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Holiday Almanac: Jews celebrate holy law today

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Torah 02

Torah page, photographed by Renaude Hatsedakis, via freeimages.com.

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, began at sundown for the estimated half-million Jews in South Florida. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The holiday is one of the three Jewish ‘‘pilgrim festivals,” along with Passover and Sukkot, meant to recall the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt and subsequent wanderings in the Sinai desert. Shavuot takes its name from Passover, which it follows by seven weeks — a ‘‘week of weeks.”

Synagogues observe Shavuot with the reading of the Ten Commandments. Some also read the biblical story of Ruth, who converted to Judaism and became the grandmother of King David. The story is seen as a historical parable of commitment to God and the holy law.

In recent years, many synagogues have increasingly held confirmation on Shavuot, as their young men and women take on the promise to obey the holy law.

 — James D. Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

May 20, 2018 at 4:17 pm

Website review: Real Clear Religion

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From the folks who created Real Clear Politics comes a faith-based version, Real Clear Religion. A two-word review: Bookmark it. If you want to keep on religion news, this free site is a gift that keeps giving.

The low-graphics, fast-loading homepage has a simple list of the top 12 headlines for each day. The stories come from secular outlets like Slate, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune and The Atlantic Monthly, as well as religious publications like the National Catholic Reporter, Christianity Today and Religion News Service.

Some rights reserved by Dominique Godbout

Issues include sex abuse, China’s problem with the Catholic Church, the recent fracas over circumcision in San Francisco, the deaths of John Stott and Amy Winehouse (in separate stories, of course), and the Broadway play based on the Book of Mormon.

Real Clear Religion also posts think pieces. One is a column from Religion Dispatches suggesting that atheists get involved in interfaith work. Another examines The Role of Men in Religious Terrorism — a journalistic minefield if ever there were one.

One nitpick: the text size. It’s small. Sure, you can make it larger with your browser, but that makes the section titles start to run together.

A bonus is a topics page. It lists articles by title, from ABC to Fred Phelps to Newt Gingrich to Vatican City to Yom Kippur.

And if you like the Real Clear approach, check out their sister sites in world news, business, science, energy and sports.

The video section is especially compelling, with clips from all over the world. A recent page featured reports on a mine blast in the Ukraine, Islamic militants in Indonesia, Europe’s bailout of Greece, and the killing of Libyan rebel leader Abdel Fattah Younes.

Written by Jim Davis

August 1, 2011 at 2:43 am

How the King James Bible was made

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DVD review: KJB: The Book that Changed the World. Lionsgate Entertainment, 94 minutes, $21.99.

On this 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible comes a rare documentary, imparting knowledge and beauty alike — and a peek into the personalities behind the events. KJB is well worth your time.

Why should you care? John Rhys-Davies, the narrator, spells it out at the beginning. He says the King James Version, “even if you haven’t read it, has had an influence on your life. In fact, its imagery, its language and its influence have been felt around the world for the past 400 years. It also claims to be the living word of God.”

John Rhys-Davies reads the King James Bible from an English pulpit to show its powerful effect.

The video takes an unusual route to the story of the King James Version. Instead of a direct approach, it looks through the eyes and mind and life of what Rhys-Davies calls “this strange little king.” And through the political maneuvers he negotiated, both in his home realm of Scotland and the English palaces he inherited.

First it sets James’ life against the violence of Elizabethan England: political factions, religious sects, assassinations and reprisals constantly tearing at the nation’s fabric. Even the attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament — “their very own 9-11,” Rhys-Davies says — is woven into the story.

It traces James upbringing as a boy king of Scotland, whose rebel queen mother was executed when he was a toddler. Thereafter, James was constantly ruled by cold regents and brutal teachers until he was old enough to take the throne on his own. He learned tough thinking from his brutal but brilliant mentor, George Buchanan, and tough dealing from the feuding clans of Scotland.

This cauldron of influences produced a tough, intelligent, often testy young man, yet one who often sought to bridge gaps and unify opponents. It all made him a new kind of ruler as the hand-picked successor of Elizabeth I — a surprising one, given his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed for conspiring against the English throne.

Seeing familiar feuding again — this time between Anglican bishops and Calvinist clergy — James hit on the idea of a new Bible translation to bring the sides together. And not coincidentally, the project would reinforce his authority as head of the church.

What happens, of course, is what often happens when rivals are forced to collaborate. The 50-plus scholars first grumble and circle each other; then they grudgingly work together; then they slowly develop a camaraderie and mutual respect. Over seven years, their checks and balances refine one anothers’ scholarship.

Mounted as a docudrama, KJB is miles ahead of its typically dull counterparts on The History Channel. Cinematography is sharp and vivid, the acting is decent, lighting is by turns misty and luminous, and the story is told through playlets strung into a narrative.

Rhys-Davies, as host and narrator, lends his blend of lordly diction and forceful delivery. Many of the events are shot at the very sites — including Haddon Hall, Hampton Court Palace, Stirling Castle, the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey — where they happened.

In some extraordinary sequences, the video tries to capture some of the intense reverie that produced the KJV. Rhys-Davies opens a precious manuscript of I Corinthians 13, penned four centuries ago by Bishop Richard Bancroft of London himself. He marvels over a copy of a Bible with notes in the margins — a tiny window into the thought processes of the translators

The period costumes are gorgeous, as is the green, stony-fenced English countryside. You can almost smell the old stones and feel the weight of centuries. We also get nice touches like dueling stags and bobbing tulips

But just because this video is about the Bible doesn’t mean it’s G-rated. Not with James’ vigorous, occasionally salty remarks. In one anecdote, he rants that a list of Presbyterian complaints is “a litany of dullness and stupidity blown out of your buttocks. Perhaps we should stick the list back where it came from!”

The film has frequent talking-head professors who lend their insights in a conversational manner. Unfortunately, they’re not identified beyond their names. Where are they from? How are they qualified to comment?

Oddly, it’s only toward the end of the 94-minute program that we get a sampling of phrases that have cemented the King James Version as a towering achievement of poetry and rhetoric. Ascending into a lofty pulpit, Rhys-Davies savors the phrases like verbal delicacies.

Phrases like “Let there be light,” “You are the salt of the Earth,” “Honor thy father and thy mother,” “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” and “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

At the companion website, kjv400celebration.com, Thomas Nelson Publishers says that English speakers use 1,000 such phrases in everyday speech. The publisher also notes also that the KJV has more than a billion — yes, with a “b” — copies in print.

Only in its last moments does KJB mention some of the scandals that plagued James’ last years. Perhaps it’s just as well. Those storms have faded, but the Bible he commissioned still stands.

Yes, much of the language is outdated. It’s long been the fashion to make fun of the “thees” and “thous,” to nod off at the lists of “begats.” But for its majestic prose, its compelling poetry, and accuracy that was unsurpassed for centuries, the King James Version stands out as a true treasure of western Christian heritage.

Written by Jim Davis

July 2, 2011 at 3:30 am

‘Charisma’ mag: Sharper, sleeker

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The label “venerable” can be a kiss of death for a website. But Charisma’s new editor, Marcus Yoars, has overseen a good job of renovation for this 35-year-old publication. Change is everywhere on the site.

Most noticeable on the homepage is a slick-looking tag cloud down the left side, telling you at a glance what people are reading on the site. Other tweaks include a multimedia page, with videos, podcasts, photo galleries and links to Charisma on Facebook and Twitter. The photos include early coverage of the recent earthquakes in Chile and Haiti.

Feature articles show some sharp writing and deep thinking. One tells of a minister and his wife in Texas who adopted four orphans and inspired the adoption of 69 others.

A news section surveys world trends, from economics to technology to the surge of world Islam. One reports that Christians in Morocco are being vilified through the use of Facebook.

A look at The Gospel and Marvin Gaye pleads for Christians to take a view of redeeming society, as did the songs of the late soul singer.

Naturally, Charisma wants you to subscribe to its magazine. The digital version is a cool Flash-driven picture of a magazine, using your mouse pointer to turn the pages.

Written by Jim Davis

June 20, 2010 at 1:53 am

Does God care how you work?

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In your lifetime, you’ll do only one more thing than sleep — work. Does God care how you do it?

Good questions while looking toward Labor Day weekend. And The High Calling offers some fresh insights.

“There is hardly a human occupation that does not in some way involve being a coworker, a cocreator with God,” writes CB007273Dave Williamson on the Texas-based site. “We are sharing in God’s work. We are expressing God’s image in our work.”

Williamson’s thoughtful article shows satisfying depth on the topic. He notes that “vocation” comes from vocare, or “to call.” He adds that the Hebrew avodah means both “work” and “worship,” suggesting that our attitude toward work points to our attitude toward God.

In other essays:

  • Artist-theologian Ginger Geyer reveals that even one’s own work can take a form that surprises the artist.
  • Medical clinic director John Willome shares how he once took an easy job rather than one he believed he was meant for.
  • Journalist Debra Klingsporn tells how forgiveness from her boss made her a better worker.

Some articles, of course, are better than others. One writer uses words like “bedraggled” and “entreat.” Her ideas are fresh, but the terms are canned.

The cleanly designed, quick-loading site is generous with back articles and podcast files — 3,000 items total. A quick “tour” gives highlights and acquaints you with how the site is built. The “Browsing Tools” is especially handy, helping you search by tag, author or content.

Written by Jim Davis

September 1, 2009 at 4:51 am

Guest column from Michael Jackson (really)

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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

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 city 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 on April 1 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.

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. When PBS makes the DVD available, it will likely get bought up by a lot of libraries — and by families who want more light than heat.

Written by Jim Davis

April 1, 2009 at 4:07 am

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