GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

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

Archive for June 2009

Guest column from Michael Jackson (really)

leave a comment »

Michael Jackson was called the child without a childhood, who grew into an adult without an adulthood. This column he wrote in 2000 for Beliefnet.com (reposted by permission) is a good illustration. It also reveals a little-known fact: The Sabbath was one of the few times he got to be “ordinary.”
 I also recommend a new column, A Tribute to My Friend, Michael Jackson, that Deepak Chopra posted Friday on Beliefnet.

My Childhood, My Sabbath, My Freedom

By Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson, from allmichaeljackson.com

Michael Jackson, from allmichaeljackson.com

Have you seen my childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like pirates in adventurous dreams,

Of conquest and kings on the throne . . .

Written and Composed by Michael Jackson

In one of our conversations together, my friend Rabbi Shmuley told me that he had asked some of his colleagues — writers, thinkers, and artists — to pen their reflections on the Sabbath. He then suggested that I write down my own thoughts on the subject, a project I found intriguing and timely due to the recent death of Rose Fine, a Jewish woman who was my beloved childhood tutor and who traveled with me and my brothers when we were all in the Jackson Five.

Last Friday night I joined Rabbi Shmuley, his family, and their guests for the Sabbath dinner at their home. What I found especially moving was when Shmuley and his wife placed their hands on the heads of their young children, and blessed them to grow to be like Abraham and Sarah, which I understand is an ancient Jewish tradition. This led me to reminisce about my own childhood, and what the Sabbath meant to me growing up.

When people see the television appearances I made when I was a little boy — 8 or 9 years old and just starting off my lifelong music career — they see a little boy with a big smile. They assume that this little boy is smiling because he is joyous, that he is singing his heart out because he is happy, and that he is dancing with an energy that never quits because he is carefree.

But while singing and dancing were, and undoubtedly remain, some of my greatest joys, at that time what I wanted more than anything else were the two things that make childhood the most wondrous years of life, namely, playtime and a feeling of freedom. The public at large has yet to really understand the pressures of childhood celebrity, which, while exciting, always exacts a very heavy price.

More than anything, I wished to be a normal little boy. I wanted to build tree houses and go to roller-skating parties. But very early on, this became impossible. I had to accept that my childhood would be different than most others. But that’s what always made me wonder what an ordinary childhood would be like.

There was one day a week, however, that I was able to escape the stages of Hollywood and the crowds of the concert hall. That day was the Sabbath. In all religions, the Sabbath is a day that allows and requires the faithful to step away from the everyday and focus on the exceptional. I learned something about the Jewish Sabbath in particular early on from Rose, and my friend Shmuley further clarified for me how, on the Jewish Sabbath, the everyday life tasks of cooking dinner, grocery shopping, and mowing the lawn are forbidden so that humanity may make the ordinary extraordinary and the natural miraculous. Even things like shopping or turning on lights are forbidden. On this day, the Sabbath, everyone in the world gets to stop being ordinary.

But what I wanted more than anything was to be ordinary. So, in my world, the Sabbath was the day I was able to step away from my unique life and glimpse the everyday.

Sundays were my day for “Pioneering,” the term used for the missionary work that Jehovah’s Witnesses do. We would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California, going door to door or making the rounds of a shopping mall, distributing our Watchtower magazine. I continued my pioneering work for years and years after my career had been launched.

Up to 1991, the time of my Dangerous tour, I would don my disguise of fat suit, wig, beard, and glasses and head off to live in the land of everyday America, visiting shopping plazas and tract homes in the suburbs. I loved to set foot in all those houses and catch sight of the shag rugs and La-Z-Boy armchairs with kids playing Monopoly and grandmas baby-sitting and all those wonderfully ordinary and, to me, magical scenes of life. Many, I know, would argue that these things seem like no big deal. But to me they were positively fascinating.

The funny thing is, no adults ever suspected who this strange bearded man was. But the children, with their extra intuition, knew right away. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I would find myself trailed by eight or nine children by my second round of the shopping mall. They would follow and whisper and giggle, but they wouldn’t reveal my secret to their parents. They were my little aides. Hey, maybe you bought a magazine from me. Now you’re wondering, right?

Sundays were sacred for two other reasons as I was growing up. They were both the day that I attended church and the day that I spent rehearsing my hardest. This may seem against the idea of “rest on the Sabbath,” but it was the most sacred way I could spend my time: developing the talents that God gave me. The best way I can imagine to show my thanks is to make the very most of the gift that God gave me.

Church was a treat in its own right. It was again a chance for me to be “normal.” The church elders treated me the same as they treated everyone else. And they never became annoyed on the days that the back of the church filled with reporters who had discovered my whereabouts. They tried to welcome them in. After all, even reporters are the children of God.

When I was young, my whole family attended church together in Indiana. As we grew older, this became difficult, and my remarkable and truly saintly mother would sometimes end up there on her own. When circumstances made it increasingly complex for me to attend, I was comforted by the belief that God exists in my heart, and in music and in beauty, not only in a building. But I still miss the sense of community that I felt there — I miss the friends and the people who treated me like I was simply one of them. Simply human. Sharing a day with God.

When I became a father, my whole sense of God and the Sabbath was redefined. When I look into the eyes of my son, Prince, and daughter, Paris, I see miracles and I see beauty. Every single day becomes the Sabbath. Having children allows me to enter this magical and holy world every moment of every day. I see God through my children. I speak to God through my children. I am humbled for the blessings He has given me.

There have been times in my life when I, like everyone, has had to wonder about God’s existence. When Prince smiles, when Paris giggles, I have no doubts. Children are God’s gift to us. No–they are more than that–they are the very form of God’s energy and creativity and love. He is to be found in their innocence, experienced in their playfulness.

My most precious days as a child were those Sundays when I was able to be free. That is what the Sabbath has always been for me. A day of freedom. Now I find this freedom and magic every day in my role as a father. The amazing thing is, we all have the ability to make every day the precious day that is the Sabbath. And we do this by rededicating ourselves to the wonders of childhood. We do this by giving over our entire heart and mind to the little people we call son and daughter. The time we spend with them is the Sabbath. The place we spend it is called Paradise.


Written by Jim Davis

June 29, 2009 at 2:04 am

Radical Catholics

leave a comment »

Want to scope out the loyal opposition in the Roman Catholic Church? FutureChurch is a good starting point.

Optional celibacy? YoCSL045u betcha. The site still posts a 2004 survey showing most Catholics in 53 dioceses want it discussed. There’s also a lot on the chronic priest shortage and arguments for optional celibacy.

Local parishes? Fer sher. With the surge of parish closings and mergers since 2000, FutureChurch offers some tips for fighting closures — including, of course, the idea of lay ordinations.

Women in ministry? Yep. FutureChurch all but mentions female priesthood. It does say that “early Christian women served as apostles, prophets, teachers of theology, priests, deacons, stewards, enrolled widows and even bishops.”

FutureChurch optimistically reports on a women’s delegation to the 2008 International Synod on the Word, pressing bishops to re-examine how women are presented in the lectionary. It also includes a sample postcard addressed to Vatican official Cardinal Antonio Llovera, boldly asking to restore women to the leadership the Bible says they once had.

The site makes much of Mary Magdalene, honoring her (with little evidence) as a leader in the early church. However, it rejects the recent gossip that she was Jesus’ wife, both on historical grounds and because “it focuses on the fiction of Mary’s marital status rather than the fact of her leadership in proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection.”

Written by Jim Davis

June 22, 2009 at 2:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Zion: A four-letter word?

leave a comment »

With all the trash-talking about Zionism — in news media, on campuses, in diplomatic circles — Z Word may raise eyebrows. Then again, its creators — the American Jewish Committee — are used to being lightning rods for controversy.

Religious Symbol Series - Judaism“We reject the tendency to explain the entire Middle East region through the narrow prism of the Israeli-Palestinian (or Israeli-Arab) conflict,” according to the blog’s manifesto. “We reject the dogma which says Israel can do no right (or no wrong). Mostly, we insist that the debate be detailed and intelligent.”

Refreshingly, the blog doesn’t focus solely on the blow-by-blow of Jew hatred. It does log such events as a gang of thugs who beat up a pro-Israeli rally in Argentina. But its main distinction is a collection of thoughtful articles on the nature of beliefs and activism, and whether idealism can be misplaced.

Case in point: A story on “Jazz and Protest: a Reappraisal.” Jazz writer David R. Adler celebrates the long history of the genre as “freedom music,” but mourns how much of it has been captured by the cultural and political left.

But yes, Zionism does come under the lens. David Hirsh contributes a penetrating analysis on how anti-Zionism mutates into anti-Semitism when “it casts Jews as oppressors; or that criticism is made in such a way as to pick a fight with the vast majority of Jews.”

Some of the blog starts sounding anti-Christian, though. Hirsh says an Anglican priest “added a Christian twist” to criticism of Israel, although none of the cited quotes use Christian terms. Anthony Julius likewise brands the Gospel According to Matthew as a wellspring of Jew hatred. Neither man balances this with any acknowledgment of pro-Zionist groups like the current Christians United For Israel, or the historic American Christian Palestine Committee.

Written by Jim Davis

June 18, 2009 at 3:57 am

Religious studies at FIU: Salvation, for now

leave a comment »

The Department of Religious Studies at Florida International University is safe — at least, for now.

FIU’s board of trustees on Friday denied the administration’s request to dismember the department as part of a cost-cutting effort. The trustees told the university to find other ways to save money.

Nathan Katz, FIU’s first chair of religious studies, was still reeling from the plot twist on Monday.

“It was such an astonishing turnaround, one could imagine it as Etzbah Elokim,” Katz said, using the Hebrew term for “The Finger of God.”

“We were expecting a delay and afraid of a shutdown,” Katz said. “This is more than we’d hoped for.”

The decision climaxed a drama that began in April, when the university sought ways to overcome a multimillion-dollar shortfall caused by cuts in state aid. Among suggested cuts, the FIU administration proposed ending the bachelor’s degree in religious studies and laying off half the faculty. Master’s studies would continue in a “truncated” form, Katz said.

The news caused alarm over the future of a department, founded in 1995, that had assembled experts in Zen, Vodou, the Quran, Catholic sexual ethics, Sephardic Jewry, religion and culture, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other specialties.

Four presidents of the American Academy of Religion wrote a protest letter to FIU. Hindu, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders in South Florida joined the chorus.

Even the Dalai Lama — who has visited the campus in 1999 and 2004 — offered $100,000 to keep the FIU program running. He also volunteered to return and help in fundraising efforts; Katz expects that to happen sometime next year.

Perhaps in response to the outcries, the university trustees told the administration to leave religious studies alone and look beyond academics for places to cut costs. But Katz, currently director of FIU’s Program in the Study of Spirituality, isn’t celebrating just yet. He predicted that state support for state universities will continue to fall — and the schools will have to look elsewhere for support.

For the Religious Studies Department, of course, a likely place will be the religious leaders who lobbied for it. Katz said the department will start an endowment fund drive.

“We recognize that the budget crisis is real,” Katz said. “And for any institution of the university to thrive, it will need tangible support from the community.”

He offered one more quote, this one from Lao-tzu: “Conduct your victory as a funeral.”

Written by Jim Davis

June 16, 2009 at 5:58 am

Our religious heritage, in pictures

leave a comment »

Statue of Gudea, a Sumerian governor from the third millennium B.C.E. From Allan T. Kohl and AICT.

Statue of Gudea, a Sumerian governor from the third millennium B.C.E. From Allan T. Kohl and AICT.

Did you know there’s an Irish burial mound that goes back to 3200 B.C. — perhaps older than the Egyptian pyramids and the Indus Valley cities?

And a temple complex on Malta that’s just as old?

And a figurine from Turkey of a mother goddess, as old as 5750 B.C.E.?

I didn’t know all that either, until I found Art Images for College Teaching, which has dozens of pictures for free downloading. It’s the work of Allan T. Kohl, an art historian in Minneapolis, who amazingly shot all the photos himself.

My favorite parts are the ancient and prehistoric galleries. They have some expected things, like the bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti and the bull sphinxes of Assyria. Also the marvelous blue Ishtar Gate, restored at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, with its alternating rows of bulls and dragons.

But they also have lesser-known treasures, like a wealth of burial mounds and settlements across western Europe. Plus a sitting mother figure from Catal Hoyuk, Anatolia — going back as far as the seventh millennium B.C.E. Also a Minoan bull altar and murals by the Etruscans, who preceded the Latins in Italy.

One drawback of this otherwise wonderful site is the lack of info on what we’re looking at. Kohl typically names the object, its location and date, and where it is now. Nothing more on, say, the Sumerians or the people of the prehistoric Orkney Islands. Kohl does, however, supply a list of scholarly works you can hit to check it out yourself.

And just as amazingly, Kohl says he’ll let anyone download the photos free, for educational purposes.

Written by Jim Davis

June 14, 2009 at 4:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Lighting a candle for Jewry

leave a comment »

If it ain’t in Shamash, it probably ain’t Jewish. Named for the “servant” candle, which lights all the other candles on a menorah, this Semitmenorahic supersite is almost as old as the Web — first copyrighted in 1990.

The look, in fact, is pretty much mid-1990s, with blue hyperlinks and few graphics. The workers seem to have concentrated on the links themselves.

The Jewish Links page leads to a wealth of resources: schools, media outlets, Yiddish plays, kosher recipes, holiday stories, Israel info, software, women’s issues — it goes on and on. All told, the list adds up to 5,192 links in 21 categories.

Also check out the directory of Jewish resources, which includes archaeological, Yiddish, Sephardic, museum and other links.

One section gives you computer tools, like menorahs, Hebrew fonts, Torah scrolls and scenes from Israel. Several “contact sheets” show you what’s available; if you like them, you download the appropriate zip file. Primitive, but it works.

Also creative is is Partners in Torah, which helps you find a friend to learn with.

Shamash offers several versions of the Hebrew Bible — in Hebrew and English, online and downloadable. One linked site, Sacred Texts, has not only the Bible, but the Talmud, the Midrash, Ethics of the Fathers, and at least two versions of the Haggadah.

Written by Jim Davis

June 13, 2009 at 4:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Gimme that old Norse religion

leave a comment »

Regin forges Sigurd's sword; wood detail from the Hylestad church in Norway

Regin forges Sigurd's sword; wood detail from the Hylestad church in Norway

Strap on your broadsword and charge into Ginnungagap, a site that just may bring out your inner Viking.

The Sweden-based site, examines Nordic gods and goddesses, plus fun stuff like the monster wolf Fenrir, the fire giant Surt, the Fates and Valkyries, the apocalyptic Gjallarhorn, and how Thor lost his hammer Mjollnir — and got it back.

You can tap into four rune alphabets, and what each rune symbolizes. For instance, the first, ansuz, is said to stand for “wisdom, knowledge and communication through the spoken and written word.”

The site abounds in cross-referenced glossaries. You’ll learn the difference between Muspelheim and Nifilheim, and how the god Day is married to the goddess Night — although she’s also had two other husbands. A search window would have been a good idea, though.

A rather ambivalent article tells how Sweden held out until A.D. 1000 before becoming Christian. It suggests there was a long period during which Swedes worshiped both sets of deities. Fair enough. Many Haitians and Afro-Cubans still do the same, with the hybrid religions known as Vodou and Santeria.

Ginnungagap has a lot of stuff for sale, like books and jewelry, but also a few free downloads. Those include Nordic-style fonts and runes, and Celtic borders.

Generally, though, the site needs maintenance. The shopping page and the Links page have a lot of broken links. Among the remaining links, The Swedish Asatru Society looks the best.

Written by Jim Davis

June 9, 2009 at 4:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

%d bloggers like this: