We call it ‘selective reduction’

LizaMundyIn recent weeks we’ve seen a couple of really good articles about the ethics and values of abortion supporters. Liza Mundy, a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine, had another excellent entry that relates to the topic with her Sunday piece on women pregnant with more than one fetus who wish they had fewer.

Mundy, who just wrote the book Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men, Women, and the World, speaks with mothers of multiple fetuses and one of the doctors who ends the lives of some of them. In an online chat the Post provided the day after the article ran, Mundy says she supports what advocates of the practice call “selective reduction.” Having said that, the piece balances that sympathy with some of the most shockingly straightforward details I’ve seen in abortion-related reporting. She also looks at the psychological suffering and ethical qualms of the women who end the lives of some of the fetuses inside of them. To wit:

And, sure enough, on [sonographer Rachel] Greenbaum’s screen were three little honeycombed chambers with three fetuses growing in them. The fetuses were moving and waving their limbs; even at this point, approaching 12 weeks of gestation, they were clearly human, at that big-headed-could-be-an-alien-but-definitely-not-a-kitten stage of development. Evans has found this to be the best window of time in which to perform a reduction. Waiting that long provides time to see whether the pregnancy might reduce itself naturally through miscarriage, and lets the fetuses develop to the point where genetic testing can be done to see which are chromosomally normal.

. . . So far, there was nothing anomalous about any of the fetuses. Greenbaum turned the screen toward the patient. “That’s the little heartbeat,” she said, pointing to the area where a tiny organ was clearly pulsing. “And there are the little hands. There’s the head. The body.”

“Oh, my God, I can really see it!” the patient cried. “Oh, my God! I can see the fingers!”

“Okay!” she said, abruptly, gesturing for the screen to be turned away. She began sobbing. There were no tissues in the room, so her husband gave her a paper towel, which she crumpled to her face. The patient spent the rest of the procedure with her hospital gown over her face, so she would not see any more of what was happening.

The fetus is killed — or “eliminated” and “deleted” as the Post article puts it — through an injection of potassium chloride to the heart. The article reminded me of Stephanie Simon’s excellent write-up of her day inside an abortion clinic for the Los Angeles Times. In fact, Mundy did camp out at the doctor’s office for two days while she met with women carrying multiple fetuses. One compelling story was that of lesbian couple Emma and Jane, who had decided they would terminate the lives of two of their quadruplets by looking for chromosomal abnormalities, fetal position, medical instincts and, finally, sex. All four of the fetuses were healthy:

“I used to be totally not willing to talk about gender,” elaborated [Doctor Mark] Evans, who has pieced together his own ethics during more than 20 years of practice. At the outset, he worked with a bioethicist to develop guiding principles. For years, he says, the majority of sex-selection requests came from Asian and Indian parents, who tended to want to keep the boys. That he would not do. Increasingly, however, what people want is the Holy Grail of the modern two-child family: one boy and one girl. He finds that morally acceptable.

Emma positioned herself on the table for her sonogram, while Jane scrutinized the four fetuses on the screen. “They are all tucked in really nicely into their little nests,” she said, fascinated. “The most I’ve ever looked at in utero is two.”

. . . Jane wanted to safeguard Emma’s pregnancy but was feeling some ethical qualms. “It’s killing me that we’re going to do this,” Jane said. “I never thought I would feel that. I’m the most pro-choice person. I’m vehemently pro-choice.”

It’s interesting that it’s not morally acceptable to kill a girl if it’s because Indian and Asian parents prefer boys, but it is morally acceptable to kill a girl if it’s because she already has a sister. I wish Mundy had explored that more. What is the logic behind that? The article also covers a woman from Puerto Rico whose mother pushes her to terminate one of the three girls she is carrying:

Evans worked for a while trying to get the needle into the right spot.

“I’m not in,” he said at one point, tensely. Then he pinned C with the needle, and pushed the plunger to release the chemical. The fetus, which had been undulating and waving, went still. It would remain in the womb, while the other fetuses grew and developed.

Evans explains that what he does is not technically an abortion since that procedure “kills the fetus and empties the uterus.” Since he aims to continue a pregnancy with the dead fetus inside the woman and the living fetuses continuing to grow, it’s not an abortion. The one pro-lifer in the article mentions that this distinction isn’t that noteworthy from her perspective.

Anyway, it made me think back to the term we were using: selective reduction. Remember that big, record-breaking discussion we had when the Supreme Court upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act? I do. Some readers supported mainstream media’s decision to put the term in quotes or refer to it as something only critics of the practice called it. And yet the actual medical term for what Evans is doing is chorionic villus sampling feticide or embryoctony.

Selective reduction, like partial-birth abortion, is not a medical term, but the one used by proponents of the practice. And yet it’s not put in quotes by the mainstream media. Curious. The only time I recall seeing it put in quotes was when someone critiqued a New York Times Sunday Magazine article by a woman who killed two of her triplets so she wouldn’t have to make trips to Costco or move out of the East Village. I’m not joking. The New York Times got in a bit of trouble over that piece — not because of the content but because it failed to mention the woman in question had worked for Planned Parenthood.

Anyway, Mundy gets some explicit religion in the story through the concerns of the sonogram technician who says she sometimes feels like she’s playing God. She justifies her behavior by saying her Jewish beliefs enable her to terminate fetuses for sound medical reasons.

Still, she says: “It’s a very hard procedure, because the baby is moving, and you are chasing it. That is what is very emotional — when the baby is moving and you are chasing it.

I wish the ethics and religious guidelines of each patient had been delved into more because it was fascinating each time Mundy did broach the subject. The doctor used to refuse to terminate one twin, although he is willing now since some patients only want one child. His thinking is that if it’s okay to abort a pregnancy, there’s no logical argument that means it’s not okay to reduce a pregnancy from two to one. Mundy says there is a debate about that notion but she then refers to another doctor who simply talks about how it’s possible to have a healthy pregnancy carrying multiple fetuses. That’s not a refutation of Evans’ logical argument. Mundy also mentions psychological consequences, including severe bereavement and a more complex attachment to the remaining babies.

The lesbian couple ends up selecting for sex. They want a boy and a girl. One of them is worried about the karma of what they are doing, particularly after one of the little ones they selected to terminate is moving and waving:

Evans prepared two syringes, swabbed Emma with antiseptic, put the square-holed napkin on her stomach. Then he plunged one of the needles into Emma’s belly and began to work his way into position. He injected the potassium chloride, and B, the first fetus to go, went still.

“There’s no activity there,” he said, scrutinizing the screen. B was lying lengthwise in its little honeycomb chamber, no longer there and yet still there. It was impossible not to find the sight affecting. Here was a life that one minute was going to happen and now, because of its location, wasn’t. One minute, B was a fetus with a future stretching out before it: childhood, college, children, grandchildren, maybe. The next minute, that future had been deleted.

Evans plunged the second needle into Emma’s belly. “See the tip?” he said, showing the women where the tip of the needle was visible on the ultrasound screen. Even I could see it: a white spot hovering near the heart. D was moving. Evans started injecting. He went very slowly. “If you inject too fast, you blow the kid off your needle,” he explained.

SuzannePoppemaI thought the article — including that last quote — was shockingly straightforward. I was struck by how many comments in the Washington Post chat championed the reporter for sympathizing with women who terminate some of their fetuses. It would be just as easy to praise her for shedding light on the monstrosity of “selective reduction.” I thought it was, like many of Stephanie Simon’s stories, rather balanced — which is interesting because Simon had an abortion story that wasn’t terribly balanced. So there you have it. Apparently I do not offer unending praise for 100 percent of her stories. Anyway, she writes about medical students who want to become abortion doctors.

For the article, Simon speaks with three students and one doctor — all in her home base of Colorado. The doctor is Warren Hern, who is rather notorious for aborting babies throughout pregnancy. I was surprised at the limited scope. It also uncritically parrots the pro-choice talking points, including horror stories from pre-Roe days. She mentions that, while abortions are quite common, a decreasing number of doctors perform them. Abortion opponents suggest the reality of the procedure is too grisly. Abortion rights advocates blame picketing of doctors’ offices and “increasingly” (what does that mean, exactly?) the home:

Physicians who choose to provide abortions also chafe at a lack of autonomy. In many states, every detail of their practice is regulated: the width of clinic hallways, the number of air vents, even how often their staff must take physicals.

On the federal level, Congress has banned a particular technique for ending mid-term pregnancies, known by critics as “partial-birth abortion.” The Supreme Court last month upheld that ban; doctors can be prosecuted for using the method even if they determine it’s the safest approach for a given patient.

Every doctor I know complains about over-regulation — is this managing of hall space limited to abortion clinics? I don’t really know the answer to that, but some comparison must be made. And the second paragraph is just disappointing. That’s not a Stephanie Simon paragraph — it’s a NARAL fundraising letter.

Hern, 68, practices in Boulder, Colo., a liberal college town. Still, he’s afraid to open his blinds at night for fear of a sniper hidden in the bushes. His clinic is protected by a fence and four layers of bulletproof glass.

Abortion is so stigmatized, Hern said, that his fellow physicians shun him. Even his patients often regard him with disgust: “They’ve absorbed so much antiabortion rhetoric, they feel a sense of revulsion that they have to come into my office and seek treatment.”

Having grown up in Colorado and having attending the University of Colorado, I’m familiar with Hern. To put it as gently as I can, he’s a character. He’s completely outlandish and when I was growing up there, he was quoted all the time for his extreme statements. Think Pat Robertson for the pro-abortion crowd. If other physicians shun him, it might not just be because of his chosen line of work.

Anyway, what I love about Simon’s articles is that I learn so much about the topics she covers. She’s also just a wonderful writer who really gets her subjects and explains their perspectives well. This article was very well written, but I’m not sure how illuminating it was.

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More than a politico

Jerry FalwellThe general consensus in the day-after coverage of the passing of the Rev. Jerry Falwell has been that he ignited the political movement that is today known as the religious right. Here’s Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times:

A genial man in person, with a heart for the quiet, humbling work of a small-town pastor, Falwell made his public name with blistering attacks against what he saw as the moral decay gnawing at American society: legalized abortion, homosexuality, pornography, godless liberalism.

He poured that outrage into creating a new model for Christian engagement with the world. The result was the Moral Majority, which Falwell founded in 1979 after consultations with theologians and political strategists.

The group was credited with helping to elect Ronald Reagan president and a slate of Republicans to Congress in 1980. In the next two years, Falwell claimed to build a mailing list of about 7 million religious conservatives determined to express their faith at the ballot box.

Today, in an era when the religious right is an acknowledged force in American politics, the Moral Majority seems unremarkable.

Falwell’s greatest effect on America was undoubtedly the political movement he baptized as the “founder of the religious right,” as USA Today reporters Susan Page and Cathy Lynn Grossman put it. But in a page A6 story from The Washington Post‘s Hanna Rosin, the theme is that Falwell’s movement had moved beyond him like Russia did with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reaction to Falwell’s death has produced an avalanche of statements from President Bush to Al Sharpton to Larry Flynt. Who was the last person, other than former presidents, whose death received this level of attention? And what could be the level of polarization in the statements?

The Post/Newsweek On Faith has posted comments from its panel of distinguished religious figures, including Rick Warren (“A Real Compassionate Conservative“), Diana Eck (“A Good Person with Bad Theology“), Anthony Stevens-Arroyo (“The Wolsey Moment“) and Jonathan Sarna (“Friend to Israel; Enemy to Anti-Semites“).

One angle that has been neglected was Falwell’s genuine attempts to bring conservative Christianity into modern times.

Here’s Jesse Walker at Reason:

Falwell fulminated til the end against homosexuality, feminism, and the other alleged evils of modernity. But it’s hard to escape the impression that his cohort not only lost the culture war, but perhaps did more than anyone else to usher Hollywood’s America into Christian homes. In the early days, Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network refused to air reruns of Bewitched on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft. Today the outlet is owned by ABC, which calls it the ABC Family Channel and happily broadcasts not just The 700 Club but Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, not to mention the frequently ribald humor of Whose Line Is It Anyway? As intensely intolerant as Falwell could be, it’s harder than ever to imagine America reembracing his views about gender relations or the sinfulness of homosexuality. The one cultural war he may have won, perhaps without even meaning to wage it, was the battle against Protestant hatred of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite his illiberal platform and rhetoric, Falwell’s long-term legacy might be one of tolerance.

That could depend, of course, on whether the centralized, politicized fundamentalist community he helped create survives the next media revolution. Television tends to smooth over our differences; the Internet allows diversity to bloom. The next Jerry Falwell might be sitting in a church basement right now, pointing a camcorder at himself and preparing to upload his homilies to YouTube. He might even call his little films The Old Time Gospel Minute. Don’t let the title fool you.

It’s easy for the press to get caught up in the left-right divide that tends to dictate the direction of public statements issued to remember Falwell’s passing. But taking a longer perspective on Falwell shows that for all his dramatic pronouncements and controversies, he changed the American religious landscape, and subsequently America, in rather significant fashion. The political spats that made Falwell famous will pass away, but the rise of the religious right and his influence on the use of technology (think television) in religion will be his lasting legacy.

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Religious Discrimination 101

FaithHypeClarity2Religion reporter Alan Cooperman had a very interesting article in Saturday’s Washington Post. I enjoy Cooperman’s stories. His smooth, clear writing style is easy to read and digest. Anyway, he uses the hook of a Missouri State University instructor requiring students to write letters urging state legislators to support adoptions by same-sex couples. One of the students, Emily Brooker, objected on religious grounds and the school charged her with discriminating against gays.

In his defense, instructor Frank Kauffman says the students were merely required to write the letter, not sign it or send it. As if that really changes anything. This may seem like an insane assignment, but I remember the time one of my feminist professors required the class to write a paper on why pornography should be illegal. No matter what you believed, that’s what you had to write.

Anyway, Cooperman says the case has fueled accusations by conservative groups that secular university professors despise conservatives, particularly conservative evangelical Christians. Part of that might be true and part of it isn’t quite right, Cooperman writes:

Such accusations have been leveled for years at the Ivy League and other elite private universities. But they are gaining new attention from politicians and educators because of the Brooker case, which took place at a public school in the Bible Belt, and because of two recent, nationwide surveys of professors’ views on religion.

The first, by sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, found that college professors are less religious than the general public but are far from the godless horde that is sometimes imagined. Even at the country’s 50 top research universities, a minority of the faculty is atheist or agnostic, Gross and Simmons found.

The other survey, by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, confirmed those findings but also found what the institute’s director and chief pollster, Gary A. Tobin, called an “explosive” statistic: 53 percent of its sample of 1,200 college and university faculty members said they have “unfavorable” feelings toward evangelical Christians.

A graph accompanying the story drove the point home. By comparison, only three percent of faculty members had unfavorable feelings toward Jews. What’s funny is that the latter survey was designed to gauge anti-Semitism.

The only groups with significantly negative responses were Christians and MuslimsMormons. A full third of faculty had negative views toward Mormons, with 22 percent reporting unfavorable views toward Muslims, 18 percent with negative feelings toward atheists, 13 percent with negative feelings toward Roman Caholics, 10 percent with negative feelings toward the non-religious, nine percent with negative feelings toward non-evangelical Christians and four percent reporting negative views toward Buddhists.

One of the things I liked about Cooperman’s story was how he gave the various sides a chance to respond. I wanted the conversation to keep going. He speaks with Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, who says that the poll reflects political and cultural resistance, not religious bias:

Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians probably have two causes: “the particular kind of Republican Party activism that some evangelicals have engaged in over the years, as well as what faculty perceive as the opposition to scientific objectivity among some evangelicals.”

William B. Harvey, vice president for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia, said that even if the survey has correctly identified a “latent sentiment” among professors, “I don’t know that it is fair to make the leap . . . that this is manifested in some bias in the classroom.” . . .

Tobin, the pollster, acknowledged that his survey did not measure how professors act, only how they feel. But he said the levels of disapproval are high enough to raise questions about how evangelical Christians are treated.

“If a majority of faculty said they did not feel warmly about Muslims or Jews or Latinos or African Americans, there would be an outcry. No one would attempt to justify or explain those feelings. No one would say, ‘The reason they feel this way is because they don’t like the politics of blacks or the politics of Jews.’ That would be unthinkable,” Tobin said.

I’ll be curious to see if there is any more discussion of these surveys. Cooperman rounds out the article by looking at a legislative initiative in Missouri to address religious bias. A recent New York Times article suggests that legislation may not be necessary. Alan Finder looked at another survey that may show an increased interest in religion among students:

More students are enrolling in religion courses, even majoring in religion; more are living in dormitories or houses where matters of faith and spirituality are a part of daily conversation; and discussion groups are being created for students to grapple with questions like what happens after death, dozens of university officials said in interviews.

A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Finder notes the lack of historical data on the religiosity of students, but it’s still an interesting look at religious life on campus. Both stories together show the potential disconnect between students and their faculty — this is an area that may merit further coverage.

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Rolling Stone’s State of the Union

DylanSaved2The first of three 40th-anniversary issues of Rolling Stone is on newsstands now, and it is overflowing with the witty Q&A interviews that make the magazine frequently worthwhile. There’s the requisite kissing of founder Jann S. Wenner’s ring, as nearly every interview involves a moment when an artist describes how important a role the magazine played in wide cultural transformation. The next 40th-anniversary issue will focus on the Summer of Love, and I can imagine people discussing how many times a stray Rolling Stone on the coffee table helped them get laid.

That would be in tune with how Rolling Stone‘s editors present themselves as keepers of the counterculture’s flame. As indicated in “A Letter From the Editors,” there’s a culture war going on, and Rolling Stone knows which side it has chosen:

Truly understanding the past means grappling with its complexities and contradictions. You need look no further back than the Sixties to realize that. The culture wars that began in that decade — about drugs, about American military incursions into foreign countries, about sex, the environment, the roles of women and women, and on and on — are still being fought.

… During the Clinton years, the country was energetically heading in the right direction — progress and prosperity were watchwords of the day. The failure of the Republicans’ desperate attempt to remove Clinton from office was itself a triumph of Sixties values. The American people saw through the hypocrisy of the impeachment effort and refused to abide what Clinton aptly called “the politics of personal destruction.” Rolling Stone proudly joined that fight and championed Clinton throughout his presidency.

Notwithstanding Rolling Stone‘s principled opposition to the politics of personal destruction, virtually every interview stokes the flames of Bush loathing. In some interviews people volunteer their belief that Bush is the worst president in U.S. history. Other times, the interviewer helpfully suggests such a finding.

It’s a fairly rich irony when Neil Young, composer of “Let’s Impeach the President,” is the one person to engage the question of the president’s humanity. The questions are by David Fricke:

In “Campaigner” [on 1977's "Decade"], you sang, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.” What did you mean by that?

I mean everybody’s human. The soul in Richard Nixon was in the way he looked with his family, how lost he looked. He was a great statesman — he went to China — yet he [expletive] so badly at home. He was very similar to Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton undid all the good he did, as a smart man running the country, with the disaster of his private life. He opened the door for the religious right and enabled the conservatives to pain the Democrats as faithless. That transferred into two lost elections.

Can you ever imagine saying George W. Bush has soul?

I’m sure he does. Where is it? It’s in Crawford, Texas, with his family — his wife and kids. One thing about Bush: You’ve got to respect him for being in such good physical condition. He works like hell to be fit. That’s a great example at his age.

The other thing is that he has so much conviction in what he believes. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we don’t agree with him. He and his people feel like they’re the only people that should be in government.

What’s more interesting, at least for the purpose of this blog, is how often the subject of religion emerges in these discussions, sometimes at the bidding of the interviewer, sometimes on its own power. God bless Jann Wenner — who did not recognize the word agape when Bono used it in a Q&A in 2005 — for trying so hard to coax Bob Dylan out of his fiercely guarded privacy on spiritual matters. [I am including links where possible, and these pages include embedded MP3s of the interviews' best moments. Rolling Stone assures its readers that more are on the way.]

Wenner makes the mistake of framing question as “being religious.” That would open Dylan up about as much as “You were known for some time as a Holy Joe. What’s up with that?” This is not a question of malice, but of being tone deaf:

Do you find yourself being a more religious person these days?

A religious person? Religion is supposedly a force for positive good. Where can you look in the world and see that religion has been a force for positive good? Where can you look at humanity and say, “Humanity has been uplifted by a connection to a godly power”?

Meaning organized religion?

Corporations are religions. It depends what you talk about with a religion. … Anything is a religion.

At one point, you took on Christianity in a very serious way, and then Judaism. Where are you now with all that?

Religion is something that is mostly outward appearance. Faith is a different thing. How many religions are there in the world? Quite a few, actually.

What is your faith these days?

Faith doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t have a category. It’s oblique. So it’s unspeakable. We degrade faith by talking about religion.

Contrast this with Tom Wolfe, interviewed by Mark Binelli:

But as a nonbeliever, you still seem to be defending belief.

Anyone who thinks that religion is bad for society is out of his mind. We are now beginning to see what happens when you don’t have it. People get depressed when they don’t have something to believe.

I think the contemporary conception of the human mind has become more and more depressing. This is my problem with the atheists, people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They’re saying that there is no ghost in the machine, that it’s all physical. And if it’s all physical, it’s going to obey certain laws. And the endpoint of the argument is that there is no free will, that you and I are machines that have had a certain genetic foundation, and as soon as we know enough about that, we’ll be able to predict what’ll happen when you meet me. We just need the information. That’s a very depressing thought.

Another consistent theme in these interviews is a a fear of the religious right. The editors rejoice in their opening letter that Norman Mailer — yes, Norman Mailer! — calls Bush a spiritual terrorist. How he reached this conclusion is entertaining reading, if only for the polemical fireworks:

We are supposed to take care of the poor, if we are good Christians. But in face there is no such thing as a good Christian. A good Christian is one man and one woman in a thousand. The average Christian is a mixture, like the rest of us, with their good and their bad. And churchgoing Christians have been running America in my lifetime. And they saw communism as the spawn of the devil. They didn’t see it as a messed-up system filled with people just like themselves, half-good, half-bad.

… The story of the terrorists is that is that they are working against immense odds, relatively speaking. They don’t have large resources. What they have is the possibility to do some dirty things in some dirty places and kill off a few hundred or a few thousand people, and if they can do that, they can feel they are immensely successful, because given the multiplication of the result that cheap politicians like Bush go in for, it will work to a degree. …

So what is the story of Bush, then, if that is the story of the terrorists?

Bush is a terrorist.

Do you think he is the worst president of your lifetime?

He is a spiritual terrorist.

It is interesting that, in retrospect, he makes somebody like Nixon look pretty good.

Like Mailer, Bill Moyers doesn’t much trust the religious right:

This is a country whose greatest contribution to political science was the separation of church and state. The exiles who were fleeing coercion in Europe came to this country where they could have freedom of conscience. The current effort of Christian fundamentalists to turn the government into their agent is a sinister development. I’m doing a story for my new weekly series on PBS about the fact that Pat Robertson’s Regent University has 150 graduates serving in the executive branch. No university has ever had that many graduates at one time in the government. Their mission is to turn the government into an agent of the church. They want to return us to the days of coercion.

Jack Nicholson, speaking with David Wild, draws a connection between the Christian right and — wait for it — Fidel Castro. But he feels skittish about it, what with how uptight the culture is these days:

I’m into Reichian therapy, so I think sexual freedoms have a lot to do with how far most radical movements get. Free love is usually the root and the vitality of the movement. Once you deny that normal, simple, organic sexual flow, the country is going to move right.

… If you were to say Fidel Castro, the Islamacists and the Christian right all have a lot in common, people would say, “What is this loon talking about today?” Well, they all fear American culture, and they don’t like too much sex and violence. This would be nothing to say in an interview in the Sixties, but now even I am thinking, “Uh-oh, keep that head down, baby.”

Nicholson also must take home the Esoteric Syncretist of the Year award for comparing Dylan to the late Jiddu Krishnamurti:

You’ve been described as being forever young and as having arrested development. Yet it strikes me you’ve pulled off a rare trick, staying vital as an artist and as a person.

I’m terribly easily influenced. What I noticed when I first saw Krishnamurti speak was he and Bob Dylan appeared onstage the same way. They were just kind of there — no flourish, no nothing. What Krishnamurti says could be reduced to “live in the now.” It’s a phrase we hear endlessly, but in fact it’s the point. I was skimming through A Course in Miracles. It says miracles can only occur in the present time, so there’s a common thread there. I’ve been reading about parallel universes and speed of light since I was in grammar school. If they break that all down, maybe the now will become less important. Until then, “live in the now” is as deep as I get.

Paul McCartney might resonate with that, as he twice refers to an “energy field,” at points separated by hundreds of words. Anthony DeCurtis interviews him:

Do you have a sense about what continues to speak to people in the Beatles’ music after all these years?

I think it’s basically magic. There is such a thing as magic, and the Beatles were magic.

It depends on what you believe life is. Life is an energy field, a bunch of molecules. And these particular molecules formed to make these four guys, who then formed into this band called the Beatles did all that work. I have think that was something metaphysical. Something alchemic. Something must be thought of as magic — with a “k” [laughs]. Am I being too far out?

. . . As you look ahead, what are the major issues facing us now?

To make some headway in world peace. It be brought if people with differences in the world today would realize that there are no differences — it’s an energy field, dude! What’s needed is the same old thing: peace and love. Not to be frivolous, but that is still the great aim.

The person who speaks most directly about her faith is Jane Fonda, in an interview with DeCurtis (who has written several articles for Beliefnet):

Somebody very hostile said to me, “Have you been saved?” I tap-danced around that, but later I asked a friend of mine who teaches Bible study, “What does that mean?” And she said, “What it meant to me was taking the next step.” Well, that’s all anybody had to say to me — I’m always ready to take the next step [laughs]! So I became a Christian.

And I remain a Christian, but I’m still on a journey to define what that means. I very much feel the presence of God. And then this person Jesus — I am utterly fascinated by this man. I feel that what he preached was revolutionary, and it’s totally what we need now. The most revolutionary statement anyone could make is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Whew, man. If we could live what he taught, everything would change. But it ain’t what goes by the name of Christianity right now.

Stephen Spielberg is the only person to discuss being Jewish, with movie critic Peter Travers:

I wasn’t popular in school, probably because I was Jewish in a predominantly gentile neighborhood. And also being this wimpy little kid whose hobby was scoffed at by other kids at school. I got out of that jam the minute I picked up a camera and took the bullies who had been preying on me for years and made them the stars in my 8mm movies.

… What worries you about the future?

As a Jew, I worry about the growing anti-Semitism in the world. As a father, I worry about my children growing up in a world where I see darkness.

And then we’re down to a few odds and ends.

Patti Smith tells Fricke why she “didn’t like the idea of a mass drug culture”:

I thought drugs were a sacred thing that American Indians used in sweat lodges and self-realization, that jazz musicians might use to speak to God. They were not a recreational tool. But people bought into the lifestyle. In the end, they got tired, burned out.

Martin Scorses speaks with Travers on an epiphany about Vietnam:

In “Taxi Driver,” you make Travis Bickle, the character played by Robert De Niro, represent the horror of Vietnam. What changed things for you?

Around 1965, I went into a local church one Sunday, and I heard the priest on the pulpit describe the Vietnam War as a holy war. That’s when I walked out. Something told me he’s dead wrong.

Former Grateful Dead singer Bob Weir tells Fricke about why he does not feel contaminated by the presence of Ann Coulter:

I was surprised to see recent photos of you backstage with Donald Trump and the conservative writer Ann Coulter. Don’t you find it strange that either of them would go anywhere near the Dead zone?

Ann’s a big fan. All I can say is, it takes all kinds [laughs]. They’re welcome to my shows. Everybody’s welcome. the night Ann Coulter was there, I had friends who were aghast — “You’re going to let her in?” C’mon, don’t you want to stand next to the person and see if you can feel anything, feel her humanity? I gotta at least see if she has any humanity about her. And she does.

Neil Young answers a question by Fricke:

There are a lot of Native American references in your music and artwork. Why did you identify so strongly with that culture?

I loved the simplicity and naturalness of it. The Indians are basically pagans. And that’s what I believe in: nature, whether God created it or it created itself. That’s my church — when I go to the forest, out into a big green field or in the water. I don’t need any preacher. I’ve been identifying with the moon cycles all my life. That’s what the Indians did — “How many moons since you’ve been here?”

Finally, interviewer Eric Bates asks Michael Moore to elaborate on why he’s tired of meetings in the basements of Unitarian churches. It’s nearly as good as Unitarians’ self-effacing jokes:

You once issued a passionate plea, saying that you didn’t want to go to any more meetings in the basements of Unitarian churches. How did we go from a place of real momentum in the Sixties to a handful of earnest but ineffective people scattered in church basements?

The left lost its sense of humor, then kind of lost its sense of humanness. It got caught up in jargon and forgot how to talk like a normal person. The art and culture that came out of this new rigidity wasn’t very entertaining. In fact, “entertaining” became a very bad word.

It’s the Calvinist, Marxist tradition of self-denial as a value: “Everything for the cause, nothing for the self.”

Exactly. Average working people generally don’t respond well to that sort of thing. It just becomes uncool — and we all want to gravitate toward the cool, right? When Roger & Me came out, the official left didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t understand that people go to the movies because they want to be entertained. If they wanted to hear a harangue, they’d go to a rally. If they wanted a sermon, they’d go to church.

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He heard the music of the spheres

EinsteinWhile interviewing Walter Isaacson on Wednesday’s Fresh Air, guest host Dave Davies raised the point that Albert Einstein has become an icon of unattainable genius. True, but he’s arguably the one scientist who most strongly attracted the affection of Americans. Whether because of his wonderfully untamed hair, his doleful eyes or that photo in which he sticks out his tongue, Einstein also became an icon of the scientist as approachable, and maybe even humble, human being. What other acclaimed scientist could have inspired Walter Matthau’s oddball role in the film I.Q.?

Time‘s excerpt from Isaacson’s new biography reinforce the notion of Einstein as a humble scientist, especially in his relation to God and faith.

Early on there is a glimpse of spiritual precociousness, even as the family maid called him “the dopey one”:

Consequently, when Albert turned 6 and had to go to school, his parents did not care that there was no Jewish one near their home. Instead he went to the large Catholic school in their neighborhood. As the only Jew among the 70 students in his class, he took the standard course in Catholic religion and ended up enjoying it immensely.

Despite his parents’ secularism, or perhaps because of it, Einstein rather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism. “He was so fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious strictures in every detail,” his sister recalled. He ate no pork, kept kosher and obeyed the strictures of the Sabbath. He even composed his own hymns, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school.

Later came disenchantment:

“Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of free thinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression.”

But later still came his connection with the God of Spinoza. Isaacson offers a pithy summary of an interview Einstein granted to George Sylvester Viereck, a son of Germany who eventually showed a troubling enthusiasm for Nazism:

Viereck began by asking Einstein whether he considered himself a German or a Jew. “It’s possible to be both,” replied Einstein. “Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind.”

Should Jews try to assimilate? “We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform.”

To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

You accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

… Do you believe in immortality? “No. And one life is enough for me.”

Most striking is Einstein’s attitude toward atheists:

“There are people who say there is no God,” he told a friend. “But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos,” he explained.

In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. “The fanatical atheists,” he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ — cannot hear the music of the spheres.”

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Thoroughly modern United Methodists

YarmulkeThis is the time of year when religion-beat specialists scramble to try to cover a liturgical parade of events in both Judaism and in all forms of Christianity. In the past few decades, one of the standard stories around this time of year has focused on the historical links between Passover and Holy Week, between the Passover meal and Holy Communion.

The Baltimore Sun found a story this year that took this kind of interfaith communication one step further. In some cases, educational Seders for Christian groups make some Jews nervous. But it appears that United Methodist officials in this region have taken this kind of work to a whole new level. Reporter Liz F. Kay’s story begins:

When Methodist clergy and congregations around Baltimore have questions about Jesus’ Jewish heritage, they can turn to their conference rabbi.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church appointed Rabbi Joshua Martin Siegel last year to help put the Jewish roots of the Protestant faith in context through Bible study and demonstration. …

(To) have a local Methodist organization put a rabbi on staff is an uncommon approach, said the Rev. Larry Pickens of the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

“It’s a unique way of approaching spirituality, and I think it also helps Christians understand the relationship we have with the Jewish faith,” Pickens said.

The rabbi leads a weekly study session on Bible readings. He also acts as a spiritual adviser for conference employees and writes a column for UM Connection, the conference’s newspaper.

methodist symbolThe story raises all kinds of questions and answers most of them. I have also, during my years on the religion beat, heard of all kinds of Christian groups — evangelical, mainline and Catholic — working with rabbis and Jewish scholars on issues of this kind. It’s an interesting trend.

However, I don’t think I’ve ever read a story that addressed this kind of work that mentioned a rabbi actually assuming a role of spiritual leadership in a Christian organization.

This makes me what to ask: What is this rabbi’s opinion of basic Christian doctrines linked to the identity of Jesus, to the role of the Christian Messiah in salvation? While she was at it, the reporter could have asked the same questions to the United Methodist leaders themselves.

I realize that there is a wide spectrum of belief and practice in the United Methodist Church on these issues. There are United Methodist evangelicals and there are United Methodist “Universalists,” when it comes to salvation (and lots of United Methodists are parked at doctrinal points in between). I also realize that there is no way a progressive Christian body such as this one would be working with a “Messianic Jew” or “Hebrew Christian” who believes that Jesus is the Messiah. That would be even more controversial.

I know all of that. I simply find it interesting that these topics never came up in this story.

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The New York Times explains Easter — not

paskhaReligion is a hard subject to pin down, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find a feature titled “On Easter, Symbolism and the Exuberance of Spring” in the Dining & Wine section of The New York Times.

I am not a regular food-pages reader, but it appears that the goal of writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ piece is to explain the mythical and religious symbols found in Italian and Mediterranean cooking this time of year. Thus, we read:

As the dull winter landscape of the Mediterranean breaks into fresh green life, the exuberance of holiday feasting neatly matches the exuberance of nature. The magic and mystery of Easter and Passover are firmly grounded in the realities of a Mediterranean springtime. The artichokes, asparagus, young fava beans and fresh green peas on the Easter table reflect that, as do the eggs that have piled up, uneaten throughout Lent, in the family larder.

I am sure many readers will be surprised to find that eggs have piled up in Catholic kitchens, since it would be hard to find many modern Catholics in the West who observe the ancient Lenten fast that avoids all meat and all dairy. However, this tradition is followed in the Eastern churches, both Orthodox and Catholic.

However, let us note that this reference does demonstrate that Jenkins appears to know something about the fasting traditions of the Lenten season, since she mentions those eggs in the first place.

In fact, there are all kinds of intelligent and appropriate religious and biblical references scattered throughout this feature story. Bravo. This is why it is rather interesting to bump into the following descriptions of the Christian and Jewish seasons that provide the context for the story, in the first place:

Even for those who no longer observe the traditional 40-day fast, Holy Week brings a palpable sense of anticipation. This Sunday, unusually, Western and Orthodox Easter celebrations fall on the same day, while Passover is observed throughout Holy Week and Easter weekend.

If Passover celebrates the resurrection of a people from the death of slavery in Egypt, Easter affirms the resurrection of individual souls. But both reflect ancient beliefs, lodged deep in the Mediterranean psyche, about the resurrection of the natural world after winter’s death.

OK, raise your hand — or click your mouse — if you think that most readers of a national newspaper will find this description of the meaning of Easter a bit, well, lacking. Also, raise your hand if you think that most synagogue-attending Jews will find it strange that the God of Moses was left out of the Passover equation.

I suggest a visit to a reference site — the “E” page at ReligionStylebook.org — offered by the professionals at the Religion Newswriters Association. There one can find the following definition of the most important day of the Christian year.

Easter: The major Christian holy day. It marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead three days after his crucifixion. In the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after March 21. If the full moon falls on a Sunday, Easter is the next Sunday. As a result, Easter may fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. The Eastern churches generally celebrate the holiday later than most other Christian churches, although sometimes the two celebrations fall on the same Sunday.

The Times reference isn’t totally wrong, of course. It just, well, misses the point.

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Anti-Trinitarian AP style revolt?

holytrinityA long time ago, in a post about the Grammy Awards, I raised a basic question about God-talk in The Associated Press Stylebook. Here is what I wrote at that time, in reference to a Los Angeles Daily News story quoting diva Mary J. Blige expressing thanks to “Father, God, lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

… I believe that Associated Press style would use an uppercase “L” in “Lord” and an upper-case “S” in “Savior.” Has there been a non-Trinitarian change in the journalism Bible that I missed, somehow?

I was not alone in asking this question. Soon after that, Frank “Bible Belt Blogger” Lockwood at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent me the link for another article that raised the same issue, this time from the sacred pages of The New York Times. The context of this reference is a profile of politico Marshall Wittmann, the press secretary for U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. Wittmann has also worked as top lobbyist for the Christian Coalition, a unique post for a practicing Jew.

Then there is this reference:

There are of course plenty of political people who have undergone philosophical evolutions over the years. But Mr. Wittmann, 53, has zigzagged in the extreme, from stints in left-leaning unions to right-wing policy shops. He describes his career as “eclectic,” saying he has always been drawn to independent thinkers. “The good lord has made me a contrarian,” Mr. Wittmann said.

The good lord has also blessed him with the gift of speaking in punchy and irresistible sound bites.

The question, of course, is whether the “lord” in this sentence is the “Lord God” of Israel. In his email, Lockwood raised a good question:

Should Lord be capitalized here? If so, should it be the good Lord, the Good Lord or (for those of you with King James Bibles) the good LORD?

Every since, I have been watching to see if I could find a consistent pattern for references to God in the Times and elsewhere. I cannot find a consistent pattern for a lowercasing of the names of the Judeo-Christian God and-or Trinity. Yet clearly this happens.

Meanwhile, page 106 of my newest copy of The Associated Press Stylebook still reads as follows:

Capitalize God in references to the deity of all monotheistic religions. Capitalize all noun references to the deity; God the Father, Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, etc. Lowercase personal pronouns: he, him, thee, thou.

Lowercase gods and goddesses in references to the deities of polytheistic religions. Lowercase god, gods and goddesses in references to false gods: He made money his god.

Some GetReligion readers have written me to ask if newspapers would dare to lowercase the “p” in the Prophet Muhammad. However, that is a totally different issue — falling under the style rule for the titles of religious leaders.

So let me ask the Godbeat — or godsbeat — professionals out there: Any theories as to what is going on? Have the rules been tweaked in your own newsrooms?

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