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St. Patrick’s Day: What you should know about the real-life saint

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St. Patrick is featured in a stained-glass window at St. Gabriel Church, Pompano Beach. (Photo by Jim Davis)

In a historic paradox, the flash and festivities of St. Patrick’s Day — the parades, the mugs of Guinness, the shamrock pins, the “w’arin’ o’ th’ green” — stand in stark contrast with the saint they honor.

The real-life Patrick is indeed renowned — one of the most famous and most loved saints, in fact — but known best for his humility, his passion for God and his commitment to peace. In the Dark Ages, when power and authority were measured by sword and arrow, he somehow won pagan Ireland for Christ without firing a shot.

Oddly, the national saint of Ireland may not have been a native Irishman. Some accounts say he was born into a noble family in fourth century England, then was kidnapped at 16 by pirates and sold into slavery.

In the Emerald Isle, he tended sheep and fell into the habit of praying — sometimes a hundred times a day — until he escaped six years later. Back in England, however, he had a vivid vision of a man begging him to return: “Come to us, O holy youth, and walk among us.”

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St. Patrick presides over the church named for him in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Patrick studied for years in France, then was appointed by Pope Celestine I as bishop of Ireland. One problem: He had to win over his new diocese from Druidic paganism.

As the story goes, the confrontation came on Easter eve of 433 at Tara, the realm of the Celtic high king Leoghaire. The king decreed that no fire be kindled before the lighting of a bonfire for the festival of Ostara. In defiance, Patrick lit the Paschal fire on a nearby hill.

Seeing the fire, the high king sent soldiers to put it out and arrest whomever made it. But Patrick and his followers, chanting a prayer, passed among the guards unharmed. They marched to Tara and converted many of Leoghaire’s court to Christianity. The king didn’t follow suit, but he was impressed enough to grant permission for Patrick to preach throughout the island.

Other legends followed, some of them during Patrick’s lifetime. Like the one about him driving all the snakes from Ireland. Or the time he struck a stone pillar dedicated to a Celtic god, crumbling it to dust. Or how he used a three-leaf clover to show God’s triune nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or when he scattered a flock of demons who tried to interrupt his prayer retreat.

Whatever the truth of the tales, Patrick never let fame go to his head. He reportedly wore a rough hair-shirt and slept on a stone slab. And whenever wealthy families offered him expensive gifts, he turned them down.

More than once, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he defused the anger of local chieftains and brought them and their people to the faith. He recruited many men to the ministry, including 350 whom he ordained as bishops.

Patrick was not the first missionary to Ireland; Palladius preceded him, and other Christians lived there. But Patrick’s approach was different, according to the website Ancient History: Palladius came as a representative of the Church, but Patrick came as a “friend of the people … through a deep respect and love for them and a culture he had come to embrace.”

Even those who never met Patrick benefited from his work. The monasteries he and his disciples founded became centers not only of religion but learning and literacy — even safe spaces for commoners to develop skills in weaving, blacksmithing and other trades.

Monastic monks copied and preserved many classic books that might otherwise have been lost in the fall of Rome. They also created gorgeous religious books with extravagant Celtic imagery, like the Book of Kells. And some launched missionary enterprises to the European mainland, evangelizing the barbarian tribes who had overrun the former Roman empire.

Patrick’s life and teaching infused faith with kindness, an engagement with culture, and a simple, single-minded love of God. The blend was good for church and society alike.

He died in 481 at Armagh, in northeastern Ireland. The Irish have celebrated his feast day since 900 A.D.

— Jim Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

March 17, 2018 at 12:55 pm

Holiday Almanac: Purim, the Jewish Festival of Lots, starts tonight

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Purim05Sundown today ushers in Purim, the joyous Jewish Festival of Lots that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a would-be mass murderer 2,500 years 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.

— JAMES D. DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

February 28, 2018 at 10:46 pm

Billy Graham also made his mark in media and technology

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Many people think of the Rev. Billy Graham, who died Feb. 21 at the age of 99, more as a preacher than a master of media technology. But his work in TV, film, radio, publishing and the Internet form part of his legacy as much as large-scale evangelism.

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Billy Graham in an undated photo. Courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

He and his staff even occasionally set the pace for innovation. Their satellite-assisted telecrusades in 1995 and 1996 reached hundreds of millions of listeners in more than 200 countries, with live translation into 50 languages.

World Wide Pictures, founded by Graham, has turned out more than 125 feature films — sports, comedy, adventure, even a Latin America soap — all with an evangelistic purpose. Among the most notable was The Hiding Place in 1975, a moody, gritty look at the Dutch effort to rescue Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Graham’s two dozen books sold millions of copies in 38 languages. His 1975 book Angels: God’s Secret Agents sold a million copies within 90 days, according to his organization. The Jesus Generation sold 200,000 copies in two weeks of 1971. And the autobiography Just As I Am in 1997 appeared on three best-seller lists in one week — a “triple crown,” his group called it.

The Hour of Decision radio program has aired Sundays for more than 50 years. He also helped launch two magazines: Decision, for evangelism and inspiration; and Christianity Today, examining social and theological issues.

 — Jim Davis

Written by Jim Davis

February 23, 2018 at 5:35 pm

Torah-Science Conference to scrutinize life: birth, death and in between

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(Photo: Renaude Hatsedakis via sxc.hu)

(Photo: Renaude Hatsedakis via sxc.hu)

When does life begin? Who has the right to end it? Where is the soul? And between birth and death, how to decide if a life is worth living?

These age-old questions, once the domain of sages and religious leaders, are being increasingly tackled by doctors and other scientists. But the best approach blends the two, according to a conference in South Florida starting this weekend.

“Scientists can’t deal with miracles, but we humans can,” says Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the main organizer of the three-day Miami International Torah and Science Conference, starting 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14. “[But] science empowers us to understand God in a more majestic way.”

Site for the free biennial conference will be the Shul, just north of Miami Beach, where Lipskar is the head rabbi. The conference had a kind of soft launch Friday night with a dinner and talk.

Scheduled at that event was rabbi-cardiologist Alan Rozanski of Columbia University, who is noted for a study that indicated a person’s attitudes and even moods affect physical structures like arteries, Lipskar says. The dinner had more than 200 reservations, Lipskar says.

Lipskar himself then will help kick off the opening session Saturday night, discussing the beginning of life. Topics will include new biotechnological ways to begin life and the light that halacha, Jewish religious law, can shed on it.

The rabbi will share the dais Saturday night with Nathan Katz, founder of the Program in the Study of Spirituality at Florida International University. Katz, who himself has helped plan the conferences since 1999, agrees on the value of blending scientific and spiritual perspectives.

“Traditionally, religious people and accomplished scientists live in different approaches to reality,” he says. “Here, they seem to be making a tremendous effort to understand each other’s perspective. That deepens their own understanding.”

Sunday’s events will start at 11:30 a.m., with a talk on epigenetics, a new study of changes outside a gene. Lipskar finds the study “exciting, because Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy already concluded this: that there is something outside the genetic structure that can change it in behavioral reality.”

The Sunday evening events will deal with the end of life — including the provocative question: “Does Life Ever End?” Final issues on Monday will cover neuroscience and cosmology, even comparing ideas of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and contemporary scientist Stephen Hawking.

The Torah and Science Conferences are held every two years, always around Hanukkah, Nov. 27-Dec. 5 this year. The timing was chosen to relate the spreading light of the menorah candles to the growing light of knowledge and reason.

It was light, and the theories of Albert Einstein, that caught the attention of the late Chabad Lubavitch chief rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. Schneerson gave his blessing to the first Torah-Science Conference, which was held in 1987.

Subsequent conferences have probed heady concepts like time, intelligent design, the nature of the soul and brain, and links between the natural and supernatural realms. Even after the conferences end, the papers of the speakers are available through B’Or Ha’Torah, a peer-review journal of the Jerusalem College of Technology.

Basic viewpoint of the conferences is that faith and science are different yet complementary, Lipskar says. And that each viewpoint is necessary.

“Science makes you an expert, but not a kinder, gentler person,” the rabbi says. “When you integrate science and religion, you add the element of meaning and purpose. You have the conductor of the orchestra.”

If you go

Event: Miami International Torah & Science Conference

Featuring: Discussions of the beginning and end of life, from the perspectives of religion and science

Where: The Shul, 9540 Collins Ave., Surfside, Fla.

When: Dec. 14-16

Starting times: Saturday at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Monday at 9:30 a.m., noon and 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: 305-868-1411, ext. 329, or torahscienceconference.org

Written by Jim Davis

December 13, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Jewish-Muslim relations to be examined in FIU series

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Religion scholar Nathan Katz of Florida International University helped organize the upcoming series on Jewish-Muslim relations. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Jews and Muslims have been at each others’ throats forever — or so it might seem from blogs and headlines. But a look at history would show otherwise.

“How Islam Saved the Jews,” in fact, is the title of a discussion this weekend planned for the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, on Miami Beach. The free forum is the first of a three-part series on Jewish-Muslim relations planned by Florida International University.

“This is so crucial right now,” says Nathan Katz, an organizer of the series and academic director of the museum. “If we can show people that their God wants them to get along with the other side, it will be a big step.”

Amanullah De Sondy, one of the participants in the FIU series, agrees.

“There is a lot of mistrust and fear between Jews and Muslims for a lot of religious, cultural and geopolitical reasons,” says De Sondy, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at the University of Miami. “But Jews and Muslims have more in common than Jews and Christians.”

The first event, starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, will host a talk by David Wasserstein, a professor of history and Jewish studies of Vanderbilt University. Wasserstein will discuss how Muslim rule, including the Ottoman Empire, placed most Jews in a single state, permitting a flourishing of faith and culture.

Responding will be a panel of South Florida leaders and scholars, including FIU’s Katz and Iqbal Akhtar, plus De Sondy of UM and Mohammad Shakir of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations (COSMOS).

Second in the series will take an equally surprising title: “The Shoah (Holocaust) Through Muslim Eyes.” Giving the keynote talk will be Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College.

Afridi will touch on what she has called the “struggle with anti-Semitism within the Muslim community,” including lack of education about the Holocaust. Her topic is also the title of her soon-to-be published book.

Third of the three-part series, “Sufi Music and Poetry,” will bring back New York-based actor Peter Rogen and Turkish musician Alan Amir Vahab to perform works by Rumi and Hafiz. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes interfaith harmony and a direct connection with God.

The FIU series has some impressive support. Besides COSMOS, which includes mosques and other Muslim organizations, supporters include the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews. Also endorsing the series is the Jewish Community Relations Council, a branch of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Such endorsement was made possible largely because of Katz himself. Over the last decade and a half, he has built religious studies at FIU through hires like Erik Larson, who currently serves as the department’s chair. And through the spiritual studies program, which he directs, Katz has also brought such diverse speakers to Miami as the Dalai Lama, Marianne Williamson, Christopher Hitchens, Dominic Crossan, W.D. Mohammed, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Modern eyes can be blinded by the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, a conflict heightened by the creation of Israel in 1948. Katz says that Baghdad, Iraq, was once the greatest center of Jewish learning in the world. Jewish communities also flourished in Egypt, Morocco and Istanbul, he says.

“We have a shared history that is more friendly than not,” Katz says. “I hope some people will come away [from the series] with more appreciation and understanding, and even affection, for people on the other side of the aisle.”

Like other planners, Tudor Parfitt of FIU, who will moderate the panel talk on Sunday, voices a hope that friendships will grow out of the three-part series. “We’re all interested in promoting discussion and interfaith harmony. We hope the communities will get to know each other.”

They have an advantage in South Florida: Leaders on both sides have increased contacts for more than a decade.

JAM & All was formed by Jews and Muslims in 2001 to counter rising tensions after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 that year. Since then, it has expanded to include Christians, Buddhists and those of other faiths.

Shakir says COSMOS, the Muslim organization, was organized in 2010 with a similar impetus: to combat tensions over the planned so-called Ground Zero Mosque in New York.

Even before then, he was sent to Israel in 2002 by the Miami chapter of the American Jewish Committee to gather facts about the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule on the West Bank. On returning, he wrote about his impressions for the Miami Herald.

“If we come out of the time box of the establishment of Israel, we can see that Jews and Muslims have been interacting for almost 1,500 years,” Shakir says. “This may not solve the problem in the Middle East, but it shows that our communities are open and willing to work together.

“We can respect disagreements, find ways to heal and move forward.”

Jews and Muslims have also met on the UM campus, discussing matters like the hijab, the headscarf worn by most Muslim women. And in 2012, De Sondy says, students watched a movie called Arranged, on marriage in an Orthodox Jewish family.

The activities have helped students of different beliefs get past stereotypes and see one another as people, De Sondy says.

“Jews, Muslims and Christians can use scripture to build bridges or burn bridges,” he says. “But when you get up close and personal, you see how connected we are.”

The Jewish-Muslim initiative is part of an expansion of Jewish studies at FIU, starting with the merger of the Jewish Museum with the university last year.

FIU has launched a project to examine Jewish communities around the world, working with advanced students. Parfitt, former professor of Jewish studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, cites work with Jewish groups in Israel and Argentina. He and a Ph.D. from Colombia plan to research Jewish communities in Burma and India.

Parfitt has also written a new book about Jewish museums around the world, due out in December.

“The idea is to be a great hub of Jewish intellectual activity,” Parfitt says.

If you go

All the events will be at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.

First Event: “How Islam Saved the Jews”

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10

Featuring: Lecture by David Wasserstein, professor of history, classics and Jewish studies, Vanderbilt University, with panel of local experts

Second Event: “The Shoah Through Muslim Eyes”

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21

Featuring: Mehnaz Mona Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College

Third Event: “Sufi Music and Poetry”

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3

Featuring: Actor Peter Rogen and singer-musician Alan Amir Vahab performing Rumi and Hafiz

Cost: Free, but RSVP requested via info@jewishmuseum.com or calling 786-972-3175.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 8, 2013 at 3:07 am

T.D. Jakes plans new film festival this month

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Bishop T.D. Jakes pastors the 30,000-member Potter's House in Dallas.

Bishop T.D. Jakes pastors the 30,000-member Potter’s House in Dallas.

More than a half-dozen films with spiritual themes will be screened in Dallas as a new part of megachurch pastor T. D. Jakes’ annual MegaFest.

The International Faith and Family Film Festival is planned for Aug. 29-31 at the Omni Dallas Hotel. Included will be actress Jennifer Hudson, CNN news anchor Soledad O’Brien, and director Randall Wallace of Secretariat fame.

This will be the first time since Jakes started the MegaFest rallies in 2004 that he will emphasize cinema. He says he wants to change perceptions about what constitutes a faith-oriented film.

“Americans are looking for wholesome entertainment that reflects the values they practice and teach their children every day,” Jakes said in a statement. “We’re filling that void.”

The festival will feature films tackling issues such as identity, family and poverty. It will showcase films like Black Nativity from Fox Searchlight, Heaven is for Real from Sony Pictures, and Winnie Mandela, produced by Jakes. Hudson will star in the Mandela movie.

Other films to be screened at the festival include:

  • One Chance, a British romantic comedy that follows the journey of opera singer Paul Potts on his 2007 quest to win Britain’s Got Talent in 2007.
  • The Other Son, about two young men, a Jew and an Arab, who learn they were accidentally switched at birth and raised by families in the opposing communities.
  • Child 31, a documentary on the charity Mary’s Meals, which feeds the poor in India, Kenya and Malawi.
  • Playin’ for Love, a romantic comedy that follows a single mother and a basketball coach at a high school. The film was shot in Miami, with help from the Miami Heat.
  • Grace Unplugged, a coming-of-age musical about a young singer who faces a test of faith and values as she gets her big break.

Also planned is Diversity in Cannes, six short films originally screened at the Festival de Cannes as part of the Beyond Borders Diversity movement. The films were shot in Spain, Italy and Canada.

Besides the screenings, the festival will gather entertainment industry figures for keynote talks and panel dicsussions on various facets of filmmaking.

Among the experts will be Kirstin Wilder, vice president and managing editor of Variety; Mary Claire Kendall, who covers Hollywood for Forbes; Tirrell Whittley, CEO of Liquid Soul Media; Charles King, an agent at William Morris Endeavor; and A. Larry Ross, spokesman for evangelist Billy Graham.

MegaFest has drawn more than 700,000 people in its nine years. Past speakers and performers have included Aretha Franklin, Steve Harvey, Dave Ramsey and Cirque du Soleil.

T.D. Jakes is the founder and senior pastor of The Potter’s House, a 30,000-member church in Dallas. His works include films, TV, radio, and books as well as conferences.

Tickets for the three-day film festival are $99 and include admittance to other MegaFest events, including empowerment sessions for men and women. Discount family and group packages are also available. Registration is available online.

For a complete list of scheduled events, visit the MegaFest website.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

August 22, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Colorful interfaith book for children

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Book review: ‘What Do You Believe?’ DK Publishing, 96 pp, $16.99.

As a recent New York Times article observed, a growing number of parents are raising their children outside a church or synagogue. How to teach them about beliefs?

Book cover 02002, onlineOne answer is What Do You Believe?, a colorful, remarkably lucid introduction to religion. This slim, storybook-size book handily digests the history, beliefs and practices of the world’s major religions — and some of the minor ones — into simple terms.

With its big graphics, bright colors and picture-book format, What Do You Believe? is clearly aimed at preteens. But it’s much better than that. It’s a brisk but systematic work that combines a survey on religion, comparative religion, history of religion and even philosophy of religion. All in less than a hundred pages.

There’s a breathtaking timeline starting not in the Middle East, as so many such books do, but in Europe with cave art from 15,000 B.C.E. The book also mentions prehistoric burial mounds and stone circles, then moves to the more familiar Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indus Valley Civilizations and others.

A nice, big, double-spread chart compares six major religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism — for their numbers, beliefs and practices. Included are main scriptures, main festivals and how many gods are worshiped.

More double-spreads go a bit more into each religion: its start, its key concepts, its main branches. You’ll also learn about four main types of yoga; the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism; the Torah and worship and acts of kindness as the heart of Judaism; how Sufism is not a separate branch of Islam, but can inform the other two main branches; and how Sikhs stress good deeds and devotion to God over rituals. The book even has a Campus Crusade-style diagram on how Jesus bridged the gap between God and humanity.

Other units scan “Native Religions,” including those of native Americans, northern tribes and Australian Aborigines; East Asian religions, such as Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism; and “New Religious Movements” like Cao Dai, Christian Science, Krishna Consciousness and Scientology. This section is elastic, though; it includes the Mormon church, which began back in 1830.

And there’s still more: closer looks at holy books, an explanation of prayer, a glimpse at rituals and festivals, distinct clothes and hairstyles, ethics of food and fasting, etcetera.

History 005, onlineEven departures from organized religion have their say. A look at “Modern Spirituality” notes that it borrows practices from Eastern religions, but not their main beliefs and structures. And a surprisingly sophisticated unit on atheism notes subtle shades, like agnosticism and secularism. The book also notes that Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism don’t require belief in a deity.

The section on philosophy probes the Big Questions, including what God is like, what is ultimate truth, why do bad things happen, and why do religions preach peace, then fight over it. In the latter case, the lucid answer is that some in every religion care about others, while some care more about their beliefs. The book scrupulously draws a line between fundamentalists — those who simply want to spread their teachings — and extremists, who use violence and terror to draw attention to their religion.

Especially impressive is how the book gets down to basics with questions like “What is a Religion?” For this answer, it calls on the late religion professor Ninian Smart, who developed a seven-part definition involving ritual, ethics, experience and the like. The book even neatly defines faith as “to have great trust in something or someone.”

One might say this book is colorful to a fault. It has so many big pictures, graphics and clashing colors that each page spread assaults the eye.

More basic, the book asks “What is a Religion?” on page 20 — after its gallop through religious history. If the question is important to ask, shouldn’t it be asked at the start?

And there’s at least one spelling gaffe, where the book says, “God is both transcendent (beyond the world) and imminent (inside us).” They meant, of course, “immanent,” i.e., indwelling.

But those are fairly minor flaws for the feat of orderly clarity that is this book. The biggest surprise is that it doesn’t list one author, just editors and designers. Someone deserves the credit for masterminding this.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 12, 2013 at 7:36 pm

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