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Blog Archive/May 2006

May 30, 2006

Not on Bended Knee

There are certain things I won’t do at the Episcopal church I attend. For instance, I rarely recite the Nicene Creed, and if I do I replace “God,” “Jesus,” and the “Holy spirit” with words like “Santa Claus,” the “Easter bunny,” and the “abominable snowman.” I mean, God is an almighty father? Mary was a virgin? Jesus “came down from heaven”? Right, and the man in the moon came down too soon and asked his way to Norwich. (Once, a priest friend pointed out that creedal concepts are just metaphors. To which, I replied, “But are they good metaphors?”)

It’s not, however, my refusal to utter the creed that gets me strange looks at church. No, those come when I decline to kneel during the parts of the service in which kneeling is expected. The message telegraphed by some elderly who remain seated with me is, “I’ve got arthritis. What’s your excuse, sonny boy?”

My excuse—or rather my explanation—is that I am not a vassal, God is not a feudal lord, and this is not the 13th century, so why bother? Still, my stance on kneeling, so to speak, is: to each his own. If you want to kneel, go for it. Just let me sit that part out.

Of course, in the larger world beyond my church, lots of people consider kneeling archaic. And in the Catholic Diocese of Orange, Calif., the debate over kneeling is now national news. Father Martin Tran, pastor at St. Mary's by the Sea in Huntington Beach, issued what Sunday’s Los Angeles Times called an “anti-kneeling edict.” Tran said in a recent newsletter that kneeling “is clearly rebellion, grave disobedience and mortal sin," and he instructed his flock to remain standing. Nevertheless, a third of the congregation still gets on its knees every Sunday.

The Diocese of Orange backs Father Tran’s anti-kneeling position. According to the diocese’s director of worship, Bishop Tod D. Brown banned kneeling because standing "reflects our human dignity. It's not that we think we're equal to God, but we recognize that we are made in the image and likeness of God." Though Benedict XVI has not addressed the issue since he became pope, he favored kneeling in 2000 when, as a cardinal, he wrote that the gesture “comes from the Bible and the knowledge of God."

At the center of the controversy is the church's concept of Christ. Jesuit Father Lawrence J. Madden, director of the Georgetown Center for Liturgy at Georgetown University, told the Times that “because the earliest Christians viewed Jesus as God and man, they generally stood during worship services to show reverence and equality. Around the 7th century, however, Catholic theologians put more emphasis on Christ's divinity and introduced kneeling as the only appropriate posture at points in the Mass when God was believed to be present.”

All this started to change in the 60s, during Vatican II, Madden said, when the church began moving back to its earliest roots. What has ensued, he said, is the predictable struggle of an institution revising centuries of religious practices.

The argument over kneeling, Madden said, is "a signal of the division in the church between two camps: those who have caught the spirit of Vatican II, and those who are a bit suspicious."
But the way the debate is playing out in Southern California strikes me, a non-Catholic, as odd. Church leaders have sent at least 55 parishioners letters urging them, as the Times put it, to “get off their knees or quit St. Mary's and the Diocese of Orange.”

In other words, the church is wielding old-fashioned, iron-fisted authority to promote modern views and advance change. Doesn’t that seem like one step forward and two steps back?

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 25, 2006

My Dominick Dunne Impression

The other day I read the June issue of Vanity Fair cover-to-cover, almost. That is, I read everything in its entirety except ýDominick Dunneýs Diary.ý I got a couple hundred words into the thing, and tossed the magazine to the floor. The first of three items in Dunneýs column is a ýfascinating storyý about Truman Capote a woman told Dunne over lunchýa story, he adds, ýno one knows about.ý In sum: A woman inherited a home in Santa Fe, and when she went to clean it discovered some notes and papers belonging to Truman Capote, who rented the house 30 years ago. ýWhat should I do with all this?ý the woman asked Dunne. To which he replied, ýWhy donýt you let me write about it in my diary in Vanity Fair and see what happens.ý End of story.

Iýll say it: Dominick Dunne drives me up the wall, and he has the same effect on my friend Joshua, a longtime Vanity Fair subscriber and, incidentally, a fellow Capote fan. I called Joshua and wasnýt surprised to learn that he also chucked the magazine part way into Dunneýs latest column. ýHeýs getting worse and worse,ý Joshua said. ýI really think heýs going senile.ý

Perhaps I can best explain my allergic reaction to Dominick Dunne by doing my impression of him for you. Mind you, I nail the voice, so it's much better heard than read, but what can I do? We don't have podcasts at SoMA, yet. OK, here goes:

ýOn a recent glorious spring day, I was having tea with Brooke Astor, Nancy Reagan, and Gloria Vanderbilt in a penthouse suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, when the conversation suddenly shifted, as it always does, from polo ponies and Palm Beach to Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrew Cunanan. Cunanan, youýll recall, was the homicidal young poseur whose charm and exotic good looks gained him access to the fabulously decadent world of the closeted gay elite, until drugs and dissolution took their toll and the doors slammed shut, propelling the pathologically disturbed young man on a cross-country killing spree which left five people dead, including fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was gunned down outside his opulent South Beach palazzo upon returning from his ritualistic morning stroll. And something Gloria Vanderbilt said reminded me of some advice Bobby Kennedyýor was it Jack?ýonce gave me as we sailed off the coast of Marthaýs Vineyardýor was it Mallorca? ýWhenever you feel like criticizing anyone,ý he told me, ýjust remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had.ý"

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 22, 2006

Simon Cowell's Contribution to Culture

Highbrows widely regard the singing competition "American Idol"—and the contest's mascot, its tart English judge, Simon Cowell—as an omen of impending cultural apocalypse. To list the specifics of this grim forecast: Performing more-or-less karaoke, complete with shooting flames and ocean waves projected on a massive video screen behind them, contestants pay homage to the most irksome trifles in the history of pop. (Tonight, we fête the genius of Gloria Estefan; next week, Barry Manilow!) Despite the unspeakable lameness of these acts, their perpetrators have occasionally received vote totals comparable to presidential candidates. And, if you momentarily allow the escapist pleasures of this spectacle to sweep you away, your enjoyment will inevitably be interrupted by the ubiquitous product placements, reminding you of "Idol"'s crassness. (Damn, Coca-Cola red room!) Above all, there's the smug, cynical Cowell in his too-tight Armani T-shirts. His unceasing stream of aperçus—"If you were the only person who entered this competition, you still wouldn't win"—are presented as evidence of a sadistic penchant for humiliating unworldly teens and the carny masses of "Idol" wannabes.

Leveling this critique at "Idol," however, requires a certain myopia. It mistakes the trappings of the show—the endless renditions of Phil Collins, the shrieking, sign-waving girls in the audience—for "Idol"'s true contribution to culture. That contribution comes in the form of Cowell...

Continue reading Franklin Foer's Our Savior, Simon Cowell.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 16, 2006

Hef's Spiritual Journey

Did you know that Hugh Hefner worships regularly as he strolls the grounds of the Playboy mansion? Or that, early in its history, Playboy offered a special discount subscription rate for ministers? (Call it “outreach ministry,” Hef-style.)

Chicago Sun-Times religion writer Cathleen Falsani got more than a few surprises when she visited the Playboy Mansion to talk about God with the man who invented the centerfold. Read her report here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 11, 2006

Margaret Atwood on the Afterlife

Our cat was raptured up to heaven. He’d never liked heights, so he tried to sink his claws into whatever invisible snake, giant hand, or eagle was causing him to rise in this manner, but he had no luck.

When he got to heaven, it was a large field. There were a lot of little pink things running around that he thought at first were mice. Then he saw God sitting in a tree. Angels were flying here and there with their fluttering white wings; they were making sounds like doves. Every once in a while God would reach out with its large furry paw and snatch one of them out of the air and crunch it up. The ground under the tree was littered with bitten-off angel wings.

Continue reading Our Cat Enters Heaven.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 10, 2006

Can an Old Church Learn New Music?

One of the older ladies in church said she didn’t like the band. She said it was too loud. I said, “What? I can’t hear you.”
“I said the band is too loud.”

“Well, do you think the organ is too loud when the stained glass is rattling in the windows?”

“No, I don’t mind when the organ is loud.”

“Well, what is it about the band that seems too loud? Is it the guitars?”

“No, I like the guitars. My daughter plays the guitar. Have you heard her? She’s really good.”

“Yes I have heard her play and she is really good and I wish she would leave her church and join my church. Oh no, I didn’t say anything; I was just clearing my throat. Is it the piano? Is the piano too loud?”

Continue reading pastor William Whitehead's essay Little Drummer Boy Blues.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 8, 2006


I grew up the second child and first daughter of two Jewish parents in a small city where there were lots of other Jews around. No one ever made any fuss about the religious backgrounds of the people I dated, and I never heard my parents complain about Jews who married Gentiles.

Nonetheless, intermarriage became a big issue in my life when, in my early 30s, I actually went and married a practicing Episcopalian. Now, my brother had been married for years to a Jewish woman who brought non-observance to new levels; when my mother asked if she was observant, my brother replied, “Well, she knows what matzo is.”

The irony was that my husband, who came from a family of exceedingly liberal Protestant clergy and had a strong background in religion and philosophy, knew way more about Judaism than my Jewish sister-in-law.

Continue reading Eva Geertz's review of Laurel Snyder's "Half/Life" here.

Note: It’s “Jew Night” tonight at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction in New York City, 34 Avenue A, between Second and Third streets. Get there by 7 p.m. to hear readings by “Half/Life” contributors Jeff Sharlet, Renee Kaplan, and Jeremy Mullem.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 4, 2006

Margaret Atwood at SoMA

Salome went after the Religious Studies teacher. It was really mean of her, he wasn’t up to her at all, no more sense of self-protection than a zucchini, always droning on about morality and so forth, but he’d finger the grapefruits in the supermarket in this creepy way, a grapefruit in each hand, he’d stand there practically drooling, one of those gaunt-looking men who’d fall on his knees if a woman ever looked at him seriously, but so far none of them had. As I say it was really mean of her, but he’d failed her on her mid-term and she was under pressure at home, they wanted her to perform as they put it, so I guess she thought this would be a shortcut.

Continue reading Margaret Atwood's Salome Was a Dancer.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

May 3, 2006

The Challenge in Jewish Intermarriage

Intermarriage is either the biggest hurdle the Jewish community has ever faced, or the biggest scapegoat.

Don’t get me wrong, the recent and overwhelming trend in Jewish intermarriage is complicated, but when people talk about intermarriage, they often seem to suggest that intermarriage is at the root of Jewish assimilation, that people are marrying and then losing their ties to the tradition, when the reverse might be closer to the truth.

Because in a world of “Just Jews” who say things like, “You don’t have to believe in God to be Jewish,” does it really matter who Davey Feinstein takes to the Chuppah? What’s he got to pass on to his children anyway?

Continue reading Laurel Snyder's By Book or Bagel.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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