me talk about religion, particularly if they were hooked up to monitors and other equipment.

Plus, if they felt that the quality of their care depended on politely listening to me talk about faith, they might be reluctant to ask me to stop for fear of jeopardizing that care.

I mention this because in February the Indonesian government said it was considering imposing restrictions on aid groups helping tsunami victims.

The reason? Some Christian agencies are mixing missionary activity with relief operations. 

The case that sparked the most outrage was a plan by a U.S.-based church group to find Christian homes for 300 orphaned Muslim children from the Indonesian province of Aceh.

According to the Washington Post, the group had posted a message on its web site saying it wanted to find homes for the children so it could “plant Christian principles as early as possible.”

As well, by placing them in Christian homes, “their faith in Christ could become the foothold to reach the Aceh people,” the group added.

That wasn’t the only example. Great Britain’s The Telegraph interviewed a Christian aid worker in Indonesia who said that although he was ostensibly in the country to provide aid, his real purpose was to convert Muslims.

“I'm not here to do relief work,” he said, describing tsunami survivors as good candidates for conversion.

The fact of the matter is this: Mixing help for others and evangelism is wrong. It was wrong when I worked at the hospital, it’s wrong in Asia, and it's wrong wherever else humanitarian assistance is needed.

It’s wrong because it takes advantage of vulnerable people at their time of greatest need. Tsunami survivors who have lost everything may do anything to secure the help they require, including accepting Jesus—if they believe that's the only way to obtain desperately-needed aid. That is an abuse of power.

But it’s not only that; linking aid and evangelism is bad evangelistic strategy.

In the 19th century the phrase “rice Christians” was coined to describe people in Asia who converted not out of conviction, but because that was the only way to obtain food from missionaries.

As long as there was free food, they went to church; when their need for food ended, they returned to their former beliefs. Something similar can happen to groups that make converts among tsunami victims.

Of course, church-related aid groups should never hide the fact that they are motivated by deeply-held Christian beliefs. But they should never make accepting their beliefs—or even sitting through a sermon to get soup and a sandwich—a prerequisite for obtaining help. 

My worry is that the all Christian aid agencies will be tainted by the unethical actions of the few. It could make some countries reluctant to allow all church-related groups in to do much-needed work. 
That would be regrettable, and ultimately harm the people who need help most.

Francis of Assisi, the 13th century saint, is reported to have said: “Preach Christ at all times. If necessary, use words.” That's good advice for church aid groups.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why So Few Good Fiction Books About Religion?

The Feb. 22 Winnipeg Free Press carried a review of Leah Vincent's memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. It is described as a tell-all story of “self-hate, self-damage, terrible loneliness and frightening and unfulfilling relationships” while growing up in an ultra-orthodox branch of Judaism in the U.S. The book reminded me of a column I wrote in 2009 about why there are so many books that portray religious communities in a terrible light.

Have you read the book about the Roman Catholic priest who served his parish well and long—never molested children, was always faithful in his duties and was much loved by everyone?

No? Well then maybe you read the book about the young Mennonite girl who grew up in a loving Christian home, attended an accepting and supportive church, and who became a joyful and dedicated Christian?
Missed that one, too? Well then, what about the book about the book about the Muslim woman who feels happy and secure in her religion, and who doesn’t feel oppressed?
What’s that—you never heard of any of these books?

I’m not surprised; they probably haven’t been written. Or, if they have, they certainly never became best sellers.

In 2005 Wendy Shalit touched off a literary firestorm in the U.S. when she criticized the way some writers who aren’t religious have portrayed ultra-Orthodox Jews in that country.

Writing in the New YorkTimes,  she said: “Authors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism—or those who were never really exposed to it to begin with—have often portrayed deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light.”
These books, she went on to say, leave “many people thinking traditional Jews actually live like Tevye in the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ or, at the opposite extreme, are like the violent, vicious rabbi in Henry Roth’s novel Call it Sleep.”
What bothered Shalit the most was the impression these books left with people who knew little, or nothing, about Orthodox Jews.
“We have relied for too long on people disaffected with the Orthodox world to produce an ‘Orthodox literature’ that verges on caricature,” she said.

“Their characters, ostensibly spiritually motivated, never show anything resembling an inner life or concern for others . . . unfortunately, the media (and many readers) seem to feel that these writers are representing the traditional Jewish community, when by their own admission the authors do not identify with these worlds.”
I must admit to feeling a little bit like Shalit over how members of my church—Mennonites—are sometimes portrayed by authors.

Take, for example, Miriam Toews’ book A Complicated Kindness. Set in the fictitious Manitoba town of East Village, it describes the effects of an oppressive, fundamentalistic and hypocritical Mennonite church on a teenage girl and her family. 
I can’t deny that this may be the way Toews experienced the Mennonite faith, or that those kinds of Mennonite churches have existed or still exist today.

But what I can say with certainty is that those aren’t the only kinds of churches in the Mennonite faith—back then, or now. But you would be hard-pressed to find many books about these kinds of faith communities.

I understand why publishers are more attracted to books that cast religion in a negative light. Stories about happy teenagers who love Jesus, go to church every Sunday and work at Bible camps each summer just don’t sell.

But write a story about a former churchgoer who rebells against religious authority, uses drugs and sleeps around—now we’ve got something!
One could argue that this is normal; the goal of fiction is to explore extremes. Who likes to read a book that doesn't featuring conflict, controversy and harrowing experiences? The escapades of a fallen believer will always be more interesting than someone who never does anything wrong.

But if that’s all that gets published, it doesn’t take long for a stereotype to emerge. And if the stereotype is reinforced often enough, it becomes the truth for those who don’t have a more complete picture of the group in question.
Maybe what's needed are more writers who explore not just the bad things that happen in the name of religion, but the good things, too. What's needed next are publishers willing to take a chance on books that promote the positive aspects of religious life.

Last, readers are needed to reward those publishers by buying those books—maybe people like you.

Originally published in 2009. If you want to reprint this column, send me a note. You can find my e-mail address in the post labelled About This Blog or in my profile.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In Defence of Christian Introverts

One of the columns that received the most response was this one, about being an introvert in the church. Just today I got another e-mail (from an introvert) thanking me for it.

Do you find excuses not to join a care group at your church, or go on a church retreat?

Do you like to leave quickly after a service so you don't have to talk to others?

Do you get nervous when the person leading a church meeting decides to break the congregation into small groups to discuss a topic?

If you answered yes to those questions, you might be a Christian introvert -- and now there is a book just for you.

Called Introverts in the Church:Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, the book examines what it's like to be introverted in churches that place a high value on being extroverted.

"The extroverted bias of our larger culture has crept into church practice, especially those churches that associate with the evangelical tradition," says author and admitted introvert Adam McHugh.

The result, he says, is that some churches "unintentionally equate faithfulness with extroversion." This, he says, can lead to the idea that the ideal Christian is someone who likes to share openly and deeply, is 
gregarious and eager to participate in activities, and is willing to take on leadership roles.

That, says McHugh, sounds "suspiciously like an extrovert" to him.

Add in the "talkative, mingling informality of many churches" and you've got an environment that can be intimidating for introverts, he adds.

As an introvert myself, I can identify with McHugh. Like him, I sometimes find going to church to be an intimidating experience. 

I don't like sharing about my spiritual journey, or other personal issues. 

I find it hard to talk to people in the foyer after a service. 

And heaven help me if the worship leader or preacher is moved to ask the congregation to break into small groups to pray; it's all I can do not to find the nearest exit.

Of course, it's not just church where introverts might feel uncomfortable; society, as a whole, seems to favour extroverts. For example, when someone is outgoing, they are praised for being a people person. But if you are quiet and reserved, you might be considered a loner, or worse, to be arrogant.

For introverted church-goers, the added twist is that it can lead to questions about the quality of your spirituality. How deep is your faith if you don't open up to others? Are you really be committed to the church if you don't like to participate in church activities? Can you truly be a Christian if you don't like to talk about your faith?

McHugh's goal is to help introverts feel more at home in church, and to help extroverts understand people like himself better.

"Many extroverts assume that introverts need to be constantly 'drawn out,' and that if we are alone, we are just waiting for someone to come over and chat us up, because we are languishing in self-pity and isolation," he says.

In fact, "one of the hallmarks of introverts is that we find energy from solitude, and that even though we may enjoy social interaction, those experiences drain us," he notes.

He also wants to help church leaders make sure they don't overlook introverted members.

"Many churches reflect our society as a whole, valuing gregarious, action-oriented, assertive people," he says. 

"But introverts are relatively quiet, often hovering around the fringes, preferring to observe and reflect before entering into the action. We generally do not have the same 'presence' when we enter a room as many extroverts do. We are not likely to share our opinions until we have considered them and we are uncomfortable interrupting others to make our voices heard."

Finally, he hopes churches will see and value the gifts introverts bring to the church, such as the gift of listening.

"People in our culture so rarely have the experience of being truly listened to--having not only their words taken seriously, but also having their feelings, questions, and doubts underneath those words paid attention to," he says.

Introverts, he suggests, "have a head start on listening. Because we process internally, and take up less social space, we can offer a nonjudgmental posture that frees people to open up to us."

It's McHugh's sense that other religions, "especially of the eastern tradition," may be friendlier to introverts since they have "a quieter, more contemplative bent to them." He hopes that churches that prize a more assertive approach to Christianity might also adopt contemplative practices to make introverts feel more at home.

Since it is estimated that between 25 to 30 per cent of a given population are introverts, there may be a lot of people looking for a little more quiet when it comes to religion. 

Or, as McHugh says, "churches need to acknowledge a diversity of personality types, patterns, habits, and experiences. I want for extroverts, especially those in leadership, to acknowledge that are different, and equally valuable and viable, ways of following Jesus."

Originally published March 6, 2010. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Faith and Sport

Since the Sochi Olympics are taking place right now, here's another column that looks at faith and sport in general.

The New Testament writers use many metaphors to describe the Christian life, including sport. 

"Run with endurance the race that is set before us," said the writer of the book of Hebrews, using the image of a long-distance race to encourage the early Christians in their new-found religious life.

In the first book to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul suggested that merely running wasn't enough -- winning was the goal of the Christian life. 

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it."

In other places, Paul indicated his only aim in life was to "finish the race." But at another point, when he seemed to be dealing with doubts, he wrote that he wanted to be sure he had "not been running my race in vain."

Sportsmanship was also important to Paul -- something today's athletes could keep in mind when tempted to cheat. 

"If anyone competes as an athlete, they do not receive the victor's crown unless they compete according to the rules," he added in the book of Second Timothy.

Of the major faiths, Christianity seems to have made the most of the sports-faith connection -- think of the controversy over former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who regularly thanked God following late-game heroics, or the many athletes who point a finger skyward after scoring a touchdown.

Publishers of the Bible have noted this affinity for sports, publishing the Athlete's Bible, the Sports Devotional Bible (helps you "get in great spiritual shape") or the Extreme Sports Bible. 

The latter "contains 20 full-colour action photos of extreme sports, combined with verses about courage, bravery, faith, and adventure."

Other faiths also promote good health and exercise, but not to the same degree.

One Buddhist commentator notes that sport can help develop the mind, including positive states like team spirit, friendship, alertness and even a degree of detachment through gracefully accepting defeat. 

Another Buddhist suggests that athletes have a chance to experience a "meditative state worthy of a Buddha" through single-minded devotion and exertion.

"Sport becomes a form of meditation when you engage it with your full attention," he writes, suggesting this phenomenon can be called "sportsamadhi" -- "Samadhi" being the Sanskrit term for intense meditative concentration.

For Islam, most of the attention has been focused on restrictions on female participation in sports. But one Muslim commentator notes that the Prophet Mohammed recommended physical fitness to his followers, and that he participated in camel races.

Of sports in general, the prophet is reported to have said "any action without the remembrance of Allah is either a diversion or heedlessness excepting four acts: Walking from target to target (during archery practice), training a horse, playing with one's family and learning to swim."

Since sports in Greek and Roman times were associated with idol worship, ancient Jews were critical of sporting activities. 

The Talmud, for example, condemns Roman sports, especially gladiatorial combat. More recently, however, sport has been seen as a way for Jews to enter mainstream North American society, particularly through boxing and baseball.

The connection between religion and sports isn't restricted to playing fields; it has also found its way into the stands. 

American baseball teams, for example, often host religiously themed nights at their ballparks. Some major league teams hold Jewish heritage nights and faith and family days.

Not wanting to miss out on the fun, atheists in Minnesota will have a theme night for themselves on Aug. 10 when the Winnipeg Goldeyes' rivals, the St. Paul Saints, hold a night of "unbelievable fun."

During the game, sponsored by the Minnesota Atheists, the home team will drop its religious moniker and become the "Mr. Paul Aints." 

As well, the letter "S" in all Saints signs and logos around the stadium will be covered, and the game will include references to Big Foot, UFOs and other targets of the skeptical community.

"We want to show that atheists can have fun," said August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists.

The Saints have hosted several religiously themed events before, including Christian concerts and a Jewish Heritage Night. 

It would be "hypocritical" to tell the atheists no, Saints general manager Derek Sharrer said.

To me, it sounds like fun, although I wonder what the crowd will sing in place of God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch -- maybe George and Ira Gershwin's It Ain't Necessarily So. 

Originally published August 4, 2012. If you want to reprint this column, send me a note. You can find my e-mail address in the post labelled About This Blog or in my profile.

God, Silver and Bronze: Religion and the Olympics

Since the Sochi Olympics are taking place right now, I thought it might be appropriate to start off with a column about the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games.

So far, God and religion haven't come up in the media coverage of the Vancouver Olympics, unless you count jokes about praying for snow.

But that doesn't mean there isn't any religious input into these Games. Vancouver's Christ Church Cathedral (Anglican) is staying open 12 hours each day of the Olympics as a sanctuary for visitors,

In a letter to the Vancouver Sun, Rev. Peter Elliott, the dean and rector of the cathedral, wrote that "our intention is to be a sanctuary for people to offer prayer for the peace of the world."

At the same time, a coalition of 65 religious organizations and denominations, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Lutherans, Seventh-Day Adventists and Baptists, are running More Than Gold, an effort "to extend the radical hospitality of Christ" during the Games.

In addition to providing hospitality and programs at 25 different places in Metro Vancouver, the group is also supporting social justice initiatives in the city such as the memorial march for murdered and missing women and raising money for homeless people.

Some Vancouverites are uncomfortable with this mixing of religion and the Olympics. But the two have long been entwined, going right back to the origin of the Games themselves.

Back then, "there was no such thing as secular athletics," says David Gilman Romano, director of Greek Archaeological Projects at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

His museum's website notes that the ancient Games were part of a religious festival in honour of Zeus, the father of the Greek gods and goddesses. 

The name of the Games themselves comes from Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece and home to those same deities.

In the ancient Games, athletes weren't just trying to see who was fastest, strongest or best, they also wanted to offer their athletic prowess to the gods.

If religion was part of the ancient Games, it was also the reason for their demise. 

In AD 393, the Christian emperor Theodosius banned the Games, along with other Greek and Roman festivals, for being too pagan, violent and gory. His successor, Theodosius II, went a step further in 426, ordering his army to demolish Olympia's stadium.

It would be 1,500 years later before Baron Pierre de Coubertin would found the modern Olympics. His vision for the Games was infused with a religious sensibility.

In his memoirs, de Coubertin wrote that sports were "a religion with its church, dogmas, service... but above all, a religious feeling." 

Two years before his death, in a 1935 radio address, he asserted that "the first essential characteristic of ancient and of modern Olympism alike is that of being a religion."

De Coubertin didn't set out to create a new religion in the traditional sense. But he understood the power of religious rituals, symbols, rites and ceremonies, and incorporated them into the modern Olympic movement. 

He even included a hymn. In its original version, the first verse is a paean to the "immortal spirit of antiquity, father of the true, beautiful and good." It goes on to plead for this spirit to "descend, appear, shed over us thy light... which has first witnessed thy unperishable flame."

You don't hear much about those religious roots anymore, and religion doesn't crop up in the Olympics very often. 

One occasion when it did was at the Paris Games in 1924, when English sprinter Eric Liddell famously refused to compete in the 100-metre race -- his best event -- because it was held on a Sunday. 

His decision, and his subsequent gold-medal victory in the 400 metres, became the subject of the movie Chariots Of Fire, which is considered by many to be one of the best sports movies of all time.

Today, the Olympics are decidedly secular. No longer do athletes compete for the gods, but for their countries and for the goal of promoting peace across nations and cultures.

And yet, considering how religious tensions fuel some of the world's conflicts, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea if Olympic organizers looked for ways to promote understanding between religions, too.

Originally published February 20, 2010. If you want to reprint this column, send me a note. You can find my e-mail address in the column labelled About This Blog or in my profile.

About This Blog

Welcome to On Faith, a blog of reflections on faith--and culture, society, politics, life, death, religion and pretty much everything else that faith touches in the world.

I am the Faith Page columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. Since 2003 I have written over 250 columns for that paper, and for other publications. 

Many of these columns can be found deep inside the Free Press archives. But I thought it might be handy to post them all in one place for those who might be interested in what I hope is a stimulating look at how faith intersects with the matters of the world. 

Plus, it's also a way for me to gather my columns and reflections into one place--an online archive, or historical record.

The blog is also a place for me to share other things that won't be published in other places, or provide links to interesting reflections by other writers and bloggers.

If you want to re-publish any of these columns or reflections, send me a note. I am happy to grant permission. If you are a publication that pays writers for their work (increasingly rare these days), I'll happily accept your offer.

My e-mail address: 

Note: Although I am a Christian, this is not a Christian blog. It's about faith, in its various expressions. 

John Longhurst, Winnipeg