Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Dangers of an Open Mind

Two articles in different sources about different topics really caught my eye this week, and I couldn't shake the feeling that they were somehow deeply related. One concerns driving in Saudi Arabia, and the other is about mainstream religions tentatively adopting yoga. These stories are pretty far apart, probably only to have their rhetorical distance increased if something truly bizarre was added, like something about one of Johnny Carson's ex-wives or about the ice rings of Saturn.

The first article is in this week's (9/17/2007) Newsweek, in an article by Lisa Miller. The article is talking about yoga, and how some Jews and Christians are adopting the practice and allowing the meditative aspects to inform upon their own connection with the divine. It mentions a Christian DVD called "Christoga", which is NOT some sort of religious "Animal House" party (much to my disappointment). The full title is "Christoga: Yoga Filled Body... Christ Filled Soul". Apparently, the Christian-influenced yoga will "improve your ability to perform activities of daily living." Raise hands, all those who think that's an incredibly well-crafted statement, which tries to sound powerful without any actual accountable promise.

Now, I've done some yoga. At home, watching artful videos, usually of attractive middle-age people up on mountain tops, who look more incredibly serene than someone in a lycra bodysuit has ANY right to be. The camera pans around them, showing them in the middle of a Colorado mountain range, or on a promontory in a Hawaiian jungle. How hard did they have to sweat to get up on these rocks, I wondered. Do they need to cool back down and change sweaty clothes before appearing serene?

At any rate, my experience was rather like trying to take a book and fold it around, spine in and covers together, and set it back on the shelf: there was a lot of cracking, some spines may have been damaged, and nothing looks quite right when finished. The article states that what makes the yoga Christian is that the Sanskrit chanting is replaced by Bible verse repetition, and the students are asked to dedicate the exercises to Jesus. I don't remember Sanskrit from my home methods, just a calm female voice telling me to "let your pelvis reach for the sky!"

Apparently some more orthodox (small 'O') Christians feel that any combination of Christianity and Hinduism (infamous for its many gods) amounts to a violation of the First Commandment. For clarity's sake, that's the commandment that says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." After all, we can't just co-opt some other religion's features and beliefs *cough*JUDAISM*cough*, because that would be like worshiping a different god! We've got to at least change the names.

And viola! Christians developed "Praisemoves". It's like yoga, only you don't have to worry about the foreign-sounding position names. I mean, "Triang Mukhaikapada Pascimottanasana" is too long to be just a position name; it's got to mean something like "Jesus isn't as divine as you might hope; he burps after dinner" or something equally suspect. Thank G-d for Praisemoves, which the website goes to great lengths to clarify: "Praisemoves is NOT 'Christian Yoga'. Praisemoves is a Christian ALTERNATIVE to yoga." There seems to be some sensitivity with even the name 'yoga'. I modestly propose renaming yogurt as well. Not because the name has anything to do with yoga, but because the name "yoghurt" was originally used by Arabic scholars in the 11th century to describe it. Coming soon, a sensitive Christian alternative to yogurt: righteous-milk.

The founder of Praisemoves explicitly states that she considers the cultural penetration and ubiquitous exposure of yoga to be "the Missionary arm of Hinduism and the New Age movement". The founder grew up in the culture of yoga, until she "came to the end of [herself] and surrendered [her] life to Jesus Christ in 1987".

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The other article was in today's Kansas City Star. The article was about a group of women in Saudi Arabia who are seeking the right to drive. The Saudis are the only country that does not allow women to drive. They must be driven by a man, even if it is a "hired driver", which costs about $300-400 per month. The conservatives in Saudi society believe that women should be shielded from male strangers.

It sort of short-circuits my Western-raised brain to read that the reasoning behind the conservative position is that, should women be able to drive, then women would "be free to leave home alone and go when and where they please. They would also unduly expose their eyes while driving and interact with male strangers, such as traffic police and mechanics." I suppose it's a kind of progress when they'll tacitly admit that women couldn't drive safely while blinded behind the burka.

The kicker seems to be that this gender bias is based on a clerical edict, not on Islamic or civil law. This is serious business, though; in 1990, 50 women decided to drive their family cars. They were each jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated, and lost their jobs.

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I associated these stories with each other after talking with a friend of mine about the Christian yoga. She said that when she was growing up, her church was warned about the dangers of "clearing and emptying" their minds, as often occurs before and after yoga sessions. I suppose the implicit terror is that if your mind is open and unguarded, who knows what might take root? I immediately pictured someone sitting in the lotus position, then suddenly opening their eyes. "Wow," they say. "Upon further reflection, gay marriage isn't all that bad."

The instant my friend described the imperative of keeping up what I'll irreverently call the "Jesus Shielding", it seemed to explain so much. After all, if you're in a state of hyper-vigilance, you're not going to stop to examine everything that comes along. You're going to toss babies out with bathwater as if they belonged together in the hydrangea bushes. You're going to be far less likely to critically examine everything that comes along. After all, you might be tainted by association. If you think too long about whether or not you're gay, you might end up *ahem* choosing to be gay. Choosing it because you... um... like the uniform, and are interested in some of the fringe benefits, like people coming to you for fashion advice.

What need have you for critical thinking and self-evaluation, if you've already been exposed to the one Actual Truth? Who are we to be deciding the relative merits of anything, when Jesus got up and died for us all? If the Jesus Shields stay up, then everything will be fine. Right? Is it the goal of being Christian to (like the Praisemoves founder) come to the end of ourselves and just surrender to Jesus?

Be careful, though. Islam means "surrender", so make sure you don't accidentally surrender to God, but only to Jesus. But wait, Jesus is God. So, by the faith associative property.... if A = B, and B = C, then C must equal A. Uh oh.

Woe and teeth-gnashings! They were right about the terrors of the open mind!

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