1/30/2008 5:22:36 PM
There are many prayers to help mourn the death of a family member. In Judaism, the Mourner’s Kaddish gives people the opportunity to publicly express their grief over death. When coping with mental illness, the appropriate prayer is much harder to find. "Judaism does not give us a way of understanding and speaking about mental illness," Ayelet Amittay writes for Tikkun. Amittay’s father has not died physically, but she still feels that she has lost him to mental illness. Instead of a prayer for the dead, or a prayer for health that she knows will never come, Amittay struggles with her “need for a prayer that would redeem other kinds of losses—living losses.”
1/30/2008 12:51:12 PM
In his annual State of the Union address on Monday, President Bush touted his administration’s commitment to faith-based charities. “Faith-based groups are bringing hope to pockets of despair,” he said, “with newfound support from the federal government.”
The president’s commitment to those groups may not be as strong as he’d like Americans to believe. In an article for the Washington Independent, Matt Mahurin writes that many faith-based leaders think that the president has over-promised and under-delivered on his commitments. David Kuo, a former director of the office of faith-based initiatives, says that the president’s efforts have been “pure politics” with disappointing results.
1/30/2008 8:40:17 AM
The Hebrew Bible includes a story in which a great leader is criticized for demanding physical evidence of God’s presence, suggesting a weakness of faith. A New Testament writer describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Over the years, the idea that incontrovertible proof isn’t really the point of faith has had some trouble sinking in. Nowhere is this more evident than in the persistent efforts by some believers to prove the accuracy of detailed scriptural accounts via archeological or geological evidence. Even the attempts that aren’t outright hoaxes are often pretty unpersuasive—requiring great leaps of faith.
A recent photo project by the Glue Society, a New York- and Sydney-based creative collective, brings this phenomenon to mind. The piece features satellite images combined with digital graphics, resulting in what appears to be photographic evidence of the garden of Eden, the great flood, and the parting of the Red Sea (seen above). The project takes a playful approach to imagery loaded with religious significance, raising good questions about representation, documentary evidence, and belief.
The images are available at the Glue Society’s website, by clicking “The Work,” “New,” and then “Miami Art Fair.”
1/29/2008 11:53:54 AM
The spirituality website Beliefnet is running a series of images, uploaded by their readers, of what Jesus looks like. The images run the gamut, from the bloodied Christ on the cross to the more ethereal Jesus in the heavens. There’s even one of a beefy Jesus actually breaking the cross.
After viewing the images, I couldn’t help thinking of a piece by William C. White from Law & Politics, published in the Jan.-Feb. issue of Utne Reader. As a young child, White tried to impress his kindergarten teacher by drawing a picture of Jesus on the cross. Here’s my favorite part:
The drawing nearly gives me goose bumps. But something is missing. Then it occurs to me. Having observed my father doing his calisthenics, with his arms raised above his head, I realize the vital piece of verisimilitude that is needed. I search the stadium-like rows of crayons and locate the brown. I begin to apply hair to the underarms of our Lord.
1/28/2008 3:37:21 PM
For more than 80 years, the nondenominational Jewish organization Hillel has been cultivating Jewish community and identity on college campuses. Recently, Hillel released an extensive guide aimed at better serving students who are members of both the Jewish and the LGBTQ communities.
The 164-page Hillel LGBTQ Resource Guide includes students’ personal stories, a glossary of inclusive language, liturgical resources, and lists of queer identified and actively allied Hillel staff. The Forward reports that the guide grew from a group of LGBTQ Hillel staff members who have met at annual Hillel conferences since 1991, first secretly and later more openly.
(Thanks, RAC Blog.)
1/28/2008 2:39:57 PM
For those who find the authority of Jim Cramer’s Mad Money insufficiently Biblical, the Jan.-Feb. issue of Mother Jones provides a financial narrative that hinges more squarely on the Good Book. Mariah Blake reports on apocalypse-minded evangelicals defrauded by Ness Energy International, a company claiming access to untapped Israeli oil fields. Faithful investors believed the tall tales of unknown reserves because of Biblical hints that the discovery of Israeli oil signals Armageddon. The prophesized oil was never found, and many investors were swindled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Still, some continue to display a strange optimism. James Cojanis, an early investor who lost over $100,000 and may invest $100,000 more, emphasizes his sunny outlook:
“I’m glad the stock price is in the tank,” he says. “When they hit oil and the stock goes sky-high, that means Armageddon is around the corner.”
1/22/2008 10:55:28 AM
People make mistakes in the pursuit of happiness, but eventually we can all get there. “We are meant to be happy,” says psychologist . In his new book, Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert tries to help people understand how to find a joyful life. He advises people to “distrust your brain, and trust your eyes a little bit more.” Don’t myopically pursue selfish and materialistic goals that you think will make you feel good. Rather, take a more scientific view, testing what makes you happy, and making natural mistakes on your way there.
This quest for bliss, however, may be entirely misguided, Eric G. Wilson writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Americans’ over-pursuit of happiness, and rejection of sadness, amounts to “a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life.” Melancholic feelings give inspiration to music, art, and literature, yet Americans try to destroy sadness through positive psychology and prescription drugs. Pharmaceutical therapies can help seriously depressed people, Wilson acknowledges, but too many people try to numb their pain instead of embracing it. This is a horrible and dangerous mistake.
1/22/2008 8:37:04 AM
Martin Luther is said to have made waves early in his career by performing a Christian burial for a young boy who committed suicide. Five hundred years later, some churches, including many Protestant ones—Luther’s theological heirs—do not follow his example of valuing compassion for suicide victims and their loved ones over dogma.
Kate Braestrup encountered this sad reality in her work as a chaplain for game wardens, an experience she recounts in an excerpt from her memoir, Here If You Need Me, published in the UU World, a publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. In the piece, game wardens tend to the body of a suicide victim found in the woods as Braestrup speaks to Dan, the deceased woman’s brother. Dan tells her how his sister, Betsy, visited a church the previous Sunday, where the pastor described suicide as a singularly unforgivable sin. Dan expresses his dismay that the church would likely be unwilling to host Betsy’s funeral or bury her in the churchyard. Here’s how Braestrup responds:
“Um . . .” I said. And very carefully, after several deep and calming breaths: “I don’t know that pastor personally. I don’t know what he knows and doesn’t know about severe clinical depression. Which is what your sister died of.” I placed my authoritative hand on the console between our bucket seats as if it were a pulpit. “Dan,” I said. “Look around.” Obediently he peered through the rain-washed windshield, up the road toward the blurry outlines of half a dozen green trucks.
In lieu of righteous anger, I heard my voice take on the sure and certain cadences of preaching: “The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day, walking through the woods in the freezing rain trying to find your sister. They would have walked all day tomorrow, walked in the cold rain the rest of the week, searching for Betsy, so they could bring her home to you. And if there is one thing I am sure of—one thing I am very, very sure of, Dan—it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.”
Later, Braestrup gives Dan a list of area pastors to contact, not Unitarian Universalists like herself but “fairly conservative pastors who knew the earth was round and knew something too of the etiology and course of acute mental illness.” Plenty such people exist, and there’s much that others—the mourning, the confused and misinformed, the rigid and judgmental—can learn from their compassion and grace.
1/21/2008 5:21:06 PM
The gender-specific words “Father,” “King,” and “Lord” are often used in hymn and liturgy when referring to a Christian God. Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, interviewed in U.S. Catholic magazine, is trying to change that. Johnson objects to more than the perception of God as a male (read: worldly and finite) being. She also takes issue with the paternalistic view of religion that the words instill. According to Johnson, the gendered language reinforces outdated perceptions of God that are straining the vital connection between people and spirituality.
This strain on people's spirituality, according to Johnson, runs through two common yet conflicting views of Christianity. Many Christians believe in God either as as a guiding parental force, or as a mysterious, supreme being. And both views are incomplete. Treating God as a parent or “Father,” with a give-and-take relationship based on maxims and obligations, can give people an accessible view of faith and duty. The problem is, according to Johnson, it reduces God to a mere idol. On the other hand, Johnson believes that worshipping a “theistic” God or “Lord,” whose involvement in our lives is minimal, is equally damaging.
A balanced view is of a God incarnate, who is present in every aspect of the world without being of it. That balance is difficult to find, Johnson concedes, but it’s necessary for a fulfilling religious existence.
1/21/2008 2:14:00 PM
Last spring, at a service of the Reform Congregation Beth Jacob in Carbondale, Illinois, the Jewish Shema prayer was given a new treatment: It was sung in black gospel style. Jennifer Siegel reports in the Forward that the unique version of the prayer was offered by congregation’s newest members: 55 African American converts to Judaism from nearby Cairo, a predominantly poor, rural, and African American town of fewer than 4,000 people.
The Cairo group’s conversion process began when Phillip Matthews, a local resident who grew up Baptist, developed an interest in Judaism. Matthews formed Torah study group and eventually contacted St. Louis Rabbi Lynn Goldstein, who agreed to accompany the members on their journey toward conversion. Matthews told Siegel that he and his fellow converts “didn’t just want to read what was in the book; we wanted to live out what we were reading.”
Matthews and his fellow converts haven’t abandoned all areas of evangelical emphasis, however. In fact, they’re now actively seeking more members. “Our job as a newly converted Jew is to show the people that there is a better way of life,” Matthews said. “Right now, we’re just taking a simple message to our people: If you’re seeking, what you’re seeking for you’ll find, and if you’re looking for truth, I believe in my heart that Judaism is a better option.”
The belief that one’s primary spiritual responsibility is converting others is common in evangelical circles but hardly a central tenet of Judaism. In my experience, the subject of conversion is a sensitive one in Christian-Jewish relations. Rabbi Goldstein, however, argues that the evangelical undertones to Matthews’ rhetoric are a natural part of the conversion process. Goldstein said, “Doesn’t everyone who comes to Judaism have their own understanding of what it is?”
1/21/2008 12:06:00 PM
Members of China’s growing middle class are turning to Buddhism in droves, Dexter Roberts reports in BusinessWeek. Buddhism has deep roots in China, after arriving from India in the first century. Since the Communist party took power, they've fought to suppress the contemplative religion. Those efforts seem to have failed, considering Buddhism's comeback in recent years, fueled by a faddish yuppie following. Now that the Chinese are finding themselves suddenly wealthy, they face a paradox of money well-known to American suburban Smashing Pumpkins fans: being rich doesn’t make you happy. Many hope that studying Buddhism will.
Photo by Michael Mooney, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/21/2008 10:59:12 AM
Getting in touch with your spiritual side just got tastier with the release of Geez magazine’s winter Taste Issue. The fiercely independent, Utne Independent Press Award-nominated, Canadian Christian magazine showcases its mischievous yet insightful style, covering social, political, and religious ideas, this time through a food-smattered lens. In the issue, Dan Wiens explores common perceptions of farming and the distance people have created between food and its source. Elsewhere, Barbara Kingsolver discusses growing up in the farming sect of the American "caste system" in an excerpt from her latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. The articles track food from the North American table, through the myriad channels of distribution, and back to production. They also examine the global tremors created by each of these steps. Mmm…gastro politics.
1/17/2008 10:59:01 AM
The subgroup of evangelicals who preoccupy themselves with the apocalypse are widely criticized, both from inside the larger Christian community and out. This is due not only to their penchant for seriously lousy fiction (read: Left Behind) and film (witness: A Thief in the Night). Critics see real danger in end-times obsession, with its emphasis on a vengeful God, its cynical and paternalistic brand of Zionism, and its potential for apathy toward environmental preservation.
Of course, people and their beliefs are inevitably more complicated than they seem—as Brenda Peterson learned from her neighbor George while volunteering to protect vulnerable baby seals. Writing for Orion, Peterson describes a four-hour “seal sitting” shift where she and her neighbor keep an eye on a seal pup, left alone on the beach while its mother hunts for fish. George tries to engage Peterson in conversation about the second coming of Christ, an effort that she persistently rebuffs. Despite his otherworldly theology, Peterson quietly considers the fact that her end-times obsessed neighbor genuinely cares for nature—and for her:
With a pang I realized that while some End-Timers may not have the stamina and constancy for compassion, for “suffering with,” many…feel real concern for the infidel loved ones they will abandon. And watching George’s expectant face, I reminded myself that his spiritual stewardship, like that of some other evangelicals, did include other species and the natural world. Not long before, George had built a floating platform for an injured pup so he could find sanctuary offshore while saltwater and sun healed his gash from a boat propeller.
Later, it dawns on Peterson just how much the two of them have in common:
“Anytime now,” George murmured, “the mother will return. That’s my favorite part.”
And then I understood something about my neighbor and about myself. All of us know what it feels like to wait for someone to call, to finally come home, to recognize our love, to reunite with those of us who long for something more, something greater than ourselves. Maybe it will come in the night, in that twinkling of an eye. Maybe it will save us from a lonely beach.
1/10/2008 1:06:37 PM
Seven U.S. cities have signed on to a program that allows fugitives to surrender themselves into churches, rather than law enforcement agencies, Lisa Parro reports for Christianity Today. Run by the U.S. Marshals Service, Fugitive Safe Surrender is designed to “take that desperateness out of the equation” according to project developer Pete Elliott. Elliot says that 85 percent of fugitives who turn themselves into the churches claim they would not have surrendered were it not the program.
In spite of its success, critics believe that Fugitive Safe Surrender violates the separation of church and state and therefore is unconstitutional. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, for example, opposes the program, citing the lack of a secular alternative site. The organization also sees a danger in churches functioning as tools of the state.
Supporters of the program, however, believe the conflict between church and state is negligible, especially compared to its concrete benefits. Charles Haynes, a scholar from the First Amendment Center told Parro that there’s no conflict, provided that churches don’t use the program to proselytize.
1/10/2008 11:08:51 AM
From Ann Landers to Dr. Phil, the media is burbling with advice, and not all of it good. For people searching for more enlightened guidance, the Cleveland Zen center Cloudwater Zendo offers Ask A Monk. Send in a question and a “qualified Buddhist teacher” will send you an answer in a couple days. The advice is better than what you’d get from most friends or newspapers. A few examples of previous questions and answers are posted on the site to get the karmic questions flowing.
1/10/2008 10:25:00 AM
I grew up in an evangelical church where worship was informal and sacraments were almost nonexistent. Visiting more traditional churches, I was taken aback by the reverence people had for baptismal fonts full of water. Some even called it “holy water.” How could something as commonplace as water be holy?
A better question should have been: How could anything as essential to life as water not be holy? Whether you’re being baptized in it, drinking it, or washing your clothes in it, water is more than just a necessity. In a short piece for the Colorado-based literary magazine Ruminate, Jessie van Eerden describes her connection with water, and the droughts she experienced as a child. Despite her mother’s efforts to conserve, the family’s well sometimes ran dry, requiring them to get water from the church:
[Mom] drove us in the truck out to Beatty Church and we filled milk jugs at the hand pump, the same place we got water for a foot-washing or a baptism at Beatty. I remember the ways we used the jugged water that first night, in particulars, for we had to be sparing. In a shallow sink, we washed the eggs just laid by the hens, scrubbing loose the clods of shit and sawdust, and I had my mouth washed out with water and soap when I called it shit on the eggs and not manure, and my sister heated water on the stove to clean our faces with before bed. The water made itself holy because of those particulars
For van Eerden, holiness isn’t the same thing as purity or religiosity. It’s earthier, messier, and based in human realities of need. Unlike turning on a tap, the holiness van Eerden describes is neither easy nor immediate:
And when we hauled the pump’s water again from the truck to the basement, and the gallon jugs hung heavily in both my hands, I learned that water could be as heavy as stones, and that you had to wait, sometimes for days, for the world to be renewed.
1/9/2008 5:04:14 PM
On October 30, Soy Seng, head monk for the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Wisconsin, left his small Khmer community for Cambodia to raise funds for a new school, never suspecting that American Airlines would make a stink about his trip. As Bill Lueders reports in the Madison, Wisconsin, alt-weekly, Isthmus, before Seng’s connection could leave for Los Angeles, an American Airlines employee asked him to return to the terminal. The reason? Seng says he was told that a passenger complained about his unpleasant odor.
The airline put up Seng for the night in a hotel, gave him $15 to cover two meals, and allowed him to fly out the next day. By then, Seng had missed his connection to Cambodia and had to spend the night in the Los Angeles airport. Leuder writes that American Airlines did not respond to repeated requests for information.
1/9/2008 12:01:43 PM
“I’m drawn to bad news like a moth to a summer porch light” confesses editor Kristyn Komarnicki in the November/December issue of the evangelical Christian magazine Prism. Komarnicki’s confession seems like dreary reading, but her unflinching interest in bad news is tempered by a faith “in God’s power to… transform us through every drop and sliver of anguish that life can hand out.”
The news that fills Prism’s columns isn’t easy reading: mountains are being destroyed for coal mining, Americans are over-worked and still poor, and teens are getting into abusive relationships—at church. Behind the doom and gloom, however, the magazine’s evangelical message points toward concrete solutions. No matter how audacious the challenge, evangelical Christians are willing to fight, buoyed by a faith that lives and struggles have meaning. You don’t need to be an evangelical, or even a Christian, to appreciate Prism’s strong message of action. Even staunch atheists may be able to find inspiration in the magazine’s motivating message .
1/9/2008 9:39:03 AM
After seven years of existence, the irreverent spirituality website Killing the Buddha has ceased to be. Founded by Harper’s Magazine contributing editor Jeff Sharlet, Peter Manseau, and Jeremy Brothers, the website won an Utne Independent Press Award in 2002 for Online Cultural Coverage. Described as a “religion magazine for people made anxious by churches,” Killing the Buddha published funny and highly personal essays including, “A Slut for Faith” “Gods and Guitars” and “Pushing Monks” (written about by Nick Rose for Utne.com in 2006 ). The website’s independent voices and perspectives, not attached to any religion or faith, undoubtedly will be missed.
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