Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What traveling to Mecca does to Muslims

Last December, more than 2 million Muslims from around the world converged on Saudi Arabia to participate in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca. The Hajjis spent a month performing religious rituals, mingling with Muslims from all walks of life, and, in some cases, taking part in communal chants of "Death to America" led by Islamic extremists. This was understandably unnerving to the 10,000 or so Americans who made the pilgrimage, not to mention those who didn't. Such behavior raised concerns that the Hajj is a breeding ground for anti-Western sentiment—or worse.

Then again, the spirit of friendship and community that typically prevails during the Hajj has also been known to promote tolerance and understanding across peoples. Malcolm X famously softened his views on black-white relations during his pilgrimage to Mecca, where he witnessed a "spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white."

So does the Hajj open minds, or does it expose Muslims to radical views that unite them against the non-Islamic world?
That is an important question asked in this Slate article. The Hajj is a Pillar of Islam, up there with daily prayer, giving to the poor and fasting during Ramadan. It is a pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied Muslim is expected to participate in, and therefore its influences are profound. Three researchers recently set out to answer that question. In a yet published study, they found that the Hajj made its pilgrims more moderate on a range of issues, religious and nonreligious, "suggesting that the Hajj may be helpful in curbing the spread of extremism in the Islamic world."

Parish donates $1.5 million to abuse victims

The Catholic clergy sex scandal has caused not just physical but also financial pain, only the victims are different. (Much of the cost was absorbed by insurers and religious orders.) The L.A. Archdiocese recently sold its headquarters to offset a $660 million -- ! -- settlement, a payout for which Cardinal Roger Mahony was reportedly assaulted. And now one of the cardinal's parish in my old 'hood has stepped forward to help foot the bill.
St. Bernardine of Siena Parish in Woodland Hills has donated nearly $1.5 million of its savings to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to help fund last year's multimillion-dollar settlement of clergy sex abuse cases.

The donation is unprecedented in the archdiocese, which has called on 101 churches with identified savings of at least $1 million each to help offset the more than $660 million payout to victims of clergy sexual abuse, according to archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg.

"While it may not sit well with everyone in the parish, it is an extraordinary gesture of community and family on the part of St. Bernardine Parish," said Tamberg, who called the gift "emotionally moving."
This story from the LA Daily News is moving, as Tamberg says; it's encouraging to see the church body step forward and support its leaders. If only those leaders had supported the church body when the seeds of this sorrow were being sown.

(Hat tip: LAObserved)

Rev. Lee blasted in Wall St. Journal

L'affaire Ziman-Lee made its way today onto the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. Seriously. The focus of the piece was on the historic friendship between Martin Luther King Jr. and Jews, and the author, who was King's attorney, says the great civil rights leader would have been sickened by what the Rev. Eric Lee supposedly said.

(In case you need a reminder, Jewish philanthropist Daphna Ziman, who was being honored by a historically black fraternity for her work with foster kids, claims Lee said, "The Jews have made money on us in the music business and we are the entertainers, and they are economically enslaving us." Lee denied using those words, "unequivocally" denounced anti-Semitism and apologized for any "misunderstandings.")
It was bad enough that the event took place on April 4, the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Even more galling, Mr. Lee is the president-CEO of the L.A. branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Foundation – the very civil-rights organization co-founded by the slain civil-rights leader.

Martin would have been repelled by Mr. Lee's remarks. I was his lawyer and one of his closest advisers, and I can say with absolute certainty that Martin abhorred anti-Semitism in all its forms, including anti-Zionism. "There isn't anyone in this country more likely to understand our struggle than Jews," Martin told me. "Whatever progress we've made so far as a people, their support has been essential."

Martin was disheartened that so many blacks could be swayed by Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam and other black separatists, rejecting his message of nonviolence, and grumbling about "Jew landlords" and "Jew interlopers" – even "Jew slave traders." The resentment and anger displayed toward people who offered so much support for civil rights was then nascent. But it has only festered and grown over four decades. Today, black-Jewish relations have arguably grown worse, not better.

For that, Martin would place fault principally on the shoulders of black leaders such as Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson – either for making anti-Semitic statements, inciting anti-Semitism (including violence), or failing to condemn overt anti-Semitism within the black community.
The strangest thing to me about this op-ed is that the author, Clarence B. Jones, assumes that because Lee apologized he must have said what Ziman claims he said. (A confusing line of thought, I know.)

Lee told me that he had spoken of Jewish influence in the entertainment industry but that he laid off such incendiary language as "economically enslaving us." I've been careful to not taint my reporting on this topic with conjectures about was and wasn't said. But it seems clear that, at the least, Lee was unaware of how sensitive some members of the Jewish community are to suggestions they control the media. As Richard Silverstein said in a blog post critical of Ziman's effort to attract attention to what she heard:
It appears to me that Lee is a tone-deaf African-American minister who hasn’t yet learned how to speak in a nuanced fashion about the issues he wants to address. He verges on anti-Semitism without quite coming right out and saying anything that is explicitly so. Slightly troubling? Maybe. ...

The fact is that Lee did in fact get very close to saying what he claims he doesn’t believe.
Whatever was said, Lee and Ziman plan to reconcile tomorrow at her Beverly Hills home. PR flaks have been retained and plane tickets booked for Charles Steele, head of the SCLC, and Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Fauxmemoirist likens gangsters to suicide bombers

This video turned up today on Gawker of "Margaret B. Jones," the James Frey of Gangland whose real name was Margaret Seltzer and real life was that of a well-off white girl from the San Fernando Valley. In the video, "Jones" rambles about how hardcore it is in the hood she didn't grow up in.
It's like being a Palestinian suicide bomber. When you are borne into it and you are caught up in it, and your ego and your pride, it makes perfect sense.
Someone at my paper went looking for Seltzer after the scandal broke because they were under the impression that, instead of being a half-white, half-Native American foster kid from South Central, she was actually a Jewish kid from Sherman Oaks. I, however, could find only that she attendy pricey Campbell Hall, an Episcopal prep school.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Changing the National Day of Prayer

Every year it seems certain religious organizations, namely those who feel excluded, ask that the National Day of Prayer be a more ecumenical event. (I've written this story at least once.) Two thousand eight is no different, as this report from the DMN religion blog notes:

We mentioned days ago a Jewish group's complaint that the National Day of Prayer had been "hijacked" by the Christian right.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has joined with that group, Jews on First, to call for inclusive celebrations on Thursday, the day of prayer.

Here's a news release from CAIR. It urges all people of faith "to contact governors and other elected officials nationwide to ask that any government-sponsored 'National Day of Prayer' observances on May 1st be representative of our nation's religious diversity."

'Does science make belief in God obsolete?'

The Templeton Conversation has returned, this time asking major scientists the question posed in this headline: "Does science make belief in God Obsolete?" As expected, there was not a uniform answer. Some said "yes," others "no, and yes" and two "of course not."

One of the "of course nots" is from Ken Miller, whom I have quoted here before. Here's what he told Templeton:
Science itself does not contradict the hypothesis of God. Rather, it gives us a window on a dynamic and creative universe that expands our appreciation of the Divine in ways that could not have been imagined in ages past.

As an outspoken defender of evolution, I am often challenged by those who assume that if science can demonstrate the natural origins of our species, which it surely has, then God should be abandoned. But the Deity they reject so easily is not the one I know. To be threatened by science, God would have to be nothing more than a placeholder for human ignorance. This is the God of the creationists, of the "intelligent design" movement, of those who seek their God in darkness. What we have not found and do not yet understand becomes their best—indeed their only—evidence for faith. As a Christian, I find the flow of this logic particularly depressing. Not only does it teach us to fear the acquisition of knowledge (which might at any time disprove belief), but it also suggests that God dwells only in the shadows of our understanding. I suggest that if God is real, we should be able to find him somewhere else—in the bright light of human knowledge, spiritual and scientific.
Jerome Groopman, a medical professor at Harvard whose recent book I finished last month, told Templeton "no, not at all." I like his explanation:
As a physician and researcher, I employ science to decipher human biology and treat disease. As a person of faith, I look to my religious tradition for the touchstones of a moral life. Neither science nor faith need contradict the other; in fact, if one appreciates the essence of each, they can enrich each other in a person's life.

So, the question of obsolescence is miscast, because science and faith should exist in separate realms. Science uses logic and experimental methods to measure and describe the material world. It yields knowledge about the workings of molecules and machines, mitosis and momentum. Science has no moral valence. It is neutral. DNA technology can craft a cure for a cancer or produce a weapon of bioterrorism. It is only a person's application of science that takes on a moral dimension.

In that light, an atheist creates his or her own moral precepts in the absence of God. A believer looks to religious texts for guidance in what is right and what is wrong. Right and wrong, for both, do not come from physics or chemistry or biology. Science does not instruct how to treat one's neighbor as oneself, how to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, why it is wrong to murder, steal, bear false witness, honor one's father and mother, and perhaps most difficult of all, subsume envy and covetousness. There are no Ten Commandments in thermodynamics or molecular biology, no path to righteousness and charity and love in Euclidean geometry or atomic physics. The truths of mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics are different from the truths we seek in human behavior and human choices. The truths of science can be measured and experimentally verified; the truths of a moral life are matters of belief—whether you are an atheist or a religious person. Religion should view science as a way to improve the world; science should see religion not as a threat but as a deeply felt path taken by some.
Science and religion occupy different fields and live harmoniously together, even if people don't. Even Christopher Hitchens said science does not make God obsolete; he just wishes it did.

(Hat tip: Blogging Religiously)

Monday, April 28, 2008

'First Drafts of the Parables of Jesus'

At the LA Times Festival of Books Saturday, I stopped by the McSweeney's booth. I've never read the magazine but I did indulge in Dave Eggers in college, and though I may be no hipster, I am arguably a writer. One plus one, minus one, plus one, minus another ... it seemed like I should at least take a look.

In current issue of the quarterly journal, I found this article titled "First Drafts of the Parables of Jesus." It assumes that the Bible, or at least the Gospels, was not simply a great piece of literature but, in fact, fiction. The red-letter text is same, but the "first drafts" include extraneous details that any good editor would remove. The first from Luke 11 and the second referenced in Matthew 21 and Luke 15. This is clearly satire, not suggestion.
Then Jesus said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him. Then the one inside answers, 'OK, just gimme a minute,' and he goes to one of his friends, and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of a friend of mine on a journey has come to the friend who's my friend, and that friend has nothing to set before his friend.'"

One of the disciples said, "Wait, doesn't the original person's friend need three loaves of bread because a friend of his friend who's on a journey has come to the friend of the original person's friend, and that friend has nothing to set before his first friend? Or is that what you just said?"

"It doesn't matter," said Jesus. "The point is that God can get you free bread."

- - - -

"But what do you think about this?" asked Jesus. "A man with two sons told the older boy, 'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.' The son answered, 'No, I won't go,' but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, 'You go,' and he said, 'Yes, sir, I will.' But he didn't go. Which of the two was obeying his father?"

"The first!" cried some of the disciples.

"The second!" cried the rest of the disciples.

And Jesus said, "Wait, I messed this one up. Did I mention that when the first son went to work in the vineyard he killed somebody? Because that's important. So, yeah, which of the two was obeying his father?"

"Uh ... the first?" said some of the disciples.

"The second! The second!" cried the rest of the disciples.

And Jesus said, "Oh, cripes, also the father only has one arm. And he is riding a horse the whole time. Was that clear?"

One of the disciples said, "Are you sure that's not 'The Parable of the One-Armed Father Who Rode on a Horse'?"

And Jesus said, "Maybe you're right. OK, let's change the question: Which of the two sons was the tallest?"

The disciples were silent.

Jesus shook his head in dismay. "Have I taught you nothing?"

Many of Texas' FLDS teen girls pregnant, mothers

More bad news regarding all those children taken into Texas custody when their parents' polygamist ranch was raided earlier this month. From AP:
SAN ANTONIO - More than half the teen girls taken from a polygamist compound in west Texas have children or are pregnant, state officials said Monday.

A total of 53 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 are in state custody after a raid 3 1/2 weeks ago at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado. Of those girls, 31 either have children or are pregnant, said Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar. Two of those are pregnant now, he said; it was unclear whether either of those two already have children.

"It shows you a pretty distinct pattern, that it was pretty pervasive," he said.
To be fair, I know some churches that wouldn't fair much better on a non-pregnant, per-capita basis. The difference, of course, is that the pregnancies in the former were caused by a now-repudiated religious lifestyle while in the later they're borne of, as Juno's mom puts it, teenage boredom.

Rev. Wright is Mr. Wrong

I was amazed last month when I was speaking with the ZOA's Mort Klein, and he mentioned the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in the same sentence as the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. (Klein has taken to Wright for his own reasons.) I find it hard to believe that before Barack Obama began his presidential bid, anyone outside of Chicago even knew who Wright was. But the more attention Obama's former pastor has received for his contested brand of Christianity, one that emphasizes black liberation, the more sought after a speaker he has become.

Now on the speakers' circuit, Wright spoke this morning at the National Press Club. Continuing to dog Obama, Wright joked that he would be open to serving as vice president.
He rejected suggestions that his willingness to associate with Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, meant that he was anti-Semitic. He said Mr. Farrakhan was “not my enemy” and was too important a black leader to be ignored. When Mr. Farrakhan speaks, he said, “all black America listens — whether they agree with him or not, they listen.”

Historically, he said, when black people were prohibited from meeting in groups, they did so anyway “out of the eyesight and earshot of those who defined them as less than human.”

The result was that black churches, which have existed in America since the 1600s, were “invisible to the dominant culture.” Because of slavery and racial discrimination, he said, black churches focused on the themes of liberation and transformation.

“The black church’s role in the fight for equality and justice from the 1700s to 2008 has always had as its core the non-negotiable doctrine of reconciliation, children of God repenting for past sins against each other,” he said.

As a result of this background and the unfamiliarity of many white people with black preaching, he said, some might find his sermons unsettling. He also noted that the widely circulated clips of his remarks were only short snippets lifted out of the context of much longer, closely reasoned arguments.

“We root out any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred or prejudice,” he said. “And we recognize that for the first time in modern history, in the West, that the other who stands before us with a different color of skin, a different texture of hair, different music, different preaching styles and different dance moves; that other is one of God’s children just as we are, no better, no worse, prone to error and in need of forgiveness just as we are.”
Nice try, but I'm not buying it. My friend Manya at the Chicago Tribune has blogged a bit about Wright's new platform. But she says the feel after this morning's talk was that he, so far, has proven too immature for the national spotlight.

Here's the full transcript and the video clips:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

A closer look at Islamophobia

Andrea Elliott won a Pulitzer last year for her amazing series "Imam in America." In today's New York Times, she tells another powerful story about American Muslims. Her subject is Debbie Almontaser, who last year started an academy that would teach Arabic to its students, Arab American and those of other ethnicities.

Weeks before classes even began, though, Almontaser resigned as its founding principal. Here's why:
Ms. Almontaser, a teacher by training and an activist who had carefully built ties with Christians and Jews, said she was forced to resign by the mayor’s office following a campaign that pitted her against a chorus of critics who claimed she had a militant Islamic agenda.

In newspaper articles and Internet postings, on television and talk radio, Ms. Almontaser was branded a “radical,” a “jihadist” and a “9/11 denier.” She stood accused of harboring unpatriotic leanings and of secretly planning to proselytize her students. Despite Ms. Almontaser’s longstanding reputation as a Muslim moderate, her critics quickly succeeded in recasting her image.

The conflict tapped into a well of post-9/11 anxieties. But Ms. Almontaser’s downfall was not merely the result of a spontaneous outcry by concerned parents and neighborhood activists. It was also the work of a growing and organized movement to stop Muslim citizens who are seeking an expanded role in American public life. The fight against the school, participants in the effort say, was only an early skirmish in a broader, national struggle.

“It’s a battle that’s really just begun,” said Daniel Pipes, who directs a conservative research group, the Middle East Forum, and helped lead the charge against Ms. Almontaser and the school.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, critics of radical Islam focused largely on terrorism, scrutinizing Muslim-American charities or asserting links between Muslim organizations and violent groups like Hamas. But as the authorities have stepped up the war on terror, those critics have shifted their gaze to a new frontier, what they describe as law-abiding Muslim-Americans who are imposing their religious values in the public domain.

Mr. Pipes and others reel off a list of examples: Muslim cabdrivers in Minneapolis who have refused to take passengers carrying liquor; municipal pools and a gym at Harvard that have adopted female-only hours to accommodate Muslim women; candidates for office who are suspected of supporting political Islam; and banks that are offering financial products compliant with sharia, the Islamic code of law.

The danger, Mr. Pipes says, is that the United States stands to become another England or France, a place where Muslims are balkanized and ultimately threaten to impose sharia.

“It is hard to see how violence, how terrorism will lead to the implementation of sharia,” Mr. Pipes said. “It is much easier to see how, working through the system — the school system, the media, the religious organizations, the government, businesses and the like — you can promote radical Islam.”

Mr. Pipes refers to this new enemy as the “lawful Islamists.”

They are carrying out a “soft jihad,” said Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a trustee of the City University of New York and a vocal opponent of the Khalil Gibran school.
This is ridiculous. Pipes has a point when Pew contains details like this or a protest at UC Irvine carries messages like this. But not when it comes to preventing American Muslims from enjoying the religious freedom most of us have in this country.

How easily Pipes and Wiesenfeld overlook that wherever Jews have lived (and, of course, this is before they were expelled or worse) they have taken their unique cultural observances, like not working or handling money on the Sabbath. And what about Christian doctors who refuse to perform abortions? How are these examples different than using a bank compliant with sharia, or having a footbath at NYU or not transporting a passenger carrying alcohol?

These politically motivated attacks fall into the category of Islamophobia. I first wrote about this fear of everything Islam last spring, and I received a ton of hate mail for it. This post should turn up some gems.

Wheaton professor fired over divorce

Wheaton College is an evangelical school outside of Chicago. Like many colleges cut from conservative Protestant cloth, its students and faculty must uphold a stricter standard of conduct than they would at, say, Florida State. One of those rules for married faculty is remaining so. Divorce is grounds for dismissal unless your circumstances fit the biblical exemption, which generally is limited to an unfaithful spouse.

The problem for Kent Gramm is he doesn't want to talk with Wheaton administrators about why he and his wife are separating. So they're letting him go.
For him, he says, it didn’t seem appropriate “to subject your personal life to the judgment of the college administrators.” However, he told his students of his reasons for leaving – first reported in Wheaton’s student newspaper, The Wheaton Record – to offer them an alternative model of Christian living. Gramm, who teaches literature, fiction and nonfiction writing, has his master of divinity degree in addition to his M.A. and Ph.D.

“I think the students can be given a false picture of what the proper Christian life should be,” Gramm says. “Whereas many of these students come from households that have been broken by divorce, and if they conform to the overall population, half of them themselves will be going through divorce. And if they are shown that God doesn’t abandon you if you are divorced and they’re shown that this is a part of life and that sometimes it can possibly be the right thing or the best thing, not necessarily the desirable thing, to do, then I think that might help them in their future lives.”

Friday, April 25, 2008

Redux: 'The true meaning of Passover'

In case you missed David Sackman's thoughtful comment here about the Rev. Eric Lee and the true meaning of Passover, his words were reprinted today as an op-ed in The Jewish Journal. To refresh:
I am Jewish, of European ancestry; my wife is black, with Chinese and Native American ancestry included. What shall we tell our son this Passover, when we retell the tale of how his Jewish ancestors were freed from slavery in Africa?

Shall we trade accusations against each other? The statement reputed to have been made at a fraternity event, that some Jews in the entertainment industry exploited and profited from black performers, is probably true. It is also true that Jewish union leaders, lawyers and agents in the entertainment industry have fought for better wages and working conditions for blacks and others in the industry. Many Jews played crucial roles in the struggle for civil rights, and undoubtedly there were some on the other side as well. We can go back farther to trade accusations. Were there Jews who owned slaves and were involved in the slave trade? Probably so; and yet there were also Jews fighting for abolition. Does it matter whether those on one side outnumbered those on the other?

To be honest, I must tell my son that his African ancestors were on both sides as well.

If Satanists wanted their own license plate

Prompted by the previous post about a Christian-themed license plate, Mr. Bloggish shows why some Christians might not want to open the door to faith-based vehicle tags.

Florida considers Christian-themed license plate

MIAMI - Florida drivers can order more than 100 specialty license plates celebrating everything from manatees to the Miami Heat, but one now under consideration would be the first in the nation to explicitly promote a specific religion.

The Florida Legislature is considering a specialty plate with a design that includes a Christian cross, a stained-glass window and the words "I Believe."

Rep. Edward Bullard, the plate's sponsor, said people who "believe in their college or university" or "believe in their football team" already have license plates they can buy. The new design is a chance for others to put a tag on their cars with "something they believe in," he said.

If the plate is approved, Florida would become the first state to have a license plate featuring a religious symbol that's not part of a college logo. Approval would almost certainly face a court challenge.
This story from the AP is what I like to call religious-controversy in a can. There is an exact formula to reporting these kneejerkers out. Introduce the "major news" (these are CNN standards), followed by a supportive quote about how Christians just want equal rights and then the contrarion view from Americans United, the ACLU or Michael Newdow. My vote's for contestant No. 2:
The problem with the state manufacturing the plate is that it "sends a message that Florida is essentially a Christian state" and, second, gives the "appearance that the state is endorsing a particular religious preference," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
Personally, I think the license plate is completely camp but have no constitutional qualms with it ... if the Florida DMV offers other religious variants.

The Israel lobby for doves

“They’re trying to be the un-Aipac."

They is J Street, a new pro-Israel lobby organization that won't be quite so "reflexive" in its support. I saw something about J Street a few days ago, but today's New York Times picks up on the new outfit.
The executive director of the new venture, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in an interview that “a large number of American Jews and their friends have dropped out of the discussion about how to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors because they don’t have a home politically.” He argued that there was a need for an alternative to the traditional groups who say, “to oppose any Israeli policy is to be anti-Israel.”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Gonzo journalist goes on Christian retreat; says 'Jesus made me puke'

Rolling Stone's gonzo political reporter, Matt Taibbi, who has been called a latter-day Hunter S. Thompson (over and over again), has a new book about his "tales from the evangelical front lines." Taibbi is a great reporter and a fantastic writer, but he doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who would be inducted into GetReligion's hall of fame. Not with writing like this.

"The Great Derangement," his cynically named book, does, however, offer a number of interesting windows into life in the Rev. John Hagee's "apocalyptic mega-ministry." It is with Hagee's Cornerstone Church that Taibbi attends a weekend retreat through which he tells his tale.
So here I was, standing in the church parking lot, having responded to church advertisements hawking an "Encounter Weekend" — three solid days of sleep-away Christian fellowship that would teach me the "joy" of "knowing the truth" and "being set free." That had sounded harmless enough, but now that I was here and surrounded by all of these blanket-bearing people, I was nervous. When most Americans think of the Christian right, they think of scenes from television — great halls full of perfectly groomed people in pale suits and light-colored dresses, smiling and happy and full of the Holy Spirit, robotically singing hymns at the behest of some squeaky-clean pastor with a baritone voice and impossible hair. We don't get to see the utterly batshit world they live in, when the cameras are turned off and their pastors are not afraid of saying the really dumb stuff, for fear of it turning up on CNN. In American evangelical Christianity, in other words, there's a ready-for-prime-time stage act — toned down and lip-synced to match a set of PG lyrics that won't scare the advertisers — and then there's the real party backstage, where the spiritual hair really gets let down. I was about to go backstage, to personally take part in the indoctrination process for a major Southern evangelical church. Waiting to board the bus for the Encounter Weekend, I had visions of some charismatic ranch-land Jesus, stoned on beer and the Caligula director's cut and too drunk late at night to chase after the minor children, hauling me into a barn for an in-the-hay shortcut to truth and freedom. Ridiculous, of course, but I really was afraid, mostly of my own ignorance and prejudices. I had never been to something like this before, and I didn't know how to act. I badly wanted to be invisible.
Taibbi, of course, fails to remain inconspicuous. How could he after fabricating his "wound" -- a concept, which Taibbi calls "schlock biblical Freudianism," from John Eldredge's "Wild at Heart" -- as being the abused son of an alcoholic circus clown?
Unfortunately, my one fleeting error of judgment about my circus-clown dad had left me shackled to a rank character absurdity for the rest of my stay in Texas. I soon found myself reading aloud a passage from my "autobiography" describing a period of my father's life when he quit clowning to hand out fliers in a Fudgie the Whale costume outside a Carvel ice cream store:

I laugh about it now, but once he chased me, drunk, in his Fudgie the Whale costume. He chased me into the bathroom, laid me across the toilet seat and hit me with his fins, which underneath were still a man's hands.
Taibbi later seems dismayed his fellow retreaters actually believe his outlandish story of hardship. He chalks this up to their pathetic lives. And that is sad.

I'm the first to agree that "Wild at Heart" was a sappy manifesto about how all the pain in our life is caused by some single trauma. And I was understanding when one of my friends said he literally tossed the book across the room when Eldredge's son asked, "Am I a wild man dad?" (That is supposed to be a good thing.) And I wish Christians writers were more critically introspective of their own community.

But there is something positive to be said about a group of "desperate congregants," as Taibbi terms them, who are willing to come alongside you and help you along, even if your major malfunction is the consequence of being beaten with clown shoes. This is not, as Taibbi later calls it, your "basic cultist bait-and-switch formula," even if it is coming from a rather fundamentalist congregation. Fear and loathing, anyone?

If you want to read more, a lengthy excerpt can be found in Rolling Stone's current issue.

The Book of Pelosi

Fun from the Bible Belt Blogger:

Maybe House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is quoting from the Howard Dean Version of the Holy Bible. You know, the one that has the book of Job in the New Testament. Or perhaps she’s picked up some new-fangled, biodegradable, Australian Earth Bible, with the words of Al Gore in red. Or perhaps, as congressmen sometimes do, she’s simply decided to “revise and extend”

Here’s what Pelosi said in an Earth Day press release this week: “The Bible tells us in the Old Testament, ‘To minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.’ On this Earth Day, and every day, let us pledge to our children, and our children’s children, that they will have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and the opportunity to experience the wonders of nature.”
the book.

Turns out, there’s no such passage in the Bible — New Testament or Old, several Christian Right activists are pointing out.

Israel and Syria nearing peace agreement?

For 41 years, Israel has occupied land that has ideologically divided its own citizenry. The West Bank has its biblical landmarks and Gaza its squaller. (Comparing the two, it's easy to understand why Israel removed troops and settlements from one and not the other.) The third is the Golan Heights, the mountain range stretching from the Sea of Galilee to Israel's northern border and wedged between the Jewish state and Syria.

Often is left out of the discussion of the occupied territories Israel captured in the Six Day War, the Golan has a strictly strategic value: keeping Syria from firing down on its neighbor. When I was in Israel last summer, tensions between the two moved precariously close to war and everyone was ready for it. Israel even tempted Damascus with an air strike inside Syria a month later.

Could it be now that Israel and Syria are nearing a peace agreement that would include turning over the Golan? From The New York Times:
Peace overtures between Israel and Syria moved up a gear on Wednesday when a Syrian cabinet minister said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel had sent a message to President Bashar al-Assad to the effect that Israel would be willing to withdraw from all the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria.

The Syrian expatriate affairs minister, Buthaina Shaaban, told Al Jazeera television, “Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions; on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights in full to Syria.” She said that Turkey had conveyed the message.

Israeli officials did not deny the statement from Damascus but would not confirm it either, offering a more general, positive reaction. “Israel wants peace with Syria; we are interested in a negotiated process,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Olmert. “The Syrians know well our expectations, and we know well their expectations.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the Damascus newspaper Al Watan reported that the Israeli offer was relayed to Mr. Assad by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by telephone on Tuesday. Mr. Olmert had told Mr. Erdogan that “Israel was ready to withdraw completely from the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria,” Al Watan reported.

Withdrawal from the Golan Heights is a contentious issue in Israel. The territory is a strategic plateau that overlooks a large swath of northern Israel. Israel has objected to past Syrian demands for access to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a main water source for Israel.

In the wake of the Syrian reports on Wednesday, an Israeli member of Parliament from Mr. Olmert’s Kadima Party, David Tal, said he would work to accelerate the passage of legislation conditioning any withdrawal from the Golan Heights on a national referendum.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Orthodoxy now de facto Russian state religion

The Soviet Union might be dead, but their old policy of harassing religious institutions -- in this case, any not aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church -- is alive and well. The plight of being Protestant, from The New York Times:
STARY OSKOL, Russia — It was not long after a Methodist church put down roots here that the troubles began.

First came visits from agents of the F.S.B., a successor to the K.G.B., who evidently saw a threat in a few dozen searching souls who liked to huddle in cramped apartments to read the Bible and, perhaps, drink a little tea. Local officials then labeled the church a “sect.” Finally, last month, they shut it down.

There was a time after the fall of Communism when small Protestant congregations blossomed here in southwestern Russia, when a church was almost as easy to set up as a general store. Today, this industrial region has become emblematic of the suppression of religious freedom under President Vladimir V. Putin.

Just as the government has tightened control over political life, so, too, has it intruded in matters of faith. The Kremlin’s surrogates in many areas have turned the Russian Orthodox Church into a de facto official religion, warding off other Christian denominations that seem to offer the most significant competition for worshipers. They have all but banned proselytizing by Protestants and discouraged Protestant worship through a variety of harassing measures, according to dozens of interviews with government officials and religious leaders across Russia.

Clinton carries Keystone Jews

Hillary Clinton last night not only won the Pennsylvania primary, but carried the Jewish vote, 62 percent to Barack Obama's 38 percent.
Her margin was similar among whites overall, winning 63 percent to 37 percent. Clinton's performance among white Catholics was particularly strong, winning 70 percent to 30 percent.

"I think much of the Jewish vote voted for their comfort level, and they were more comfortable with Senator Clinton," said Marcel Groen, a Clinton supporter and the head of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, in an interview with JTA a day after the primary. "I just think generally from a Jewish perspective, Hillary Clinton was a known commodity."
This news really shouldn't be a surprise. When you talk about "comfort level," Obama has had a lot of trouble convincing the Jewish community, and a few others, that he's no sheepskin wolf.

Arab Israeli woman joins air force by mistake

Remember that story yesterday about concern over Jewish "dual loyalty?" Well, a similar fear bars Israeli Arabs and Muslims from the Israel Defense Force's elite units. That is, except for one Muslim woman allowed in by accident.
But after the mistake was discovered the unit's commander was so impressed with the woman's ability and achievements that he allowed her to stay, breaking all the rules.

The IAF's elite Airborne Combat Search and Rescue Unit 669 is normally involved in sensitive and highly classified Israeli Defense Forces operations and is considered one of the Israeli military's premier units.

Its main function is to rescue and extricate wounded soldiers from combat zones, under heavy enemy fire in most cases. The unit also often helps rescue civilians injured during various catastrophic incidents.

Due to the sensitivity of the unit Muslims and Arabs are prevented from joining. Israel fears a conflict of loyalties should Israeli-Arabs serve in Palestinian areas or fight Muslim states.

Most Israeli-Arabs, apart from the Druze, a schism of Shiite Islam who defected during the 11th century, are not required to undergo the compulsory military service that Jewish youngsters are.
This story is from the Middle East Times. Oddly, I've seen no coverage of this in Israeli media. The unidentified Muslim woman, from an Arab village in northern Israel, was allowed into Unit 669 after acing her medical training, and before anyone realized she wasn't an Israeli Jew.

"Contrast this Arab woman’s zeal to perform her duty as a citizen with an ever-expanding number of Israeli Jews seeking to avoid their compulsory army service; not to mention those Orthodox Jews studying in yeshivas who also avoid service," Richard Silverstein wrote.

Her service, however, does not signal a sea change.
Another Israeli-Arab's dream of being a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, however, remains a pipe dream. "Soldier C" as he is officially known, and also from a village in the north of Israel, finished high school with top honors and received a certified pilot license before enlisting with the Israeli Defense Forces.

"My dream and ultimate ambition is to become a fighter pilot. I know I have the potential and ability to fulfill my dream and serve as a combat pilot with the IAF," he wrote. "If deemed physically and mentally fit, I ask that I be able to serve in all of the elite units of the IDF, which are open to all other enlisted personnel."

The aspiring pilot's plea was unheeded by the Israeli Defense Forces, however, in spite of a letter of recommendation given to him by his flight instructor, a former major and combat pilot in the IAF, so he was forced to serve with another unit of the IDF where he currently remains.
Previously in women of the IDF: Stripper assassins and Holy Land hotties.

China's penis restaurant: clean or unclean?

DISCLAIMER: I saw this video last month and had no worthy excuse to blog about it. But after a conversation about what is clean and unclean, I've got my hook. Please, don't watch the above video, starting at 1:57, if you are prone to nausea, pregnant or may become pregnant.

Before there was The Law, there was Passover. After the Exodus came the transmission of Torah to Moses and all the mitzvot included in Levitical code. God only knows why he gave the Israelites all the instructions he did; this is apparent over and again when you read through Leviticus (or A.J. Jacobs' "A Year of Living Biblically").

One of the questions I've heard before, and heard again at Bible study last week, is: Why did God, creator of all, deem some animals clean and others unclean? What was so bad about the coney or the owl or the, gulp, weasel? Why would He give the Israelites such seemingly strange commands in Leviticus 11?
I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. 45 I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.
Oh right. Because He's God. If you don't like His commands, build your own universe.

Oddly, though, the food laws offer no prohibition (that I know of) against what I would consider the most defiled delicacy. For the rest of this story we head to a restaurant in China, via The Times of London, where all they serve filleted penis and such drinks as deer-penis juice, which the reporter calls "the vilest concoction I’ve ever had the privilege to imbibe. It’s as sour as a smacked lemon and as bitter as neat quinine. My face freezes in an agonising spasm, and Lord knows how I manage to keep from throwing up."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bad news for Jews: American accused of spying for Israel in '80s

The United States arrested an 84-year-old American on Tuesday suspected of giving Israel secrets on nuclear weapons, fighter jets and missiles in the 1980s, in a case linked to the Jonathan Pollard spy scandal that rocked U.S.-Israeli relations.

The arrest of Ben-Ami Kadish indicates that Israeli spying revealed by the Pollard case, still an irritant to the U.S. alliance with Israel, may have spread wider than previously acknowledged.

"It was bigger than we thought, and they hid it well," said former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, who prosecuted Pollard.

Kadish acknowledged his spying in FBI interviews and said he acted to help Israel, according to court documents.
This is, of course, bad news from Reuters. The reason being that for the past 60 years diaspora Jews have been looked at suspiciously by some neighbors who worry about their dual loyalty. Are they American Jews or Jewish Americans? (Google jewish dual loyalty and the top hits are for the Web site of David Duke.)

Obviously, they are both: patriotic Americans, or Frenchmen or South Africans, largely dedicated to Israel as their eternal home. This typically does not pose a problem. But, then again, people typically don't get involved in international spy rings.

Rosner's Blog for Ha'aretz has a link to the court docs. And Mondoweiss, a liberal Jewish blog, notes a decade-old GAO report that claimed Israel "conducts the most aggressive espionage operation against the United States of any U.S. ally."

Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst who copped to spying for Israel, though what he gave up has yet to be revealed, remains in prison.

The secret ingredient in Israeli Coca-Cola

I've never been one to enjoy soda, definitely not latke or Christmas ham flavors, not even that dark brown syrup known as cola. But when I was in Israel last summer, I fell in love with Coca-Cola. I assumed there was some romance to drinking from the classic glass bottle in the Holy Land. I was wrong.

Turns out the good stuff in Israel is made from real sugar and not that awful corn syrup substitute. The Hebrew version is kosher for Passover, and according to this post via LAObserved, it's harder to find than the missing matzo.

Fighting over Christ's grave

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Here's an odd story from the Holy Land. It deals with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the land where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and raised from the dead:
Christian factions have squabbled for years over who controls which parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s divided Old City.

Sometimes they even come to blows.

Priests and worshippers at an Orthodox Palm Sunday celebration on April 20 ended up brawling after Armenian clerics apparently kicked a Greek Orthodox priest out of a shrine at the church — one of Christianity’s holiest.

Police weren’t sure what sparked the fist-fight, but friction between the sects has been simmering for centuries. A Muslim keeps the key, and about 150 years ago, theTurks elaborately carved up territory in the church between the feuding Christian factions.

Police are braced for another punch-up when the eastern churches celebrate Easter on April 27 with the centuries-old “Miracle of the Holy Fire” ceremony.
Insert tongue-in-cheek, turn-the-other-cheek joke here.

Clinton to Iran: We will 'totally obliterate' you

A pair of Silversteins, Richard and Ken, drew my attention this morning to Hillary Clinton's promise to wipe out Iran if it were to strike Israel with nukes in the near future. Here's the story from Ha'aretz:
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, facing a crucial primary in Pennsylvania Tuesday, said that if she were in the White House and Tehran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, the United States would be able to 'totally obliterate' Iran.

Interviewed on ABC's Good Morning America program, Clinton was asked what she would do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons.

"I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran," Clinton replied. "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he believes Iran is "hell-bent" on acquiring nuclear weapons, but he warned in strong terms of the consequences of going to war over that.

"Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need and, in fact, I
believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels," he said in a speech he was delivering Monday evening at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

A world without Islam

Religion scholar Martin Marty -- pushing back against an article in Foreign Policy that asks "What if Islam had never existed?" -- cites a plenitude of religion-fueled conflicts that have had nothing to do with Islam. He concludes with the fact that great atrocities of the 20th century were committed by secular dictators, and offers this insight:
In truth, the conflicts of such a world would parallel those of a world with Islam. Rather than seek to "destroy" Islam and the Muslims, one infers, it might be better for all peoples of faith to look more in the mirror and less out the window, to promote peace.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Case of the missing matzo, and not the afikomen

From coast to coast right now, there is a developing story that is a perfect case for the Hardly Boys. (No, it does not involve 9/11 conspiracies.) Passover began little more than 48 hours ago, and one thing is clear: this Exodus remembrance it appears there wasn't even enough time to bake unleavened bread. The New York Times explains:
On Monday, Allison Mnookin circled the aisles of her local Whole Foods store in San Mateo, Calif., three times. There was no matzo to be found.

“Being out of matzo is like being out of milk,” Ms. Mnookin said. So it was on to Safeway. Nothing. Fearing that the box of stale matzo remaining in her pantry from last year would not cut it, she drove nearly 15 miles to Menlo Park.

Hypothesis: If the shortage had been on gefilte fish, complaints would have been far fewer.

The reasons behind the matzo shortage range from manufacturing problems, decisions by some stores not to carry the product this Passover and vague talk of a possible work stoppage.

“It seemed like the whole region had a problem getting it in,” said Jason Hodges, a supervisor in the grocery department at a Whole Foods in Miami. A person who answered the phone at a ShopRite in Philadelphia said stores there were sold out, as was the Food Emporium in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., in Westchester County.

“We heard there was a strike or something,” said the Food Emporium manager, Frantz Baptiste. “The first shipment we had was a month ago, and we never got another one.”

Phone calls and e-mail messages to the largest suppliers of unleavened bread products, Streit’s, Manischewitz and Yehuda, brought no response on Monday, possibly because executives were off for Passover, which began Saturday night.

But Manischewitz officials have said that problems with a new state-of-the-art oven in its only New Jersey plant caused it to scrap this Passover’s supply of Tam Tam crackers, its little six-sided matzo morsels, as well as some less popular matzo varieties.

Trader Joe’s stores opted not to sell Passover matzo this year, as did some Costco stores.
There were similar stories in Los Angeles, detailed and also debunked at LAObserved.
"I got a chuckle out of your items on the 'matzoh shortage' in Los Feliz. As a former resident of that neighborhood I can state that while it's a great place to live on many counts, it has none of the things a more than "semi-observant" Jew needs. I'll be happy to supply directions to Fairfax, Pico-Robertson or my own shtetl of Valley Village, where you can't turn around this time of year without tripping over a box of matzoh!"
To see what some Jews are missing out on, check out this VideoJew installment.

Department of Aliyah: I'm moving to Israel

Well, not really. But it's comforting to know that I could not only move to Israel but in fact become an Israeli citizen. At least that is how I understand a recent ruling from the Israeli Supreme Court, relayed here on the CT Liveblog:
Last week, the Supreme Court of Israel, ruled on a case involved 12 Messianic Jews who sued the government Ministry of the Interior for their legal 'right of return' (and then to become citizens of Israel). The court in its ruling said:

The parties have submitted to us the following notification:
“In their notification dated 13.04.08 the Respondents declared, that the fact that a person is a “Messianic Jew” has no bearing on an application according to Sec. 7 of the Law of Citizenship, as well as an application according to Sec. 4(A)(a) of the Law of Return (as long as the person applying according the abovementioned section of the Law of Return is not considered to be Jewish, as described in section 4B of the Law of Return).

The Respondents declare that in accordance with their notification they will process the applications of all Petitioners as soon as possible, as well as the application of Alvetina Zibareva, and Valentina Zibareva who requested to join the petition on 01.04.08 to the extent that their request is similar.
Due to these circumstances the representatives of the Petitioners requested to remove the petition without a ruling regarding court costs. The Petition is removed by consent as aforesaid.

One blogger explains the ruling this way:
I received a communication today that clarifies the settlement reached yesterday in Israel... The ruling would not cover all Messianic Jews, but would cover many of them: If a person was not a Jew previously (religious definition) but is a descendant of Jews, then they can make aliyah (citizenship) without discrimination for their current faith in Yeshua.
To be sure, I am not a Messianic Jew. Nor do I have intentions to be. But I match the characteristics outlined by the court: The grandchild of Jews though not previously a Jew by religious measures.

I think I'll head south from Tel Aviv. I hear Sderot is beautiful in the spring.

The future of Israel

“Our army is big, we have this atom bomb, but the inner feeling is of absolute fragility, that all the time we are at the edge of the abyss.”

That sobering sentiment is offered by Israeli author David Grossman in Jeffrey Goldberg's cover story for this month's Atlantic, which I mentioned earlier. The article asks what seems like the eternal question: "Is Israel Finished?"
Israelis have violently contradictory feelings about their future. Their country is, by almost any measure, an astonishing success. It has a large, sophisticated, and growing economy (its gross domestic product last year was $150 billion); the finest universities and medical centers in the Middle East; and a main city, Tel Aviv, that is a center of art, fashion, cuisine, and high culture spread along a beautiful Mediterranean beach. Israel has shown itself, with notable exceptions, to be adept at self-defense, and capable (albeit imperfectly) of protecting civil liberties during wartime. It has become a worldwide center of Jewish learning and self-expression; its strength has straightened the spines of Jews around the world; and, most consequentially, it has absorbed and enfranchised millions of previously impoverished and dispossessed Jews. Zionism may actually be the most successful national liberation movement of the 20th century.

Yet 60 years of independence have not provided Israel with legitimacy in its own region. Two of its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, have signed peace treaties with Israel, but it is still a small Jewish island in a great sea of Islam, a religion that seems today more allergic than ever to the idea of Jewish independence. Iran poses the most ruthless threat to Israel’s existence—no other member of the United Nations has so insistently, and in such baroque terms, threatened the destruction of another member state.

The internal threats to Israel’s existence are severe as well. Israel’s greatest military victory, in 1967, led to a squalid and seemingly endless occupation, and to the birth of a mystical, antidemocratic, and revanchist strain of Zionism, made manifest in the settlements of the West Bank. These settlements have undermined Israel’s international legitimacy and demoralized moderate Palestinians. The settlers exist far outside the Israeli political consensus, and their presence will likely help incite a third intifada. Yet the country seems unable to confront the settlements.

Israel’s people are among the world’s most patriotic—in a recent survey, 94 percent of Jewish Israelis said they are willing to fight for their country (by contrast, 63 percent of Americans are willing to fight for theirs), but 44 percent of Israelis said they would be ready to leave their country if they could find a better standard of living abroad. There are already up to 40,000 Israelis in Silicon Valley (and more than a half million across the U.S.), and the emigration of Israel’s most talented citizens is a constant worry of Israeli leaders. “Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world,” Ehud Barak, the defense minister and former prime minister, told me. “The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place—cutting-edge in science, education, culture, quality of life—that even American Jewish young people want to come here. If we cannot do this, even those who were born here will consciously decide to go to other places. This is a real problem.”
This article, which also discusses the fact that Jews main soon become become the minority in Israel, is far from the first to raise these issues. Avraham Burg, once a strong voice of Zionism, shared the same sense of failure last summer, a change of heart compared to "the Pope giving sex tips.”

(Image: Richard Silverstein's Tikun Olam blog)

Carter: Hamas open to peace with Israel

This just in from Reuters:
Hamas would accept a deal creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip if it was approved by Palestinians in a vote, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said on Monday after talks with Hamas leaders.

Carter said he had "no doubt that both the Arab world and the Palestinians, including Hamas, will accept Israel's right to live in peace" within pre-1967 war borders.

But some of Hamas's commitments to Carter, in talks he held with the Islamist group's top leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus, were short on details and remarks by a Gaza-based Hamas official suggested the movement was not abandoning long-held positions.

In a speech, Carter said he heard from Hamas leaders they would "accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders if approved by Palestinians." He was referring to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and a referendum on a deal Washington hopes to clinch this year.

"It means that Hamas will not undermine (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas's efforts to negotiate an agreement and Hamas will accept an agreement if the Palestinians support it in a free vote," he said.
Right ... Hamas has really shown its willingness to live in peace. Carter, who may very well be the United States' most gullible self-appointed diplomat, was widely criticized for his decision to meet with Hamas leaders. For a review of why he is generally loathed by Jews, read this.

(Image: AP)

Pope Benedict wins

Before he arrived in the United States last week, many American Catholics held old notions of Pope Benedict XVI as "God's Rottweiler," as completely unlike his pastoral predecessor. My how quickly the current can change.

When religion is evil

Faith Central, one of two religion blogs on the Times of London's site, has held a special place in my heart since they plucked The God Blog, seemingly out of thin air, for their list of the 30 best religion blogs. It is one of many faith blogs I read intermittently, and this morning I noticed a post about some undue hype given to a report that noted religion as a 21st century source of evil. Read on:
Fascinating, the way surveys get reported. Yesterday with some glee it was reported that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, set up by a deeply religious Quaker, had with delicius irony done a survey which concluded that a great 21st century evil is religion - which "not just in its extreme form - is intolerant, irrational and used to justify persecution". So the paper said. So the National Secular Society echoed, with glee. The faith school issue, clearly, has fuelled this view, as has Islamist terrorism. The Bish of Southwark is wheeled out to protest.

But get this...a fuller reading of the research makes it utterly clear that long before they got to religion people were worried about violence, gun crime, binge drinking, knives, drugs, child exploitation, poverty and inequality. Moreover, somewhat bigger than religion was
the observation that the media "propagate negative and damaging attitudes" and that the big businesses which fund them "fuel inequality and consumerism". Moreover, earlier Rowntree research points out the usefulness of much religion as "social capital".
I think we all can agree that religion -- defined sociologically as a body of thought that bonds people in community and connects them to something greater than the world we know -- can, has and will continue to be used for evil. The Crusades. The Inquisition. The Holocaust. The Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. The 9/11 terror attacks. The writings of Dan Brown.

Indeed, we see barbarism and abuse in all religions, throughout history. (Yes, Hindus do it too.) But does this make religion evil or does it speak more to the depravity of man?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Strange translations of the Four Questions

“Like why is this night, like totally different...”

If at a Passover seder last night you heard that question, asked that way, you probably live in my neighborhood. According to "300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions: From Zulu to Abkhahaz," that is the Valley Girl translation for the first question. Translations for Klingon, Lawyerese and the ever-useful Sumerian, not to mention actual spoken languages, can be found in this Jewish Journal story and at

My favorite variation, though came from my VideoJew colleague, in a language he dubbed, and I remember well, College BS:

“There are many interesting and unique variances of this night, however one of the most central issues is its difference from that of other nights. One may ask the question, ‘why?’ But to answer such question with such a response would be to demean the very question at hand. For that reason, I believe this night is differ from others, not simply because of the matzah, seders and reclining, but because of the family, happiness and reunion. In conclusion, to state one reason why any night is different from others would be to degrade that which makes all other nights uniformly pleasant.”

The vanishing American Catholic

The changing landscape of American Catholicism -- the fact that 1.3 million Latino Catholics have joined Pentecostal churches since immigrating -- is considered the elephant in the room for the future of the church. Still, it's story that has been told before, and in light of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States this week, and maybe in order to fill all that copy dedicated to his trip, it's being told again here.
“I feel whole here,” Mrs. Calazans, 42, said one recent Sunday in the Astoria sanctuary, the Portuguese Language Pentecostal Missionary Church, as she swayed to the pop-rock beat of a live gospel band. “This church is not a place we visit once a week. This church is where we hang around and we share our problems and we celebrate our successes, like we were family.”


For if Latinos are feeding the population of the church, many have also turned to Pentecostalism, a form of evangelical Christianity that stresses a personal, even visceral, connection with God.

Today, it has more Latino followers in the United States than any other denomination except Catholicism; they are drawn, they say, by the faith’s joyous worship, its use of Latino culture and the enveloping sense of community it offers to newcomers. As the Pew survey revealed, half of all Latinos who have joined Pentecostal denominations were raised as Catholics.

They are part of a global shift. Pentecostalism, the world’s fastest-growing branch of Christianity, has made such sharp inroads in Latin America, particularly in Brazil, that in an address to bishops there last year, Pope Benedict listed its ardent proselytizing as one of the major forces the Catholic Church must contend with in the region.
Benedict's visit concludes today with a packed Mass at Yankees Stadium.

Friday, April 18, 2008

'Expelled': Ben Stein promoting Intelligent Design

Ben Stein, the monotone voice of Visine, conservative politics, that game show I watched in junior high and Ferris Bueller's civics teacher, has a controversial new movie out.

"Expelled: No intelligence allowed," which has been flogged by liberals, like this one, "assumes the position not only that the theory of evolution and the faith-based hypothesis known as "intelligent design" are on close-to-equal scientific footing, but that there's an Illuminatian cabal among the science community, no doubt sitting in a Star Chamber somewhere, seeing to it that any developmental view but Darwin's is suppressed at all costs."

Stein recently spoke with Beliefnet about what he thinks is wrong with Darwinism.
Why did you make this film? Why was it important to you?

The creator is Walt Ruloff and his merry band. I decided to work on it because I've always had questions about Darwinism. I have always been very concerned that Darwinism gave the basic okay to terrible racism and to the idea of murder based upon race. And I think most people don't realize what a sinister role Darwinism has had in the history of the 20th century, and I guess part of the history of the 19th century too.

As I got working on the movie, I got to realize how many holes there were in Darwinism and how little of the world's great questions about existence and life Darwinism answered, and I wanted to share my understanding and learning on that subject with the wider world.

Then, I got to be very concerned about the academic suppression that goes on in terms of not letting people who have differing views from the Darwinists have any place at the table for talking about their scientific insights.

Aren’t there plenty of scientists who might subscribe to Darwin's theory of evolution but not accept social Darwinism?

I don't doubt that there are. It is extremely well documented in a book called "From Darwin to Hitler" by an author named Weikart that the people who read Darwin's book in Germany and then became important influential thinkers in German political life believed that Darwin's views could be translated into the social realm. [They believed that] immediate actions should be taken to put those ideas into effect, especially by attempting to exterminate entire native African tribes.

The explicit connection of Darwin's work with the Holocaust and with the belief of the Nazis that they were furthering Darwin's agenda and Darwin's discoveries and theories is explicitly documented in not just one, but many annals of the life and death of Nazi Germany.

Of course, today with the current intellectual beliefs, nobody's going to say, "I'm in favor of exterminating the indigenous tribes in Southern Africa," but they were then. And they explicitly said, "And Darwin says it's the right thing to do."
That echoes some thought made last fall by William Saletan at Slate. As for Intelligent Design, you can read more about that here.

(And on an unrelated note, Ben Stein wrote a great column about the housing market for the New York Times 24 years ago that could have been found in the paper last summer.)