No comment: Beliefnet offers an April Fool’s Day giggle

aprilfools_oprah.gifWe will not be observing April Fool’s Day here at GetReligion, in large part because the world already has plenty of religion news stories that verge on satire. Who needs to make this stuff up? Nevertheless, the people at Beliefnet plunged in there anyway, raising St. Oprah of the Mall of America to the status of Goddess and part of the newly formed Quadhead, which replaces the Trinity. Negotiators for the various faith groups involved also considered naming this innovation “the Quartet” or the “Quadrangel.”

So file this quickly under the “no comment needed” department, along with whatever spiritual growth Britney has managed to pull off (no, wait, bad choice of words) in the past 48 hours or so. As an Orthodox guy, I did like the following touch in the Beliefnet article:

Not all denominations fell into line. The Old Believers of the Russian Orthodox Church question whether Ms. Winfrey proceeds “by an eternal procession from the Father and the Son,” or proceeds simply from the Father. “We’re also concerned that the current structure leaves no room for the possible addition of Dr. Phil,” says Archimandrite Thomas Hopko.

Oh, and notice that the Beliefnet graphic shows Oprah as a saint. A brief little test here. If they wanted to stick her into the Godhead, they would have had to have added her into what famous icon? Sitting at what table? (No this has nothing to do with the Da Vinci Code.)

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Creeping Fundamentalism V: The gospel of the New York Times

The political and journalistic implications of that article by Jack Beatty are somewhat stunning, if you stop and think about it.

This makes me think of a similar, worldview-revealing statement in a New York Times article back in March of 1999. It was in a magazine profile of an anti-abortion activist who had veered far outside the mainstream pro-life movement and, apparently, out into the foreign territory of lethal violence. As he concluded his article, writer David Samuels made the following observation about issues of right and wrong, truth and error:

It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy. … Perhaps sacrifice in the name of a higher good — God, Marx, freedom or whatever the good of the moment happens to be — is admirable only as long as you support the cause. Or perhaps, in the absence of absolutes, we must judge beliefs not by their inherent righteousness but by their visible consequences.

Now am I reading that right? Is the point that Samuels is making this: For normal people, like New York Times reporters and our friends, the only objective truth is that there are no objective truths? Thus, anyone who believes otherwise — be they academics, artists, clerics, journalists or even holders of high office — is, well, “crazy.” They are probably dangerous.

So take that, Pope John Paul II. And all the rest of you revelation- and even creed-hugging lunatics out there. Oh, but note that this would not remove more mystical and personal forms of revelation through experience and, obviously, reason. Truth is OK, as long as it is pluriform.

This raises another question: How should we treat these crazy people’s viewpoints when they show up in newspaper stories? Shouldn’t the public be warned?

P.S. Lots of heavy stuff coming on in the comments section of this post. Check it out. To which I offer this update.

I really am not interested in a debate about metaphysics at this point. I am trying to write for a journalism blog. I cited the ancient New York Times piece for several reasons. Almost all of the major media-bias studies hinge on abortion coverage (and now, homosexuality issues). Having the Bible of elite journalism run a news-feature in which people who believe in moral absolutes are called “crazy” strikes me as important. And out of line.

I have known Unitarian agnostics who were perfectly capable of writing fair news stories that accurately quoted both sides of moral and religious issues, without feeling the need of calling moral conservatives “crazy.” I have even known some that would say they were agnostic on that issue, as well. Good for them.

And I have known some fire-breathing, big-C Charismatic Christians who were capable of doing the same kind of accurate, fair reporting. Good for them, too. In this context, I am more interested in the journalism of this issue than I am the theology.

Oh, what the heck: I know that we are all, in daily life, prone to relativism. That’s why my Church has Confession.

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Creeping Fundamentalism IV: George Bush’s appeal

bushcrossJack Beatty, a senior editor at The Atlantic, once explained his understanding of rationalism on the public radio program OnPoint.

“Being a rationalist is not for the faint at heart,” Beatty said.

Beatty then mentioned that he was looking at a picture of Duke, his late, beloved dog, whose ashes are now in a tin. “It’s very hard to accept that that’s it, that that’s me, that that’s all. And that’s part of the iron cage of rationality — that when you die you’re dead. . . . That is the bitterest, hardest thing in the world.”

That may help explain why Beatty perceives President Bush as not simply irrational, but capable of making rationality “an antonym of Republican.”

Beatty surveys a list of what he sees as Bush’s indisputable mendacity, eventually arriving at a definition of fundamentalism that many fundamentalists would themselves repudiate:

You can question Bush’s veracity, his grip on reality, and the rationality of his policies, but not his faith. Turning to Jesus to escape from drinking was the turning point in his life. Sincerity, unreservedly giving your heart to Jesus, is the fulcrum of life-altering faith, say people who have experienced it. Reason, skepticism, critical thought, irony, argument — all threaten this sustaining emotional purity. You owe your life to a miracle, and it will go away if doubt creeps in.

All lives have the kind of soul-trying trouble that nearly cost George W. Bush his marriage. Some people see psychiatrists; others take medication; many turn to faith. And for many of this last group, I suspect, Bush’s sins against reason, his privileging of his heart over his head, make up no small part of his appeal. Religiosity — intensity of faith and frequency of church attendance — now vies with race as a partisan predictor. Just as 9 in 10 African-Americans voted for Al Gore in 2000, so nearly 9 in 10 “high-commitment evangelicals” voted for George W. Bush. Altogether, evangelicals and white Protestant fundamentalists constituted 40 percent of Bush’s vote. When Pat Robertson resigned as president of the Christian Coalition, in late 2001, Gary Bauer, a spokesman for social conservatism, said he knew why: “I think he stepped down because the position has already been filled . . .” President Bush “is that leader right now.”

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Socrates for the rest of us

socrates2.jpgThis week’s Time makes it official: the Socrates Café movement has trickled down to Middle America. You have to respect Christopher Phillips, founder of the Society for Philosophical Inquiry. He met and fell in love with his wife, Cecilia, when she was the only person to show up for one of his earlier cafés. Now they travel the country and live out of suitcases to spread the concept of everyday people gathering to discuss big questions.

Phillips has written about the movement in Socrates Café and Six Questions of Socrates. The six questions: What is virtue? What is moderation? What is justice? What is good? What is courage? What is piety?

Some recent reports, focusing on Phillips’ tour to promote Six Questions, have hinted at the sort of spiritual conversations that can emerge from such questions.

Kenneth LaFave in The Arizona Republic:

The book is filled with a smoldering, bumptious sort of energy that emerges from the varied applications of commonly held beliefs. An Islamic student in California insists that moderation is cognate to modesty, and makes a case for women wearing the veil. Soldiers glare at Phillips while he tries to discuss justice with indigenous peoples in the rebel-torn province of Chiapas, Mexico. A 16-year-old Spanish gypsy declares that goodness is something we cultivate, while evil is inherent. A Navajo participant says courage is fighting for your country even when that country’s government has crushed your people’s way of life.

Brad Smith in The Tampa Tribune:

“If it’s a normal crowd, you never quite know who’s going to show up,” Phillips said a few days ago from an airport in Las Vegas, where he had led a debate in a casino for the first time.

The casino topic: What is an artful life?

“You look around and see all these people gambling, and you think this is the antithesis,” Phillips said. Yet, more discussion revealed that an artful life doesn’t have to mean being a successful painter or musician.

. . . The book recounts his visits to Greece, Japan, South Korea and Mexico and discussions there with people from many backgrounds: Navajo, Confucian, Islamic, Jewish, Catholic.

Bo Emerson in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“He’s a fantastic question asker,” said Jason Malec, a pastor at North Point Community Church, who would like to see a Socratic exchange at his church.

“I want to create that type of open environment where people can . . . ask any question they want.”

Great Books discussion groups have plowed this ground for many years, but they focus on specific texts. And Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor Boston College, wrote a series of popular books in the 1980s that imagined Socrates engaging people on abortion, Jesus and issues at play in the best late-night dorm-room conversations.

It’s good to see an idealistic entrepreneur spreading the Socratic method as widely as his book sales will allow.

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Anyone out there in radioland taking notes?

textThis is one of those days when I had a column to write and classes to teach (and tonight is a massive pre-Holy Week choir practice). So I am following the link to Air America a bit, but not much.

I hope that at least a few of our readers out there are listening with notepads in hand so they can share with us there reactions to any religious and/or moral issues that come up in these new programs.

It sounds like, for example, that the bill on violence against the unborn will be a major topic. That could feed back into the “What Would JFK do” thread on this blog.

I also predict that it will not be long, in the world of satire, that we have “Left Behind” riffs started, or simply material on George W. Bush’s fundamentalist dark side. How can the religion side of the same-sex marriages story be kept under wraps? (Cue: Theme song for “As Canterbury Turns.”)

We might even see the whole “Da Vinci Vote” scene open up. I still love that concept. The “Da Vinci Vote.” Doesn’t that just trip off the tongue in a delightful way. Humor me, folks. Imagine if that movie was coming out before election day.

So take some notes. Write something up. Just do it.

And always remember that this isn’t really a blog about religion. It’s a blog about how the media (entertainment media, even) deal with religious issues and information. Talk radio is valid turf for us to discuss.

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ReligionLink peers into the future of the marriage debates

textThe God-beat professionals at have a biweekly listserv feature called ReligionLink that floats story ideas and resources for reporters who are looking for feature stories that spin off current events in the news.

This is tricky territory since, to pick a metaphor, artists tend to paint with the colors that are already on their palette. I’m sure that if Doug and I put out a list of stories that we wanted mainstream reporters to cover, and sources of information to flesh it all out, then we would be open to criticism as well. That’s reality.

What we need is more voices and information, not less. So “amen” for the ReligionLink effort. For a sample of what they are up to, check out the current offering on a story that is lurking at the edge of the same-sex marriage debates — quiet efforts to legalize polygamy. Yes, it’s kind of edgy. But some of the links run off into surprisingly deep waters. The newsletter notes:

In some regions of the country, many people take the attitude that religiously motivated polygamy should just be left alone as a matter between consenting adults. When polygamists are prosecuted, it’s usually for what some label “polygabuse” — charges related to crimes such as incest, underage marriage or welfare fraud. But many, including women who have left polygamy, say polygamous relationships are inherently patriarchal and tend to mistreat women. The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints outlawed polygamy in 1890, but some unofficial offshoots of the church continue to practice it.

Will polygamous communities press for legitimacy? While a number are openly hoping that they will gain standing through legalization of same-sex marriage, they are counterbalanced by those who insist on defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.

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Beaming down the Messiah

In the April issue of Wired, Joshua Davis delivers an amazing report on Yitzhaq Hayutman, an English-born architect with a high-tech solution to Middle East conflicts: using lasers to project a restored Temple above the Dome of the Rock and, thus, to “induce the arrival of the Messiah and the coming of peace on Earth.”

Davis’ report offers details almost too good to be true — an eccentric pinning his hopes for Middle East peace on a $20 million patent-infringement lawsuit against Palm; an executive with NDS, a News Corp. company, who tried to destroy the Dome in the early 1980s; a rabbi who studies the kabbalah, helps Hayutman design video games and complains like a young geek about Windows 95. Davis makes overly broad generalizations about Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, but he has written an engaging feature about one man’s quixotic efforts to resolve millennia-old religious conflicts.

Davis explains the details of Hayutman’s plan:

He has two big ideas, two ways to engineer the apocalypse. The first: a hovering holographic temple. Hayutman wants to set up an array of high-powered, water-cooled lasers and fire them into a transparent cube suspended beneath a blimp. The ephemeral, flickering image, he says, would fulfill an ancient, widely revered Jewish prophecy that the temple will descend from the heavens as a manifestation of light. Hayutman hopes to finance the project with some of the proceeds from a $20 million patent-infringement suit he and his partners have filed against Palm.

The rest of that money would be poured into Hayutman’s second idea for jump-starting the end-times: a virtual temple within a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. The goal is for thousands of people to join in its construction on the Web. Hayutman even wants to display progress reports in the floating hologram as a kind of apocalyptic scoreboard.

Most of what Hayutman says to Davis offers little hope that he’ll succeed in launching the project. Hayutman publishes many detailed essays on this website (Davis did yeoman’s work at summarizing Hayutman’s vision).

Still, Davis describes a surprisingly encouraging interview with Imam Mohammed Hussein of Noble Sanctuary and Adnan Husseini, director of the Islamic Trust:

I start by asking Husseini if he’s familiar with Hayutman’s idea of projecting a holographic temple over the Dome of the Rock. “We have heard of this man’s projections of light,” he responds, speaking slowly and cautiously. “And we will allow it to happen here — when there is a peace settlement.”

Similarly, Davis concludes that many “fundamentalist Christians” support the project because of support expressed by Jan van der Hoeven, director of the International Christian Zionist Center.

Davis only briefly engages the point of whether biblical prophecy could be fulfilled in virtual reality, especially considering that the God described by all three monotheistic faiths has favored old-fashioned meat space. Davis describes this as a problem only for “fundamentalists”:

Jewish and Christian fundamentalists are intrigued by this new approach to prophecy. But because they read scripture literally, they have a lot of questions. “How will I perform an animal sacrifice if the temple is in a computer?” demands Amos Taieb, a 32-year-old member of the recently organized Temple Guard, a small group of primarily young Jewish men dedicated to rebuilding a physical temple as soon as possible. Taieb emphasizes that scripture clearly states that lambs must be sacrificed on the temple’s altar.

. . . As for a holographic temple, Taieb cites the Midrash Rabbah prediction that the temple will come from the sky. This is a possibility, he allows, but there’s still the matter of how to sacrifice animals. “Do you bring a lamb hologram into the sky as well?” he asks. “And how do you throw lamb blood on a holographic altar that is floating in the sky? It gets complicated.”

But he also offers these poignant remarks by Hayutman:

“Politicians don’t want to address the Temple Mount as a religious problem,” he says, slowing for a security checkpoint manned by three well-armed Israeli soldiers. “They think Jews and Arabs should just get rid of their ‘idiotic’ religions and then everything will be OK. But the whole reason we are here is because of religion. And if you just divide the land, you end up with a situation similar to India and Pakistan — always teetering on the edge of war.”

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Is the NBA ready for CCB? Contemporary Christian Basketball?

When the Kobe Bryant sex scandal first hit the headlines, one of the first things that NBA insiders began discussing was its impact on his multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts. But the discussions had a twist. While some worried that a sexual-assault rap might hurt him, others decided that this might actually boost his stock “on the street,” in the urban marketplace of hip-hop, macho credibility.

Clearly, the NBA is a highly tolerant environment, when it comes to the personal lives of its superstars.

But what if a hoops phenom was a born-again Christian, one who saw the court as a platform for evangelism and, oh my God, even the advocacy of conservative moral beliefs? How would this affect sneaker sales? Will this hurt the NBA brand name? What’s next? An “I love this game” NBA ad featuring Franklin Graham?

This was the issue raised in a feature over at focusing on this year’s high-school verson of LeBron (King) James. Dwight Howard is a 6-10 power forward and everyone agrees that this young man is a star on the rise. But what about those hymns he sings? What about that 10 Commandments poster in his room? Is the NBA ready for a stud who says things like: “I want to be able to speak to non-Christians so that I can get them saved or change their lives around.”

This is not a new issue. There have been stories in the past about born-again tensions in major-league baseball locker rooms. People have asked if a linebacker can be as tough as he needs to be when he is involved in Promise Keeper rallies on Saturday with some of the players that he needs to crush on Sunday. But it is Howard’s openness about his evangelistic goals that has some people freaking out. Can the NBA tolerate this kind of intolerance? The feature notes:

“This is the first time an athlete will be able to overcome what (former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson) couldn’t do,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the Reebok executive. . . . “David was a leader in the crusade of being religious and being a great athlete, but Dwight’s plan could work because we’re in an era of niche marketing. He’s taking a stand saying, ‘I’m going to do this and some company is going to buy into it,’ and that fact is that these companies have millions and billions of dollars to brand Dwight as their hero.

“If he’s as good as I think he will be, he’ll be the perfect role model for this segment of the population.”

To state it crudely, does the NBA need to consider the impact of those box-office numbers for The Passion of the Christ? Can professional sports afford to be “Left Behind” in this age of niche marketing?

Maybe that would work. But maybe, notes ESPN reporter Darren Rovell, it would not. Everyone knows that there are believers out on the court. But the jury is still out on whether that is good for marketing.

About 50 percent of the league’s players attend at least one service during the season and seemingly every team has a player who considers himself a devout Christian, said former ABA and NBA guard Claude Terry, executive vice president of the Pro Basketball Fellowship, which oversees the NBA teams’ chaplains.

“I would hope that Dwight’s beliefs wouldn’t hurt his chances to market products,” Terry said. “I would think that marketers would want to embrace someone with such values. At the same time, I can understand that we live in an age where people are supposed to be tolerant of the choices others make and it could be interpreted that he is imposing his beliefs on them.”

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