Nun Better

I wrote the following piece for the blog BLT Is Not Just a Sandwich, and I’ve already gotten myself into trouble over it. I’ll reprint the article, and then the dialogue that followed.

Yesterday, the Vatican reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)—with over 1,500 members, they’re the largest and probably the most influential group of Catholic nuns in the country—because they have challenged the church’s teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” (This last was mainly over their support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010—that is, the big health care overhaul that everyone has been arguing about for years—because they supported it and a bunch of bishops opposed it for political and religious reasons.)

The group was formed in 1956 at the Vatican’s request, but of course this was during the period of significant church reform that led to the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Another group of Catholic nuns—Network, a social justice lobby—was also reprimanded by the Vatican for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage. I know a number of these nuns, and worked with them on several issues in the past; I would agree with the Vatican’s assessment that they are indeed passionate about poverty and economic injustice, though while they may not have made public statements about abortion and gay marriage, in private many of them are less than happy about the Vatican’s heavy-handed suppression of social justice issues.

Certainly health care reform was one of those issues, since they feel that poor people will always receive the dregs when it comes to health care. Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said, “I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad. We haven’t violated any teaching; we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”

So the Vatican appointed an archbishop and two other bishops to “reform” LCWR: they have five years to revise LCWR’s statutes, approve every speaker at the group’s public programs, and replace a handbook the group used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine. The trio of bishops will also review LCWR’s links with Network and another organization, the Resource Center for Religious Institutes—a particularly dangerous nonprofit because it gives its members financial and legal resources.

You may recall that Pope Benedict XVI was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Roman Inquisition) back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but long after he was a member of the Hitler Youth and the Luftwaffenhelfer. (I’m sorry if that sounds like an ad hominem attack on the pope. If anyone would like to discuss his doctrinal positions instead of his personal history, I’d be happy to do that, too.)

In 2009, when the Vatican’s investigation of the LCWR was being conducted, the New York Times ran a story that suggested it was indeed a doctrinal inquisition:

Some sisters surmise that the Vatican and even some American bishops are trying to shift them back into living in convents, wearing habits or at least identifiable religious garb, ordering their schedules around daily prayers and working primarily in Roman Catholic institutions, like schools and hospitals.

“They think of us as an ecclesiastical work force,” said Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California. “Whereas we are religious, we’re living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity. So our vision of our lives, and their vision of us as a work force, are just not on the same planet.”

One last tidbit: while the Vatican was investigating the LCWR, it was also conducting a separate, widespread investigation of all women’s religious orders and communities in the United States. That inquiry, known as a “visitation,” was concluded last December, but the results of that process have not been made public. I’m thinking the nuns’ observations from 2009 will prove prophetic.

Timothy, who writes the Catholic Bibles blog, commented:

I am not sure where to begin in assessing your post. You seem to infer that the bishops have no right to speak as representatives of the Catholic Church in this country. On the issue of health care reform, I am sure you are aware that the Catholic Church has been for comprehensive health care coverage since the early 20th century. A short glimse of these document, all only within the last 20 years makes this very evident: This is of course a social justice issue, but one the Catholic Church believes should respect the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death. Of course the Church is also opposed to the death penalty and the protection of illegal immigrants, both which are social justice issues, and ones more often promoted by the ‘left.’

The Church has done visitations over the past few years to religious sisters. But also religious brothers, seminaries, and dioceses. I work at a Catholic high school, and representatives from the dioces visit us every year. So, this is nothing odd or extraordinary.

Finally, your comment about Pope Benedict is unnecessary and an unjust attack on the man. All German boys of his age were enrolled in the Hitler Youth at that time, there was no getting around it. The Ratzinger’s were known to be anti-Nazi . His father was a police officer in a small Bavarian town, who opposed Nazi rallies. So, I find you comments on this issue to be unfortunate.

My reply:

You say that healthcare reform is an issue which “the Catholic Church believes should respect the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death.” This implies that organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church should be allowed to make life-and-death decisions on behalf of their employees, who may not even be Catholics themselves, much less Catholics who adhere to official Catholic doctrine. If an employee (perhaps a gentile employee) of an Orthodox Jewish organization had to go on food stamps, would it be right for their shul to block their access to non-kosher foods?

As for the pope’s past: Ratzinger joined the Hitler-Jugend in 1941, three years after the terrible Kristallnacht brought the horrors of Nazism to general public awareness. While you are correct that it was compulsory for young people to join, both Joseph Ratzinger and his brother Georg have said that “resistance was impossible” at the time and that it’s not surprising or morally culpable that they also “went along.” This is insulting to the many who risked their lives to resist the Nazi regime, both in organized cells and on an individual basis. In fact, there are many examples of those who refused service in the Hitler Youth for a variety of reasons. Many of Ratzinger’s age joined young people’s resistance groups like the Edelweiss Pirates, or the Swing Kids, or the Helmut Hubener group, or the White Rose (though this group didn’t officially form until 1942). Yes, the Ratzinger family did object to the Nazis and as a consequence were forced to move four times—they did not passively and quietly accept what was going on, as many other families did—but whatever the family did, it doesn’t appear to have been enough to warrant being detained and questioned by the Gestapo.

But as I said above, I am happy to discuss the pope’s current doctrines and statements, and leave aside all further references to his past.

You write, “You seem to infer that the bishops have no right to speak as representatives of the Catholic Church in this country.” I realize that today’s Catholic Church hierarchy values adherence to current teachings above all else, and that the bishops are the ones to crack the whip. Never mind the fact that the Second Vatican Council promised an open and dialogical church, willing to engage with the secular world! Since the 1980s, Rome has retreated from those reforms. More to the point, the bishops are clearly at odds with most practicing Catholics today. Liberal Catholics the world over hope for a church that is open to married and women priests, a rethink on the issue of contraception as exhorted by Humanae Vitae, and a reversal of the harsh insensitivity of the teaching on homosexuality.

Nuns are placed in a particularly difficult position. On the one hand, they are expected to obey the rules of their order, which in turn likely includes obedience to the Holy See. On the other hand, they are the ones in the trenches, on the streets, in direct service to the poor and disenfranchised, working with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. They must obey their own consciences and the urgings of the Holy Spirit. And frankly, the Holy Spirit trumps the pope.

I daresay a goodly number of this “ecclesiastical work force” will continue to stand against oppression, even at the threat of excommunication.

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Politics, Social Justice, Theology | 5 Comments

Wrestling with Christmas

The older I get, the more Christmas fills me with a terrible ambivalence. But please note: “ambivalent” doesn’t imply a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. It means I’m of two opposite and conflicting minds.

As a child I was torn between childish greed, a certain delight even then in the decor, music, and “specialness” of the festivities, and a very Christian desire to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I was a devout little thing. I was on our local Romper Room show with Miss Connie for a whole week, and I created something of a ruckus on Wednesday (which was always snack day on Romper Room) after the prayer over the milk and cookies. Miss Connie led us all in saying, “God is great, God is good,/ And we thank Him for our food.” In my household, the prayer didn’t stop there. It continued: “By His hands we all are fed,/ Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” So I continued. Loudly. After everyone else had stopped. And then, as the cameras rolled, I told her in the most disapproving tones that God didn’t hear her prayer because she didn’t end the prayer with “In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” I remember saying it at least three times — that God doesn’t hear any prayer that isn’t prayed in Jesus’ name — each time more stridently because I thought she was ignoring me. What she was doing was gesturing wildly to the cameraman to cut to commercial. Ah, the days of live television!

When we moved to the Virgin Islands, I experienced my first Christmas there in 90 degree heat. We put our white flocked tree with its pretty blue balls (this was the 1970s, after all) on the balcony where it would be visible both when we were in the living room and when we were on the patio below, but on Christmas morning the trade winds carried the tree over the balcony and into the swimming pool, its pretty blue balls bobbing around happily in the water. Those days, when I was in high school, Christmas became just “what we did” each year. Festive and fun, but without any deeper meaning.

When I got my first apartment after college with my friend Jim, Christmas changed again. I really did Christmas up right. An eight-foot-tall fresh white pine, painstakingly decorated. My father was ill at the time, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, this would be his last Christmas with us. I gave him stocking stuffers filled with wind-up walking toys. I still remember the tears of joy and laughter in his eyes.

In the years that followed, I shared a home in Maryland with my mother, and we took similar pains to decorate well and tastefully. Jim would always come over on Christmas eve and watch TV with us, then I would go to my church for our festive 10 p.m. Christmas Eve celebration; Jim was always asleep on the couch by the time I got home. In the morning my brother Dale would join us in opening the stockings and gifts, then I would make a nice breakfast (usually eggs Benedict).

These were happy times, at least until I started suffering from depression — the chronic, crushing kind, a despair that is independent of circumstance. Because these bouts lasted for months at a time, I never knew if I’d be over it before the holidays or not. On several Christmases I remember going through the motions, putting on my characteristic happy face, when I would actually have preferred to be curled in a fetal position in the dark, weeping.

When I moved back to Florida from Vermont, and lived once again with Mom, we started recreating our Maryland Christmases, after a fashion. Jim would make a trip down once a year, and we would do the whole gift exchange thing and have a great time. But as Mom became ill, she could no longer shop, and couldn’t wrap gifts. Christmas became a burden. She wanted the house decorated, and even though it taxed her greatly, she always added some special touches. In the end, she just felt guilty over the whole thing. She didn’t want us to give her any gifts, and she just gave us money in return, hoping we’d get ourselves something we’d love.

The first Christmas after her death, I drove up to visit Jim in Virginia. Last year he came down here. This will be the first year in nearly a decade that we haven’t spent Christmas together. The only nod to Christmas in my house is my Charlie Brown tree. And it’s all right. Because I am decidedly ambivalent over Christmas.

Adam hates Christmas. I don’t think that’s stating his feelings too strongly. He has a decided antipathy not so much toward the holiday itself — people can celebrate whatever they damn well please, and more power to them — but toward the exhaustive and relentless way our society (not to mention the media) pushes it in our faces. This year I saw Christmas decorations on the shelves next to the Halloween decorations, and our local Walgreens was playing Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. For Jews (not to mention Muslims, Hindus, pagans, atheists, and other non-Christians), having grocery store clerks wishing you a Merry Christmas at every turn, or having Christmas music blasted from every loudspeaker in every restaurant and store, or having televisions broadcast nothing but Christmas dreck and artificially sappy shows with at least a tangential Christmas theme for nearly a month, is offensive in the extreme. I resent government and municipal bodies, which should be steadfastly secular and nonpartisan, celebrating the most Christian of holidays as if everyone in the world believed the same things. We don’t.

Every year I find myself wanting to pick fights with the Salvation Army bell-ringers: “Don’t you realize,” I want to shout, “that this organization you’re volunteering for actively discriminates against gays and lesbians? In 2004, the Salvation Army threatened to close all their soup kitchens and homeless shelters in New York City instead of following an ordinance requiring city contractors to provide equal benefits to domestic partners. Discriminating against gays was more important to them than helping the poor. On top of that, they refuse to give needy children any Harry Potter toys that have been donated because they’re ‘satanic.’ Is that the kind of ‘good’ you want to do in the world?” But I don’t shout. I drop in a Kettle Voucher, nod and give a tight little smile to the bell-ringer, and go about my shopping feeling rather Grinchlike.

One of the biggest reasons I am ambivalent is because Christmas is a fake. Jesus was not born on December 25, or anywhere near it. Assuming we’re using the gospels as our source material on the birth of Jesus, Luke clearly says the birth took place when shepherds were “living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.” This means Jesus’ birth took place in early spring, since it was only at lambing time that shepherds stood guard over their flocks in the field.

December 25, in the older Julian calendar, was the date on which the winter solstice usually fell. Romans celebrated it as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun.” Many scholars believe the 4th century church selected the winter solstice as the celebration of Jesus’ birth to appropriate and co-opt a pagan holiday that already had a long history and huge fan base. Others, like S.E. Hijmans in his book Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, disagree: “It is cosmic symbolism [that] inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the winter solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the summer solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception. While they were aware that pagans called this day the ‘birthday’ of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas.”

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Jesus is not the reason for the season. The reason for the season is the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to the ecliptic.

And the decidedly pagan winter solstice celebrations are the source for most of our hallowed Christmas traditions:

■   Gift-giving was common in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which took place from December 17th through the 23rd — in fact, Christmas gift-giving was banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins. Christians point to the gifts the magi gave to the infant Jesus, but forget that the magoi were Zoroastrian astrologers. Seleucus II Callinicusis, king of Syria, offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Apollo in his temple at Miletus in 243 BCE; this was likely the precedent for the mention of these particular gifts in Matthew’s gospel.

■   The Christmas tree was first seen in northern Germany in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but winter solstice celebrations, especially in Europe, have always included the use of evergreen boughs as a symbol of life in the season of death, and as an adaptation of pagan tree worship.

■   Santa Claus. He may have been loosely based on St. Nicholas — Nikolaos of Myra, 4th century bishop of Myra, part of modern-day Turkey — but his feast day is December 6, and he really wasn’t much like our modern Santa or even like the more ancient Father Christmas, who typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas but was neither a gift-bringer nor particularly associated with children. He has been identified with the old belief in Woden or Odin. And as we noted a few years ago, Santa was a shaman.

■   And then there’s the feasting. One reason the winter solstice was so important the world over was because communities were not certain of living through the winter — starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as the famine months. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Wikipedia has a fascinating compilation of different winter solstice observances, from nearly every culture imaginable.

When someone asks me about my religious beliefs, I never have a great answer. At times I am a Christian, though certainly a theologically liberal one. But by the same token I often feel Jewish, or Buddhist, or Hindu, even though my adherence to any of those religious traditions is tangential at best. I am a postmodern shaman and most decidedly a syncretist. I am, depending on what day you ask me, an animist, a pantheist, a panentheist, and occasionally even a monotheist. And I am generally a pagan, caught somewhere between Paganism and Neopaganism, though I don’t seem to find much in common with the neopagan community at large.

As at least a nominal Christian, I must wrestle with what Christmas means. I certainly believe in the mythos behind the story of Jesus’ birth. Countless gods and salvific figures had miraculous births, and many of them were born of a virgin (though of course the word ‘alma in the Hebrew prophecy upon which the story of Mary’s virgin birth is based described not a technical virgin all but simply a young woman). All the infancy stories of Jesus are mythic: the angelic annunciation, the slaughter of the innocents, shepherds as witnesses, magi traveling to do homage. I like feeling that I’m somehow part of one of the Great Myths of humankind.

My annoyance about the date of Jesus’ birth won’t change the fact that it’s been celebrated this way for sixteen centuries. And while I don’t hide my irritation at the way our society celebrates Christmas (last night someone on television said, “Christmas is about giving! It’s about friendship!!” as if that were the perfect summation of the symbolism of the holiday), this doesn’t seem to affect my need to sing Christmas carols for a few weeks every year — the ancient, modal ones that most people don’t sing or have never heard, the ones that evoke cold winters, or the eternal struggle of light against a pervasive darkness, or joyful dancing and revelry.

I no longer have a long list of people to shop for. I won’t be alone on Christmas day, but otherwise I won’t be celebrating much. I’ll listen to my lovely, relatively unknown carols, but I’ll turn off the TV when the Christmas specials come on. And in a couple of days, on the 21st, I’ll light a candle at 6:38 p.m., the moment the winter solstice occurs where I live. Ambivalence may not be a comfortable place to live, but it’s the best I can do for the time being.

Categories: Christianity, Depression, Earth-based Religions, Family, Holidays, Judaism, Spirituality | 7 Comments

New Words for God

I met the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the retired bishop of the Episcopal Church Diocese of Newark (based in Newark, New Jersey), way back when he was bishop and I was a parishioner at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, DC. I’ve forgotten why he was in town—probably business with the Presiding Bishop, whose main bailiwick is the National Cathedral—but he usually made time to stop in at St. Stephen’s, which was close to his heart because of our long history of civil rights actions.

He was something of a hero of mine because of his outspoken stance in favor of gay and lesbian rights in the Episcopal Church, but I wasn’t prepared, when I shook his hand and introduced myself, for him to actually know who I was. He had heard of my work with the church’s inclusive language lectionary (which sowed the seeds for The Inclusive Bible), and immediately engaged me in a long and animated conversation about inclusive language.

I now subscribe to his newsletter, in which he responds to letters from readers. I found this exchange particularly fascinating.

John Gamlin from Old Hall, East Bergholt, Colchester, UK, writes:

If we are now beyond theism then I suggest we are also beyond the word “God” — beyond it because:

  1. of the baggage it carries;
  2. to continue to use it is to be constantly misunderstood; and
  3. we will continue to drift back into the old language and old images.

So what new name?

  • Life?
  • Energy?
  • Love?

None will do, but we need to look somewhere for a new way to describe the bearer of eternity.

Dear John,

Thank you for your perceptive question, which has forced me to think about this issue in a new way to answer it — or at least to keep the conversation going. I need to make some distinctions or clarifications.

1. There is a difference between the experience of God and the explanation of the experience. Religion tends to assume they are the same. Theism is a human explanation of the experience of God; it is not God. The experience can be real or delusional. The explanation will never be eternal. No explanation ever is.

2. Personhood is the deepest experience of our lives as human beings and we cannot escape its boundaries. We describe everything in terms of that reality. That is why we think of God after the analogy of a person. We can also never get into the being of God, or of a fellow mammal, a reptile, a fish or an insect. We define each out of the reference of our own personhood. The same is true for every other creature. Xenophanes said it in the third century before the Common Era, “If horses had Gods, they would look like horses.”

3. The concept of God has been evolving as long as there have been human beings. In animism, which appears to have been the earliest human religion, God was defined as multiple spirits in a spirit-filled world. These spirits caused everything to do the things that we human beings observed happening. The sun moved, the moon turned, the flowers bloomed and the trees bore fruit. Animism sought to help us relate to and win the favor of these animating spirits. When we human beings moved into agricultural communities, God was defined in terms of the processes of fertility. When we grew into tribes on our way toward nation states, God became a tribal deity. In the Gods of Olympus, animism and tribal deities were merged into a hierarchy of Gods ruled by the head (chief) of the Gods (Jupiter, Zeus) but with animistic functions still being defined by spirits (Neptune and Cupid, for example). Finally, we moved into a concept of God’s oneness and God began to grow vaguer and more mysterious.

4. During our history, definitions of God have been born, changed and died and that is the process that is going on today. Our knowledge is expanding and our definition of God will expand with it. The God who was thought to ride across the sky as the sun, changed as our knowledge of the sun grew.

So what do we do? Allow the name to evolve. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is identified with wind and breath, concepts that eventually evolved into the word Spirit. God was identified with love, as the expander of life, and evolved into the understanding of the Christ figure as “love incarnate.” God is also identified with the idea of “rock” and evolved into the Ground of Being that we identify with the old patriarchal word Father.

I do not believe that in the last analysis any human being can actually define or redefine God, whether we call God the Holy, the Sense of Transcendence or anything else, but I do believe we can experience this presence and I do believe it is real. When we experience this presence I know of no other way to describe it except as “God.” History teaches us that the word God is never static; it is always in flux and ever changing. I suggest that we not be frightened and allow that process to continue.

I will continue to think about it because of you. So I thank you for your question.

—John Shelby Spong

Categories: Christianity, Spirituality, Worthwhile Reading | 2 Comments

Darn You, Theophrastus Aristotle

A friend and blogger—or, to be more specific, a blogger I admire who has become an online friend—has challenged me to participate in a meme called “Books that influenced my reading of the Bible.” As he writes in his post on the subject,

There is one of those memes going around in which people volunteer a list of books that influenced their readings of the Bible. The rules say that works are not limited to Biblical studies literature, but can include religious works or works of literature. The list is nominally set at 5 books, but that is obviously an arbitrary number, and I have more than 5 books to list here.

And then he tagged me. You heard me right: he tagged me. I am, of course, utterly powerless to refuse.

But I can at least refashion to rules to my own advantage. I’m going to broaden the category very slightly. Instead of books that influenced my reading of the Bible, I’m going to recast it as books that influenced my religious worldview and moved me away from seeing scripture as verbum Dei and more as a collection of documents that recorded groups’ and individuals’ encounters with the Great Mystery and their attempts to understand and interpret that interaction. (Boy, that was a long sentence!) Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Judaism | 8 Comments

On the Feast of Stephen

The story of Christmas is the story of assimilation. Sorry to put it so nakedly, but it’s true. Wrapped up in this holiday, this holy day, is a whole history of cultural appropriation, identity theft, and synchretism. And there are no easy answers. It’s all so very messy.

December 25 was the date of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere according to the old Julian calendar. In the Gregorian calendar currently in use, the solstice falls on the 21st or 22nd. Most ancient cultures held their biggest annual festivals at this time of year; if you take into account all winter festivals worldwide, the list of holidays is staggering.

The Church was pretty open about appropriating the winter solstice (or, more specifically, the Roman celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the festival of Sol, the invincible sun god) as Jesus’ birthday. Jesus was almost certainly born in late March or early April, but if you want an instant celebration of a new concept, you simply glom onto an existing festival and add a new face to it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus is not “the reason for the season.” The reason for the season, as a friend recently pointed out, is the tilt in the earth’s axis, and humankind’s need to celebrate light and life on the darkest day of the year. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Classic civilizations, Earth-based Religions, Holidays, Judaism, Social Justice | 7 Comments

An Oldie but a Goodie

I’ve been a Shaker, a snake-handling Pentecostal, and a speaking-in-tongues holy roller.

I guess you could say I shaked, rattled, and rolled.

Categories: Christianity, Humor | Leave a comment

A Speaking Engagement!

If you’re going to be in the area this Sunday, July 13, feel free to drop by the Yogashakti Mission (a Hindu ashram devoted to the study and practice of yoga here in Palm Bay) from 9 to 10 a.m., where I’ve been asked to give a little talk on Jewish-Christian mysticism.

The folks there are warm and articulate, and interested in a wide variety of spiritual and intellectual pursuits. Adam spoke there recently on “Poetry as Power: From Spellcraft to Statecraft,” about the power and place of poetry and rhyme in ancient and modern culture, religion, and politics, and it was an excellent talk. I hope mine will be half as good.

The ashram is a little hard to find, or at least I thought it was. Here’s a map (click the “To Here” link to get turn-by-turn directions from your home), but note that all you’ll find at 3895 Hield Road is a small, unassuming mailbox with the words “Yoga Mission” on it. That’s the driveway. Turn right (north) and follow the winding road through the trees to the main building.

Hope to see you Sunday!

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Spirituality | 6 Comments

Not an Apple

As much as I would like to say I’m a thoroughgoing pagan, albeit one with synchretist tendencies, there are certain times of the year when one religion wins out over another. For me, Yule, the winter solstice (at least in the northern hemisphere), is inextricably linked with Christmas. Not surprising, since the early Church deliberately chose the date of December 25 because many gods and goddesses of other religions in the region had their birthdays celebrated on that date, including Ishtar (the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, and war), Sol Invictus, and Mithras. No sense wasting a holiday that was already well established.

One reason I love Christmas/Yule so much is the music. Not the gooey sweet Christmas songs that you hear on the radio, but the cold, strange carols from the Middle Ages, or centuries-old folk songs. Each year I seem to get a new favorite. Last year it was the fifteenth-century carol “Adam Lay Ybounden” (sorry, Adamus!): Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Holidays, Judaism, Psychology, Spirituality | 4 Comments

If It’s December, This Must Be Sedaris

In years past, I’ve circulated among my email friends and acquaintances—or rather, re-circulated—one of my favorite holiday essays, David Sedaris’s “Six to Eight Black Men,” which was originally written for Esquire Magazine. Last year I posted it here.

This year I found that someone made a YouTube video of it, sort of. The soundtrack is Sedaris doing a live reading of the story (slightly updated from the print version, which is interesting for editor-types like me who like to see how essays can be improved with a little judicious snipping or amplification or the change of a single word here or there), while the video is a compilation of rather interesting stills and film snippets that quite nicely illustrate Sedaris’s narrative. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Holidays, Humor, Worthwhile Reading, Writing | 1 Comment

The Inclusive Bible

I am pleased to announce that The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, my single-volume biblenon-sexist translation of the Bible with a new scholarly commentary, has been published by Sheed & Ward and is now available from

It is a completely new translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and koiné Greek into richly poetic, non-sexist, and non-classist modern English.

If you’re interested in reading a few pages of the translation and commentary, here is a PDF (320 KB) of The Twelve, the “minor prophets” or Trei Asar.

To say I am proud of this accomplishment is an extraordinary understatement. I hope you enjoy it.

Categories: Christianity, Judaism, Psychology, Social Justice, Spirituality | 16 Comments

Pampering a Mysterious Deity with Presents and Rum

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; Page A14


The shaman looked annoyed. Slivers of light cut through cracks in the thin wooden walls of the house at the end of a slippery mud street, illuminating his glare of disapproval. The kids in the back of the tiny room were giggling, but for the shaman this was a solemn moment. The look he shot them shut them up.

It was 1:15 p.m., time to worship the statue of Maximón, a squat, roughly carved wooden deity beloved here by those who believe in his power to grant favors and feared for punishing those who do not pay him proper respect. Maximón, pronounced maw-she-MAWN, occupies a space between the polar tugs of Guatemalan spiritual life, Catholicism and evangelism, neither of which approves of him. His origins are a mystery. Some say he is a modern version of a long-forgotten Mayan god. Others say he represents a martyred holy man. Still others merely shrug their shoulders.

Great gusts of smoke rose out of the metal bucket the shaman filled with burning incense. The bucket swung back and forth, and the shaman began to pray in the Mayan Tzutujil dialect. Strands of Christmas tree lights, slung over a separate, glass-encased statue, twinkled. A pinwheel of flashing lights spun round and round. Incongruously, the notes of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” slipped tinnily out of a palm-size speaker dangling from the wall. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, First Nations, Shamanism | Leave a comment

Christianity Versus the Old Gods of Nigeria

© 2007 The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

ACHINA, Nigeria — Born to a family of traditional priests, Ibe Nwigwe converted to Christianity as a boy. Under the sway of born-again fervor as a man, he gathered the paraphernalia of ancestral worship — a centuries-old stool, a metal staff with a wooden handle and the carved figure of a god — and burned them as his pastor watched.

“I had experienced a series of misfortunes and my pastor told me it was because I had not completely broken the covenant with my ancestral idols,” the 52-year-old Nwigwe said of the bonfire three years ago. “Now that I have done that, I hope I will be truly liberated.”

Generations ago, European colonists and Christian missionaries looted Africa’s ancient treasures. Now, Pentecostal Christian evangelists — most of them Africans — are helping wipe out remaining traces of how Africans once worked, played and prayed.

As poverty deepened in Nigeria from the mid-1980s, Pentecostal Christian church membership surged. The new faithful found comfort in preachers like evangelist Uma Ukpai who promised material success was next to godliness. He has boasted of overseeing the destruction of more than 100 shrines in one district in December 2005 alone. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Shamanism | Leave a comment

The Meaning of Community

This is a sermon I gave today. I was the guest preacher at the
Unitarian Universalist Church of Brevard
here in Melbourne, Florida.

I think “community” has gotten a bad rap. Say the word to some people, and they think of a group of crunchy New Agers sitting in a circle holding hands and chanting, or singing “Kum-ba-ya.” Say it to others and they hear the media’s overuse of the word—“the disabled community,” “the gay community,” “the African American community,” “the business community,” or most absurd of all (I heard this one on the radio recently), “the international community”—as if everyone in these groups have the same agenda or worldview!

A community is defined as a social group of organisms sharing an environment, normally with shared interests. In human communities you’ll usually find they also share beliefs. Resources. Preferences. Needs. Risks. How strong these elements are can determine their degree of cohesiveness, their identity as a community.

You’d think—or at least, I did—that the root meaning of the word “community” is “coming together as one.” But it’s not. The old Latin word communitatus comes from two even older words that mean “the changes or exchanges that connect people” and “small, intimate, or local.” And I think that’s incredibly telling. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, First Nations, Shamanism | 8 Comments

Cannibal Tribe Apologises for Eating Methodists

by Nick Squires in Sydney | Daily Telegraph

[Just so they know: No apology will be either expected
or desired for any Baptists consumed. . . .*]

A tribe in Papua New Guinea has apologised for killing and eating four 19th century missionaries under the command of a doughty British clergyman. The four Fijian missionaries were on a proselytising mission on the island of New Britain when they were massacred by Tolai tribesmen in 1878.

They were murdered on the orders of a local warrior chief, Taleli, and were then cooked and eaten.

The Fijians — a minister and three teachers — were under the leadership of the Reverend George Brown, an adventurous Wesleyan missionary who was born in Durham but spent most of his life spreading the word of God in the South Seas.

Thousands of villagers attended a reconciliation ceremony near Rabaul, the capital of East New Britain province, once notorious for the ferocity of its cannibals. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, First Nations, Humor | 14 Comments

“Death to Americans United for Separation of Church and State!”

By Frederick Clarkson | | Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 11:52:29 PM EST

So says Rev.Wiley Drake, the former Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC); current pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, California; and current darkhorse candidate for president of the SBC — who has called for “imprecatory prayer” against Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), especially communications staffers Joe Conn and Jeremy Leaming, and executive director Barry Lynn. In a press release, Drake invoked the 109th Psalm and called them “enemies of God.”

The occasion for Drake’s calling the wrath of God down on AU and its staff was an AU complaint filed against Wiley’s church for endorsing Mike Huckabee (also an SBC minister) for president — on church letterhead, in flagrant violation of the federal tax laws. Drake followed-up with his endorsement on his church-connected radio show with a Huckabee representative on hand. Drake singled out Conn and Leaming because their names appear on the press release announcing AU’s action. The bizarre and sensational actions by Rev. Drake are already making national news.

In light of the recent attack from the enemies of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer. Especially against Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I made an attempt to go to them via Matt 18:15 but they refused to talk to me. Specifically target Joe Conn or Jeremy Learing. They are those who lead the attack.

(You can see their press release attack at Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Politics | 1 Comment

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