You say Namaste, I say yoga-blessing-thank-you hands

KerryBowsToward the end of the 2004 presidential election, I grew more curious about John Kerry’s habit of clasping his hands together and bowing to his audience. I’d seen the gesture before, mostly among Episcopal women who would say “Namaste” (which, they said, means “The God [or god] in me bows to the God in you”).

I asked GetReligion FOB Gary Gach, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism, if he saw potential for a post on any spiritual content behind the gesture. Gach pointed me to this entry on page 156 of his book:

Two basic gestures practitioners use are in bowing and in meditation. Bowing is a meditation, in and of itself, and can be done just by joining palms, a universal gesture of spirit. There’s a famous etching by Albrecht Dürer of two hands praying, as if by themselves. In the East, putting palms and fingers together is a gesture of spiritual greeting, instead of shaking hands. In India and Thailand, you put your palms together at your chest and raise them to your forehead, often followed by a bow, still in that position — eyes and joined hands going outward and down to a spot on the ground equidistant between the greeter and the greeted. A bow can also be a quarter-inch. However done, bow or no bow, “palms-joined” says “The Buddha within me salutes the Buddha within you” (no dualism). “Have a nice day.”

On Wednesday’s edition of Fresh Air, Terry Gross found a humorous pop-culture description of the West’s truncated Namaste greeting. Speaking with Lisa Kudrow and writer Michael Patrick King of the new HBO series The Comeback, Gross remarked on how often Kudrow’s character, former celebrity Valerie Cherish, will bow to a TV crew or director as an assertion of power she doesn’t truly have.

Kudrow: The first thing that always came to mind with her, she’s like that bad old-time ad guy, that if you sell it and you sell it well enough, they’ll believe it, even if there’s absolutely no substance there to support what you’re trying to sell. That’s one thing that I was hoping would be really obvious, that she’s just a little bit over the top with her very assertive demand respect. It only comes up — she doesn’t address it when she’s actually getting pummeled.

King: I also wanted to mention something, Terry, about the hands. You were talking about her bowing all the time, earlier. We call those the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands. We laugh so hard, because that also is a little bit of a virus that’s running rampant in the actress community. Now you’ll start seeing it a lot. A lot of actresses do the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands — to interviewers, to people bringing them their lattes. Suddenly the hands come up. I’ve had actresses do it to me . . . when I say, “That was a really good scene,” they go — here come the hands — “No, you. No, it’s about you.” But it’s never about you. It’s about you saying “It’s about you.” So what we liked about the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands was that it was accurate and goofy. She’ll try to squeeze them in as she’s going out the door. Sometimes you’ll see just the tips of the hands as the door closes.

Kudrow: It’s a phony gesture of grace.

King: Yes! And centered spirituality, which she wouldn’t even know how to spell!

Each time King refers to yoga-blessing-thank-you hands, Gross lets loose with her wonderful chuckle. The segment on yoga-blessing-thank-you hands begins at about 21 minutes in, but the entire 31-minute interview is worth a listen.

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GetReligion gets results

Well, it looks like my gentle prodding about Romania has paid off in the form of a new Matt Welch column. Welch (pictured) begins:

If Romania didn’t exist, would have to invent it. Seems not a week goes by without another freakshow headline from the land of Vlad the Impaler — 66-year-old Woman Gives Birth, Driver Fined for Having ‘Face Like a Moron,’ and this weekend, Murder Charge for Nun-Crucifying Romanian Priest.

On behalf of my Romanian friends, all of whom are much smarter and more sophisticated than me, I’d like to report that their homeland is not an easy place to find quotes like, “They took out his heart, burnt it and drank the ashes in a glass of water.” But I’d be lying.

A year ago, I spent a weekend in a small subsistence-farming village in southern Romania near the Danube, and heard that exact same heart-gobbling story told by several different people about separate incidents, though if memory serves it was tea and not water that washed down the blood-organ of the dearly departed. An energetic local Orthodox priest, one of the best commie-haters I’ve ever met, explained and demonstrated in detail how his parishioners cling to the spooky pre-Christian superstitions of their ancestors, who have lived in the fertile Oltenia region for something like 6,000 consecutive years.

“Ask any priest in this region, and he’ll tell you he knows these things are going on,” he said. “I know it sounds like a bad B movie, but it’s a pagan ritual that happens several times a year . . . Before the dead is put in the coffin, his relatives insert a needle above his bellybutton to prevent him from becoming a strigoi. But if he is already buried, they have to dig up his grave in the middle of the night. The family drinks a lot before opening the coffin!”

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The Sunday Times visits the pro-family petting zoo

WookiesDespite its patronizing “Well, duh” headline — “What’s Their Real Problem With Gay Marriage? (It’s the Gay Part)” — Russell Shorto’s 8,000-word essay for The New York Times Magazine strives to understand conservatives who oppose gay marriage. But just as these conservatives speak of gay couples as exotic and baffling people, Shorto treats the conservatives with a sense of bewilderment.

Shorto writes, for example:

But for the anti-gay-marriage activists, homosexuality is something to be fought, not tolerated or respected. I found no one among the people on the ground who are leading the anti-gay-marriage cause who said in essence: “I have nothing against homosexuality. I just don’t believe gays should be allowed to marry.” Rather, their passion comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: it seeks to spread itself.

More than once, Shorto seems perplexed at the absence of an “I just don’t believe gays should be allowed to marry” approach. Should this be surprising? If these conservatives had nothing against homosexuality itself, their opposing gay marriage would be merely an expression of arbitrary discrimination. (I realize many people consider their actions arbitrary discrimination anyway.) If these conservatives weren’t convinced that homosexual sex is sinful or immoral — I’ll leave aside the disease arguments and analogies — they could easily find better issues to engage their political energies.

Of course, this view of homosexuality — seeing it as a disorder to be cured — is not new. It was cutting-edge thinking circa 1905. While most of society — including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association, the World Health Organization and many other such groups — eventually came around to the idea that homosexuality is normal, some segments refused to go along. And what was once a fairly fringe portion of the population has swelled in recent years, as has its influence.

To engage this chronological snobbery on its own terms: the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973, so conservatives are apparently seven decades less behind the curve than Shorto suggests.

Shorto’s conclusion is an eloquent illustration of how gay activists and conservative activists often do not interpret even a brief conversation in the same way:

When I last spoke with Lisa Polyak, she said she was pleased that the Legislature had shown courage in addressing the civil rights of gay couples but sickened that conservative activists and the state’s governor wanted to deny them those rights. Oddly enough, though, Polyak, who once thought of this whole issue as essentially about civil rights, says that she is now in it for something more profound: she doesn’t want her children to grow up with a stigma. “I want to lift the psychic burden on my family,” she said.

That means changing hearts. How difficult that will be was illustrated by a single vignette. When I met Polyak, she told me how, when she first testified before a legislative committee, an anti-gay-marriage activist, a woman, confronted her with bitter language, asking her why she was “doing this” to the woman’s children and grandchildren. Polyak said the encounter left her shaken. A few days later, as I sat in Evalena Gray’s Christmas-lighted basement office, she told me a story of how during the same testimony she approached a blond lesbian and talked to her about the effect that gay marriage would have on her grandchildren. “Then I hugged her neck,” she said, “and I said, ‘We love you.’ I was kind of consoling her to some extent, out of compassion.”

I realized I was hearing about the same encounter from both sides. What was expressed as love was received as something close to hate. That’s a hard gap to bridge.

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The P-word surfaces at the Indy Star

Here is a case worth following, not only to see the outcome but to see how MSM outlets cover it — if they do.

The back story to this inside-baseball news story is that The Indianapolis Star — once a very culturally conservative newsroom and, especially, editorial page — has been pulled into the Gannett world, which is always going to lead to some changes. Now this happens:

Two former editorial writers at The Indianapolis Star have sued the newspaper and its owner, Gannett Co., claiming religious, racial and age discrimination.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court, former editorial board members James Patterson and Lisa Coffey said top newsroom managers “consistently and repeatedly demonstrated . . . a negative hostility toward Christianity.”

Neither of these people appear to be Religious Right plants in the newsroom. They seem to be, well, fairly normal people in Indiana. Perhaps that is the problem.

Note that, once again, the key word in the script is “proselytizing.” But this raises all kinds of questions, based on the few details we have in print at this time.

Does the P-word apply when people write an editorial that encourages citizens to pray for the U.S. troops in Iraq? Is it “proselytizing” to oppose the Gannett chain’s stance on gay rights? This latter issue surfaces in the Star‘s own mini-story on the case. Does the P-word apply if, let’s say, the editorial page backs some kind of Democratic Party effort to blend faith and economic justice?

I will try to keep tabs on this. Has anyone else seen coverage of this case on j-blogs?

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The meaning of life

Bet you didn’t know this:

Egypt will not be the first predominantly Muslim country to conduct stem-cell research. Iranian scientists developed human embryonic stem-cell lines in 2003 with the approval of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader . . . Singapore, where Muslims have a slight majority, has also produced embryonic stem-cell lines. And nonembryonic stem-cell research is conducted in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia . . .

In 2003, a scholar in Cairo issued a fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) stating that therapeutic cloning of embryos would be considered lawful and could be compared to the accepted practice of donating cells, tissues, or organs for transplants . . .

Some other Muslim groups and countries support both embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning, such as Turkey, the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology in Egypt, and the National Fatwa Council in Malaysia.

It’s all from a decent piece in The Christian Science Monitor on how Islam is dealing with the issue of stem-cell research. Like Judaism, Mormonism, and a few other faiths, much of Islam holds to some version of “ensoulment” (that is, the soul is joined to the body at some point after conception). So, within certain bounds, using embryos to extract stem cells may not be considered a violation of Sharia.

“Unlike the Vatican in Catholicism,” reporter Christl Dabu explains, “Islam does not have a centralized authority to state a position. Most Muslim countries — including Egypt — don’t yet have laws concerning embryonic stem-cell research and cloning.”

On the ground in Egypt, she found that “Some Muslims . . . are open to allowing embryonic stem-cell research, saying the embryo does not have a soul until later stages in its development. But others agree with Coptic Orthodox and Catholic clergy, who say it is immoral, even infanticide, to destroy embryos at any stage to harvest stem cells.”

It will be interesting to watch how this debate shakes out. I hope the Monitor circles back to the subject before too long.

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Sacred and wicked candles

This is a Chicago Tribune story, but I just ran into it while reading through the drifts of South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspapers that collected while I was in Washington, D.C. The tradition of burning candles is, of course, very ancient. Try to find a reference to public ritual in the Bible that does not involve this tradition (and incense).

I had no idea that the whole seven-day candle phenomenon was this modern. In fact, I am going to try to do some more digging online to see if reporter Monica Eng has this straight. Hey Amy Welborn, if you are reading this, let us know what you think! Ditto for you, Dawn Eden.

But here is the part of the story that amazed me. It turns out that this very populist form of devotion has, well, spread into other parts of life. If you live in the right kind of ethnic neighborhood, you can find all of this at the local grocery store. Who knew?

The use of these candles has evolved far beyond a religious context. On the same Web site and even on the same store shelf, you can find Virgin Mary candles not far from “D.U.M.E. Black List” candles that are purported to help you, well, kill your enemies.

More common uses include attracting a specific mate with a “Come to Me” candle while simultaneously sabotaging the mate’s current relationship with a “Break Up” candle. According to Carlos Soto, manager at Indio Products, a chain of botanicas in Southern California, the “Come to Me” + “Break Up” combo is his No. 1 seller.

Isn’t that kind of mean? “Not really,” Soto says, “because usually [the customer] is a woman . . . whose husband or boyfriend is cheating, so she is just getting back what was hers.”

Be careful what you pray for, people. You might get it.

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Pedro offers you his protection

vote pedroThree cheers for Paul Nussbaum’s witty lede on a Philadelphia Inquirer feature about evangelicals and politics:

The only bumper sticker on the Rev. Ted Haggard’s red pickup truck proclaims: Vote for Pedro.

Haggard, founder and senior minister of the 11,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, is president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Pedro is Pedro Sanchez, the inscrutable candidate for class president in the screwball comedy movie Napoleon Dynamite.

This is not the politics usually associated with evangelical Christians.

(Surely there has to be at least one wingnut trying to crack the code this very evening, to demonstrate with geometric logic that P-E-D-R-O = G-B-U-S-H.)

In a brief sidebar, Nussbaum lists variations on the evangelical theme, including evangelical Catholics (a concept debated here when Time chose Richard John Neuhaus as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America):

Catholic evangelicals This counterintuitive term identifies Roman Catholics who embrace much of the public-witness style of evangelical Protestants. “They have the fire and zeal usually associated with evangelicals,” said William Portier, a religious studies professor at the University of Dayton and the author of the recent essay, “Here Come the Evangelical Catholics.” Portier estimates the number of evangelical Catholics at 10 percent to 20 percent of the under-40 Catholic population.

No striking insights here, and nothing especially new to people who watch the evangelicals-and-politics story regularly, but Nussbaum deserves points for moving past some of the most tired stereotypes.

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The soul of the Rev. Al Green

I think it was Elvis Costello who once, when asked if he believed in miracles, thought about it and said something to this effect: Well, I have seen Al Green. That is a start, if you want to find the holy grail of R&B. But what about the Rev. Al Green?

That’s a bigger story. I have, for a week, been trying to get a link up and running to this fine news feature by music critic George Varga at The San Diego Union-Tribune. This story takes the spiritual side of Green’s work seriously, but does not turn him into some kind of shaman.

The key to the whole situation is that Green’s talent is real and so is his faith. The questions about the tense turf in between the stage and the pulpit are real, too. But this is not a new question. Others have been there and managed to hold both sides together. But it is tricky. Varga basically deals with the facts and lets this Green update unfold. Here is a solid chunk of it. Enjoy.

(It) wasn’t until recently that Green, who in April was ordained as a bishop by Pentecostal Bishop Albert E. Reed of the Church of God & Christ in Memphis, really felt comfortable embracing non-devotional music. And he is still stung by the scorn heaped on him from various religious circles, including members of his Memphis congregation, for recording a pop duet in 1988 with Annie Lennox. . . .

The song was a remake of Jackie DeShannon’s uplifting 1969 hit, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” But no matter. His outspoken critics were incensed that Lennox wasn’t born-again, and they let him know it — especially after the song became a Top 10 pop hit.

“‘Put a Little Love in Your Heart?’ What could be more religious than that?” Green asked. “I just couldn’t understand their (objections). “There is a whole cauldron of religious people having such frustrations with love and happiness. . . . And I didn’t have any problem with that, otherwise I wouldn’t have sung it. I started evaluating all the things they had a problem with, and they had a problem with everything. So I went to re-evaluate, really, what all they had problems with. They had problems with everything that doesn’t seem to have a Jesus righteousness, a God reflection, to it.

“But not only did God make Sunday, He made Monday, too, and Tuesday, Wednesday. . . . So if God made all those days, he’s in all our days, not just the one you want to put him in.”

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