Chasing the Monitor

Perhaps The Christian Science Monitor did have a hot story in post-election Iraq. At least, the Los Angeles Times has followed up with a major story, with the headline: “Iraq’s Sunni Arabs Seek Their Voice.” Reporter Richard Boudreaux notes: “The chief, Mazin Jaber Nima, said the Sunni Arab-led insurgency against American troops would falter if Sunni Arabs joined in the U.S.-backed creation of a new political order. Applause filled the Babylon Hotel’s ballroom, but the next speaker was undeterred. “The subject today is how to represent the Sunni people in the political process,” argued Sheik Isam Sheikhli. “Do we do it with slogans? If we go on like this, we will not achieve a thing.” Uh, is it just me or is the time element rather weak in this story? When was this?

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You knew this was coming

I meant to put this up earlier, but decided not to double up on the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc’s latest Ashley Smith post. Veteran USA Today religion scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman landed the interview that everyone knew was coming sooner or later — with Purpose-Driven Pastor Rick Warren. As it turns out, he has been counseling Smith via telephone and email, although that took some doing since he was in Africa. Africa is also the beneficiary of many, many of the dollars he has earned with his best-selling books. There are other crisp details in the story, which can be found in the Christianity Today weblog guide to the Smith story. Here is a choice quote from Grossman’s short but newsy story: “Warren steered any credit back to God and the Bible. “There’s not a single new thought in Purpose-Driven Life that hasn’t been said in historic Christianity or Judaism. I’m just a communicator for the 21st century.”

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Terri speaks! — from Heaven

SoultoHeaven.jpgIt’s the sort of glurge one expects in the Inspirational category of sympathy cards at the chain grocery story: the human soul is in Heaven, watching our every movement with newly acquired supernatural powers. Except in this case the body is not dead yet:

I am Terri Schiavo. I died and my soul came to Heaven long ago. What was left behind wasn’t me. It was the body I used to live in.

When I look down and see pictures in the newspapers of my body — gape-mouthed, blank-staring — it makes me sick. Is my body some circus curiosity?

Let my body die and let me rest in peace.

So Terri Schiavo can now write a letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch? From Heaven, no less? Who knew? (It did require channeling her thoughts to a resident of Montross, Virginia.)

This ostensibly Christian understanding of the ethical debate swirling around Terri Schiavo is becoming increasingly common among churchgoers, if a report by Neela Banerjee in this morning’s New York Times is any indication.

Banerjee’s article is a good roundup of what churchgoers had to say as they left worship services Sunday in Boston, Chicago, Washington and New Orleans. Many worshipers speak of how their confidence in going to Heaven would free them from anxieties about any suffering they experience as they die.

But some express an understanding of the soul that is — how else to say this? — biblically illiterate:

After 9:30 Mass at Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago, Stephanie Zacharias, a 34-year-old personal trainer, said she saw a correlation between Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection and the Schiavo case. “Terri Schiavo deserves to end her suffering on this earth and go to a better place just like Jesus did,” Ms. Zacharias said. “What is her life? What kind of life is that? She’s a shell. Her soul is not living. I think she died 15 years ago and her body is just being kept alive to comfort somebody else.”

The Times never explains the church’s historic teaching that the soul animates the body, that the soul and body are separated at physical death and that the soul and body are reunited at the end of time.

Even Gnosticism normally would not say that the soul is gone when a body remains alive. Were a Gnostic to write in the name of Terri Schiavo, the message might be: “My pure spirit is imprisoned in this corrupt body. Please free me from it.”

But for Americans even that is not a sufficiently cheery presentation of Terri Schiavo’s condition. Instead, we are told she is strolling about Heaven already, or her soul is dead, regardless of what her body is doing.

In contrast, George Felos — Michael Schiavo’s attorney — offers a less authoritative answer on what Terri’s soul may be up to. Sharon Tubbs of the St. Petersburg Times wrote a sharp-eyed profile of Felos in 2001, before he had published his book Litigation as Spiritual Practice (“This book is a miracle,” says Conversations With God author Neale Donald Walsch).

Tubbs mentions in the profile that Felos says one disabled woman’s soul spoke to his and asked, “Why am I still here?”

But he’s reserving comment on Terri:

Does Felos believe Terri Schiavo’s soul has spoken to his?

Felos declines to answer, showing his lawyerly side. “It’s a pending case,” he says.

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Howard's means

blairbush.jpgOpinion polls are sharply divided in the coming U.K. general elections, expected to be called by Prime Minister Tony Blair for early May. According to the YouGov poll, published in The Daily Telegraph, the Conservatives are polling almost even with Labour. But The Independent comes in with bad news: a 12-point Labour lead.

Polls show that voters expect Labour would raise taxes and Conservatives would cut spending. Conservative Party leader Michael Howard has tried to assure voters that essential public spending will not be cut. When deputy party chairman Howard Flight suggested otherwise, the party leader not only sacked him but barred him from standing for Parliament on the Tory ticket.

But the most interesting thing to emerge from the Tory campaign is what Guardian columnist Nick Clegg labels a “savagely populist” approach to electoral politics. Under Howard, the Tories have promised to cut taxes, crack down on immigration and asylum, toughen up laws on crime, and restrict abortion.

An abortion in can be procured in the U.K. into the 24th week of a pregnancy. Howard has promised to cut that number back to 20, which has won the praise of both Anglican and Catholic leaders in the country. The reaction to this proposal has put Tony Blair on the defensive. In a now infamous speech in South London, Blair said that he did not want to see Britain adopt “an American style of politics, with us all going out there beating our chest about our faith.”

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Rise and shine, American Evangelicals

Sunrise reflection.jpgFirst of all, I hope this is a blessed Easter for all of the Western Christians in our readership.

It is another month until Pascha for those of us in Eastern Orthodoxy and this wide gap between the two dates is going to be more common in the future. But that is not the story for today.

No, I want to join the Los Angeles Times in asking American Protestants this question: What time did you get up this morning? Or, if you are in a liturgical church, what time did you get to bed last night or this morning? And did the timing of your alarm clock have anything to do with something called “church tradition” or even “Church Tradition”?

I ask this, because reporter Natasha Lee has taken a lighthearted, but at times disturbing, look inside the fading “tradition” of Protestant churches assembling for sunrise Easter services. The headline was nifty: “More Worshipers Pulling the Shades on Sunrise Service.”

The bottom line is the bottom line: If people don’t want to get up early, and the goal is to gather the largest number of people in the pews (or whatever), then what is the argument in favor of a service at any particular time on the clockface? In the “free church” tradition, what authority is there for any issue in worship?

This is a news story about liturgical majority rule and, to quote G.K. Chesterton, the saints do not have the right to vote. Here is a sample of Lee’s story:

While some Christian churches still faithfully hold sunrise services on Easter, the popularity of such events has waned among younger people and families with children who are reluctant to get out of bed that early.

Traditionally a Protestant practice, sunrise services are held just before dawn in honor of Christ rising from the dead after the crucifixion.

Many Southern California churches prefer to hold outdoor services because darkness turning into daylight is symbolic of Christ shedding his physical body to take on a spiritual form. The image of dawn is significant in Christian theology because it signals the end of the dark days surrounding the crucifixion, said Eddie Gibbs, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

The story only briefly notes that Roman Catholics rarely attend such services. The unasked question is “Why?” Where are they?

It would be interesting to know if Lee realized that there is another story haunting this one. If Protestant sunrise Easter services are fading, many liturgical churches — East and West — are struggling to inspire their people to take part in the truly ancient traditions linked to the Easter or Pascha vigil that begins in the middle of the night, with midnight as the moment when the rites kick into high gear. The breaking-the-fast feast that follows is one of the high points of the Orthodox year. But what if people don’t want to stay up that late?

Meanwhile, it does seem that more evangelical churches are simply putting this Easter issue up to a vote. Others may try to do a better job of marketing these sunrise services. Check out the wonderful section of Lee’s story about the “Espresso Yourself” rites at one church.

This is a fine story, even if it is incomplete. Perhaps Lee can return to this topic in a month, at Pascha.

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Flat earth, flat tax, same dif

laughin.jpg By chance today, I watched a segment on CNN’s In the Money. Host Jack Cafferty shifted from discussing Social Security to discussing the Terri Schiavo case like so:

“Meantime, the battle over Terri Schiavo may have been fought in the courts, but the real noise was on the sidelines. Some Republicans picked up an issue galvanizing the Christian right and ran with it all the way to the federal courts. But how good an idea was that? Like gay marriage and the conflict over abortion, the Schiavo case has some politicians taking a fundamentalist position and making it their own.”

His guest Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, chirped right in. She said Republicans thought they owned the “the values issue” but that this case demonstrates “there are a lot of values in this country” and they don’t necessarily line up with the “religious right,” which has “not only demonized the secular but it’s hijacked the word ‘religious.’”

Cafferty asked if this case provided an opening for the Democrats. Jacoby said it may, but she claimed to be “very discouraged” about the politics of the case thus far.

She was “truly shocked that not a single Democratic senator had the courage to stand up and in fact speak the language of values and say, my values, my religion, my beliefs, don’t allow us to intervene in this kind of family affair.”

Jacoby said this was “a situation in which Democrats have been absolutely terrified by this idea that George Bush won because he owned the, quote, ‘values issue.’”

There was a quick detour into states’ rights and then Cafferty returned to the point:

“The right wing of the Republican party will never vote for a Democrat either, ever, ever, ever, ever. From where I sit, it seems to me the Democrats are missing a golden opportunity here.

“If you were advising the Democratic party on this whole issue — the discussion of the intrusion of religion into government, et cetera, et cetera — what would you be telling them to do here?”


“I would tell them . . . exactly what you said, that you are never going to get people who believe that the world was created in seven days, literally to vote for you. You are never going to get the far religious right to vote for you.”

Glad we cleared that up.

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OK, tell me you did not see this one coming. The digital Talmud? Why not? In fact, I am amazed that there isn’t an entire seminary curriculum loaded onto iPods somewhere. What happens to doctrine when you hit shuffle? Here is a taste of reporter Alex Mindlin’s report in (naturally) The New York Times: “At the door, handing out leaflets beside the Jews for Jesus and the teenage collectors for Jewish charities, was a 23-year-old entrepreneur named Yehuda Shmidman, who was passing out glossy brochures showing a bearded, black-hatted Orthodox Jew, in silhouette, wearing a pair of white ear buds. Shmidman’s product, the ShasPod, is a solution to a vexing question: How does a commuter study a 2,711-page book?”

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Ashley Smith's vilification begins

AshleySmith2.jpgThe story of Ashley Smith’s heroism was bound to annoy some journalists as being too pat, too unbelievable, too much of a redemptive ending in a story of carnage and mayhem. Lee Siegel, television critic of The New Republic, raises some fair questions about whether Smith’s story should be accepted uncritically, although reporters will have a difficult time gaining access to her captor, Brian Nichols, for some time to come.

Siegel’s tone turns petty, however, when he characterizes CNN’s coverage of Smith as an attempt to gain an audience among the 20 million readers of Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life.

In Siegel’s essay, those 20 million people represent the dark underbelly of American culture. He reaches a cranky conclusion from one remark by Ashley Smith’s aunt:

When asked by The New York Times to comment on Ashley’s ordeal, Smith’s aunt said, repeating a point made by [the] Reverend [Frank] Page and others, that Smith won over Nichols because she was a broken person: “I don’t think that a socialite or a squeaky clean could have done that.” “Squeaky clean” means a Gore, or a Kerry, guys who are also socialites, and married to socialites, and who followed all the rules. Insofar as they agree with Smith’s aunt, the 20 million would be more likely to vote for Brian Nichols than for a Squeaky Clean who might make them feel bad about themselves. Perhaps the longer they live, the more they despise the human being — because there is nary a peep from the pastors and ministers who have emerged from the 20 million about the murder victims, or about the girlfriend allegedly raped by Nichols, or about the place God had for the 4 dead people in his plan. For the 20 million, these abstract 4 seem to be expendable in the vast perspective of God’s purpose.

Here’s the full paragraph from the Timesreport:

“She felt the sadness and she felt the aloneness; she could relate,” said Kimberly Rogers, an aunt who is caring for Ms. Smith’s 5-year-old daughter, Paige. “I don’t think a socialite or a squeaky clean could have done that.”

Can’t you feel the Gore-and-Kerry hatred oozing from every word?

Siegel faults reporters for taking Smith at her word when she said The Purpose-Driven Life touched something in Nichols’ soul. Yet he is supposed to divine what Kimberly Rogers meant by the phrase “squeaky clean”?

On a more encouraging front, Washington Jewish Week has published an adapted sermon in which Rabbi Philip Pohl compares Smith to the heroine from the book of Esther.

Now, the Book of Esther never mentions God. God is nowhere to be seen, or heard, at least not directly. It is as if all the evil planning causes God to hide. The rabbis point out the similarity between the name Esther and the Hebrew term Ah-steer, meaning “I will hide.”

It took a woman, a total stranger from nowhere, to remind Nichols and everyone else, that even when God seems furthest away, there are methods and opportunities to bring God back to us. We just have to search harder, and find help wherever it is offered.

The Jewish people review this lesson every year, from the political insights of Mordechai, from the hatred of the evil Haman, but most of all from the courage and bravery of Queen Esther.

. . . Thank you to Smith for all the lives you saved, for demonstrating trust in all of humanity and faith in God, and, for something you could hardly have intended — teaching me and perhaps others why indeed the Book of Esther found such a prominent place in our holy Bible.

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