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Blog Archive/February 2005

February 28, 2005

The Founding Evangelicals?

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson may have been dyed-in-the-wool deists, but did you know that “compared to today’s secularists these two guys look like a couple of Bible-thumping evangelicals”?

So says David Barton, a leading conservative Christian advocate for putting God—that is, the God of conservative Christianity—in public school history classes. In yesterday’s Times’ Week in Review, David D. Kirkpatrick describes Barton, who is also the vice chairman of the Texas Republican party, as a “point man in a growing movement to call attention to the open Christianity of America’s great leaders and founding documents.”

An historian with a BA from Oral Roberts University and an honorary doctorate from Pensacola Christian College, Barton has consulted the California and Texas school boards on their curriculums and helped legislators in a dozen states pass acts intended to protect teachers who discuss religion’s role in American history. Barton is the founder of WallBuilders, a national organization that seeks to “reclaim the original intent of our Founding Fathers in the areas of faith and family.”

The idea seems to be that if Barton and company can demonstrate that the 18th-century Founding Fathers thought like 21st-century evangelical Christians, well, then, resistance is futile—America has no historical grounds for objecting to the agenda of conservative Christianity.

As part of his mission to “educate the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country,” Barton personally leads “spiritual heritage” tours of the United States Capitol Building, and David Kirkpatrick took one. Kirkpatrick writes that Barton stood barefoot on a bench in the rotunda and told the group that Thomas Jefferson signed letters “in the year of Our Lord Christ.” “What would happen if George Bush did that?” Barton asked. “They’d rip his head off!” (And you thought liberal secular humanists were wusses!)

Frankly, I wish George Bush would embrace religion more the way Thomas Jefferson did. Wouldn’t it be great for this God-fearin’ nation if Bush, like Jefferson, sat in the White House study one night with a Bible and a razor and cut out all the stuff in the Gospels that don’t make sense, including the virgin birth, the miracle stories, and all claims to Jesus' divinity and the resurrection. Then, like Jefferson, he could publish the result. Maybe call it “The Freedom Bible,” for helping to liberate us from "the most perverted system that ever shone on man," as Jefferson called Christianity.

Of course, if Bush did such a blasphemous thing, then evangelicals would rip his head off. [Click here to read more.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 23, 2005

Jeff Gannon's Back. So, Where's James Dobson When You Need Him?

As of early last week, it looked like we’d heard the last from Jeff Gannon, er, Jim Guckert, the partisan White House reporter/gay male escort. Gannon/Guckert said that based on his lawyers’ advice, he’d no longer talk to the media. But by Friday he was on speaking terms with the press again, telling his side of the story to Anderson Cooper on CNN.

Then yesterday he told Editor & Publisher that he has “every intention of attending” this year’s White House Correspondents dinner on April 30. Although not a member of the White House Correspondents Association himself, he said he attended the last two dinners as the guest of two different members. “I’m sure someone is going to ask me or offer me the opportunity to go,” he said. “It’s a great publicity event.”

Gannon stirred up controversy when it was revealed that the reporter for Talon News, a site owned by a GOP activist, obtained White House press credentials using an alias. During press conferences Gannon lobbed softball questions at Bush, even though he “was representing a phony media company that doesn't really have any such thing as circulation or readership,” Dana Milbank of the Washington Post told Keith Olbermann on “Countdown.”

It should only be a matter of slight interest that Gannon is apparently also a $200-per-hour male escort associated with and, noted Frank Rich in Sunday’s New York Times. The larger question, Rich said, is “how this fake newsman might be connected to a White House propaganda machine that grows curiouser by the day.”

By Rich’s estimation, Gannon is the sixth “journalist” to have been a “propagandist on the payroll of either the Bush administration or a barely arms-length ally like Talon News while simultaneously appearing in print or broadcast forums that purport to be real news.”

Not only that: "if Gannon was using an alias, the White House staff had to be involved in maintaining his cover," said Bruce Bartlett, a White House veteran under Reagan and Bush Sr. “Otherwise,” Rich added, “it would be a rather amazing post-9/11 security breach.”

One of my favorite parts of Gannon's E&P interview is where he says he's working on a journal he kept since he first started covering the White House two years ago—material he hopes to turn into a book. "I have probably one page for each day at the White House, about 200 pages of stuff."

As the Gannon saga unfolds, I keep asking myself, “Where are the likes of James Dobson during all this?” The founder of Focus on the Family is quick to speak out in a blaze of Scripture against all manner of depravity and duplicity—especially when it’s associated with the nation’s highest office (e.g., Bill Clinton). Just imagine what Dobson must have thought when he saw this New York Daily News headline (not to mention the accompanying beefcake photo): “Bush press pal quits over gay prostie link.”

But rather than imagine what Dobson thought—1600 Pennsylvania Ave. engulfed in eternal flames?—I went to Focus on the Family’s website to find out. I first searched “Jeff Gannon,” then “James Guckert.”

Results? Zero hits, both times.

“Is Dobson stunned into silence?” I wondered.

But then I remembered he has a swishier fish to fry these days.

I typed “SpongeBob,” and hit return.

Result: 27 items.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 17, 2005

Vatican to Train Exorcists

The Vatican university will soon offer a new two-month course on exorcism, teaching Roman Catholic priests how to cast out evil spirits.

No, I’m not pulling your leg.

BBC News reports that lessons at the prestigious Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum will include the history of Satanism and its place in the Bible, as well as lessons in psychology and law. The Athenaeum will also offer seminars on the spiritual, liturgical, and pastoral aspects of being an exorcist.

The Vatican is launching the course amid growing concerns in Italy about the influence of Satanic cults.

Father Giulio Savoldi, Milan's official exorcist for more than 20 years, described the qualities needed of a prospective exorcist.

"I would include the supernatural force—the presence of God—and then suggest that the man picked to do this kind of work be wise and that he should know how to gather strength not just from within himself but from God," he told BBC News.

"Because each case of possession is different, each person possessed is different. Those studying to become exorcists should also study psychology and know how to distinguish between a mental illness and a possession.

"And finally,” he said, “they need to be very patient."

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 16, 2005

Psychology’s Top Misguided Ideas

Do you subject your infant to hours of Mozart each day hoping he or she will grow up to be Mensa material? It turns out you might as well be priming your lil' one with Lil’ Jon for all the good you're doing. According to an article in the latest issue of Psychology Today, there is virtually no evidence that listening to music, even Mozart, has any significant or lasting positive effect on the brain.

“The Mozart Effect,” as the phenomenon is known, received one of Psychology Today’s Loose Screw Awards—a list of psychology’s "top ten misguided ideas." Other winners (faulty concepts that either don’t work or cause harm) include:

Projective tests. Tests like the Rorschach force people to interpret ambiguous cues, and therapists have used them for decades to assess personality characteristics. Nevertheless, these tests "rarely reveal information that can’t be obtained in other, practical ways—like asking the client!”

Correctional boot camps. Studies show that “get tough” programs “don’t work.” How will Maury Povich straighten out America's troubled teens now?

Stages of dying. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote that dying people go through five distinct phases: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Thing is, she based her stages on interviews with terminally ill people, and "the universality of her model was never actually tested.” Plus, many of her interviewees didn’t even know they were dying, “which could explain why these very sick people were angry or in denial: They were being lied to about their ailments by hospital staff, including Kubler-Ross herself.”

Codependency, enabling, and tough love. In the ’80s, substance-abuse counselors and writers like Melody Beattie and Robin Norwood claimed that family members of alcoholics “enabled” alcoholism by being too loving. Says PT: “Considerable evidence suggests that the codependency idea is dead wrong.”

Rebirthing therapy. Lots of heavy breathing is involved in this therapy, which is intended to help people flush out their repressed traumas and get on the road to personal growth. Because birth is our first trauma in life, people who try this treatment are said to eventually return to the moment of their birth. PT says that rebirthing, though used by some legitimate therapists, is “not even on the fringes of legitimate therapy.”

I tried rebirthing therapy a few years ago after I read that a 10-year-old girl, tragically, suffocated during a session in Colorado. Fortunately, I didn’t suffocate, or return to the moment of my birth, but I did breathe myself into a Spanish wheat field. You can read all about it here, or better yet, in my book, A Pilgrim’s Digress.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 14, 2005

Congrats to JMH!

Jennifer Michael Hecht just sent me an email with some good news (well, news to me). Her terrific book, The End of the Soul, won a major prize in December, the Phi Beta Kappa Society’s 2004 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. She joins a distinguished list of former winners that includes Peter Gay, Rollo May, Robert Coles, John Rawls, and one of my favorite philosophy profs, the late Robert Nozick.

Jennifer’s book examines scientific modernity, atheism, and anthropology in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it’s a real page-turner, full of eccentric characters and truly bizarre battles between faith and science.

I have a particular soft spot for Jennifer’s book because here she tells the wonderful, weird story of the real-life Society of Mutual Autopsy—“a club,” she writes, “in which one waited for one’s friends and fellow members to die and then dissected them—unless they got you first.”

Check it out.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 11, 2005

Jesus at the National Prayer Breakfast

When Congressman Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) went to the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last week, he brought along his rabbi, Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J.

The breakfast was billed as “nondenominational,” and it certainly was—if your definition of “nondenominational” is “evangelical Christian.”

As today's edition of The Jewish Week reports, Rabbi Goldin was “shocked” by the overtly Christian content of the breakfast.

“It was basically a Jesus love-fest,” he told the paper.

Rabbi Goldin described an information packet participants received that said, “Jesus Christ transcends all religions! Judaism — Islam — Buddhism — Hinduism. He is greater than all these — including Christianity. Religions are the inventions of men. Jesus transcends religion because he is the incarnation of all that is true, good, loving, gentle, tender, thoughtful, caring, courteous and selfless.”

According to Rabbi Goldin, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and George Bush were the only speakers who didn’t “mention Christianity in any way.” (Bush didn’t mention Jesus? Now I’m shocked.)

Of course, it’s not too surprising that in a God-fearin’, red-state Christian nation such as ours the National Prayer Breakfast would serve a little Jesus along with the bacon. The event is sponsored by the Arlington, Va.-based Fellowship, and its leader, Douglas Coe, was cited recently by Time magazine as one of the nation’s 25 most influential Evangelicals.

Still unsure how this year’s breakfast could rightly be considered nondenominational? Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), this year’s event chair, explained: “it is as nondenominational as any event I’m aware of. People come together in the spirit of Jesus, but certainly we are not trying to have a preponderance of any viewpoint.”

In the spirit of Jesus—same way they gather at Rabbi Goldin's synagogue.

Dobson's Agenda

A few weeks ago, US News & World Report ran “The Dobson Way,” a profile of James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. The article examined Dobson’s growing political influence and his organization’s efforts to reverse legalizations such as abortion and same-sex marriage by supporting conservative candidates and influencing judicial appointments.

This week’s issue features letters responding to the article, including this one from Bill Lennon of Maple Grove, Minn.:

“What I found interesting about ‘The Dobson Way’ was that it seems the biggest agenda for the evangelicals is sex and homosexuality. I thought that deeply religious people would be outraged by this country's political leadership because of all of the funding cuts in education, veterans' benefits, urban housing, and programs that help the poor, along with the Republican House leaders' relaxing the rules on ethics. Rather, the evangelicals have put their efforts into supporting these politicians and are trying to put even more pressure on the government. Growing up Catholic, I was taught to follow Jesus' way of respecting and being kind to others and to care for the less fortunate regardless of their religion, skin color, political and sexual orientation, or creed. Call me old-fashioned, I guess.”

Jesus' Hair

If you ever wondered why Jesus had "girly long hair like a homosexual," then, finally, here's an answer for you.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 7, 2005

The Problem of Evil

Nothing makes the jobs of theologians and clergy more difficult than when bad things happen, because that’s when the faithful question how God could be both good and all-powerful. And as Yale theologian Miroslav Volf notes in the Feb. 8 issue of The Christian Century, the problem of evil can make for uneasy dinner conversation.

Shortly after the tsunami struck Sumatra, Volf was seated at a dinner next to a woman who works for CBS. Knowing Volf was a theologian, she asked him: “Where was God? How can one believe in a good God in the face of such suffering?” He didn’t attempt to justify God. Instead, he suggested that “the very protest against God in the face of evil in fact presupposes the existence of God.”

Volf says the fact that we get disturbed about natural disasters indicates there is a God. As he puts it: “The expectation that the world should be a hospitable place, with no devastating mishaps, is tied to the belief that the world ought to be constituted in a certain way. And that belief—as distinct from the belief that the world just is what it is—is itself tied to the notion of a creator. And that,” he continues, “brings us to God. It is God who makes possible our protest that there is evil in the world. And it is God against whom we protest. God is both the ground of the protest and it’s target. Almost paradoxically, we protest with God against God. How can I believe in God when tsunamis strike? I protest, and therefore I believe.”

Is this a tautology, or am I missing something? (It also sounds like a proof for the existence of … a belief.) It goes without saying that a person can’t complain about God without implying that there’s a God to complain about. But just because a person questions God doesn’t mean that God really exists. A nonbeliever could assert, “I don’t believe, and therefore I don’t protest,” which similarly neither proves nor disproves anything concerning God.

I don’t know how I would have answered the woman from CBS. I suppose I might have told her that I consider the life of faith to be about how we treat others rather than about whether we’ve developed a rock-solid theology or a satisfactory response to the problem of evil.

Perhaps we just don’t properly understand God, or how God acts in the world. Even if the Indian Ocean disaster hadn’t happened, all living creatures still suffer and struggle. How do we explain that? And if God had intervened and prevented the tsunamis’ destruction, then perhaps we’d have a bigger theological problem on our hands: Why does God act some times and not other times? Why does God help some people and not other people?

Horrific events suggest that, whatever else we might say about the Almighty, God doesn’t act randomly, dictated by momentary impulses. In his 1972 book, God The Problem, the theologian Gordon Kaufman talks about God as a cosmic agent “working slowly and painfully and often with much difficulty through cosmic and human history to achieve his goals.” Kaufman describes the world as the arena of God’s activity, within which God is working toward objectives not yet attained. Therefore, we should expect tensions of incompleteness and struggle, difficulty and misery. Because we live in this process as it’s unfolding, we tend to view history as disordered, purposeless, and even evil.

Problems arise, Kaufman says, when we consider God to be a “cosmic Magician” who pops in and out of history from time to time to perform miracles. Such behavior would betray a weakness of will and lack of foresight on God’s part. Kaufman writes: “The more we push the conception of the cosmic Magician—one who performs arbitrary and irregular works—the more we undercut the conception of him as a powerful and effective Agent who is advancing steadily toward his ultimate objectives and can be depended upon unconditionally.”

In terms of the problem of evil, Kaufman says we can’t focus on single events or circumstances that we wish God had not allowed to happen; if God is an effective agent, there are no independent events. “We must see all events in the context of God’s purposes for the world and the way in which God carries them through.”

God’s goal, Kaufman says, is to create free and responsible and loving beings. And there’s no way for us to develop those characteristics except through long and painful historical experience.

Not that this notion provides much comfort. As Volf writes, “The good of the whole seems terribly abstract and without meaning to a human being plagued by suffering.”

One thing is clear, however. The last thing those suffering in Asia need is a shipment of books on theodicy.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 2, 2005

Super Bowl Thoughts

I got an email this evening from Gary Mihoces, a sports writer for USA Today. He’s at the Super Bowl, and at the media center today he ran into Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who told him a horse-racing joke:

A guy at the track sees a priest cross himself and bless a horse. The guy bets on the horse and it wins. Same thing happens in the next race, and the next, and the next. Finally, the last race. The priest crosses himself. They guy bets all he has. Horse finishes last.

Guy asks the priest, “How come you blessed the horse and he lost?”

Priest says, “Don’t you know the difference between a blessing and last rites?”

Anyway, Gary was in touch regarding a column I wrote a couple years ago called, “Seven Rites for Super Sunday.” I went back and re-read it. A few dated references, but still fun enough to share (be sure to click at the end for tips on how to turn your Super Bowl party into a mid-winter pagan festival, complete with pagan corn dollies resembling 300-pound defensive tackle Warren Sapp):

"You’ve got the keg, the TV with a screen the size of a billboard, and enough nachos to fill a silo. On the deck, the grill is gassed up, and you’ve got 35 friends and family coming over. Did you remember to hang the sun wheel made of grain on your front door and light candles in every room to herald the rebirth of the Sun? If not, then you aren’t really ready to celebrate Super Bowl Sunday--our national midwinter pagan festival.

"Of course, the Super Bowl is not officially our midwinter pagan festival. But let's look at the facts: All our religious feast days are rooted in pagan celebrations. Take Christmas. Roman pagans had celebrated the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, on Dec. 25 long before Jesus’s time. Pope Julius I, who declared it the day to commemorate the birth of Christ in A.D. 350, knew conversion to Christianity would go more smoothly if it didn’t mess up the big solstice feast. Easter is Christianity’s version of a spring festival, inaugurated by second-century missionaries who combined their observation of Christ’s resurrection with the Pagan festival Me’an Earraigh, which marked the beginning of spring.

"These pagan traditions, it seems, will out. It's no coincidence perhaps that the world's faiths provide plenty of chances to burn candles. Just as Christians are decorating their houses and dragging fir trees indoors, the Jewish festival of Hanukkah features a menorah burning brightly. Even Muslims have begun celebrating late-year Eids by stringing lights in the shape of crescents and stars.

"That's fine for solstice, but sadly, we Americans lack a day that corresponds to the Pagan rites that followed six or so weeks after solstice, halfway to the Spring equinox. Groundhog Day, when Punxsutawney Phil bobs out of his hole to presage the end of winter, has been the closest tradition we have. As our culture gets farther away from its former familiarity with the groundhog's seasonal habits, the less we truly rely on Phil as a focus of our midwinter hopes and fears.

"The Pagans, of course, have an answer. On Feb. 2, while the rest of us go through the motions of watching Phil, many Pagans celebrate the feast of Imbolc. (Some Wiccan sects celebrate it as early as Jan. 29, while others wait till Feb. 3.) Imbolc is the ancient holiday wherein one forgot winter’s doldrums and looked forward to spring and renewal. Irish druids considered Imbolc the “festival of lactating sheep,” because this was the time of year when the local livestock had just given birth and were producing the milk of life.

"The Super Bowl is perfectly suited to be our national Imbolc, a midwinter hurrah looking forward to Spring. It has this same tendency to turn toward the sun--the game is always played in destinations we visit on winter vacations--and anticipates the transition of the seasons--the end of the NFL’s winter run, with baseball's pitchers and catchers due at spring training a spare few weeks later.

"Super Sunday has also taken on other basic features of a proper midwinter holiday. Imbolc, sources say, means "in the belly," a reference to fecundity, and its other connotation is particularly apt on Super Sunday, the day in which more food is consumed than on any other except Thanksgiving. One can readily imagine Fat Bastard surveying a halftime-sized bucket of guacamole and a mountain of Buffalo Wings and invoking Imbolc: "Get in my belly!" Like Christmas, Super Bowl time is a balm for commercial interests. Just as retailers make half their money at Yuletide, one lucky network makes back some of the $300 million they claim they lost on televising the NFL regular-season schedule." [click here to read more.]


Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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