5/28/2008 5:02:29 PM
Aaron Weiss doesn’t fit the stereotype of a Christian rocker. The charismatic frontman of the band mewithoutYou, Weiss is an environmentalist, a Freegan (a person who eats food that others throw away), and an outspoken critic of the Christian right and the Iraq war. In this excerpt from the new book Rapture Ready!, author Daniel Radosh talks to Weiss about politics, pop music, and religion. To hear an interview with Radosh, and to listen to other examples of good Christian pop music, click here.
Image by Informant, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/28/2008 10:50:12 AM
The Family, also known as the Fellowship, is a shadowy fundamentalist Christian organization that holds unknown influence in the halls of American power, according to writer and religion expert Jeff Sharlet. His new book, The Family delves into the organization, exposing members and their ideology.
The organization practices a form of “Biblical capitalism,” discussed by Sharlet in an interview on Bloggingheads.tv with Will Wilkinson, a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. In a perversion of both religion and capitalism, members of the Family use the organization to manipulate power for their personal gain. At the same time, members talk about sacrificing themselves to God, turning over all responsibility for their actions to Christianity as a “self-interest proxy.” Sharlet insists that many members are sincere in their beliefs, yet Wilkinson questions how people can be “sincerely self-deluded for self-aggrandizing purposes.”
5/28/2008 9:11:45 AM
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, right? Much of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition begins with that phrase. Writing for Parabola, Rabbi David Cooper suggests the creation story may not be so simple. Instead of the phrase, “[i]n the beginning, God created…” Cooper suggests a grammatically correct translation of the original material could be: “In the beginning, [it] created God, heaven, and earth.”
This alternate translation, favored in Jewish Kabbalah teachings, drastically changes the role of God in creation. Instead of God as the creator of everything, there is a different, unnamed force connecting and transcending all things, including God.
5/27/2008 1:20:40 PM
The Church of Scientology is an easy target for skepticism and derision. Some like to belittle its founding story, allegedly about an alien named Xenu and hydrogen bombs in volcanoes. Others tell an alternate story about writer and founder L. Ron Hubbard deciding to make up a religion and telling another sci-fi writer, “that’s where the money is.” To me, the eeriest story about Scientology is how it aggressively attacks its critics.
Gerry Armstrong is considered the “Salman Rushdie of Scientology,” profiled in the spring issue of Maisonneuve (article not available online), an “unemployed, penniless man living on a disability pension in the middle of nowhere in British Columbia.” Armstrong was once a member of Hubbard’s inner circle, and he compiled biographic material that contradicted Hubbard’s claims of being, among other things, a nuclear scientist, a civil engineer, and a wounded war veteran. As a result of Armstrong’s vigorous attempts to expose Hubbard, “the Church of Scientology [has] spent nearly three decades trying to discredit and silence [him]…. For Scientologists, it’s like Armstrong has spent time with Jesus or Mohammed or Moses. The only problem is, Armstrong does not worship Hubbard.” In the article, Armstrong claims to have been repeatedly harassed, physically assaulted, and threatened with assassination.
Far from being a turn-the-other-cheek kind of religion, Maisonneuve reports that Scientology condones attacking Church detractors, per Hubbard’s instructions. An internal Scientology tape quoted in the article shows Tom Cruise summarizing how the Church deals with its critics: “confront, shatter, suppression.”
Image by Jason Mouratides, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/27/2008 12:54:04 PM
Five women theologians talk about their spiritual foremothers in the latest issue of Boston College Magazine. Each selection highlights a woman in the Christian or Jewish tradition who, despite the historical or religious obstacles, expressed her spiritual insights through public speaking, teaching, or writing.
Theology professor Lisa Sowle Cahill is the only one to invoke Mary Magdalene. “Magdalene was an apostle for the same reasons and in the same way that St. Paul was,” Cahill says. “Neither was one of the original twelve, but both saw the risen Jesus and were sent by him to announce the gospel.” She uses Magdalene’s role as an apostle to raise a question about contemporary Catholic hierarchy: “What possibilities might that leave us with, in regard to the status of women in the Church today?”
5/22/2008 4:08:31 PM
Christian pop music isn’t just for evangelicals anymore. In this episode of the UtneCast, Daniel Radosh, a secular Jew from New York City and author of the book Rapture Ready!, talks about why everyone should listen to Christian music. To hear the interview, complete with samples of good Christian pop songs, click on the play button below.
And to read an excerpt from Rapture Ready! visit www.utne.com/Rapture.
Inverview with Daniel Radosh on Christian Pop Music: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download
5/19/2008 10:15:22 AM
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Giving humans dominion over the all creatures of the earth may not have been God’s best decision. The current state of the ecosystem would seem to indicate that we haven’t done a great job with it. The view that earth is there for humans to use and abuse is all too common according to Tony Woodleif writing for World on the Web, “especially if our theology tells us that God will soon whisk us away to a better place.”
A shift in that theology is already underway. Spirituality and a respect for the earth would seem like a natural fit, and plenty of ink has been spilled about the growing connection between religion and environmentalism.
That connection is being strained, however, by a mistrust on both sides. Religion may instill a sense of superiority over the natural world, but environmentalists are threatening to alienate spirituality with an “unbridled materialism,” Ross Robertson writes for What Is Enlightenment. All the new cool, new eco-friendly gadgets and technology are integrating environmentalism with progress and the economy, but many in the movement are over-emphasizing materialism to the determent of spirituality.
What is needed, according to Chris Dodge in the latest issue of Utne Reader, is a “new, healthy land ethic,” inspired by the conservationist Aldo Leopold. Dodge never mentions an overt spiritual bend in his piece, opting instead for 13 concrete suggestions on how people can reconnect with the earth. Some are as simple as “sleep on it,” encouraging people to camp outside every once in a while.
Rather than a sense of dominion, thinkers like Leopold encouraged “an obligation to care for land and that goes beyond seeing it as private property,” Dr. Cheryl J. Fish writes for Busted Halo. Since everyone has the ability sleep outside sometimes, the land ethic alienates neither the eco-technophiles nor the more spiritual members of the environmental movement. Instead, it instills a sense of connection to the earth, which in some ways, is what environmentalism is all about.
5/14/2008 6:02:45 PM
Leading an interfaith meeting of teenagers, Dilara Hafiz asked her own son to read aloud a list of others’ first impressions of his faith tradition, Islam:
“Violent, weird clothes, brain-washed,” his voice is subdued as he slowly goes through the impressions. “Tourist? Hey Mom, look, they think Muslims are tourists—that's pretty neat!” I walk over and read the note for myself—turns out he misread the word “tourist."
Read more at altmuslim.com.
5/14/2008 5:47:12 PM
The Israel Defense Forces conscript both women and men. Last fall marked the first time the Israeli Air Force appointed a woman as deputy squadron commander.
For Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, this doesn't represent progress. As Ynetnews reports, the influential Zionist leader has ruled that it is against Torah laws for women to enlist in the IDF. “We need you to function as a pure and clean woman,” he admonished in a published open letter, “not to undermine your mental foundation.”
5/14/2008 4:48:12 PM
Pope John Paul II coined the term“culture of life,” which refers to Catholic social teaching on the dignity of human life. The teachings are responsible for the hard-to-pin-down politics of orthodox Catholics, with their opposition to abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and war. Later, George W. Bush borrowed the phrase on the campaign stump—a brilliant move that channeled John Paul for Catholic listeners, while evangelicals heard simply “opposition to abortion rights.”
Writing on the Religion Dispatches blog, Tom Davis makes a provocative observation: The dignity of life, however defined, is a higher priority for many Christians than it is in their sacred texts. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament actually put greater emphasis on the idea of “loving your neighbor as yourself, what Davis calls a “culture of justice,” rather than the “culture of life.” He offers a reading of the Hebrew Bible story of Tamar and Judah, from which he concludes that using the dignity of life to defend injustice toward women is “a long way from the compassion of scripture.”
Judah and Tamar, school of Rembrandt.
5/14/2008 2:30:49 PM
Spring is officially here, and it’s time to adjust your meals accordingly, Phyllis Segura writes for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. Taking the changing seasons into consideration while cooking can be a meditative practice—one that can instill a sense of wellbeing and connection to the body and the earth. For this spring, Segura gives a recipe for a green pea potage, specifically designed for the time of year. She also gives a number of meditative steps that people can take as they cook the meal. I haven’t tried it yet, but it certainly sounds good.
Image by Alpha, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/14/2008 1:15:35 PM
For Israel’s 60th birthday, Rachel Barenblat penned an eloquent birthday card on the God’s Politics blog, expressing the conflicted feelings that many Jews feel towards the Jewish state. “To your detractors, I want to defend you fiercely,” Barenblat writes, “to your defenders, I want to point out every way in which you fail to live up to my hopes and dreams.” Barenblat, who blogs at the Velveteen Rabbi, writes about Israel like a distant family member in who feelings of love and disagreement mix into a confusing mess.
5/14/2008 11:26:16 AM
More than half of the human body is made up of water. Many religions have rituals involving water, including hand washing and bathing. The main character in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha had an epiphany when staring at a river. Water is also a substance so common place that it’s easy to take for granted. Writing for Catalyst, Wayne Dyer runs through some benefits of seeing the parallels between the properties of water and human existence. He writes, “It is natural to trust in the eternal flow, be true to your inner inclinations, and stick to your word. It is natural to treat everyone as an equal. All of these lessons can be derived by observing how water, which sustains all life, behaves.”
5/7/2008 3:11:55 PM
For thousands of years, members of the Zoroastrian faith of South Asia have relied on vultures to help in their burial rites. Known as a “sky burial,” the custom was described by Herodotus 2,500 years ago. Today, Meera Subramanian reports for Science and Spirit, the ancient culture and customs are being threatened as the population of South Asian vultures faces extinction. The birds have proven incapable of ingesting diclofenac, a drug that was used to treat an estimated 5 million animals annually, and some scientist believe that extinction is inevitable. The government has banned the drug in livestock, imposing a gradual phaseout, but many scientists believe the efforts are ineffective. Since the religion bans both cremation and burial, the Zoroastrian community is already facing a crisis of how to care for their dead.
Image by Brandobras, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/7/2008 10:52:02 AM
When faced with problems, I tend to sleep in. My finger is drawn to the snooze button on my alarm clock, and sometimes that urge will not be denied. When stress and consciousness wake up together, I often let my mind rock back and forth between the sounds of morning radio and the warm blanket of sleep. I tell myself it’s a way to ease into the day, but it’s really just a way to stall it for another nine, 18, 27 minutes.
Others avoid their problems in different ways. Writing for the art and faith magazine Ruminate (article not available online), Christine Jeske writes about her addiction to the shower as a way to delay the inevitable stresses of the day. It’s not an addiction to hard drugs or booze, but it’s an addiction nonetheless. Jeske writes about the “Happy-Place” where her brain floats after 30 minutes of bathing—a half hour without her job, her husband, her children, her problems. She understands her responsibility to her children, to the environment, and eventually tries to take control of her day and her shower time. “Today I have the strength to get out,” she writes. “That’s where mercy starts for me.”
Image by Mayr, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/6/2008 4:20:07 PM
When everything was taken away from Job, he cried out to God. It wasn’t a curse against God, but more of a complaint. His lamentation is a form of prayer that is not employed enough, according to Richard Rohr writing for Tikkun. It’s “[a] prayer form for people longing for peace and justice in church and country,” Rohr writes, “but without any need to blame, accuse, or give answers.” Religious leaders have shied away from the lament, possibly due to the inherent negativity, but it can often be more honest than constant thanksgiving.
Image by Cat Louise, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/6/2008 2:16:54 PM
Some right-wing commentators have expressed significant fears over the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca being a hotbed of anti-Americanism. Undeniably, there are many people on the Hajj who don’t support the United States, but a new study published in the Social Science Research Network shows that the Hajj actually promotes “tolerance and understanding across peoples,” Ray Fishman writes for Slate. Participants in the Hajj are more likely to believe that Muslims—both Sunnis and Shiites—are able to live together peacefully and more likely to have a positive view of women after their pilgrimage. And although the anti-American sentiments in the test group remained unchanged, according to Fishman, “the Hajj may be helpful in curbing the spread of extremism in the Islamic world.”
, licensed under
5/5/2008 10:41:43 AM
The progressive Christian movement isn’t simply the lefty counterpart to the higher-profile Christian right. So what exactly is it?
A pastor I know wears a T-shirt identifying him as a “proud member of the Christian left.” I asked where he bought it. “It’s hard to find a shirt like this,” he replied. “I made it myself.”
There were no such shirts for sale April 11-13 at the downtown Minneapolis Hyatt, but the place was crawling with liberal Christians. Five hundred people attended a conference on faith and politics, hosted by the Plymouth Center for Progressive Christian Faith, a project of Minneapolis’ Plymouth Congregational Church. The weekend’s three keynotes and several smaller sessions focused on the growing progressive alternative to the Christian right.
The vast majority of conference-goers were mainline Protestants, members of the historic denominations that now comprise the moderate-to-liberal sector of the U.S. church. It’s a distinct group from evangelical Protestants, politically progressive or otherwise: Among other things, mainline Protestants read scripture more critically and are less likely to define their beliefs in opposition to other faiths or to the wider culture.
In other words, these Christians are relatively liberal in their theology as well as in their politics. Words such as “liberal” and “left,” however, were in short supply—one of several ambiguities the weekend highlighted.
The Rev. Anne S. Howard directs the Beatitudes Society, which works with seminarians. In her session, Howard underscored the need to eschew political partisanship—a point echoed in the keynote by Jim Wallis, president of the social-activism organization Sojourners. (Full disclosure: I interned at Sojourners magazine.)
Afterwards, Howard explained to me that the reason to reject the left-right framework is that it’s done little to advance the “social-justice agenda.” Of course, this is the language of the left. But the point isn’t just to dial down the rhetoric to better achieve lefty goals. Howard emphasized theological motivations, “loving our neighbors as ourselves and finding a way to express that in the body politic. That’s different from lining up on either side of the aisle.”
The Rev. Grant Abbott, director of the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches, agreed. He stressed to me the spiritual foundations of being “an advocate without becoming a crusader,” of focusing on “healing, not winning.” Others I talked to shared this commitment to something deeper and more relational than the neat trick of winning a political battle by denying its existence.
Some, however, betrayed an ambivalence about giving up on left vs. right. At Howard’s session, seminarian Gage Church spoke in fairly partisan terms, arguing that “progressive Christians, or whatever we were called before”—I inferred a nostalgia for that dirtiest of words, liberal—“need the network, numbers, and strength of community to match the right. If we go out and speak prophetically, are we going to be all alone? Will we be slapped down, like Jeremiah Wright?”
That’s an interesting reference in a room full of white folks. Yet in one sense, these are Wright’s people. One reason the public has struggled to understand the Chicago Congregationalist is that, unlike most pastors, he exists simultaneously in two distinct branches of Christianity—the historic black church and the Protestant mainline. The latter group is largely white, and at the conference I saw no more than 10 people of color, five of them scheduled speakers. People under age 40 were scarce as well.
But there was some diversity of thought present. At the weekend’s start, Plymouth Church pastor James Gertmenian summed up the conference as having “one cause: that the poor be given justice.” Several sessions focused on economic topics, and some participants I talked to worried that gender and sexuality issues—covered, but less extensively—might be lower priorities for the movement’s leadership. (Plymouth Church and Gertmenian themselves are outspoken pro-LGBT advocates.)
Still, there seemed to be broad agreement on overall goals. As mainline progressives, most also shared a disinclination to believe that Christians have special access to religious truth, as evidenced in the ways they talked about their faith and about working with others outside it. Many moved easily between specifically Christian points of reference and broader ones, using terms such as “Christians,” “people of faith,” and “spiritual people” interchangeably.
The conference also featured several non-Christian speakers, including Rabbi Or Rose of Hebrew College. “As a Jew,” Rose noted, “I can’t accept that Jesus is the incarnate God.”
“Some of us Christians don’t believe that, either,” a woman responded, to murmurs of agreement. It was a telling moment, as many Christians see this as the singularly defining element of the faith.
A Christianity this pluralistic is unlikely to alienate its allies. But is there anything distinct about it? The Christian right’s unique focus on personal piety and morality, narrowly defined, reshaped conservatism. But progressive Christians are broadly inclusive and care about the same political issues as other progressives. Their action alerts often read like MoveOn’s, but with scripture. Why should anyone care?
“They should care,” offered Anne Howard, “because we [progressives] need all the players we can get.” She added that Christian and secular progressives share goals but not necessarily motives: “A biblical basis is a different starting place than, say, the egalitarian principles of democracy.”
Responding by e-mail to the same question, the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources, underlined methodology: “Unlike organizing movements that sometimes emphasize more confrontational models, we encourage folks to emphasize listening and relationship-building... to focus on both the ends and the means.”
Voelkel, who led a session on LGBT inclusion in the church, also observed that “cultural transformation is deeper than public policy.... Because homophobia, heterosexism, and gender-phobia are so religiously rooted and sanctioned, working within religious institutions is critical.”
All this suggests that this strain of Christian political engagement is less a discrete interest group than one strategic front of progressivism broadly. Certainly, its motives and methods are unusual in the ways Howard and Voelkel described. But even these process-oriented concerns aren’t necessarily unique to people of faith, and they didn’t claim that they were.
In his keynote, Rabbi Michael Lerner—head of Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives—argued that the distinct contribution of “spiritual progressives” is an understanding that the fundamental human crisis is a spiritual one, that of self-centered individualism. Lerner acknowledged that this sounds a bit like Christian-right talk. But he suggested that, while there’s plenty wrong with “the religious right’s analysis of the problem, the spiritual crisis is not something they made up.”
Maybe not. But do you have to be religious to address it? The people at this conference wouldn’t say so. What they would say is that the main responsibility of those who are Christians is not piety or ritual—it’s action on behalf of others.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a favorite text among progressive Christians. A man is beaten and left for dead. Two religious leaders pass by before a Samaritan, a socioreligious outcast, stops to help. It’s the Samaritan’s actions, not his beliefs or identity, that matter.
I asked conference attendee Larry Peterson why he came. “To learn how I can live my faith,” he replied. Each session offered addressed this in some way: everything from an overall theological framework for social-justice activism, to tips for making a church building more welcoming to transgendered people, to an opportunity to intervene on behalf of six hotel cleaning staff who’d just been fired under suspicious circumstances.
Outside the Hyatt, I stepped into a coffee shop to escape the unseasonable cold. A woman stood inside, holding a garbage bag of belongings and greeting customers with cryptic outbursts. A barista brought her a muffin. “Stay as long as you want,” he said, “but I’d appreciate it if you tried not to yell at people.” Perhaps his hospitality was motivated by faith—I didn’t think to ask. Neither did she; she just stood there, quietly keeping warm.
The Good Samaritan by Vincent van Gogh.
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!