Religious life in the USA is as varied as its people: staid, fiery and/or silly rites and rituals abound; proud neo-pagan revivals; daily TV miracles by the moment; sincere if sometimes soap-opera-like sermons and services; hot, sweating preachers warning of the (ever) impending “hell-fire and damnation”; fatherly ministers coaxing their congregations to be good, or better; old, “traditional faiths” from around the world; many, many idiosyncratic “new age” “religions”; ...the religious and “spiritual life” ranges from dirge-like to carnivalistic, from high to very low, with all (indeed most of it) in-between.
“Religion” – like politics, social manners, culture, even history and values (once called “morality”), and just about everything else in the USA – has been “democratized”. Often in American Reflections have I written of religions (English, No. 8, 10, 1996, No. 2, 1999, No. 1, 2000, No. 2, 2001) in the USA, and each of the last nine summers I have again and again attended to it there.
One sees – on TV religious programs for prominent example – standard ongoing shows. On one there – called the “700 Club” – miraculous healings are done “in the name of Jeesus” every few minutes (during that part of the program/show, and almost proverbially): blind people are said to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk; cancers cured; broken bones healed; .... Unfortunately for the doubtful, these miraculous healings are done not on TV, but in the homes and rooms of the TV viewers and merely reported to the believers. These “televangelists” seem to have, direct, instantaneous, on-demand unbroken telepathic “internet” – access to “God our Father”, “the Lord Jeesus”, “the Holy Spirit”, as well as the lives and conditions of virtually their entire TV viewership, so that they can instantly report, with their eyes closed, often holding hands, about: ‘Jerry, in Michigan, who is suicidal because he lost his job due to an injury to his back (or hip, arm, liver, etc), but who has accepted “Jeesus” into his heart, is instantly – so the televangelist reports – cured, and, providentially – “Praise the Lord” – will get a new and better job’. And then there is e.g. ‘Betty, whose leukemia might take her from her two children and husband, but due to her faith and prayers, is healed right now as we speak, and can walk out of the hospital’. Or ‘Joe, in Nebraska I believe, has had bad hearing since birth, can now hear perfectly, and can save his family life, which was under strain due to his hearing problem, and work’. ... I am not sure how many miracles Jesus is reported to have performed in a single day, but these TV preachers on the “700 Club” show, can do 20-30 people in less than the 10 minutes or so allotted for “miracles” on the show. ‘Please do send in your contributions to support this ministry.’ This is just one single, if singular, and yet prominent, “televangelism” show in the USA. (Now they have their own channels.)
The radio in the USA also has its religious life. I was again in the “Bible Belt” this summer, and I listened from time to time to a couple of Christian radio broadcasts of various denominations and tendencies. Here this summer I did note some “change” – though I am not sure whether it is progress, regress or digress. I have heard “soft rock Christian music” – in addition to the more standard kinds of Christian hymns for years. But this summer I heard two new – for me at least – additions to the standard, traditional Christian radio music genres: Heavy Metal and Rap Christian music.
At first I thought that the radio had somehow gotten the wrong station...but as I attempted to understand the lyrics – not easy with Heavy Metal to be sure – I did soon hear words such as: Jesus, salvation, sin, etc. I was, I suppose, “relieved”, if a bit astonished, while not surprised at the same time.
I had in earlier times predicted that such types of music were coming...and here I heard it! Was I to be glad?
The only difference between such “Christian” music and non-religious music one can hear is the lyrics. If one cannot discern the words – it would really be impossible to hear the difference by the music itself! (This is also true of a “soft rock” Christian singer, by the way, on the television: turn off the sound of the TV, and one could not guess by the looks on the face, the gestures, the eyes, etc, whether it was a romantic or Christian love song for example.) I personally think that these people want to “sleep” just like most average souls, by listening to background (sometimes called elevator) “music”, but they want to do it in a more “moral”, “Christian” manner.
These examples show how religious life is reduced – especially when democratic notions and ideas of “equality” are so influential – to the levels and minds of even the individual groups and persons. Far from being some elite province of mind, soul or experience, religion and theology in the USA (one’s relation to God, Jehovah, Allah, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, the Goddess, or really whatever) is reduced finally to the level of the individual person. So that the ancient great heights of theology are reduced to often just a little bit above a person’s head. It is a commonplace to say that they have “made God in their own image” – subjectivities over divinities. This is neither new (Xenophanes suggested that the “Gods” of horses would surely be horse-like), nor merely “American” – though the tendency has perhaps developed more and further in the USA than in other countries.
I heard of the “Jesus action figure” in the USA here in Moscow recently on the BBC’s Sunday program: “Reporting Religion”. It was new to me, a bit astonishing, and yet perfectly comprehensible at the same time.
Akin in my mind to plastic flowers on graves to honor the dead, plastic (non-action) Jesus figures have held their solemn and/or saccharine place on people’s altars (especially popular among poor Catholics) on wall shelves, desks, altars and tables for years in many countries. “Jesus action figures”, I guess for children to play with (with movable arms, for the healings and general “laying on of hands” presumably, and it seems, wheels so that he can glide along, “miraculously”, I suppose) are to my best knowledge new in all of human history anno domini. One wonders whether accessories might eventually come to include different colored robes, perhaps with blood on them, a crowns of thorns, a cross...!?
What shall parents do if their sweet young children fall into such erred fantasies, as that they play with their “Jesus Action Figure” as if It/“He” were not the “Son of God” but for examples: “Terminator”, Batman, or Predator?
“God” is, as I wrote some time ago, an “amiable, amenable” figure (English No. 45, 1998); and now, with this “Jesus Action Figure” – and we need to imagine all the people involved: designers, manufacturers, marketers, distributors, store salesmen and store displays, advertisements, etc, as well as the parents who might buy this ‘holy toy’ for their children to “religiously” play with as a toy – Jesus is reduced to the level of the sandbox.
First published in the magazine English, #37, 2002, p. 14.