Truly facing your demons

ayaIf you know nothing about ayahuasca, you should read Gina Piccalo’s lengthy and detailed piece about it in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. Ayahuasca is a shamanistic therapy that uses psychotropic plants native to the Amazon. If you are looking for any updates on its legality or any new angles on its use, the article probably won’t help you much.

Piccalo begins by introducing the reader to Lobo Siete Truenos, a young medicine man who is conducting all-night spiritual ceremonies for wealthy suburbanites in Southern California:

If all goes as planned, Truenos’ nine participants–all seeking his psychedelic “doctoring”–will sip a murky, foul-tasting potion and then wait, eyes closed in the dark, for it to take effect. Wooziness may be followed by nausea, then probably vomiting. For many, a kaleidoscopic array of geometric patterns could emerge. Others may be greeted by friendly plant-like creatures, gnomes, elves or even a giant anaconda–known by indigenous tribes as Mother Ayahuasca, omniscient ruler of the plant kingdom–who communicates telepathically. And the really lucky ones may be treated to a cinematic review of their lives, each scene illustrating a moral failing. . . .

The concoction itself is said to taste so vile that most people fight their gag reflex to swallow it. Devotees liken the flavor to forest rot and bile, dirty socks and raw sewage. Vomiting is so common that indigenous shamans often refer to the ceremony as la purga, or the purge. And ayahuasca can severely test the commitment of its followers: The potion often reveals its celebrated wisdoms only after repeat encounters. The payoff, adherents say, can be life-altering. Debilitating illnesses such as chronic depression or addiction may disappear after just one session, some say. Others say they shed their egos for a night, finally seeing their lives with a startling clarity.

Piccalo explains that ayahuasca, meaning “vine of the soul” has been used for hundreds of years or more by tribes in Central and South America. In countries where it is legal, pilgrims flock to ceremonies. She notes that Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs introduced the plant concoction to pop culture in the 1960s but that it has remained a largely underground phenomenon — until now. A community shepherded by shamans is emerging in the United States, she writes.

Learning about the drug makes it sound somewhat similar to LSD and psychedelic mushrooms. One practitioner is quoted saying ayahuasca, like, shifts your reality and could bring world peace if everyone did it. So it was nice that Piccalo gets some broader perspective:

Journalist Erik Davis, a longtime chronicler of emerging religious practices and author of the 2006 book “Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape,” gives Harris’ comments more context. “For a variety of reasons,” Davis says, “with some negative side effects, ayahuasca has been able to enter into Western culture in a way that preserves a ritual format and a spiritual intention and gives it a much more potentially transformative effect. Psychedelic mushrooms can take you just as far out, but the way they’ve been adapted by Westerners has been more informal, which means they have the potential to be used in much more erratic ways.”

Unfortunately, the religious component of ayahuasca isn’t really explored. Most of the piece deals with Truenos, who comes off more Elmer Gantry than devout believer. He has a shady past and can’t answer Piccalo’s questions in a straightforward manner. In an area where New Age practitioners have found fertile ground for preying on the wealthy, he seems perfectly Californian.

And while the religious aspects aren’t explained, Piccalo does explain previous legal rulings that ban one of the substances while permitting their use for religious ceremonies. Truenos does have some particular religious views — not universally held by ayahuascan practitioners — such as that the Divine Mother is laying the groundwork to prepare the developed world for the great coming age of humanity.
One of the funniest parts of the article was Piccalo’s repeated contention that ayahuasca is for smart people. She says it’s used by “liberal thinkers,” “academics, journalists, psychiatrists and other soul-searching intellectuals,” “East Coast writers,” and the “intelligentsia.” I love how when rich people seek out pharmacological escape it’s treated as so transcendentally different than when people in different social classes do the same. Piccalo does ask Truenos about his ministry in this regard:

All this heavy-duty mysticism is more than a little incongruous amid the nouveau wealth of Encinitas. But he deflects any suggestion that by “doctoring” the wealthy he’s neglecting the needy.

“We live in different times than our predecessors,” Truenos says. “There has been a promise throughout every culture that there would be a moment in humanity’s history where we would have social and economic justice. One of the things the fire altar states is that this day that has been promised has arrived, and so with it all of the various hallmarks are sure to be emerging in humanity. This includes a spiritual solution to humanity’s economic problems so there isn’t a disparity between the poor and the wealthy.”

I actually don’t think it’s Piccalo’s fault — I would like to blame Truenos — but what I kept wanting answered in the article is what exactly is religious about the practice and how exactly it helps people. One user says it made him a better father and husband but nowhere do we learn how that happened.

Piccalo takes a Western perspective on the practice, trying to flesh out whether it might have “legitimate” medical uses and mentioning an academic who thinks that all primitive cave drawings came about because of the use of hallucinogenics. She speaks with the editor of Skeptic magazine who attempts to debunk its religious properties.

A much better piece on ayahuasca can be found in the March 2006 National Geographic. Kira Salak writes about her second experience with the ritual. Her first one involved her conquering wailing, shadowy, evil figures. It cured her of debilitating depression but she wanted help with other problems as well. So she heads back:

I’ve told no one this time–especially not my family. I grew up among fundamentalist atheists who taught me that we’re all alone in the universe, the fleeting dramas of our lives culminating in a final, ignoble end: death. Nothing beyond that. It was not a prescription for happiness, yet, for the first couple decades of my life, I became prideful and arrogant about my atheism, believing that I was one of the rare few who had the courage to face life without the “crutches” of religion or, worse, such outrageous notions as shamanism. But for all of my overweening rationality, my world remained a dark, forbidding place beyond my control. And my mortality gaped at me mercilessly.

Her second experience is harrowing and it’s a very interesting read. She explains the effect of the concoction from a Western perspective but also shares the perspective of its religious adherents:

To prepare the brew, apprentices spend years under the tutelage of an elder shaman getting to know the different plant ingredients, passing weeks or months at a time learning their individual healing properties and governing spirits. These beings, they claim, teach them icaros, or spirit songs, which, when sung or whistled, call forth the plants’ unique assistance during ceremonies. The training isn’t easy; those like Hamilton who earn the title of “master shaman”–highly respected members of Amazonian communities–receive patients from far and wide. Based on the individual needs of their patients, shamans must know which plants are required for a ceremony (there are two primary ingredients, but any of an estimated 100 species have been used in ayahuasca brews), how much of them to harvest, and how to prepare them for ingestion. The plants’ spirits are then said to work together to produce the most successful possible healing for each person, regardless of what ails them. . . .

Shamans will tell you that during an ayahuasca cleansing they’re not working with the contents of a person’s hallucination but are actually visiting that person in whatever plane of reality his or her spirit happens to be. We are not, they insist, confined to the reality of our five senses, but can transcend it and enter a multidimensional universe.

Salak’s writing is refreshing and thorough and you should read the whole piece. Piccalo’s article is a good introduction to ayahuasca, and she captures that segment of users who are more Burning Man than religious adherent. Still, I hope that future mainstream stories don’t shy away from the religious, er, ghosts.

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We Believe

webelieve2 At its best, Get Religion is akin to what the Greenville Delta-Democrat Times was in the post-war white South: a rare publication that questions the establishment’s assumptions and reveals its sins of omission and commission.

Of course, the Delta-Democrat Times took aim at an entire ruling class, not just its members in the press, and its staff were, suffice to say, under physical danger, as GR staff are not. Yet few publications challenge in a serious way the press’ world view, and GR is one of them.

I hope that some of my stories for GR have been in this emperor-has-no-clothes vein. Four of my favorite stories sought to expose the media’s sins of omission:

New monks are revolutionaries” (Jan. 27, 2008) Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times is a fine reporter, but she focused on the lives of budding monastics and likely overlooked the major social critique these people were making.

Are Democrats not religious?” (Jan. 8, 2008) Ever since their nominee lost yet another presidential election, the Democrats were said to have gotten religion. So in the wake of the Iowa caucus, did journalists and pollster examine whether religious voters supported the Democrats? You probably know the answer to that one.

Missing a fact of life” (Dec. 8, 2007): Few reporters mention that on one question, biologists agree: in the overwhelming number of cases, human life begins at conception.

Paging Pat Moynihan” (Nov. 15, 2007) For more than four decades, the black family has been crumbling. So have reporters come up with an adequate explanation for this major trend? No.

A final story argued in essence that the media were engaging in wish fulfillment:

The Great Incremental Evangelical Crackup” (Nov. 17, 2007) Reporters told us repeatedly that evangelical voters were moving away from the Republican Party. Alas, this bit of conventional wisdom had little foundation in reality.

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Ghost in the Hrant Dink anniversary

Constantinople5 01I was going through some email from last week and found a note from a reader about coverage of the one-year anniversary of the death of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was killed after he challenged Turkey’s official teachings on the early 20th-century mass killings — or genocide — of Armenians.

Do you want to read a story that strives to ignore the religion angle of an international event? Check out the crucial part of the Associated Press report, as it appeared in the Boston Globe:

Hrant Dink, who was the editor of the minority Agos newspaper, was shot outside his office allegedly by a hardline nationalist teenager. His killing led to international condemnation and debate within Turkey about free speech. A murder trial … is taking place behind closed doors because the alleged gunman is a minor. A total of 19 suspects are on trial. …

Hrant Dink had sought to encourage reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, but several years before his death he was prosecuted under Turkish law for describing the early 20th-century mass killings of Armenians as genocide.

Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by genocide scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying that the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Turkey’s top politicians, including the prime minister, have vowed a thorough investigation into Dink’s killing. An Istanbul court is looking into allegations of official negligence or even collusion, but lawyers for Dink’s family have said the investigation is flawed.

That’s most of the story. Notice anything missing in that?

Now flash back one year to the International Herald Tribune report about the Dink funeral. This passage appears right after the lede:

The Armenian patriarch, Mesrob II, spoke out during Dink’s funeral service against curbs on freedom of expression and urged an expansion of the potentially thawing relations between Armenia and Turkey that have become evident since the slaying.

“It is unacceptable to judge and imprison someone because of his thoughts, let alone to kill him,” Mesrob said during the hourlong service at the Holy Mother of God Armenian Patriarchal Church. “It is mystical that his funeral turned into an occasion where Armenian and Turkish officials gathered together.”

More than 600 people squeezed into the 175-year-old church, and hundreds more followed the service from loudspeakers in the side rooms, while still more waited in the nearby alleys of the diversified neighborhood. Inside, white flowers in the shape of a cross lay on Dink’s coffin, as three close friends stood on each side holding candles tied with black ribbons.

Now, it is true that funerals take place inside churches — as a rule. Of course, Turkey is not your usual place, with its rigid attempts to maintain its unique status as a “secular Muslim” country.

So the status of the Armenian church — or any other church, for that matter — is at the very heart of this story. Dink was a Turkish-Armenian. Both sides of that troubled equation carry religious content.

All of this looms over one of the most important stories today in Western culture, which is the attempt to bring Turkey into the European Union. Turkey is, of course, the historic door between East and West and, today, between Europe and the Islamic world.

This fits into several other stories, such as the recent visit to Istanbul by Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis. Also, the current state of Christianity in that region may be impacted by the death — of cancer at the age of 69 — of the dynamic leader of the Orthodox Church in Greece, Archbishop Christodoulos.

So what do you think is the most symbolic issue facing Turkey, in its contacts with Greece at the moment? Here is a key passage near the end of the Times report, with a quote from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan:

Turkey, predominantly Muslim and less determinedly secular than in the past, will not recognize the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church as a religious leader of global standing. It contends that doing so would encourage separatism among religious minorities in Turkey. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is the spiritual leader of the world’s nearly 200 million Eastern Orthodox Christians. …

Mr. Erdogan brushed off the issue of Turkey’s recognition of the church’s international standing but hinted that progress was possible toward reopening the last Eastern Orthodox seminary in Turkey, on the island of Heybeliada, which was closed by Turkish courts in 1972.

Phanar2 01Now do the math. Bishops in Turkey — as well as the ecumenical patriarch — must be Turkish citizens. Yet the state closed the last seminary and monastery 35 years ago. How do you have a patriarch in the Phanar (the besieged headquarters of Eastern Orthodoxy in Turkey) if you have few, if any, bishops? How can you have bishops, in Eastern Orthodoxy, if you have no monks? How can you have Turkish priests if you have no seminary?

This issue has been dragging on and on and on, as I discovered during a visit to Istanbul a few years ago.

And what about that second photo with this post? Here is how I described this historic gate, after visiting the Phanar in 2004:

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar’s main gate because it was welded shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

I think there are religious ghosts — a few of them — in these stories. I hope the Associated Press and other news organizations will note them from time to time, such as follow-up stories on the anniversaries of highly symbolic murders.

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Short tmatt Orthodox comment

popeandpatriarchA reader named Jason Gilbert sent in a crisp little note that said: “Why is Tmatt not commenting on this story?”

This story” is the recent Charlotte Allen piece in the Wall Street Journal in which she offers a very negative review of the book “Encountering the Mystery: Perennial Values of the Orthodox Church,” written by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. The headline was blunt: “The Unorthodox Patriarch.”

I haven’t commented because we really don’t focus on book reviews all that much here at GetReligion, as opposed to hard news stories and news features. I know that Orthodox folks online are discussing the article quite a bit, as you would expect, and Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher saluted the article and let his readers chime in.

It really is hard for people to understand that Orthodoxy does not have a pope. Bartholomew I is a symbol of unity, a “first among equals” in a church of patriarchs and councils. But his pronouncements on, say, global warming do not have the same weight as would be claimed by a document coming from Pope Benedict XVI. And, of course, there are varying degrees of authority in papal documents and, of course, millions of Catholics ignore most of those statements anyway.

But Allen’s article is must reading, if you are considering reading the patriarch’s book. Frankly, there are many others I would recommend over it for those interested in Orthodoxy in the modern world. But that is hardly GetReligion material, is it.

So that’s my comment. Oh, and about this statement in the article:

In December 2006, Bartholomew, patriarch since 1991, was thrust under the world-wide media spotlight when he celebrated the Orthodox Divine Liturgy with Pope Benedict XVI. The two met in the tiny Church of St. George in the equally tiny patriarchal compound in Istanbul, all that remains of an Eastern Christian civilization on the Bosporus so glistening and powerful that for more than 1,500 years Constantinople called itself the “new Rome.”

Now that would have really been news. Using the word “with” makes it sound as if the pope and the patriarch concelebrated the Divine Liturgy, which they cannot do because Catholicism and Orthodoxy have been in a state of “impaired” Communion since the Great Schism of 1054. It would have been more accurate to say — check this reference — that the pope attended a celebration of the Divine Liturgy and, in fact, delivered a short homily. Also, wasn’t that liturgy service on Nov. 30?

So, I was not avoiding the article. GetReligion simply focuses, as much as possible, on hard news reports.

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Remembering Gordon Hinckley

hinckleyGordon Hinckley, the prophet and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints died Sunday at his home in Salt Lake City. News of his death was carried on most media outlets. I thought most media outlets did a great job conveying Hinckley’s importance to the church.

For example, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times has been covering the LDS quite a bit in the last year. Her write-up was informative, briefly touching on every major challenge and opportunity Hinckley oversaw:

In a faith that is relatively young, founded in 1830, Mr. Hinckley’s impact was formative. He traveled to 60 countries and dedicated 95 of the church’s 124 temples, some on sites that he himself had surveyed and selected. Wherever he went, he drew large crowds of church members waving white handkerchiefs, a sign of affection that began in Chile and spread.

With his buoyant personality and affinity for public relations, Mr. Hinckley made Mormonism more familiar to the public and more accepted in the Christian fold. He gave news conferences and was the first church president to sit for interviews on “60 Minutes” and “Larry King Live.” When the Winter Olympics went to Salt Lake City in 2002, the church’s home base, he guided the church outreach campaign.

To emphasize its commonality with other churches, he changed the church’s logo, making the words “Jesus Christ” in the church’s name much larger than “Latter-day Saints.” He arranged to make the church’s huge library of genealogical records publicly available on the Internet.

The Los Angeles Times‘ William Lobdell also had an informative and thorough analysis of Hinckley’s impact on the church. I thought this bit was quite interesting:

Hinckley was involved in most of the major decisions that have shaped Mormonism for more than three decades. On June 1, 1978, he was among the small group of church leaders gathered together when then-President Kimball received what Mormons consider a revelation that the church could drop its ban on allowing blacks into its priesthood.

In a high-profile controversy, Hinckley and other leaders in 1993 approved the excommunication of five prominent church members and severe discipline for another who publicly questioned portions of Mormon history and the legitimacy of an all-male priesthood, among other issues.

“Every individual in the church is free to think as he pleases,” Hinckley told the New York Times shortly after the decision. “But when an individual speaks openly and actively and takes measures to enlist others in opposition to the church . . . we feel there is cause for action.”

I hadn’t realized that a small group of church leaders were present for the revelation about blacks being able to enter the priesthood.

Note that Lobdell shows how Hinckley had a background in media and embraced the use of media to help him in his job.

Both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times did a good job of showing how beloved Hinckley was, how well he worked with the media and how his attitude of openness transformed what some saw as an insular church body.

I always prefer the Salt Lake Tribune for my Mormon news and this week has been no exception. You can read a bit about the likely next Mormon prophet, a former newsman! The story has some interesting predictions about how he will lead the LDS. There’s also a very thorough retrospective of Hinckley, a story about his love of history, his legacy of temple building, a transcript of a 2002 interview he gave focused on working with the media.

Many of the national news stories about Hinckley noted that his predecessors had been very ill while serving their presidencies. Some observers said that Hinckley had served as president longer than his 12-year term would indicate. Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Tribune did a great job of explaining why LDS presidents are always so old. Hinckley called it the church’s “gerontocracy problem.”

According to LDS teaching, the church presidency is held by a prophet who serves as God’s only spokesman on earth. After Joseph Smith was killed, Brigham Young took over that role. He had been the senior apostle in the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Ever since then, whoever has served the longest in that quorum has ascended to the presidency. Right now the men in the quorum range from age 55 to 90 and have served anywhere from a few months to over 40 years. Fletcher Stack explained how Hinckley helped church members rethink their view of church leadership:

Starting in 1981, Hinckley shouldered much of the work for three aging Mormon presidents (Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson and Howard W. Hunter) who became unable to fulfill everyday duties. But he had to be careful not to act as if he were usurping the prophet’s place.

During Benson’s decline, Hinckley constantly reassured the faithful that the prophet — though not appearing in public or going to the office — ratified every major decision. At the same time, Hinckley was clearly helping members to re-think their assumptions about church leadership. In 1992, he described the hierarchy’s “back-up system,” which allowed the other men to step up.

“When a man is ordained to the apostleship and set apart as a member of the Council of the Twelve, he is given the keys of the priesthood of God,” Hinckley said. “Each has the keys but is authorized to use them only to the degree granted him by the prophet of the Lord.”

Please let us know if you see any particularly good coverage of Hinckley as well as analysis of the incoming president.

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Define “cult” — give three examples

19b 01Long ago, during my days in the Church-State Studies program at Baylor University, I took a course on contemporary religious movements and “cults.”

The word “cult” is much like the word “fundamentalist.” One person’s cult is another person’s “sect” or another’s freethinking religious movement. And, you know what? That’s absolutely correct.

In that class, the veteran researcher on this topic stressed that there are sociological definitions of the word “cult” — often dealing with the role of prophetic figures who claim radical new revelations. Then there are theological definitions, in which the leaders of a religion use the word to describe those who have surrendered or radically altered major, historic doctrines in the faith.

There was a time when mainstream Christians used to pin the “c” word on Mormons, using both sociological and theological definitions. Hardly anyone does that, anymore, on the sociology side of the divide. Yet there are traditional Christian thinkers who continue to use the word “cult” to describe Mormons, due to the latter faith’s radically different doctrines about the nature of God. Click here for a column I once wrote on the struggles to understand why some people use the word “cult” in this context and others do not.

But the key is that you have to define this word, one way or another, if you are going to use it with any sense of integrity. This word demands a sense of perspective. Which is precisely what is missing in the recent Los Angeles Times piece that ran with the headline: “Radical Shiite cults draw concern in southern Iraq.” Here is the opening of the story:

NAJAF, IRAQ – Security official Abu Ali has reviewed hundreds of documents about the obscure messianic cult that incited deadly clashes last weekend at the height of Shiite Islam’s most important holiday.

The group, Abu Ali and other security and government officials say, wants to spark a war among Shiite Muslims.

Officials said the so-called Supporters of the Mahdi disrupted Shiite worshipers last weekend in Basra and Nasiriya and fought security forces, leaving as many as 80 people dead. In similar battles in January 2007, hundreds of members of another cult, Heaven’s Army, were killed.

Later in the story, we are given a tiny slice of information about the meaning of that crucial phrase “Supporters of the Mahdi.”

The Supporters of the Mahdi group is named after a figure Muslims believe will appear with Jesus to establish peace. Most Shiites believe the Mahdi is their 12th imam and a descendant of the prophet Muhammad who they say went into hiding in 878 and will return. Some cults believe they can hasten his return by spreading chaos.

There are several problems here. First of all, I do not believe that it is accurate to say that “Muslims believe” that the Mahdi will return at the end of all things. This doctrine has not — please correct me if I am wrong — been formalized as a Sunni teaching. Meanwhile, it is one of the defining characteristics of Shia faith and practice.

Thus, there is nothing particularly alarming in the name “Supporters of the Mahdi.” That’s like a Catholic group calling itself, “We Love the Pope.”

The question, of course, is, “What makes this group a ‘cult’ in comparison with traditional forms of the Shiite faith?” And that is where the story does not give us a single clue as to what is going on.

Are there Shiites who are NOT supporters, quote-unquote, of the Mahdi? What are the doctrinal differences between this group that is being hit with the “cult” word, as opposed to the more mainstream Shiite leaders they are trying to kill or drive out of power? If it is simply a matter of clashing tactics in the battlefield that is the alleged nation of Iraq, then why use a religious word — “cult”?

Or, is the newspaper using “cult” in some other way? Just asking.

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Church of the Jedi has a new hope

church of jediThe force is growing in North Wales. What started as something of an Internet joke has grown into something more significant and concrete as a group of Jedi-loving residents of Holyhead are taking their 2001 census statements seriously that their religion is Jedi.

From a journalistic angle, I am not sure how I would have treated this story out of the Daily Mail. In one sense, it is an endearing story of a group of people taking their love for science fiction a little too seriously. But then again, Jedi ranked as the fourth most cited religion in the 2001 census of England and Wales and the third largest in Scotland. What these statistics tell us about the United Kingdom is a completely separate story, but it is certainly worth noting.

What this story does tell us is a bit about what the religion’s followers believe and teach:

“We will have teachings based on Yoda – the 900-year-old grand master – as well as readings, essays submitted, meditation and relaxation, visualisation and discuss healthy eating.

“The Jedi religion is about life improvement, inner peace and changing your lifestyle so you have a more fulfilling existence.

“It’s based on the films but we have brought things into it because the films are a bit more sci-fi.

“But we have developed on the film’s teachings, introducing teachings we believe the Jedi Knights would seek.

“We used to watch the films over and over again and it came about from that.”

There will be no chance of their empire striking back at people who mock the Jedi, as they are a peace-loving bunch, said Barney.

Of course, there is a lot more that could be said about the Jedi philosophy/theology (consider this from tmatt a whole decade ago). For more on all of that, I recommend Stan Guthrie’s 2005 interview with faith and culture commentator Dick Staub (ironically just posted on the Web this morning). Staub says that the stories by filmmaker George Lucas are “more theologically attuned with Hinduism, but there are some Christian themes embedded in the stories:

George Lucas created an epic tale that taps into the universal themes of good versus evil, and did it in what was at the time a next-edge use of technology and special effects. The alienation of parents and children and allusions to the spiritual and unseen connected at a deep level with a generation seeking something more. A great story and an advancement of filmmaking combined for a memorable and enduring series.

The other thing that I cannot help but think of when I think of science fiction and religion is Scientology.

Scientology of course is the beliefs and practices started by another (less successful) American fiction author L. Ron Hubbard in 1952. This Daily Mail story does not mention this connection, but that is probably appropriate. Scientology is a highly organized and secretive organization while these Jedi followers seem to be just the opposite of organized and have little to hide.

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When controversy speaks for itself (updated)

jesuskrishnaLos Angeles Times reporter K. Connie Kang had another interesting story on the Godbeat or, in this case, the gods beat. Yes, the Episcopalians are involved.

It seems that the Diocese of Los Angeles hosted an interfaith service with Hindus at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral there on Saturday. Kang simply reported it without any analysis, which I think is good for an initial story on what turned out to be a rather controversial event. She described how a Hindu nun blew into a conch shell to begin the Indian Rite Mass. A band from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (aka Hare Krishna) chanted during the service.

The article is full of fascinating quotes from participants and observers:

During the service, the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, issued a statement of apology to the Hindu religious community for centuries-old acts of religious discrimination by Christians, including attempts to convert them.

“I believe that the world cannot afford for us to repeat the errors of our past, in which we sought to dominate rather than to serve,” Bruno said in a statement read by the Rt. Rev. Chester Talton. “In this spirit, and in order to take another step in building trust between our two great religious traditions, I offer a sincere apology to the Hindu religious community.”

The bishop also said he was committed to renouncing “proselytizing” of Hindus.

The comment went over well with the Hindu leaders who were honored during the service. I’m not sure how it went over with the Christians in Orissa and other Indian states. Kang also did a good job with play-by-play coverage during another part of the service:

All were invited to Holy Communion, after the Episcopal celebrant elevated a tray of consecrated Indian bread, and deacons raised wine-filled chalices.

In respect to Hindu tradition, a tray of flowers was also presented. Christians and Hindus lined up for communion, but since Orthodox Hindus shun alcohol, they consumed only the bread.

The sermon emphasized commonalities between Christianity and Hinduism, according to Kang.

Last week I noted that stories fail to explain why the Episcopal Church is so aggressive about property issues but not doctrinal issues. And with this story we have yet another example of why this needs to be explained by reporters.

For instance, Canon I.17.7 of the Episcopal Church (.pdf link here — see page 55) explicitly prohibits administering Holy Communion to unbaptized persons:

Sec. 7. No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.

And yet this service, hosted by none other than the Los Angeles Diocese, clearly offered communion to unbaptized people. Now let’s go to property disputes. The Episcopal Church’s argument for why it should retain the property in the disputes with the departed parishes is on the basis of another canon (Canon I.7.4 — page 40 of the previous link):

All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitution and Canons.

Wouldn’t a story examining the disparity between which canons are enforced and which canons are not enforced be interesting? Put another way, why are some bishops free to violate some canons while other bishops are threatened with punishment if they permit their dioceses to even vote about whether to realign? I’m sure the Episcopal authorities have their reasons, but we need to hear what those are. Why aren’t reporters asking them to explain how this works?

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times made a major, major, major correction to this story. So major, in fact, that we may have to look at this in an another post:


Hindu-Episcopal service: An article in Sunday’s California section about a joint religious service involving Hindus and Episcopalians said that all those attending the service at St. John’s Cathedral in Los Angeles were invited to Holy Communion. Although attendees walked toward the Communion table, only Christians were encouraged to partake of Communion. Out of respect for Hindu beliefs, the Hindus were invited to take a flower. Also, the article described Hindus consuming bread during Communion, but some of those worshipers were Christians wearing traditional Indian dress.

I’ve personally seen communion offered to non-Christians at Episcopal services in Washington and San Francisco. Others have publicly attested to the same — in the Los Angeles diocese and other locations. And, therefore, the questions I posed at the end of this post remain.

But, oh man, is this a major error. I’d love some more context for how this correction came about and where things fell apart. Please let us know if you know anything.

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