Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Anti-Catholic T-Shirts? The Newest Production of Sound-Byte Polemics

I was just at the grocery store, getting some supplies for this evening's supper, and I saw a man wearing a particularly distasteful t-shirt. On the front it read:
Roman Catholicism: It'll Send You to Hell
Then on the back, it read:
Christianity: Christ-Centered
Roman Catholicism: Man-Centered
I added the punctuation. So now religious intolerance or prejudice can be found on t-shirts! That's right. Now we no longer have to guess whether someone dislikes a particular religious group. Now they have a big sign on them that says: I hate you. Or if not hate, strongly dislike. Or they may say that they do not hate you as a person, but just everything that you believe in, things that you hold dear, things that give meaning to this life. (So, I don't hate "you" but just everything about you.)

The back of this particular t-shirt makes a typical Protestant Christian move, usually associated with Protestants of a more conservative stripe, that distinguishes not just between different types of Christianity, but excludes a very huge part of the Christian population from "Christianity" altogether. This is not the stuff of reasoned judgment or sustained reflection on the respective varying social and theological merits and problems of Catholics and whatever group this guy belonged to, but polemics, plain and simple. For most of us, I would think, it will have the reverse effect that he hoped for: I mean, if Christ is anything like this guy, who would be attracted to "Christ-Centered" "Christianity"?

This is a particular type of polemics that seems to be a product of recent provenance--the sound byte. There are predecessors, such as campaign slogans and political cartoons that reduced highly complex issues to a few words--and every political campaign has them and has had them for most of the U.S.'s history. But now there is a proliferation of these things: reduced sound bytes played over and over by the media, bumper stickers, and, I guess, t-shirts.

Growing up I had been aware of what was often called "witness wear." These were t-shirts and other regalia such as hats, etc., that people wore that expressed (in highly reduced form) their religious allegiances or points of view. Most of the time, these things would mimic something highly popular marketed by corporations and slightly alter it to somehow refer to Jesus. I usually found this rather dull, unimaginative, yet relatively harmless nonetheless. Upon later reflection, I have found it theologically detrimental to reduce in seductively simple sloganeering highly textured and deep religious traditions, marketing them, and selling them as if they were just any other product on the market. This corporatization of faith seems, therefore, demeaning to the faith.

The danger, now, is much clearer seeing today's shirt. What was a medium for self-identification (saying that I belong to this group) has not become a very dangerous polemical medium for religious prejudice and hate. Now instead of reducing one's own tradition to a bumper-sticker mentality, this person reduced and slandered (well, I guess it was libel since it was written) another person's tradition. Such an attitude is not open to hear another point of view, any sort of reasonable discussion or dialogue. If you cannot listen to others, how can you grow as a person, whether intellectually, emotionally, or, in this case, spiritually / religiously?

This is the stuff that makes me frustrated and sad. Yet it is the stuff that reminds me that I have a place as a (future) professor of religion to open up space for the religious dialogue that this person is trying to close down.

UPDATE: I just noticed that there is now a link to this post by someone with a very different point of view expressed in the allegory of a mine and miners trying to escape alive...that there was only "one way" out of the mine (follow the links to this post below). It is an interesting allegory, and I am happy to discover someone who disagrees with me is reading my blog and has used one of my postings as inspiration for this allegorical story, even though they interpret it differently than I do. Nonetheless, anyone can come up with a proliferation of allegories that support many different opposing points of view. They are ultimately only illustrative and not determinative; they provide very nice images or stories, but do not constitute an argument. The point of the illustration is that the person (the one who knows the one, right way, I guess related to the person wearing the t-shirt) pointed out that way through concern and love. I think that many proselytizing Christians do have good intentions and try to convert out of concern, whether I agree with them or not. But sound-byte polemics is a medium that does not express love and concern, but is highly polemical, dangerous and hateful. There are ways to discuss ultimate issues with others, but flat out telling someone they are going to hell is not helpful and, in fact, is harmful to all parties. It flattens, perhaps cheapens, one's faith. It is isolating rather than engaging. It does not enter debate, dialogue, or discussion, nor is it reflective, but only makes ungrounded assertions.

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