GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

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

Archive for November 2008

Find your own beliefs

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Don’t know where your inner compass points? Try Belief-O-Matic, part of the incredible Beliefnet cosmos.

This cosmic version of 20 Questions asks what you think of things like the nature of God, the origins of life, morality, the afterlife, social ethics, eternal rewards and punishments, etc.

A nice touch: The answers are multiple choice, with six to eight options (didn’t you love those in college?). Also nice: You don’t have to answer all the questions. Nice touch 3: You can weight each answer with one of three grades of importance.

Questionnaires like this often have some weakness. With this one, some of the multiple choices overlap. Take the question, “Why is there terrible wrongdoing in the world?” One answer is original sin; another is “God-given free will plus a weak side.” Some people would choose both.

Soooooo, will you divine your divinity by question 20? Wellllll, you may come close, but not necessarily a bulls-eye. I tested as a 100-percent “Orthodox Quaker” (I’m not). Another reply is at the start of the quiz: “Belief-O-Matic assumes no legal liability for the ultimate fate of your soul.”

Beliefnet has a lot of other quizzes, too. They examine topics as questing as “spiritual intelligence,” as earthy as your level of lustfulness, as silly as the spirituality of Britney Spears.


Written by Jim Davis

November 30, 2008 at 12:57 am

Pictures worth a thousand prayers

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Traditions are one thing; seeing the spots that inspired them is another. Christus Rex brings them together, with photos and text put together by a Marian priest.

Bearing a distinctly Italian Catholic feel, Christus Rex has a lot of virtual pilgrimages, guiding you around holy sites with devotional as well as historical comments. A nice clickable map shows biblical highlights of Jerusalem, such as St. Stephen Gate and Hezekiah’s Tunnel.

An evocative section shows the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, retracing Jesus’ steps on the day of his crucifixion. But it does need some updating. The webmaster’s idea of a standard page width is a mere 700 pixels.

Check out the Pater Noster Convent on the Mount of Olives. The convent houses plaques with the Lord’s Prayer in 1,444 languages. (Pictured: Farsi and Sanskrit.)

Vatican City is shown in a lush collection of photos — not only the familiar St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel, but also the little-seen apartments of the pope.

There’s more: a Catholic calendar, an online lectionary, a celebration of the dedication of St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome (see why I said the site has an Italian Catholic feel?). Two other sections, though, seem out of place.

One section is on the 1989 student uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and the military repression that ended it. The other is on the medieval Khazar Empire, which converted to Judaism in 740 A.D. The section accepts the controversial theory of author Arthur Koestler that the Khazars became Europe’s Ashkenazic Jews.

Written by Jim Davis

November 28, 2008 at 10:31 pm

Honest to godless

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Herewith the loyal opposition: American Atheists, founded by the notorious late Madelyn Murray O’Hair. The group has largely dropped the nasty persona that O’Hair cultivated, but stands just as ready to defend godlessness.

Instead, the American Atheists give themselves labels like “positive,” “independent,” “happy,” and science minded. They do some deep though pejorative probing, like on whether Jesus existed, or his disciples, or even some of the New Testament towns like Nazareth. They also list alleged contradictions between Bible verses.

But some of Murray’s old venom survives. In a reprinted address at Memphis State University, she calls the Judeo-Christian heritage a “disease.” She also says that before creating the universe, “God was sitting on his ass in Nowhere . . . picking his nose and farting.” (Pictured: Madalyn Murray O’Hair in 1983. From Alan Light on Flickr.)

The attitude carries over into the site’s news section. One article snickers at an un-baptism ritual using a hair dryer. Another calls Sarah Palin a “fundamentalist right-wing Christian,” although the cited article doesn’t use such language.

Christianity, in fact, seems the main fixation. The main other target seems to be Islam. Spinoff Christian groups like the Mormon Church and Christian Science also get some pokes. But there’s little on Buddhists or Hindus or Taoists or native Americans. The atheists say this is because Christians are the main culprits in trying to limit the rights of others.

To be fair, the site also has some self-criticism. It questions the scientific dogmatism of Richard Dawkins and the mysticism of Sam Harris. And there’s some lively give-and-take on the often-updated NoGodBlog.

Written by Jim Davis

November 26, 2008 at 5:42 am

Messianic messing

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Barack Obama as Christ? That’s one surprise on Jesus of the Week. This site, published by the Village Voice, seemingly has hundreds of images sent by readers.

As you can imagine, the pictures range from the classic to the classically stupid. Examples:

Slam-dunking a goal in a yellow Los Angeles Lakers uniform.

A reverent painting of Jesus offering bread and wine.

Twin faces of Christ as earrings, his hair studded with diamonds.

A Rasta-locked Lord on a shoulder tattoo.

A cartoon Jesus surfing on a cross.

And assorted Jesus faces on light switches, bandages, sticky notes, black velvet, and of course airbrushed onto vans and motorcycles. And on and on.

You submit the picture — or someone out there does — and the Village Voice editors add what they consider witty comments. Like the suggestion that a sitting statue, with hand to the side of his head, looks like he’s talking on an iPhone. Tee-hee.

What to make of this site? One lesson: Culture can get pretty silly, even with revered figures. Two: Ridiculing the sacred is funny, at least for some mentalities.

Conclusion three: Ignorance is no handicap online. Whoever wrote the snickering paragraph for a crucifixion painting totally missed that the artist was Salvador Dali.

Written by Jim Davis

November 23, 2008 at 5:07 am

Thanksgiving on the Web

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Thanksgiving holds a peculiar status as a hybrid religious-secular holiday. It combines history, heritage, religious ideals, family values and an opportunity to reach out to people different from yourself.

The day is even more American than July 4, says rabbi-journalist Marc Gellman.

“On Thanksgiving we have it all: football and the Macy’s parade, family gatherings combined with an atmosphere of civic virtue that effortlessly morphs into secular thankfulness for the nonreligious and thankfulness to God for the pious among us,” his 2007 article in Newsweek says. “Thanksgiving Day embraces us all.”

Mary Fairchild of About.com has a fairly crisp report on the purpose and origins of the day, with some interesting trivia thrown in. Example: Seven other nations — Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Korea, Liberia, and Switzerland — have their own Thanksgiving days.

The Pilgrim Hall Museum in modern Plymouth, Mass., has valuable information on the Pilgrims and how their faith affected their Thanksgiving observance. Among the museum’s religious treasures is the Bible of Pilgrim leader William Bradford (shown below).

More info is at Plimouth Plantation, a reconstruction of the 17th century Pilgrim settlement. Its Web site has historical background on Thanksgiving, both on the Christian settlers’ side and that of the native Wampanoag tribe. But it also questions how religious the 1621 harvest festival was.

Interfaith services are a large and growing Thanksgiving tradition, when people of various religious gather to voice gratitude together.
Here are some suggestions for planning an interfaith Thanksgiving service, from an official of the United Methodist Church.

Some tips: Talk with other faith communities on the meaning of giving thanks; discuss the look of the venue; plan food and drink afterward, so people can mix. The nice thing is that the plans also work for other occasions besides Thanksgiving.

Not that the spiritual facet is unchallenged. Even a year ago, Slate magazine carried a report on a cultural war brewing around Thanksgiving, something like that over religious themes in Christmas. Writer Andrew Santella wrote in somewhat snarky terms about the religious right alarmists who wanted to make everyone thank the same God as they did.

But Santella ultimately lands on the side of thankfulness: “Do we really have to choose between the extremes of calling Thanksgiving a religious holiday or a civic celebration? Can’t we assume that the holiday has evolved as some more subtle mix of the secular and the spiritual, one that each of us can adjust according to our own values?”

Quite a lot to digest with our turkey and pumpkin pie.

Written by Jim Davis

November 22, 2008 at 4:01 am

The U.S. election: The U.K. view

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Did the presidential election help or hurt U.S. religion? Five columnists weigh in at The Guardian — and draw more than 130 reader opinions.

The exchange is part of a large religion page produced by the venerable, century-old newspaper in London. The many columns there reveal some fresh, Brit-style thinking.

An atheist art columnist acknowledges the power and beauty of religious images, though he rejects their theology. A religious affairs correspondent files a video from her recent pilgrimage to Mecca. Another writer says sermons are a good idea — just not in stodgy church services.

The choice of items reveals what has The Guardian’s attention. Anglicans, Catholics, Muslims and atheists get lots of content. Jews, Hindus and Buddhists get less. But Christianity in general, including evangelicals and mainline Protestants, gets a whole separate page.

There’s also a bit of weighting. In a special report on Christmas, the Guardian cites several views of Jesus: as Son of God, as a prophet, or just a man who was close to God. No such diversity touches the reports on the Hajj and Ramadan.

Not all the thinking at The Guardian is equally sharp, of course. A liberal rabbi predicts the demise of faith in a supernatural God within 30 years. That funeral has been said for more than a century — and there are more believers, and more religions, than ever.

Written by Jim Davis

November 15, 2008 at 8:40 pm

Just the facts on religion

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Why do Hindus use a swastika? Why is the Cross of St. Peter upside down? And why do Scientologists weave an “S” through two triangles?

Those and more answers are on Religion Facts, which fittingly has the slogan, “Religion is interesting; knowledge is good.” The anonymous religion student behind this site has kept his promise: straight facts, no manipulation.

And the 37 featured groups go beyond the usual world religions. It’s also Aladura of west Nigeria and Cao Dai from Vietnam. It’s the Druze of the Middle East and Zoroastrianism, which has one of its fire temples in Yazd, Iran (pictured here).

Each section has a short intro, then bulleted Fast Facts. Then comes a history of the religion, then beliefs and practices. Footnotes are plentiful and often lead to offline articles.

Better yet are the comparisons. A “Big Religion Chart” gives a quick rundown on each group. Other charts parse out differences among various types of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.

Although the information is generally objective, the very choices inevitably raise questions. Is Deepak Chopra’s center a distinct religion? Are ancient Greek Stoicism and Epicureanism religious? And should you put atheists, who attack the very idea of faith, on a list of faiths?

The author does urge us to continue our own studies. For those, he provides glossaries and book lists, some of them linking to eBay or Amazon.

Written by Jim Davis

November 15, 2008 at 6:04 am

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