Is Justin Bieber the Evangelical Christian a Prophetic Figure?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
You don’t have to “get” Justin Bieber. Just look around and listen to your teenage nieces or your pre-teen neighbors living next door. It’s more than just a love affair with the seventeen-year-old singer and pop star. He’s a heroic figure to many of his fans, so I get what Cathleen Falsani means when she uses the word “prophetic” to describe him (although I do, admittedly, cringe a bit hearing her making the declaration).
In this interview with PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the author of Belieber!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber discusses the cultural icon’s religious background, the role of faith in Bieber’s life, and how the young Evangelical Christian talks about his faith in ways that make his fellow Christians uncomfortable.
Photo by Snow Belieber/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
Zombies, Zombies Everywhere
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
A mass of people dress up for the Toronto Zombie Walk. (photo: Sam Javanrouh/Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0)
For some reason we’re experiencing a zombie moment. From zombie crawls across the globe to the record-breaking 11 million people who tuned in to watch the season premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, zombies are seemingly everywhere this season. Even sober institutions like The Centers for Disease Control are using zombies to teach us about disaster preparedness.
As we get ready for next week’s interview with Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California, we’re wondering about this collective obsession with the walking dead. Why do you think zombies (not to mention other semi-humans like vampires and werewolves) are so appealing to our imaginations right now? Is it campy escapism from our economic woes? Or could it possibly be a reflection of how many people are feeling at this moment — like the walking wounded?
Is a Machine Gun Preacher What We Wanted?
by Martin Marty, guest contributor from Sightings
Reverend Sam Childers poses with SPLA soldiers. (photo courtesy of Machine Gun Preacher)
Preachers, pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams number in the hundreds of thousands in the United States. They minister at the borders between what get tabbed “sacred” and “secular” realms, and as such cannot go unnoticed in public media.
Some critics in the culture wars complain that they too often do get unnoticed. But most representations of them in movies and on television evoke, in the minds of those who have positive regard for clergy, George Bernard Shaw’s often paraphrased saying that there are two tragedies in life: not getting what we want, and getting what we want. “Not getting what ‘we’ want,” whoever “we” are, used to be represented in comments that ministers, especially Protestants, usually came across as namby-pamby and culturally marginal types as if labeled “Handle with Care.” They often appeared begowned and silver-coiffed, viewed over the groom’s shoulder, saying, “I now pronounce you… You may kiss the bride.”
Everyone who knew, or was, a full-of-life cleric, resented that cultural posture. In today’s world, however, most clergy representatives on film are not suave mainline clerics, beloved Irish-American priests, or wan and thin play-it-safe rabbis. Today, with the rise of presumably Protestant born-again studs, manipulators of people, and takers-of-the-law-into-their-own-hands types, we see images of law-breakers with macho swagger. Those observations are background comments to this week’s version of the sometimes robed swashbucklers, in a film called Machine Gun Preacher. It was hard to evade reviews last weekend; two which found me were in our local Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.
We don’t need to review the reviews or condense all details of the plot. The regular run of characters surrounds the Reverend Sam Childers: his ex-stripper wife, here “stuck with platitudes such as ‘God gave you a purpose, Sam Childers.’” The movie is based on a book which is based on a (presumably) true life story of a convict who gets violently born-again, thoroughly baptized, and self-licensed to pick up a gun and fight in defense of children in Sudan. Childers built an orphanage there, we are told and shown, and evidently does some good things for the kids. But that’s not what the movie is about. To compete today, it has to be violent, and is.
Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune deals with the scene in Sudan, personalizing it along the way. Here is how he voices the Gospel: “Staring down an enemy, he seethes: ‘The Lord I serve is the living lord Jesus. And to show you he’s alive, I’m going to send you to meet him right now!’ Blam! Another enemy, smote.” What does the viewer get to see in a plot plotted for today’s American market? Roger Ebert in the Sun-Times, on the reverend gun-slinger: he “is nothing but a one-dimensional rage machine.” So the preacher and the film-maker “can’t wait to get to the ass-whipping part of this inspirational story, [which] lacks any real sense of how Childers underwent his staggering transformation.” Well, “he isn’t the first to go to war in the name of the Lord— He’s born again, yes, but he seems otherwise relatively unchanged — He seems fueled more by anger than by spirituality.”
Until next week’s violence-in-religion movie comes along, Machine Gun Preacher invites some pondering: Is this preacher what we wanted? And, if so, who are “we”?
About the embedded image: Gerard Butler stars as Reverend Sam Childers in Machine Gun Preacher.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?
Now in its fourth season, the show traces the moral evolution of Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a middle-aged chemistry teacher who becomes a meth maker after he’s diagnosed with lung cancer. Gilligan’s intent for the character was to transform “Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
(photo courtesy of AMC)
~by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
The Islamification of Weed
by Sharis Delgadillo, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
Nejma Shea is a 29-year-old hip-hop artist who categorizes herself as an underground MC. Her socially conscious lyrics are militant, high-pitched, and punchy. Walkin Lyke WAR, her latest CD, describes the hardships of her life’s journey, including a five-year incarceration she served in New Jersey. On stage, she adds to her delivery by wearing bold outfits such as long Syrian camouflage dresses, decorative hijabs, and war paint on her face.
Shea’s songs describe her interpersonal revelations, interspersed with criticism of women’s correctional facilities and a quest for political justice. There are also, however, occasional mentions of smoking marijuana that have dismayed members of the Muslim community.
“Sometimes Muslim brothers and sisters don’t agree with my unorthodox ways when it comes to Islam.” Shea also says she does smoke for medical purposes; it helps quiet her chronic nightmares and spiritually enhances her relationship to Allah. “It has many medical uses and is a blessing from the Earth that the most high, Allah, created,” she explains.
Mustafa Umar, associate director of the Islamic society of Corona-Norco, calls Shea’s justification “the Islamification of weed.” The term describes the incorporation of marijuana usage into Islamic practice. Born in Orange County to Pakistani and Indian parents, Umar says he understands the social pressure young Muslims face in American society: “I’ve had many sisters come to me about it, but in the media, it’s more portrayed that guys are smoking,” says the 29-year-old imam.
Umar says he’s also heard young Muslims attempt to defend marijuana use by quoting a passage of the Qur’an that states the Lord “brought forth fruits for your sustenance.” But he doesn’t agree, and he recently held a meeting to combat this notion. His invited guest speaker is Imam Yassir Fazaga, the medical director of Mental Health for Access California Services, a family and resource center for Arabs and Muslims. Addressing a large crowd of immigrants and first-generation Muslims, Fazaga explains that the Qur’an prohibits marijuana.
A 38-year-old U.S citizen who immigrated from Eritrea, Fazaga cites a Qur’anic verse that states if “wine or gambling” causes greater harm than good, it should not be consumed. Incorporating marijuana consumption into this verse, he says, should also be prohibited as well: “For us Muslims, it’s a mood altering agent that shrouds a person’s intelligence to make decisions. Then for the Muslim it is Islamically illegal and the same goes for alcohol.”
Even though marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes, Fazaga says all other alternatives should be explored before its consumption. At the Access Resource Center where he counsels, Fazaga says he has come across an increasing number of young Muslims who admit to smoking marijuana.
In cases like Shea’s, Fazaga says that marijuana is a “mask for people who may suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome,” and “is not the way to deal with the problem.” Since marijuana is inexpensive, many young people try it. But Fazaga attributes its frequent use mainly to its prevalence in popular culture.
“You have people like Snoop Dogg and Kanye West. They glorify marijuana,” says Fazaga. “The definition of manhood that is presented promotes and encourages to smoke.”
Umar has also made previous attempts to discourage the use of marijuana among young Muslims by inviting former celebrity rappers such as Loon, who was signed by P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, and Napoleon, who was part of Tupac Shakur’s group Outlawz. Both men attribute their new and sober lifestyle to their conversion to Islam. “In order to address the younger crowd, we have to speak lower to their level,” Umar says.
But Shea does not see eye-to eye with these Qur’anic rationales against marijuana nor with Fazaga’s evaluation. She holds firm that Islam is a non-compulsive religion. Since its fundamental principle is the practice of one’s free will, she has the choice to smoke marijuana.
“I’m not going to say the Qur’an forbids us to smoke weed or not,” says Shea. “The Qur’an is the only unchanged religious book and people interpret it in different ways because of different views in the Islamic community.” Only Allah can judge a person’s actions and their intention behind it, Shea adds.
Explaining her perspective, Shea raises the sensitive topic of gender roles and how they are reinforced by Qur’anic interpretations that she finds religiously oppressive: “As a Muslim woman, you are not suppose to make a lot of noise, you are not suppose to look a man in his eyes. The Qur’an and the true Islam, a peaceful and non-compulsive way of life, protects women. It doesn’t intend to give men the right to hold women captive.”
Orthodox members of the Muslim community argue that frequent mentions of marijuana heard in popular music threaten young Muslim-Americans. But, for Shea, hip-hop is an avenue of free expression: “I love hip hop. I love marijuana. But most of all I love Allah, most high, and his messenger Muhammad. Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.”
About the image: Nejma Shea performs in Omaha, Nebraska. (photo: Ness Ordonez)
Editor’s Note (Jan 17, 2013): Language has changed to more accurately reflect Ms. Shea’s description of herself. And, we misstated that Ms. Shea did not use marijuana for medical purposes. She does. We regret the error.
Sharis Delgadillo is a broadcast graduate student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. She is the senior producer for the award-winning college television news-magazine show, impact. Last summer, she interned as a television producer at Cape Town TV in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Yes, I Was Lost…
Krista Tippett, host
I discovered Lost just a few seasons ago and immersed myself via Netflix with the zeal of a convert. Trent has been asking me to blog about Sunday’s finale, but honestly I’m stumped — still trying to wrap my mind around what it means. For now I am happy to pass on this from Diane Winston, one of my favorite observers of how we are telling the story of our time on television.
She called her blog on the finale "The Day After" and it starts like this:
"Last night’s Lost finale may have done more for mainstreaming religion than Mitch Albom’s bestsellers. All around the Internet—from forums and blogs to MSM sites and academic journals—musings on faith, redemption and the power of love are suddenly de rigueur. Here’s one good wrap-up of first-wave critiques, but also check out Brent Plate’s excellent overview for Religion Dispatches. Plate revels in Lost's religious mash-ups and pop-culture mixings because the show's ultimate meaning is key: 'Whether Locke or Shephard or Austen are saviors or demons does not matter. The hero is the community, the living together.'”
What Does Forgiveness Mean in Buddhism and Christianity
Trent Gilliss, online editor
In the wake of Brit Hume’s comments about Tiger Woods’ religious beliefs on Fox News Sunday on January 3rd,
WNYC’s Brian Lehrer invited Krista to flesh out the concepts of forgiveness and redemption in Christianity and Buddhism. Although it’s rather difficult to gain a decent understanding of these complex theological concepts in 13 minutes, several callers make some fine points — including the Buddhist idea of “letting go.”