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Blog Archive/December 2007

December 26, 2007

David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons' "unChristian"

...Part of the problem with "unChristian" is the authors' penchant for equating "Christian" with "conservative evangelical." While they observe that only 9 percent of Americans are evangelical, no other position is recognized as legitimate. Kinnaman and Lyons worry that the church will respond to its disaffected youth by "hijacking Jesus" and "promoting a less offensive faith." They're concerned about balancing a "kindler, gentler" Christianity with one that remains staunchly true to their understanding of the "biblical worldview." That worldview is narrowly evangelical, fixated on things like the absolute accuracy of the Bible, the perfection of Jesus, and the existence of a personal Satan. Nothing in this definition speaks of God's love or how we treat one another.

Read Robert Cornwall's review of unChristian.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 24, 2007

Born in the Back of a Cab

Since it's almost Christmas, the celebration of the world's most humble and spectacular birth, I'd like to take this opportunity to reveal the story of my own rather amazing entrance into the world.

Jesus might have been born in a manger, of a virgin. That's certainly impressive. But I have a good story too. I was born in the taxi on the way to the hospital.

But wait! as those infomercials say. There's more! My twin brother was born just minutes after they got to the hospital and whizzed my mom into the delivery room. Kind of like, order now and we'll give you a second one, absolutely free! Shipping and handling included!

Read Mary Beth Crain's Taxicab Confession.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 19, 2007

Ebenezer Scrooge: How a Miser's Redemption Spells Hope for Us All

Long before Freud, Charles Dickens understood psychology and the effect of childhood trauma on the adult psyche. And he knew that, sadly, most of us will never undergo a full inside-out overhaul as Scrooge does. We tend to remain in denial about our faults and our pain, unwilling to face ourselves as we really are and do what it takes to change our bad behavior. So in "A Christmas Carol," Dickens created a great parable of hope.

Read Mary Beth Crain's From Humbug to Humble: "A Christmas Carol" Lives On.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 18, 2007

The Excesses of the Holidays Got You Down? Watch Charles Schulz's 1965 classic, "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Most people respond to the approach of Christmas with a happy blizzard of activity. They lick stamps and fix them to final flurries of Christmas cards. They bake. They bounce between the malls until their cars are caked white with salt.

Me--I gripe. I raise holy hell about 24/7 Christmas programming on the radio, or holiday sales unfurled before teenagers have time to vandalize my Halloween decorations. In December, folks like me become Scrooges in reverse. We jab "bah humbugs" at anyone who profanes our precious yuletide with a wintry mix of commercial excesses. We grumble to no one in particular about an imagined "war on Christmas."

But every year, I'm narrowly rescued from my scrooging by the most unlikely savior: a 22-minute, crudely animated TV special from the 1960s...

Read Greg Ruehlmann's Scrooge in Reverse.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 17, 2007

Interview: John Dominic Crossan on Christmas

In "The First Christmas," John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg argue that the nativity story is far richer and more challenging than familiar sentimentalized versions allow. Not simply tidings of comfort and joy, the gospel stories of Jesus' birth are also edgy visions of another way of life, confronting the status quo and demanding personal and political transformation.

Recently, I sat down with Crossan to discuss "the reason for the season," as the old saying goes. Our conversation ranged from virgin births and Roman censuses to how you became a god in the ancient world, and why it was a bad idea to mess with shepherds. We also discussed Hollywood portrayals of Jesus--from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" to "The Nativity Story" and "Basic Instinct" director Paul Verhoeven's curious idea for a Christ flick (hint: think Jesus as Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive").

Read the interview, "The First Christmas" here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 12, 2007

Tired of Playground Cussing, Nun Puts Her %$&*@#! Foot Down

Sister Kathy Avery has no tolerance for cussing. So when she learned there was swearing on the playground at St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic School, in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., where she is the school's new principal, she decided to make it clear, in no uncertain terms, which words were unacceptable.

After mass one day, she detained the school's fifth- through eighth-graders and recited a comprehensive list of words and phrases she was banning, "including a few that would make many grown-ups blush," The Detroit Free-Press reported.

Parents were shocked and offended that Sister Kathy would draw such a line by deliberately crossing it. But SoMA applauds Sister Kathy's approach, and trusts she'll be just as direct when announcing school policies against drugs, weapons, violence, pornography, Internet misuse...

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 11, 2007

No, Really. I Actually Did Buy the Jan. Vanity Fair Last Week

What's up with Vanity Fair's distribution? Though I live in the boonies on the Connecticut shoreline, I picked up the January issue at my local general store last Thursday, and I've got friends in New York and L.A. who still, even today, insist they can't find it on the newsstand yet. One amigo suggested I'm on the take with someone at Conde Nast who messengered me an advance copy so I could aid in a V.F. p.r. strike regarding Nancy Jo Sales' Jeremy Blake/Theresa Duncan--for or against whom, I can't figure out. Plus, a religion blog?

"Dude," I said, "Theresa Duncan at the height of her conspiracy-theory mania would have so grooved to that idea."

Speaking of which, if you're interested in details about Duncan's meltdow that you won't find in VF--like her Slate plagiarism incident, her rantings about Francis Ford Coppola, etc.--revisit Kate Coe's  L.A. Weekly piece. (Also, check out Kate's post on Beck's odd denial to VF that he was ever involved in Duncan's "Alice in Wonderland" project.)

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 10, 2007

At New Life, a Second Victim Is Dead; Shooter ID'ed

A second shooting victim at New Life Church is confirmed dead, making the number of fatalities there three, including the shooter. KUSA-TV in Denver reports that the gunman was 24-year-old Matthew Murray.

It's confirmed: Murray was the shooter at both the missionary center in Arvada, outside Denver, and New Life Church in Colorado Springs, where the center has a satellite office. The shootings left four people dead, in addition to the gunman, and five wounded.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 9, 2007

Four Shot at Church Founded by Ted Haggard

A gunman opened fire today at New Life Church, in Colorado Springs, striking four people, KOAA-TV reports. An area hospital said one victim was in critical condition, one in fair condition, and another in good condition.

"At a news conference just before three o'clock a police spokesman said a suspect 'was down, and that other suspects were being sought," KOAA said. According to MSNBC, the shooting began in the parking lot at 1 PM, as the 12 o'clock service let out, and the gunman then entered the church foyer and began firing.

New Life was founded by Ted Haggard, who was fired last year after a male prostitute accused him of snorting meth and paying for sex on a monthly basis over a three-year period.

Earlier in the day there was a shooting--two dead; two wounded--at a Christian dorm in a Denver suburb 70 miles away, but it's unknown if the incidents are related.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 9, 2007

New Life Church Shooting Update

Five people were shot, and two are dead, at New Life Church, including the gunman, KOAA reports. See MSNBC's latest here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 7, 2007

What's the Story Behind Nancy Jo Sales' VF Article?

When I was making calls yesterday about Nancy Jo Sales' Vanity Fair piece on Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, some confusion arose about who wrote it. "Are you sure it was a female reporter?" said a friend who knows a priest tied into the small world of lower-Manhattan Episcopalianism and was interviewed about Father Frank Morales by a male VF contributor. Morales, of course, was at the center of Blake and Duncan's lives in their final months (see yesterday's post).

And today I got a call from someone who was interviewed at length for the piece and was stunned to read at SoMA that Nancy Jo Sales had the byline. Asking not to be named, this person said that, last they knew, VF contributor John Connolly was writing the article, and that it was probably now in final edits, not already on the newsstand.  

Hmmm. Sure sounds like a tale of publishing intrigue here. It's certainly odd that Sales, who is so connected to the story as Morales' ex-wife, wound up with the assignment.

PS: Doesn't Morales' timeline in VF sound fishy? He says the night Theresa died, he was in the rectory garden around 7 when Jeremy returned from work and invited him up for a drink. "Then, about ten minutes later, he sees police cars outside the rectory entrance on East 11th Street. He hurried up to the apartment, where [Jeremy] was in the living room, 'sobbing, pounding the walls with his fist, screaming'... The police were with Duncan's body in the bedroom." That's an awful lot to happen in ten minutes: Jeremy leaves Morales, goes up to his apartment, discovers his girlfriend dead, and calls the police, who arrive and are in the middle of their investigation when Morales bounds in.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 7, 2007

This Chanukah, Know Your Latke Etiquette

What's the big deal about latkes? They're just potato pancakes, right? You don't have to be Jewish, and it doesn't have to be Chanukah, to indulge in them. You can get them anywhere, any day of the week. Like at IHOP. They have great potato pancakes. Big, fat, crisp ones, served just like we Jews serve latkes on Chanukah, with your choice of applesauce or sour cream.

Ah, but there is a difference between a Chanukah latke and a plain old everyday potato pancake. A Chanukah latke is not just food. It's a tradition, a symbol, a statement of identity. As such, it is a volatile substance, igniting philosophical wars and leading to fierce ideological combat. There are as many different ways to make a latke as there are Jews to tell you how. What to put on your latke is also a matter of intense debate. There are definite latke do's and don'ts. So, as Chanukah moves into full swing, I figured you all might appreciate a brief lesson in latke etiquette.

Read Mary Beth Crain's You Call That a Latke?

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 6, 2007

Last Rites for the Dead? A Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan Update

It's been five months since the art world's "most glamorous couple" committed suicide, but their seemingly fading story, which I blogged about several times this summer, has lost none of its hold on me. Every few weeks I've Googled the names Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan to see if there are any developments. And except for a September article in the British Independent that didn't offer anything new, there's been little to report. Until now.

In the January issue of Vanity Fair, Nancy Jo Sales has a huge, in-depth feature that paints the most complete picture yet of how such a gifted, beautiful young couple could come to such a puzzling, tragic end. Questions still abound: On the day Theresa died, which restaurant did she and Jeremy go to for lunch at 3 PM, less than four hours before she took her life? And what happened there? What did they talk about? Considering that apparently no one, including Jeremy, had the slightest idea she might end it all, the story will always remain a bit of a mystery.

Several things in Sales' piece stand out. First, there's Jeremy's wonderful description of Theresa, courtesy of Raymond Chandler: She was "a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window." Then there's Father Frank Morales who, devout SoMA readers will recall, is the colorful East Village Episcopal priest at the center of the couple's lives their final year. (They moved into the St. Mark's Church rectory in January of 2007, and immediately befriended Morales.) Other writers have speculated that Morales, who's big on conspiracy theories, is a nutcase. Sales notes that she was married to Morales for two years, separating from him just two months before he met the couple last January! So she knows whereof she speaks when, later in the article, she calls her ex-hubby "the radical left's Fox Mulder, a man who makes mere 'conspiracy theorists' look like Sunday drivers."

There's more. The night Theresa committed suicide Jeremy returned home from work around 7 PM. He passed Morales in the church garden and invited him up for a drink. When Morales arrived at the apartment 10 minutes later, Theresa was dead, the police were there, and Jeremy was sobbing and pounding the walls. Some detectives arrived and began questioning Jeremy in Theresa's office. Her body was in the bedroom, where Jeremy discovered her, and a cop was stationed at the door. Jeremy never returned to the room that night.

OK, we knew all that. But here's what Sales says happened next: "Morales asked to be let into the bedroom to perform last rites over Duncan's body. She was now on the floor, where the E.M.S. workers had been examining her. He knelt down and spoke the prayers."

Huh? Last rites--for a dead person? This struck me as odd, so I called Father Gawain de Leeuw, an Episcopal priest and SoMA contributor.

"That is very odd," he said. "And theologically, it's ridiculous. You perform last rites for the sick, not the dead. You pray for the sick, you anoint them. You take their confession. Those, essentially, are the last rites. But you don't pray with the dead, or anoint them, or take their confession, or do anything for them. They're in the hands of God, and the priest's next step, as far as the body goes, is the burial service. Until then, his or her job is to pastor to the living--to gather the family and pray with them, preparing them to release the body to the hospital, or whoever."

"Whatever he did, you wouldn't call it 'last rites,'" agreed Puck Purnell, another Episcopal priest and SoMA contributor. "You can say a commendation prayer for a person at the time of death, but last rites are for the living."

I told Gawain that I wondered if Morales wanted to be with Theresa's body for his own reasons, because he was in shock and trying to process the blow.

"Now that makes sense," Gawain said. "Maybe he was pastoring himself!"

Then again, maybe we're missing something here, or overanalyzing a minor detail. Clearly, not everyone, including Episcopal priests, agrees on what constitutes "last rites" and when they're administered. What do you think?

Follow-up note: I searched the Internet, and it seems Morales has performed last rites for the dead before.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 4, 2007

Rupert Murdoch Buys Beliefnet

It's official: Beliefnet, with its three million unique visitors each month and 11 million daily newsletter subscribers, has been acquired by Fox Entertainment Group, which is part of News Corp. From FEG's press release this morning:

Fox Entertainment Group (FEG) today announced its acquisition of Beliefnet, a Web site that enables consumers to better understand their faith and build diverse spiritual communities by providing content and tools for a broad range of religions and spiritual approaches.  Beliefnet, the largest online faith and spirituality destination, will become part of Fox Digital Media, spearheaded by President Dan Fawcett, which takes on an expanded role to support FEG's vast cable, TV and film brands online, and drive FEG's continued growth in the online market.  

The acquisition provides Beliefnet with vast resources to further build and enhance its already popular brand.  It  also offers an online platform for FEG to distribute content from its extensive media library and for News Corp. to expand its faith-based businesses, including HarperCollins' Zondervan and HarperOne brands, and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's faith-based programming initiative.  

Additionally, Beliefnet will provide unique, world-renowned spiritual programming to the company's various businesses. Beliefnet will also partner closely with Fox Interactive Media, leveraging the group's world-class technology and "FIM Serve" targeted advertising delivery platform.  

Now let me tell you how I first learned about Beliefnet's impending sale a couple weeks ago. I've been involved with the spirituality site going back to its pre-launch days in 1999, but I haven't spoken with, or even emailed, Steve Waldman, the site's CEO, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder, since I ran into him in their offices last April.

But then two weeks ago, I emailed him an invite to become a Facebook friend, and 15 minutes later the phone rang. It was Steve. "Wow," I thought, "This guy's really into Facebook." Needless to say, that's not why he was calling, and he still hasn't replied to my Facebook request yet. 

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 4, 2007

When Doctors Doubled as Preachers

...Far and away the most pernicious M.D. of the late 19th- and early 20th-century was Dr. J.H. Kellogg, whose 1892 tome, "Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life," undoubtedly did far more harm to humanity than the vice it railed against.

John Harvey Kellogg was both a witch hunter and a certified sadist. A self-styled expert at smoking out a masturbator, he lists some telltale signs, beginning with "bashfulness"...

Read Mary Beth Crain's Kitchen "Kinks" and Evil Urges: A Domestic History, Part II.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

December 3, 2007

How to Witness to Gays

Remember Ray Comfort? He's the evangelical preacher with the Ned Flanders mustache who teamed up with Kirk Cameron of "Growing Pains" to demonstrate the existence of God by sticking a banana in his mouth.

Well, Chuck, SoMA's tech guy, found a new clip by Comfort and Cameron posted at Here, the two buddy crusaders visit San Francisco and West Hollywood to show believers "How to Witness to Someone Who's Gay." It's part of their "The Way of the Master" TV program, the aim of which is to "seek and save the lost the way Jesus did."

The key to converting homosexuals, they say, is not to condescend or "treat them like lepers." Rather, it's to "reach them through gentleness." That's right--there's apparently an inoffensive way to tell gay people they're going to hell and that, if only they repent, God will make them attracted to women! But as an instructional tool intended to increase sensitivity and understanding, the video is curiously full of footage of gay parades and decadent parties--guys wearing outrageous costumes and tons of make up, fondling each other half-naked in cages, and making out madly in public. It'd be like the gay community trying to cultivate an awareness of the straight world by showing clips of frat parties and "Girls Gone Wild."

My favorite line is when Comfort explains: "We're not homophobic. We're actually 'sin-o-phobic'--fearful of where homosexuals are going to spend eternity!"

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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