Religion, Noise, and Dr. Seuss

On Tuesday, March 26, Dr. Isaac Weiner gave a lecture “When Religion Becomes Noise” at Trinity University. Dr. Weiner has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and currently serves as a faculty member in the department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University.

Weiner’s lecture discussed religious pluralism in the U.S. and the way that public religious sounds, such as Christian church bells or the Islamic call to prayer, complicate the issue. He explained that sounds are more invasive than sights, and are more likely to be the cause of complaint.

This begs the questions: Which sounds get classified as merely “noise” and which sounds are tolerated on the basis of religious freedom? Which sounds are “out of place” and which sounds belong in the public sphere? How do religions coexist? How are Americans inclusive without becoming oppressive?

“I want people to think about the relationship between our public culture and our assumptions about the kind of society we want to build,” said Weiner. “What we’re willing to tolerate in public says something about what we aspire to be as a society.”

According to Weiner, only the sounds of the majority typically prevail. The majority has the ability to reclassify their sounds as secular in order to justify their presence. For example, a church’s bells are not a call to the service, but a secular marking of time; Christmas is not a religious celebration, but rather a national holiday.

Weiner referred to a well-known children’s book, Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to illustrate his point. The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes after the Whos are unaffected by his attempts to ruin Christmas, and he joins in with the Whoville caroling. Weiner asked attendees to imagine a more sinister reading of the story, in which the Whos’ singing is forced upon the Grinch, a minority, who is then forced to assimilate to their attitudes and join in their sound. As it turns out, this is the reality of religious pluralism in the U.S. today.

Weiner presented several historical examples of regulation or repression of religious sounds, including St. Mark’s church bells in 1870s Philadelphia, Jehovah’s Witness sound cars in 1946, and the Islah Islamic Center’s call to prayer in Hamtramck, MI in 2004.

Each of these case studies is heavily discussed in Weiner’s book, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism. In each case, the sound is treated differently depending on the majority opinion and tradition.

For example, in Hamtramck, MI, many claimed the Islamic call to prayer was “out of place” in the historically Polish Catholic city where church bells were practically a part of the landscape. In one sweep, people could suffocate the sounds they didn’t want to hear and replace them with ones they did. In cases like this, the minority finds itself unable to make sound and instead forced to join in with the noise of the majority, as the Grinch does with the Whos’ caroling in Dr. Seuss’s story.

“As we negotiate what it means to live in a religiously diverse society,” said Weiner, “we must continue to work toward the full inclusion of all religious communities in our public and civic life.”

The public sphere should be a place for the freedom of religious expression, including religious sound. Oppression of minority expression is not an option for Americans who wish to build a better and more virtuous society.

The lecture was sponsored by the Trinity University Humanities Collective as part of their current focus on the First Amendment, particularly the freedom of religion clause. On April 8 at 5:30pm in Chapman Auditorium, Trinity University will host another religion scholar, Dr. Nicola Denzey Lewis from Claremont Graduate University, to speak on lost ancient Christian documents from Egypt.

Photo by Kathleen Arbogast.

Review: Vampire Lesbians of Sodom

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom written by Charles Busch and directed by Sarah Bastos played in Trinity University’s Attic Theatre from Feb. 14-16. With a title like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, one can’t help but give this play a double take. One might suspect the show involves witchcraft, immorality, love, sin, sex or ecstasy, and while the show doesn’t fail to deliver on at least some of those elements, it’s really a campy play about female rivalry and friendship throughout the ages. This production of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was excellently received because it took a mediocre script and truly brought it to life on stage.

The play is a satirical work that follows the struggle between two female vampires throughout time, focusing on biblical Sodom, 1920s Hollywood, and finally 1980s Los Angeles. The protagonists, La Condesa and Madeleine Astarte, played by Aria Gaston-Panthaki and Sophia Elsadig respectively, meet in Act I when Madeleine is offered as a human virgin sacrifice to the “Succubus” or La Condesa. La Condesa bites Madeleine’s neck intending to kill her, but Madeleine becomes a vampire instead. The rest of the story in Acts II and III follows the vampires as Madeleine seeks her revenge on La Condesa, primarily by stealing away La Condesa’s fame and fortune.

I won’t mince words: I’m not fond of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom as a script. There are some really moving moments written into the dialog while others (including the climax!) are rushed, cheapening the dynamic between the protagonists. There are clever innuendos, but also vulgar jokes that are hard-pressed for a laugh. There is potential to support the LGBTQIA+ community, but the play fails to do remarkable things with its queer characters. Yes, lesbian women are represented, but they’re represented as power-hungry, selfish, catty, and incapable of love. Even at the end, La Condesa and Madeleine only remain together out of pity, loneliness, self-preservation, and selfish ambition. I would argue that queer women, and all people for that matter, deserve a better representation than this in the theatre. In her director’s note, Sarah Bastos said that her goal with the show was “to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community…by introducing you to these two powerful, cunning, and beautiful lesbian women”. While I agree with Bastos that La Condesa and Madeleine are strong and intelligent women, I believe these traits manifested themselves in ugly ways. If this show is to truly support lesbian women, it must also show their hearts and humanity.

Although I disapprove of the script, I felt that Bastos and her team did an outstanding job staging the production, and I’m compelled to give them due praise. The designers truly outdid themselves in transporting the audience from one time period to the next. Holly Gabelmann’s scene design was appropriately crude in the first act before transitioning to vintage and then chic and in the second and third acts, an excellent reflection of the protagonists’ character developments. Alex Oliver, the costume designer, had the characters sporting the best of every era, using a mixture of archaic garments, flapper-inspired looks, and colorful sportswear. With each new act, I really could believe that decades or thousands of years had gone by.

To make the time transitions even more flawless, Sarah Bastos added an emcee-type character, played by Jude Casanova, who provided the audience with silly vampire facts like “Vampires drink blood!” never complete without an innuendo. The character allowed complex scene transitions to occur without snapping the audience out of the world of the play. I scarcely even noticed the set being moved around and recreated. By the time the emcee exited, a new decade waited on stage.

All in all, I was presently surprised by the great quality of this production in spite of my personal criticisms of the script. The actors were dedicated to their roles, the designers and crew transported me to three different time periods, and the director created a dynamic and smooth show. It would seem that only the playwright failed me.

Free use image.