GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

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

Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Holiday Almanac: Purim, the Festival of Esther, starts tonight

leave a comment »


“Esther Before King Ahasuerus,” oil on canvas, by Andrea Celesti (1637-1712). Public domain image via Wikimedia.org.

Sundown today ushers in Purim, the joyous Jewish Festival of Lots that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a would-be mass murderer 25 centuries ago.

The story, told in the biblical book of Esther, takes place in Persia, where many of the Jews were living in exile. There Esther, a Jewish woman, won a beauty contest and married King Ahasuerus.

Haman, the king’s prime minister, hated the Jews after Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow to him. Haman persuaded the king, who was unaware Esther was Jewish, to sign an iron-clad decree for the Jews’ extermination.

After Esther bravely pled her people’s case, Ahasuerus changed his mind but could not rescind the decree. However, he issued another order allowing the Jews to defend themselves. They killed thousands of their enemies, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.

Purim takes its name from the Hebrew word for “lots,” for the method by which Haman had decided the date of the slaughter — which became, instead, the day of the great Jewish victory.

Boisterous celebrations lift Purim above its formal status as a minor religious holiday. Synagogues and Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Costume parties have children dressing as their favorite Purim characters. And refreshments include hamantaschen, triangular pastries in the traditional shape of Haman’s hat.



Written by Jim Davis

March 11, 2017 at 11:06 pm

Holiday Almanac: Passover, the oldest freedom festival

leave a comment »

Seder plate photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr Creative Commons

Seder plate photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr Creative Commons

Passover, called the oldest festival of freedom, starts at sundown today (Monday, April 14, 2014) for the world’s 13 million Jews. The eight-day holiday dates back some 34 centuries, recounting the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

As told in the biblical book of Exodus, the pharaoh rejected the prophet Moses’ demand to release the people, bringing a wave of plagues on the land. The last plague was the Angel of Death, who struck down the firstborn of every Egyptian household in one night. The Israelites escaped death by dashing lambs’ blood on their doorposts — a sign of faith that made the angel ‘‘pass over” those homes.

In modern Jewish homes, the festival starts with a ceremonial meal called a Seder on the first two nights, with foods symbolizing the Exodus story. The foods include a lamb shank; a piece of bitter herbs such as horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery; a bowl of saltwater, for the tears of oppression; and a mix of apples, cinnamon and wine, for the mortar used in the Egyptian bricks.

Also on the Seder plate are a roasted egg and leafy vegetables, for the springtime occasion of Passover; and the hard, unleavened bread called matzoh, for the Israelites’ haste in evacuating Egypt.

— James D. Davis



Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2014 at 5:21 am

Holiday Almanac: The Twelfth Day of Christmas

with one comment

Photo credit: luis tapia via sxc.hu

Photo credit: luis tapia via sxc.hu

Monday, Jan. 6, will be Epiphany, the traditional “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” recalling when Christians say Jesus’ divinity was revealed.

For Western churches, especially Roman Catholic, Epiphany is Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men visited the young Jesus. In South Florida, Hispanics celebrate Three Kings Day, with floats and bands in an exuberant parade along Miami’s Calle Ocho.

For Eastern Orthodox churches, Epiphany marks Jesus’ baptism, when a dove settled onto him and a voice from heaven declared him “my beloved son.” Some parishes, or groups of parishes, gather for a colorful “‘Blessing of the Waters” ceremony, in which youths retrieve a cross that has been thrown into a waterway.

Most liturgical churches will hold formal Epiphany observances on Sunday, Jan. 5. Many parishes use incense as a fragrant reminder of the magi’s gifts to jesus. Eastern Orthodox priests use the day to bless their baptismal fonts by dipping a cross into the water.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 2, 2014 at 4:37 am

‘Christmas Near the Beach’: Living room festival — for several thousand people

leave a comment »


Deena McDaniel buddies up with daughters Abby, left, and Rosey. All three will be in Christmas Near the Beach. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Santa is invited. So are some hip-hoppers, gospel singers and ballet dancers. Oh, and you are, too.

That’ll be Christmas Near the Beach, a flamboyant blend of music, dance, comedy and worship. The free festival is planned for 4-9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at ArtsPark in the heart of Hollywood, Fla.

“Everyone wants to have people for Christmas in their living room, but they can’t,” says Deena McDaniel, producer of the seventh annual Yuletide festival. She then grins and waves at the 2,400-square-foot stage at ArtsPark. “So let’s have it in my living room!”

Holding forth at the circular park at U.S. 1 and Hollywood Boulevard, Christmas Near the Beach will include a sampling of music and performance styles from around South Florida. Among them will be hip-hoppers Justin Phillips and Mr. E; the Overflow Band, a Spanish praise and worship group; St. Nick and the Florida Sunshine Band, a marching band; the Pursell Family Band, bluegrass gospel; and Sensere, a 1950s-style gospel group with horns and singers.

Also there will be Expressions of Joy, a dance studio for which McDaniel an instructor. They’ll perform excerpts of their Christmas ballet A Star Shall Come Forth. And they’ll do an excerpt from their original ballet based on The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis.

The biggest performance will be a flash mob of 200-300 dancers, choreographed by McDaniel, who shared the moves via YouTube.


Deena McDaniel shows the “Grinchy” mask she’ll wear in a play at Christmas Near the Beach. (Photo: James D. Davis)

McDaniel herself will reprise her Grinchy Got Saved performance, in which she dresses and masks as a parody of Dr. Seuss’ sneering green character. She’ll also perform an athletic, gospel-oriented dance called Only One Roadway, wearing mime makeup that, she confesses, some children have found scary.

Christmas Near the Beach will offer other trappings of South Florida festivals as well: hot dogs, fried Oreo cookies, a Tacky Sweater Contest, arts and crafts for kids, and a classic car show (St. Nick will even arrive in one of them). You’ll also have a chance to win a Christmas tree in a free raffle.

The festival moved last December from its original home on Hollywood Beach, where it got about 1,000 people each year. Last year the crowd tripled, McDaniel said, and this year she gleefully expects 10,000.

But Christmas Near the Beach will ignore the reason for the season. After his big entrance, St. Nick will kneel before the Baby Jesus at a live Nativity scene. Also featured will be a message by Pastor Al Pino of McDaniel’s home church, Palm Vista Community Church in Miami Lakes.

The variety of the acts reflects the variety of the dozen participating churches, McDaniel says: Haitian, Hispanic and African American as well as Anglo. She says the audience itself will include about 50 congregations.

If Christmas is the right time for such a festival, Deena McDaniel is the right person to produce it. Besides her work with Expressions of Joy, she leads a fitness class at Memorial Hospital in Hollywood and has worked as an adjunct professor of cardio and Pilates at Barry University in Miami Shores. She also holds a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma and worked for 10 years as a DJ in her former hometown of Camden, Mo.


Two samples of the glass starfish ornaments for sale, to benefit Christmas Near the Beach. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Her two youngest daughters seem to be following in her nimble footsteps. Rosey, 12, has a speaking part as a “Who” in the Grinch play. She’ll also dance in the flash mob, as will sister Abby, 10.

Abby has her own vocabulary in talking about Christmas Near the Beach. “Super-extra-awesome-amazing,” she says with a smile.

Although the festival is free, McDaniel plans to pass the plate for the first time this year to defray the $11,000 price. Most of the cost is carried by sponsorship and donations, she says.

This year, the program will get help from another source: Hollywood Hot Glass, a glass-blowing workshop based at ArtsPark. Director Brenna Baker will sell glass starfish-shaped Christmas ornaments for $20 each, with proceeds to benefit Christmas Near the Beach.

Christmas Near the Beach is also getting coverage from Christian media, including radio stations WAY-FM, Reach-FM, and the GraceNet Internet broadcast. At least two secular newspapers, the Hollywood Gazette and the South Florida Sun Sentinel, have also shown interest.

How to know if Christmas Near the Beach is a success? Here, McDaniel tears up. “Whenever the gospel is preached, it’s a success. Being big doesn’t mean you’re faithful. God says to share the gospel and let him do the work.”

Then her bright smile returns. “But big is OK, too. I’ll take big.”

For more info, check out the Christmas Near the Beach website.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 13, 2013 at 3:21 am

Reading the Quran is risky — if a Muslim woman does it

with 2 comments

The day begins with recitation and prayer at the school at Al-Zahra Mosque in ‘The Light in Her Eyes.’ Photo by Itab Azzam.

TV Review: The Light in Her Eyes. Clockshop, produced in association with American Documentary-POV. Broadcast date: 10 p.m. July 19 on PBS (check local listings). 56 minutes.

“We can be teachers and students; we can rule and arbitrate,” Houda Al-Habash tells her Quran class for girls in Damascus. “You are free in your choices, free in your way of thinking, free in your faith, free in everything.”

If only it were that simple. But of course, it never is, not in the Middle East. The Light in Her Eyes strikes a hopeful tone, but it was shot shortly before the civil war that currently grips Syria.

The documentary, directed and produced by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, shows the delicate balance of Middle Eastern women in advancing intellectually while staying true to their faith — a faith whose leaders often denounce their efforts.

Nix and Meltzer focus on the two-month Quran memorization program Houda sponsored every summer at Al-Zahra Mosque in Damascus. Now in her 40s, she founded the program at 17, then gradually began supervising similar programs at mosques around the Syrian capital.

She presents a mix of opposites, wearing black robes but donning sunglasses and driving around Damascus in her car. Making rounds of mosques, she delivers a mix of praise and demands — both of students and their teachers — smiling but prodding everyone to work harder.

The students are charmingly like young girls elsewhere: giggly, fidgety, quick with smiles and silly songs. But they’re also dutiful, pacing circles on the mosque’s carpet with their Qurans, reciting what they consider to be direct quotes from God.

Houda talks with her daughter, Enas, about how she started work as a preacher in ‘The Light in Her Eyes.’ Photo by Laura Nix

The girls do get positive reinforcement, too. When one memorizes a chapter, Houda has everyone else applaud her. Houda gives an award to the girl who memorized the most. And all the girls go on an overnight field trip, including a dip in a pool — though Middle Eastern swimsuits include sleeves, pants and little skirts.

Change is everywhere in Damascus, as The Light in Her Eyes shows. Women in hijabs and bulky coats share the streets with others who wear jeans and pullovers.

In the background are conservative Muslim scholars, represented by grim lecturers on TV. They sternly state that women’s religious duties are to bear and raise children, take care of the home and serve the husband. None are invited on camera, creating a bias in this documentary. Then again, Nix and Meltzer weren’t filming with the Syrian dictatorship’s permission.

Houda’s husband, Samir Al-Khaldi, says he supports her in her quranic memorization classes, as long as she keeps up her wifely and motherly duties. “A man works hard to provide for his family,” he says.

Some of the students complain often about the rules they feel are holding them back — indeed, causing the whole Islamic world to fall behind. But like Houda, they always blame custom, culture and tradition, not the religion itself.

“If a mother never learns, how can she teach the next generation?” one girl asks. “A woman is a school. If you teach her, you teach a generation.”

Enas, Houda’s 20-year-old daughter, is taking the next step: studying international relations at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. She and Houda acknowledge that some Syrians still frown on a girl going off by herself to study — let alone study secular topics. But “I can serve Islam better if I study politics or economics,” Enas says.

Not that Houda encourages outright rebellion. Indeed, she makes it a privilege for her students to wear a hijab, comparing it to a national flag, an emblem of the faith. And the graduation ceremony is a very big deal — dressing the girls in white gowns and laurels as a female chorale sings the praise of virtuous women.

What a difference from feminism of the 1960s and ’70s in the West. Women’s rights activists here felt the need to reject religion, or at least the parts of it that they perceived was hurting their rights. In proto-feminist circles of Syria, women want it all: the roots of their faith and the opportunity to learn.

It’s all lovely, but in Syria it may be doomed. A postscript to the film notes the uprising that started in spring 2011. A year later, Houda and her family fled Syria, and the school closed. Light in someone’s eyes can be beautiful, but it’s also fragile.

Besides the rundate, The Light in Her Eyes will be available for streaming on the PBS website from July 20 to Aug. 19.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

July 10, 2012 at 4:30 am

Father and son: joined yet separated by their faith

leave a comment »

TV review: ‘My Reincarnation.’ 86 minutes. Airdate: 10 p.m. eastern time on PBS (check local listings).

Detachment is the route to nirvana, according to the Buddha. But in a western Buddhist family, it’s also a road into the generation gap.

My Reincarnation, kicking off the 21st year of PBS’ POV series, is a quiet yet classic look into the meaning of life and human nature, told through the story of a Tibetan Buddhist guru and his Italian-born son. In the process, it explores issues of destiny versus autonomy, heritage versus individual freedom.

Namkhai Norbu explains the meaning of the Purba (ritual knife) to his son, Yeshi. (Zohe Film Productions Inc.)

Director-cinematographer Jennifer Fox gives us an extraordinary, 30-year look at the life of Dzogchen Buddhist master Namkhai Norbu and his son Yeshi, living in Italy. Yeshi has the simultaneous fortune and misfortune to be the son of a revered teacher — a Rinpoche, believed to be a reincarnated master. Better (or worse), Namkhai comes to believe his son is his own reincarnated master and quietly tries to steer him into Buddhist practice.

As do many western sons, Yeshi resists and resents his father’s wishes for him. We see him starting in 1989, more interested in girls than gurus. He also resents how Namkhai flits to various seminars, charming large audiences, while holding his own son at arm’s length.

As Yeshi grows into manhood, he reaches his goals: He marries, has two children and becomes a businessman, often driving around Italy to this or that meeting. Yet the more he achieves, the less it means to him. He even finds himself reciting mantras to a CD as he drives.

He begins sharing his managerial knowledge with his father’s organization, which is experiencing growing pains. And perhaps he gains some understanding of Namkhai’s dilemmas. As he notes in the film: As an organization grows, it puts more distance between a guru and his followers.

Filmmaker Jennifer Fox (Zohe Film Productions Inc.)

Yeshi decides to visit the Tibetan monastery where his alleged previous self taught. He is overwhelmed by the greeting: the colors, the music, the rituals, the elderly followers who have been awaiting the Rinpoche’s return.

That seems to be the tipping point as Yeshi accepts the mantle of teacher. He becomes a close copy of his father, traveling constantly to minister to a growing following. Oddly, it doesn’t draw father and son closer: Namkhai doesn’t applaud Yeshi’s turn of vocation, and the two find little time in their busy schedules to spend together. Tibetan religion and tradition are better for Yeshi’s choice. Personal freedom and happiness, maybe not.

Is this good or bad? Happy or sad? To her credit, filmmaker Fox doesn’t indicate. She leaves the bottom line to us. That’s remarkable for someone who spent four years as Namkhai Norbu’s secretary.

Although My Reincarnation is an outstanding achievement — what sociologists would call a “longitudinal case study” — it leaves one chapter unwritten. What of Yeshi’s own two children? As he emulates his father, flitting around to minister to his followers, do they understand his sense of mission? Or do they feel neglected, abandoned, as he did?

And when they grow up, what will they choose? A life of Buddhist detachment? A western-style pursuit of rewards and relationships? Something else altogether? And will they feel manipulated if, like their dad, one or both are marked as reborn masters?

Jennifer Fox was right. My Reincarnation is not only about the difference in eastern and western values, but about the struggle between father and son. What is life for? Building and nurturing relationships? Or engineering the escape known as nirvana? Do we need to find ourselves or lose ourselves?

You can learn more with these links.

For more on the documentary, including pictures and a description of Dzogchen Buddhism, click the film’s website.

For more on the Norbus, including their schedules and local centers, click this link.

For more on the POV series — and apps to watch My Reincarnation on iPad and iPhone — click here.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

June 18, 2012 at 2:41 am

The bland leading the bland

with one comment

DVD review: Love Begins. Twentieth Century Fox Home entertainment. 88 minutes.

Strength, faith, courage, romance and the Wild West just seem to go together. But in Love Begins, it’s not blind faith as much as bland faith.

This film is a prequel to Janette Oke’s eight-book Love Comes Softly series, though it’s part of the Hallmark series based on them. It pretty much fits the pattern of Oke’s less-than-Wild West, where nearly everyone says “ma’am” and “sir” and sticks to a firm code of honor. And where fine, upstanding women always get their man.

Good-lookin’ Ellen (Julie Mond of General Hospital) and kid sister Cassie (Abigail Mavity of Summerland) work hard to maintain the dusty ranch their dead parents left behind. They smile and talk hopefully, but they’re losing ground.

Meanwhile, over the hill gallop Clark (Wes Brown of True Blood) and his buddy Daniel, on their way to join the gold rush in California. In the town of Trinity, Daniel hits on the womenfolk, and he and Clark get in a brawl with the menfolk, busting up Miss Millie’s café (not a saloon; in this version of the West, no one drinks anything stronger than coffee).

The two men are arrested, but Daniel escapes, leaving Clark to work off the cost of repairs. For the sheriff, the obvious solution is to make him a hired hand at Ellen’s ranch.

This arrangement doesn’t sit well with her: She’s still bitter over Jake, her former lover. Like Clark, he left for the gold rush two years ago. She agrees to hire Clark but treats him coldly.

Gradually, her attitude softens as Clark shows a polite, hard-working nature. His tall, rawbowned frame, shy smile and bright blue eyes don’t hurt either. And the annoyingly perky Cassie helps him work and chats him up.

A few dinners, a gentle dance, and Clark and Ellen confess their love. As he pays the last of his debt, he reconsiders his plans to leave. But oh, no, a plot twist! A well-dressed Jake steps off the next stagecoach! Turns out he struck it rich in California after all. He asks for Ellen’s hand and offers to take her and Cassie to his fine house in San Francisco.

What’s an upstanding frontierswoman to do? Will she sell the ranch and run off with newly rich Jake? Will she stay behind with poor but hardworking Clark? Will she listen to her heart or . . .

Aw, c’mon, everyone knows what she’ll do. Fact is, very little in this story is a surprise. OK, maybe the return of Jake, but that’s about it.

Nancy McKeon’s Millie does little to liven the movie, despite her acting credit as tough-talking Jo in The Facts of Life. Jere Burns, currently playing sleazy blackmailer Anson in Burn Notice, does a decent job as the stern but fair-minded sheriff.

Faith is a quiet undercurrent in this film. Ellen and others attend church and drop God’s name now and then (never Jesus’ name, though). But is it a strong faith? How would we know? Our heroines show little doubt or anxiety. They ask why God would allow a thunderstorm to loosen the barn doors. But they never shout or cry. They never worry about keeping the ranch. They don’t even break a sweat lifting lumber in the hot sun.

This isn’t the biblical model. In the scriptures, Jacob literally wrestles with God; Elijah runs and hides after Jezebel threatens him; even Jesus begs for his life in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Yes, we get it. Oke wants to give her audience something solid, strengthening, faith-building. And without the sex and violence that infects most other entertainment.

It’s a good goal, but it misses some crucial steps. Faith grows stronger only through conflict, hardship, opposition. You suffer; you doubt; you resolve and endure; you grow in faith. What you don’t gain is blandness.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 20, 2011 at 5:43 am

%d bloggers like this: