Category Archives: Faith

My favorite Leonard Nimoy tribute item

I really enjoyed learning about the Jewish roots of Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” gesture.

Nimoy was a guy who deserved to be known for more than that one rather cheesy (no, really, I’ve been watching it on Netflix) TV show. But at least he was loved for it, and I’m glad he became reconciled to that later in life….

Oh, and my second favorite Nimoy tribute was the one below, by Astronaut Terry Virts:

I was SUCH a good boy this morning


I resisted temptation, but I DID take a picture. So does this qualify as food porn?


So here it is the second Friday in Lent, and this morning, for the first time in a couple of weeks, the breakfast buffet at the club had those lovely, juicy, fat sausages that I like so much.

But… I… did… not… indulge!

So I expect you all to be terribly impressed at my virtue and self-discipline…

Join me at the Solomon-Tenenbaum Lecture tonight


I’m planning to go to this lecture tonight at USC. Here’s the PDF of the image so you can read it better. And here’s a description:

Dean Nirenberg will discuss how Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Christians and Muslims of every period, and the secularist of modernity have used Judaism in constructing their visions of the world. Do these former and modern ways of life have any relationship to each other? Do past forms of life and thought affect later ones? If so, how does past perception about Judaism influence the ways in which we perceive the world today? In the 2015 Solomon-Tenenbaum Lecture, Dean Nirenberg will examine these important questions and will discuss what, if anything, the history of anti-Judaism has to do with the present.

This is the annual lectureship that Samuel Tenenbaum funds. It’s usually pretty good. Frequently, these events give us on the Bernardin lecture committee a high bar to shoot for.

I hope to see you there.

Where Cameron Runyan is coming from

File photo of Cameron Runyan in 2011.

File photo of Cameron Runyan in 2011.

Earlier this month, Cameron Runyan happened to run across my blog post from November, when I shared with y’all his written explanation of his lone vote against same-sex benefits.

He wanted to get together and “catch up,” so I met him for breakfast on Jan. 23.

At that time, he shared with me some of the story about how he came to be a lone culture warrior on Columbia City Council, among other things. I wasn’t sure at the time that I was going to write anything about the conversation, and took few notes (so Cameron, if I remember anything wrong, please let me know and I’ll correct it). Then I decided that I would write about it, but only after talking with his likely opponent in this year’s election, Tige Watts. I spoke with Mr. Watts Friday, making a point of taking more notes this time.

But first, the incumbent, starting with his conversion experience…

Cameron Runyan’s grandparents were missionaries, but he didn’t really get deeply into religion until just over three years ago.

He and his extended family were spending the Christmas holidays in the Caribbean. On Boxing Day 2011, he and a couple of other family members went out for a run (if you recall from something I wrote earlier that year, he had “disgustingly healthy habits”).

Suddenly, he could not go on. His muscles were seizing up, and he could hardly breathe. Apparently, it was a matter of dehydration or something of that sort — in any case, his electrolytes (which plants crave) were all out of whack. “The point of dehydration where I was is 50-60% fatal,” he added in a text to me today. “You more often die than live at that point. It was extremely dire and painful.” He thought this was it; he was dying. And as he lay more or less helpless on a bed in a medical facility later, trying to recover, he concluded that he was not happy with how he had lived his life thus far. He felt himself to be lacking the proper connection to something greater than himself.

Over the coming months, he plunged into a new sort of relationship with God, one with an evangelical flavor. For a time, his wife had a hard time dealing with the new Cameron. Then one day, he came home and she had undergone a conversion of her own. From then on, the Runyans were on the same journey, bringing their kids along with them.

For a good while, they attended services presided over by Det Bowers. Det was from Hampton County, where Cameron had grown up. And his life had followed in some ways a similar trajectory. Bowers was an attorney who managed Michael Dukakis’ campaign in South Carolina in 1988, and went on to become a preacher who would run to the right of Lindsey Graham in last year’s GOP primary.

But when Mr. Bowers gave up preaching, the Runyans ended up at Columbia’s First Presbyterian Church, well known as one of the most conservative large, brand-name congregations in the city. I showed my ignorance by saying that while I knew First Pres was pretty conservative, it wasn’t as conservative as A.R.P. Cameron said it is A.R.P. (which I think maybe I once knew, but had forgotten), and in fact the biggest Associate Reform Presbyterian church around.

A word or two about the A.R.P. denomination… While the only time I can recall entering an A.R.P. church was for Lee Bandy’s funeral, it looms large in my family tree. Look up the church’s history, and you see among the founders such names as Moffatt and Pressly, which are kin to my father’s mother. Erskine College is A.R.P., as was Erskine Caldwell, in spite of the sexually titillating books for which he became famous. In the years before my grandfather died in 1957, he and my grandmother had been living in a house on the edge of Due West owned by the president of Erskine. Billy Graham was brought up in an A.R.P. church, although he was later ordained as a Southern Baptist.

Among other things, Wikipedia notes that the denomination officially calls homosexuals “to repentance, cleansing, and deliverance in the saving power of Jesus Christ.”

So it is not surprising that when Cameron Runyan gets onto the subject of same-sex marriage, there is a good bit of talk about God’s will along with his objections to moral relativism, postmodernism and so forth.

I think I’ve fairly brought you up to date on that. Some other items from our conversation:

  • When he voted as he did on the benefits issue, I recall that a number of people expressed disappointment in him as a Democrat. Well, he doesn’t consider himself to be a Democrat any longer. (Remember, city council elections are nonpartisan.) As evidence of that, he pointed to his support of Mr. Bowers in last year’s Senate primary.
  • He didn’t want to talk about his relationship with Steve Benjamin who endorsed his candidacy last time around, and with whom he has been so closely allied for quite some time thereafter. But there are indications that that relationship is at best strained, compared to what it was.
  • While he is running for re-election in November, he says he won’t run again for this seat, after this time. I did not gather from that that he was retiring from politics; he just doesn’t want to hold this seat past one more term.
  • When I mentioned that it looked as though he had opposition, he said that yes, he’d heard that Joe Azar might run against him. He did not mention Tige Watts, whose yet-to-be-official candidacy has actually been the subject of some talk in the community.

Speaking of Mr. Watts, I’d best turn to my post about him…


Le Pape n’est pas Charlie, soit.

As you know, Je ne suis pas Charlie. Well, as it turns out, if Google Translate is right, Le Pape n’est pas Charlie, soit.

And not only that, but watch what you say about his Mama.

I learned all this from this Tweet from Bryan:

My initial reaction was, “Whad’ya mean, ‘start’?” But then I went to find out what he meant, and found this:

Pope Francis said Thursday there are limits to freedom of expression, especially when it insults or ridicules someone’s faith.

Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks while en route to the Philippines, defending free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good.

But, he said, there were limits.

By way of example, he referred to Alberto Gasparri, who organizes papal trips and was standing by his side aboard the papal plane.

“If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said, throwing a pretend punch his way. “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”…

Now, just watch people across the planet completely misconstrue what he said, claiming he’s “blaming the victim” or “excusing terrorists for murder,” when he is obviously doing no such thing. But he is saying what I’ve said before, which is this:

One’s right to free expression is a sacred thing, just like one’s right to freely practice one’s religion. The Pope said that clearly. And no sane person, least of all the Pope, believes anyone should be killed or threatened with death for expressing himself honestly.

But, there is a difference between what you have a sacred right to do and what you ought to do. And if you want to live in a civil society, in which other people have some basic modicum of respect for you, you have a moral obligation to show at least some minimal respect for others.

This is not a terribly hard thing for most experienced editors to understand, because they live in that space between what one has a right to publish and what one publishes if one has any respect at all for one’s readers.

And folks, you don’t have to be an editor or the Pope or somebody with an advanced degree in ethics to know where the lines are. That’s what the Pontiff was getting at with the mock punch. He was saying, we all know where the limits are: Insult my mother, I’ll smack you down. It’s not complicated.

I mentioned the other day that I’ve heard my good friend Samuel Tenenbaum state clearly, on many occasions, where the line is. Samuel takes a back seat to no one in defending civil liberties. But he makes no bones about the fact that you’ve crossed the line with him, and made an enemy, when you insult “my wife, my Mama or my faith.”

Does that mean Samuel would be justified in coming into your office and blowing you away for insulting Judaism? No, of course not. But he’s describing where the boundaries lie in civil society. He’s telling you what is beyond the pale, in case you missed that class in kindergarten.

Charlie Hebdo is wrong to publish childishly obscene (and not even funny, to an adult eye) cartoons that deliberately slap Muslims in the face, that insult them in the most obnoxious possible manner. Millions of those Muslims are people who mean Charlie no harm, and would never resort to violence against them. But they are deeply insulted, and now, with nonMuslims around them all saying “Je suis Charlie,” they feel more marginalized and looked-down-upon than ever. These people don’t deserve such treatment.

The fact that there are a few murderous jerks who will kill you for publishing such cartoons does not make you right for publishing them. If something is wrong, it is wrong whether people shoot you for it, or give you a big, wet kiss for it.

And that’s what the Pope was trying to say…

Oh, and by the way, he also said global climate change is real, and man-caused. That kind of got downplayed….

What ‘we believe,’ compared to what I believe

Bear with me, those of you who aren’t interested in religious arcana. I’ll post something for you later. But it is Advent, after all, and therefore a time for reflection…

On a previous post, Mike Cakora shared a favorite quote:

“A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.”
– Abba Eban, Israeli diplomat (1915-2002)

My response to that got so involved, I decided to turn it into a separate post…

I really like the Abba Eban quote, even though I suspect he is trying to say something negative about consensus, when I think it is a wonderful thing.

The point he makes is at the heart of why I’m so pedantic about the distinction between an editorial and a column. An editorial expresses a group opinion (preferably an actual consensus, which was our goal at The State), and a column is what one person believes. (It particularly drives me nuts when innocents say they’ve contributed “an editorial,” when they mean a letter or an op-ed. It’s all I can do to keep myself from telling them, “That’s impossible, because you do not belong to an editorial board.” Because, you know, I don’t think it would be taken well.)

This distinction also lies at the heart of my objection to the changes to the Catholic liturgy in English in this country a couple of years back. Well, my substantive objection, as opposed to my merely aesthetic ones. (I thought the words were more beautiful before.)

I only have my nose rubbed in this problem when I attend a Mass in English, which I usually don’t do, since I’m a Spanish lector. (The irony is that the Spanish version has many of the same flaws as the new English one, but it’s the only version I’ve known in Spanish, so I don’t have the sense of loss.)

Last night, I attended a Mass in English, because I had a personal conflict with my usual Mass time. When we got to the Creed, I couldn’t bring myself to say the new words, and muttered th old one under my breath. Here’s the new creed, the one that bothers me so much.

Here’s the old one. Or rather, a comparison of the two. The old one is on the left.

I have a number of objections, as I said, arising purely from my love of the language. If you care about words, “one in being with the Father” is greatly preferable to “consubstantial with the Father.” Or compare the old, “he suffered, died and was buried” to “he suffered death and was buried.” The latter minimizes both the suffering and the death, coming across almost as though “he suffered inconvenience.” The old stresses that he SUFFERED, and then he DIED. Whole different emphasis. Or rather, the old actually does emphasize, and the new does not.

But the BIG objection is that the old is about what “WE believe,” and the new one says “I believe.” And yeah, I know this gets us back to a literal translation of the Latin Credo, but that doesn’t legitimize it for me.

Here’s why: For me the creed works as an editorial (the old way), but not as a column (the new way). As with the Eban quote, the creed describes what we have agreed to believe collectively, not a single person’s conclusions about faith. Switching to “I” negates the communitarian nature of Catholicism, and moves us more toward the nonliturgical denominations, where they talk a lot about their own personal faith, and their personal relationship with Jesus. I prefer to stress, through our statement of faith, that we are all part of the Body of Christ, and that these statements reflect a 2,000-year-old process of discernment.

And for those of you who still don’t understand my communitarian leanings, this is NOT about subordinating my ability to think to a collective enterprise. As you know, I object deeply to that sort of thing; that objection lies at the heart of my critique of political parties.

I object because I DO think for myself. And if I were working out a personal, “I” sort of creed, it would be quite different from this one. I’m not a Christian and a Catholic because of the things stated in the creed. At no time would I attach great importance to the Virgin Birth, for instance. I’m OK with saying “WE” believe that; I don’t object to it. But it’s not core to my faith. The core of my faith, and I think, truly, the Catholic faith, is what Jesus stated as the Great Commandment, and the second commandment that is inextricably related to it, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Were I to write a creed, it would center around those things, not around a sort of religious cosmology or the description of a Trinity-based pantheon of versions of God. I’m happy to go along with (WE believe) what they came up with at Nicea, but it’s just not what I, personally (I believe) would have come up with.

Which reminds me. I have for years had this idea for a project — to draft a new creed, based in what Jesus actually taught, rather than in all the arguments that occurred after his death as to who he was. A creed that Jesus would actually recognize, that would make him say, “THAT’s what I was talking about.” I’ve just been intimidated by the scope of it, and I worry that trying to do such a thing would show abominable hubris on my part. Lacking a good grounding in theology or in deep study of the Bible, I fear that what I came up with would be woefully inadequate, and therefore it would be presumptuous of me to try.

But I really ought to try sometime… Maybe the difficulty of the task would make me appreciate the Nicene one better…

And maybe I shouldn’t be intimidated. After all, I think an atheist, Douglas Adams, did a great job of summing up the faith, even though he was being offhand and flippant about it:

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…

Our new, entirely commercial, liturgical calendar, purged of all religion

A still from very shaky, low-res video I shot inside Macy's flagship store on 34th Street in New York on Black Friday, 2007.

A still from very shaky, low-res video I shot inside Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street in New York on Black Friday, 2007.

Once upon a time, we kept track of our days this way throughout what was termed Christendom:

  • Michaelmas — Sept. 29 — Not only a day to celebrate the archangels, and especially Michael, who defeated Lucifer in the original War on Terror. It was also the ending and beginning of the husbandman’s year, when the harvest was over and the bailiff of the manor would make out his accounts for the year. Big day, back when most of us were engaged with agriculture in one way or another.
  • All Saint’s Day — November 1 — Also known as All Hallows, making the night before… well, you get it, right?
  • First Sunday in Advent — fourth Sunday before Christmas, which this year was yesterday — The beginning, NOT of the Christmas season, but of the time of contemplative anticipation looking forward to the arrival of Jesus Christ into the world. Christmas begins, not ends, on Dec. 25, which if you go way back, was once Saturnalia. This occurred this past Sunday.
  • Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception — December 8 — No, this is not about the Virgin Birth, which is a whole separate concept. This was defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854, and he was infallible in setting out this dogma, because he spoke ex cathedra, and… well, it’s complicated. Elaborating might make Protestants’ heads hurt…
  • Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe — December 12 — This celebrates the appearance of the Virgin Mary to an American Indian named Juan Diego (who has his own feast day three days earlier). She spoke Nahuatl to him. Among us Catholics, she is the Patroness of the Americas.

Anyway, you get the idea. There wasn’t a day in the calendar that didn’t have its own, holy designation — if you belonged to a liturgical church. Although some feast days were more equal than others.

But as Bob Dylan would say, it used to go like that; now it goes like this:

  • The Day after Halloween — When you can start to see the Christmas displays in the stores.
  • Black Friday Eve — A day once given over to thanks to God is now increasingly the day when those who can’t wait a day to shop traipse to the stores.
  • Black Friday — Not to be confused with the one in 1688, when the Anglican bishops were imprisoned, or the one in 1929 when the market crashed, or any of a couple of dozen other dark days in history. No, this is a recurring day, the observance of which has crept up on us over the last few decades. It’s allegedly the biggest shopping day of the year, and the “black” has a couple of meanings — it’s a day without which merchants’ books might never get into the black, and it’s also a hellish day to go shopping.
  • Small Business Saturday — Just in case you only went to the chain stores on Friday.
  • Cyber Monday — The reason this falls on a Monday is that people like to do all their online stuff while they’re at work, something I discovered back when I started blogging and tracked my traffic by the day and hour. Anyway, this is the day when people buy the gifts that they looked at while showrooming on Friday.
  • Giving Tuesday — This is the only day in this new calendar that bears any relationship to the traditional reason for the season. I’ve gotten solicitations from several local nonprofits, wanting me to give today. This is the first time I remember being aware of this one.
  • The Day After Christmas — Once known as Boxing Day in some cultures, it’s now the second-biggest shopping orgy of the year, supposedly.

You’ll note that, with the exception of Giving Tuesday, this new liturgical calendar is about nothing holy or transcendent, but all about the gimme-gimme, pure commerce. For that matter, Giving Tuesday is about trying to adapt altruism to this new, entirely secular calendar of recognized (and much advertised) observances.

This formalization of the shopping calendar has pretty much taken place entirely within my lifetime.

Pope Francis, the protopunk pontiff

I very much liked this piece in The Washington Post today about Pope Francis:

The pope himself seems unconcerned, continuing his unpredictable riff. He embraces the big bang. He appears in selfies. He criticizes euthanasia. He invites Patti Smith, the godmother of punk, to perform at the Vatican. He cashiers opponents. He calls the kingdom of God “a party” (which is precisely how the founder of the Christian faith referred to it). He is a man, by his own account, with no patience for “sourpusses.”

As a Protestant, I have no particular insight into the internal theological debates of Catholicism. But the participants seem to inhabit different universes. One side (understandably) wants to shore up the certainties of an institution under siege. Francis begins from a different point: a pastoral passion to meet people where they are — to recognize some good, even in their brokenness, and to call them to something better. That something better is not membership in a stable institution, or even the comforts of ethical religion; it is a relationship with Jesus, from which all else follows.

Instead of being a participant in a cultural battle, Francis says, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” First you sew up the suffering (which, incidentally, includes all of us). “Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds.” The temptation, in his view, is to turn faith into ideology. “The faith passes,” he recently said, “through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus; in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. . . . The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”…

As I’ve said before, this pope hasn’t said anything new, in terms of doctrine. I am bemused when nonCatholics, or extremely inattentive Catholics, express wonder that the pope embraces, say, evolution. I had never before run into any basic conflict between the Catholic faith and evolution.

But the very simple, and yet amazing, thing that he does is make sure that you hear what’s important about the faith. He makes sure you hear the love. You patch up the suffering first — heal the wounds. The rest is secondary.

Who cares that Patti Smith’s “Gloria” doesn’t start “Glory to God in the highest,” but rather, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine?” Well, OK, I guess we should care to some extent. But what this pope does is reach out to Patti where she is. He tries to get her to feel the love. And she seems to dig it.

And so it is that we now have our first protopunk pontiff…

So are things hunky-dory, or are we all gonna die?

I was struck by this contrast in The State this morning…

First, from a David Brooks column:

Widening the lens, we’re living in an era with the greatest reduction in global poverty ever — across Asia and Africa. We’re seeing a decline in civil wars and warfare generally.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

Our global enemies are not exactly impressive. We have the Islamic State, a bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a lone thug sitting atop a failing regime. These folks thrive only because of the failed states and vacuums around them.

I mention all of this because of the despondency and passivity and talk of unraveling that floated around this summer. Now there is a mood of pessimism and fatalism evident in the polls and in conversations — a lack of faith in ourselves.

It’s important in times like these to step back and get clarity….

Then, from this feature from Carolyn Click about Rosh Hashanah starting tonight:

Jews mark the beginning of the High Holy Days at sundown Wednesday with the observance of Rosh Hoshanah, entering a time of personal reflection that comes amid a backdrop of fighting in the Arab world, a deadly Ebola outbreak in Africa and other world calamities.

“I think everyone is feeling the drumbeat of war in their ear,” Rabbi Jonathan Case, leader of Beth Shalom Synagogue on Trenholm Road, said Tuesday.

Older members of the congregation, those who lived through World War II, “feel that they have been in this place before,” Case said, “that the world seems to have gone awry. There is no doubt that people are scared.”…

Maybe Brooks is being a bit of a Pollyanna, but it would seem the Rabbi — or the people he’s referring to — are getting a tad overwrought. WWII? The Holocaust? Compared to now?

I think maybe Brooks and some of the folks at Beth Shalom should get together and compare notes…

So why can’t a hallucination be an actual message?



First, a confession…

Sometimes in Mass, my mind wanders. This is not entirely my fault. I love St. Peter’s and its architecture, but the acoustics have always been terrible. Everything said from the altar or the pulpit bounces around in the dome above it, so that the last thing a speaker said is competing with what he or she is saying after that. This is particularly bad for me with my Meniere’s problem, because it causes me to have particular trouble separating speech clearly from background noise. Add to that the fact that the Mass I attend is in Spanish, and while my pronunciation is good, my understanding isn’t what it was 50 years ago when I lived in Ecuador. Even when I can hear it clearly, I have to work hard to catch enough words to get the drift.

Put all that together, and I have a lot of trouble following what is being said. So my mind wanders. Frequently. And when it wanders, I often think of religious-themed posts for the blog. But then, by the time the Mass is over, and I go home and have lunch and, if I have my druthers, have a nice Sunday afternoon nap, I’ve forgotten about it. So Sunday posts remain rare.

But here’s the one that was going through my head in Mass yesterday…

The night before, I watched on Netflix an episode of “House,” from Season 5, titled “Unfaithful.”

It opens with a weary, dissolute-seeming young priest (Greene’s “whiskey priest” in The Power and the Glory seems to be a literary antecedent) who has just taken off his collar and is trying to relax in his dingy cell, located in the charity that he runs for the homeless, by knocking back a whiskey or three.

A few moments before, a homeless man had knocked, seeking a warm coat, which the priest gave him. Now, someone is insistently knocking again. Reluctantly, grimly, he drags himself to the door, opens it, and before him is a bloody Christ, with fresh stigmata, scourge wounds all over, and the crown of thorns.

The priest says, “That’s not funny, freak.” The figure before him answers, “No one is laughing, Daniel.” The priest looks down and sees that the figure’s nail-pierced feet are hovering several inches from the ground.

This, to say the least, freaks him out.

The priest immediately turns himself in to the hospital where House works — because, of course, he was hallucinating. He leaps to that conclusion because, after being hounded from parish to parish by a false sexual abuse charge leveled at him by a young man several parishes back, the priest has no faith left.

So to him, as to the atheist House, the only explanation for such an incident is that there is something wrong with his brain. It’s a symptom, not a message from God — a diagnosis with which the writers of the show clearly agree. And we viewers, being moderns, are meant to assume this is the case.

The next day, thinking about this in Mass, it occurred to me that there’s something wrong with the logic underlying the show’s premise. To follow me, I ask my unbelieving readers to suspend their disbelief for a moment. Stipulate — just for the sake of this discussion — that there is a God and that He does try to tell us things from time to time.

So, if we accept that… why would the incident being a hallucination mean that it wasn’t an actual message from God? Mind you, I can’t tell you what the message in this case would be, beyond shocking the priest out of his faith slump.

But what about a hallucination makes it an invalid form of perception, within the context of faith? Think about this: The Bible is filled with instances of people receiving divine messages through dreams, from the original Joseph of the many-colored coat to Joseph of Nazareth. No one says, “It can’t be a real message because it was just a dream.”

And what is a hallucination except a waking dream?

We mortals have a wide variety of methods of communication. We can speak to people face-to-face, or tell them what we’re thinking with sign language. There’s writing, smoke signals, Morse code, email, videochat, texting — some of which are more “virtual” than others, but all seen as genuine communication. And let’s not forget movies with special effects — do such effects mean that they can’t communicate a serious message? (Not that CGI-rich films tend to be heavy on ideas, but they can be, just as any other film can.)

The hallucination, or the sleeping version, seems to be a favorite mode of communication of the Almighty.

And you don’t have to be a believer to find meaning in dreams, to see them as powerful communicators of important ideas. Ask a Freudian. Absent God, it could be your superego is trying to tell you something.

We empirical moderns like to think that something isn’t real if it can’t be independently confirmed — which seems rather narrow and limited of us. If someone else looking out his window at the moment the priest was having his waking dream did not see the crucified figure hovering there, then the priest didn’t, either. Except that he did. And if anyone could make him see something that his neighbor didn’t  — encoding the message for him alone to see, which is not a radical concept — an all-powerful God who knows everything about how every individual is made would be the one. Again, you have to believe in God to follow this, but if you do, why would you think the Deity couldn’t do that?

A photograph taken at the time wouldn’t show the Jesus figure. There would be no drops of blood on the sidewalk. But then, there was no physical evidence of Moses’ burning bush experience, either. The scripture specifically notes that although it was burning, the bush was not consumed.

So while you might not believe, if you do believe, why is this priest’s vision automatically less legit than that of Moses, or the dream in which Joseph was urged to go ahead and marry Mary?

There are some belief systems that are all about hallucination, even about deliberately inducing them — I think of shamans who treat peyote as a sacrament.

Have you ever read any of Carlos Castaneda’s books? They’re all about achieving greater enlightenment by inducing hallucinations, and actually entering into those hallucinations and taking action within them. The Separate Reality is as legitimate, within the context of that system of thought, as one that concrete thinkers see as the only reality.

So, given all that, what’s the justification for seeing a hallucination as just a hallucination, and therefore automatically devoid of meaning? That seems a very shallow, and at the least unimaginative, explanation.

Anyway, that’s what I got to thinking about during Mass when I was supposed to be paying attention…

Applicants must, however, be able to snatch the pebble from the master’s hand


Here’s an exciting opportunity for us Twitterati:

BEIJING (AP) — Help wanted: Ancient Buddhist temple famed for its kung fu monks seeks media directors to build brand. English and social media skills required. Not necessary to be a monk, practice martial arts or eat vegetarian.

That online ad placed by China‘s 1,500-year-old Shaolin temple already has drawn a brisk response, reflecting the institution’s exalted place in Chinese history and popular culture.

Chinese state media reported Friday that 300 people have already applied for the two positions available, including business executives, media professionals and recent graduates of top overseas universities. Although the temple’s monks are all male, men and women are both invited to send in their resumes, the reports said….

The move is the latest attempt by the enterprising abbot Shi Yongxin to exploit the temple’s fame in the name of propagating Buddhist thinking and culture….

True wisdom, grasshopper, is knowing you need help with your social media.


The new penitence: Using the ice bucket challenge to wash away one’s political sins

Editor’s note: This post has been corrected. The guy in the video is a candidate in Colorado, not Texas. Hence the picturesque mountains in the background.

Corey Hutchins brought this to my attention this morning via Twitter.

We have a self-described “right-wing Christian minister” running for the state House in Colorado who has accused a Democratic congressman of essentially being no better than the ISIS rebels who behead Christians (and others) in Iraq and Syria.

And above you see his video “apologizing” for his statement. Never mind that the “apology” is a passive-aggressive opportunity to repeat his points about the differences between himself and an “openly gay” Democrat. Never mind the problems with this passage:

I would never compare you to the ISIS rebels who behead Christians, right? Of course, you would never go in for something like that.

When a) he just did make that comparison, and b) the construction “you would never go in for something like that” bluntly reminds hearers just what the congressmen does go in for, nod, wink.

And forget the imputation that the only reason he has to “apologize” is that “some Democrats do not have a sense of humor”… about ISIS and beheadings of innocents.

What interests me about it is the way he uses the ice-bucket challenge as a sort of ecumenical-secular mode of baptism to wash away the political sins of which he apparently does not fully repent.

Wow. This meme is just insinuating itself into everything, isn’t it?

Note that he's baptizing HIMSELF, rather than having someone else administer it. Must be some fundamentalist Protestant thing...

Note that he’s baptizing HIMSELF, rather than having someone else administer it. Must be some fundamentalist Protestant thing…

Pope Francis says it’s OK to ‘stop’ the bad guys in Iraq

Breaking with a recent trend toward the Vatican disapproving of U.S. military actions in the world, Pope Francis says it’s OK to ‘stop’ aggressors in Iraq, while being a bit vague about how he believes they should be stopped:

“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Francis said aboard the papal plane. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.”

When he says, “bomb,” however, he seems to be questioning the one means we’ve been using to stop ISIS.

And he also requires that actions to “stop” bad guys be multilateral, and particularly mentions the U.N.

The problem with that, from this Catholic layman’s point of view, is that sometimes — such as when you have thousands of men, women and children being starved out on a mountain — you can’t really afford to wait the three or four eons that it might take the U.N. to reach consensus. Sometimes Just War has to be waged in a hurry if it’s to achieve just aims.

But in any case, I’m glad to see a pope acknowledging that there is such a thing as Just War, even if he’s adding new prerequisites atop St. Augustine’s.

I appreciate that the pontiff wants there to be a high bar. Of course, it’s hard to find a higher one than one that will induce Barack “Red Line” Obama to take military action that doesn’t involve drones….

Patrick O’Brian’s depiction of the Yazidi, a.k.a. Dasni

Y’all know, from my frequent mentions, that I am a Patrick O’Brian fanatic, reading his novels about Capt. Jack Aubrey and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin over and over again. You know, the ones set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The best historical novels ever written.

Something that is much in the news the last couple of weeks rang a bell, so I went back and found the relevant passage in The Letter of Marque, the 12th novel in the series, and one of my favorites.

Here it is. It depicts a brief conversation between Maturin, a Catholic, and his good friend Nathaniel Martin, an Anglican clergyman:




I checked, and my hunch was right: The Dasni are the very Yazidi people whom we are trying, with our air strikes in Iraq, to protect from ISIS. Wikipedia, under its Yazidi entry, cites this description:

Yezidis (Arabic) [possibly from Persian yazdan god; or the 2nd Umayyad Caliph, Yazid (r. 680–683); or Persian city Yezd] A sect dwelling principally in Iraq, Armenia, and the Caucasus, who call themselves Dasni. Their religious beliefs take on the characteristics of their surrounding peoples, inasmuch as, openly or publicly, they regard Mohammed as a prophet, and Jesus Christ as an angel in human form. Points of resemblance are found with ancient Zoroastrian and Assyrian religion. The principal feature of their worship, however, is Satan under the name of Muluk-Taus. However, it is not the Christian Satan, nor the devil in any form; their Muluk-Taus is the hundred- or thousand-eyed cosmic wisdom, pictured as a bird (the peacock).

The boldfaced emphasis is mine.

So you see, my obsessive study of these novels is actually educational.

O’Brian was obsessive about detail, and took a certain delight in depicting interesting, little-known religious practices. You see a reference above to the Sethians, of whom I had never heard. They play a significant role in two or three of the novels, making up a significant portion of the crew of Surprise during her time as a private man of war.

But as obsessive as he was about detail in depicting real-life naval battles, such as Cochrane’s victory in the Speedy over the Gamo, or Broke’s in the Shannon over the USS Chesapeake in 1813, he would sometimes invent entirely fictional places. For instance, the Sethians (a real, though obscure, gnostic sect — the apocryphal Gospel of Judas is considered a Sethian document) who serve under Aubrey are from the fictional town of Shelmerston.

But it’s fascinating to learn that the Dasni are for real.

France isn’t anti-Muslim, just anti-religion. Feel better?

Oh, I miss my Economist subscription, which the newspaper used to pay for.

But fortunately, the magazine did allow me today to read the piece promoted by this Tweet:

And here, basically, is the answer to the question:

France adheres to a strict form of secularism, known as laïcité, which is designed to keep religion out of public life. This principle was entrenched by law in 1905, after fierce anti-clerical struggles with the Roman Catholic church. Today, the lines are in some ways blurred. The French maintain, for instance, certain Catholic public holidays, such as Ascension. But secular rules on the whole prevail. It would be unthinkable in France, for example, to hold a nativity play in a state primary school, or for a president to be sworn in on a Bible.

Over the past 30 years, in response to a growing assertiveness among the country’s 5m-6m Muslims, the focus of this effort to balance religious and secular needs has shifted to Islam. After a decade of legal uncertainty over the wearing of the headscarf in state schools, the French government in 2004 banned all “conspicuous” religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, from public institutions such as state schools or town halls. This was followed in 2010 by what the French call the “burqa ban”, outlawing the full face covering in public. Critics accuse France of illiberalism, of curbing freedom of religious expression, and of imposing a Western interpretation of female oppression. Amnesty International, for example, called the recent European court ruling “a profound retreat for the right to freedom of expression and religion”. For the French, however, it is part of an unapologetic effort to keep religious expression private, and to uphold the country’s republican secular identity. Interestingly, many moderate Muslim leaders also back the ban as a bulwark against hard-line Islam….

So now you see. The French aren’t anti-Muslim. Just anti-religion. Sorta.

That will make some of you feel better, and some worse…

‘Nuns on the Bus’ organization to hold meeting here on Saturday — I think

This item came in over the transom, in PDF form, late this afternoon:


I pass it on in case it is actually legit, since it’s tomorrow morning. I failed to check it out in the most direct manner — calling the number provided, and sending an email. No one answered at the phone number, and honestly I just this minute sent the email — but then, I had only received this notice minutes before that.

So, if you want to check it out — and I find the Nuns on the Bus to be an intriguing outfit — you might want to show up at the library. I may, but only if I can rejuggle some other stuff I had planned for in the morning.

On the somewhat retro topic of Tebowing


I almost never read Cal Thomas’ columns. I find they tend to have a certain sourness about them, whatever the point. Or maybe the expression on his mugshot just inclines me to perceive a sourness.

Whatever the case, I was drawn in to his column in The State this morning by the image of Tim Tebow kneeling.

The main point of the column didn’t interest me much — it was of a certain type, which we see written from the perspective of an ideologue complaining that ideologues of the opposite camp have a double standard, and criticize people of the writer’s camp for doing a certain thing, but don’t criticize people of their camp when they do the same thing. You know what I mean. You’ve read this one a million times.

In this case, he was angry that people who vehemently defend a guy named Michael Sam — apparently someone who people who follow football know all about — did not equally defend Tim Tebow when he was playing the game and taking a lot of flak.

The part of that that interested me was the Tim Tebow part.

And here, I’m going to have to ask you to bear with me as I propose an anachronistic topic. I realize that everybody who follows football, or is really into Culture War stuff, thoroughly hashed and rehashed everything there is to say about Tebow years ago. Well, I didn’t. I get interested in stuff when I get interested in it. Like “The West Wing,” which I will continue trying to interest y’all in discussing until I run out of episodes to watch on Netflix… and probably far beyond.

The advantage to you of a topic like this is that y’all have already thought it out and have wonderfully well-honed, nuanced positions on it. So you’re ahead of me. Assuming you can still remember your positions after all this time.

While everyone who followed football was really, really into taking strong stances on Tebow, I was peripherally aware of him. And what I was aware of was the kneeling thing. The “Tebowing.” Because it was kind of hard to miss, permeating visual media the way it did.

And each time I saw the image, as this morning, I wondered what to think of it. And I was always of two minds, at least.

On the one hand, it’s great that a guy isn’t embarrassed about his faith, and willing to witness to it in public — and in his case, in a considerable spotlight. On the other hand, it was awfully showy and “look at me,” seemingly a textbook example of what Jesus spoke against in Matthew 6:5.

And I find myself wondering whether Jesus’ judgment on this topic was culture-specific. He was speaking in a time and place when public prayer was a way of raising yourself in public esteem. Whereas, as Tebow himself can attest, doing so now subjects you to considerable abuse and ridicule. Especially when you play for a New York team.

Finally, on the third hand (yes, I know this metaphor is no longer working), I like the Tebowing gesture totally apart from theological questions. I’m a big fan of Arthurian legend — I may have mentioned that before — and Tebow’s gesture evokes the kneeling knight, his sword held before him like a cross. Which, to a geek like me who thinks pre-Raphaelite paintings are cool and not at all trite or corny, is appealing.

Thoughts? Or is this just too anachronistic for y’all? If so, I won’t try yet again to get a thread going on the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars…


Way to go, John Paul. John, too…

Our pastor, Leigh Lehocky, welcomes Pope John Paul II to St. Peter's on Sept. 11, 1987.

Our pastor, Leigh Lehocky, welcomes Pope John Paul II to St. Peter’s on Sept. 11, 1987.

At Mass yesterday, I got to thinking about it being Pope John Paul II’s big day, after which he will henceforth be called SAINT John Paul.

I have a lot more memories of him than I do John XXIII. In fact, as important as he was, I really have no memories of John XXIII. I didn’t grow up Catholic, and my earliest memory of being aware of a pope at all have to do with Paul VI.

We particularly remember John Paul because he stopped by our church, St. Peter’s, when he was in Columbia on Sept. 11, 1987. I missed the ceremony because I was one of the editors responsible for our coverage of the papal visit, and couldn’t leave the office. I did get to see the Popemobile arrive at Williams-Brice Stadium, though — some of us climbed up on the roof of the old newspaper building (which now belongs to ETV) to watch the motorcade arrive — then went back to work.

But the visit is commemorated with a huge marble plaque (below), and various photos on the walls from the day. So I feel like, as a parishioner, I was a part of his visit to our church.

Of everything written about yesterday’s double canonization, I was most impressed by this piece, which explained how meaningless it is to speak of John as a “liberal,” and John Paul as a “conservative:”

Here’s the shorthand narrative about the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on Sunday that you’re bound to hear this weekend (or may have already heard). Ready? The first was a liberal, and the second was a conservative.

As with most black-and-white descriptions, this one falls short. To begin with, the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” as commonly understood in the modern political sphere, fail when applied to the church, which has always transcended such categories. The terms also limp when it comes to describing the former Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla.

To wit, the installation of the “liberal” Pope John wasn’t even an installation. Technically, it was a “coronation,” with the former cardinal-archbishop of Venice carried into St. Peter’s Basilica seated upon a grand sedia gestatoria (literally a “chair for carrying”), an ornate throne borne on the shoulders of 12 footmen, before he was crowned with a bejeweled triple tiara. John’s pronouncements used the papal “We,” and he once issued a document called “Veterum Sapientia,”recommending the use of Latin in seminary training and throughout the universal church. Indeed, one of his closest advisers and his personal secretary, the now 98-year-old Cardinal Loris Capovilla, called him a “great conservative.”

As for the “conservative” John Paul II, he issued several encyclicals that included slashing critiques of the excesses of capitalism and repeatedly called for justice for the poor; he was the first pope in history to visit a synagogue; he opposed many causes that U.S. conservatives supported (for example, the Iraq war); he tirelessly built bridges to other faiths, joining with other religious leaders for the first World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, to the consternation of many in the Vatican; he issued sweeping apologies for past wrongs committed by the church (to, among others, Jews, women and those persecuted during the Inquisition); and finally, in a way no pope had ever done, he made full use of almost every form of media available to spread the Gospel….

The ways most people use “liberal” and “conservative” today are indeed nonsensical within the context of the Church. Which is one reason that I, as a Catholic, am personally uncomfortable with both labels…

The huge plaque just inside the front door of St. Peter's -- a few feet from where Msgr. Lehocky welcomed the pontiff.

The huge plaque just inside the front door of St. Peter’s — a few feet from where Msgr. Lehocky welcomed the pontiff.

‘Hosanna hey sanna, sanna, sanna, ho…’

Awaiting the distribution of the palms before Mass Sunday.

Awaiting the distribution of the palms before Mass Sunday.

Well, yesterday was Palm Sunday, so that means it’s time to listen to “Jesus Christ Superstar” over and over, at least for a week.

I don’t think that is an actual, formal, official thing in the liturgical calendar, but it’s long been a habit of mine, as you can tell from such posts as this one and this one.

Last year — or was it the year before — I finally broke down and bought the album (the original cast album of course) from iTunes. This was good because, since I no longer have a working turntable for my vinyl (I have one that connects to my computer so I can make MP3s, but no way to play straight to a speaker), and listening to my “Jesus Christ Superstar” station on Pandora meant listening to extraneous stuff as well.

So Saturday, I was working in the yard, listening to it on my iPhone, and trying to remember not to starting dancing about to the livelier parts of “This Jesus Must Die” — an appalling notion that I hesitate even to write, but the song is infectious.

“Superstar” has loomed large in my legend since the original album was out, and it has always dwelt in this confusing area where the sacred and the profane intersect. I first listened to it in a beach house at Barber’s Point in Hawaii in the spring of 1971. Or rather, I sat watching Mary Riley as she lay on her back on the floor with her head between the stereo speakers and her eyes closed, listening to it. She was transported; I was transported. All sorts of things were mixed together in the moment.

“Superstar” portrayed Jesus and his followers as a sort of itinerant hippie commune that really knew how to rock. And that made a certain sense to me. We were about long hair and faded jeans and other expressions of naturalness. (Later, I would have trouble with my kids wanting to dye their hair unnatural colors and cut it in strange ways, in part because it just seemed uncool to me.)

There was this small poster I saw one time in the early ’70s up on the top floor of the Gay Dolphin in Myrtle Beach that seemed to capture well this intersection between Jesus and the counterculture. It showed a smiling Jesus, depicted in the traditional Sunday school kind of way, with a caption that went something like, “You guys can wear your hair as long as you like. Tell them I said so.”

My hair wasn’t all that long when I acted and sang in a community production of “Superstar” in the early 80s, although it was still a good bit longer than now. And I grew out a nice, full beard for the occasion. I was an apostle. It was my first play, and the director didn’t have the confidence to put me in a larger role. But I enjoyed singing “What’s the Buzz?” and “Look at all my trials and tribulations” and so forth. If I were ever to audition for such a production again, I’d go out for Pilate. The songs are within my range, and it’s a meaty role.

Now, as a lector and Eucharistic minister in my church, the liturgy reminds me of the rock opera, and the rock opera of the liturgy. And I manage to reconcile Holy Week and Jesus Christ Superstar Week occurring at the same time every year, like Passover.

Below is a snippet from the procession with palms at Mass yesterday at my church. It’s not “Hosanna, Hey sanna,” but I like it. One of the many singable tunes our Spanish choir does at the noon Masses.

Irish priest’s take on Cohen brings the house down

As you may know, the name “Cohen” in Hebrew means “priest,” or “a member of the priestly class, having certain rights and duties in the synagogue.”

Father Ray Kelly, a priest of another tradition, took full advantage of his rights in performing his duties at a recent wedding at his parish in Meath, Ireland. He quickly went viral on YouTube. The bride and groom had no idea it was coming, but they and the rest of the congregation loved it.

Since he used my favorite Leonard Cohen tune, I thought I’d share.

By the way, according to the Irish Times, Fr. Kelly is “planning on releasing a charity album to coincide with his 25th year since being ordained.”