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Blog Archive/March 2007

March 31, 2007

Sweet Jesus!

When I saw that idiot Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (translation: the Joe McCarthy of the Catholic Church), on "Anderson Cooper 360," ranting about artist Cosimo Cavallaro's chocolate sculpture of Christ that was the star feature of midtown Manhattan's Lab Gallery until a bevy of uptight Catholics shut it down, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

I don't care how many books he's written; Donohue is so frighteningly ignorant that the only way he could pass an art quiz would be by eating it. I'm sure his idea of art is confined to the spiritual landscape kitsch of Thomas Kincaid, or those awful, treacly Warner Sallman portraits of a hunky, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, light-bathed Christ who bears an astonishing resemblance to John Corbett. The idea of art as a political statement is incomprehensible to a thick like him.

Read Mary Beth Crain's I Don't Care If It Rains or Freezes, Long as I Have My Chocolate Jesus

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 30, 2007

Randall Balmer's "Thy Kingdom Come"

A century ago, Fundamentalists and religious conservatives stood on the margins of political society, while socially progressive Mainline Protestants took center stage. All that has changed over the last three decades as conservative religious movements have moved to the forefront. Ronald Reagan was their first presidential standard bearer; today, it's George W. Bush. The question is: Has this political ascendancy been good for the evangelical movement or the nation as a whole?

Absolutely not, says Randy Balmer, a Columbia University religious history professor and chronicler of the evangelical movement, whose book, "Thy Kingdom Come," is a pointedly written rejoinder to those who would claim the nation for Jesus through politics.

Read Robert Cornwall's review, Their Kingdom Come.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 30, 2007

Alexandra Pelosi's "Friends of God"

Pelosi's quirky journey through evangelical America reveals just how far the Christian subculture extends. Today's evangelicals have come a long way, baby. They encompass everything from the straight and narrows to young rebels sporting long hair, tattoos, body-piercings, and couture jeans complete with un-buttoned and un-tucked shirts. "Friends of God" buzzes through Christian wrestling events and churches whose interiors come with mall-like coffee stores and retail kiosks. It makes pit stops at tortured and sadly unoriginal evangelical rock concerts that recall that memorable episode from "The Simpsons," when Ned Flanders' girlfriend, a Christian musician, tells him the secret to contemporary Christian music is to replace "baby" with "Jesus" in the lyrics.

Read Benjamin Shobert's review, A Road Trip Through Evangelical America. 

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 27, 2007

Robert Ingersoll on Lent

What possible good did it do the world for Christ to go without food for forty days? Why should we follow such an example? As a rule, hungry people are cross, contrary, obstinate, peevish and unpleasant. A good dinner puts a man at peace with all the world--makes him generous, good natured and happy. He feels like kissing his wife and children. The future looks bright. He wants to help the needy. The good in him predominates, and he wonders that any man was ever stingy or cruel.

Read Robert Ingersoll's Does Famine Feed Faith? Beef Breed Blasphemy?

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 26, 2007

The British Invasion

We basically love our British brothers and sisters across the pond, so why are the bunch who've colonized New York so goddamned annoying? In the April issue of Vanity Fair, Englishman A.A. Gill explains his fellow expats.

"The British in New York are not good mixers," he writes. "We hunker together, forming bitchy old boys' and girls' clubs where we complain about and giggle over Americans like nannies talking about difficult, stupid children. An English girl, newly arrived, has been picked up by the expat coven and asked for tea. And rather nonplussed, she says, 'It's sad and sort of weird. This is the way our grandparents used to behave in Africa and India.'"

And who are these arrogant Brits? Not England's best and brightest, Gill tells us. "What you get are our failures and fantasists. The freshly redundant. The exposed and embittered." Check out his biting assessment of the scene at SoHo House, "New York's grand British club, the social embassy":

"Go up to the bar on any Thursday night and see the serried, slouched, braying, bitten-nailed ranks of them, all in need of a toothbrush, a cotton bud, and a dermatologist. Nursing beers and a well-thumbed ragged project. They're all here not making a film, not writing a book, not selling a sitcom. Don't tell me about your latest script. You're not a film writer. You're a handyman. You've never made so much as a wedding video. You do a bit of decorating, some plumbing, and you house-sit plants. There's no shame in it. It's what immigrants do."

Read A.A. Gill's "Brits Behaving Badly" at Vanity Fair.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 26, 2007

Chris Hedges' "American Fascists"

"Ur-Fascism (Eternal Fascism) can come back under the most innocent of disguises," writes Umberto Eco in a 1995 New York Review of Books essay. "Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its instances--every day, in every part of the world." So begins "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America," Chris Hedges' extended exercise in finger-pointing. Hedges rips the innocuous family-values masks right off the dominionists of the Robertson-Falwell-Dobson ilk who, he claims, are conniving to turn America into a Christian empire. As if we couldn't see through their disguises already.

Continue reading Stephanie Hunt's review, Apocalypse Now.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 22, 2007

The Bird Lady

I have the odd distinction of having been chosen for impromptu visitations from the winged species.

It all began around five years ago in Los Angeles when, one surreal morning, I got out of bed and was headed for my shower when I saw four peacocks standing at my sliding glass doors, peering into my living room.

One peacock would have been a sight. Two would have been a phenomenon. But four was a veritable apparition.

Slowly and cautiously I opened the doors, which led out into my garden. The peacocks didn't budge. I found myself the object of the admiring attention of eight beady eyes.

Continue reading Mary Beth Crain's For the Birds.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 20, 2007

Harper San Francisco's New Name

Publishers Weekly reports that Harper San Francisco has changed its name to Harper One. The reason? To "completely dispel the idea that it is a regional publisher," PW says. I don't get it. HSF has been the premier publisher of religion and spirituality titles for decades--backlist bestsellers include Huston Smith's The World's Religions, Richard J. Foster's Celebration of Discipline, and Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist--and it's such an established brand that the only people who might confuse it for a regional house are people who know nothing about it. And frankly, who cares what they think?

Imagine this: A customer walks into Barnes and Noble and picks up a bestseller by, say, John Dominic Crossan. He scans several pages with great interest until he looks at the spine and thinks, "Wait just a cotton-pickin' minute. Harper San Francisco published this book? I want a historical take on Jesus. Not a San Francisco take on Jesus!"

Not gonna happen.

To exaggerate slightly, it's like The New York Times deciding to change their name to "Times One" so they're not mistaken for a local paper.

Continue reading my essay, "Say It Ain't So! Harper San Francisco--Now a HO?" at The Revealer.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 20, 2007

Hooters Heads to the Holy Land

If you've ever asked yourself what's missing from Israel's cultural landscape and thought, "A Hooter's restaurant," then you may be a bit odd, but you're not alone. "I strongly believe that the Hooters concept is something that Israelis are looking for," says businessman Ofer Ahiraz. "Hooters can suit the Israeli entertainment culture."

Ahiraz has signed a franchise agreement to open the Holy Land's first Hooters this summer, in the greater Tel Aviv area. For those unfamiliar with the restaurant chain, Hooters is renowned for its striking owl logo, elegant wings-'n'-beer menu, and classy female wait staff.

Ahiraz plans to open five more Hooters over the next five years. Mind you: they won't be kosher, and Ahiraz assured Reuters he won't open the restaurants near large religious populations.

Hooters of America, Inc. is "very happy to add Israel to our family," said John Weber, of the company's franchise operations, in the Jerusalem Post. "The vibrant, fun-loving Israeli community suits the all-American, casual-dining theme that Hooters restaurants are known for. I am positive that the Israeli's quest for great food and atmosphere will end at Hooters."

Incidentally, Hooters is also known for its employee handbook requirements. Wikipedia quotes the handbook obtained by The Smoking Gun, saying that female employees are required to sign that they "acknowledge and affirm" the following:

1) My job duties require I wear the designated Hooters Girl uniform.
2) My job duties require that I interact with and entertain the customers.
3) The Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal and the work environment is one in which joking and sexual innuendo based on female sex appeal is commonplace.
4) I do not find my job duties, uniform requirements, or work environment to be offensive, intimidating, hostile, or unwelcome.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email
Tags:    Hooters Holy Land Israel

March 19, 2007

Supreme Court Hears Bong Hits Case

If a teenager displays a banner that offends a school principal, can the principal tear it down and suspend the student--even if the banner doesn't make sense and isn't on school property?

In 2002, a Juneau, Alaska, high school principal put these vital questions to the test. At an event celebrating the Olympic torch's passing through Juneau en route to Salt Lake City, then-high school senior Joseph Frederick hoisted a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." He was across the street from his school, on a public sidewalk. Principal Deborah Morse marched over and suspended Frederick for violating a school policy by promoting illegal drug use. When Frederick quoted Thomas Jefferson on free speech, Morse doubled the suspension to 10 days.

"The principal's actions were so outrageous, basically leaving school grounds and punishing a student for a message that is not damaging to the school," complained Doug Mertz, Frederick's attorney.

Last August, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the boy, ruling that Morse had violated his free speech rights. The Juneau school board then took the case to the Supreme Court, which begins hearing it today.

And this is where things promise to get fun. Arguing the school board's case, pro bono, is none other than Kenneth Starr, the former Clinton persecu-, er, prosecutor who authored the 2,600-page X-rated Starr report detailing Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Among the questions we at SoMA hope will be resolved are:

* Does "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" really promote drug use, or just puzzled looks?

* What does Kenneth Starr have against Christians, many of whom like to display obnoxious messages involving Jesus?

* And what would be more fun to watch stoned: Kenneth Starr investigating a president's dong or a high school student's bong?

Stay tuned.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 15, 2007

Jesus Christ Ass Kicker

If you look hard enough in the Gospels, you'll find a Jesus that any red-blooded, pick-up truck and football lovin' American he-man can relate to. Just skip all the parts where Jesus heals the sick and hangs out with widows and children, or where he talks about turning the other cheek and the meek inheriting the Earth, and get to the part where the Lord goes ape in the Temple. Now that's a man for Men, or more specifically for GodMen, a growing group of Christian guys who believe that traditional church services are too feminine and sissy, explaining why less than 40 percent of churchgoers today are male.

Founded by comic Brad Stine, GodMen meets in a rented space at a Tennessee mall hoping to put some hair back on the chest of Christianity. Daylong sessions are full of guy stunts (men bending frying pans and metal bars with their bare hands) and God talk. "It's about men stepping up and being strong again," Stine told Good Morning America today. "A meek and mild Jesus," he added, "eventually is a bore."

Stine doesn't want to do away with the even-tempered, loving Jesus, just to put him in perspective. "There was also a table-tippin' guy that went after people with a whip," he told GMA. "I mean, that's assault and battery in the United States of America. It sounds like a sin, at least if I'm whipping you! But Jesus didn't sin, so apparently there are nuances to Christianity, an element to it, that we haven't been taught as men because we're different than women."

"So when we walk into a church," he added, "we don't see metal, we see ferns. We're not used to that! We want something that shows the masculine side as well."

So what does to GodMen offer guys?

"You go to this event, you get to be real and raw," Stine said. "We're flawed, we're messed up, we're not perfect. We don't have it right. We're on a journey, but we screw up every single day. But now you have a tribe of brothers that promise to walk with you on this."

I originally wrote this for Beliefnet.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 13, 2007

The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's

Every time I hear the first line on "Horses," "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," I smile, and the hair stands up on the back of my neck. I'm not even a Patti Smith fan. But from time to time I've wondered if Jews feel that line differently, perhaps more viscerally, than Christian listeners do. Steven Lee Beeber doesn't answer my question in his awesome "Heebie Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk," but he gets so many other things right, I don't care. This book is worth the cover price for the bar mitzvah photos alone--and for the actual text, we should all give thanks.

Continue reading Eva Geertz's Jew Punks.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email
Tags:    punk rock CBGB's jewish

March 12, 2007

Bush's "Evil Spirits"

President Bush is in the midst of a five-nation tour to inform the people of Latin America that the U.S. "cares deeply about the human condition" and that we're all for helpin' poor people down there to "realize their God-given potential."

As he described his mission last Friday: "My trip is to explain as clearly as I can that our nation is generous and compassionate--that when we see poverty, we care, that when we see illiteracy, we want to do something about it, that when we find there to be a deficiency in health care, we'll help to the extent we can."

And how do they respond? They turn out in vast numbers to protest, throw rocks, smash barricades, and charge lines of police wearing riot gear. Geez, you'd think Bush was bullshitting them or something. When Dubya says he cares about the poor, he means it, by God. Just ask any homeless person on the streets of Washington D.C.

But Mayan religious and political leaders delivered the biggest insult to God's Man in the White House. Angry that Bush is visiting Iximche, a sacred ancient Mayan capital, the Mayans vowed to "spiritually cleanse" the site of any "bad spirits" after he leaves.

"That a person like (Bush) with the persecution of our migrant brothers in the United States, with the wars he has provoked is going to walk in our sacred lands is an offense for the Mayan people and their culture," a Mayan spokesperson told the AP.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 10, 2007

Conversations With God

I must admit, I do not talk with God, at least not the way some people claim to. Oh, I pray and meditate (mostly in the form of reading and writing), and I think about God as I wrestle with life's Big Questions. I also talk to myself, and once in a while I think I might hear a still small voice respond. But I wouldn't call it "God." One of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, maybe.

My point is that, to paraphrase a gazillion philosophers and theologians, the problem with thinking that we talk with God is that it's so easy to project our fears and desires onto the Almighty, without realizing it. And consider some of the frightening folks who think they've got a pipeline to the divine--Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Pat Robertson, George W. Bush.

So I was apprehensive when I picked up Natalie d'Arbeloff's book, "The God Interviews," a comic strip series featuring Augustine, the artist's alter ego, as she chats up the Unmoved Mover about everything from the problem of evil to the meaning of life. To my surprise, the book is not too cute, nor does it try too hard to be profound. It's a fun read, in part because d'Arbeloff's God digs Karl Marx's sentiment that "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." And it's also fun because that Marx quote is, as it turns out, the most eloquent and insightful statement God utters in the whole book. Finally, a Creator we mere mortals can relate to!

Continue reading my review "God Talk."

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 9, 2007

Religion Joke of the Week

This Jewish guy dies, and he was so awful, so hideous, that no one liked him. And at the funeral, the rabbi finally asks, "Doesn't anyone have anything nice to say?" And this little old guy in the back raises his hand and shouts, "Yes."

"What is it, Phil?" the rabbi asks.

"His brother was WORSE!"

Courtesy of Robin Williams, who recounted this "old Jewish funeral joke" on Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg.

Heard a joke you'd like to share? Does it have to do with religion? Send it to editor(at)

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 8, 2007

Masada to Fall, Again?

Some 2,000 years ago, Masada, Herod the Great's hilltop fortress-palace complex overlooking the Dead Sea, was the final holdout in the first Jewish revolt against Roman rule. In the last century, Masada became a metaphor for the State of Israel, and it's used as a swearing-in site for Israeli troops who vow, "Masada shall not fall again."

Mother Nature, it seems, has decided to test that pledge. Heavy rains that damaged more than 4,600 feet of Masada's supporting walls in 2003 are now threatening the fortress with possible collapse.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email
Tags:    Masada Herod fortress

March 6, 2007

Jesus Drinks and Smokes

"Jesus drank wine because he didn't have Dewar's."

So says a 60-year-old Texas man who drinks scotch, smokes cigarettes, and is named Jesus. Ha, ha. Corny name play, right? Not exactly. Because this Jesus also claims, in all seriousness, to be the Second Coming of Jesus of Nazareth. So when he talks about the Prince of Peace and Dewar's, he merely speaks whereof he knows, personally.

How did he become the Son of God? As Jose de Jesus (that's his legal name) tells it, he was born again while serving time as a teenager in a Puerto Rican prison. Then, during a visit from two angels in 1973, the spirit of Jesus entered his body. Soon, the ministry called, and now de Jesus is said to have more than a million followers in more than 30 countries.

Clearly, people love the guy. They send him money and gifts and they greet him with mariachi bands at airports. And because, for whatever reason, he also goes by the title "Antichrist," some of his most ardent followers have "666" tattooed on their bodies to show their devotion.

For the full story click here, or watch the ABC News report on Primetime tonight, 9 PM ET.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 6, 2007

Dobson v. Cizik

James Dobson has asked the National Association of Evangelicals to "silence or fire" the Rev. Richard Cizik, the NAE official who has urged evangelicals to take global warming seriously, the Washington Post reports.

In a letter to the board of the NAE, Dobson and two dozen co-signers said that Cizik has waged a "relentless campaign" that is "dividing and demoralizing" evangelicals.

Now, in fairness to Dobson, consider what Cizik is doing. He's trying to raise awareness about how global warming is melting polar ice caps, raising sea levels, and changing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather conditions, from floods and droughts to hurricanes, heat waves, and tornadoes. That's demoralizing stuff, especially to Christians who enjoy laughing at people who drive hybrid cars. 

Just what is the scope of Cizik's "relentless campaign"? "I speak with a voice that is authentically evangelical on all the issues, from religious freedom around the world, to compassion for the poor, ending oppression in Darfur--and yes, creation care is one of those issues," Cizik told the Post.

And yet, Dobson says, Cizik has got to go because he's "dividing" evangelicals. In other words, time to get back to issues that have traditionally united evangelicals, like Dobson's own relentless campaign against gay people.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

March 2, 2007

Dig Jewish Dirt? Now You Can Buy It by the Bag

How much would you pay for a 16-ounce pouch of dirt from Israel? Five hundred dollars? Fifty? No, no, silly. Try 20 bucks. That's right. For only about twice the price of a one-pound bag of Starbucks' Sumatran extra bold, you can now own a bag of "100% genuine Israeli Soil," thanks to a company called Holy Land Earth.

The first shipment arrived in New York earlier this week amid, well, some fanfare: A guy in a tuxedo and white gloves carried the first packages off the ship on a silver tray. In the company's mind, the soil's arrival is history-making. "For the first time in recorded history, Holy Land Earth brings a small piece of Israel directly to you," their website solemnly declares.

I checked up on the company, and here's the dirt. Holy Land Earth is the brainchild of businessman Steven Friedman, and what separates his product from any other sacred soil you might find on the Internet is that his dirt, the company says, is USDA approved--meeting all U.S. import regulations. It also comes with the blessing of "recognized Jewish religious authorities."

"Similar in spirit to the Kosher certification process," the site says, "Holy Land Earth is certified genuine by Rabbi Velvel Brevda--the director of the Council of Geula, Jerusalem." The rabbi "travels between Israel and America and oversees the entire collecting, importing, and packaging processes."

But what might you do with your bag once it arrives? The company offers several suggestions.

Burial purposes: "For many people of Jewish (and other) descent, being laid to rest in the Holy Land is a wish that, while a popular sentiment, is difficult to fulfill. ... Knowing that your loved one is buried with authentic Holy Land Earth is a powerful, uplifting, and peaceful emotion that is beyond compare. Holy Land Earth can be sprinkled on (or in) a casket," the website adds, "and is packaged and priced so every family member can have one."

New Home: "Whether utilized in groundbreaking, or sprinkled onto an existing lawn, you can use genuine soil from the Holy Land to help bestow luck and divine purity to your dwelling."

Gardening: "Whether you use it on a vegetable garden, a houseplant, or to grow some flowers, Holy Land Earth brings the essence of the Holy Land to all living things. The soil is rich and fertile, and perfect for growing lush plants."

Good Luck: "Whether sprinkled for a newly wedded couple to walk over or a pinch placed in the trunk of a car of a child heading off to college, Holy Land Earth can bring the spirit of the Holy Land to any circumstance you deem appropriate."

Ultimately your imagination is the only limit to what you can do with the dirt. "Get creative," the company urges. "This is genuine soil from the Holy Land. Use it any way you wish."

Of course, those who really want to touch Israeli soil, and are able, could always hop a plane. As the Israel National News notes, "For the price of 25 pounds of the earth, a customer could buy a one-way ticket and have the whole country at his feet."

This post originally appeared at

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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