Posts Tagged ‘religion’

What happens when you insult the Bible accurately?

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family, deep in the heart of the Bible belt. I was an altar boy, the kind of kid who prayed while he walked home from school.

When I was nine or ten years old, I got out of being thrashed silly on the playground by lecturing another kid — the biggest kid I’d ever seen in my life — about Jesus Christ.

I’m not making this up. The bully later approached me when nobody else was looking and asked, in an awed voice, if I really believed all that stuff about God.  I gave him an earful.

I have long been a close and diligent reader of the Bible.  I rank it not only as one of the most profound books on my shelf, but also one of the most beautiful.

Which is why my ears perked up when Dan Savage, one of the most prominent gay rights activists in the country, sparked a furor by talking trash about the Good Book.

Speaking to a group of young people recently, Savage argued that it’s time to discount Biblical teachings about homosexuality, in the same way that we casually discount so much else that’s in Scripture.  Here’s what he said:

“We can learn to ignore the bull%#$ in the Bible about gay people. The same way, the same way we have learned to ignore the bull#$* in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore bull@#@ in the Bible about all sorts of things.”

Savage’s comments have been described as anti-Christian bigotry and as a form of hate speech.

On first listen, they slot neatly into the take-no-prisoners culture war that rages in America, fitting somewhere between the war on Christmas and the effort to ban gay marriage in North Carolina.

But as someone who reads and thinks and grapples with the Bible a lot, I think it’s important to point out that on the basic facts, Savage is absolutely correct.

The Bible contains a lot of profound wisdom, but it also articulates moral points of view about slavery, about women, about human sexuality, about science, and about mundane things like diet and daily ritual that most of us would find shocking today.

The problem, of course, is that so few Christians actually read the Bible.  And when they do, they often digest it in tiny, out-of-context Bible verses, each carefully packaged with a modern, fuzzy-minded exegesis.

We used to be made of tougher stock.  In 1843, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard grappled at length with the story of Abraham’s decision to murder his own child at the behest of a God so jealous that He wanted proof of Abraham’s loyalty.

Kierkegaard confronted the creepiness and the moral nausea that the story conjures up today, titling his own book “Fear and Trembling.”

These days, the folks in the pews rarely wrestle with the deep quandaries, the ugly bits, the parts of the Bible that to modern eyes seem flatly unacceptable.

Take, by way of example, the idea of “traditional” marriage.  The truth is that a healthy marriage, as we understand it today, is completely unlike the Biblical version.

The Old Testament casually accepts polygamy, absolute patriarchal dominance, the treatment of women within marriage as property, and the beating of children with “a rod.”

And consider the Bible’s treatment of rape, one of the crimes we now see as among the most brutal.

“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver,” commands the book of Deuteronomy.

Then there’s this additional prescription.  The rapist “must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”

Yikes. The point here isn’t that the Bible is crummy or bad. It’s not.  It’s just really complicated.

And Savage is correct in that gays and lesbians are in an almost unique position in our society, in that they are still being asked to live by strict Biblical teachings. Indeed, many conservative Christians want those teachings codified in secular law.

Savage made his point, well, savagely.  One can question him, even condemn him, on style points. He’s been crudely provocative before and will be again.

But he is also asking a fair and even a vital question.  If we insist that the gay community be judged by a Gospel that most of us never read, are we willing to do the same?

Will we submit ourselves to state and Federal laws that would punish us brutally for adultery or premarital sex?  Should we accept a Constitutional ban on divorce, in the way that many Christians want a ban on same-sex marriage?

Would we — and in the context of religious teachings, this is no small thing — be willing to have the government intervene to restrict our sinful diets, or restructure our sinful sabbath-defying schedules?

Are we willing to see a clear and unambiguous primacy of men over women enshrined in secular law?

The bottom line is this:  The Bible was written as a moral and spiritual guide, and some of its teachings are timeless and universal.

But it was also scripted as a worldly teaching, laying out laws and edicts that were highly specific to a time and a place and a culture that existed roughly two thousand years ago.

Yes, those laws include a firm condemnation of homosexuality.  But they also condemn many of the habits, customs and lifestyles that we all take for granted.

“Radical feminist” nuns in the North Country?

You’ve probably been hearing that the Vatican has sharply rebuked the organization that represents roughly 80% of the nuns within the Roman Catholic church, including those serving here in the Diocese of Ogdensburg.  This from the Washington Post.

In a stinging report on Wednesday, the Vatican said the Leadership Conference of Women Religious had been “silent on the right to life” and had failed to make the “Biblical view of family life and human sexuality” a central plank in its agenda.

It also reprimanded American nuns for expressing positions on political issues that differed, at times, from views held by U.S. bishops. Public disagreement with the bishops — “who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals” — is unacceptable, the report said.

An archbishop from the West Coast has been charged with “reforming” the organization.

This comes at a time when nuns in the North Country are being asked to serve bigger, more influential roles, due to the shortage of priests.

So what do you think?  Have nuns strayed from the path?  Is a course correction needed?

Or is this an overreach, and a sign of continuing tensions within the American Roman Catholic church.

What’s part of your holiday weekend?

Looking for something topical for this weekend, I happened across “Top 10 strange Easter traditions” on a New Zealand web site. And here’s the list:

Chocolate "Easter Bilbies" in dark, milk and white varieties. The bilby is an Australian marsupial. No doubt the pouch is handy for carrying eggs.

1. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia men and boys whip women and girls with decorated instruments, usually adorned with colourful ribbons. The Easter Monday tradition is not intended to be painful, but instead is meant to encourage good health and beauty. The women and girls may think differently.

2. New Zealand is famous for our butter – but Poland and Russia are famous for their butter lambs. Butter is sculpted into the shape of a lamb, which accompanies a meal.

3. The leftovers from Christmas create some fun at Easter time in Germany. Remnants of Christmas trees are piled into a heap and burnt as a way of recognising the end of winter and moving into spring.

4. You’ve probably seen chocolate eggs and bunnies, but what about a chocolate Bilby? In an attempt to raise awareness about the dwindling Bilby population, this small rabbit size marsupial with large ears, native to Australia, has been immortalised in chocolate.

5. While we may hide Easter eggs in New Zealand, some people in Switzerland display them proudly for everyone to see. It is a tradition in Nyon, near Geneva, to adorn fountains with flowers, ribbons and eggs.

6. The bells in France’s churches are silenced on Good Friday to recognise the death of Jesus. But legend says that the bells actually fly to Rome and fly back in time to be rung on Easter Sunday. There are many paintings and pictures attesting to this tradition.

7. The burning of Judas is an ancient Easter ritual in Orthodox and Catholic nations, but only a few countries still practice it. An effigy of Judas is often displayed and burnt at Easter time in parts of Greece, Mexico, Portugal and Spain.

8. It’s most likely that a man was behind this Polish tradition. Men in Poland are not allowed to make Easter bread, and some say any food at all over Easter, in fear that their moustache will turn grey.

9. Finland may need a reminder that it’s Easter, not Halloween. Children often dress up as witches and wander the streets with broomsticks in the hunt for treats. The tradition is said to have come from the belief that witches would fly to Germany and cavort with Satan. Bonfires are meant to scare them away.

10. Here we eat eggs, in England they roll them. Egg rolling is still a popular sport in the United Kingdom. People compete by rolling eggs down large hills. The ones that roll the furthest or survive the most competitions win.

Sunrise services, egg hunts, decorated baskets, a special family meal and (hopefully) lots of chocolate…how will you make the day, if it’s different than an ordinary Sunday for you?

Not to ignore Passover, Here’s an article from USA’s Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman about the many, many ways to hold a Seder, which ends with the question: How would you tell the Exodus story in modern terms?

Whatever you’re doing this weekend, may a sense of spring and renewal be upon you.

What journalists talk about when we talk about sex

Over the last week, a lot of newspapers around the US decided not to run Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon as it delved into the flame-hot issues of sexuality and politics that have emerged in the 2012 presidential season.

The editorial board of the Plattsburgh Press-Republican argued in an essay that the “six ‘Doonesbury’ installments just struck us as too offensive,” and so the strip was shelved for a week.

NCPR has also wrestled with this question:  How do we talk about sex — especially the politicized, polarized aspects of human sexuality now being debated — without being “offensive.”

When our reporter Sarah Harris interviewed Erica Macilintal, a Roman Catholic woman at SUNY Plattsburgh struggling to live within the constraints of her Church’s teaching, we took a deep breath and plunged ahead.

“Are you sexually active?” Harris asked.  “I know that’s a really weird question to ask you, but I’m kind of curious because a lot of people, you know, can believe something and practice another.”

Weird, yes.  Awkward, yes. Borderline offensive, even, by any traditional rules of social decorum.

Polite people just don’t ask other people publicly about their sex lives.

But as Harris’s lead editor on this project, I made it clear that I didn’t think we had a choice.  We had to ‘go there.’

Here’s why.  As a journalist, I’ve reached the conclusion that we have to set aside our squeamishness and address these issues head-on.

If lawmakers are going to force women who are choosing to have legal abortions in the US to have ultra-sounds that include the insertion of medical devices into their vaginas, journalists and pundits need to talk about that stuff honestly, not obliquely.

We need to accept that the politics of sexuality require us to open our airwaves, news pages, and editorial space to frank discussions that might, in some quarters, be viewed as “offensive.”

What, after all, is the alternative?  Should we not speak bluntly and factually about the very issues that are defining much of our politics?

In this culture war era, politicians have marched boldly into our bedrooms, into the treatment rooms of our gynecologists and family physicians, and into the moral decisions that Americans (not just women) make about their sexuality.

They have also hoisted their flags over that fractious, bitter terrain that lies at the intersection of religious faith and human intimacy.

For better or worse, journalists have to follow them.

This isn’t to say that Mr. Trudeau gets it “right.”  His argument that the government-mandated insertion of a medical device into a woman’s vagina is “rape” is clearly only one possible point of view.

Others have argued that requiring these ultrasounds is a way to ensure that women have all necessary medical information “before making such a critical decision.”

This is the debate we need to treat accurately and unblushingly, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Morning Read: North Country pastor says No to going green for St. Pat’s Day

First Baptist Church, Watertown--"Not a billboard."

The Watertown Daily Times is reporting this morning that a Baptist pastor in Watertown is unhappy with a plan to light up his church tower with green spotlights as part of a St. Patrick’s Day Irish festival.

The Rev. Jeffrey E. Smith…insists the green floodlights will give people the perception he and his church condone the consumption of beer at this weekend’s events.

“This is our house of worship. It is not a billboard,” he said. “We call our church ‘the Lighthouse on the Square.’ This cheapens our church.”

The pastor said he believes the city should have been more sensitive to his parishioners, some of whom are recovering alcoholics and former drug users.

So there you go.  What do you think?  Too grumpy by half?  Or a good, solid principled stand?

Is it “war on women” or a fight for religious liberty?

This morning, NCPR begins several days of conversation with people in the North Country wrestling with moral and political questions surrounding social and family planning issues, as well as religious freedom.

We begin with an in-depth conversation with Bishop Terry LaValley, head of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, which you can hear here.

This issue sparks a lot of really thorny, tangled questions.

Is it fair, appropriate or constitutional for the Federal government to require faith groups to provide insurance coverage for care that some churches disapprove of, including contraception, vasectomies, and so-called “morning after” birth control pills?

Should existing state laws in New York be overturned?
Is it fair for faith groups to deny those insurance services to employees — including non-believers — thus denying them the right to make their own individual moral choices?

And what about the social services that faith groups provide, often with taxpayer support?  Should those be shaped by religious conviction, even when the services are provided to people of other faiths, or to people of no faith at all?

Do you feel that religion is “under attack” in America?  Or do you feel that religious groups are trying to shape laws that will force you to adopt their moral codes?

These are the questions that we’re exploring this week and I’m interested for your views.  This is difficult stuff, not exactly water cooler conversation.  So please chime in, but keep it thoughtful and civil and respectful.

Sainthood near for Cope and Tekakwitha, Dolan now a cardinal

The New York Times reports that Pope Benedict XVI created 22 new cardinals in ceremonies at St. Peter’s Basilica today. Among those now wearing the scarlet cloak and cap is Timothy Dolan, 62, the archbishop of New York since 2009 and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A second archbishop from the United States, Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, 73, was also made a cardinal. For what it’s worth, cardinals under age 80 are those eligible to elect new popes.

The article went on to state:

Pope Benedict announced that he would canonize seven new saints, among them two Americans: Marianne Cope, a member of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Syracuse, N.Y., who cared for lepers on the island of Moloka’i,Hawaii, in the late 19th century, and Kateri Tekakwitha, an 17th century Mohawk Indian from upstate New York who converted to Catholicism and will be the Catholic church’s first Native American saint.

Read more about Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk-Algonquin woman born in 1656, in this post by Martha Foley from December 2011.

I was having trouble understanding when those sainthoods would become official. According to information from the Vatican’s official website, the actual canonization ceremony will take place Oct 21, 2012.

Morning Read: Contraception debate in NY and the North Country

The national debate over a Federal requirement that religious groups provide full health coverage — including contraception — to employees continues to simmer, with hearings yesterday in Washington.

The issue also remains front and center on the Diocese of Ogdensburg’s website, with Bishop Terry LaValley’s letter describing the Obama administration initiative as “a heavy blow” to religious freedom and tolerance.

You must know that we cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law.  Even those who may disagree with the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life recognize that the government has no business forcing religious institutions to sponsor and pay for procedures which violate those teachings.

We’ve asked Bishop LaValley for an interview and hope to sit down with him soon.  Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting that Roman Catholic institutions in New York have been living with a similar state law for roughly a decade.

Although Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York has vociferously argued that a national requirement for religiously affiliated institutions to cover birth control in their insurance plans is immoral and unacceptable, some Roman Catholic organizations in his own backyard have for 10 years been grudgingly complying with a state law making them do precisely that.

Many Roman Catholic institutions in NY now “self-insure” in order to avoid the state law (which Catholic leaders sued unsuccessfully to block) but others have added contraception services to their insurance policies.

NPR’s Rob Stein looked in-depth at some of the issues behind this debate, including the fact that many faith groups now see some “contraceptives” as de facto abortion methods, a shift that has reignited the topic.

A new NY Times/CBS poll shows that most Americans (60%) and most Roman Catholics (58%) are more in line with President Obama’s position on all this than with the bishops and the Church hierarchy.  How about you?

What do you take away from this debate?  A fight over religious freedom?  A swing back to 1950s-era thinking?  Comments welcome and — remember — keep it civil and respectful.

Morning Read: Region’s Roman Catholics decry attacks on “religious liberty”

Roman Catholic leaders in northern New York and Vermont are decrying what they describe as a broad-based attack on religious liberties in general, and on their faith in particular.

In Vermont, Roman Catholic leaders say the government should move to block or disallow civil lawsuits sparked by the priest-sex abuse scandal, according to the Burlington Free Press.

“The State cannot infringe on a protected freedom by imposing damages and penalties that the church cannot pay,” the diocese said in a motion asking Judge William Sessions III to throw out a lawsuit filed in 2010 by a man alleging that as an altar boy he was molested in Rutland by the Rev. Edward Paquette in 1974.

“If the protections of the First Amendment are to mean anything, the government should not be allowed to shut the doors of a church and put it up for sale,” church lawyers Kaveh Shahi and Tom McCormick wrote.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Ogdensburg in northern New York is blasting an Obama administration rule that would force the church to offer health insurance that includes services that the church rejects, including contraception, voluntary sterilization, and abortion.  This from the Adirondack Daily Enterprise:

“The federal government, which claims to be ‘of, by, and for the people,’ has just dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those

People – the Catholic population – and to the millions more who are served by the Catholic faithful,” [Bishop Terry] LaValley said.

So what do you think?  Do you see a Roman Catholic church under siege in an increasingly secular world?  Comments welcome below.

The first Mohawk saint

Pope Benedict XVI has signed the decree recognizing a miracle performed by the Mohawk-Algonquin woman born in 1656, and known as Kateri Tekakwitha.

The Vatican announced that the Pope has deemed her worthy of sainthood, so she will be canonized at a ceremony sometime in the future.

Tekakwitha was a Native American baptized in 1676 in the Mohawk

Valley. She fled to a mission in Canada after being scorned and

threatened in her home village near what is now the village of


You can read more about Kateri here, in Indian Country.

Earlier this year, a segment on NPR looked at the process of certifying Kateri’s miracle, which was then underway.

Pope Benedict signed decrees Monday approving miracles attributed to six others, in addition to Kateri.

The Blessed Marianne Cope, who also has ties to New York, was also on the list.

Cope was a Syracuse Franciscan sister who cared for leprosy

patients in Hawaii in the late 1880s. She’d previously taught and

helped establish the first two hospitals in central New York in the