Category Archives: Christianity

Easter and Commercialism

There’s an article up at Slate on why Easter “resists the commercialism that swallowed Christmas”. The author, James Martin, argues that Easter’s central theme and message- the death and resurrection of Jesus- are inherently less suited to commercialization. While the Christmas story lends itself to a sort of warm ‘n’ fuzzy non-denominational enthusiasm, the Easter story is rife with gory trappings, and strikes at the central themes of what it means to be a Christian.

I don’t buy Martin’s argument. I’d argue that Easter is no less commercial than Christmas, it’s just the magnitude of the attention given to them that differs. Easter isn’t less commercial, it’s just less popular. For reasons unrelated to the Christmas story, Christmas is able to draw the attention of non-Christians and marginal Christians, while Easter- again, not because of its religious content, but rather because of accidents of the calendar- does not.

First, we have to look at a central tenet of Martin’s argument: is Easter less commercially exploitable? A quick trip to the supermarket tends to dispel this notion. Pallets of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies fill most groceries and drug stores this time of year. Stuffed rabbits and ducks festoon shelves. Egg dying kits are ubiquitous, along with plastic eggs and sales of baskets and easter grass. The face of Easter that is shown to the public is, in general, not the face of crucifixion and resurrection that Martin suspects that the public might object to. Another face for Easter- the older pagan trappings of the spring fertility festival- have long-since acted as a commercially viable stand-in for images of the crucifixion. In effect, it doesn’t matter if the image of a crucified Christ is unmarketable- there are other images that can stand in, just as the image of Santa Claus or Frosty can take the religious edge off of Christmas.

So why is Easter not a commercial monsoon on par with Christmas, if there’s nothing about the holiday itself that really discourages consumerism? One argument might be that the calendar can only hold so many commercial blockbusters; fore reasons unrelated to religious content (mostly the tradition of gift-giving, which has only the most tenuous connection with the story of the nativity), Christmas established itself as the primary gift-buying season of the year. That process has fed on itself- once retailers realized that the collective wallet was opening in the November – December window, more and more commercial ventures began to be packed into the same window.

Martin argues that Easter’s position out on its own in the early spring season situates it to be a better commercial magnet than it is: the outdoor season is on its way, and there aren’t the distractions of surrounding holidays. I’d argue that the opposite is true. Part of the commercial drive of Christmas is the intensity of the surrounding holiday season, which is furthered by the winter weather. What is often regarded as a single Christmas binge is really the collected purchases of an entire social season. Large purchases of food and decor purchased for Christmas serves double-duty for New Years. Cold weather and time off from work encourages large-scale buying- you know you’ll be home, and you know that you won’t want to go out. Why not buy an entire ham and have sandwiches for a few days, in case somebody drops by?

The timing of Christmas- being fixed on December 25th- raises its profile as well. Easter always falls on a Sunday, a day when people are already off work, and which has traditionally been a time for family. Christmas creates an unusual interruption in the work schedule encourages both additional attention and travel. The position of Christmas in the middle of a busy holiday schedule for other faiths- such as Hanukkah and Ramadan- encourages employers to permit time off, without creating the impression that they are paying undue attention to any single religious group. The proximity of Christmas to New Years encourages employers to give people multiple days off, encouraging travel. Meanwhile, Easter’s position on an unpredictable Sunday in the spring lowers its profile, particularly among non-Christians, and the absence of a companion holiday or a regularly scheduled day off causes Easter to pass unnoticed for many non-Christians.

The notion that the gruesome spectacle of the crucifixion, or the theological implications of the resurrection, make commercialization impossible seems likewise implausible. What’s commercial about making offerings to the spirits of the dead? And yet Halloween is a successful commercial holidays, marked more by the sales of candy and costumes than by attention to the theological issues that ostensibly give it form. Why should the recollection of the dead of war inspire a picnic or barbecue? Experience seems to indicate that to the average person, a day off is a day off, and no origin- no matter how solemn or macabre- will get in the way of a good party, if there’s one to be had.


Religion in the US: Surveying the Field

Two surveys out this week that cast some light on religious trends in the US: first the National Council of Churches Yearbook provides data reported by large denominations regarding changes in their membership and giving. Second, a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life provides some data on the rate at which people are moving from one denomination to another, and the retention rates and growth of various non-Christian denominations.

The big themes are to be expected: old mainline denominations like the Episcopal church continue to decline; Catholics are kept steady only by an influx of new members. Evangelical and charismatic churches, particularly smaller ones, continue to hold their own or grow.

Two interesting quotes:

“The American religious economy is like a marketplace — very dynamic, very competitive,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum.

While the large denominations are struggling to retain members, many smaller, more innovative churches are continuing to grow- thus keeping overall attendance quite high among Christians in the US, even if membership and particular denominations are taking a hit. This is a perfect example of how markets are supposed to work. Contrast this situation in Europe, where widespread state churches have tended to hold a monopoly on Christianity, creating large centralized systems that gobble up tax dollars and respond to changes in society slowly if at all. It’s a prime example of free market competition outperforming a centrally planned market. Bad news for folks who think one particular organization has a monopoly religious truth, but an interesting case study in what is, in the US, a near-totally unregulated market.

The self-identified Buddhists — 0.7 percent of those surveyed — illustrate a core challenge to estimating religious affiliation: What does affiliation mean?

It’s unclear whether people who called themselves Buddhists did so because they practice yoga or meditation, for instance, or claim affiliation with a Buddhist institution.

Emphasis mine.

First of all, are we really to expect that someone who is casually performing a Hindu form of worship mostly shorn of its religious significance in the US is going to self-identify as Buddhist? Odder things have happened, but this seems like something of a stretch. But the article does raise a valid point: American notions of religious belonging are ill-equipped to quantify non-exclusive traditions like Buddhism, or people who mix their spiritual practices (which are increasingly likely to be Buddhist, Hindu, or new-age in origin) with a familial identity as a Christian or Jew. It’s similar to the frustration that Western demographers face when trying to come up with religious adherence counts for East Asia- by forcing someone to check a single box, you’re essentially forcing a narrowing of their religious identity. The resulting numbers don’t end up meaning a hill of beans.

Interesting implications as well for the prospect of making lasting religious communities in the West- these results would seem to imply that small, autonomous communities are going to enjoy more success than large groups with national or international organizational structures.

The Pope and the Lama

Nothing better represents the difference between the pontificate of John Paul II and Benedict XVI than the recent announcement (or non-announcement) that the Pope would not be having a formal meeting with the Dalai Lama during his visit to Italy.

Meeting with the Dalai Lama would be an immediate reminder of John Paul II’s legacy of inter-religious dialog. While the late former pontiff on several occasions spoke out against the growing Western fascination with Buddhism, he seemed simultaneously to believe that in the modern world, the religious- whatever their specific affiliation- had more to gain through alliance and dialog with one another than to lose. In particular, John Paul II saw that the values of religious faith- of compassion, service, and selflessness- presented the only coherent challenge to the materialism that drove the communist and capitalist movements of the 20th Century. John Paul II saw the Catholic church expanding beyond its traditional boundaries, both culturally and geographically.

That expansion necessitated accommodation and compromise- never simple tasks for an organization that believes it preserves the single source of religious truth in the world. Benedict XVI represents a swing back towards conservatism and tradition, and this is reflected by the choice that he has made regarding balancing two attractive but mutually exclusive goals. On the one hand, speaking publicly with the Dalai Lama sends a message about religious unity in the face of materialist challenges, something that Benedict seems to feel as strongly as his predecessor. On the other hand, official contact with the exiled Tibetan leader risks damaging relations with China, where the Church is struggling to come to accommodation with a government wary of the assertion of its traditional authority.

The deciding factor, in this case, is the appointment two months ago of a new bishop of Beijing, this time with cooperative approval from both the PRC and the Catholic Church. Beijing has offered the RCC the opportunity to gain ground regarding one of its core powers and responsibilities: the appointment of ministers to guide Catholics in the various diocese around the world. Given the choice between making gains in the execution of a traditional Catholic role and furthering the cause of a new one, it’s not surprising that Pope Benedict chose to appease China rather than send a more over message regarding Catholic modernization and religious dialog.

So while the Vatican has announced that and informal meeting with the Dalai Lama might be possible, I doubt that we can expect any more public courting of the Dalai Lama by Rome. Pope Benedict is staking out his ground and his legacy, and it seems likely to be quite different from that left by his predecessor.