GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

Web sites, TV, films, books and the search for meaning.

Archive for August 2008

A crust of gods

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The temples of India stand as nexi among several crafts. As shelters, they house worshipers and their priests. As art, they are crusted with sculptures of gods, animals and humans. And as theology, they represent the cosmos, a mandala, even the deity itself.

TempleNet — created, interestingly, by a musician — comes close to a canonical list of these astonishing structures, along with stunning photos, although most are too small.

The site lists temples all around India, classifying them by region and their major deities, including Ganesha and Skanda. And it explains important architectural differences between north and south, as well as border states like Karnataka.

Along the way, we get some “hmmmm” details. One is that architectural styles were influenced more by different regions than religions, such as Jain or Hindu.

There’s also a thought-provoking piece on the Indian sense of time — from kaashta, or 18 eyeblinks, to the purported 309.6 trillion year life cycle of the creator Bhrahma.

Like other enormous sites, TempleNet has a few flaws. Some links are broken. The quality of information is uneven. And the articles often assume prior knowledge. The latter problem is partly fixed by a glossary, but not all the terms are defined.

One glaring problem: Finding an explanation of the overall concept of a temple. There is, in fact, an article about that, but it’s buried in the archives. A search engine would help find it, but that’s one of the broken links.

Don’t leave TempleNet without clicking the “special music feature” link. It leads to a page of “Indo-Celtic” music, blending instruments from east and west. The idea sounds weird, but the nine samples are nice.


Written by Jim Davis

August 31, 2008 at 4:16 am

A library of sacred texts

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Wisdom from 268 holy books is at your fingertips in World Scripture. This monumental work has 4,000 scripture bits, compiled over five years by 40 scholars on several continents.

World Scripture gathers pronouncements on 164 moral, ethical and spiritual matters — everything from Addiction to Hypocrisy to Repentance to War. The topics are available via pulldown menu; browsing them is even easier than leafing through a hardcover encyclopedia.

Beyond specific issues, the site tackles overarching matters such as the purpose of life, the spirit world, the search for knowledge, eschatology and ultimate reality. Well, maybe it doesn’t tackle them. But it does give them a good chase.

Message of the site is “The Truth in Many Paths,” as one section is titled. Comparing other beliefs and scriptures, the site says, will confirm the oneness of God and promote respect and tolerance.

One puzzling lack: the full texts of the scriptures. Surely the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas, etc., could have been added without much extra space. Especially with the low-graphics nature of this site.

For the more Web-challenged, a physical book is available for $40 hardcover, $22.95 softcover.

While on the site, hit the homepage button for the parent United Communities of Spirit, a 10,000-member world interfaith alliance. You’ll be rewarded with some idealistic essays on world oneness, plus descriptions of 11 traditions — not only the usual world religions, but also Wicca, Taoism, Sikhism, the Bahai Faith, native American spirituality, even the esoteric thought of Alice Bailey.

Written by Jim Davis

August 25, 2008 at 1:44 am

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Geography of faith

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Florida: Land of oranges and Baptists. Right? Only partly. Coastal Florida is predominantly Catholic, although the interior and the extreme north are Baptist.

That’s one of several surprising facts you can nail down with a massive study, done every decade by the Glenmary Research Center of Cincinnati. The full study for 2000 is $110, too pricey for most of us. But Glenmary’s Web site offers some great freebies.

The most eye-catching are eight color-coded maps, posted from the 24 in the book. The Florida surprise is there. Another one: Minnesota is more religious, percentage-wise, than Ohio.

While you’re on the site, poke around a little for other useful tools. One is the link to the Web site of the Church of the Nazarene, which lists the 15 largest religious groups in every metropolitan area — from Abilene, Texas, to Yuma, Ariz.

The data have some limitations. Some church groups, like the Southern Baptists, seem overcounted; some, like Catholics, seem undercounted. But the lists can still help churches, schools, even businesses pitching to religious groups.

This site may not inspire you to buy Glenmary’s full $110 package. But it might tempt you to start saving for the new edition, due out in less than two years.

Written by Jim Davis

August 22, 2008 at 4:02 am

Give without being taken

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Americans are famously generous, and famously gullible. Charity Navigator packs powerful tools to show you which groups are spending their benevolence dollars well.

The New Jersey-based organization uses a four-star rating system for more than 5,300 charities, grading for efficiency, donor privacy and other standards. The info takes the shape of easy-to-grasp numbers, pie charts, bar graphs and clearly written evaluations.

The site uses Flash for more than splash. Hover your mouse pointer over a pie chart or bar graph, and up pop the numbers. Flash also powers a world map: Click South America, then Peru, to find the 17 four-star charities working there.

One caveat: The data may lag a couple of years because of reporting lead times. Also, to get some facts, you have to register with Charity Navigator, but it’s free.

Want a shortcut? Click the list of “Slam-Dunk Charities,” each of them rating four stars. Or try “Charities Worth Watching” — top-rated groups that run on less than $2 million a year.

The lists include not only good groups, but also “Inefficient Fundraisers” and “Charities Drowning in Administrative Costs.” One surprise: The American Cancer Society — a charity giant, spending more than $940 million a year — gets a mere two stars.

Yet another resource: Several sets of valuable tips, like “Six questions to ask” and “What to do when a charity calls.”

Written by Jim Davis

August 20, 2008 at 6:02 am

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For the last in our weeklong series on holy humor: Don’t get incensed, but we’re venturing under . . .

The Onion Dome

This is an Eastern Orthodox takeoff on The Onion, a secular fake online newspaper. That makes it a lampoon of a lampoon, which is kind of like making fun of the way someone makes fun of something else.

There’s alleged coverage of a beard-growing contest, a mild snicker on the Orthodox taste for facial hair. There’s a short story about one “Philothea” who is frustrated when people call her “Philthe.”

Another tells story of a new pet food that’s repellent to humans, to curb temptation during the faith’s four annual fasting periods. At an online store, you can buy a coffee mug with “Is Outrage!”, an epigram by the fictional mascot Father Vasiliy.

All this is probably funnier if you’re Orthodox, especially Russian. It’s gentle and mannerly, but do manners get laughs?

OK, that’s my list of religious humor sites. Do you have any favorites? Let me know.

I’d also like to know your views on religious humor itself. Some people think it’s all a joke. Others think “religious humor” is an oxymoron — that people hold their faith so closely, the risk of offending them is too high.

Your thoughts?

Written by Jim Davis

August 17, 2008 at 3:59 am

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Kosher yocks

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Still looking at holy humor sites, let’s raise a glass of Manischewitz for . . .

A Word in Your Eye

Such a Web site, this is! A Word in Your Eye, based on the 2007 book Oy! The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes by David Minkoff, comes close to a canonical list of the genre.

More than 2,000 jokes are posted here, on classic themes from bar mitzvah boys to doting Yiddishe mamas to retorts against anti-Semites. Not unusual for a Jewish humor site, but this one seems especially easy to get around.

A very basic chart, almost mid-’90s style, groups the jokes under more than 90 text-based links — and growing; the last bunch was added just this year. Others, with sexual themes, are grouped under “Naughtier Jewish Jokes.” And a few dozen are just for children. (Don’t mix ’em up!)

Minkoff shows a helpful side with sample speeches for wedding toasts and 60th birthdays. Also helpful is a glossary of Yiddish terms. At last, you’ll know when to kvell and when to kvetch.

Other sections are more serious. One offers some kosher-themed brain teasers. Another reports on the healing power of laughter. But you may wish to skip the boring, 1,870-word essay on Freud’s psychoanalysis of humor.

Written by Jim Davis

August 16, 2008 at 2:58 am

Buddha belly laughs

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Continuing our weeklong trek through religious humor sites, we hoist a prayer flag for . . .

A Lighter Side of Buddhism

Who would laugh at Buddhism? Plenty of people, it seems. Enough to fill several Web pages.

Part of Writings on Buddhism — at 13 years one of the oldest Buddhist Web sites — A Lighter Side has jokes as cryptic as a koan, going far beyond the usual “What did the Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor?” (although that one is here, too).

Example: A young Buddhist wonders how to cross a river. He sees a sage on the opposite bank and calls: “Oh wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river”? The sage calls back: “My son, you are on the other side.”

Many of the jokes are charmingly self-deprecating, as with the Theravada computer virus that can’t infect “female” machines. Some are long stories — one takes 24 paragraphs to set up the punchline. Who knew that Buddhist and Irish jokesters would have something in common?

And some items make you wonder if they’re really joking. One recommends downloading a Tibetan mantra — Om Mani Padme Hum, or “The Jewel in the Lotus of the Heart” — in effect, turning your computer’s spinning hard drive into a prayer wheel.

The most mind-bending joke may be this one-liner: “A Zen master once said to me, ‘Do the opposite of whatever I tell you.’ So I didn’t.”

Written by Jim Davis

August 15, 2008 at 3:24 am

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