Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Lucifer Rising?

Today's episode of The Early Show ran a story on a rise in exorcisms. The coverage by Mark Phillips was mediocre, given that it lacked objectivity, using Catholic priests as the only interview subjects (rather than a more neutral source like a psychologist or a sociologist or include a retort from a Satanist) and took for granted that possession and demons are real. Maggie Rodriguez, who typically does a nice job when interviewing politicians and lawyers, dropped the ball and failed to grill Father Thomas Williams on his claims.

Despite the spotty reporting, the story had a few interesting nuggets of information:
  • In Italy, 350 trained exorcists are now working. There were only 20 ten years ago.
  • In Poland, demand for exorcism has risen so high, 70 priests now perform the rite there, double the number of five years ago.
  • The Catholic Church is planning a dedicated exorcism center.
  • According to one of the priests interviewed for the story, Satanic worship is on the rise in Europe.
  • One-in-ten Catholics, according to a recent survey, now says they've either submitted to or witnessed an exorcism.

The article does not specify where these figures came from, although The Washington Post ran this article on the exorcism center.

A few months ago the Vatican denied reports that it had ordered an expansion of exorcism, but if the Post story is to be believed, then the Church either deliberately tried to cover up this story or it changed its mind very recently. In either case, it is a sign of the Church turning back the clock.

Yesterday I blogged an article about the waning interest in religion in the US. The Catholic Church was hit especially hard by its followers abandoning the faith. There is a link between disappearing interest by the public in Christianity and increased propagation of the exorcism myth. As the Enlightenment began to take hold in Europe in the late Medieval period and the existence of god and the authority of the Church was threatened, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger unleashed The Malleus Maleficarum, a book for witch hunting that became a key guide for the Inquisition, which set about murdering and torturing thousands of women and keeping fear of the devil, and in turn the vitality of Christianity, alive and well. The Inquisition was then used as a political tool, as the Spanish empire used accusations to quell dissent and overtake other countries and territories. In the 1970s, America's interest in religion waned in the after effect of the counter culture of the previous decade until the film The Exorcist scared audiences like nothing before it and set off a wave of claims of demonic possession. Along with the Manson Family murders and related films like The Omen and Rosemary's Baby, the stage was set for the rise of Evangelical Christianity and the Moral Majority (which was neither moral nor a majority) as a force in American politics and the Satanic Ritual Abuse scandal, which sent innocent people to prison and tore children from their parents based on false accusations of child abuse.

I don't think one shoddy story by CBS will plunge us into a new dark age, but Christianity's insistence--and its dependence--upon the illusion of demonic forces is a troubling truth about the nature of this religion and its use of fear to quell criticism. Given the larger historical context and the link between religious hysterics and political opportunists, stories like the one in the Post should at least give us pause.

Monday, February 25, 2008

AP: U.S. religious landscape in flux

DENVER - The U.S. religious marketplace is extremely volatile, with nearly half of American adults leaving the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether, a new survey finds.

The study released Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is unusual for its sheer scope, relying on interviews with more than 35,000 adults to document a diverse and dynamic U.S. religious population.

While much of the study confirms earlier findings — mainline Protestant churches are in decline, non-denominational churches are gaining and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing — it also provides a deeper look behind those trends, and of smaller religious groups.

The American religious economy is like a marketplace -- very dynamic, very competitive," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum. "Everyone is losing, everyone is gaining. There are net winners and losers, but no one can stand still. Those groups that are losing significant numbers have to recoup them to stay vibrant."

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey estimates the United States is 78 percent Christian and about to lose its status as a majority Protestant nation, at 51 percent and slipping.

More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all, the survey found. Factoring in moves from one stream or denomination of Protestantism to another, the number rises to 44 percent.

One in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim no affiliation with a religious institution.

"In the past, certain religions had a real holding power, where people from one generation to the next would stay," said Penn State University sociologist Roger Finke, who consulted in the survey planning. "Right now, there is a dropping confidence in organized religion, especially in the traditional religious forms."

Lugo said the 44 percent figure is "a very conservative estimate," and more research is planned to determine the causes.

"It does seem in keeping with the high tolerance among Americans for change," Lugo said. "People move a lot, people change jobs a lot. It's a very fluid society."

The religious demographic benefiting the most from this religious churn is those who claim no religious affiliation. People moving into that category outnumber those moving out of it by a three-to-one margin.

The majority of the unaffiliated — 12 percent of the overall population — describe their religion as "nothing in particular," and about half of those say faith is at least somewhat important to them. Atheists or agnostics account for 4 percent of the total population.

The Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition because of affiliation swapping, the survey found. While nearly one in three Americans were raised Catholic, fewer than one in four say they're Catholic today. That means roughly 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics.

The share of the population that identifies as Catholic, however, has remained fairly stable in recent decades thanks to an influx of immigrant Catholics, mostly from Latin America. Nearly half of all Catholics under 30 are Hispanic, the survey found.

On the Protestant side, changes in affiliation are swelling the ranks of nondenominational churches, while Baptist and Methodist traditions are showing net losses.

Many Americans have vague denominational ties at best. People who call themselves "just a Protestant," in fact, account for nearly 10 percent of all Protestants.

Although evangelical churches strive to win new Christian believers from the "unchurched," the survey found most converts to evangelical churches were raised Protestant.

Hindus claimed the highest retention of childhood members, at 84 percent. The group with the worst retention is one of the fastest growing — Jehovah's Witnesses. Only 37 percent of those raised in the sect known for door-to-door proselytizing said they remain members.

Among other findings involving smaller religious groups, more than half of American Buddhists surveyed were white, and most Buddhists were converts.

More people in the survey pool identified themselves as Buddhist than Muslim, although both populations were small — less than 1 percent of the total population. By contrast, Jews accounted for 1.7 percent of the overall population.

The self-identified Buddhists — 0.7 percent of those surveyed — illustrate a core challenge to estimating religious affiliation: What does affiliation mean?

It's unclear whether people who called themselves Buddhists did so because they practice yoga or meditation, for instance, or claim affiliation with a Buddhist institution.

The report does not project membership figures for religious groups, in part because the survey is not as authoritative as a census and didn't count children, Lugo said. The U.S. Census does not ask questions on religion.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Reporters in Revolt

Apparently I'm not the only one sick to death of major news outlets treating celebrity junk news as though it important, relevent, or otherwise worth their time or the viewers time, especially when there is so much going on in the world that is worth talking about. I've come across a couple of Youtube videos of reporters in revolt.

CNN anchor Jim Cafferty tries to get out of reporting Lindsay Lohan's DUI:

MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski refuses to read a story on Paris Hilton's release:

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day Video

In the spirit of Valentine's Day, here is a clip of Sarah Silverman on Jimmy Kimmel Live:

Monday, February 11, 2008

Thoughts on Cinematic Heroes

While I am not someone who jumps in with the "violent media causes violence in life" crowd, it would be foolish to ignore the power of media. The characters, journeys, themes, and subtext of stories, either in print or on film, give us a way of understanding ourselves and the world around us. In the past few days two news stories broke that have connected the world of story to the world of politics and my own life.

The first was a story about the new Rambo film. The picture takes place in Burma, and the aged and cynical hero takes on military junta there, rescuing Western missionaries from a prison camp and rediscovering a purpose for his violent talents. Reuters reported that bootleg copies of the film have surfaced in the country and have set the population abuzz. According to the reports, Rambo's line "Live for nothing or die for something" has become a rallying cry among those who are fighting against the military rule.

I have always been a big fan of the original First Blood, a film that has never been fully appreciated. There is a lot of great character work and its action sequences hold up with anything else in the genre, but what stands out in the film is the way it smartly and subversively brought the Vietnam War home. As John Rambo fights off local police and National Guardsmen, the film invokes all sorts of symbols of that war including the wilderness setting (the northwestern forest is substituted for the jungle), guerilla warfare (Rambo spends much of his time using a knife or traps similar to those used by the Vietcong), helicopters (Vietnam was the first war to feature helicopters as a major tool of war), and the use of caves (the North Vietnamese used systems of caves and tunnels). The climax of First Blood invokes the fall of Saigon and Rambo's final speech in the film was a candid expression of grief and anger on behalf of vets who felt disillusioned.

The quality of this new Rambo film is a bit uneven, although it is the best of the sequels (You can read my review of the film here), but this is a great example of the power of stories to affect us. I doubt many people could point out Burma on a map, and unless they recalled the reports of violent protests in the country last Fall, they've probably never heard of it, but Rambo is able to take the Burmese conflict and set it up on a big screens across the country, doing far more to bring attention to this human rights catastrophe than any major news organization in the U.S. Rambo may not be Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, but it could inspire the Douglass or Sinclair (or Guevara) of Burma or other places to mobilize his or her countrymen.

Here is a trailer of the new film. This is the uncensored version that was only available online.

The other story that broke was more personal. Roy Scheider, the actor who played police chief Martin Brody in Jaws, passed away. Jaws is incredibly important to me for all kinds of reasons, some personal (the first "adult-level" book I read as a kid was Peter Benchley's novel), some artistic (the film demonstrates a level of cinematic craft that is on par with films like Citizen Kane), some aesthetic (I tribute both Spielberg's film and Benchley's novel as awakening certain themes that have stayed with me in my own work), and some political (the book and the film are great examples of using metaphor to make subtle social commentary).

The character of Martin Brody, as he is portrayed in the film, is a figure who set a template of heroism that has stuck with me ever since I viewed the film as a young man. Brody is very much a contemporary hero. He is an average guy trying to do what is right and being asked to compromise himself at every turn. Brody is bullied by everyone from the shark, to local fisherman, to the city council, to the towns people and the story allows him to give in to that bullying. Anyone who knows what Jaws is about realizes his compromise results in another death (in a scene that teaches a film aficionado nearly everything to be learned about editing and camera work) and Scheider brilliantly portrays the character's guilt, using his need to atone as a motivation that carries him all the way to the climax.

Scheider's beleaguered police chief is not merely fighting an animal. He is fighting his own fears of the water, larger forces of human nature--namely greed--and the willingness of a capitalist society to put people at risk in the name of profit. Scheider's character is unique; he has more depth than most heroes in an action or horror film and the quiet, sometimes funny performance adds a lot of weight to the picture.

Jaws presents us with a decent man who only wants what is best for his community but the community is willing to throw that good will back in his face and ultimately put itself in jeopardy in the name of greed. Scheider's Chief Brody is a de facto hero of our time, an everyman who must face his primal fears and the external pressures coming from capitalist interests; to think of it another way, he is Michael Clayton on the sea.

And this is what Scheider's hero instilled in me: the need to face our demons, even if it leads us into dangerous and unknown waters, and to never crumble under pressure, even when it comes from those closest to us.

Here is a clip from Jaws, in which Scheider improvises one of the best lines in movie history:

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Encyclopedic Sourcebook of Satanism

The Encyclopedic Sourcebook of Satanism, edited by James R. Lewis and Jesper Aagaard Petersen, has just been published by Prometheus Books. The Sourcebook is a 700+ page collection of works on Satanism, focusing on the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax and the role of Satanism in media.

I have contributed a piece titled "The Satanic Politic," in which I discuss my thoughts on the idea of forming a Satanic political front like the Christian Coalition, and it appears among the primary materials.