December 2, 2022

The Gandharan scrolls are ancient scrolls, mostly in fragments, that in recent years have been turning up in northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The scrolls are Buddhist, and it’s suspected they all came from one monastery’s library. They are written in a language called Gandhari and date from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE. They are the oldest extant Buddhist manuscripts in the world. Scholars have been restoring and deciphering the Gandharan scrolls while expecting they might... Read more

November 28, 2022

There are a number of dubious stories about George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah. (The formal name of the piece is Messiah, not The Messiah.) For example, Handel is said to have composed the very long work in a remarkably short time. I’ve seen claims that he composed it all in nine days, although other estimates say it was twenty-four days, or maybe three to four weeks. Four weeks is still remarkable. Handel’s Messiah is a lot of music. A standard... Read more

November 23, 2022

I’ve written a number of columns looking at issues involving religion and the U.S. Constitution. The last one, Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Between Church and State, explains the history behind the (in)famous “wall of separation” phrase and what it means. But a lot of Americans are enraged by Thomas Jefferson’s church and state metaphor, which he used to explain the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,... Read more

November 21, 2022

There is no more controversial phrase in U.S. history than Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” It first appeared in a letter written by Jefferson in 1802, while he was President of the United States, and it began to turn up in Supreme Court opinions in the 19th century. Jefferson’s metaphorical wall of separation between church and state is routinely disparaged by religious conservatives to this day. Many Christian Nationalists want to abolish it. Some members of... Read more

November 18, 2022

In the 18th century establishment of religion, or designating an official state religion, was common in Europe and in the British colonies in North America. And U.S. founders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were adamantly opposed to the practice. As these two men of Virginia were laying the foundations of religious freedom in the United States, their first priority was denying government the power to establish a religion. Freedom of religion, they reasoned, required abolishing establishment of religion. Religious liberty... Read more

November 16, 2022

Among the U.S. founding fathers, nobody cared more about religious freedom than James Madison.  Madison (1751-1836), America’s fourth president, was deeply involved in crafting the U.S. Constitution and promoting its passage. His peers called him “the father of the Constitution.” He was the chief author of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also called the Bill of Rights. And whenever people complain about the many Supreme Court decisions enforcing the separation of church and state — such as Engel... Read more

November 12, 2022

In 1956, a student in a public high school near Philadelphia protested his school’s daily Bible readings and prayer. He thumbed through a borrowed Quran instead of attending to verses from the King James Bible. And then he remained seated, and silent, while the rest of the class recited the Lord’s Prayer.  The rest is history. A court challenge that began with a high school student’s quiet protest of Bible readings was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963.... Read more

November 10, 2022

It has been sixty years since a U.S. Supreme Court decision ended class recitations of prayers in public schools. Yet after all this time some Americans still complain about it. After every sort of calamity, a conservative politician or cleric somewhere is sure to claim, “This happened because they banned school prayer and took God out of schools.” Never mind that it’s absurd to think an omnipresent God could be kicked out of anyplace by a court decision. And for... Read more

November 5, 2022

The 6th to 8th centuries were a golden age for Irish monasteries. The hand copying of books first became a monastic practice in Ireland, at a time when Europe was dealing with the fall of Rome and the start of the Dark Ages. Until the 13th century every book produced in Europe was hand copied by Christian monks, and it was the Irish who refined the medieval art of book making (in the publishing sense!) and taught the rest of... Read more

November 2, 2022

Monastic book production in the Middle Ages began in Ireland. This is recorded in the book How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. The book tells the story of how Irish Christian monks preserved much of the knowledge and literature of Greek and Roman antiquity after the fall of Rome, thereby saving civilization. The Irish monks did this by copying every manuscript they could find. They didn’t stop at Bibles. They copied Virgil’s Aeneid and the treatises of Cicero and Plato’s... Read more

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