Blog Archive/November 2004
November 29, 2004
Roll Over for the Religious Right?
“For the faithful, fighting back isn’t an option.” So read a headline in the Oregonian last week, and it sounded very Jesus-like, I thought. Good advice for kids who smack each other around the playground. But as I read on, I realized it was un-Jesus-like advice, urging liberal Christians to roll over for the Christian right.
The article, an interview with Christian author Donald Miller, began:
“If the gospel of Christ has been hijacked, abused and buried by moralists on the Christian right, Donald Miller has bittersweet counsel for those on the Christian left: To be faithful to your God, fighting back isn’t an option.”
Boy, I mused, if Martin Luther thought like that, we wouldn’t have Protestantism.
As Christmas approaches, you may start receiving a new kind of spam—unsolicited religious email. MessageLabs, an antispam company, says it has intercepted a large number of religious emails over the past month, and they expect the number to increase between now and Dec. 25. What’s worse, the emails are legal because they’re not commercial. The only thing they hawk is heaven.
“It’s on the rise for a number of reasons,” Matt Sergeant of MessageLabs told a London reporter for CNET News. “It is exempt from spam laws, and it’s legal according to most national laws, including Can-Spam. It’s not commercial, and that’s interesting in a way, because there is a cost, yet no financial return. But they may believe there is a spiritual return.”
The subject line of one religious email is “Only Believe,” and the text reads:
“Eternity is a really long time. If you or someone close to you has not accepted God please do so tody (sic).
“The following prayer can save you or someone that you love.
“Say, ‘Oh God, save my soul. I’m so sorry that I have sinned against you, but I have come home. I will serve you, Lord, the rest of my life. Deliver me from all my sinful habits. Set me free! I do believe Jesus died on Calvary for me, and I believe in His blood, that there is power in His blood to wash away all my sins, all my sins!’ Say, ‘Come into my heart, Jesus; come on in, Jesus. Come on in!’ If you meant it, He has come. If you meant it, Jesus is yours. Start reading your Bible, pray daily and believe that somebody's listening;
“His name is Jesus.”
Thanks to Steve Healey, head of the religion program at the University of Bridgeport, for sending me this item—after he read it and got saved.
November 23, 2004
Horrors of War
November 22, 2004
Put Away Your Checkbook. The Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich Has Been Sold!
As reported earlier here, bidding at eBay on a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich said to bear the face of the Virgin Mary was set to close this evening, and, indeed, the auction has ended.
The toasted sandwich with a missing corner sold for $28,000.
They’ll last longer than the sandwich--and probably taste better. And they’re only $7.50 a pop!
Mixed Moral Messages
This year’s presidential election was decided by religious conservatives energized by Bush’s “family values.” Evangelical leader Chuck Colson explained that Bush won because he “shares many of the values of middle America,” which wants more righteousness in the land. “We want an America that respects moral truth and moral values,” Colson wrote after the election, “and we reject the social chaos that results from postmodern relativism.”
But when middle America isn’t fighting for moral values and rejecting social chaos, it’s apparently home watching sex- and murder-drenched TV dramas. According to today’s New York Times, nightly television ratings contradict the moral message voters sent, suggesting that “the supposed cultural divide is more like a cultural mind meld.” The country’s most-watched program is “C.S.I.,” followed by “Desperate Housewives,” a new hit about morally challenged suburbanites.
In greater Atlanta, for example, “Desperate Housewives” is the top-rated show in counties that voted heavily for Bush. Even in the Salt Lake City market, where almost 73% of voters turned out for Bush, “Desperate Housewives” ranked fourth, behind two editions of “C.S.I.” and “E.R.”
Robert Thompson, a media professor at Syracuse University, put it in historical perspective. “When the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock left behind writing…[it clearly shows] what they believed in and what their values were,” he told the Times. “Then you look at the court records and you see all kinds of fornication, adultery and bestiality.”
So it’s no surprise that network executives don’t have plans to develop programs that will appeal to voters who claimed that moral values mattered in the election. “We say one thing and do another,” Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC entertainment, told the Times.
The Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Today’s the day, and the clock is ticking. At 5:22 p.m., PST, the bidding stops at eBay, and some lucky person will become the proud new owner of a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich said to bear the face of the Virgin Mary. When I last checked, the highest bid was at $15,200, which I thought was a little steep given that a corner of the bread is bitten off.
More than 1.6 million visitors have now flocked to see the holy object online.
The sandwich seller notes that the item has no mold despite its age—a miracle, she says. As further evidence of the sandwich’s power, the seller swears she’s won $70,000 at a casino thanks to the toasted mother of Christ.
“I would like all bidders to know that I do think this is the Virgin Mary Mother of God,” she writes. “I am not scamming anyone.”
I don’t know. I think the sandwich looks like Greta Garbo.
November 19, 2004
The George W. Bush Presidential Bookshelf?
Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock opened to the public yesterday, and all the fanfare got me wondering: Will George W. Bush establish a presidential library? It would make for a delightful irony—a man who prides himself on having all the intellectual curiosity of a Tic Tac creating a library to preserve his legacy.
The first question his planners would have to ask themselves is, “Should we actually put any books in it?” Of course, a few titles would be appropriate. A Bible, for sure. And Oswald Chambers’ devotional, “My Utmost for His Highest,” which Bush reads every morning. They could also include “My Pet Goat,” the book Bush was reading in the Sarasota classroom (below a sign that said, “Reading Makes a Country Great”) on the morning of Sept. 11. And perhaps some Tom Clancy, I’m guessing. But that’s about it, folks!
Another obstacle facing the Bush library would be, believe it or not, money. Clinton’s library cost $165 million. Even Bush’s closest friends would chuckle if they got a call at dinnertime and the voice on the phone said something like, “Hi, my name is Jill, and I’m raising money for the George W. Bush Presidential Library…”
Granted, presidents' libraries aren’t just about books. They’re museums, archives for millions of documents and photographs. They’re storage space for the thousands of knick-knacks that supporters and other world leaders give the president, obligating him to do something more with these gifts than what he’d really like to do—haul ’em off to the dump.
Still, presidential libraries do hold books. Imagine you’re visiting Bush’s future library, and you walk into his trophy head room. In addition to all the taxidermy—deer, antelope, elk, big horn sheep, Saddam Hussein, the Dixie Chicks—there’s a bookcase. What’s on it? Looks kind of funny empty, doesn’t it?
One solution would be to stock it with books that his team of wizards have read. After all, as many Bush supporters argued during the 2000 campaign, “Our man may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’ll surround himself with a lot of really smart people.” I’m sure Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have some used books they’d be willing to donate.
Another option would be to stock the library with books about George W. Bush. In which case, here's a brief list to get them started:
The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder, by Mark Crispin Miller
More George W. Bushisms, by Jacob Weisberg
Still More George W. Bushisms: Neither in French nor in English nor in Mexican, by Al Franken and Jacob Weisberg.
The Deluxe Edition Bushisms, by Molly Ivins and Jacob Weisberg
November 16, 2004
God's Math Textbook
On his wedding day, my youth pastor and his bride vowed not to consummate their relationship for three years—the length of Jesus’ ministry. Whenever the marital bed beckoned, he told my junior high group, the couple prayed and read the Bible together, and that always doused the flames of passion. Presumably they avoided Song of Solomon.
By keeping their hands off each other all those years, he said, they were able to focus their marriage totally on Jesus, and not themselves. The Lord told them to do this, and my pastor urged us 14-year-olds to do the same when we finally got hitched.
Now, my pastor may have got his kooky ideas about marriage directly from God, but he got his kooky ideas about God from Bob Jones University. The same fine instution that educated fundamentalist preacher Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic thrillers that have now sold some 42 million copies. In Glorious Appearing, the final installment published earlier this year, Jesus appears in the sky on a white horse and kicks off a slaughter of all the non-Christians that lasts for almost 80 pages of exploding heads and gushing entrails.
If you’re curious what they’re teaching down there in Greenville, S.C., check out the Readings section of the December issue of Harper’s magazine. “Original Sine” is an excerpt from "Precalculus for Christian Schools," a textbook published by Bob Jones University. The book aims to help students “conform their thinking to biblical precepts.” Here are samples:
“Carl Friedrich Gauss first proved the fundamental theorem of algebra. There are many fundamental theorems: of arithmetic, calculus, and so on. These are so ‘fundamental’ that many other theorems are derived from them. In the Bible, there are also fundamentals, without which Christianity would not exist—the deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, and the inspiration of the Bible, to name a few.”
“A line can be described either by its slope (a ratio) or by its inclination (an angle). These terms describe the deviation from the horizontal, but the word inclination also has a non-mathematical meaning. Without Christ, man is inclined to sin. The Word of God should shape our attitudes (inclinations).”
And finally, my favorite:
“If you are given the length of two sides and the angle measure opposite one of those sides, you can use the law of sines to solve the triangle. However, this does not always determine a unique triangle. As a result, it is called the ambiguous case. Ambiguous means open to multiple interpretations. Some people say that you can interpret the Bible in any way that you want. However, there is no ambiguity in the Bible.”
November 14, 2004
Bored Out of Our Minds
In their new book, Numbers, David Boyle and Anita Roddick offer a compilation of data that paints a numerical picture, if you will, of who we are and how we live. (Did you know that we spend approximately three years of our lives on the toilet? Or that 3.7 million Americans claim to have been abducted by aliens?) Among the book’s more startling numbers are these: In 1987, the average gallery visitor spent 10 seconds viewing each work. In 1999, visitors spent only 3 seconds in front of each painting.
Our attention spans are shrinking rapidly, as our need for more and more stimulation increases. As a result, we’re losing our abilities to concentrate, understand, and reflect, and we’re becoming more easily bored. Some psychiatrists say we're in the midst of a boredom epidemic.
In my latest essay, Ah, Boredom! I talk with experts about what boredom is and why we’re so desperate to escape it. One psychophysiologist, Augustin de la Pena, says that most of our behavior is driven by boredom and that even things we think we do for noble reasons—from helping others to invading another country—are actually motivated by restlessness.
I also explore how boredom, and only boredom, can teach us something fundamentally important about ourselves—if we can just learn to endure a little emptiness.
November 12, 2004
Religious Insight of the Week
“When my 18-month-old daughter is thirsty, she says, ‘bobble! bobble!’ meaning ‘bottle.’ But my husband thinks she sometimes means ‘Bible,’ and that it’s a sign God wants us to start reading to her from the Word.”—A comment overheard at Babies R Us in Milford, Conn.
November 11, 2004
A Priest-Ridden People
In Salon.com today, Sidney Blumenthal writes that the religious right has so much power and influence in the Republican Party that the GOP has become America’s first “quasi-clerical party.” Bush’s slim victories in key states and elsewhere, Blumenthal said, were the result of the direct involvement of churches mobilized by the White House and religious leaders representing “an unprecedented alliance of historically anti-Roman Catholic, nativist evangelical Protestants with the most reactionary elements of the Catholic hierarchy.”
Read Blumenthal’s article for a description and examples of ways that “preacher, priest, and politician” combined as never before to work for Bush’s 2004 reelection. I’d rather use this space to reprint Blumenthal’s lengthy quote from a famous speech by John F. Kennedy, every principle of which Bush has scorned:
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president—should he be Catholic—how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference…where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope or…any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.”
Blumenthal ends his piece with another quote, a warning by Thomas Jefferson: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
November 8, 2004
A Trappist monastery in Iowa recently ran an ad in The Christian Century. Now, there’s hardly anything unusual about a monastery ad in the Century, but this one has a twist. Under the headline, "Prayer Takes Many Forms," the copy reads: “Integrity is not just a word to us. We are the Trappist monks of New Melleray Abbey. Our philosophy calls for us to labor quietly with our hands in support of our life of prayer and simplicity. The result—expertly crafted caskets made from the finest woods out of our own forest.”
Welcome to Trappist Caskets, which brings “old-world joinery and classic designs to caskets at sensible prices.” The ad also assures readers that with a Trappist coffin comes the peace of mind of knowing that you’ll be turning to dust in “the genuine monk-made casket,” and not, presumably, in one of those fake monk-made jobs.
According to this month’s St. Anthony Messenger, the casket business at New Melleray is booming. The monks began making coffins in 2001 to pay the bills on the monastery’s 3,000-plus acre farm, and they sold 190 their first year out. Last year, sales topped 700, and this year they expect to sell more than 1,000 caskets. Prices range from $695 for a simple pine box to $1,795 for the premium black walnut model that Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles picked out for himself in a “pre-need” order.
There’s a spiritual as well as a financial aspect to the monk’s casket venture. Trappists regard death as sacred and beautiful, and they maintain a continuing awareness of death as a part of life not to be feared. “Keep death before one’s eyes daily,” reads one of the strictures of the Rule of Saint Benedict, by which the monks lead their lives. Building caskets is certainly one way to fulfill that mandate.
Interestingly, the monks themselves aren’t buried in caskets. They’re lowered into the ground on an uncovered wooden platform. “For Trappists, there is beauty in death because it is treated as a natural part of life,” the Trappist Caskets website explains. “That is why Trappists do not try to hide what happens to the body at death or interfere with the natural process of returning to the earth.”
November 5, 2004
So, What in God’s Name Happened on Tuesday?
In my last blog, I regretted that exit polls don’t tell us how God was personally involved in Bush’s win. But according to Jerry Falwell, in his latest “Falwell Confidential,” the results do tell us. The divine dynamic in the 2004 election apparently worked like this: Millions of evangelicals responded to the call of God to “vote Christian,” and God blessed them with a win. It’s all explained, Falwell says, in II Chronicles 7:14: “If my people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
“That verse,” Falwell writes, “is more powerful than any exit poll. And it will sustain us against any rising political tide that seeks to counter biblical morality, if we remain true to that verse’s unique guidelines.”
Though Falwell gives all the glory to God for the victory, he doesn’t give the Big Guy in the Sky all the credit for it. “After more than 25 years since I formed the Moral Majority and began mobilizing evangelicals to participate in the political process,” he writes, “I actually realized the fruit of my labors nationwide as Macel and I watched the election returns into the early hours of Wednesday. I could not hold back the tears of joy.”
On the other side of the aisle, historian Gary Wills, writing in a New York Times op-ed yesterday, views Bush’s win not as a victory not for God, but as a slam dunk for ignorance, and he gives a lot of the credit to Karl Rove. Bush’s political strategist, Wills writes, “understands what surveys have shown, that many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin’s theory of evolution.” In part, Rove appealed to religious conservatives by getting Bush to endorse a constitutional amendment he’d previously opposed—a ban on gay marriage. That flip-flop was one way Bush galvanized the Christian right to turn out and become the deciding factor.
The real loser on Tuesday, Wills says, was America’s Enlightenment heritage. “Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?” he writes. Farewell, critical intelligence! Adios, tolerance! Au revoir, regard for the secular sciences and respect for evidence! “Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more,” Wills writes, “when a poll taken just before elections showed that 75 percent of Mr. Bush’s supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11.”
Meanwhile, a friend in California sent me an email saying that this election “has made me a confirmed anti-theist. Not someplace I thought I was going, but it now seems like the only sane response to the world and its madness.”
This redrawn map of the United States, she said, expressed her feelings perfectly.
November 3, 2004
After George Bush's speech to Congress following the Sept. 11 attacks, Mike Gerson, Bush’s top speechwriter, told his boss, “Mr. President, when I saw you on television, I thought—God wanted you there.” Countless Bush supporters agree that God wants their man in the oval office, and many even feel that God put him there, creating a theological puzzle the rest of us can’t figure out.
Unfortunately, election exit poll results don’t tell us much about God’s personal role in Bush’s victory yesterday. But, as Steve Waldman and John Green report at Beliefnet, they do show us the role that God’s people played.
As in 2001, 42% of all votes were cast by weekly church-goers, who voted overwhelmingly for Bush. Voters who only attend services a few times a year or less, on the other hand, voted for Kerry by a similar margin. Nationally, Waldman and Green write, Catholics voted for Kerry over Bush 50 to 49%. But among Catholics who go to church every week, 53% voted for Bush, 45% for Kerry’s. In Ohio, they voted for Bush 62% to 38%.
In Colorado, 25% of voters were evangelical Christians, who went for Bush 85% to 14%. More interestingly, of the 15 states with the highest evangelical population, Waldman and Green write, all pulled the lever for Bush, giving him 121 electoral votes. “Bush’s strength among conservative Christians,” they write, “put huge swaths of the country simply out of reach for Kerry.”
Presumably, Bush is grateful to his believing brethren. But what does he make of the heathen electorate? Mrs. Betty Bowers, “America’s Best Christian,” has posted video footage of “our handsome Christian president’s righteous rebuke” to Americans who didn’t vote for him.
November 1, 2004
Welcome to SoMAreview.com!
Do you feel close to God? I mean, really tight with the Almighty? If you were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, do you know beyond a shadow of a doubt where you’d spend eternity? Do you view your job as a God-given opportunity to share your faith with co-workers?
If you answer yes to these questions, congratulations! Now move along. You’ve come to the wrong place. George W. Bush’s Bible study meets at the White House. (For now at least.)
SoMAreview.com is a blog and a magazine about religion for believers and nonbelievers who approach religion with critical thought rather than blind faith. It’s a site for those who believe that faith without doubt isn’t really faith, and that reverence unchecked by irreverence is suspect— and often insufferable. SoMA is for people who see born-again anti-intellectualism booming in America and can’t decide whether to throw up or weep with fear (damn flip-floppers).
The Society of Mutual Autopsy, from which we’ve taken our name, was a real organization back in 19th-century France. It was comprised of scientists and anthropologists who were determined to solve the mystery of the human soul. Actually, they were determined to prove that the soul doesn’t exist—that the human traits we think of as the soul have a biological, not a metaphysical, basis. Hoping to give freethought a leg up in the science v. religion war raging in Catholic France, they believed they could prove their case by dissecting one another’s brains after death. So they waited until a member keeled over, and then whipped out their scalpels, which makes you wonder just how fun the society’s annual picnic could have been.
After 30 years of picking each other’s brains, the society didn’t prove much of anything. But they did leave us an evocative metaphor—autopsy as a means of soul-searching. Not physical autopsy, of course, but spiritual and intellectual autopsy, examination in the sense of the original Greek word meaning, “to see with one’s own eyes.” For eons, prophets and theologians have understood that faith involves a process of self-examination, questioning and criticism. Similarly, today’s thinking person finds the unexamined faith, to paraphrase Socrates, not worth having.
SoMA will feature regular blog entries, articles, interviews, essays, and reviews, all dissections of one kind or another. Our hope is that you will find them illuminating, entertaining, and provocative, challenging misperceptions and offering the unexpected. We welcome queries and submissions, as well as publishers’ books and galleys.
We hope you enjoy SoMA and add us to your list of favorites. Come back soon. Future articles will include: a visit to Nietzsche’s house in Switzerland; an interview with science writer Carl Zimmer; a meditation on what being bored can teach us; an Episcopal priest’s dissection of the creeds; and the further adventures of religious nut, Deborah, as she sets off in search of the stigmata in Mary Beth Crain’s sequel to her hilarious essay, Beware the Scruples.
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