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Blog Archive/July 2005

July 29, 2005

Bill Maher's "New Rules" for Religion

“New Rules” is a popular segment in “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the show HBO gave Bill Maher after ABC fired him from “Politically Incorrect” for being—how dare he!—politically incorrect. In “New Rules,” he skewers the pompous, the ridiculous, and the irrational in American politics and culture, offering simple rules as correctives. Exhibit A, which calls for an end to quasi-spiritual Asian tattoos: “Just because your tattoo has Chinese characters in it, it doesn’t make you spiritual. It’s right above the crack of your ass and it translates to ‘Beef with Broccoli.’ The last time you did anything spiritual, you were praying to God you weren’t pregnant.”

Rules are important, Maher believes. They are “the signposts that define where our rights end and those of our fellow citizens begin,” he writes in the foreword to his hilarious collection, “New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer.” “Adhering to rules and abiding by a code of civility—this is what separates us from the apes…and Tom DeLay. Stop following rules and you start stepping on toes.”

We all need rules, he writes, especially children; with proper discipline and structure, they can go anywhere: “Just look at what the Hitler Youth did for the pope.”

Maher did not set out to rehash the out-dated rules of yore, but to “establish new ones for a self-obsessed, success-by-any means, get-mine culture. These are the rules that frankly, were not necessary back when we practiced those old-fashioned time wasters: courtesy, consideration, and commonsense… When we disregard the rules altogether we get anarchy or, worse yet, Enron.”

Among Maher’s many targets, of course, is religion, which he has called a “neurological disorder,” and who could blame him? To read some of his  "New Rules" for  religion, click here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 27, 2005

A “Christian Nation,” Maybe. But Without Jesus

Tom DeLay is the Antichrist; or rather, he’s one of many Anti-Christs who are taking our nation to hell in a handbasket. I know, we at SoMA keep saying this. But thank God we’re hardly alone in our thinking. “One could make a perfectly serious argument that the policies of Tom DeLay are in fact hastening the End Times,” writes Bill McKibben in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine. “But there’s nothing particularly Christian about this hastening.”

McKibben is referring to the day DeLay attended church and the pastor urged his parishioners to support the Bush administration, declaring that “the war between America and Iraq is the gateway to the Apocalypse.” After the sermon, which was broadcast to 225 conservative Christian TV and radio stations, DeLay spoke. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “what has been spoken here tonight is the truth of God.”

Of course, if you’re Tom DeLay and the Christian right, the truth of God can be anything you want it to be, from a war waged on lies to tax cuts for the rich. Anything, that is, except the real message of Jesus, which emphasizes nonviolence and a radical selflessness and devotion to serving others, particularly the oppressed and least fortunate.   

In “The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong,” McKibben notes that, make no mistake, America is a Christian nation, if only because some 85 percent of us claim to be Christian. In a sense, we’re more of a Christian nation than Israel is a Jewish nation, where 77 percent are Jewish. But America, McKibben says, is merely “a place saturated in Christian identity.” In terms of actually being Christian—embodying the teachings of Jesus—we are perhaps the least Christian developed country.

McKibben writes that in his final days Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, saying that “the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner.” Last year the United States ranked second only to Italy as the developed country that gave the least in government foreign aid. And we didn’t care much for our own poor and hungry, either; 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (Sweden: 8 percent). “In fact,” McKibben writes, “by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin.”

Funny how those “secular” European nations that the Christian right disdains for their godlessness—like the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden—are more “Christian” than we are. Not only are they more socially responsible—by cutting back on their carbon emissions, living in smaller homes and using public transportation, helping the poor and ensuring health care for everyone—but they also have lower divorce and teenage pregnancy rates than we do, and they don’t have our “self-discipline” problems—obesity, credit card debts, government deficits.

By Jesus’ own criteria, alas, America  is not a Christian nation. When asked by a rich man what he should do to get into heaven, Jesus “did not say he should invest, spend, and let the benefits trickle down; he said sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and follow me,” McKibben writes. Yet last year the Christian Coalition, “America’s Leading Grassroots Organization Defending Our Godly Heritage,” announced that one of its top priorities would be “making permanent President Bush’s 2001 federal tax cuts.”

The problem, McKibben says, is that “the idea of Jesus has been hijacked by people with a series of causes that do not reflect his teachings.”

Essentially, the message of the Christian right—and here’s the paradox—is one of unbiblical self-centeredness rather than Christ-like selflessness.  “God helps those who help themselves” may sound good, McKibben says, and may even be profoundly American (it certainly sells). But believe it or not, folks, it isn’t biblical!

“The power of the Christian right rests largely in the fact that they boldly claim religious authority,” McKibben writes, “and by their very boldness convince the rest of us that they must know what they’re talking about.”

In other words, we’ve been duped.

“It’s hard to imagine a con much more audacious than making Christ the front man for a program of tax cuts for the rich or war in Iraq,” McKibben writes. “If some modest part of the 85 percent of us who are Christians woke up to that fact, then the world might change.”

Click here to read an excerpt of McKibben’s article. Better yet, buy the August issue of Harper’s and read the whole enchilada.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 22, 2005

The Power of Prayer?

When I was a kid, my pastor often said the key to effective prayer was to ask for things “in Jesus’ name.” Dear Lord, please help me find a ride to the mall. I ask this, IN JESUS’ NAME, amen.  There were other criteria. Your prayer request couldn’t be for something Jesus didn’t want, too. Dear Lord, please turn my youth pastor into a toad, for example, would not be fulfilled unless Jesus also wished to see this man sitting in a swamp, covered with warts and catching bugs with his tongue.

But for all other things, praying in Jesus’ name was the Christian’s greatest tool, limited only by the degree of one’s faith. Which, according to Jesus, didn’t need to be much. All you needed was faith the size of a mustard seed and you could tell a mountain to move and it would (Matt. 17: 19-20). You could order a mulberry tree to pull up its roots and hop into the sea, and up and into the waves it went (Luke 17: 5-6). I was instructed to read these passages literally, so it struck me that if Jesus believed faith could be used to carry out such questionable landscaping projects as tossing trees into the ocean, the chances I could use prayer to score a ride to the mall were pretty good.

But my mustard-seed-sized faith rarely accomplished much. Privately, I doubted the power of prayer. Things happened, good or bad, whether I prayed about them one way or the other, or not at all. Prayer seemed more like a tool with which I could manage my expectations rather than fulfill them. Soon, the only prayer that made sense to me was Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which is about accepting hardships and things we can’t change as pathways to inner peace. All other prayers seemed to be the kind of wishful thinking that builds false hopes and megachurches.

Then I read Dr. Larry Dossey’s 1993 national bestseller, Healing Words. Here, Dossey attempts to give scientific legitimacy to the old notion that prayer has the power to heal. He writes about “miracle cures,” citing tests showing that prayer can help with heart attacks, asthma, high-blood pressure, anxiety, and headaches. This makes sense; praying for ten minutes can lower just about anyone’s blood pressure. But Dossey also says that praying for others, without them knowing it, can make a scientifically measurable difference in their recovery from illness or trauma. Prayer can even help seeds and plants grow better!

Now, if one of my tomato plants were sick, I probably wouldn’t pray for it, but I definitely would pray if I or one of my loved ones had a serious illness. I’ve prayed when I’ve been sick before. But I've also wondered what I was doing: Was I addressing an external being that could help me (and then may or may not come through), or was I merely trying to will myself better? Sick people who pray, and are prayed for, sometimes recover and sometimes don’t, and I’ve never heard a pastor who advocates prayer as therapy adequately explain the different outcomes. “Both were God’s will,” is often the best they can do. But if it all comes down to “God’s will,” then why pray?

A recent study published in the Lancet medical journal, and reported by Bloomberg, suggests that prayer may not be good medicine, after all. Conducted by researchers at the Duke Clinical Research Institute in Durham, N.C., the study followed the progress of 748 heart patients being treated for blocked arteries. Of these, 192 received only the standard medical care; 182 also received prayer; 185 got music, imagery, and touch (MIT) therapy; and 189 got prayer and MIT therapy.

The prayer portion of the study lasted three years and was conducted by 12 groups that were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist. In the first two years, each patient’s name, age, and illness was provided to the 12 groups, which composed their own prayers for each patient and prayed for them for up to 30 days. The patients didn’t know they were being prayed for.

In the last year of the study, another 12 prayer groups were brought in, and they prayed for the prayers of the first 12 groups. Researchers described this phase as “high-dose” praying.

Alas, in the end, the patients prayed for fared no better than those who weren’t. Both groups were just as likely to develop complications (e.g., suffer heart attacks), return to the hospital, or die. (And yes, the prayer and MIT therapies began before the patients had their procedures.)

Still, the Lancet’s accompanying editorial was open-ended: “The contribution that hope and belief make to a personal understanding of illness cannot be dismissed so lightly. They are proper subjects for science, even while transcending its known bounds.'' Amen.

Whether the Christian prayer groups prayed “in Jesus’ name,” however, the Bloomberg report didn’t say.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 19, 2005

The New Christian Flag

"I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Savior for whose kingdom it stands; one brotherhood uniting all mankind in service and love." Ring a bell? Probably not, unless you’re familiar with the Christian flag created in 1907 by Charles C. Overton, a New York Sunday school superintendent, and Ralph Diffendorfer, a Methodist missionary.

Overton got the idea for a Christian flag in 1897 when a speaker failed to show at a Sunday school gathering, and he had to give an impromptu speech. Thinking on his feet, Overton pointed to the American flag near the podium and suggested that Christians should have a flag their own. The idea stayed with him, and 10 years later he and Diffendorfer came up with a design. It was simplicity itself, just three elements: a white background (representing purity and peace), a blue box in the upper-left corner (signifying faith), and a red cross (sacrifice).

The flag was meant to symbolize the (to borrow a pre-postmodern expression) universal truth shared by all Christians, regardless of race, sex, economic status, denomination, politics—or nationality. So broad was its appeal that the pledge I quoted at beginning of this blog was penned by a liberal pastor named Lynn Harold Hough.

Though almost 250,000 churches, both conservative and liberal, still hang the Christian flag in their classrooms and sanctuaries, the flag’s inclusiveness gives it a quaint, dated feel, particularly as the dominating, conservative side of the Christian family attempts to transform our nation into a theocracy.

And so a born-again Maryland woman has created a new Christian flag more fitting for our times—the United States National Christian Flag. The old Christian flag, Marcia Thompson Eldreth writes at her website, “is crisp and dignified, but politely cold. I knew there was need for an additional flag.” Something, you know, a lot more divisive and offensive to people who don’t belong to the Christian right; a flag conservative Christians can wave as they march into “war” against, she writes, “Satan and his lies of liberalism and secularism.” A flag, in other words, that Pat Robertson would be proud to salute.

Eldreth has designed a flag that achieves all these objectives. It features an American bald eagle clutching a blood-stained cross and is bordered by 50 stars, which “represent all the Christians of the United States banding together to protect our right to preach the gospel and to protect our Christian heritage.”

Eldreth announced her new flag in May with a press release entitled “Northeast Maryland Woman Declares War Against Liberalism!” On June 14, she and her flag were Pat Robertson’s guests on “The 700 Club.”

When American conservative Christian nationalism rears its ugly roaring head, the rest of the world understandably quakes. For Canadian writer Will Braun, Eldreth’s flag represents much that he fears and loathes about America’s right-wing Christians. “They make me so angry I feel like I need therapy to reconnect with the compassionate values of the real Jesus,” he writes in a recent piece for SoMA, “and the world needs therapy to deal with the impact religio-America has on the global psyche.”

Will contacted Eldreth to learn more about her in-your-face flag. Click here to read his report.

And be sure to vote in the “flag poll,” so to speak, here on SoMA’s homepage, in the left-hand column. Every vote counts, as I like to say, not knowing what that could possibly mean in this case.

PS: Will Braun edits Geez, “a beautiful new magazine that serves a politically charged readership at the fringes of faith.” Geez launches this fall; in the meantime, visit their site here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 15, 2005

The Much-Anticipated Conclusion to "The Deborah Trilogy"

In the last episode of "The Deborah Trilogy," Mary Beth Crain’s Catholic fanatic friend Deborah made a pilgrimage to Italy to visit holy sites, among them the church where St. Catherine of Siena’s head is on display. In Siena, Deborah developed a romantic attraction to St. Catherine (or rather, her head); got a bee sting on her palm that she hoped was a precursor to the stigmata; and saw the Virgin Mary in a coffee spill on her napkin in a café. Now, in the final installment of the trilogy, Deborah embarks upon a fervent quest for holy relics, convinced they will bring her, if not redemption, at least a little bit of luck, which we all know she can use. [Read more here.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 13, 2005

It's Lights Out for Jesus

I don’t mock people who go nuts over images that resemble religious figures like the Jesus tortilla, the Virgin Mary grilled cheese, or the John-the-Baptist meatloaf. (Or was it the John Madden meatloaf?) That’s because if I ever found, say, the Apostle Paul floating in my cereal bowl, I know I could sell him for a fortune at eBay.  

So I’m surprised at the shortsightedness of the mayor of East Chicago, Ind. On Sunday, Mayor George Pabey ordered a streetlight turned off that creates shadows resembling Jesus on the side of a tree. It seems the “Jesus tree” was attracting unruly crowds.

It all started last Wednesday when a woman noticed the outline of Jesus on the tree after sunset, and word of the miracle spread like wildfire. By Thursday night, as many as 250 people showed up, clogging the street and blocking cars until 5 a.m. Several arrests were made after a large fight broke out in the area Friday night, and police tried to disperse the crowd, leading some to throw insults and objects at the officers.  “It was just mayhem,” the police chief told the Gary Post-Tribune. “We couldn’t control it.”

Then the mayor stepped in and made his mistake. Listening to the concerns of the police chief rather than to the ca-ching of the cash register, Mayor Pabey decided to turn off the miracle-producing streetlight to discourage crowds from gathering.

If the mayor took public finance as seriously as he does public safety, he might have sealed off the street and charged a $50 admission fee to view Jesus’ Second Coming in the Norwegian spruce, or whatever tree it is. With a T-shirt stand and beer and wine sales, he could have easily bought off the whiny neighbors and raked in tens of thousands of dollars for the town each night. But he didn’t.

Sunday, several understandably frustrated people shined flashlights on the tree hoping to make Jesus appear. To no avail, of course. Only one man can bring Jesus back to the 1400 block of Drummond Street—Mayor George Pabey.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 12, 2005

Putting the 'Fun' Back in Funerals

When a 55-year-old Pennsylvania man died earlier this month, his widow requested that he not be placed in a casket, but in a recliner holding a remote and facing a TV playing highlights of his favorite football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. His body was dressed in black and gold—the Steelers’ colors—and a pack of cigarettes and a beer sat on the table next to him.

"He wanted to be at home in a surrounding with the things he liked to do," James Henry Smith’s widow, Denise, told a Pittsburgh news station. "Everyone who knew him and loved him can always remember he was just at peace, sitting up there watching television, and he just went to sleep," she said. (To see pictures of Smith laid out in his recliner, click here.)

According to a recent UPI story, the personalized funeral, in which people replace a somber service with special productions involving props, is a growing trend in the United States. During the wake last year for Sonny Ewell, an ice cream man from Rockland, Mass., Ewell’s ice cream truck was parked in front of the funeral home. With its bells jingling and lights flashing, the truck later led the procession to the church and then to the cemetery. After Sonny’s burial, all the attendees received free Popsicles.
Funeral homes are starting to cater to the trend. Palm Mortuary in Las Vegas, for example, offers “Life Celebrations” on its website. The Western Sunset package features scuffed boots on a bale of hay, while the Nineteenth Green includes trophies, putters, and golf shoes.

All this must come as good news to Gerri Guadagno, co-founder of the Dying-to-Get-In company in Port Washington, N.Y. Believing that you can’t enjoy life until you adopt an irreverent attitude toward death, Dying-to-Get-In helps people learn how to laugh at death by offering joyrides in a pink hearse—while laid out in a pink coffin. The company also creates customized funeral urns and conducts YOU-logy workshops—self-discovery seminars where participants learn, among other things, how to draft their own eulogies. Dying-to-Get-In also arranges fun-filled cemetery tours and offers unique ways of dispersing your loved one’s ashes, including the “Up, Up and Away” (send a “smattering of ashes” skyward, their website says, with a cluster of personalized helium balloons) and the “Surf & Turf Como” (“scatter at sea and save some for land”).

A few years ago, I visited the Dying-to-Get-In company, and got to ride around crowded downtown Port Washington in the back of the hearse. Peering out of the coffin as we literally stopped traffic and elicited stares, I learned less about laughing at death than about handling others laughing at me. [Read my full report here.]   

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 8, 2005

Jews for Moroni?

Could a nice Jewish girl possibly enjoy the annual Mormon Pageant at Hill Cumorah? “Of course!” says SoMA contributing editor Mary Beth Crain, recalling her (perhaps not-so-kosher) childhood visits to the summer event in Palmyra, NY, which is free to the public and kicks off this weekend, lasting through July 16.

“We really looked forward to the pageant,” she writes in her latest essay, “which was basically a grand excuse to load the car with blankets and a picnic dinner and hang out under the stars at Hill Cumorah, so way past our bedtimes that we’d sleep like corpses into next Tuesday, which was probably the high point of our parents’ lives. We may have been the only Jews there, who knows. But nobody checked your religion at the gate, and nobody tried to convert you. It was just plain summer night fun.”

Which is not to say Mary Beth exactly bought the Mormon message behind the Hollywood-grade production.

“Fortunately you don’t have to be a Mormon to enjoy the show,” she writes, “but you’d have to be a moron to swallow the whole story, which should be taken with a big dose of salt potatoes. History probably had no greater shyster/charlatan than Joseph Smith, who makes P.T. Barnum, J. Edgar Hoover, and George W. Bush look like paragons of sincerity.” [Read more here.]

Also, don’t miss “Stop, Look, Listen,” Matthew Moran’s eloquent essay about his struggle with faith as an evangelical Christian and educator. Moran has questioned the God of his upbringing and has reached a few conclusions. He writes:

“One thing that I think I do know about God: He must be very patient because He let’s us say so much crap about Him. It is time—it has been time—to make another in-the-flesh appearance, call a press conference, and correct all the errors. Only this doesn’t seem to be on God’s priority list. I can only assume that all the nonsense that has been uttered in His name does not threaten God very much. He seems to loom above the fray, not stooping to explain himself. Instead the original statement remains—the mostly undocumented 33-year life, and a strange, thick book split into 66 parts. It might be a little ineffable—but say this for God—He hasn’t waffled.” [Read more here.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 1, 2005

Hip Christian Virgins

While visiting a friend studying at Union Theological Seminary many years ago, I learned how uneasy the topic of masturbation makes the phone counselors at “The 700 Club.” My friend and I were sitting in his apartment drinking beer and watching Pat Robertson, when the toll-free number appeared on the screen. Without saying a word, my friend picked up the phone and dialed.

With a straight face and a sudden Southern accent, he said: “Yes, I’d like some advice on a spiritual struggle I’m having.” He spoke generally about “the lust in my heart,” but quickly dove into specifics about how he couldn’t resist masturbating 10 or 15 times a day. He wanted to know what Jesus thought about this. The middle-aged female saint on the other end of the phone, I learned later, kept trying to steer the conversation to Scripture, but my friend would cut her off, saying things like, “But I don’t think Jesus could ever forgive me for the time I—” and off he’d go about another steamy session of self-love.

“Trust in the Lord, pray about it, and God bless,” the woman said quickly, and hung up, after my friend informed her that he was beginning to feel aroused as they spoke.

He’d put the poor woman in a bind: She wanted to help this demented lost soul, but the nature of his spiritual ailment made her extremely uncomfortable. Hell, it was making me a little uneasy, and I knew it was a joke. My friend promptly redialed the number, reached a different counselor, and had a similar conversation. The next six or seven calls all ended pretty much the same way—with a quick “God bless” and a dial tone. No one at “The 700 Club” could stand the heat.

But that was back in the ’80s. After reading “The Young & the Sexless,” Jeff Sharlet’s terrific Rolling Stone article about the growing chastity movement—“the Christian soldiers who are fighting the fire down below”—I wondered if today’s “700 Club” counselors aren’t eager to discuss the ins (or sins) and outs of masturbation.

You see, conservative Christianity is changing. “What if the true face of the Christian right in America is not that of Dr. James Dobson or Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson,” Sharlet asks, but is instead “that of a twenty-four-year old religious-studies graduate student at New York University?” Who, by the way, never has sex but yaks about it all the time.

Sharlet profiles several such twentysomething conservative Christians. Three are roommates who live in the hip Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. They sport soul patches, say the F word, and brag about the women they don’t sleep with. They’re dedicated virgins who will talk a blue streak about the premarital don’ts—oral, anal, hand jobs, basically anything beyond kissing—as well as their struggles with desire, their close calls. They also talk about the promise of the mind-blowing sex that awaits them in marriage.

They wear “masturbands” on their wrists. The rule is, you can wear the band as long as you don’t masturbate. But if you jerk off, you have to take it off, and all your friends will know you've slipped and won’t want to shake your hand. There’s no embarrassment, however, in going out in public sans masturband. They believe sexuality is a public matter, and they rely on their friends to help them stay pure—through talk.

“Not having sex means talking about it constantly,” Sharlet writes. “[At a fast-growing church where most of the congregation is young and single,] the topic of sex and why to wait for it comes up in nearly every sermon, under titles such as ‘Desperate Sex Lives,’ ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘What a Girl Wants.’”

“I can get aroused looking at a stoplight,” a Christian virgin named Robin Power tells Sharlet, who notes, “his giant eyes leaving mine and following a woman down Broadway. They snap back to me.” Power continues: “Anything can be inappropriate. If I look at some woman and undress her with my eyes, that’s just as bad as going down on her.”

If Power gets too hot talking on the phone to his girlfriend, he confesses to his Christian brothers.

More than just a trend, chastity is “a new organizing principle of the Christian right,” Sharlet says. For example, Abstinence Clearinghouse is an organization that unites abstinence activists with big names in the GOP, like Clearinghouse “friends” Karl Rove, Rick Santorum, Sam Brownback, and other government officials from within the CDC to the departments of Health and Human Services and of Education. They schmooze at conferences, “purity balls,” and abstinence teas.

The best part? The Bush administration is backing the abstinence movement with $167 million in public funds. Imagine how many masturbands that could buy!

I don’t want spoil Sharlet's article, and hardly could; there’s much, much more to it (get Rolling Stone’s current issue). But I must share one more line: “The movement recommends memorizing the locations of sexy billboards so you can avoid them and switching to Fox News when sexy commercials air.”

And if the sight of Bill O’Reilly doesn’t extinguish the fire in your britches, you could always try calling “The 700 Club.”

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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