GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

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

Archive for February 2009

Jewish and secular: Is it possible?

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“Secular Judaism” may sound like a contradiction in terms. But according to at least one study, up to half of all American Jews believe in separating faith and public life.

For them, there’s Cultural Judaism. Its creator, the Center for Cultural Judaism, aim to help secular Jews “celebrate their Jewish identity and pass it on to the next generation.”

The main attraction is the back articles from the group’s Contemplation magazine, contributing some fresh thinking. One article, by Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis, honors secular Jews from the 17th century thinker Baruch Spinoza to the 19th century feminist Ernestine Rose to the 21st century record manager David Katznelson.

Sarna sees a kind of renaissance of Jews in recent years. He says the Cold War gave secularism a bad name. But since the fall of communism, he notes the rise of institutions like Heeb magazine and the National Yiddish Book Center.

European Jewish writer Diana Pinto’s essay is a sad irony. She argued that multicultural tolerance gave room for Jews to take part fully in European society. An editorial note says the 1999 essay predated a flare-up in anti-Semitism, but was again relevant since the outbreak faded. How sad: anti-Semitism has returned, since the Gaza incursion by Israel — and European Jews once again have to keep their heads down.

Cultural Judaism also has some absorbing news articles, many from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The stories discuss matters like humanism, children of interfaith marriages and the “December dilemma” — whether a blended family should celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.

One of the articles is a review of Secular Culture & Ideas, a site worth its own bookmark. That site digs into issues like Hanukkah, female prophets, and Jewish involvement in sports.


Written by Jim Davis

February 28, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Helping you find the way, maybe

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Explore dozens of faith-based topics — meditation, tribal beliefs, prophecies, etc. — on the ambitious All Things Spiritual. The 25 main categories on the homepage index the usual world religions, plus a few surprises: Enlightenment, Mind-Body beliefs, even Sikh, Confucian and Zoroastrian groups. But those are just the start.

Click “More” and you’ll definitely get it: angels, ghosts, Nordic gods, Rosicrucians, African myths, benevolent “cosmic people.” There’s a collection of prophecies — biblical, Mayan, Hopi, Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, Our Lady of Fatima. There’s some nice poetry from a variety of people, from William Blake to Omar Khayyam to Thich Nhat Hanh.

One site tries to show how England’s Rosslyn Chapel — featured in the movie The Da Vinci Code — links the Masons with the Knights Templar. Another link offers a book titled Am I Crazy or Just Haunted? The free, downloadable book offers guidance on living with the paranormal.

As with any superdirectory, some of the classifications are up for debate. Yes, it’s smart to put meditation and shamanism in their own categories; they bridge many faith traditions. But why is there a separate link for Sufism, a branch of Sunni Islam? Or for Veda, one of the Hindu scriptures? And why is native European spirituality separate from paganism?

It’s also not great to see a lot of links that aren’t so much resources as online catalogs. Sites like Cross Pendants Online, or the Bodyelement Yoga Studio, or the Eye of Horus Myth & Ritual Store.

Finally, although it may not need saying, “Buyer Beware.” Just because it’s on a Web site, doesn’t mean it’s accurate. An example: messianic groups — i.e., Jews who became Christians — are grouped under Judaism. Jewish communities object strongly to such mixing. The folks at All Things Spiritual should have known that.

Written by Jim Davis

February 26, 2009 at 3:48 am

Public faith: A different approach

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For people who equate conservative Christians with Americans — and with the religious right — Faithworks is a healthy antidote.

The UK-based organization began in 2001 as a campaign for the recognition of Christianity in local communities and an end to “discriminatory practices” in funding and partnerships.

From that start, the movement has broadened to helping local churches serve their communities. Faithworks has also developed a 6-point plan to reduce “fear of faith” in society — especially the fear that it necessarily causes bigotry and divisiveness.

“We need to move beyond fearful, knee-jerk reactions to faith and develop an understanding of what it means to be motivated by faith and how active faith can actually benefit society,” says Joy Madeiros, Faithworks public policy director.

The organization also posts the contents of its magazine and newsletter, in PDF form. A recent magazine issue deals with matters like rural and gang ministries. It also talks honestly about ethical dilemmas: family life versus public activism, and reducing personal debt versus fighting global poverty.

However you feel about separation of church and state, approaches like Faithworks are a cooling, calming way to address the issues. Maybe American Christians should take a few tips from their British brethren.

Written by Jim Davis

February 24, 2009 at 4:10 am

Some places are just … different

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You’ve been somewhere like that. The place feels different. It may put you in a trance, send you somewhere outside yourself. Or maybe just the opposite: It may make you feel more awake than ever before.

Sacred Destinations has catalogued those places, in astonishing variety — 1,200 buildings, mountains, lakes, monuments, etc.

Here you’ll see the familiar ancient Stonehenge in England (below), and the even older Carnac Stones in France. Learn of the 42,968-square-foot Grand Mosque of Mali, the world’s largest mud structure. Discover the huge, mysterious mountainside animal carvings at Samaipata, Bolivia. Dip into the holy waters of Crater Lake and the Ganges River, and sacred mountains such as Mt. Sinai or Mt. Shasta.

Look through 59 countries, on pages featuring those beautiful Google maps marked with the sites. You can also search by category, such as Roman or Hindu sites, sacred mountains, Mayan ruins, even paths for fans of C. S. Lewis or The Da Vinci Code.

Don’t know where to look? Just tap your F5 key a few times. Each time the homepage reloads, it shows a different picture — from St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russia, to Chichen Itza in Mexico, to the Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal.

Even better: You can download a collection of the photos in a Google gadget, for your Web site for desktop. If you dont have a gadget, Sacred Destinations has a link to help you get one.

Written by Jim Davis

February 22, 2009 at 3:33 am

Not so stingy, guys

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As a superdirectory, the National Council of Churches has a lot going for it — but it could have more if it gave away more.

The homepage has a good selection of religion news, analysis and other helpful information. A recent edition included an article on a mainline Protestant leader’s selection to preach at the National Prayer Service after Barack Obama’s inauguration as president.

Other links tell of the NCC’s work in opposing human trafficking, as well as fighting the widespread abuse of women in the Congo. Other reports look at dangers of Christian Zionism and Islamic extremism. Still another has NCC’s Rev. Michael Kinnamon joining Jewish and Muslim leaders in praying for peace

Many of those concerns get an ongoing look in EcuLink, a crisp, good-looking quarterly newsletter with more than 150,000 readers. Leave your mailing address and get it free.

Also click the link for Worldwide Faith News, a clearinghouse for denominational press releases and other documents. You can get them all e-mailed to you daily, but it’s probably best to read them online — unless you don’t mind several per day.

So what’s the problem with the site? Well, one is the link for the New Revised Standard Version , the NCC’s elegant, accurate translation of the Bible. When you open it, do you get the Bible? Nope, just some sales talk and a price list. Other translators actually post Bible texts online — such as the International Bible Society, with its New International Version.

Slightly better is the council’s Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. It offers sample pages from the upcoming 2008 edition, plus the latest stats for the member denominations. It also has a directory of denominational Web sites, plus general sites like Ecunet and Adherents.com. For more, you’ll have to buy the book.

All told, the NCC’s resources offer many uses: sermon fodder, small-group topics, candidates for special appeals, subjects for personal prayers. But it could have been as generous as other such sites.

Written by Jim Davis

February 21, 2009 at 6:23 am

DVD Review: ‘City of Ember’

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The underrated City of Ember deserved more attention during its brief theatrical run last year. Catch it on DVD and marvel how closely it tracks the apocalyptic beliefs of several religions.

The city is a Dickensian slum deep underground, an immense bunker lit by bulbs on the cavern ceiling and powered by a huge generator. It’s a result of desperate planning two centuries ago by its founders, who saw the world about to end. (The movie wisely doesn’t say how. It’s not the point anyway.)

Emberites live a meager life, carrying on amid food shortages and increasing terrifying blackouts. But the corrupt mayor (Bill Murray) does nothing about the crises, except fend for himself.

He also enforces a law against anyone trying to escape the city, warning of doom and darkness on the surface. But two teens, Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan), don’t wait placidly for the end: They determine to fix the generator, or find a way out.

As luck or fate would have it, their answer comes with a click under Lina’s bed. The metal box she inherited from an ancestor — a former mayor — has suddenly opened, to display a cryptic message. They eventually realize it’s a set of instructions from the founders for leaving Ember.

The current mayor naturally tries to stop them from escaping, first with lies, then with force. The kids then strike out on their own and endure a harrowing voyage, not knowing what they’ll find.

It’s a remarkable set of elements for a children’s movie. Self-determination. Staying true to oneself. Following ancient wisdom. And the kids’ final ascent to the surface is about as spiritual as it gets: climbing a long flight of stairs, candle in hand, as reverently as any pilgrim approaching a holy site.

Doon and Lina are, in fact, walking well-traveled steps of several religions. Christianity, Judaism and Islam teach that God will step in one day and set everything right — through the Messiah, or Mahdi, or the Hidden Imam. Buddhists and Hindus have their own versions, called Maitreya or Vishnu, although they must come repeatedly whenever things get too bad.

And the faiths have all left instructions in various records, often as overlooked in modern life as a box under a bed. Some Christians even like to say BIBLE stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

Have we outgrown such superstitions, as some might call them? Look at the peace and environmental and New Age movements. Read the warnings of food justice movements like Hazon, which runs the Jew & the Carrot blog. They all call for radical change in our lives, or else.

But can we save ourselves? Especially when we, or our ancestors, are the ones who got in peril? Maybe we need outside help. Maybe we need a vision of another world. This film may not provide answers, as scriptures can, but it could start the quest. Or light an Ember.

Written by Jim Davis

February 17, 2009 at 4:42 am


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Right from the homepage, the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua is ambivalent toward religion.

On the one hand, it claims to be “dedicated to enlarging religion as a source of inspiration and diminishing religion as a source of conflict in the world.” But the homepage also has the slogan: “More to religion than pleasing your imaginary friend.”

The creator, a 53-year-old weapons scientist(!) self-named Scooper, says he’s a Lutheran and former atheist. He says the site is merely trying to make us all admit that, as the Bible says, “now we see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). Or, in his own style, we bark at everything like a little, sight-impaired dog.

So, what can we bark at? Well, the “church” lets people post essays. There’s a story on a man who joined radical Islam in Britain, then left. There’s an excruciating testimony from a woman who says she was seduced by a priest.

A gallery has some beautiful pictures of people, animals, flowers and scenery, many of them by Scooper himself. There’s also a list of religious jokes, some genial, some lame, some snarky. Heavier theological stuff is available in the so-called Scriptorium section.

The site has discussions on several faiths, and those can be lucid and insightful. The one for Buddhism, for instance, says the faith’s literature “is both immense and non-essential” — non-essential, because the core of the faith is personal, unmediated enlightenment. Curiously, the article mentions Zen, but doesn’t acknowledge that Zen is a blend of Buddhism and Taoism.

Written by Jim Davis

February 13, 2009 at 6:27 am

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