Saturday, February 12, 2011

"A richness that we miss out on sometimes as Christians"

There's an article in today's Times about the increasing popularity of various Jewish wedding practices--principally the ketubah, or wedding contract, but also the huppah--among evangelical Christians. To be clear, we're not talking about interfaith marriages, where the two participants are trying to preserve and honor their respective traditions or combine them into a meaningful whole. These are Christians who may or may not know any actual Jews (the featured couple learned about the ketubah at the wedding of the bride's equally evangelical sister), but who are attracted to whatever they vaguely understand the "significance" or "symbolism" of these practices to be.

And I have to admit, my first reaction was to say, "Get your own fucking traditions! Or learn about the ones you have!" (And upon reflection, that's my second and third reaction, too.)

As someone who works on early Protestant literature, it always amuses me how much and how eagerly many contemporary Protestants are trying to undo the Reformation, or at least its most visible outward signs. When I lived in Harlem, I was astonished by how many churches gave out ashes on Ash Wednesday or held Good Friday services that seemed to incorporate something like the stations of the cross, and I always smile a little at those students who talk about Catholic "idolatry" while wearing crosses around their necks or carrying laminated pictures of Jesus in their wallets.

But while those things may be surprising, and some of them do display a questionable knowledge of history or of their own denomination's intellectual and spiritual underpinnings, others can be seen as a genuine effort, on the part of a congregation or denomination, to reclaim parts of their faith heritage.

What gets my goat is people whose religiosity is totally untethered to a coherent intellectual or theological tradition, but who think they can manufacture a tradition out of odds and ends taken from other people's. It's not so different from what pisses me off about those who think they're "creating their own traditions" with their precious, special, unique weddings.

You don't get to have it both ways. Either your spirituality is synthetic and free-floating, based only on whatever speaks to you personally, or it's firmly grounded in a particular tradition (which doesn't mean that it can't incorporate other elements or practices, or that it has to be orthodox in every particular). Both are reasonable ways to approach your spiritual life, but they're not the same thing.

If your Christian marriage doesn't provide you with what the female half of the featured couple calls "a permanent reminder of the covenant we made with God," it's worth asking yourself why. It's worth asking yourself why your own ceremonies don't feel sufficiently sacred--and why you think you're "miss[ing] out" when someone else's faith has traditions you don't share.

And with all due respect to Jenna Weissman Joselit, a historian who works on Jewish popular culture and is quoted in the article, I do not think that incorporating Jewish practices (such as holding their own Passover Seders or eating kosher food) provides Christians with "another level of authenticity or legitimacy."

If you don't already feel that your religion has authenticity or legitimacy, you're not going to be able to co-opt it from someone else's. Sorry.

14 comments:

Sisyphus said...

Don't forget the articles I've been finding about stripping yoga of its theological background and recreating it as a prayer/exercise service at many large evangelical churches.

(ooh, and my mom teaches CCD and leads her students through a Seder every Easter! I think the know-and- respect-your-history-and-hierarchy thing is very Catholic, and the rebellion against Catholic hierarchy got tied to throwing out an emphasis on history and religion?)

Flavia said...

Sis:

Well, mine is an argument with plenty of potential holes in it (those practices that I say it's lame to import from another religion are lame, but not the ones that I don't!), but I think there's a difference between introducing someone to a particular practice in the interests of education, versus adopting a practice on your own without regard for its own tradition and context. So understanding what a Seder IS, and experiencing it in either an educational or a social context (participating in your Jewish friends' Seder, for example--which might or might not make a practicing Christian think differently about the Last Supper), is one thing. But actually assimilating it AS a Christian tradition is something else.

The other distinction I'd make is between communal efforts and individual ones. The Times article notes the way the ketubah is actually a pretty recent tradition, in its present form, among Jews. But that's a case of a whole community rediscovering and making newly meaningful an older tradition. Traditions are traditions because they reflect the history and values of a community--that's why it's ridiculous to talk about "making your own tradition." It's not a tradition if you're the only one doing it, or if you have to give a lengthy explanation as to what it means and how you personally interpret or understand this thing that you're doing.

And to your last point: actually, no. The Reformation was all about returning Christians to the practices of the earliest church, and that carried a strong impulse to learn as much as possible about the actual historical practices of the first century or so of Christians (and to a lesser but still significant degree, the practices of the ancient Jews). But again: it was part of a communal effort to understand their history and inheritance, by going back to ancient texts and their original languages. It's hard for me to see the people in this article as especially meaningful heirs of the Reformers, because they seem so divorced from any real sense of historic difference or specificity.

(I got nothin' to say about yoga, but I'll take your word for it!)

Anastasia said...

I know many evangelicals who are attracted to Judaism and it is in all cases specifically about their anti-Catholic tendencies. To the point where I told a friend I was considering converting to Roman Catholicism after studying early Christianity and she said (and I do quote): "Why wouldn't you just become Jewish?"

The answer is that I'm Christian, obviously, but that didn't compel her particularly given that Catholicism is not Christian in her mind. They aren't the same. But to her, if you want to get to the really old traditions that belong to Christianity, you look to Judaism and not to the genuinely old traditions that are Christian. Because the things that are old and Christian are closer to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy but that's clearly wrong.

Meanwhile, these same evangelicals have a very static view of Judaism--they often don't imagine that it has undergone any significant development since, oh, the time of Abraham. It likely hasn't occurred to them that the ketubah is a recent development. Or that the Seder is more recent, honestly.

Anyway, my take is that it's an attempt to gain some authenticity and legitimacy in reviving "ancient" practices all while bypassing the nasty Catholics in between. And in that sense, they are very like certain of the Reformers.

Flavia said...

Anastasia,

That's an astonishing story. I had never thought of the Judaizing tendencies of many evangelicals as being about constructing an alternative and (in their eyes) more truly Christian tradition, but that makes a lot of sense; certainly it makes sense in the case of the Reformers.

I also like your analysis of the static and fundamentally un-historical view of Judaism that's involved here. What we're talking about is an ahistoricism that purports to be all about reconnecting with history--or a suspicion of tradition (where "tradition" = centuries' worth of errors, interpolations, and corruptions) that weirdly fetishizes tradition (where "tradition" = authentic beliefs or practices, whose antiquity is the very sign of their truth).

Dr. Koshary said...

I'm so confused. They want to borrow our traditions because they're cool and authentic and everything, but they still blame us for killing Jesus and want us to convert to their religion?

Philo-Semitism: creepiness by another name.

Anonymous said...

Well - while Prather am suspect of these particular people (seems to just be more ridiculous wedding planning) I don't think it is wrong if Christians, even those without Jewish heritage themselves, decide that Christianity was wrong to throw out all the Jewish elements - after all in the earliest days of the church it was a sect of Judaism and they had to decide whether Gentiles had to become Jewish to become Christian.

Then again - I read (and liked) Lauren Winners Book Mudhouse Sabbath - which is about Jewish practices that Christianity should revive in some form - so to me the idea of incorporating some jewishness is not that strange (mostly doing it for a wedding though is just strange)

Dr. Rural said...

I'm a practicing Catholic, but I also very frequently attend Protestant services. I expect Anglicans/Episcopalians to look kind of Catholic, but everyone else? I have been amazed at the spread of obviously Catholic stuff into the Protestant mainstream in the last couple of decades. One example was the popular reception among evangelicals of "The Passion of the Christ," which was, hello, a really bloody version of the Stations of the Cross, that most Catholic of devotions. I'm currently attending a Presbyterian church where right before Advent (invented by the Catholics long ago) they celebrated Christ the King Sunday (invented by Pope Pius XI in 1925)!

I'm fascinated by this stuff, and I keep thinking that Knox and Calvin are rolling in their graves. It doesn't especially bother me that Protestants are doing this, however . . . as long as they don't simultaneously appropriate Catholic stuff and then bash the Catholic church for its rituals and "superstitions." (I hang out in ecumenical churches, so I don't hear the worst of the Catholic bashing.)

I'm much more wary of appropriations from Judaism. I figure that in the great fight between Catholics and Protestants, both sides did their fair share of persecuting, they share far more than divides them theologically, and both currently exist in very large numbers. But the history of Christians and Jews? Overall, that's a big group of people (the Christians) persecuting a small minority for a very long time. That the big group of people would then turn around and appropriate the symbols of the persecuted minority because they admire their history, or their beauty, or their "authenticity"? No, I don't think that's a good idea.

Shedding Khawatir said...

This can go the other way as well--I once came across a discussion of the marriage ceremony from my religion (Quaker) as great for "indie" weddings. I have no problem with people using/modifying the ceremony. But it's not "indie"--it's a 400 year old religion! As it happens, one of the things most appropriated from the ceremony is the marriage certificate, which is similar (in appearance) to a ketubah. Interesting.

the rebel lettriste said...

To Shedding Khawatir: word. This Quaker does have a problem with people appropriating the Friends marriage ceremony. And Flavia, I wonder what Jews think about this shit.

Flavia said...

Koshary:

You said it; I didn't.

Dr. Koshary said...

@Flavia: That's what I'm here for. :)

@Rebel Lettriste: See my comment above. I speak for myself, not for the entire Jewish people, but I rather suspect I'm not the only Jewish person who thinks this stuff is effed-up on a philosophical and historical level.

Miriam said...

There's been a fad for Jewish traditions for some time now, especially kabbalah. Good heavens, the Kabbalah Center--don't get any Jew started on that. (Hey, let's turn exceptionally difficult mystical texts into pop spirituality! And you don't even need to understand what you're reading! Just spend lots of money while you're here!) Gah. Madonna was into this stuff for a while.

Anyway, this Jew thinks that such appropriations derive from the same mindset that believes it's OK to walk up to one of us and announce, "Oh, I so love the Jews!" Which happens on a kind of regular basis, and it's, um, massively annoying. (My mother's usual response: "Whatever for?")

Flavia said...

Miriam:

That's very strange. Do people say, "I love Hispanics!" or "I love gay people!" to those in those identity groups? Maybe some people do, but it's pretty clear that such declarations are All About Them (and their limited, self-serving beliefs about a particular minority group).

But your mom's response is awesome.

Earnest English said...

This Jew agrees with Dr. Koshary.

If you think that I'm an idiot and forever lost because I don't believe that Christ was the messiah -- or G-d forbid, believe that I'm a Christ-killer -- then don't steal my seder, my ketubah, my traditions.

It's a weird modified version of what was said in the American President: here's a case of loving Judaism (at least enough to steal its elements) and hating Jews (at least as Jews). Enough. Mespeak.