GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

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

Archive for August 2009

Candles of gratitude

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Silent prayers, signs of hope, symbols of warmth and literal enlightenment — candles are such versatile and eloquent emblems of spirituality. And the Gratefulness Site has an electronic version.

CB055243The site takes you step by step, asking you to quiet your thoughts, then compose a reason for lighting a candle. Perhaps a request for a healing, or a memory of a loved one. You can then write it in a space provided, and finish — click — by lighting a virtual candle.

It’ll stay lighted for 48 hours, and take its place in a gallery of others. Interestingly, they shorten as time passes, just like real candles burning down.

The site is clearly meant to span the globe, with versions from Chichewa to Magyar to Zulu. As I wrote this, people from 119 countries had lighted 13,087 candles.

Don’t leave without clicking the link to the Gratefulness homepage. Created by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk from Austria, Gratefulness is dedicated to “celebrating the very gift of life itself” — with essays, haiku, pictures drawn by children, meditations on angels, even a virtual labyrinth.

The page of free e-cards is worth a bookmark. The cards have dozens of beautiful scenes, children, paintings and other motifs. And they let you add your own messages.

Written by Jim Davis

August 30, 2009 at 2:57 am

Posted in beliefs, prayer

Our shared spiritual heritage

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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?

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.

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

August 25, 2009 at 4:37 am

Good sites for Ramadan

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Ramadan is upon us, and the Web is bursting with pious, wordy tributes to it. Here are some of the better sites about this holiest month of Islam.

Al-Muhajabah, a longtime blogger, gives some nice, concise basics on the the month: how it’s calculated, the purpose of fasting, the night vigil prayers known as Tarawih. She also explains the evening meal, called iftar,quran01 and the fast-breaking festival at the end of Ramadan called Eid al-Fitr.

Al-Muhajabah also has an intro and FAQ on Islam on her homepage. Not all the links are as tightly written, but you may still find them worth reading.

Holidays.net is prettier and uses Web technology better; summary paragraphs link to fuller explanations. There’s also a kewl Flash-animated picture of the phases of the moon. Also some fun info-bits — like the fact that Muslims often eat more during Ramadan.

A surprisingly friendly description of Ramadan is on 30-days.net, a Christian evangelistic outreach to Muslims. It gives a basic explanation of “What Christians should know about Ramadan.” It tells a little about why the month is important, and hints at the combination of zeal and temperance that Muslims cultivate during the month.

The site also gives a few bonuses. One is that the month is named for the Arabic word ramida or ar-ramad, for denoting “intense scorching heat and dryness.” The essay also suggests that Ramadan “scorches out the sins with good deeds.”

Finally, if you have Muslim friends to send e-cards to, try Ramadan on the Net, 123greetings or Care2. The latter is especially nice, with a lot of very pretty animated cards.

Written by Jim Davis

August 23, 2009 at 4:00 am

Great ‘Times’ across the pond

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As a religion editor who has a Web page of his own, I am officially jealous of the religion page of the Times Online. It’s inviting, informative and intelligent. (And it apparently inspires alliteration.)

A “Top Stories” section and photos heads the page. Then come columns and features, along with holidays like Passover. There’s some interesting opinion, like the Archbishop of Canterbury warning the British government not to try to spend its way out of a recession — something American officials should heed as well. Newseye, 72dpi

There’s also some quirky stuff, like an item on Iceland’s Alfaskolinn, or Elf-School — along with the fact that 54 percent of Icelanders do not “discount” the existence of the hidden folk.

One weakness: Some of the articles appear to have been written by readers, or bloggers, or at least very biased journalists. A good example is a piece that strongly takes the side of a Christian charity worker who was suspended for stating his beliefs on homosexuality. Fortunately, the Times Online also has dispatches from its own stable of reporters, such as Richard Owen at the Vatican and Rhys Blakely in India.

The Times Online is fully stocked with opinions — perhaps overstocked, given the size of the blogosphere. But it does have a few surprises. One is Christopher Hitchens, whose latest book is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His review of a book about anti-Semitism is perceptive, if a bit meandering.

For the best all-round religion items, though, click Faith News and Blogs. The page pulls in from a wide range of sources — BBC, Reuters, Hindustan Times, the Associated Press — with a matching range of religions.

Written by Jim Davis

August 19, 2009 at 3:51 am

Posted in news, religion, religions

DVD review: ‘Jerusalem: Center of the World’

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More blood and tears must have been shed over Jerusalem than any other city in history. Rather ironic for a place whose name means “City of Peace.” But perhaps not for the literal touchstone of three enormously influential religions.

Its history is beautifully retold in Jerusalem: Center of the World, which premiered on PBS in April and was released as a DVD shortly thereafter. Handsomely shot and diplomatically written, it is a rarity among documentaries — a film on the Holy Land that’s well done, but doesn’t graft someone’s pet theory onto the topic.

The two-hour show traces the historical reasons — still visible today in the holy sites — why those few acres have grabbed and held our attention for four millennia.


An Orthodox Jew prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

With the sure, steady hand of PBS newsman Ray Suarez, Jerusalem: Center of the World plays it straight with biblical history. It tells of Abraham’s call to move to the land, and how God tested his loyalty by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. It tells of the magnificent Temple built on the spot centuries later by his descendant Solomon. And it tells the grief over losing the land when the Romans scattered the Jews.

The documentary continues with the story of Christianity, and Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. It shows the Via Dolorosa, the winding street said to mark the 14 events between his arrest and his burial. It also ventures into the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditional site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

But it moves on to tell of the importance of the city to Muslims as the “Farthest Mosque,” or al-Masjid al-Aqsa, mentioned in the Quran. There’s an awe-inspiring walk through the Dome of the Rock, the golden-domed shrine that dominates nearly every photo of Jerusalem.

Not that the special swallows all the legends whole. It acknowledges that non-biblical evidence is scant for people like David, and for events like Muhammad’s nighttime visit to Jerusalem. But it doesn’t air historical gossip or shifting archaeological fads.

Jerusalem: Center of the World tells how the Romans put down a Jewish revolt, then destroyed and rebuilt Jerusalem after 70 A.D. The film also covers — perhaps a bit too lightly — its rebuilding as a Roman city, then a Byzantine pilgrimage site, then the Ottoman period, heading into the 20th century.

The documentary producer, Two Cats Productions, clearly found a soulmate in the Muslim family entrusted with the key to the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The head of the family is given considerable camera time explaining the complexities of caring for such a sensitive holy place.

Jerusalem: Center of the World also skirts controversy in saying that scholars agree the Temple once stood on Mount Moriah, but all evidence for the structure is gone. Left unmentioned are the arguments of Asher Kaufman and others that the Waqf, the Arab authority governing the mountain, has purposefully destroyed such evidence.

But it seems to lean toward the Muslim side in dealing with the Crusades. It relates the the brutality of the First Crusade, but stays silent on the destruction of all churches and synagogues in Jerusalem by the Muslim ruler Hakim a century earlier.

Still, Jerusalem: Center of the World is a welcome tone of moderation about a city so given to extremes. The DVD will likely get bought up by a lot of libraries — and by families who want more light than heat.

Written by Jim Davis

August 16, 2009 at 4:26 am

Borrowing from the neighbors

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We Christians often hear calls to “separate yourselves from the world’: but as Sarah Yeomans points out in Biblical Archaeology Review, even early Christian art was very much like pagan art.

The author shows representations of Christ as the gods Apollo and Hermes, and the hero Orpheus. She also matches an image of the Madonna and Child with that of Isis nursing the infant Horus.

Yeoman quickly adds that Christians were necessarily importing paganism. Rather, “Artisans and craftsman who were now creating art in a Christian context naturally turned to images and styles that were familiar to them.”

But this tradition continues today, don’t you think? This spring in Fort Lauderdale, an alliance of church groups held a Christian hard-rock festival on the beach. I doubt the churches would have produced such music — or sponsored a spring break celebration — if secular society hadn’t done it first.

Before you leave the BAR site, click one of the pictures. It’ll launch a slide show with a bigger view of the 10 pictures, plus some long captions explaining them.

Written by Jim Davis

August 13, 2009 at 3:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

God: The short version

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Is there a God? Will you believe after reading Meaning of Life? For that matter, will you know the meaning of life?

The Catholic-oriented site gives some pretty orthodox answers, like the Argument from the First Cause and the Moral Argument. But it also suggests sun, waterone inventive argument: “If there is no God, there is no problem of existence. We simply satisfy our appetites to the best of our abilities and then go out of existence. To say there is a problem is to say there is a God.”

The site tackles other standard questions, too. Like why God allows suffering, or whether prayer works. Or, what about aliens, or the people who lived before Jesus.

You can tell the writers are non-fundamentalist from the answers. One calls the book of Genesis an allegory, not history. Another says psychic abilities have nothing to do with religion (many fundamentalists believe such powers are satanic). Still another says Revelation is not a code about the end of the world, but a “vision of the struggle between Good and Evil.”

With some of the answers, though, you wonder if they’re serious. Like the secret of a happy marriage: The wife is always right, and the husband should “bring her flowers and small silly gifts as often as you possibly can.”

So not all the 14 pages are equally good. But they’re worth reading. Whether or not you decide there’s a God.

Written by Jim Davis

August 9, 2009 at 5:08 am

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