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Blog Archive/December 2005

December 31, 2005

Who Says There Isn’t a Jewish Santa Claus?

As a young Jewish girl, SoMA’s Mary Beth Crain envied her Christian friends every December. Their living rooms all featured tall, elaborately decorated pine trees awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus with his big bag of brightly wrapped gifts. Once, when Mary Beth complained about this injustice, her grandma Annie set her straight.  

"Listen,” her grandmother said. “The goys might have Santa Claus. But we have Santa Cohen!"

It took some convincing on grandma Annie’s part, but eventually Mary Beth happily believed. As she recalls in her latest essay:

I was sold. We had a Santa too! The next day, in school, I couldn't wait to tell the whole class the news. I squirmed in my seat, waving my hand wildly until my teacher, Miss McGrath, a grey-haired spinsterish nightmare known for her terrifying temper, fixed her ugly wire-rimmed glasses on me.

"Mary Beth, do you have something to say?" she inquired sternly, in a voice that sounded like somebody stepping on ground glass.

I stood up proudly. "We have Santa Cohen!" I, the self-appointed representative of the entire Jewish religion (no, we are not a race) announced.

All my little classmates turned to stare at me.

"What?" barked Miss McGrath.

"The Christians have Santa Claus. But we have Santa Cohen! He wears a Santa suit and a red hat with a matzo ball on the top and he has a big fat belly just like Mr. Berman. He rides in a sleigh led by Ruben the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and he comes down the chimney with all our Chanukah presents when we're asleep, and has schnapps and kichel with the grownups."

I sat down triumphantly. The entire class was still gaping at me, open-mouthed. In the Christmas vs. Chanukah Wars, I had just scored a victory worthy of Judah Macabee…

Read Mary Beth’s essay, “Santa Cohen Is Comin’ to Town,” here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 28, 2005

Jesus Christ, Deployed to Iraq?

“Remote Iraqi Village Disappointed in Omen,” read a recent headline, sounding as much like an Onion parody as the article that followed it did. But no. This was a UPI wire story that ran yesterday. The piece began:  

Two years after welcoming U.S. soldiers as an ancient religious prophesy come true, members of a remote Iraqi tribe say they feel let down.

"We believed that Jesus Christ was coming with a force from overseas to save us," said the village leader, Khalil Sadoon Haji Jundu, whose people, the Yazidis, an obscure sect of sun worshipers, live in the western Sinjar Mountains near Syria.

"We thought you guys were our saviors," Jundu told Lt. Col. Gregory Reilly, The Washington Post said. "We still believe it. But we actually thought we'd be helped a little more," he said. "We're kind of disappointed."

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 28, 2005

The Vatican May Kill Limbo

There are some who hold out hope that Pope Benedict XVI will significantly change certain backward church traditions. For example, theologian and SoMA contributor Uta Ranke-Heinemann, who was a fellow student and friend of the pope at the University of Munich in the ‘50s, is crossing her fingers that he’ll allow priests to marry. The rest of us are less optimistic. After all, this is the same church that announced earlier this year that Vatican university would offer a new two-month course on exorcism, teaching Roman Catholic priests how to cast out demons.

So when we read that the Vatican has now assembled an International Theological Commission to consider dropping the concept of limbo—the place outside heaven where unbaptized babies and other innocents go when they die—we think that’s more the kind of change we can expect of the church under Benedict: occasionally tossing out a widely disliked and troubling medieval notion, but not touching some of its more deeply entrenched, yet equally outmoded, traditions.

Today’s New York Times reports that the 30 theologians and advisers to Pope Benedict who make up the commission on limbo met this month to discuss what happens to babies who die without baptism. The commission’s hope is to kill limbo, a theological idea many find harsh, especially for people in poor places like Africa and Asia where the church is booming and infant mortality is high. The secretary general of the commission said it could take them at least a year to finish their final report and meet again in Rome.

Although limbo isn’t dogma and doesn’t have much of a scriptural basis, it’s long been a major church tradition, the Times notes. Pope Pius X affirmed the concept in 1905, when he pronounced, “Children who die without baptism go into limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either.” Vatican II began to change this idea in the 1960s, asserting “that everyone—baptized Christians or not—could be eligible for salvation through the mystery of Christ’s redemptive power,” the Times says.

It’s unusual for the Catholic Church to question itself, and the basis on which the commission is rethinking limbo is that the Lord works in mysterious ways that we humans, in our ignorance, don’t always understand.

James J. O’Donnell, a classics professor at Georgetown and author of “Augustine: A New Biography,” told the Times that by questioning limbo the church is basically saying, “Let’s progress back to ignorance rather than remain mired in [an] assertion that brings with it perhaps more complication and more trouble than it is worth.”

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 23, 2005

The Perfect Gift for that Special Christian with a Persecution Complex

“...John Gibson’s ponderously-titled clip-job, ‘The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse than You Think,’ is one more example of this shoddy 99-cent store literature: a dubious hash of rumor, sketchy news reports, sentimental memoir, and the fake populism and persecution complexes that color most conservative missives in today’s culture wars.”

Read “Defending Christmas,” Kathryn Joyce’s review of Gibson’s book, here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 23, 2005

The Real War on Christmas

There is a war on Christmas, says Rabbi Michael Lerner, but it has nothing to do with a “liberal plot to ban the sacred Christian holiday,” to quote the subtitle of John Gibson’s new book. And, Lerner writes, it’s not “about Jewish parents wanting to protect their children from being forced to sing Christmas carols in public school, or secularists sending Seasons Greeting cards. It derives, instead, from the power of the capitalist marketplace, operating through television, movies and marketers, to drum into everyone's mind the notion that the only way to be a decent human being at this time of year is to buy and buy more,” Lerner writes. “Thus the altruistic instinct to give, which could take the form of giving of our time, our skills, and our loving energies to people we care about, gets transformed and subverted into a competitive frenzy of consumption.”

“Not surprisingly,” Lerner continues, “the Christian Right is unwilling to challenge the capitalist marketplace—because their uncritical support for corporate power is precisely what they had to offer the Right to become part of the conservative coalition. Their loyalty to conservative capitalist economics trumps for them their commitment to serving God. But for those of us who want to prevent a new surge of anti-Semitism and assaults on the first amendment, our most effective path is to acknowledge what is legitimate in the Christians' concern—and lead it into a powerful spiritual critique of the ethos of selfishness and materialism fostered by our economic arrangements. It's time for our liberal and progressive Christian leaders and neighbors to stand up on behalf of Jews and on behalf of their own highest spiritual vision—and challenge the real Christmas thieves!”

Read Michael Lerner’s essay, “Christmas Wars … Again?” here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 13, 2005

Saddam's Immortal Soul

The Saddam proceedings have gone from trial to travesty so quickly that it makes one question the entire notion of justice. Is the world’s biggest butcher since Stalin really entitled to a fair trial when we already know the awful things he’s done? Do we really have to sit around proving his guilt and putting his victims, not him, on trial? Are we really compelled to let him rant and rave and wave the Koran in everyone’s face? Is it at all possible that, with the fancy dancing of the justice system and one or two legal loopholes, this monster of monsters might actually be allowed to go free?

And if he is declared guilty, the next big topic of conversation will then be, what is justice? How do you adequately discipline someone who willfully, not to mention gleefully, disposed of enough victims to populate a whole other Iraq? Can we kill him a few million times? Once is surely not enough. An eye for an eye seems, on the surface, simple divine justice. But this is vengeful humanity talking. God, I suspect, is far more subtle in his methods...

Read "Saddam Meets God," Mary Beth Crain's humorous take on the former Iraqi leader in eternity, here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 11, 2005

President Bush’s (Will Ferrell’s) Special Announcement on Global Warming

“…When you think back to biblical times, when Adam and Eve talked to that snake 6,000 years ago, when the world was created, it was hot back then, too. Why do you think Adam and Eve were naked?... See what I’m saying? I mean, I’m not making this stuff up. You didn’t hear Adam and Eve running around talking about emissions standards or hybrid cars. In fact, Adam and Eve drove an Excursion.

“Let’s talk about something that really matters. Like keeping steroids out of T-ball...”

Watch the televised address from Bush's Crawford ranch here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 8, 2005

Holy Mischief

The folks at Geez have now released their first print issue, and it looks damn good, with its striking four-color cover and image-rich, 90-plus pages printed on post-consumer recycled paper.

A religion magazine based in Winnipeg, Canada, Geez describes itself as “your story of experiments with truth. Because it’s time we untangle the narrative of faith from the fundamentalists, pious self-helpers and religio-profiteers. And let’s do it with holy mischief rather than ideological firepower.”

Geez is a magazine for religious wanderers, subversives, and outcasts; it’s a “bustling spot,” as they put it, “for the over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even the un-churchable.” Indeed, Geez is a bold magazine. For one thing, they welcome poetry submissions.

Each issue has a theme that’s presented like a puzzle, a series of clues in word and image that form a narrative flow. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say the first issue deals with conversion, and “altar calls” versus “alter calls.” Contributors include Bill McKibben, Reverend Billy (from the Church of Stop Shopping), Shane Claiborne, J.B. MacKinnon, Frances Moore Lappe, and Jeffrey Perkins. There’s an interview with musician and mega-churchgoer Michelle Shocked, and a 1944 piece by Dorothy Day on mauve bathroom ensembles and grapefruit.

I also contributed an essay. It’s about my experience with the altar call as a boy, and you can read it reprinted here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 4, 2005

A Winter in the Mountains

Reflecting on a summit experience in the Swiss Alps, an early 20th century mountaineer named Emile Javelle described the sensation of an "emptiness, terrifying in its vastness," that opened out around him. One "is struck," he said, "as in no other place, by this thought that the universe is terrible in its mystery, that no religion, no philosophy, can give us a true idea of what it is; that the further the vision of our eye extends, the greater does that mystery become.”

That experience of mountain vastness, especially for a newcomer to it as I was back then, was surely enough to get a guy talking to himself, maybe even answering his own questions. But the refuge and finitude of that one-room cabin, with the stove throwing out a little light and heat, reassured me that I could handle a temporary overload of fear and wonder—that quality of experience we used to call awe, before everything became "awesome" and the word lost its edge.

The mountain night at the end of the road was both compelling and unsettling, as were the worst of the winter storms that came down off the Continental Divide…

Read Peter Anderson’s essay, “First Church of the Higher Elevations,” here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 2, 2005

Bush: A Beleaguered Disciple?

After 9/11 and leading up to war in Iraq, there was a change in George Bush’s God-talk. He went from referring to the Almighty as a source of personal transformation and strength, to describing God’s sovereign plan for the nation and himself. He was full of certainty and righteousness. "We can be confident in the ways of Providence,” Bush declared at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2003, weeks before he invaded Iraq. “Behind all of life and all of history," he said, "there's a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God."

The idea was that God, who’s deeply involved in the human struggle between good and evil, was on our side as we waged a “crusade” against “evildoers.”

Indeed, Bush, who according to Time magazine spoke privately of being chosen by God to lead America post-9/11, was confident about our success in Iraq. If Pat Robertson is to be believed, Bush assured the televangelist before the invasion that America would suffer no casualties in Iraq.

So what hell happened? Did God lose his Pentagon briefing, leaving Dubya twisting in the wind?

Clearly, the Big Guy Upstairs failed big time with this war. And now Bush, in God’s rude absence, finally had to come up with his own “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” which he announced this week.  That—2 ½ years after the war in Iraq began and more than four years after the White House started planning it.  

Fred Kaplan at put Bush’s war in perspective this way: “From December 1941 to August 1945, the U.S. government mobilized an entire nation; manufactured a mighty arsenal; played a huge role in defeating the armies, air forces, and navies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan; and emerged from battle poised to shape the destiny of half the globe. By comparison, from September 2001 to December 2005, the U.S. government has advanced to the point of describing a path to victory in a country the size of California.”

Of course, some of us have always questioned George Bush’s pipeline to the divine, suspecting that it doesn’t go to God, but rather disappears somewhere on a detour up Bush’s colon. Which is another way of saying we don’t believe that Bush’s myopic, greedy, imperialistic God exists.

SoMA contributor Becky Garrison has her doubts about George Bush’s faith; namely, whether the president has committed himself to the true message of the Gospel. Garrison suggests that if Bush really were a follower of Jesus, he’d do many things differently—stuff that might please his heavenly father but would more than likely piss off his earthly father. So much so that Poppy Bush just might have to write his son a stern letter of rebuke. A letter something like this.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 2, 2005

Book Note

Here’s a holiday gift suggestion for the book lover(s) in your life: Welcome to the Fallen Paradise, by SoMA friend and contributor Dayne Sherman. Released in paperback this fall, Welcome to the Fallen Paradise was honored by the Times-Picayune as one of their four “Best Debuts of 2004,” and listed by Booklist as one of their “Best Crime Novel Debuts of the Year.”

Says author Tim Gautreaux: “Dayne Sherman’s exciting fiction takes us down a dusty Southern road to a place where both honor and the ties of blood are more important than breath itself, and where even the religion is violent.”

But don’t take their word for it. Take the word of Pulitzer-Prize winning scribe Rick Bragg, who says: “Dayne Sherman writes like I wish I could if I was still young enough to change.”

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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