Dragon-Boating Explained

Thursday, June 25th, is the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when much of East Asia celebrates the Dragon Boat Festival. Dragon-boating has become popular across much of the world, with competitions taking place year-round. Hong Kong alone has hundreds of teams, including collegiate squads, hobbyists and company-sponsored platoons. The biggest fish mongers or seafood restaurants tend to dominate, possibly thanks to their sly recruitment of steroidal Mainland jocks. Naturally the main event is on “Double 5th,” when every district in the city will normally host at least one waterfront competition. For obvious reasons this year’s races have been canceled, but some are still doing “virtual” races (however that is supposed to work).

Poor Confucian bastard.

Despite its commercialization and appropriation by white devils, Tuen Ng (Duanwujie for you Northerners) has Chinese religious roots. There are several competing origin stories based on semi-historical figures, but the most popular myth is about an unlucky poet and official of the ancient State of Chu (ca. a very long time ago) named Qu Yuan. Qu had the misfortune of being opposed to Qin, the ascendant power in pre-imperial China. He was banished from his post when Chu allied itself with Qin, but eventually Qin simply conquered Chu (and the rest of China by 221 BCE). Legend has it that a despairing Qu drowned himself in a river, but despite falling out of favor Qu was still loved and respected by many, and so the locals raced out in their boats to try and save him. Unfortunately they were too late, so instead they dropped balls of rice that the fish would eat instead of his body. Today’s races memorialize the desperate attempt to save Qu, and the balls of rice are said to be the origin of the famous Chinese rice dumplings called zongzi.

As with much of Chinese religious tradition, it’s likely that these legends have been superimposed onto earlier beliefs and practices. The fifth month of the year has always been a rather inauspicious time spiritually-speaking, and since ancient times certain rituals have been used to ward off bad luck and mischievous spirits. Tuen Ng is also possibly related to dragon worship, hence the boats’ dragon-headed bows and colorful livery. Buddhas excepting, in Chinese religion there is no more auspicious or powerful an animate force than a dragon.

However, the most interesting part of the festival’s history is actually quite recent, as we Chinese very nearly lost this part of our cultural heritage to our duplicitous Korean cousins! The controversy began when South Korea considered internationally registering the holiday as part of their cultural heritage in the mid-aughts. Now it is certainly true that the festival has been a cherished part of Korean culture since it spread from China centuries ago. However, the problem was that much of the Chinese-speaking world had forgotten about it; the PRC – our esteemed representative on the world stage – had basically ignored the tradition. About to be preempted, the Party panicked and rushed to revive the holiday so that China, not Korea or (worse) CHINESE TAIPEI, could claim the festival with UNESCO. We mustn’t blame the Koreans for our own neglect, but they could certainly be less annoying about it. The controversy even led to one of the first great online inter-Asian conflicts with  “Zongzi Gate,” when a Korean social media hussy had the gall to educate us on the rules of consuming glutinous rice. No way in dei juk could we let that slide. 

Pictured: A hussy (Credited to chinahush.com)

Covid-19 Can Spread through Singing, Is Clearly Catholic

A recent (ok, relatively recent) CDC report  on a Presbyterian choir practice outbreak in March suggests that their might, just might, be a connection between singing and Covid-19. We know, we know – it’s crazy to think that a respiratory infection can be spread by an activity that involves the manipulation of air from the lungs through the mouth. But while evidence is still somewhat anecdotal, similar cases in Germany and Amsterdam seem to suggest that church choirs are hazardous for more than just your eardrums. Even before the CDC made its own (short-lived) recommendation against it, a panel of scientists and choral bigwigs gave a sobering webinar on the future of group singing.

This is a problem for many Christians, particularly Protestants. If Methodist, you like to belt out off-key notes to embarrass your kids. If African Methodist, you like to put that whitey’s butt to shame with your Gospel rhythms. Either way, singing is a Protestant’s most beautifully obnoxious and individualistic expression of love for Jesus Christ. Without it, we lose about 25%-30% of worship content. God forbid our sermons get LONGER.

But likely due to Great American Evangelical Episcopalian Donald Trump’s intervention, the CDC has since dropped their recommendation against group singing, but scientists are still wary, and many churches will likely keep things as sotto voce as possible for a while. I’m as militant low-liturgist as they come, but Catholicism’s relative quietude is starting to seem a little more reassuring than spittle-filled Baptist churches.

Introducing Slightly Arbitrary World Religious Leader RANKINGS

Hello again. It’s been a long month, hasn’t it? That’s what we tell ourselves to assuage the guilt of not having posted in several weeks. Our contributors have been busy worshiping their g-ds, while we’ve been trying to figure out this WordPress thing. But your patience has been rewarded with a new ongoing feature: Stats and Rankings of World Religious Figures!

You already know we like to keep you informed of the current state of the leadership (see right sidebar), but now you get to see how holy VIPs stack up against each other. Now it’s not entirely arbitrary – and these rankings will change – but it’s admittedly difficult to order them without causing some hurt feelings. And not all religions are equal when it comes to producing rankable peeps. Obviously Christendom has the advantage when it comes to the production of leadership positions, while Buddhism has tons of self-help-publishing folks you can’t help but love. In contrast, Islam and Judaism lack the hierarchical or celebrity structure to really give us an obvious choices (and the representatives of the former often carry certain…uh…hard edges).

So for now you are left with a whopping SIX leaders, teachers and masters. We will tweak and expand this list as time goes on, including lesser-known celebrity clerics. In the interfaith spirit, it’s our hope to include every major religion, denomination, school and lineage.

Wash Your Buddha Thoroughly!

Credit: Hong Kong Traveler, but you know they just swiped it from somewhere else.

Happy Birthday Blessed One! On this date (in the Chinese lunar reckoning) about two and a half-thousand years ago, li’l baby Sakyamuni was born. For those of us in Hong Kong, today has an extra special meaning, as the Buddha’s Birthday was the first real “Chinese” holiday made public following the Handover. Many of us are certainly nostalgic for those strapping British minders, but we have to chide them for never much caring about for our little traditions. Of course, this being Hong Kong, we had to give up one holiday for another. We working women would have been quite happy having a day off for both the Buddha’s and the Queen Mum’s birthdays, but the lou baan wouldn’t have liked that, no sirs!

Besides the usual prayers and incense, we like to bathe the Thus Come One on this day. Some of us will go to temples to help the monk lads pour sacred water over a statue of infant Siddhartha. This is to remember how he came out sideways from his dear mother’s womb not just walking and talking, but giving us the good Dharma to boot! Then he was washed by the sacred waters of the gods (or dragons, as some of us like to think).

While normally a temple soiree, I frankly see no reason to go out (especially these days) if you already have an statue of Mr. Fat gracing your shelf, mantel, dedicated altar space. While it may not be the wee little Prince, there is something undoubtedly meritorious about washing an Amitabha, Guanyin, or even your little laughing Maitreya. Frankly I think it’s a good idea to wash these pint-sized ascetics on other auspicious days too. Can’t be too careful with all the novel viruses going around!

But don’t just pour water over the little guy’s head. Use a cloth and take care to get every nook and cranny! Dirt, grime, and grease has a habit of building up where the nappies can’t reach. For most materials, I’d recommend using a high-quality chamois and water mixed with a teensy bit of dish soap. Bleach has its uses but we really don’t recommend it in this case.

Time to Zoom Into Ramadan

This picture is pretty so we appropriated it (Gulfnews.com/Pexels)

Ramadan, the annual month-long experiment in delayed hunger gratification, is the next religious holiday to adjust to the ‘Rona. We are not Muslim (we needs, join!) but have have tried the fasting and failed miserably, so we have some idea of how difficult it is to go from sunrise to sunset without eating or drinking a damn thing. 

A familiar pattern of webchat-focused events seem to be taking shape. Calls to prayer should be easy enough though it remains to be seen how chowing down on Iftar goes in isolation (we tend to get fat when we eat alone). Unfortunately, nothing virtual can replace the glory of Eid feasting, which is already being downsized in the world’s most populous Muslim country, not to mention the shortages of victuals.

One glaring difference is the extra stress that is going to be placed the very large number of Muslim healthcare workers that are at the frontlines. They are already putting themselves at high risk caring for the infected, but fasting makes that more physically taxing and could even weaken immune systems. Frankly we think all Muslims should get a mulligan this year if they want it, but that’s the impious and lazy Protestant in us. While some jurisdictions are making exceptions for frontliners, such judgments are not universal and, as this nice Vice article points out, many practitioners will refuse the binary choice of fasting/not working or not fasting/working. And of course, in our crappy capitalist society many don’t even have choice at all.

Well, at least this time Muslims won’t be alone in not having decent sex for the next 30 days.

That Was Probably the Best Holy Week/Passover Ever

Despite all the complaints, we suspect there are many of you who secretly love the fact that you didn’t have to go to church on Sunday (and Friday, and Saturday…). Let’s just admit it: few of us actually like church, or at least the “church” part of church. There are many other reasons to go of course, from lookin’ fine to potlucks to subjecting children to rudimentary game theory for our own amusement. But church itself? Blarg. Most pastors will tell you that it is hardest week of the year, which means it is the worst. The combination of Lent + Holy Week is an absolute Hell that lack’s the greed and alcohol that make Christmas tolerable. Ordinary Time is the best time.

And Pesach? Well we haven’t found a Jewish contributor for this site yet (we are looking, we promise!), but we will assume that, as it is also a form of ritual human socialization, Seder is normally terrible as well. But now with “Zoom-Seders,” you can drastically reduce the time, effort and care that goes into reenacting the Great Egyptian Culling. Technical and logistical issues aside, it probably made it more convenient for families to connect this time around, letting numerous prodigals return without putting on pants. Of course, if you are orthodox then you had to get that Zoom up and running well in advance, but electricity was permitted for Bubbe’s sake.

 

It’s Easter Season so Naturally We Have a New Bart Ehrman Book

Everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) star New Testament scholar has a new book just in time for the Resurrection of the non-historical Jesus. We haven’t read it, nor do we plan to, but we do watch his YouTubes and expect that it contains the same “shocking” revelations known to literally everyone with a doctorate in New Testament studies. This time the subject is Heaven or Hell and SURPRISE, it isn’t what you were taught in Sunday School! GET THIS MAN BACK ON THE DAILY SHOW!

Look, we get it. Bart writes for a certain audience. His goal in life is to disabuse low-information believers and college freshman of the notion that Christian doctrine has been shaped solely by the recorded Greek or Aramaic rantings of a first and second-century fringe cult. But his crusade to expose the hypocrisies of the fundamentalists risks a different sort of Biblical literalism that undercuts the whole idea that religions evolve beyond their central texts and that’s OK.

We know his heart is probably in the right place (correcting our incorrect assumptions), but you only need to beat that drum so hard. After the first few books, the people he was going to convince are already convinced, while those who disagree disagree even more. 

Certainly much of the annoyance directed at him from academic theological circles stems from the fact that he has figured out how to be famous and a Bible nerd. And hey, at least he has a PhD in the subject, unlike some. Still, we can’t help but feel that the whole “historical Jesus” project has already accomplished a lot, but now it is just turning people off.

What Does Covering Oneself in Jesus’ Blood Do, Anyway?

Recently CNN Anderson Cooper 720 or whatever did a report on the states that were still allowing religious gatherings. This generated a semi-viral clip of a woman leaving church, which @RampCapitalLLC posted on the Twitters:

This begs the question (yes, I use the phrase that way) of what, exactly, a person might mean when they say they are “covered in Jesus’ blood.” I have some thoughts.

First of all, to my knowledge there is no Christian tradition in which one bathes in Jesus’ blood, literally, transubstantially or consubstantially. Unless we are talking about Brother Blood , but his church isn’t exactly orthodox. It is certainly possible that she was speaking metaphorically and spiritually here, as in being “washed” in the blood of the sacrificial Lamb of God. This is an ancient means of ritual purification that is given new meaning in Christ (see Heb. 9:22, for example) and is now analogous to baptism.

However, the lady in question spoke with a conviction that belies such figurative language. Also, “covered” is a state different than “washed,” no? Washed is the state of no longer being covered by something (sin). This can’t just be baptism, not even “baptism by blood” (martyrdom) as she seems very much alive. I think she is talking about real blood here, people!

This leaves the only thing in the Christian tradition that really deals with literal blood (for some denominations). Was this women referring to her stomach lining, which very well could have been covered in wine? For this to work, of course, we would have to assume that her church is wine-drinking and believes in tran- or consubstantiation, but something tells me that she is a teetotalling (at worship) Protestant. After all, she seems to be coming home on a Wednesday night, extra-credit time for Baptists or Baptist-adjacent groups.

But even ignoring this, what protection can the wine-cum-blood really offer against the plague? Assuming consubstantiation, the alcohol content would not nearly be high enough to disinfect (though the antioxidants are certainly beneficial!), and the healing properties of human plasma are certainly dubious. Heck, there can be a lot of nasty crap in that stuff these days. Even Christ’s blood has never been seriously considered for its physical healing or protection properties, though I suspect this could be due to misinformation from BIG BALM (looking at you, Gilead). 

So we are back to the figurative meaning, I suppose. I’ll just assume that her blunt and serious tone was in response to the reporter’s rudeness, not confirmation of some new and disturbing sacrament or a complete misunderstanding of her church’s position on the Eucharist. Instead, she just means the blood of Jesus Christ is spiritually present through her baptism and continued faith and stubborn insistence in attending church. This must create a church-wide force-field that filters out submicroscopic particles. This is confirmed by the entirety of Christian HISTORY, which shows us that good Christians NEVER EVER got sick or infected others.

So don’t worry! 

Christians Need to Become Anti-Social Again

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica or something

It’s easy to forget these days, with all the (somewhat justifiable) backlash against individualist spirituality, that part of being religious is getting the sheol away from everybody. Christians have been social-distancing since before it was cool, the 3rd-century desert fathers and mothers setting the trend. Their embrace of asceticism and solitude allowed them to embodied the poverty and pain of Christ and commune more closely with the Creator. Sure, those like Anthony the Great were a tad world-denying, but later Christians found ways to maintain physical distance while continuing fellowship through houses of hospitality (hospitals and hospices), monastic movements and abstinence pledges. 

Yet despite the fact that the Coronavirus attends church more consistently than Omar Little’s grandmother, many in the US still insist on singing hymns with people they pretend to like. CNBC notes that of the 15 states with the most vulnerable populations, 11 have exempted religious gatherings from “stay at home” orders. There is evidence that most churches aren’t meeting anyway, but it only takes a few community breakouts to un-flatten the curve.

So fellow Christians, be like St. Anthony and get thee to thy man-cave!

A Roundup of Religionists Behaving Badly During the Coronageddon

While most godly folk have been handling the pandemic in reasonable ways, there have been some contrarians:

  • #FloridaPastor should probably be a thing, as the very Reverend Rodney Howard-Browne has been arrested for illegally gathering the faithful down in Tampa (where else?). Slate’s Christian-in-residence Ruth Graham has an excellent profile of this Trump-loving nincompoop. Will the the equally Trump-loving FL guv’nor bail him out by overruling the county law? Who knows, but Rodney has already canceled service in the face of tyranny. 
  • But it’s not just Korean cults and other Christian crazies. Even some establishment Evangelicals are throwing caution to the wind! Nonetheless, Jerry Jr. will put classes online if he must, but Liberty U will keep its dorms open for the kiddos if they want to come back. Who wouldn’t want to ride this thing out in Lynchburg, VA? 
  • Other religions are hardly doing any better. India already has enough problems without Sikh gatherings becoming hotspots (Holy Moly Hola Mohalla!). And now a Muslim gathering as led to a potential outbreak. Can’t imagine the BJP politicizing that anytime soon!