GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

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

Archive for December 2012

Buddhism, poverty, jihad, spirituality — all on one website

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Enrichment, pic01So many people are dividing us — even on the Web, which was supposed to connect us. Then there are others like my friend Mike Schwager, with his site Enrichment.com.

“As the world converges technologically, so is the time also ripe for a convergence and new integration between people, races, genders, religions and cultures . . . coming together and finding common ground through dialogue and heart-felt expression,” the site says. Mike’s language may be flowery, but imagine if he and his contributors can pull it off.

And you could hardly find more variety among the writers, and their topics.

There’s an essay on love as a nutrient by Thich Nhat Hanh, leader of a Vietnamese version of Zen Buddhism. There’s a nugget by philosopher Joseph Campbell on myths as “the dynamic of life.” Other quotes come from motivational guru Wayne Dyer and metaphysical philosopher Eckhart Tolle.

Enrichment helpfully groups its many topics into broad clickable categories:

Spirituality, including intelligent design human treatment of animals (a topic close to Schwager’s heart).

Human Potential, including the teachings of Ernest Holmes, the founder of Science of Mind.

Humanitarian Issues like hunger, microcredit and combating world poverty.

Dialogue, such as the open letter from Muslim leaders to Jews in the wake of the 2009 attacks on Jews in Britain.

The categories are loose, though; a piece on the blessings of solitude is under Human Potential when it could just as well been under Spirituality. Fortunately, many of the articles are crosslinked.

There’s a bonus in the right-hand siderail: a list of “Great Documents.” These include the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There’s even a Universal Declaration of Animal Rights, from a British group called Uncage. (I told you Schwager paid close attention to treatment of animals.)

Enrichment is a site of good will, but its presentation is, well, rather retro: two siderails, no pictures, lots of words in long paragraphs. This is understandable for a site, as Mike tells me, that hasn’t been updated in awhile. That the articles are still current is testament to his skill in choosing foresighted writers. But the site still needs updating.

Some ideas to update it might include Flash animation and flyout links to related articles inside the site. Photos of the contributing writers would help visual appeal. So would a slideshow of various religious art, architecture and such that brought out the themes. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University is a good example of such a site.

Enrichment also suffers from the same flaw of other websites of the type: sectarianism. Now, that may seem an odd name for a site that tries to bridge borders. But in my experience, interfaith groups attract mainly those who are interested in interfaith relations. So do human potential organizations. If Enrichment is meant for people who are interested in human potential and interfaith relations, it will appeal to a minority of a minority.

How to bridge this particular gap? One way would be to draw people into the conversation from the more conservative, inward-turned wings of religious groups, rather than just the liberal, outgoing wings. They could address topics of common interest.

All that said, Enrichment is worth your attention. It’s a sad fact that many websites get attention for negative reasons: hate, fear, prejudice. Sites like Schwager’s deserve a look. You might see something there that you’ll find, well, enriching.

James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

December 31, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2012 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 10 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Written by Jim Davis

December 31, 2012 at 4:41 am

Posted in author, beliefs, faith, philosophy, religion

Tagged with ,

‘Les Miserables’: A parable as old as the Bible

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I just saw “Les Miserables,” and I am delighted to say that the film delivers on the main message of Victor Hugo’s story: Law versus Grace.

The film brings out the historical background of a failed rebellion against a king and his army in France. It paints a Dickensian picture of dirty, desperate peasants and callous aristocrats. And it tells a poignant subplot of a loving father who must accept that his daughter is grown, and release him to the young man she loves.

But most of all, “Les Miz” tells about the duo of Jean Valjean and his antagonist, Inspector Javert: one a repentant criminal, the other a ruthless policeman.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is incredulous that the priest he robbed offers him his candlesticks as well.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is incredulous that the priest he robbed offers him his candlesticks as well.

The story opens with Valjean ending two decades of hard labor for the crime of stealing bread for his family. Javert tells Valjean he will be on parole forever, and Valjean finds it almost impossible to find work. He turns bitter and brutal, using his strength and wit for no one’s good but his own.

A priest takes him in for the night, but Valjean thanks him by taking off with the silver chalices. Police catch him and return him to the priest, who says he gave the items to Valjean. It’s a vivid picture of Jesus’ instruction that if someone takes your coat, “give him your cloak as well.”

What happens next is what changes Valjean: The priest says his soul has been bought and he is obligated to become a better person. A repentant Valjean takes another identity and founds a humane, well-run factory. He also finds a sick, destitute street woman and takes care of her, then pledges to raise her daughter after her death.

Unfortunately, Javert finds him out and pursues him for jumping parole. Valjean is forced to flee again, this time with his grown adopted daughter.

The antagonists meet again during a the street rebellion, this time with Javert in Valjean’s gunsights. Valjean spares his life, yet Javert insists he will resume his pursuit at the first chance.

The final confrontation ends with a stark difference between the men: Valjean wanting only the safety of his daughter and her lover, Javert driven by his rigid, heartless version of justice. The inspector can no longer deny that his quarry of several decades is a changed man. Yet the law he serves allows for no compassion or leniency. Under this unbearable strain, someone must break.

How remarkable that a popular author — and gifted scriptwriters and filmmakers — should grasp the nature of the gospel, whether they know the source or not. That belief acknowledges the evil nature of humans and the stern demands of divine law. Yet it also states that God designed an end run around his own law: Jesus, in his own death, has paid the penalty, secured forgiveness and provided a way for people to change.

But accepting pardon carries its own price: Once people belong to God, they are responsible to turn their lives around — i.e., repent.

“Les Miserables” works on a human level as well. Many people try to escape their own flawed nature by condemning, pointing the finger, exposing those around them. Others understand flaws, but they can still see how people can change. Which type of person makes the world better? And which type really pleases God?

These are more than heady thoughts. They are soul-searching concepts.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Justin Bieber’s mom unveils a tragic past and a hopeful future

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Book Review: Nowhere But Up. Pattie Mallette, with A.J. Gregory. Revell. 220 pp. $21.99.

Justin Bieber’s ups and downs — and the recent conspiracy to kill him — are such a fixation of the celebrity media, they may have forgotten or glossed over his own background: the struggles of his mother, Pattie Mallette.

That would be a pity, for Mallette has outlasted wave after wave of horrors. She was molested as a child by a relative, then by older kids in her neighborhood in Stratford, Ontario. She dealt drugs and got hooked on them herself. She was raped by a date at 15 and threw herself in front of a truck at 17 in a suicide attempt. She spent time in the psych ward of a hospital and even conceived her famous son out of wedlock. All before her 25th birthday.

Book cover, reduced 2Her tiny, 4-foot-8 frame must hold an amazing amount of strength. Or, as she says in Nowhere But Up, she’s the grateful subject of the mercy and providence of God.

“It doesn’t matter where you find yourself today — how broken, hurting, wounded, or ashamed you are,” Mallette writes. “If God can help me find my way up, I promise, he can do the same for you.”

She speaks from experience, in a delicate blend of devotion, encouragement and brutal honesty. She talks frankly about the alcoholic father who abused his mother, then left the family. She paints her own episodes of sexual abuse not so much in terms of physical actions as manipulative situations and the outflow her desperation for someone to care for her.

She tells of a downward spiral of sex, drugs, rebellion and petty crime climaxing with her 19-day stay in the psych ward. Her salvation, physically and spiritually, starts through the director of a youth center who visits her in the hospital. He’s the one who gave the book its title with his advice: “When you hit rock bottom, you have nowhere to go but up.”

Yet Mallette doesn’t pretend conversion is a cure-all; for one, she volunteers the fact that she conceived Justin out of wedlock, then lived with the father for awhile. Finally she throws him out after realizing his drinking, partying ways won’t mix with fatherhood.

Through the peaks and dips of her story, she continually speaks of God as a guiding force, steering events, sometimes even speaking through dreams or vivid insights. She lightly dusts her book with Bible verses she has found meaningful. All of this she does with a refreshing sincerity, without sermonizing.

And Justin? Well, let’s just say Mallette is a proud mom. Through her eyes, Justin is the most beautiful baby and the brightest boy. She praises his grades at school, his equal skill at chess and soccer, and especially his ease in singing and playing various instruments. He earns a reputation first by singing and strumming on the street, then entering local contests, then building an audience on YouTube with mom’s eager participation.

Mallete_Pattie_HR reducedShe gives ample credit to the many who helped her and Justin along the way. There’s the computer firm that trained her, then employed her for two years. There’s the neighbor who paid for daycare for Justin while she returned to school. And there’s Scooter Braun, an Atlanta-based promoter minister who mentored the boy just as he was starting the big time.

Mallette also gives some pages to ministries that are helping troubled people like she once was. One is the Bethesda home for unwed mothers, where she stayed until she bore her son. Another is the Dream Center, a church in Los Angeles that runs nearly 300 social service ministries. Perhaps a future book by Mallette should dwell on such places.

A. J. Gregory, Mallette’s writer, turns her story into a smooth narrative, with short words, short paragraphs and little religious jargon. She also adds a lot of telling details — like Mallette’s $700 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme — obviously the product of many interviews and reviews of the text. Only toward the end of the book does Gregory fall into redundancies and some overwriting.

Bieber fans will like the 16 pages of color family snapshots. They show Mallette cuddling and camping with Justin, plus the two of them flying to his first big break in Atlanta.

Now in her mid-30s, Mallette acknowledges that her life is again in transition. With Justin grown, the nurture and protection that consumed her life is past. Just as her son is developing his own identity, she must recast her own. It’s a healthy realization: So many women with famous kids become stage moms, grabbing and holding the reflected fame as long as they can. That virus apparently hasn’t affected Mallette.

Her new role may already be shaping up. She has 1.5 million followers on Twitter, many of them asking the kinds of personal questions they might ask a mother. At least a hundred of them waited for hours before a recent book signing in Fort Lauderdale, squealing at her appearance as if they’d seen Justin. And she has been a guest on national news TV shows and at least two conferences by Women of Faith.

Mallette seems to be using her tragic past to help others with their tragic present. “I’m passionate about seeing people healed of pain,” she told me in an interview during her South Florida visit. “If I can come to a good place, anybody can.”

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Shlomo Carlebach’s daughter: Still spreading his light

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Neshama Carlebach carries on the legacy of her father. (Photo courtesy of Neshama Carlebach)

Neshama Carlebach carries on the legacy of her father. (Photo courtesy of Neshama Carlebach)

Pity the child of a famous person, like a singer or religious leader. She’ll walk forever in his shadow.

Except for the daughter of Shlomo Carlebach, the groundbreaking singer who pioneered a revival of Jewish music in the 20th century — and, some say, fostered the return of many young Jews to the fold.

“I’ve never felt in his shadow — I’ve felt in his light,” says Neshama Carlebach, who will sing for the first day of Hanukkah in Boca Raton, Fla. “It’s never a burden; it’s a great gift. He’s the voice in my head.”

Carlebach will present “A Celebration of Light and Miracles” at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, 9901 Donna Klein Blvd. She’ll offer the contemporary religious style of her late father as well as some of her own interpretations.

With her will be longtime friend Josh Nelson, a versatile Jewish rocker who also weaves folk, jazz and classical sounds into his work. They’ll perform both their own repertoires and each other’s.

Together, the two will cover much of the Jewish spectrum: Carlebach’s Orthodox background and secular outreach with Nelson’s Conservative / Reform upbringing and modern popular relationship.

The mix illustrates the goal of the concert, which will be their third together, she says in an interview from her home in New York.

“I feel like it’s a fusion of worlds — he’s from one side, I’m from the other,” Carlebach, 38, says. “We both believe the world has to come together, and that can come with music. You have to look outside your own world, and yet look within.”

That bridge-building was a lifelong theme also of her father, who died in 1994. Born into a Hasidic dynasty in Berlin, he came to America in 1939 and helped run his father’s synagogue in New York.

But he expanded far beyond the tight-knit Orthodox communities in the late 1960s after he moved to San Francisco and founded a mission to reach disaffected young Jewish hippies. Though he couldn’t read music, the “Rock Star Rabbi” wrote thousands of songs and even performed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead.

Marquee for Soul Doctor, a stage musical about Neshama Carlebach's father, Shlomo.

Marquee for Soul Doctor, a stage musical about Neshama Carlebach’s father, Shlomo.

Some see in his exuberant concerts and worship gatherings the seeds of the so-called baal teshuvah movement, the phenomenon in the 1970s that saw thousands of young Jews turn more fervent and observant. His story, and 30 of his songs, are in the stage musical Soul Doctor, which his daughter helped create.

His daughter carries on his legacy, introducing audiences to Jewish leaders and teachings through her music. She often draws from pop, soft rock and even gospel, with a longtime musical partner, the Bronx-based Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir.

“Music wakes people up,” Neshama says. “Music is a place of access to help you begin to feel. In so many moments in life, we should be feeling, and we’re not. The healing starts when you acknowledge what is going on in your head and heart.

“Yes, [the concert] should be entertaining and sound great. But it should carry a deeper meaning. We are all sparks of godlness. And we can reflect that everywhere. If we’ll allow it.”

The Carlebach approach, both father and daughter, is part of the revival of Jewish contemporary music paralleling Christian contemporary music. Concerts and playlists often include names like Matisyahu, Ray Recht and Dr. Laz. Neshama Carlebach even regards Josh Nelson “the reiging king of the movement.”

Nelson, 35, adds his own head-spinning beliefs on the way music can foster an experience that is at once mystical and social.

“The very existence of music is a miracle,” he says in a separate interview. “You pull it out of the air. That we can experience it together happens on a level that we have only the surface of understanding.

“People feel like [music] is both an introspective and vibrant community experience, in one evening. That’s really what everybody wants. They want to sing with other people, and with that still, small voice.”

Carlebach comes to South Florida after a year that has taken her to venues like Los Angeles, New Jersey, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Her Hanukkah concert will be one of her first after a hiatus of several weeks to deal with a divorce.

She says the divorce gives her a chance to practice what she preaches: learning to feel through music.

“We’re all tested in the world and given the opportunity to heal,” Carlebach says. “My blessing is that I have the opportunity to do it through music.

I’m praying that this new experience will make me compassionate in a new way.”

Tickets for the concert are $36 or $40 at the door for adults, $20 for students. For information, visit shaareikodesh.org or call 561-852-6555.

For more on Carlebach herself, visit her website.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 8, 2012 at 7:07 pm

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