Category Archives: Worldview

The Potter Pilgrimage Comes to an End

Mecca, Varanasi, the Western Wall, Santiago de Compostela, Trafalgar Square.

What do all these places have in common?

All of these locales are holy sites, the divine destination of devoted pilgrims making a journey to a sacred site, a consecrated location here on earth where they might experience the holy, feel the celestial or experience spiritual companionship on an expedition of spiritual significance – a pilgrimage.

While places like Mecca might make sense, what about Trafalgar Square in London ? What might be the spiritual significance of such a place?  This last week Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 premiered n Trafalgar Square and there were throngs of pilgrims from all over the world present to witness the culmination of a 10 year journey through eight Potter films.

As the Daily Star reports, there was a young woman who made the journey from British Columbia, Canada to Trafalgar Square to be present for the final Harry Potter film premier. She was spending her whole life savings to guarantee she would be there to experience the moment that the Harry Potter film era began its end. First in line and waiting for a week before the premier the 22 year old Potter fanatic said “Harry Potter has been the biggest part of my life….This is the last film, so I blew my life savings to be here.” Another fan, Robert Connor, who sports a Hogwarts tattoo added that he “travelled for 13 hours and spent $5,000 to be here but it is worth it.”

Even my wife and I understand their passion. While living in rural South Africa we made a five hour drive to see Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when it premiered and over the last several years I spent a fair amount of time outside movie theaters and bookstores in the dark of the night to be one of the first to see the newest Potter film or grab the spine of the freshest Harry Potter novel.

There certainly is something magical about Harry Potter, but considering the following vignettes of individual devotion and journey for the sake of Harry Potter premieres, I sense a fair bit of religious devotion as well. While we could debate the religious themes of the series itself, I find it fascinating that so many people, from such varied backgrounds would commit themselves to Potter to the point that their journey would reflect that of a spiritual pilgrimage.

Much like the Hajj or the journey to the Santiago Cathedral, the Harry Potter journey can be considered a pilgrimage in itself. Spanning some 14 years since the first book was released millions of devotees across the world have faithfully read, travelled, watched, waited, hoped and devoted themselves to Harry Potter’s seven-year journey to meet Voldemort in one final battle between good and evil.

Every year millions of religious devotees make their way to shrines and holy sites around the world. Each of these pilgrimages imbibes the individual adherent’s life with spiritual significance and meaning. Colleen Fleming, reflecting on her pilgrimage via the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in the Lutheran magazine of Australia (August 2007), shares that her pilgrimage was “an inspirational journey that culminated in the satisfaction and sheer joy of having reached a goal” that filled her heart with awe and led her to praise with gusto in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. As Fleming walks away from the pilgrimage experience she feels that she feels fulfilled and noticed that the journey reflects life itself.

Perhaps more than anything else, pilgrimages bind pilgrims together. As Fleming wrote, there was an “easy companionship, a warmth and a sense of shared identity” that accompanied the pilgrims as they shared their spiritual journey together along the Camino de Compostela. Although many pilgrims begin their journey for various individual reasons they all share the same path and along the way grow together as they experience the journey and reach their common destination as one people.

For many, the Potter series has given their lives joy, escapism, meaning, spiritual guidance and a whole new circle of companions in life. Luis Guilherme, a 22-year-old graduate student from Sao Paolo, Brazil who made the journey to Trafalgar spoke to CTV News and shared, “I don’t know how my life would be without it. I would be less imaginative, for sure, and less adventurous. I would never be here in London.” He also spoke of how because of Harry Potter he “made friends” with people throughout the world. Like a spiritual pilgrim Guilherme found much more than entertainment in the Potter films and committed himself to a physical journey as a sign of his inward journey. Along the way he found companions and together with them experienced the highs and lows of the Potter journey and feels better off as a person because of it.

With its gripping story of life and death, courage and hope in the face of evil and the importance of companionship it is no wonder that in a world filled with doubt, uncertainty and conflict that young men and women across the globe find the Harry Potter saga spiritually satisfying. Devoted to Harry Potter books and films, the author J.K. Rowling and the actors who made the characters of the wizarding world come to life these believers will make the journey anywhere to experience the magic and meaning that the Harry Potter story has given them.

And now as the films come to a close the question is what will happen next? For many the on-line world of Pottermore offers some solace and in a way, is a sort of digital pilgrimage all its own. For others a Potter pilgrimage will lead them to Orlando or other locales where they may not perform the Jamarat or recite the Shahada in Mecca, but they will perform expelliarmus charms and quiz one another on lines from the Harry Potter books and movies as they visit Hogwarts, down butter beer and pick out their very own wand in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a new Harry Potter themed park. Certainly, even without the films in theaters there are still shrines for a proper Potter pilgrimage, and I am sure that for years to come people will flock to them as they seek out meaning, companionship and experiential spiritual fulfillment in the story of “the boy who lived.”

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Houston’s Diversity: An Airport Addendum

A few weeks ago I blogged about Houston’s Stunning Diversity, sharing the numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians in Houston and sharing stories about Houston’s religious hotspots. I took you, the reader, on a virtual tour of a Vietnamese Buddhist Boddhisatva temple, a Swami Devotee Hindu Bhakti Temple and a local Muslim Masjid.

Of all the places I escorted you to, I did not take you to Houston’s Hobby Airport.

This then, is my airport addendum to that post.

Here at Hobby, waiting for my flight, checking my bags, standing in the security line and getting a coffee I am met with a microcosm of Houston’s stunning diversity.

Currently, I am on my way to California and sitting in Houston Hobby Airport’s food court . Enjoying my vanilla caramel soy latte, I am struck again by how religiously and racially diverse Houston’s populous is. It reminds me why I love this town.

Raised in California, I treasure heterogeneity and seek out cross-cultural contact. When I think about my childhood in the Los Angeles area I fondly recall having Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Evangelical and Atheist friends and neighbors.

Galavanting across the world over the last few years – in New Zealand, South Africa, Europe, Indonesia, Peru and Singapore – I’ve sought to gain a greater understanding of this world, its people and its religious soul-beat.

Now, living in Houston the world has come to me. It takes all of five minutes to find somebody who thinks, speaks and acts differently than me because of their cultural background or religious devotion. Here, in Houston Hobby, all I have to do is look to the person sitting next to me (who, by the looks of it is a Hispanic Roman Catholic replete with a rosary).

From Caucasian Khalsa Converts (Sikh) to Coptic Christians and “God Bless America” Baptist African-Americans, Houston Hobby has it all and I’ve seen all of these adherents here today.

I share this with you because I hope you may share the same awe. If you live in Houston, I encourage you to look around, open your eyes and see the stunning diversity that exists around you.

If you live somewhere else, have you noticed how melanged your hometown is? The USA is growing more diverse by the day. Maybe you live in a small town and you feel like your trapped in a homogeneous cage. Look again, and you will find pockets of religious and cultural miscellany in the most unlikely of places. Take a moment the next time you are in a public place – a mall, a post office or an airport – and recognize the mosaic that is your community. I even encourage you to go a step further and get to know someone different than you.

As I prompt my world religions students to do, take some time to introduce yourself to someone from a different religious background. Ask questions, listen to stories, share your own and dialogue with a Catholic, a Sikh, a Hasidic Jew, a Copt or a Hindu. As corny as it may sound, try sharing instead of staring.

Odds are you will come to appreciate your town for its cultural and religious multiplicity like I do. At the very least you will learn something about the world you didn’t know before.

On that note, goodbye H-Town, I look forward to seeing you again and hope to bring back some new stories from California. Until then, you stay stunningly diverse now you hear!

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God’s Wife, Pole Dancing For Jesus and Other Reasons Why Religion is Dying

Back in 2010, you know, waaaaaaaay back, I posted major religious news each week in a blog-segment entitled “Religion on the Web.”

These posts were not the most popular posts in the world.

However, on occasion in 2011 I will be posting top religious news stories from around the web when they are obscure, weird or otherwise noteworthy and yet not widely reported on.

This week:

To clarify, it isn’t “God” per se, but YHWH, the LORD of the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament that got married back in the day. Turns out he was bunking up with Asherah all along…and if you’re familiar with the Tanakh/OT at all, you know that he was constantly blaming those Asherah poles on the people!

Speaking of poles. This story is just, well, it’s just something only Houston Christians would think of: Pole Dancing for Jesus in Houston, TX.

If speculative religious papers on YHWH’s wife and pole dancing for Jesus were not enough to scare you away from a religion then how about this little sociological tidbit?

Religion will soon be extinct in at least nine different nations across the world. Did yours make this dubious list?

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The Hollywood Walk of Faith

The Oscars are coming Sunday.

Whoopee!

It’s time for glitz, glam, Vanity Fair specials, a little naked gold guy with a huge sword to get manhandled by some and coveted by others. It’s time for TIME to go absolutely nuts posting the top ten opening sequences, the top ten movie theme songs and the top ten weird giant movie monsters. Basically, it’s time to go nuts about some awards many of us would literally kill to get our hands on.

Whoopee!

Amidst all the glam and the style and the fashion and…oh yeah…the movies, spirituality and religion creeps in and colors the film industry with some heart, meaning, complexity and controversy. Although none of this year’s Best Film nominees are explicitly religious in theme they certainly play off the spiritual quest of humanity. For a more in-depth exploration of the spirituality of this year’s major Oscar nominees look here to a CNN Belief Blog on the topic.

With all the spirituality making its way into the movies I began to wonder about the spirituality of the movie makers. It seems all you hear about when it comes to religion in Hollywood is good ole’ easy-for-laughs-but-not-for-substance-scientoligist-Tom-Cruise

Oh yeah! Scientology!

Or maybe when it comes to religion and the stars you naturally gravitate to thoughts about so-racist/sexist/crazy-but-also-devoutly-Roman-Catholic-it-seems-to-overshadow-the-priest-sex-abuse-scandals-walking-contradiction-Mel-Gibson

There just isn't a caption for a picture like this...

But there is way more going on in Hollywood than one might think.

Here is a quick run down on the faith of some of the major hitters in Hollywood and a few of the nominees for Best Director and Best Actor in a male or female role.

Before getting into this year’s Oscar nods, I thought I would start out with every tabloids favorite couple, Brangelina. Where do they turn when life gets tough, when they are thinking about divorce for the umpteenth time or when Brad is with Jennifer or Angelina is in Africa…it turns out, nowhere.

So many kids, so many faiths...why pick one?

Brad told German magazine BILD that he doesn’t believe in God by stating, “I’m probably 20% atheist and 80% agnostic.” But what about Angelina Jolie his philanthropist wife? Surely her good-deeds come from some spiritual awakening? Apparently, Angelina’s religious position is as confusing as her relationship with her father. Asked in 2000 about her belief in God, Angelina hoped that for the people who believe in God that there is. Some Buddhists claim her because of her Khmer Buddhist tattoo (inspired by her son Maddox) and atheists claim her as well for her vague references to all religions being right/wrong. Certainly, Angelina is not Bible-toting Evangelical, but she is certainly someone on a journey without coming to a final conclusion.

What about the axe-weilding (American Psycho), crime fighting (Batman) and former crack addict boxer portraying (The Fighter) ubiquitous Hollywood favorite Christian Bale?

Batman, Patrick Bateman, Dicky Ecklund and why not Jesus?

Okay, so he’s played Jesus…but does he believe in him?

Growing up  with a father connected to the local bishop Bale grew up believing that Jesus looked like Neil Diamond (according to an E! Online interview in 2000), but since then his beliefs have become murky. Christian Bale prefers to keep tight lipped about his faith, although many suspect he is still nominally Christian he has chosen to keep even diehard Bale fans in the dark. What is known is that somebody decided to start a religion called Bale-ism and get it going on Facebook. So, maybe Bale is a Bale-ist.

 

The Black Swan star and popular actress Natalie Portman was raised Jewish and indeed she’s stated that she wants to raise her children as Jewish. However, don’t be fooled by the lip service. Natalie Portman openly stated she neither believes in the afterlife nor practices any particular faith. In a Rolling Stone interview back in 2002 she shared, “I don’t believe in [the afterlife]. I believe this is it and I believe it’s the best way to live.” While not specifically talking about G-d, Natalie Portman effectively rules Ha Shem out of the equation by negating the afterlife and affirming the positive dimension of living as if the supernatural does not exist. We could go way down this rabbit hole, but Portman is part of the large rank-and-file of “atheist” Jews, which may seem contradictory, but is an ever growing blend of culture/philosophy/religion/secularism in the Jewish world typified by the likes of the other Oscar fags the Coen Brothers. While creating a religion of their own with “the Dude who abideth” and touching on their own Jewish roots in A Serious Man, the Coen brothers are avowedly non-religious. Ethan even went so far as to say that believing in an all-knowing and all-loving G-d is “the height of stupidity.” Although not an Oscar nominee per se, Mark Zuckerberg was portrayed in this year’s critically acclaimed film, The Social Network, and also is an example of someone still culturally Jewish, but philosophically atheist.

Zuckerberg doesn't "Like" G-d

Now, this one is a personal favorite tidbit from this article. I’ve had a man-crush on Colin Firth for years now, ever since I first saw him grace the screen as the indubitable Mr. Darcy in Sense and Sensibility.

Raised by academics in Nigeria, Britain and America and with grandparents that served as missionaries in India Colin Firth’s religious journey is an interesting one. In fact, his mother is a comparative religions professor who studies mystical religions in particular. Above it all, Firth seems to be an open-ended man who respects the religious journey of his family. However, with all that said, he is for all intensive purposes a pantheistic Western-style Hindu akin to his mother. Why is this so interesting? a) because Colin Firth is dreamy and b) because his grandparents were Congregational missionaries in India, where his mother was raised and through this influence they both actually became Western-style Hindus. What a fascinating journey!

Now, leaving the best for last, the person you are all wondering about. The actor who perplexes people with his spiritual complexity and challenges movie-watches with the depth of his emotive acting and stunning realism. Woody from the Toy Story series. Although his pull-string isn’t too telling, sources close to Woody tell me he’s sporting the red-thread bracelet of the Kabbalah. Only time will tell if this is a fad or if Woody is serious about his mystical portage through life.

There's a red wristband in my gun holster!

As you can see, it isn’t always easy to know what the makes actors’ souls tick. While we know Richard Gere and Orlando Bloom are Buddhist and it’s pretty obvious that Kirk Cameron is a full-blown Evangelical, other stars keep quite tight lipped about their faith. It kind of makes me wonder why? With all the other things they speak out about why not their faith? Maybe they should keep their mouths closed, I mean, they say enough about politics; but maybe they should speak out. With their lead, there might possibly be a better dialogue on faith in the public sphere. I mean, if Hollywood stars can be honest about their spiritual journey and share their struggles then we could too?

For now, while all the other news agencies are telling you who will win and what to watch out for on the red carpet (not to mention a few drinking games to go along with the live broadcast from the Kodak Theater) I encourage you look out for spirituality and religion at the Oscars this year. Listen for references to the spiritual side of life in movie clips, red carpet fashion, interview questions and acceptance speeches. You might be surprised by what you hear, and you may just be encouraged to find out that along with the fame of Hollywood, comes a very human struggle with faith.

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Whose Holiday Is It Anyway?

This time of year, the holidays are in full swing and everywhere you look there are holiday themed decorations, advertisements and songs. Interestingly enough, along with all the merry-making and joyful celebration comes a fair share of holiday hostility.

Recently, the group American Atheists put up a billboard outside the Lincoln Tunnel with a background of three wise men traveling to Christ’s creche via a star bearing the words, “You KNOW it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason. American Atheists, reasonable since 1963.” To say the least, this board is already generating plenty of attention and raising the hackles of Christians in New Jersey, New York and across the nation (listen to the hilarious blitzkrieg over the billboard here).

Not to let the “attack” go unanswered, the folks at the Catholic League of New Jersey decided to “counterpunch” against the American Atheists by putting up their own billboard on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel. A Merry Christmas “counterpunch”? Really?

On the American Atheists’ website they state that the three primary purposes for posting such a proclamation are: 1) To address those atheists who “go along to get along”, and to encourage them to come out of their closets, 2) To attack the myth that Christianity owns the solstice season and 3) To raise the awareness of the organization and the movement.

While the American Atheists seek to promulgate their own position they also bring up the contemporary conundrum of whose holiday season this is anyway. December and January are filled with a myriad of meritorious celebration across religious and ethnic lines. Jews observe Hanukkah, African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, Pagans honor the solstice, Christians mark Christmas and corporations enjoy the holiday sales season.

Amidst the fray of festivals everyone fights over whose “holy” season it really is. As atheists attack the mythos of the Christmas holiday, Christians simultaneously fight to keep the “Christ” in Christmas, engaging in publicity campaigns and themed sermon series with the hope of reclaiming Christmas. Most recently, a spat of churches in the US are going through the Advent Conspiracy, a program aimed at taking back the Christmas season from rampant commercialism. On their website they state, “What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists.” While meaning to encourage more giving and love, the Advent Conspiracy movement takes on warfare terminology using terms like “conspiracy” and “revolution.” Although I support the sentiment of the Advent Conspiracy, I think they could transform the terminology.

Another Christian movement called the “Wish Me a Merry Christmas Campaign” takes the word-exchange that much further as it declares that wishing someone “Happy Holidays” is an “attack” on Christmas and wearing one of their buttons which says, “It’s OK, Wish Me a Merry Christmas” is a way to counterattack and “turn the tide” against the forces of darkness wishing people “Happy Holidays.”

Joining the cacophony of cantankerous exchange, Jews counter that the season was never about the birth of a savior, but the miracle of a menorah or protect their holiday with humor. Pagans chime in and contend that Christmas usurped traditional solstice celebrations. All the while companies try to wrestle away any religious passion left in the holidays and direct it towards their own “festival of consumer capitalism.” As Carlos Cortes of the University of California Riverside notes, the whole holiday season and its concomitant inter-religious turf wars are akin to “unarmed combat.”

Through it all, one thing becomes clear: a holiday season, in all its religious forms, meant to unite the world in peace and goodwill quickly descends into apologetic warfare as pundits draw battle lines and wrangle for possession for the winter festival season. In the end, many of us promote greed and conflict in our words and deeds over and against the peace and generosity meant to be evoked this time of year.  Whether it be fighting over this year’s hit toy at the local superstore or arguing about who gets to claim the season for their own, this year it would be encouraging to see people of all backgrounds spend more time lauding (and practicing) the peace, distinctive shalom, unity amidst diversity and thanksgiving that the various holidays of the season are intended to conjure in people’s hearts.

However, that would mean changing the question from “whose holiday is it anyway?” to “who can I share the spirit of this holiday with today?” That type of a question is much more reasonable this time of year and befits any and all who might still believe this season means something.

 

Peace on earth, good will to all,

Ken Chitwood

P.S. WATCH THIS VIDEO FOR JON STEWART’s HILARIOUS TAKE ON THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS!

Ken Chitwood is a graduate student in Theology and Culture at Concordia University Irvine, CA. He also serves as an intern with LINC Houston, a charitable organization working towards the development of whole communities in the diverse urban landscape of Houston, TX. Ken speaks on theology and religious issues on a regular basis, having taught in the United States, New Zealand, South Africa and Indonesia and maintains his own blog on the subject of religion at https://ubuntuspirit.wordpress.com.

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Advent Conspiracy, “Christmas can (still) change the world.” November 30, 2010: http://www.adventconspiracy.org

American Atheists, “Atheist Billboard is Up!” November 22, 2010: http://atheists.org/blog/2010/11/22/atheist-billboard-is-up

Carlos E. Cortes “Season’s Greetings: A Conversation About Diversity.” November 18, 2010: http://blog.orgsync.com/2010/season’s-greetings-a-conversation-about-diversity/

Wish Me a Merry Christmas Campaign, “Attack on Christmas.” November 28, 2010: http://www.wmamc.com/attackonchristmas/

Use of the phrase “festival of consumer capitalism” is credited to: Richard Horsley, Religion and Empire: People, Power and the Life of the Spirit. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2003) p. 106.

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Religion (Can Be) Good for America

I am hoping to read Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s new tome on American religion this winter break. In it they reveal the results of their study and their thoughts as well on the religious make-up of America and its sociological implications. The book is called American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

By all accounts it is GROUNDBREAKING…

GAME CHANGING…

EPIC…

and obviously capable of being described with hyperbolic CLICHES!

Alas, get a taste of the tone at the CNN Belief Blog – Religion and America.

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Religion on the Web – December 2, 2010

Thanks for taking the time to check out what’s going on with religion this week, you are part of the positive process of erasing religious illiteracy one person and one story at a time. Good on ya! This week, more religious holidays to recognize (including more on Advent, Hannukah and the Ascension of Abdu’l Ba-ha), a rare debate on the “soul’ of yoga and Apple apps and abortion activists knock heads.

Check the stories out below:

Religious Observances This Week

The “Soul” of Yoga

Apple Bans Conservative Christian App

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