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Blog Archive/February 2006

February 27, 2006

A Jew for Jesus?

Last Sunday an event occurred that will surely go down in history, at least in the history of Temple Emanuel, Rochester, N.Y., and the Jewish People. My mother, Hazel Gersten, the oldest living Temple Emanuel member, the Jew of Jews, who never in her entire life set foot in a church, Catholic or Protestant, except for maybe a wedding or a funeral…. My mother, Hazel Gersten, took communion! At age 85!...

Read Mary Beth Crain's "An Accident of Mirth," here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 21, 2006

Emergent Kisses and Andy Crouch Disses

It’s been more than a week since I attended the three-day Emergent Theological Conversation at Yale Divinity School, but I still feel the love. The bonhomie. I can’t think of when I’ve been among a large gathering of Christians—in this case, some 300 pastors, church leaders, scholars, and students—that was more full of genuine warmth and…niceness. People had their theological differences, sure, but those differences seemed insignificant in such an open, laid-back group.

The Emergent church movement, in case you’re new to it, seeks to reform the way evangelicals and mainline Christians think about faith. A group so loosely organized many proponents call it a “conversation,” rather than a movement, Emergent re-examines Christian teachings in light of postmodernism, and it emphasizes community fellowship and social responsibility. Emergent folks want to make the church more inclusive and welcoming; they’re all about friendship and gentleness and hospitality, and those virtues were on abundant display at Yale—and in a manner that was in no way as annoying as it may sound.

Add to all that sugar and spice some serious reflection about the attitudes and values that make us our human best. The featured speaker was Yale Div School prof Miroslav Volf, whom Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has called “one of the most celebrated theologians of our day.” Volf devoted one morning to discussing his book, Exclusion and Embrace, which examines how exclusion leads to contempt and violence, and how acceptance and welcome (or embrace) lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. The next day, Volf discussed his wonderful new book, Free of Charge, which is about “giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace,” as the subtitle puts it. If anyone brought a bundle of bitterness to this conference, they checked it at the door.

Well, with perhaps one exception. On Tuesday afternoon, we had the choice of nine breakout discussion groups we could attend. I picked a session led by Andy Crouch, who is a columnist for Christianity Today and is on the editorial board at Books & Culture. Andy was recently put in charge of Christianity Today International’s “Christian Vision Project,” a three-year, multimedia endeavor funded in part by the Pew Charitable Trusts. As described in the conference schedule, the project will “ask big questions about culture, mission, and the gospel and introduce a broad range of pastors, scholars…activists…and artists to a wider audience.”

Andy explained the Christian Vision Project, and he asked us to brainstorm ideas for it, which we then shared. Andy urged us to put ourselves in his shoes: “If you had three years, three magazines, and a million dollars, what would you do to help Christian leaders think deeply and creatively about ministry in the 21st century?” Again, I’m quoting the description he provided in the conference handout. Andy insisted we consider everything discussed during the session to be off the record, and I’ll respect that. My point, anyway, is about what happened after the session.

I wanted to introduce myself to Andy because I’ve enjoyed some of his writings, and we know some of the same people. And I figured he might have come across my work. My book received very nice write-ups at both Christianity Today (here) and Books & Culture (here), and Andy and I were both included in The Best Christian Writing 2004, for which Miroslav Volf—small world—had written the introduction.

Anyway, I walked up to Andy and told him my name and mentioned some of the people we both know. He didn’t say anything; he just turned around and started wiping the dry erase board he’d used during the session. Then I mentioned that I run SoMA, and he put down the eraser and said, “Oh yeah. The magazine with big attitude.”

Big attitude? I was confused. Was he thinking of a site with something about “attitude” written on the homepage? “Uh, I don’t think so…”

“The ‘Mutual Autopsy’ site,” he said.

“Yeah. That’s me!”

“Right,” he said, flatly. “Big attitude.”

I took a stab at small talk—mentioning an essay he’d written, his Christian Vision Project. His replies were terse, and his eyes were elsewhere. Then, no joke, he turned and started talking to a young woman standing off to the side. Whoa, I thought. Dissed by a guy from Christianity Today—at what may very well be the most collegial theology conference in the history of Christendom! I’ll admit, SoMA isn’t afraid to go after sacred cows, and for all I know I may have gone after a cow that Andy reveres. But still… Here I’d just been spitballing ideas for his Christian Vision Project—ideas he’s trusting I won’t reveal here—and then he all but tells me to “talk to the hand.”

Nice meeting you, too, Andy!

Here’s the odd thing.  Fifteen months ago, Andy wrote a CT cover story about Emergent that I found clever but that had infuriated some Emergent folks because it portrayed them as a bunch of hair-obsessed metrosexuals who are forever primping in the mirror. “Gentlemen,” Crouch wrote, “start your hair dryers—not since the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s has a Christian phenomenon been so closely entangled with the self-conscious cutting edge of U.S. culture.” It was a cute way of suggesting that Emergent is trendy, more style than substance, and it was a characterization clearly not intended to endear the movement to Christianity Today’s core conservative readership. As I say, Emergent folks weren’t thrilled.

So fast-forward to this month, and there’s Andy Crouch, at an Emergent conference, giving me crap for having attitude.

Why must we exclude, Andy? Can’t we just embrace?

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 14, 2006

SoMA Gets All Sappy for Valentine’s Day

You might not have guessed it, but we here at SoMA are hopeless romantics. We cry every time we re-watch “Ghost.” We send each other heart-shaped cards even when it’s not Valentine’s Day. OK, I just made up those examples. But take my word for it—we are a bunch of fools who, as the song goes, fell in love with love one night when the moon was full. And this year we’re celebrating Valentine’s Day (or Lupercalia, as the Roman fertility festival of the wolf goddess is also known) with a special issue: three articles honoring love and lovers.

First, Mary Beth Crain pens a Valentine to her beloved pets, and then Kristina Robb-Dover and I ponder the myth of the perfect marriage. Laurel Snyder wraps things up by explaining why she eloped to Vegas, baby.

So, enjoy the articles, dear reader, and happy Valentine's Day. Oh, and be sure to share your thoughts either at the bottom of each piece or in the respective entries below.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 14, 2006

Furry Valentines

This may just be the most cornball piece I’ve ever written, but even a sophisticated, witty—and, oh yes, humble—writer like myself is entitled to one lapse of cynicism in her lifetime. After all, it is Valentine’s Day, history’s best excuse for schmaltz extremis, a day when the heart can legally kick the head off the throne and the candy, flower, and diamond industries are once more reminded that there is indeed a God.

Read Mary Beth Crain's essay, "My Furry Valetines," here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 14, 2006

Are Marriages Made in Heaven, or Hell?

We were talking the other day about a couple that recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Family and friends at the party incessantly cooed things like, “Sixty years, that’s so sweet!” and the minister extolled the devoted octogenarians as a shining example of how God blesses a marriage based on the Bible. Asked what the secret was to a successful marriage, the dear old fellow raised a shaky finger, smiled, and said, “Love!”

The question on our minds, however, was: “Who spiked the punch bowl with crazy pills?”

Read John D. Spalding and Kristina Robb-Dover's essay, "Are Marriages Made in Heaven, or Hell?" here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 14, 2006

A Slut for Faith

I went to three weddings last year, each complete with flowers and families, little crust-less sandwiches made of white bread, and an awful DJ. At each glorious event there were roses in shades of pink, red, and salmon, and groomsmen going bald and chunky but still the life of the party. The brides were stunning. Children blew bubbles. In D Minor. Song of Songs. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. Women cried. Each time.

Read Laurel Snyder's essay, "A Slut for Faith," here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 12, 2006

Whose Taboo?

In the Feb. 13 issue of Time, Andrew Sullivan offers a powerful defense of the Danish paper that commissioned the cartoons of Muhammad. He notes that the Egyptian ambassador to Denmark insisted the government prevent further reprinting. Freedom of the press, the ambassador said, ýmeans the whole story will continue and that we are back to square one again. The government of Denmark has to do something to appease the Muslim world.ý To which Sullivan responds:

ýExcuse me? In fact, the opposite is the case. The Muslim world needs to do something to appease the West. Since Ayatullah Khomeini declared a death sentence against Salman Rushdie for how he depicted Muhammad in his book The Satanic Verses, Islamic radicals have been essentially threatening the free discussion of their religion and politics in the West. Rushdie escaped with his life. But Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch politician who stood up against Muslim immigrant hostility to equality for women and gays, was murdered on the street. Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who offended strict Muslims, was killed thereafter. Several other Dutch politicians who have dared to criticize the intolerance of many Muslims live with police protection.ý

Sullivan notes that Muslim leaders say the cartoons are blasphemy because Islam forbids any visual depiction of the Prophet, even harmless ones. ýShould non-Muslims respect this taboo?ý Sullivan asks. ýI see no reason why. You can respect a religion without honoring its taboos. I eat pork, and I'm not an anti-Semite. As a Catholic, I don't expect atheists to genuflect before an altar. If violating a taboo is necessary to illustrate a political point, then the call is an easy one. Freedom means learning to deal with being offended.ý

Blasphemy, Sullivan writes, is par for the course in the West. ýIn America, Christians have become accustomed to artists' offending their religious symbols. They can protest, and cut off public fundingýbut the right of the individual to say or depict offensive messages or symbols is not really in dispute. Blasphemy, moreover, is common in the Muslim world, and sanctioned by Arab governments. The Arab media run cartoons depicting Jews and the symbols of the Jewish faith with imagery indistinguishable from that used in the Third Reich. But I have yet to see Jews or Israelis threaten the lives of Muslims because of it.

ýAnd there is, of course, the other blasphemy. It occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, when fanatics murdered thousands of innocents in the name of Islam. Surely, nothing could be more blasphemous. So where were the Muslim boycotts of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan after that horrifying event? Since 9/11 mosques have been bombed in Iraq by Islamic terrorists. Where was the rioting condemning attacks on the holiest of shrines? These double standards reveal something quite clear: this call for ýsensitivityý is primarily a cover for intolerance of others and intimidation of free people.

ýYes, there's no reason to offend people of any faith arbitrarily,ý Sullivan concludes. ýWe owe all faiths respect. But the Danish cartoons were not arbitrarily offensive. They were designed to reveal Islamic intoleranceýand they have now done so, in abundance. The West's principles are clear enough. Tolerance? Yes. Faith? Absolutely. Freedom of speech? Nonnegotiable.ý

Read ýYour Taboo, Not Mine,ý Andrew Sullivanýs essay, here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 12, 2006

Dick Cheney Shoots Fellow Hunter

No, I’m not kidding. It’s an AP story. Cheney shot and wounded pal Harry Whittington in the face and chest during a weekend quail hunting trip on a Texas ranch. “The vice president didn't see him," said ranch owner Katharine Armstrong. "The covey flushed and the vice president picked out a bird and was following it and shot. And by God, Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good."

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 10, 2006

Don’t Kowtow to Muslim Outrage!

From a Universist Movement statement on the cartoon controversy:

…So, millions of Muslims are outraged by cartoons. Seventeen governments in the Middle East asked Denmark for “firm sanctions” on the cartoonists. As people who share a common worldview wherein individual self-determination is our preeminent value, we also have something to be outraged about. Muslims are shifting global thought about religion as you read this. We face the real possibility of seeing religious criticism become unacceptable in public. Recently, a law limiting speech in this manner was narrowly defeated in Britain. Now prominent politicians in western countries are kowtowing to the Muslim world, agreeing that their great religion must not be disrespected, even by nonbelievers. This is how history changes. Millions of enraged people are making their will known to the world in a highly visible manner. The world will not be the same after these past few weeks. In which direction it moves has yet to be determined.

…Every religion and philosophy should be open to criticism and skeptical examination. Ideas must stand or fall on their own merits in an open marketplace. We are all free to choose among them...
Read more here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 6, 2006

Parents Insist “Faust” Promotes the Devil

A Colorado music teacher showed her students a puppet version of the opera “Faust,” and, if some parents get their wish, she’ll have hell to pay for it. Tresa Waggoner, a former opera singer, has been put on paid leave while school officials in Bennett, Colo., investigate parents’ claims their children were traumatized after seeing a 12-minute video clip from a 33-year-old educational series entitled—get this—"Who's Afraid of Opera?"

The video featured famed soprano Joan Sutherland talking to hand puppets about opera. At one point, the puppets depicted Mephistopheles—the Evil One—bargaining with Faust for his soul, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"It created a kind of firestorm," said George Sauter, Bennet School District Supervisor. "We have people on both sides of the fence. Some are saying it's trying to promote the devil. Other people are defending the arts to the hilt."

The school board meets on Feb. 16 to discuss whether or not Waggoner will be fired.

"I was definitely not sensitive to the conservative nature of the community, and I've learned that," Waggoner said. "However, from what has been said about me, that I'm a Satan worshipper, my character, I can't believe all this…. My intention was just to expose the kids to opera."

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 4, 2006

God as Dr. Frankenstein

Why is Intelligent Design bad theology, as well as bad science? Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, sums it up in a NYTBR letter responding to Judith Shulevitz’s essay “When Cosmologies Collide.” He writes:

Although it is occasionally true that evolutionism can turn into bad philosophy in the hands of a rabid anti-theist, intelligent design (I.D.) creationism is always bad science and bad theology. We saw in the Dover trial why I.D. is bad science. I.D. is bad theology because it turns God into a mere garage tinkerer, a fumbling watchmaker, Dr. Frankenstein cobbling together biochemical parts from the primordial soup into complex organisms. Such a God cannot be the omniscient and omnipotent God of Abraham; indeed, the I.D. God would have the same skill sets as an advanced extraterrestrial intelligence capable of genetic engineering and other feats. If God is the maker of all things visible and invisible in heaven and earth, God must be above such restraints; that is, above the laws of nature and contingencies of chance. If there is a God, the avenue to him is not through faith and revelation. If there is a God, he will be so wholly other that no science can reach him, especially not the science that calls itself intelligent design. In the end, we would do well to remember the wisdom of Charles Darwin: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

February 2, 2006

Evangelicals Give a Gay Actor the Thumbs Down

There are days I’m embarrassed to think that, up until college, I actually considered myself an evangelical Christian. Like today. The New York Times reports that more than 100 evangelical pastors have signed a letter protesting the casting of a gay actor in a film made by Every Tribe Entertainment—an evangelical film company.

An openly gay actor named Chad Allen plays Nate Saint, the lead role in “End of the Spear,” a new film about five American missionaries who were killed in 1956 by a local tribe in Ecuador.  The Rev. Jason Janz, of Red Rocks Baptist Church in Denver, led the charge against Allen, drafting the protest letter and posting his objections on his website, asking the filmmakers to apologize for their choice.

Jim Hanon, the film’s director, defended Allen as unquestionably the best actor for the role, but Pastor Janz doesn’t buy it. “Does anyone really believe that Chad Allen was the best possible actor for Nate Saint?” wrote Janz in his blog, with a certainly that leads you to wonder why more films aren’t cast by assistant pastors from Colorado.

Janz suggests the film company (remember: the evangelical film company) somehow had an ulterior motive for choosing Allen. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Seminary in Minneapolis, put it bluntly at another site: “what [the filmmakers] have done is no mistake. It is a calculated strategy.” What strategy, you say? You know: the Hollywood Gay Agenda.

“Granted, we must not overact,” Bauder wrote. “And it would probably be an overreaction to firebomb these men’s houses.” Understandably, the seminary president’s words caused the film company to notify the F.B.I.

So what’s all the fuss about a gay actor playing a Christian, anyway? Are we to believe that a gay performer couldn’t possibly lose himself in the role of a non-gay missionary, and capture what makes him tick? Or are we to believe that there’s no such thing as a gay Christian?

But for Pastor Janz, the problem isn’t necessarily that Allen is gay, but that he’s actively involved with gay causes. As the Times reports, Janz writes “that if a drunk who ‘promoted drunkenness’ had acted in the movie, ‘I’d be just as mad.’” Casting Allen as the slain missionary, Janz said, “would be like Madonna playing the Virgin Mary.”

Madonna, drunkards, homosexuals—they’re all the same.

Evangelicals who object to Chad Allen fear that a gay star in an evangelical film will influence young Christians to be more accepting of homosexuals—and, heaven forbid, less accepting of homophobia. And of course, a cute gay actor playing a missionary might even tempt hetero Christians to switch teams. Gays, of course, know this isn’t the way the world works. After all, did the gay community protest “Brokeback Mountain,” fearing that two straight actors portraying gay cowboys might entice homosexuals into the “heterosexual lifestyle”?

No. And the fact that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, the stars of “Brokeback Mountain,” have been linked romantically—and very publicly—to starlets like Naomi Watts and Kirsten Dunst, shouldn’t decide or limit the roles they play. Nor should any other aspect of their private lives. As director Hanon told the Times: “If we start measuring the sin of everyone in a movie, we would never be able to make a picture because none of us would be left.”

But maybe I’m wrong about all this, and there’s another win-win solution. What if we devise a system that discourages evangelical filmmakers from hiring gay actors, so long as non-Christian filmmakers don’t have to hire evangelical actors?

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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