For years, the mainstream model of Western civilization was one of advancing secularization. That theory is now being challenged on several fronts, but occasionally you can still see signs of de-sanctification at work. Like, well, right here on the web. Check out the banner below, a jewelry site created last October:
Why, it's like taking the Christ out of Christmas!
But fear not. Although Blingdom Jewelry is a Vancouver shop that sells designs with no apparent religious attachment, the store does give the occasional shout-out to the higher realm. For example, the page on pearls note that
Folklore tells us that pearls are considered to offer the power of love, money, protection and luck. Pearls are thought to give wisdom through experience, to quicken the laws of karma and to cement engagements and love relationships.
Blingdom also has an nice (and lengthy) page on the spiritual significance of healing stones.
So please, faith is not challenged by marketing. Just because Cameron needed income by making a movie, the self-styled king of the world, didn't have to make a true movie. You really think the story in front of the pictorial Titanic disaster was real?
"It is also a message that is true no matter how many times people think they have disproven it and a message grounded in timeless truths like an empty cross and an empty tomb."
Also on BeliefNet, Ben Witherington presented an edited version of the objections listed on his blog . . . without the reference to the filmmaker's Jewish beliefs. On his blog, Witherington adds more objections today, although most of the objections in all his posts are pretty easily parried. (For example, I don't think that too many non-Christian scholars would have a problem questioning the veracity of James, especially since it's not clear that we have any reliable contemporaneous record of anything he himself wrote or said.)
The criticism that offers the best mileage is that the "Miramne" inscription actually ends in "-ou" and is a genitive of the diminuitive form. I've looked at the inscription in unclear low rez & am not entirely sure that this is accurate, but I can see how one could get there. In any case, now I really wish I'd paid more attention in my ancient epigraphy class!
The controversy over the Talpiot tomb has sparked any number of ad hominem attacks, but perhaps the most troubling is the undercurrent of Christian anti-semitism. Witness the following from evangelical scholar Ben Witherington--the first argument he raises concerning the theory's credibility is the personal background of filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici:
"Why should we be skeptical about this entire enterprise?
First of all, I have worked with Simcha. He is a practicing Jew, indeed he is an orthodox Jew so far as I can tell."
"Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It‘s not a secret, OK? And I‘m not afraid to say it. That‘s why they hate this movie. It‘s about Jesus Christ, and it‘s about truth. It‘s about the messiah."
The Christian and academic establishments are settling into the publicity meme to dismiss the lastest assertions re the Talpiot tomb. Here's an example from a recent Reuters article:
Professor L. Michael White, of the University of Texas, said he also doubted the claims were true.
"This is trying to sell documentaries," he said, adding a series of strict tests needed to be conducted before a bone box or inscription could be confirmed as ancient. "This is not archeologically sound, this is fanfare."
And here's evangelical professor Ben Witherington:
James Cameron the movie director who made the enormously successful film “Titanic”, on the night after the Oscars, will give an Oscar winning performance at a news conference along with Simcha Jacobovici who have now produced a Discovery Channel special on the discovery of Jesus’ tomb, ossuary, bones, and that of his mother, brothers, wife, and his child Jude as well! Who knew! The show will air on March 4th. In addition we are now regaled with a book by Simcha and Charles Pellegrino entitled The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History just released today by Harper-Collins timed to co-ordinate with their news conference and the Discovery Channel special.
From the Christian perspective, it seems to me, such ad hominem dismissals are highly inappropriate, if not unproductive. "Do unto others" applies to critics of Christianity as much as fellow church members. Documentary consultant James Tabor responds with a thoughtful, detailed commentary on specific factual points; Christians should do no less.
We may never know for sure who was buried in Jesus' tomb. Wouldn't it be great if first century folks took an extra moment to supplement their iconic decorations with a useful plague? Here, for example, is the explanatory marker at the tomb of tragic Christian lovers, Abelard and Heloise.
When I was a little boy, I played Joseph in a church play. I would have much rather played Abelard. I still would have had to hold a girl's hand (which at that time was tres yucky), but at least I could have been in a fight scene when her uncle attacked me. And what a cool exit, like something out of Tales of the Crypt: "The Chronique de Tours reports that, at the moment when the tomb of Abelard was opened for the body of Heloise, Abelard held out his hand to receive her."
In arguing that Jesus was interred in the Talpiot tomb, the team behind the new James Cameron documentary note that the tomb did not include the remains of Jesus' father Joseph, who judging from the biblical narratives seems to have died before the family relocated to Jerusalem.
Not that the filmmakers necessarily think that Joseph is Jesus' father.
In The Jesus Dynasty, James Tabor--a scholar who helped shape the documentary in question--explores the ancient rumor that Jesus was actually the son of a Roman soldier named Pantera. Tabor recounts key points from his argument in this blog post. But there's more to the story than Hebrew and Latin texts. As Tabor notes, we actually know the location of the grave of a first-century CE soldier named Tiberius Julius Abedes Pantera.
And so it seems that the future of Christianity may rest with Maury Povich.
The Talpiot ossuaries raise a number of issues relevant to the themes of this site. One, of course, is religious symbolism. Why was the Miramne ossuary decorated more ornately than that of its counterparts in the Talpiot tomb? What is the significance of the chevron pictured below? Why were skulls--apparently of a much later date--placed in front of the ossuary rooms?
These questions have been debated for well over a decade, and the makers of the James Cameron documentary make some intriguing arguments. Could this indeed be the first family of the original Nazarene sect inspired by Jesus? Did the early church cover-up the existence of Jesus' son in order to keep him from being crucified by Rome? Did the Crusaders in Jerusalem encounter the last remnants of this ancient Nazarene sect, who led them to their holiest secret shrine? We may never know the answers with absolute certainty, but they are well worth debate.
Another issue raised by the documentary is the tension between faith and commerce. Christians have vehemently attacked the theory as a sensationalist tactic cynically concocted to stoke ratings and sell books. However, is a commercial project more or less trustworthy than an inquiry from a devout point of view? For that matter, is it possible for commercial projects to be more revelatory than academia, in which peer review all too often serves to suppress disruptive change? In the press conference on 2/26, one of the production team said that "telling the truth is never a publicity stunt," but I'm not sure that Jesus would agree.
Etiquette expert Stuart Matlins weighs in on the top ten mistakes for you to avoid when interacting with people from other religious traditions. Click here for the full list. Below, a sample helpful hint:
"[W]hen a woman is attending a Muslim service, a dress, or skirt and blouse, is recommended. Clothing should cover the arms, hems should reach below the knees, and a scarf should be worn. For men and women, crosses, stars of David, jewelry with the signs of the zodiac and pendants with the faces or heads of animals or people are discouraged."
Phil Hansen is an artist who explores the interplay of technology and personal identity. Below is a video of his influences--painted on his torso in a series of overlays, which he then peeled off and offered for sale as a single piece. Also be sure to click here for one of his series of Bible portraits: an image of Rosa Parks composed of photocopied Bible pages. The image is visible only when backlit by lights placed within the frame.
This painting by Ron DiCianni has been making the rounds in the blogosphere. Perhaps the most insightful meditation it has inspired is that of writer Jeff Sharlet. Sharlet does not merely make fun of Christian kitsch. As he observed & I wholeheartedly agree, "it's more interesting to take it seriously and try to understand what its creators and consumers see in it." His provocative thesis:
As religious art traditionally uses eroticism to channel worldly desires toward spiritual concerns, contemporary fundamentalist art uses eroticism to channel sex -- the visual currency of power in an advertising culture -- away from women and toward men.
How does Sharlet get from civil religion to Christian eroticism? Click here for more.
Speaking of weddings, here's a New York story out of love, symbols and the law. A guy named Sheldon decides that the first declaration of love needs a ritual as much as wedding . . . and ends up getting escorted from the Empire State Building by police. Excerpt below; full story in the latest Time Out New York.
See, Sheldon did more than just gaze into her eyes and say the words. He needed arts and crafts to express his feelings. He wanted to make a heart. “There are rituals for weddings and anniversaries,” he explains innocently, “but nothing for the first time you say ‘I love you.’ So I made one up.” In short, he crafted a wooden box, filled it with clay and wire, and led an unknowing Diane to the 102nd floor, where he planned to put it all together—unaware that the process would look exactly like assembling a bomb.
The city of Tarim is a historic center of Islamic learning, and the persistence of its tribal culture into the present day makes it in some ways a living museum of customs long forgotten in the West. Still, subtle changes are occurring, which this article in the Yemen Times describes. Excerpt below, and since this article is likely to disappear I've included more after the jump.
A few years ago, bridal gold, jewelry and clothes were hired. The bridegrooms attire (a traditional Yemeni outfit, consisting of a sort of a green cloak with a white turban put around a stiff colored cap) was also rented. Nowadays, a few conservative families still use this costume while the majority have abandoned it.
Bridegrooms now buy their clothes from the market. This increases their burden as they are compelled to try to get the most fashionable clothes.
A ceremony in celebration of the wedding night starts one or two hours after having the marria dinner, and lasts until the early hours of the morning. In the past, each clan had its favorite folk dance to celebrate that night. However, now all of the clans have begun to exchange these folk dances among themselves.
During the celebration the bridegroom dances with his friends and folks. Presents and congratulations are given to him on this occasion. At the end of the celebration, the bridegroom sits on a chair or stretches his legs on a bed with the invitees standing around him clapping, dancing and chanting. They also dye his legs and hands with henna.
O my Queen, said the royal sorcerer to Hapsethsut -- with this amulet you and your descendants are endowed by the goddess Isis. With the powers of animals and the elements you will soar as the falcon soars, run with the speed of gazelles and command the elements of the sky and the earth.
Three thousand years later, a young science teacher dug up this lost treasure and found she was heir to the secrets of Isis. And so, unknown to even her closest friends, Rick Mason and Cindy Lee, she became a dual person. Andrea Thomas, teacher and Isis, dedicated foe of evil, defender of the weak, champion of truth and justice.
The video of Andrea Thomas (Joanna Cameron) transforming into the Mighty Isis is more than just a nostalgia moment from 1970s saturday morning tv. It captures the power of adornment in giving us a sense that we can transcend the mundane. Jewelry, religious and otherwise, leverages nature to rise above the natural. That the Mighty Isis' alter ego was a school teacher is not meaningless happenstance; the value of adornment increases the more we limit our social definition of women to the provision of services to children.
In this context I want to highlight a real-world analogue to this fictional transformation: the resurgence of cosmetics and fashion in China. The following from Andrew Sullivan aptly describes the scene captured in the photo that closes this post:
"An elderly woman checked before taking part in a traditional dance competition at a gala celebrating the upcoming Chinese New Year on February 13, 2007 in Beijing, China. More than 400 elderly participants bought their own cosmetics, some wearing makeup for the first time. They were banned from putting on makeup during the Cultural Revolution when cosmetics, hair curling, wearing high-heel shoes and fashion were all a punishable offence, as this behavior was considered bourgeois and evil. Photo by Guang Niu/Getty."
Or as Andrea Thomas used to say when turning into Isis, "O Zephyr Winds that Blow on High, Lift Me Now so that I can Fly!"
Folks who grew up in the 1970s may remember the Mighty Isis. She was a school teacher who transformed into an Egyptian superheroine. Here's a video of the transformation, in which the BofG plays a supporting role:
Years ago I spent a considerable part of time studying Jim Bakker & the PTL club. Much of what I acquired in this study was, alas, wiped out in a flood; were it not, I'd be posting an array of site-appropriate scans. So in lieu of that, here's a rare snippet from an old Jim Bakker show. The opening sequence is particularly revelatory.
In a perfect world the complete archives of old religious shows would be available on the web--not to gawk at the preacher, but to see how the most successful evangelists mirror us. Bakker rose to the top because he, like the best marketers, scrutinized the dominant environment and embodied its embedded values. Bakker himself has an even more critical assessment of his show's message. Check it his confession here..
A while back there used to be a Numenist blog called Numenous Thoughts. Among its ruminations: a meditation on religious jewelry and how to respond to critical inquiries from Christians. Excerpts below:
From time to time, the question of religious jewelry comes up. Pagans are quite fond of wearing jewelry, and it's not uncommon to see a Pagan wearing multiple rings and necklaces. . . .
There are several reactions others have to Pagan jewelry. . . . The hostile person (generally, but not always, a Christian), will ask with clearly faked interest. You can tell they are asking just so they can use it to insult the wearer, coerce them into listening to some religious spiel, or threaten them with dire hints of a dreadful afterlife.
I've heard from younger people how they get followed and called names in loud voices, and Christian conversion pamphlets (like this Jack Chick tracts) shoved in their pockets, desks, or under their dorm doors, and even get rocks thrown at them.
Not all of these younger people were wearing the common Pagan jewelry: pentagrams and ankhs. Some were wearing less well known jewelry: the scarab, a "medieval princess" ring, a spider ring, a garnet cabuchon ring, a gold aspen leaf skeleton.
The problem seems to be (at least here among the more radical young Christian adherents) that any jewelry that isn't a crucifix or cross is automatically Satanic jewelry. And some of these young people are fanatic enough to be pushy and rude about their assumptions.
You know, sometimes jewelry is just that - jewelry.
And even if it is a symbol of one's religion or religious beliefs, is that really any concern of someone not of that particular religion? Is wearing a scarab any more or less objectionable than wearing a symbol of an implement of ancient torture?
Here's a close-up of a bride receiving the first of seven sarees in a Hindu wedding ceremony in South India.
Where's the groom? Who knows? But if she lost him, she could always find another one at Jeevansathi.com, an Indian dating service whose ad has been appearing at the BofG. Note particularly the testimony of the successful couple featured on the Jeevansathi home page, which sports not just their spiritual love match but their current locale:
“Rahul and I are happily married and presently in The United States of America. For all you out there looking for your real one, We couple would like to say: As they say “Marriages are made in Heaven”… maybe they are materialized by a source and your source could be “JEEVANSATHI.COM”. Thank you Jeevansathi.com”
Aficionados of the Bible's family friendly Book of Judges will no doubt recall the story of the man who cut up his concubine and sent her body parts throughout the tribes of Israel. That's what came to my mind, at any rate, when Jennifer Emick of the always enchanting Alt Religion sent me a link today to this incredible design collection: Margaux Lange's handcrafted jewelry fashioned from cut up Barbie and Ken dolls.
cWhether you love her or hate her, there are few who feel neutral about the plastic princess. I am fascinated with who she is as a cultural icon, her distinguished celebrity status, and the enormous impact she has had on our society. Specifically, I’m intrigued with her influence in defining gender roles of women in contemporary American culture.
My childhood spent with Barbie cultivated my interest in adornment. Extensive play with the doll and her miniature world strengthened my dexterity. This is a skill imperative to the art of jewelry making. Hence it feels natural for me to make art on a small scale.
I enjoy the funny juxtaposition of wearing the body, on the body. Barbie has become the accessory instead of being accessorized. I take pleasure in the contrast and contradiction of something mass-produced being transformed and revealed as a unique, handmade, wearable piece of art.
Above: The Cha Ching necklace from Subversive Jewelry, by CFDA/Vogue FAshion Fund emerging designer nominee Justin Giunta. The necklace consists of "half a dozen oxidized chains strung with old coins, religious medals and tokens from Times Square peep show booths."
Over the past five years, wearing a turban in New York was almost guaranteed to cause you problems. Even if you weren't beaten or ridiculed, you might find yourself forced to brand your sacred headwear with your employer's company logo. But as this runway photo illustrates, things are beginning to look up . . . perhaps.
Prada, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, H & M--turban chic is everywhere this season, even, thanks to Prince, at the ultimate icon of Americana, the Superbowl. From one angle, the mainstreaming of the turban would seem to be a sign of progress, and yet it is not without its costs.
As Susan Scafidi examines in Who Owns Culture?, cultural appropriation such as the Prada turban above raises intriguing questions about creation and community. Is it fair for Western companies to get rich from copying cultural designs with no corresponding economic benefit for the original source community? Should a religious community be able to protect its sacred symbols from copying for materialistic ends, particularly if commercial copying threatens to dilute the object's spiritual significance?
In addition, does ubiquitous imitation make the original more accepted, or could the proliferation of more lavish imitations cause the original to seem more alien, thereby widening the cultural divide?
None of these questions will be resolved this week, of course. However, as the industry seeks to raise awareness of an array of charitable causes, perhaps the time has come to find ways to give something back to the communities that inspire what we wear.
HISTORICAL ROUND-UP EXTRA: The wikipedia entry on the history of the turban actually does a nice of job of outlining to the ebb and flow of Eastern influence of Western headwear style.
What holds the world's record as the largest gathering of people coming together for a common purpose? Well, I answered Wrestlemania, but it looks like I was wrong.
The Maha Kumbh Mela (Great Festival of the Urn) is a spiritual festival held every twelve years near the Indian town of Allahabad.
Pilgrims gather here from all over India and around the world: gurus, spiritual leaders and their devotees, and ascetic sadhus who emerge from their solitary forest retreats and mountain caves.
They come to the sangam - the sacred confluence of three rivers: the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.
On special set days everyone takes a holy dip, a ritual believed to guarantee release from the cycle of rebirth - literally a short cut to the state of purest bliss... nirvana.
Sounds interesting, no? Well, the documentary below isn't the source of the above quote, but it is about the same ritual, and it sports an abundance of interesting religious adornment. So grab some nectar, sit back and relax to watch the Google video that's rocketing up the charts, "Kumbha Mela -- The World's Largest Act of Faith":
Tonight on Wife Swap: a mother who lives through her moto-cross-racing son trades places with a woman who worships Mother Earth and erects shrines for the fairies who live in trees. For some reason my picture uploading is dead, so instead I'll post a bit from the latter's household instructions:
We are a pagan family that treads lightly on the land and we worship Mother Earth and the Goddess in everything. I consider myself a green witch and have been called to explore our place in the 3- Fold Kingdom of Humans, Animals and Fairies, as well as re-establish our relationship with Mother Earth and her natural realm. I have a special interest in rebuilding the relationship between humans and fairies. As I progress in my spirituality I am able to access different levels of energetic beings.
And here are the changes she makes in the family centered on the motocross son:
Starling Household Rule Changes
Mission Statement: Starlings, on the track you may be the fastest. But you are in the spiritual slow lane of life. There will be no more motocross. I have taped off the garage using the ancient symbol of the goddess.
Starlings, you have spent so much time dirtying up the external world that now it's time to purge yourselves and become clean from within. You will all make personal altars and you will meditate on your internal selves.
This week we will put aside everything that honors Justin Starling. It is time to honor Samantha.
Justin, you will tend to all of our needs, and that means helping to cook, clean, do laundry and whatever else we need.
Wanna impress your friends with your knowledge of linguistic arcana? Tell them you, unlike the King James Bible translators, recognize that "yom" in context here is not "day," but an archaic cognate of the Akkadian umu, or "storm."
Just like Campus Crusade quotes Ugaritic in The Four Spiritual Laws! Anyway, from ancient Akkadian I went on to illustrate the similarity between turbulence topology and spiral galaxies, with a link to a fun fractal site called Fractaluniverse dot org.
Or at least I thought it was fun. A couple days ago I received the following email:
My website is not about god. Please remove your link to it at your soonest convenience.
Colin Hill, scientist
Which got me thinking about the current conflict between science and religion.
As long-time readers of this site have no doubt observed, I view the hostile relations between the two as counterproductive. The current assault on scientific insight by the devout misses the deep resonance between religious concepts and complex patterns evident in nature--a resonance that modern science can help us appreciate more now than ever before. Even if one chooses not to embrace religious faith--and I'm not goint to tip my hand either way--that people express their perceptions in religious metaphors is an observable phenomenon worthy of, yes, scientific inquiry.
Exhibit A: the old Bible frontispiece pictured here. The image is a scan from that notorious book of religious proselytization, The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Benoit Mandelbrot, the scientist who coined the term "fractal" and whose writings on turbulence underlay my hurricane post. If Benoit Mandelbrot is comfortable observing the connections between fractal and religious imagery, why not the Blingdom of God?
And I'm not alone. Arthur C. Clarke's book and documentary The Colours of Infinity describes how some people have come to refer to the Mandelbrot set as "the thumbprint of god," while people have been using Mandelbrot iterations to create Buddhabrots for well over a decade. The link between fractals and religious metaphore is so pervasive, in fact, that it inspired a successful April Fools hoax, "The Mandelbrot Monk," which purported to summarize a Harvard article on how a 13th century monk plotted the Mandelbrot set centuries before Mandelbrot himself.
In the spirit of doing unto others--a good rule no matter one's personal beliefs--I guess I'll remove the link to Mr. Hill's site. But if science is going to succeed in winning over the devout, it would do better not to mimic the obscurantist blindness we should all be striving to transcend.
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