Hollywood, women and doing what's right

By Dan Webster

When Hollywood criticizes itself not much is made of it. When a movie critic calls out Hollywood for its obsession with a certain film genre, the wrath of Sunset Blvd. in unleashed.

Alan Alda wrote and directed “Sweet Liberty” in 1986. It starred Alda, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Caine and the late Bob Hoskins. The story is how Hollywood takes liberties with a history book when turning it into a movie.

The pivotal scene is an argument between Alda, a college professor and author of the book, and the movie’s director played brilliantly by Saul Rubinek. Alda is yelling about the historical inaccuracies the movie is taking. Rubinek takes the history professor to school giving him the formula for financially successful movies with young audiences: 1) defy authority, 2) destroy property, and 3) nudity.

Ann Hornaday, movie critic at the Washington Post and active member of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, Baltimore, took on Hollywood for its male-dominated creative structure and its pandering to young male audiences. She did so following the May 24 mass murder in Isla Vista when the presumed shooter, Elliot Rodger, left a YouTube video announcing his reasons. The murderer also turned out to be the son of a Hollywood movie maker.

“For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment (often, if not always, featuring a steady through-line of casual misogyny),” Hornaday wrote. “How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like ‘Neighbors’ and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of ‘sex and fun and pleasure’? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair’?”

Having seen “Neighbors” I can tell you all three elements delineated in “Sweet Liberty” are there in spades.

Leading roles for women have been questioned for years. As Hollywood executives sought to provide more high profile characters they were mostly women acting like men. “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “The Hunger Games,” and “Divergent” all have female leads who are prone to violence and use their feminine form to attract viewers while performing testosterone-enhanced actions.

Hollywood knows what sells. It knows who will buy what. It uses Hornaday and hundreds of other critics to push its product. When Alda takes pot shots, it’s overlooked. When a critic does her or his job, it’s gloves off. Hornaday’s email and Twitter accounts were inundated with pro and con posts but enough to move her to explain her original column.

I don’t think Hollywood’s research ever told them about the fear and deep rage among women. The #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag has brought the voice of women worldwide to a resounding conversation that men better listen to. And Hollywood would do well to listen, as well. Seeing more of the feminine side of humanity in movies would more accurately reflect the divine image I think our creator had in mind. Our culture would be better for it.

The Rev. Canon Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Maryland. He is a former network news producer, diocesan communications director and was media relations director for the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. @RevWeb is currently Canon for evangelism and ministry development for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland

Street Theater and Gospel Presence

by Kathy Staudt

My Lenten season this year began and ended with participation in displays of religion out in the streets. This is not my usual mode: I tend to be introverted, to value careful, one-on-one or small group conversations about faith as well as prayer and public worship . But when my parish decided to participate in the “Ashes to Go” movement to begin Lent, I decided to take a shift as a lay minister, offering “Drive –through Ashes” in front of our parish church which stands at the edge of a busy intersection. It seemed hokey – we held our “Ashes to Go” sign and waved it and to my amazement people pulled up to receive ashes. Mothers driving carpools (one came back three times so that each of her kids could receive ashes), people on cell phones, interrupting their calls just long enough to “receive a blessing.” People parking, getting out of their cars, and bowing their heads so that I could say the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and adding a prayer of blessing. Why would people pull over to hear those apparently grim words? And yet over 150 people did that day. I’ve been mulling it over the whole 40 days – remembering the quiet, calm radiance on people’s faces as they heard those words about their mortality. But then I heard one of the people say into a cell phone.” Wait a minute: I have to stop and get my blessing.” And I realized that was what it was: people were experiencing our presence on that street corner as in some way a blessing – they may have been former churchgoers or unchurched, though probably with some kind of tradition of Ash Wednesday in their lives. Perhaps it was heard as blessing to have another human being say to you , “remember you are dust” – as we all are. And that’s OK: we don’t have to be more than human. We are who we are. And we are blessed.

Now I realize that for those of us committed to the life of the church Ash Wednesday means much more: that commitment to a season of penitence and self-examination is also profoundly an “insider” experience – perhaps not the first service you would take a seeker to visit. If we are already committed to the church, we are probably embracing the Lenten season as in some sense a blessing, if a hard one – as we do the rounds and cycles of the seasons that are the gift of the church year, and we each have our own ongoing struggles on the journey of faith. But for those outside, there was something about our presence, our availability to them, on Ash Wednesday, as Lent began, that seemed to speak. Somehow our presence communicated that they were welcome as they are. That we didn’t expect them to sign up or join. That God’s blessing is available, and that we were hoping it could come to them through us.

paris.jpgI ended Lent in Paris, where we happened to be traveling on Palm Sunday weekend, and I was delighted to join the procession of the American Episcopal Cathedral up the Avenue Georges V, near the Champs Elysees and in sight of the Eiffel tower. It was a lively, vibrant congregation from what I could observe – a number of younger adults, young families – most of them American or British expats. I felt thoroughly at home. We went up the street with red-veiled crosses, vestments and palms to the accompaniment of African drums. This was in Paris, where people are mostly pretty amazed that anyone practices any religion any more – probably we were seen as an American expat curiosity, but there were cameras, and delight, and a sense of holiday as we went by – again, in our way, we were a blessing to people’s Sunday morning in Paris, as we moved into our own more serious observance of Passiontide.

As I watched people in cafes snapping pictures of us I thought about what these public ceremonies might say about our continuing presence as Christians in an increasingly “post-Christian” culture. Is there a call to be in the midst of a world that is no longer culturally Christian, and claim that original call to Abraham, the call to “be a blessing” to the world, by our presence and our practice, and to cultivate a way of living that might “preach” in its own way? For us on Ash Wednesday, and on Palm Sunday, it was theater, and it wasn’t: we were out in the streets because of the importance of the season and the observance to us, and because of a desire to share, not so much the doctrine of it, as the blessing of it (One friend with whom I talked this over recalled the Celtic priests whose practice was to simply bless everything that they encountered in the pagan cultures they encountered: blessing wells and fountains, animals and families – whoever asked for a blessing – because that was what they did, as Christians).

As we walked up the Avenue Georges VI I also had a flashback to an earlier “street theater” experience from my young adulthood – the All Saints Day processions around the Yale campus in the late 1970s, when Rick Fabian and Don Schell, well known now for such fresh liturgical expressions, were chaplains at the Episcopal Church at Yale. On Halloween night the community would process around campus blessing various buildings and spots, following ancient liturgical forms, chanting, with incense and vestments. Members of the Yale community were following in our train, in Halloween costumes and to the tune of bagpipes, and it all had very much the feel of a medieval street festival in the heart of Christendom and yet this was a very decidedly post-Christian campus community, and I expect very few of those following thought that we were anything but part of the show. But at one point in the procession, as we paused for prayer, I overheard one onlooker, observing us at prayer, say to his friend in some amazement: “You know, I think these people are serious!”

And what if we are serious? A serious blessing. In all three of these examples, there was a sense of tremendous joy, presence and simple blessing. The church succeeded in simply being present in the world, and visible to those who might wonder what it might be like to be as “serious’ and joyful as we were about the blessing we carried. I believe that in our post-Christian era we’re likely to see more of these public liturgical expressions of faithfulness in community – and maybe it will invite folks to seek a blessing, and to wonder what it would be like to part of a community so joyful and so “serious” about our public presence and prayers. It’s a hope, at least: appropriate for us in this season as in the one just past, as we aspire to be an “Easter people”.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: "Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture" and "Waving Back:Poems of mothering life", as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.

Plastic Christ: songs of absence

by Derek Olsen

My daughters, 10 and 8, are approaching the end of their first year at a Christian school. It’s been a bit of a shift for us, moving from the public school system. One of the chief things we’ve been adjusting to is contemporary Christian culture. While the school is non-denominational and has a roughly even blend of Roman Catholics and Protestants (and, yes, both are equally puzzled by the appearance of our Anglo-Catholic girls who don’t fit any of their paradigms!), there is a general embrace of the evangelical-flavored Christian subculture.

When my younger daughter arrived in her second grade class, she was quickly asked whether she preferred TobyMac or Justin Bieber. It was a culture question: do you participate in “Christian culture” or “secular culture”? Predictably for her, she said, “Neither one,” messing with their simplistic paradigm. (I still don’t know who TobyMac is…)

I do understand the desire behind the construction of a distinctly Christian subculture. Parents who choose to go in this direction can feel secure knowing that their religious values will be reinforced by the culture their children consume. It represents a way to conform externally to the same kinds of entertainment as the broader culture, but without the culture’s more problematic content. That's their choice; that's not the road that we have taken.

While there can be something very comforting about a “safe” Christian subculture, in the end I find its intention to insulate Christian culture from the broader culture misguided and ultimately dangerous. Yes, there are philosophies and attitudes antithetical to Christianity and Christian living in modern culture, especially in pop culture. Yes, there are songs and movies and such that I don’t let my girls listen to and watch. But ignoring them won't make them go away; attempting to hide your children from them is not a tenable long-term strategy. We regularly discuss the lyrics of the songs on the pop station in the car on the way to ballet, and I model for them what it looks like to listen and critique, noting what is both positive and negative.
More generally, though, we do a disservice to our work of evangelism, and to our own deep wrestling if we ignore what the culture is saying generally, and in particular what it is saying about and to the church.

images-1.jpegI drove the girls to school in my wife's car this morning. The radio was on, and, in an attempt to avoid the disc jockeys’ gossip about the latest pop princess, I switched over to the CD. I didn’t know what Meredith had in there; as a result, the soundtrack for our drive to school was Suicide Commandos’ “Plastic Christ”:

Do you believe,
Praying to a plastic Christ,
Do you believe,
That God will hear your cry?
Do you believe
In eternal life?
Do you believe
That you will never die?
Do you believe,
Praying to a plastic Christ,
Do you believe
That God will save your life?

The name of the band might tip you off to the fact that this is not a Christian group; half the moms in the second grade class would probably freak if they even suspected its presence in our car. However, there is no doubt that the lyrics wrestle with fundamentally religious questions.

My wife and I have never been into pop music. For my part, I find most of it musically and philosophically anemic. I much prefer the Goth and Heavy Metal from my youth, and, these days, much of the new music I listen to is best characterized as Industrial.
Industrial and its related genres like EBM (Electronic Body Music) aren’t all that common here in the US; it tends to be a more European and continental phenomenon. Nine Inch Nails is probably the best-known American representative of the genre. Like metal, it's best listened to at loud volumes; like Goth, it tends to wrestle with emotion, meaning, and aesthetics. Characterized by a heavy use of electronic instrumentation, sampling, and computer manipulation, as a genre it investigates the philosophical hole at the center of industrialized society in a post-certainty world. That is, in the aftermath of the 20th century when we saw the two great pillars of the Western social contract, the state and the church, fail humanity in dramatic fashion, where do we turn now for certainty, authority, and meaning? One possible answer is a Nietzschian nihilism trending towards hedonism as exemplified in the lyrics of folks like Marilyn Manson and Thrill Kill Kult. And yet, there are also much more articulate and nuanced approaches that explore humanism, spirituality, and post-Constantinian faith. Particular standouts for me are Assemblage 23 and VNV Nation.

While I'm sure some of the parents at my children's school would be scandalized by our choice of music, I see it asking some deep and important questions that the church needs to both hear and be able to answer. The lyrics to “Plastic Christ” can be read in at least two ways. One interpretation can see it as straightforward mockery of a simplistic faith. A better interpretation, I think, reads it as deeply ambiguous. The act of posing the question—rather than simply making an assertion—invites the listener into the question itself. Do you believe this, or don’t you? It invites soul searching. My answer is, naturally, “yes”—but the act of investigating the question, seeing how I qualify and interpret it, is an exercise worth conducting.

At its root, I see this song as participating in a body of songs in this genre that grapple with the question of the presence and/or absence of God. Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours” and VNV Nation's “Gratitude” spring quickly to mind as other examples. We can, like the Christian subculture, try to duck the question. Or, as people of faith in but not of the world, we can listen to the question with integrity and attempt to respond to it in kind.

Indeed, I find this season of the year, as we walk through the last days of Lent and move towards the cross in Holy Week, the question of the presence or absence of God in the midst of suffering to have a particular poignancy.

Assemblage 23, brain-child of Seattle-based Tom Shear, confronts listeners directly in the catalogue of his own deeply personal struggles with this issue in “God Is A Strangely Absent Father”:

Depend on me
And I will let you down
You'd think you'd have learned by now
In your hour of need
I'm nowhere to be found
And while you bleed
I'm indifferent

[Chorus] God is a strangely absent father
His back is turned perpetually
All the orphaned sons and daughters
Abide in their suffering

That is the first verse and the chorus; there are two additional verses in the same vein.

What do we do with this? Some would simply write it off as modern impiety. But is that the best we can do? I’m a grown-up—I’ve heard blasphemy and impiety, but what I’m hearing here is pain. I’m hearing someone who has looked to God for solace and hasn’t found it.

First, I choose to treat this song as an honest question that people—particularly seekers—bear in with them through our doors (if they make it that far). Do we have an honest answer for them? If Tom Shear walked into your parish, sat next to you in your pew, and asked you point-blank questions about where God was in the world and in our lives, would you be able to give him an answer that doesn’t sound glib in the face of personal pain?

Second, hearing his lyrics remind me of others. Try on these:

[God,] Take your affliction from me;
I am worn down by the blows of your hand.
With rebukes for sin you punish us;
like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us;
truly, everyone is but a puff of wind.

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears.

For I am but a sojourner with you,
a wayfarer, as all my forebears were.
Turn your gaze from me, that I may be glad again,
before I go my way and am no more.

Or, perhaps, there’s this set:
Lord, why have you rejected me?
why have you hidden your face from me?
Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the
point of death;
I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.
Your blazing anger has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me;

They surround me all day long like a flood;
they encompass me on every side.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.

Recognize them yet? If not, here’s your final clue:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?

O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest.

These impious lyrics, these words which Jesus uttered from his own lips in his last moments, are all from the Psalms. That’s Psalm 39, 88, and 22 respectively. Usually psalms of lament will have sections like this, then make a turn that praise and thank God for his presence and salvation. Psalm 22 does this, and the end speaks of the vindication of the sufferer.

But Psalms 39 and 88 lack this completely. The sections I’ve excerpted contain the ends of both psalms. There is no happy turn. Psalm 88 literarily leaves us alone and in darkness.

Hearing “God is a Strangely Absent Father” gives me new ears to hear these psalms again. It helps me to be confronted and challenged by these scriptural words which confess the experience of divine absence spoken by unknown Israelites sometime over 2,500 years ago. It reminds me that our tradition made the deliberate choice to include and retain these psalms as words to be heard for posterity. These psalms give us no glib or easy answers, and they take on new poignancy as words from the cross itself, words spoken by the dying Christ.

In turn, the psalms lead me back again to the song, and ask me how I would hear it if it appeared under the rubric “psalm of lament”? Does it really sound so foreign alongside the words of the psalms? The psalms remind me that this is no new song—songs of absence have been sung by believers and non-believers alike throughout recorded religious history.

How often are we guilty of trying to shelter the church from the difficult words of Scripture and, in so doing, lose hold of the very passages where we see our forebearers—and our Lord himself—wrestling with these same hard questions that do not resolve themselves with easy answers?

If we were to cut ourselves off from the music and the art (and—dare I say it—the Scripture?) that asks us the difficult questions, does that makes us safer or more complacent and ultimately more afraid to face the hard questions ourselves?

As we enter the last days of Lent and the period of Holy Week, Jesus calls us into a place of suffering. It’s a suffering very much experienced in the world around us—as well as in our selves. Sometimes we are blessed by the power and presence of God in these moments.

Sometimes we’re not.

Sometimes we need to ask with Jesus “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sometimes we need to hear it and take it seriously from the lips of those around us.

Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves on the vestry at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc.

Totes the Super Sunday!

by Rie Linton

A teacher once told her children that they could use profanity, just as long as they wrote an essay about the word or words before using it. “You should know your vocabulary,” she stated. “Write about the word’s etymology or history, where it came from, and why it is considered to be profane.” Needless to say, her children waited until they had their own abodes before expanding their language skills to include cursing.

Eighteen years later, the same teacher, now retired, was watching a television movie with one of her children when a cell phone advertisement appeared. “That is so silly,” remarked the child. “Why?” queried the mother. “James Earl Jones has a voice like black velvet or maybe rich ebony silk. Malcolm McDowell could read the menu at McDonald’s and make it sound like Shakespeare. I loved it.” “Were you listening?” continued the child. “They were talking like teenagers!” The mother had to admit she really was too enthralled with the actors to even notice what company they were representing.

A few weeks passed and again the two were watching a program on television. Suddenly the same advertisement appeared and this time the mother paid strict attention. “Oh, how cute!” she exclaimed. “Rather like a modern-day Dr Seuss. Totes McGrotes!” The child disdainfully glared at the mother and then offered a piece of cake. “Thank you, dear,” said the mother. “This is …Totes McGrotes!” She reached for another bite when the plate was snatched out of her hand. “You may not use that type of vocabulary, young lady,” admonished the child, “until you have written an essay on what it means, where it came from, and then maybe you will understand why it is so silly!”

The circle of life is complete! With the curiosity that characterizes most teachers, the parent did indeed study the new wordings. She learned that Totes McGrotes meant “totally the best”, also spelled McGoats, having originated in a 2009 movie starring Paul Rudd. Totes Adorbs was someone who was totally adorable and Totes Presh was used to describe something totally precious. A gossip Internet columnist claimed “amazeballs” to be his own but actually fashion blogger Spiridakis used it several years earlier as an updated form of pig-Latin.

This weekend we will witness why parents are urged to know what their children are saying and to what music they are listening and singing. This weekend advertisers will pay $133,333.333 per second to air promotions for their products. A thirty second spot for the Super Bowl will cost at least four million dollars. They certainly believe that every second of airtime not only has value - $133,333.333 value – but can make an impact. After all, no one pays four million dollars to be ignored.

Also on Sunday will be approximately 450,000 sermons given. They will not be promoting something to make your life easier or make you look better. They will discuss living fuller, feeling better about yourself, the sacrifice of One who always thinks you are Totes McGrotes, regardless of what you do. If costing the same as a Super Bowl ad, those sermons, based upon a twenty minute homily, would value $159,999,999.60. One man paid for the lessons in those sermons with his life. Because he thought we were Totes Presh. Without having to run a single yard, this one man scored the ultimate winning goal for each of us, thereby making us Totes Adorbs, and exchanging his life for ours. Amazeballs!

What if we listened to those 450,000 sermons as intently as we will those thirty-second advertisements? What if each church received an audience of the 164.1 million that watched Super Bowl XLVII in 2013? There are usually thirty minutes of advertisements during a regular Super Bowl. If we substituted those advertisements for a sermon and the churches got paid, each church would receive, based on the current pricing, $239,999,999.40. Of course, churches are not prepared for a total audience of 164.1 million but perhaps for an annual budget of almost $240 million, they could expand. Sadly, some ministers lack the velvet tones of James Earl Jones or the elocution skills of Malcolm McDowell.

And so, on Super Bowl Sunday, we will hesitantly venture out, much like Punxsutawney Phil, to our respective houses of worship and give the lessons presented bored shrugs worthy of any “Valley Girl” whose language the cell phone commercial attempts to emulate. The retired teacher will not begin embarrassing her adult children with her new-found vocabulary and American churches will not be millions of dollars richer.

Yet, what will remain priceless will be the super sacrifice and game-winning play of one man, Jesus Christ, who thought each of us was Totes Presh, totally precious now and forever more. With Him, by Him, and through Him, we get to win the biggest game of all – life. Amazeballs

Rie Linton is a professional musician and conductor, writer, graphic artist, community family values educator and child advocate, a lifelong Episcopalian who has served as Girls Friendly leader, EYC advisor, church school director/teacher, ECW officer, church musician, EfM journeyer, and member of the Order of Daughters of the King. She hosts the blog n2myhead, is currently developing a curriculum on Diversity and lives in Huntsville, AL.

Downton Abbey and the Car-Wreck of Fiction

by Kurt Wiesner

SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading now if you have not seen Downton Abbey through Episode 3 of Season 4.

If you do not watch Downton Abbey, you may be wondering why your Downton watching friends are either angry or horribly depressed.

You see: there are these characters that we’ve really grown to care about…

We see them in part as friends and family. Yes, we know they are fictional characters, but they and their relationships with other characters reflect some of the things that we either value in our own relationships, or wish that we had in our real lives.

When characters become “really good”, it usually means that they so reflect humanity that we invest fully in their fates. Be it triumphant or tragic, we want to witness what happens to them. We want to know their story, good or bad, with only one real requirement.

It has to ring true.

But the problem with these characters is that they are subject to the real lives of the actors who play them, and the writers and producers who ultimately decide their fate.

Season Three killed two prominent characters in Sybil Branson, and Matthew Crawley.

While there was great grief at Sybil’s death, it was completely believable. She died giving birth to her daughter. Then and now, it is a tragic reality that women die in childbirth. It happened this way mostly because the actress wanted to leave the show, but it was not obtrusive to the plot. It fit the story.

Matthew Crawley, on the other hand, died while “daydream driving” after the birth of his son, crashing and upending his car on top of him.

Any Downton watcher will tell you how much of a stretch this was on the believability scale: the event as it happened seems completely out of Matthew’s character, and the events prior to it…making “everything perfect” just before it all gets blown to hell…makes it completely contrived.

And it was contrived: the actor who played Matthew insisted on leaving the show.

I’m not without sympathy for those who are charged with telling the story. There were only so many options, and I am aware that the actor gave them little notice. But the primary thing I ask of story writers is that they are faithful to the story they tell. Yes: we all would have endless complained if they had replaced the actor with another. But we would have understood. Perhaps season four needed to begin with something like the final Frank Burns episode in M*A*S*H: a story writing him out, even as they did not have access to the actor. Yes, car accidents can happen to anyone, but the way it happened made us call foul.

The same thing happened to us in the latest episode shown here in the US, when the character of Anna was viciously raped.

I can handle shows going dark. I’ve long been an advocate for the dark season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a season many loyal viewers balked at for the downward spiral the whole cast took. It was tough to watch characters we cared about struggle so greatly, but I found it to be real. In life, bad things certainly do happen.

But is this plot concerning Anna believable story?

Strong women certainly do get raped: there is no doubt about that. The choice and circumstances of Anna’s attack, however, rings false for a few reasons.

Anna and Bates have had one thing after another happen to them to “destroy their happiness”. A marriage that can’t be dissolved (an idea now recycled for poor Edith), the marriage finally gets dissolved, they get married…only to have Bates convicted of murdering his ex-wife. And now that Bates is free from prison, the attack on Anna. It seems absurd that all of this would happened to them, especially concerning the circumstances of it all.

The rape was carried out when the entire household was upstairs listening to opera (which follows another often used movie device of contrasting the beautiful passionate music while horrible violence is happening at the same time elsewhere). It is also all but unheard of for truly EVERYBODY to be upstairs, but as Carson says grumpily, "times are changing” (convenient). Anna goes downstairs, not feeling well. The rapist sees this (himself, a visiting servant), followers her downstairs, tries to seduce her, and when she resists, bloodies Anna up and rapes her. He leaves her in the head servants' office, and goes back upstairs to his seat with others. There’s no way in the world that he could have possibly believed that he could get away with such a thing…Anna is, after all, the personal lady’s maid for the powerful Lady Mary. And yet, Anna is the one person who would have some reason to hide the fact that she’s been raped because her husband was once imprisoned for murder and would certainly “kill the rapist and then be hung” (something the rapist would not have known she would do).

Additionally, many people have voiced that the warning at the beginning of the episode was nowhere near strong enough: that viewers were not prepared to see something as disturbing as rape. I agree, but ironically, the warning brought on a hollow pit in my stomach. Somehow, I suspected a physical/sexual attack on Anna: not for any logical clues in the plot, but because I could see such a thing used by the writers for future conflict between Anna and Bates. I also think I guessed this in part because, in Matthew’s death, they had already shown a willingness to sacrifice the story to suit their purpose. I sort of EXPECTED a contrived plot device such as this, and that’s not good.

Many have labeled Downton Abbey a “PBS soap opera”. I’ve rejected that label in the past, but perhaps the writers are trying to prove me wrong. Unlike soap operas, Downton Abbey has multidimensional characters who have good and not so good qualities. Their relationships seem real, and reflect much of real life situations (just with awesome costumes, dialogue, and scenery). It’s fair to expect that some things will feel contrived…but at what point do things stop being believable?

Downton needs drama, but as the viewer, I’m no longer sure I believe the story. If plot continues to be sacrificed for the spectacle of the wreck, I will likely be looking away.

The Rev. Kurt C. Wiesner is rector of All Saints' Episcopal in Littleton NH, loves his role as a Spiritual Faculty member of CREDO, and writes a blog called "One Step Closer: Religion and Popular Culture". He's a big fan of U2, everything Joss Whedon, and all Judi Dench films and series (but maybe no longer Downton Abbey). He is the Wednesday news blogger for Episcopal Café.

Religious tattoos

by Maria L. Evans

"you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. Amen."--Holy Baptism, p. 308, Book of Common Prayer.

A recent article reminded me of how people don't always understand the most intimate of physical signs that accompany some of us on our faith journey--the religious tattoo. Although the article was written from a Roman Catholic point of view, I think there are parts of it that will resonate with people from a variety of denominations and faiths.

The religious tattoo is perhaps one of the oldest known expressions of faith, dating back as far as first and second century Egyptian Christians. Body art was already long a part of the Egyptian culture; it was a natural progression. It was also a natural progression of any pre-Christian culture that attached a status of protection to tattoos--the Celts, the Polynesians, and many pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas, just to name a few. I would venture to guess that the Christian cross is one of the most popular tattoos in America, if not the most popular one.

Yet large tattoos, even religious themed ones, at the very least, are often given a diffident sniff in polite society, and even called an abomination in others. Their owners, at times are accused of everything from vanity for "wearing one's faith in a showy way," to devil-worship. I know personally, people often find mine puzzling at the least, because I'm a bit older than that 18-to-40 age group where the latest studies show roughly a third of them have at least one tattoo.

But what the article points out is a very important part of many faith journeys--many times there is a story behind that tattoo--a deep and intimate story--of hardship, thanksgiving, faith, or answered prayer. Even the ones that were drunken mistakes have a story and a new meaning may evolve over time. Perhaps even a story of transformation is in there, when one of those mistakes is re-configured as a new tattoo by a skilled body artist.

I know with my own tattoos, I was searching for exactly what we proclaim when a new baptismal candidate is sealed with holy oil and the sign of the Cross--a way that every time I saw it, I knew in my heart of hearts I truly was marked as Christ's own. I didn't always believe that. I still have some days where I lose sight of that. But the mirror doesn't lie. My tattoos will never "officially" qualify as sacraments in our canons, but at a very personal level, they will always be for me a visible and outward sign of an inward spiritual grace.

How might Christ be calling us to the margins in the inked margin of someone else's tattoo? How do we proclaim the Good News in Christ with our own tattoos?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Beer to Attract Church Members? No.
To Celebrate God's Grace? Yes.

by Win Bassett

NPR published a story this morning with the headline, "To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer, and the article's accompanying audio is available on Weekend Edition Sunday. The writer profiles a few churches across the United States who have begun using craft beer to counter a decline in church membership:

A guy sits at the bar nursing a beer, he overhears the Gospel of Luke, he sees people line up to take bread and wine, he gets curious. Phil Heinze says pub church has now become an official — if edgy — Lutheran mission.
"I think the institutional church now is getting onboard," says Heinze, "because there's a lot of anxiety frankly about the church's decline and they're trying to think outside of that institutional box."

One of my Twitter followers remarked that she thought the headline misled readers. "The story is more re: being able to come as you are," she wrote. Admittedly, one of the church leaders questioned in the article said, "I'm not interested, frankly, in making more church members.... I'm interested in having people have significant relationships around Jesus. And if it turns out to be craft beer, fine." The general angle of this particular report, however, does focus on recruitment:
The Christian Church Disciples of Christ — a small mainline Protestant denomination — has experienced a steep drop in membership in recent decades. Beer & Hymns is one attempt to attract new people, in this hip, beer-loving city, while keeping a safe distance away from stained-glass windows.

Combining beer and religion — and more specifically, Christianity — is nothing new. Catholic dioceses have used "Theology on Tap" programs for more than thirty years, and I recently wrote about Grace Episcopal Church in Massies Mill, Va., and The Graceful Brewers Guild. Church leadership, in these cases, didn't implement beer programs to bump declining church membership. "We're enjoying the fellowship involved with creating an ale that can be enjoyed at special occasions at our parish," The Rev. Marion Kanour, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, said. In other words, these churches and others use community-building powers of beer to facilitate fellowship around God and not simply to put more butts in pews.

Introducing alcohol, or anything for that matter (food, travel excursions, book clubs, etc.), merely to increase church membership runs the risk of using idolatry to bring people to God. Paul said in his speech to the Athenians,

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For "In him we live and move and have our being"; as even some of your own poets have said, "For we too are his offspring." Acts 17:24-28, NRSV.

God doesn't live in beer made by human hands. God lives in the hands themselves ("For 'In him we live and move and have our being'.") Perhaps the churches mentioned in the NPR piece, to bring more people to God, should encourage wanderers to "search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him" instead of filling the groping hands with pint glasses. "Indeed he is not far from each one of us," and once we find him, then we may rejoice with the fruit of our neighbors' labors--not the other way around.

Win Bassett is from southwestern Virginia and is a seminarian at Yale Divinity School. Follow him on Twitter: @winbassett.

Across the Church, From Ghost to Ghost

by Eric Bonetti

Every evening, as night falls and darkness spreads its long, icy fingers across the land, silence descends like a pall upon the cathedrals, churches and graveyards of The Episcopal Church. Buildings that, only a few hours earlier, were bustling and full and life, stand empty in the dark.

Or do they?

Some say that our majestic houses of worship welcome not just the living, but the souls of the dead as well.

Why would the dead return? No one knows. Some say they seek to visit those they love. Others believe it is to attend to unfinished business, to right a wrong, or to seek solace among the living. Others say it is to check on the welfare of the church they loved deeply in life, and continue to love, even in death. Some even think that wraiths visit the church to express their dislike of changes in the church--an explanation that many will find all too plausible!

Whatever the reason, tales of hauntings abound in The Episcopal Church. Predictably enough, many of these tales come from the east coast, where the church dates back hundreds of years. At the same time, tales of ghostly activity exist all across the church, at churches both great and small, old and new, rural and urban.

Read on, and enjoy a brief, pre-Halloween visit with just a few of the ghosts of The Episcopal Church.

St. Mary's-in-Tuxedo, Tuxedo, NY

A gloriously beautiful church, one of the hallways in the building has been the source of reported ghostly sightings since at least the 1940's. Witnesses report that the phantom is that of a clergy person associated with the parish.

Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, NY

Home to breathtaking beautiful stained glass windows, the church is said to be the scene of numerous visits from the beyond, including shadows near the altar; the benign specter of an elderly and loving parishioner, now long gone; and even an irritated wraith, reportedly angry about changes to the building.

St. Paul's Chapel, New York, NY

Given its proximity to Broadway and the theater's long association with the supernatural, it is no surprise that the cemetery is said to be haunted by the headless ghost of an actor, who donated his head to science. Today, he is thought to wander the earth, seeking to have his skull reunited with his other earthly remains.

St. Andrew's, Staten Island, NY

The scene of a recent paranormal investigation, visitors are reported to have experienced loud, unexplained noises in the middle of the night, as well as heavy chimes that rang with no visible cause.

St. Stephens, Mullica Hill, NJ

Located in one of the most historic areas of New Jersey, the second floor is a favorite stop for those hoping to photograph unexplained activity, including eerie lights that are said to represent the souls of the departed.

Christ Church, Alexandria, VA

This beautiful church, where notables have worshipped including George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and Winston Churchill, is home to a cemetery bearing some of the oldest legible headstones in the area. Legends tell of ghostly activity in cemetery, including a recent instance of a ghostly face unexpectedly appearing in a photograph taken at the gate to the cemetery.

St. John's, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC

The so-called "church of the presidents," is home to a bell cast by the legendary Paul Revere, as well as a pew that, by tradition, is reserved for the president of the United States.

Over the years, many have reported that, when the bell tolls for the death of someone famous, six ghostly male apparitions appear briefly in the president's pew at midnight, only to quickly vanish.

Grace Episcopal Church, Alexandria, VA

This lovely stone church, built in an English country style (and home parish of this author) is said to be haunted by the apparition of a man in robes, seen in the hallway near the church library. Additionally, there are reports of loud footsteps in the third floor hallway late at night, after the building is secured. Upon investigation, no reasonable explanation for the heavy footfalls is ever found.

Aquia Episcopal Church, Stafford, VA

This church, which predates the civil war, is said to be haunted by the specter of a soldier killed during the war, with activity focused on the church tower. Others report that ghostly activity relates to a young woman who was murdered on the property. In any case, tales of unearthly lights and sounds in the church date back many years.

St. George's Church, Fredericksburg, VA

Another church with roots deep in history, St. George's is said to be visited by the ghost of a woman in white, who appears in the second-floor gallery. Indeed, some claim to have photographed this shadowy figure!

Old Trinity Episcopal, Mason, TN

This small, clapboard church, scene of vandalism in recent years, is said to be haunted by the souls of those whose final resting places have been disturbed. Numerous reports exist of eerie sights and sounds in the cemetery, as well as unexplained phenomena relating to a statue of the Virgin Mary located near the church.

St. Luke's, Cleveland, TN

Famous among local residents, the Craigmiles family mausoleum, located in the church cemetery, built of white marble, is reportedly streaked with red, reflecting various tragedies the family has suffered over the years. No explanation for these red streaks, or their return following various attempts to remove the ghastly markings, has ever be given.

St. Paul's, Key West, FL

Tales abound of ghostly presences in the church's graveyard, including an apparition dressed in clothes of many, many years ago. Visitors also report seeing the ghost of a long-dead sea captain, as well as those of several children. Recent visits also have resulted in unexplained phenomena in photographs taken at the site, including ghostly balls of light that manifest at night.

Chapel of the Cross, Mannsdale, MS

This beautiful gothic church, built around 1850, is said to be haunted by not one, but two, ghosts. One is believed to be the wraith of a governess who died years ago in a house fire; the other is said to be the inconsolable phantom of a young lady whose fiancee was killed in a duel and buried at the church.

St. Paul's, Leavenworth, KS

The first Episcopal church in the area,some report hearing other-worldly music coming from the church late at night, long after the church is empty.

Nashotah House, Nashotah, WI

Established in 1842, this seminary is said to be haunted by various phantoms, including a "black monk," thought to be the ghost of a priest who committed suicide on the grounds, and who now walks the grounds late at night.

St. Andrews, Nogales, AZ

Rumored to be built on the site of a Native American burial ground, this contemporary church building is said to be haunted, indeed. Tales abound of candles that light themselves, unexplained footprints in the building, and even a full apparition of a Native American, said to walk among the pews.

St. Mark's, Cheyenne, WY

Hauntings here are said to center on the bell tower, which allegedly has been the scene of mysterious noises including banging sounds and muffled voices. Legend has it that the phenomena are caused by the death of a stone mason, who fell to his death during construction.

Trinity Russian Hill, San Francisco, CA

Said to be visited by an ethereal figure in grey, the church also is said to be the site of inexplicable cold spots and mysterious noises.

Christ Church, Portola Valley, CA

The road near the church is said to be haunted by a ghost that appears in front of startled drivers, only to vanish without a trace. Tales of this haunting are of relatively recent origin.

Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Of course, no collection of ghostly tales would be complete without reference to the glorious Washington National Cathedral. Towering over the nation's capitol, the cathedral is one of the largest in the world, and home to not just scores of creepy gargoyles and a gloomy crypt, but supposedly the ghosts of both a president and an church employee as well.

Visitors report that Woodrow Wilson, the only US president interred at the Cathedral, rises at night to walk the cold marble floors, the cane he used in life making a gentle tapping sound as walks the deserted building.

Even more chilling is the library building, the site of a 1946 murder. While no reports of an apparition exist, it is said that some sense a restless soul lingering near the basement site of the homicide. Feelings of unease, as well as a sense of being watched by an unseen force, are thought to emanate from the shadowy corners of the basement.

Happy Halloween!

(editor's note - add your stories in the comments)

Eric Bonetti is a nonprofit professional in Northern Virginia with experience in change management and strategic planning. He is an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA.

Raising the bar on pub theology

by Sam Laurent

Talking about church stuff in a bar! Can you believe it? Such is the energy behind innumerable articles and blog posts about pub theology, theology on tap (that one's trademarked, so proceed with that awareness), or any other name for getting together in a bar to talk about church stuff. I've been a leader for one such program, which we call Indulgences, for two and a half years now, with some sessions really taking off into something beautiful, some not so much, and a good amount of trial and error in between. This model has been around long enough that I don't think it counts as edgy or innovative anymore, and my main point here is that it never was terribly edgy or innovative, and edginess and innovation really have nothing to do with good pub theologizing, anyway. Those values, in and of themselves, offer little for the folks who come out for a pint and some discussion, and also don't give much to the life of the church, other than maybe some hypothetical bragging rights.

Right at the top, let me be clear that doing pub theology is terrific, and I don't want to discourage it at all. Quite to the contrary, I think it can be a vital part of how we engage our faith and our negotiation of the complex and mysterious waters of Christianity. Talk about church stuff in a bar! Do it!

But don't do it to make your church look cool. If that's the motivation or expectation, you can expect the engagement with it to go no deeper than the superficial trappings of the event. And it will quickly grow stale. If the novelty of being at a “church thing” in a bar (or “beer church” as one friend calls it) is the primary energy you bring to the event, then you may find yourself casting seeds on rocky soil.

I like to think of our Indulgences sessions as an intentional reclamation of the pub atmosphere as a place to discuss theology. My inspiration for this comes from the beers of England, many of which have rather low alcohol contents, and are termed “session ales.” They're meant for folks who gather at the pub and talk for hours, so they can drink for a while with friends and still possess their faculties. So the story goes, anyway. So, my love for English bitters (on cask!) has an ideological facet to it.

The idea of a pub as a place to gather, enjoy company, and to engage in something more than just small talk has a tremendous appeal, and can be a refreshing thing for churches, where cultures of clericalism or a simple forgetfulness of the fact that church teachings arise from living discussions can stifle difference and conversation. Rocky soil, you see. Pub theology can do some tilling. The informality of the setting, the ritual of having a pint (or whatever...), and the act of gathering around a table all help open up a space for discussion, and indeed it is the discussion that is rewarding.

With this aim at a pub discussion, a few guidelines come into view.

First, it must always be a discussion. Lectures and classes are suited to other venues, but to me, the point of doing theology in a bar is to open up a conversation. At the Advocate, we try to choose topics that are live issues within the church and in the wider world, and we don't shy away from debating. After all, the tradition of debating in bars is time-honored. So folks who lead these sessions need to shift out of traditional Christian education mode, and let things be looser. I make handouts for our sessions, with a few passages of scripture or theology which can serve as grounding points for our discussion, and I generally open things up with a quick introduction of the topic, but that's the extent to which I intentionally plan out the conversation. As a leader, I certainly try to facilitate deep discussion, but I don't need to control what that discussion sounds like.

A lot of this, especially for folks accustomed to a more traditional role of teacher or instructor, is a matter taking on the discipline of letting it be a pub conversation. Unlike some other program offerings, pub theologizing will often actively resist any attempt to end up with a designated belief or doctrine being agreed upon. Rather than insisting on consensus, we aim to get ideas out on the table that we can use in our thinking, praying, and living, to test-drive those ideas and see how they work. We often tackle a genuinely big question and end up in a genuinely ambivalent space at the end of the session. Those have been my favorite sessions.

So go talk about church stuff in a bar. It's a good thing to do, and it's a lot of fun. But don't think of the bar as just a change of venue. It changes the ethos, shifts the tone of the conversation, and inherently decentralizes it, which is to be commended, I think. Moreover, by providing a less formal place, where people don't feel the eyes of church hierarchy holding their every statement up to the yardstick of orthodoxy, pub theology reveals levels of honesty and frankness that often aren't ventured on Sundays. And that is very good. We say that all opinions are welcome, and I feel obligated to honor that, as a matter of hospitality and honesty. If we aren't debating, if we aren't questioning deeply and courageously, if we aren't saying “oh, that's a really great way to think about it”... if we aren't really digging into some aspect of our life with God, then I think we're missing the opportunity that pub theology programs provide us. Frank and thoughtful discussion is a beautiful and engaging thing.

So I'll close by admitting that I often head into our Indulgences sessions with a bit of nervousness, because I don't know what folks will say. As a leader at these gatherings, I'm supposed to be able to help facilitate a good conversation, to ask provocative questions, and to offer something that would seem to justify my years of graduate work. So the necessarily open-ended structure of our sessions is not the most calming, ahead of time. But it really pays off every time someone offers an honest and insightful thought that energizes the whole conversation, and sends us into a space that none of us could have outlined on our own. It's easy to make jokes about doing theology in a bar, and indeed the title of those programs rightfully ought to indulge a little cheesy humor, but when the Holy Spirit gets some traction in our conversations, I'm always glad I didn't try to lecture or indoctrinate. Not in a pub.

Sam Laurent Ph.D. is the resident theologian at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC and director of the Center for Theological Engagement

Is a Facebook site an alternative to a gravesite?

by Ann Fontaine

553283_10151281039199193_998417139_n.jpgRecently this image has been traveling around Facebook. It caused me to wonder about “friends” who have died and with whom I am still “friends.” I wonder how people feel about continuing Facebook friendships with people who can no longer post their thoughts. At first I would “unsubscribe” to people when they died. Now I leave them in place.

The other day a birthday of a friend, who has died, came up in my feed and I visited her page. It was surprising to see how many were wishing her Happy Birthday and hoping she was in a better place – happy and healthy. There were notes from during the year from friends, grandchildren, and adult children and others expressing the sadness of the loss, joy at the time spent together.

Some of were discussing this phenomena and I asked what people thought: comforting or creepy?

Elizabeth Kaeton commented, “I actually take comfort in seeing their names when I'm looking for someone else. And, I confess, I visit the FB pages of people who have died; sort of in the same way I visit gravestones at cemeteries and niches at columbaria. I've thought of "unfriending" but as long as the families/friends of the deceased keep up their page, I'll visit.”

Maria Evans, an essayist for Speaking to the Soul and Daily Episcopalian wondered, “Well, ya know, I visit the cemetery now and then and chat with my dearly departed relatives. Maybe we need a Facebook cemetery.”

Elizabeth Colette Melillo reflected, “Normally I would joke about this, but it has saddened me, during the past year, when people who had recently died (without my knowing this) were flagged in birthday reminders and the like. I was sorry that I posted greetings thinking they were alive. I saw an extremely sad question in the Facebook FAQ - 'my daughter committed suicide - how do I remove her account?"

Pamela Kandt thinks it is a nice reminder of people gone from our lives, “I actually love seeing their names pop up. We lose so many people in this world and it's good to have reminders of people we have cared about.”

John Deuel speaks from personal experience of family Facebook sites, “They seem to have evolved into virtual gravesites, where friends and family visit occasionally and leave verbal flowers, or just spend a few minutes reliving special moments through photos that are still there. I think it's developing a place in our lives now and social networks should probably make a few minor changes to accommodate this evolution."

Linda MacMillan writes, "If I hadn't experienced it, I might think it was creepy, but I like seeing the name of someone pop up. It's as if they are still here. It gives pixels to the notion that as long as we remember someone, they are not really gone. I don't seek out their pages, but I enjoy having a reminder that they were here and that in some way they still are."

What do you think? Comforting or creepy?

The Rev. Ann Fontaine is serving as an interim priest for Grace Episcopal Church in Astoria, Oregon. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible and keeps the blog what the tide brings in.

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On the border of the profane

By Amber Belldene

My favorite book about being a priest is Bill Countryman’s book, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. Bill says nearly every human being practices priesthood one time or another, when he or she stands in a liminal space between the transcendent and our mundane, gritty reality, and helps others pass between. Doctors, teachers, athletes, parents, artists—they are all priests. But, a person with a priestly vocation is called to do this liminal ministry all the time.

There are bizarre and awkward moments of ordained priesthood—when the pita bread that shows up at the altar is onion flavored, or when kids ask a shocking question at youth group. I find these moments some of the holiest, because they break open our routines and let the Spirit in. Thanks to Bill Countryman, on those occasions I like to picture myself straddling the fault line between heaven and earth, the holy and the profane.

Profane really just means “not holy,” so it’s funny that it has come to be associated with four-letter words. The unconsecrated parts of our lives aren’t obscene, but we tend to see them standing in contrast to the holy parts. Ordained people know this well, because of how people react when a person encounters something unexpected, if profoundly normal, about us.

As a priest by day and a romance novelist by night, I occasionally write four letter words, and scenes of people enacting them. It titillates some folks to hear of this avocation, but I didn’t follow my muse to titillate. I followed her because she wouldn’t leave me alone—compelling me to consume, analyze and eventually pen romance novels. Artists talk about muses, but we Christians know the true source of inspiration is Divine. And the ever-provocative Spirit kept leading me to the border between holy and profane and asking me to look at it very closely, and play hopscotch back and forth ¬¬¬across it.

As the English-speaking world learned with Fifty Shades of Grey, I am not the only woman interested in fiction that explores gender, explicit sexuality, and above all else, love. If you don’t know what I am talking about, please find out. (Let me be clear, I’m not recommending you read this book, simply that you know about it.) We can dismiss it as mommy porn, or we can ask ourselves what people are finding in a book like that and what it tells us about people’s longings (especially its huge audience of primarily young and middle aged mothers—ahem, that’s one of our mission fields). Both romantic and sexual love are Biblical metaphors for God’s love of humanity, and I wholeheartedly believe the popular passion for romance is about our human longing for God. People want love, and we Episcopalians have something radical to say about it.

As a church, we are struggling to speak about who we are and what we have to offer that other denominations don’t. I grew up in a charismatic Episcopal parish, and since then have attended every type on the spectrum. What we have in common, from our liturgies of blessing and marriage to our Eucharistic theology, is that we embrace incarnation and we reject the notion that our bodies and desires are bad. That’s not some slippery slope where we begin to think anything goes. It’s the Gospel. God became one of us, and God made us for love, of both the human and the divine varieties.

What does profane evangelism look like? For me, it involves speaking about the spiritual and liminal aspects of things like love, sex, and romance novels. Writing genre fiction is my guerrilla theological formation. I hope my novels are invitations to a spiritual and mystical worldview that may have something to do with God. But to many (or most) readers, they probably just seem like one more variation on the vampire tale.

If we’re right that people are hungry for God, and just don't know enough about our church to find us, perhaps we need to speak more about where and how God is in the profane parts of our lives. Because, the truth is, the liminal space between heaven and earth is just as likely to open up for us in the bedroom as it as around the altar, and we need to be less afraid to talk about that. Perhaps if we did, people might know they could bring their whole selves, longings and all, to the Episcopal Church, and find love.

Amber Belldene is the pen name of an Episcopal priest. Her debut novel Blood Vine will be released in December from Omnific Publishing.


by Maria Evans

"In this Easter season I would encourage you to look at where you are finding new life and resurrection, where life abundant and love incarnate are springing up in your lives and the lives of your communities. There is indeed greenness, whatever the season."
--from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's 2012 Easter Message

You know, it's amazing what a 600 million dollar jackpot and a dollar can do.

Let me be clear that generally speaking, I am not hot on gambling. I think it's one of those things in this world that has an adrenalin potential for many people, and often that means an addiction potential. But I think in and of itself, there's nothing wrong with the occasional golf bet, or the March Madness pool in the office, or tossing a buck in now and then when the lottery jackpot gets up there in that "crazy high" range.

When a recent multi-state lottery topped 600 million dollars, I coughed up a buck like everyone else in my office, simply to join in the fun. But what I found amazing was that for the whole day, even though we had the usual stresses in the office and the usual hassles about Fridays (namely, everyone wants their surgical pathology reports before the weekend so they don't have to make their patients wait over the weekend for results,) all of us were more cheerful than usual. Many people who walked in the office started their conversation with "Got your ticket yet?" I lost count of the number of times people fantasized out loud about what they would do with all that money.

What struck me was that every person I met that day, when they related their fantasies, included at least one very philanthropic and generous action. Oh, sure--there were also the typical answers about not ever going to work again, telling off the boss, etc., but the one that made people's eyes light up was envisioning the grand and magnanimous things they'd do. They'd put the kids/grandkids/nieces/nephews through college. They'd start funds to help people get microloans. They'd help out the poor, the homeless, the unemployed in a variety of real ways, not just throw money at it. They'd pay off the debts of loved ones in addition to themselves. They'd give big money to church, to their favorite charity, or make grand anonymous gifts of cash/cars/houses to people who they knew were struggling.

In short, everyone saw themselves in that situation of being so filled with abundance that they could afford to give it away with very little worry about themselves and their own security. Imagining this fantasy abundance made people more cheerful, more tolerant, and more detached from the need for a direct personal emotional payoff from other people. The knowledge of their security in abundance was enough.

The other interesting thing is that no one saw anyone else's fantasies as competing with their own. Because everyone who had bought a ticket had the same ridiculously long odds as anyone else, there was abundant room to dream and let all the dreams sit among each other, with no pressure to think someone else's dream was a threat to one's own dream.

It got me to wondering. What would life on this planet be like if everyone could feel that abundance-filled on a regular basis? How would it change what we chose to give, when it came to our time, our money, our emotional energy, and our temper?

How would each of us be transformed if each of us could really understand God's grace in the way we understand the value of a winning lottery ticket? What would happen to the state of the world if we could accept each others' hopes and dreams in our faith and worship communities with the same level of acceptance a community created out of a buck, six random numbers and a fantasy can create?

We have completed our forty days in the desert of Lent--forty days where we reached inside of ourselves and placed names on the pangs of longing within us, and heard the the rumblings of our spiritual hunger. Now we are basking in the fifty days of Easter. In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, we moved from the brown, muddy season, into an explosion of color, framed by green grass that often sprang up overnight. What do we now see in the green patches of our souls we never saw before? Where are the dormant seeds that slumber inside of us? How do we learn to trust that it will abundantly and lavishly bear fruit, just as surely as the green grass returns every spring, if only we make the effort to tend it?

Perhaps it starts with seeing those green spaces in ourselves and within our communities of faith, and committing to tend those green spaces. At any rate, we have all of what remains of the fifty days of Easter to find out.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Stargate SG-1, Orthodoxy, and Imagination

By Benedict Varnum

I recently (last night!) finished a lengthy project of mine, and finished watching Stargate SG-1 on DVD, putting me several years behind those who followed it on-air. For those who don't know, the show had a mixture of religious themes, mythology, romance, humor, and the US Air Force going into space by walking through wormholes in the Stargate. But this morning, walking to work (following my own busgate trip), I found myself thinking back over my time watching it, and while I found it a fun romp, I realized that I disagree with (at least) one of the basic assumptions of the show's fantasy.

Now, good sci-fi or fantasy will mix the real world with some elements that aren't in the real world. When it's done well, this mixture affects us somehow. It may hold up a mirror to our current lifestyle and practice (I was struck recently by the "meat-cloning vats" used to sustain an Earth population in the billions in Peter Hamilton's Nights' Dawn trilogy; certainly a reflection on our contemporary factory farming, writ larger).

Or it may offer us an escapist hope to wonder at (I think of Picard's speech to the de-cryogenized business tycoon in Star Trek's "The Neutral Zone" episode, about how in the future, we've evolved beyond the need for money, and everyone's task in life is to improve herself. The Star Trek franchise makes lighter of this in Star Trek IV, against the backdrop of feminism in the 1980s, when Kirk's marine biologist date is forced to pay for their meal, saying something like "I suppose you don't have money in the 24th century?" "We don't!").

Or you can get worlds as complex as the real one, which serve as soothing reminders that we can always grow and reinvent ourselves, simply by displaying character after character developed in a thoughtful way that takes advantage of the nuances of their fantastic otherworld (Han Solo's career commitment to the ship he loves flies him not only across the galaxy, but from seedy cantinas to medal ceremonies before a hopeful new republic, and even lets him grow large enough that he can hand the steering wheel back to ol' Lando, freeing his heart and arms to hold onto Leia, non?).

So what's my problem with SG-1? On the one hand, nothing. They commit early and hard to holding the characters together through a mix of romance, duty, and humor (often through the characters annoying each other). They paint these everyday lives against the epic backdrop of a galaxy constantly on the brink of war or the destruction of all life. They hold up over and over again the value of a single person, both by the way in which any character's actions might be the crucial difference between not just life and death, but the destruction of earth, or even the universe, and not. They firm that up by standing several episodes on the principle "We don't leave our people behind," even when it doesn't make military sense to stage a rescue. Again, individuals make the difference, and it's fun for us to watch the bonds between the characters grow stronger.

So what's NOT to like? Well, for one thing, you've got to table any kind of cultural humility you have: the series stands pretty firmly on the assertion that whoever this team goes out and meets, whether they're far more or far less technologically advanced than we are, they've always got a thing or two to learn from the good ol' US of A. Most of the other cultures are either childlike and naive or warlike and arrogant. Very few cultures are ethical and emotional peers for the Stargate team, and in most of them, that budding kinship is embodied in one or two individuals, who are usually a minority voice in the face of an overbearing dictatorship. Humility is not a strong suit for the human race in this series . . . to the point that eventually even the Goa'uld, who have spent most of the show impersonating Egyptian gods, have to point it out. There are justice things to say about the show's target demographics, its treatment of women and minorities (did all those early season Jaffa slaves HAVE to be black?), etc. It does get better as the show goes on.

But the gift of insight that I got out of reflecting on the show this morning is this: many of the show's episodes, especially near the beginning and the end, operate by suggesting that every earth mythology is nearly-literally true, and based on powerful alien technologies being misinterpreted as magic. For example, Merlin was actually an ascended being who returned to this plane of existence to battle the meddling of other ascended beings, who are trying to kill anyone who won't worship them. The magic? That was his technology, protecting him as he attempted to build an anti-demon superweapon.

Many of the gods of ancient cultures show up: Celt, Chinese, Egyptian, Sumerian. All the stories? Turns out they're true accounts. (The exception is that the show is reluctant to touch Christianity; they have one of the Goa'uld impersonate Satan, but won't go so far as to say the God of the Abrahamic faiths was any kind of alien, though they toe the line in the last few seasons with a virgin birth).

The problem I have with this is in its "theological anthropology" (which may match up well with some of my problems above with their cultural anthropology). Theological anthropology has to do with what the fundamental or metaphysical essence of human beings is. What is a human being? The image of God? A fallen creation? A little more than beasts, though less than angels?

Part of the answer in Stargate is that human beings are on the way to ascension (with a quick stopover en route as the "Fifth Race" in a sort of elite, enlightened galaxy-trotter club). But the other major part is that human imagination is something that obscures facts into stories, taking us further from the truth, rather than inviting us to wonder our way towards it. The ancient stories and relics the team encounters are usually clues, pointing to new technologies or hidden alien friends, but the process of interpreting them is about recovering the factual history, dispelling the myth.

Intriguingly, when the ascended beings are shown in a few episodes, they're either comically distracted from the pragmatic and real, or else sitting in a mock-up of an eternal diner, relatively uninterested in their surroundings, except to read the news about the physical universe. So ascension is immortality, but without imagination, novelty, or wonder. Like the ancient Greek gods, these ascended beings are mostly defined by when and how they choose to interfere with the mortal realm.

The more I thought about how Stargate treats our imagination, the more I thought about what we do to our own stories and history. In Christianity, the word "orthodoxy" is often raised. The force of deploying this term is usually a conserving one, suggesting that somehow, someone has wandered too far afield to be part of the conversation, the community, any longer. The assumption in orthodoxy is that truth used to be much clearer, and that part of our task is to conserve it, guard it, return to it. The word "innovation" gets the opposite emotional and moral force from the way it's used in, say, scientific learning (indeed, there's no doubt much to say about the intersections of science, atheism, religious scientists, orthodoxy, the Christian tradition(s), and the history of "the West").

Innovations, orthodoxy would usually claim, are things that obscure the truth further. They're the cloudings of the story that Stargate holds our imagination to be serving up over the course of centuries, and the project of Christianity is in some way to push them aside and get back to the "original" (and therefore true) Christianity.

The problem, as I see it? First, you don't have to read much of the Bible to realize that the early Christians had a strong history of misunderstanding Jesus (Gospel of Mark, anyone?), disagreeing with one another (Council at Jerusalem, the discrepancies between Paul's self-account and those in Acts), and blending Christianity with the cultures of their day. The more I read and re-read scripture, the more clear I am that becoming as close to Peter (who, after all, Jesus called Satan) isn't the fullness of life and relationship to God, Christ, self and others that I'm called to.

And there's the further layer that Jesus didn't provide a systematic manual of what the truth is. Rather, he told parables: stories that pointed people back to their own lived experience. Now, on a certain literal level, maybe that means that the only way to know God is to become a farmer, a landowner, a maiden waiting for the bridgegroom to arrive and a traveler passing Samaritans. But surely the message is richer than that? Surely this method demonstrates in some way that our lives are holy and bring us to the holy?

Thinking that way requires that we use our imagination, not because we, like the oppressed peoples of Stargate's past, can't understand the higher technology or God-power that we're witnessing, but because imagination lets us wonder at where we are already seeing the holiness of our selves and one another.

Orthodoxy's Greek roots translate to "right opinion," which has nothing intrinsically historical or conservative about it. In fact, one might well argue that to make sure your opinion is right, you need to interrogate what came before -- not throw it out haphazardly, but certainly really engage it. Imagination is surely part of how we find new possibilities that can lead us to greater truth or help us see around the incomplete truths (we ARE human, after all) that those before us have handed down.

No offense, SG-1 writing team; I did enjoy your series.

Benedict Varnum is a postulant for holy orders in the priesthood, and is currently serving as a chaplain for an intensive care unit and other areas in a Chicago hospital. He holds a Master's of Divinity from the University of Chicago, and keeps an occasional blog at http://rootweaving.wordpress.com

The dark and light sides of social networking

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Do you Facebook?

The question comes up often in conversation these days, as a practical matter (“Can I keep in touch with you through Facebook?”) or a more significant marker of where people stand on the distinctly un-private world of social networking. Rutgers student Tyler Clementi posted his intention to jump off the GW Bridge on Facebook after a roommate filmed him in a romantic encounter with another man and publicized the video via Twitter. The role of social networking—its ability to erode privacy and magnify teenage prank-pulling and name-calling into something much more insidious—has been one of the hot news topics in the weeks following this tragedy. One of my fellow bloggers on Christianity Today’s women’s blog went so far as to hold Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg partly responsible for Clementi’s suicide.

Do I Facebook?

I do, but not without some trepidation. Many of us educated, busy working moms and dads seem slightly embarrassed by our immersion in the Facebook culture. We wonder if we’ve lost all sense of propriety, balance, and privacy. When I go a day or two without checking Facebook (a rare event), I feel oddly proud, like I do when I forego dessert or turn the TV off before the fourth episode in a Law and Order marathon. I feel like I’ve avoided something unhealthy, a bad habit that feeds my more unpleasant traits—narcissism, nosiness, self-righteousness.

But I go back anyway, for many small reasons (promoting my writing, keeping up with school and community news, mindless distraction when my head aches from an intense bout of writing) and one big reason. Facebook has been a rich and rewarding tool for staying connected (or becoming reconnected) with people whose presence in my life is a gift. Those who don’t understand the appeal of Facebook say, “If I wanted to keep in touch with people I knew 20 years ago, I would have.” But would they? Do they?

Before Facebook, I had superficial relationships with a number of people whose friendships had been central earlier in my life—college roommates and friends, coworkers from my early jobs, members of a young married couples’ group at the church I attended in my 20s. I generally knew what they were up to—where they were working, the names and ages of their kids—but that was it. By reconnecting with many of these friends via Facebook, I now know much more about them, and vice versa. Status updates describing daily events—good, bad, and run-of-the-mill—give us a real sense of what goes on day by day in each others’ homes, workplaces, and families. Facebook has transformed a handful of relationships from “annual Christmas card” level to a more significant level of regular give-and-take.

Because I post links to all my blog posts on Facebook, I have online conversations with old friends about the complex topics I write on—parenthood, disability, reproductive technology, genetics, chronic pain. When far-away friends are coping with illness, difficult parenting moments, or employment troubles, I know about it and can offer good wishes, advice, commiseration, and/or prayers. Facebook reconnected me with the friend, now an Episcopal priest, who introduced me to The Daily Episcopalian. When he posted on Facebook that his daughter broke her leg last year, I could send him all of the “toddler in a cast” advice I have from my family’s extensive experience with broken bones. Through Facebook, I have listened to one friend’s radio show in Atlanta, watched videos of commercials and movie trailers featuring my actress friend, and perused photos of teenagers whom I once held as newborns.

Facebook’s value for reigniting and stoking the flames of old friendships became especially clear last week. I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer—a non-invasive, treatable kind. Despite the good prognosis, getting a cancer diagnosis at age 42, when I still have a preschooler at home and an impending book deadline, has been overwhelming. I struggled with how to tell friends near and far. No, I didn’t post the news on Facebook; too many Facebook “friends” are acquaintances or professional contacts who don’t need a blow-by-blow of my family’s medical crises. I told local friends either in person or via personal e-mails, and sent one group e-mail to far-away friends.

I received several phone calls and return messages, including one from a college roommate. Because we were both camped at our computers that morning, we ended up having a real-time e-mail conversation, sending new messages immediately in response to the ones we received. Her words of support and sorrow were so pitch-perfect that I ended up in tears, and told her so. In a return message, she told me she had news too. She is divorcing the man she married at a Christmastime wedding as I stood by their side in my bridesmaid dress. As we exchanged more words of grief (“Getting old sucks!”) and hope (“I have a wonderful family and will get through this”) I was aware that this online conversation—this real, gritty, meaningful conversation—would not be happening if she and I hadn’t reconnected through Facebook.

Online contact doesn’t replace personal contact. Our twentieth college reunion was coming up that weekend and my roommate would be there, while I would not. Our exchange made me even more hungry for an in-person visit than I was before. Social networking can enhance relationships, but it can’t replace the pleasure of talking with an old friend over dinner.

Social networking is one of many modern phenomena for which we don’t have clear guidance from Scripture. But there are hints of how we might approach it. We can follow Paul’s advice to think on those things that are life-giving and substantial over those that are distracting and destructive (e.g., Phillipians 4:8). The temptation to post clever status updates as a way to draw attention to my intelligence, wit, and the obvious rightness of my political persuasion, or to poke fun at opposing viewpoints, is real; I have succumbed to it now and then. Facebook certainly leads people to overshare, posting details of their lives that are either overly intimate or overly mundane. (My personal pet peeve: Parents who give play-by-play descriptions of a stomach virus making its way through their family. I have three kids. Trust me; I know how that goes.) Allowing Facebook to be a tool for relationship-building instead of a distraction requires humility, self-discernment, and discretion—qualities that are fostered by spiritual disciplines, honest relationships, self-examination, and confession, not by spending hours in online conversations consisting solely of clever one-liners.

Jesus lived in a way that celebrated intimate relationships but maintained boundaries between public and private. His life was structured around time spent in community—eating, working, preaching, and talking with his closest friends and strangers he met along the way. While Jesus challenged people, he didn’t air their dirty laundry. He spoke to the woman at the well about her adulterous liaisons; he didn’t climb on the nearest mountaintop to joke or preach at her expense. When he needed to, he separated himself from the crowd to give attention to his own spiritual and physical health. Jesus lived a very public life, but always with a focus on transforming relationships, not on trumpeting slick slogans selling his world view or exploiting the intimate details of his own or other people’s lives. I’m convinced that social networking can be a tool for intimacy as well as a temptation to use others for our own purposes.

One response to Tyler Clementi’s and other suicides is the “It Gets Better” video project, through which high-profile gay and lesbian men and women are telling teenagers struggling with their sexual identity to have hope. In the words of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, “God wants you to live in the light of God’s love and that light will take away all of this darkness…God loves you beyond your wildest imagining.”

Where is that hopeful message being shared, over and over and over, where it will surely be heard and embraced by a few despairing young men and women? On Facebook.

As with most human inventions, Facebook can foster intimacy or alienation, compassion or cruelty, substance or stupidity. The challenge is to use it for the former and avoid the temptation to participate in the latter. Facebook is no more to blame for Tyler Clementi’s suicide than the GW Bridge is. But we still have a responsibility to foster online communities marked by respect and appropriate boundaries, to use Facebook and other online tools as instruments of the light and not the dark.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Halloween and the masks of marriage

By Jean Fitzpatrick

The bride in a black cocktail dress with a black veil, carrying a flower bouquet adorned with miniature skulls. The groom in dark slacks, a pirate shirt and a top hat. Theme music from The Addams Family and The Munsters. Guests in costume. That's what Lisa Panensky and Jim Nieves had in mind when they booked their Halloween 2009 wedding at Westchester County's Old Dutch Church, built in 1697 and cited by Washington Irving in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." "Sleepy Hollow is the Halloween capital of the world," Nieves told the local Journal News explaining the couple's eagerness to be married there. "It's a landmark."

But the Rev. Jeff Gargano, pastor of the Old Dutch Church, nixed the plan. Gargano did offer to perform the ceremony outside in the church's historic "Burying Ground" (where, it is said, Irving's Headless Horseman tethers his horse nightly among the graves) but Nieves and Panensky declined. The wedding will reportedly take place -- Munsters music and all -- at their home in nearby Elmsford.

But the couple remained disappointed and puzzled by the minister's objections. (This is, after all, a church where Irving's ghoulish story is read aloud every year in the sanctuary.) "I don't know where he [Gargano] got this idea of burning crosses and killing babies," said the bride-to-be. I guess the pastor worried that darker forces might be involved in the Halloween wedding, he perhaps not subscribing fully to the engraving on the 1685 Old Dutch Church bell: "If God Be For Us Who Can Be Against Us?"

I'll admit that I'm partial to the long white wedding dress. But let me tell you what really upset me about this story, and it had nothing to do with the Addams Family. According to local news reports, the church had decided to waive its requirement that the couple participate in premarital counseling.

Now, that's scary.

You've heard the statistics. And with or without a pirate shirt and skulls, today's couples -- so often lacking role models for how to sustain a marriage through crises and everyday conflicts -- benefit enormously from the opportunity to reflect on their union and learn practical relationship skills. Sadly, many are so busy with work and wedding plans that they are hard pressed to find time to lay the groundwork for their relationship without encouragement. Even if they've had some previous therapy, as a couple prepares to walk down the aisle, it is essential that they talk together about the meaning of marriage, their own experiences of relationship, their struggles and hopes and dreams.

As for the Old Dutch Church couple, what a missed opportunity that was to make a real connection with them. I can't think of anything more telling than to ask an engaged couple about their masks and disguises. The costumes we choose, like Venetian carnival masks, conceal our identities...but they also reveal our deepest yearnings and fantasies. What do those skulls mean to Lisa, anyway? And why did Jim the groom decide to don a pirate hat? How do their two "characters" relate to each other? Sounds like the start of a rich and interesting conversation.

Through the years, those identities and yearnings often evolve. With each new life stage we deepen certain aspects of ourselves, discard others, discover new ones. I can't count how many times a husband or wife has sat in my office and told a partner, "I don't know you anymore," or "This is not the person I married." At times like these we feel as gloomy and bedraggled as trick-or-treaters on a rainy night. The beauty is that if you're willing to keep on stumbling along in the dark, sooner or later a door opens, you wind up at a house that's all lit up and warm, and a friendly face is inviting you in.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

What I found in "Lost"

By Peter M. Carey

I am a big fan of the television show “Lost.” If anyone doesn’t know by now, the set-up of this show is that a jet airplane crashes on an island in the middle of the Pacific, and when no rescue happens, the passengers have to contend with surviving on an island that is increasingly dangerous, and mysterious. What begins, perhaps, as a 21st century Gilligan’s Island, develops into a far more complex, interesting, and confounding story. I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on Lost, and was very interested that in a recent Speaking of Faith broadcast on NPR, Krista Tippett discussed “Lost” among other television shows as a “Parable of our Times.”

There is one aspect in particular which has been quite instructive to me as I continue my ministry in the church. I am interested in the ways that the creators of the series have chosen to reveal the back-story of each survivor on the Island. At first, the viewer is merely observant of behavior and dialogue of characters stuck on this island. However, as time goes by, like an onion being peeled, we are treated to see the stories of each of these characters. The viewer sees how one character ends up in the custody of a federal marshal, how another character becomes a priest without ordination, how another loses, and regains, use of his legs, and how another becomes a multi-millionaire. Several episodes are dedicated to tell the story of a different survivor, bouncing back and forth between the present and the past.

Of course, the world view, behavior, and attitudes of each of the characters is formed in part by their history. They are not blank slates. They each bring their history and their “baggage” with them. As the series has moved through the various seasons, the writers have also been courageous enough to allow the characters to be formed and changed by one another. The selfish thief begins to show leadership qualities, the recovering drug addict shows selfless love for his friends, and a diverse and eclectic group is transformed.

There are many ways to reflect upon this rich television show, but what I have found most helpful as I have entered into a new church community is the ways that each member of our church has many layers, and has a history that is fascinating to discover. We each have our stories which inform who we are both in ways we are proud and in ways that we are not. We all bring our gifts and our baggage with us wherever we go. Recognizing this fact can help inform the way that we treat each other and the way that we treat ourselves! Our history does not define us in total, but it certainly affects who we are.

When I have the patience to really sit and hear someone’s story I am treated to their own “backstory” which, of course, informs their world view, behavior and attitude. At times, I wish it were easier to learn these stories, but, of course it takes patience, presence and prayer to open up a space to listen. Of course, we each have our stories (including pastors and priests), and we are also formed, in part by our own history.

Like the individuals washed up on the beach, each of us enters a church for the first time as strangers, maybe sometimes feeling out of place in a strange land. At times, this feeling of being lost can also occur over and over after we experience tragedy, doubt, or grief. As people of faith, when we have the courage to listen, and to share, we are no longer “Lost” strangers on the beach, but persons in communion with God and one another. When the church is at its best, we allow people to share their stories, and we offer friendship and love both “because of” and “in spite of” our stories.

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is associate rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Virginia. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

Imagine no religion

By Donald Schell

Until yesterday morning, those billboard and bus signs had only annoyed me. I hated their cartoonish stained glass background and the smug large letters of the message. Of course, I also heard John Lennon’s line, ‘…and no religion too.’ Why’d Lennon have to add that? Then truthfully, somewhere in the back of my mind, I also thought, “Sorry, John, religion’s my work. You did your job; I’ll do mine,” but I hated that. I do not welcome my inner priest voice defending the religion business.

After seeing it so many times, this time I dropped my protest and simply read the “Freedom From Religion” ad as an invitation and got to work imagining.

Okay. ‘Imagine no religion.’ So, no Shakespeare. Ouch.

Biking through the traffic, I thought of Karl Barth and Rene Girard. Both argue that what we practice is no religion at all because Jesus refuses to tell us how to get our way with God and won’t bind us into stultifying groupthink. Good thoughts, but I was co-opting the billboard message. The red light stopped me, and I told myself no fancy dodges, no letting myself off the hook with religionless Christianity. What would be good riddance if we had no religion? I pedaled on.

No Spanish Inquisition.

No witch trials in Europe or Salem.

No Catholic-Protestant struggle in Northern Ireland.

No Serbia-Croatian War.

No Buddhists and Hindus fighting in Sri Lanka.

No 9/11? (but what warped Islam to get those guys flying the planes into the Twin Towers?)

The bus caught up with me at the next light. As I waited by the sign, I considered faces looking out the window above it. “Imagine No Religion.” Their minds were elsewhere. The light changed to green and pressed on.

No Religious Right.

No religious scorn for my gay friends.

No Aztec human sacrifice on the Pyramid of the Sun…but the sacrifices were done. So, just no Pyramid of the Sun. I remembered climbing it when I was fifteen.

I was pedaling uphill now.

No Genesis story of Ham to justify slavery.

Pushing my speed up on the hill, I thought again of Shakespeare. The imagining cuts both ways. What would we miss without religion? Immediately I noticed how personal this list was. What would make my world smaller without religion? The list is more idiosyncratic. What’s your list? Comments welcome! Here’s mine from the bike ride -

No Hagia Sophia in Istanbul,

No Bach Cantatas or Mozart’s Requiem,

No Gandhi,

No Peace Prize for Desmond Tutu, and no Truth and Reconciliation Commission,

No St. Francis,

No Teresa of Avila outwitting the Inquisition while she taught us how to be friends with God in holy community,

No Franciscan Third Order giving serfs religious basis to refuse their overlord’s call to war against neighboring dukedoms.

No Hospitals? At least we know Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims founded the first ones to care for the sick and indigent poor.

And Shakespeare? So am I certain Will Shakespeare was a Christian and that his glorious work speaks faith? I sense our faith in his plays, but some people don’t. But there’s no question that the Bishops’ Bible and Coverdale Psalter sparked his language.

No end to slavery? Ah, tricky one. Yes, religious justifications helped sustain slavery, but it was virtually universal in human history until priest and then bishop Bartolome de Las Casas made his heroic effort to outlaw it in Spain’s New World colonies. Like many good stories of religion, this one began in a muddle. Las Casas came to Cuba as young nobleman where, as a slaveholding landowner he surprised himself and his friends by becoming a priest, and when his prayers made him see the plight of his Indio sisters and brothers, he freed his own slaves and crossed the Atlantic almost a dozen times to convince King Philip II to do what no other monarch had ever done, outlaw slavery.

And our abolitionists? Two hundred years after Las Casas, Anglican Deacon Thomas Clarkson wouldn’t stop pushing, teasing, cajoling, demanding the church’s and Parliament’s repentance for the English slave trade. Clarkson plagued William Wilberforce when he gave up the fight. He berated John Newton and the Archbishop of Canterbury for the profits they made on the trade. He more or less invented community organizing, and in forty years got England to outlaw first the trade and then slavery itself. But bitter with the church’s long resistance he more or less became a Quaker.

I reached home out of breath from riding up the hill and parked my bike in the garage.
“Imagine no religion.”

No mystical poets. No Juan de la Cruz, no Emily Dickinson, no T.S. Eliot, no Mary Oliver, no Ephrem the Syrian, no Hildegard von Bingen.

Through the day I kept coming back to the billboard’s request.

Late morning I recalled 20th Century violence done in the name of Non-Religion. I decided a low death score in a Religion vs. No Religion doesn’t win any contest. Evenhanded remembering only gets to this – we’ve all got blood on our hands.

Just how do we imagine the dark side of this?

Dostoyevsky did it clipping news stories of the worst and cruelest things people did to other people. Believing Christ was drawing the whole world into God’s embrace, he felt the song of praise ready to spring even from humanity’s worst, but could he trust that without acknowledging

Readers – what would break your heart if we had no religion?

After lunch I remembered my widowed parishioner in Idaho who always brought a roast to our midweek Eucharist and potluck, saving up from her social security check to share something delicious with her friends. Communion.

Communion again holding the hand of the comatose, dying unbeliever, the father of two young children. “Even in coma, people hear,” I’d thought, so, speaking slowly with a confidence that came from something beyond me, I said he could continue loving his wife and daughters, but it was time to let go, and the next moment he took one long, last breath and died.

By the end of the day this priest was thanking the Freedom From Religion Foundation. FFRF’s invitation to imagine “no religion” puts us right back to the mystery of why we choose faith. Mixed bag? Amen! Religion has inspired the very best and much of the worst of who we.

In the end I remembered sweet moments of falling in love with Jesus again.

Keep our eyes open Lord Jesus. Make us truthful and humble. Show us how to repent of what we’ve done in your Name and make us grateful for what you do in, for and with us and for all humanity.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

A shift in consciousness

By Frank Dunn

Church and society seem to be stuck on issues of human sexuality. Washington, DC, now faces a controversy regarding whether to sanction marriages for partners of the same sex.

Accustomed as they are to being the gatekeepers of marriage, Christians are likely either to favor or to oppose such marriages as a matter of morality. It is a moral issue, but not necessarily for the reasons that proponents or opponents frequently state.

Our ideas of what is moral have roots in large frameworks that include what we think is true and what we believe to be the consequences of human action. These “frameworks” are structures of consciousness. While the debate rages between the notion of eternal rightness of marriage between one man and one woman and the belief in the justice of extending civil benefits of marriage to partners of the same sex, we perhaps miss what is happening all around the debate. For in the bigger picture, the “framework” itself is changing. A new consciousness is clearly emerging.

This new consciousness is far deeper than any one issue. In general, a shift is happening in the direction from competition towards cooperation, from nationalism to global connectedness, from “scientific” rationalism to a re-appropriation of myth and symbol, from insistence on cultural conformity towards honoring dissidents, from exclusivity to a greater toleration, indeed appreciation, of differences. At the center of the new consciousness is a reassessment of the place of the individual in community, including the worth that societies assign to individuals and communities.

Shifts like the present one can sometimes be dated, such as 476 CE when the Roman Empire collapsed. Another shift came in 1492, when Columbus discovered the New World. Still another came on November 24, 1859, when Darwin published The Origin of Species. We can point to a cluster of developments that have ushered it in the present shift. One was the summer of 1989 when thousands of East Germans went on vacation and refused en masse to return home but flooded into Hungary, Austria, and West Germany, thus effectively beginning the fall of European communist domination. Another was the appearance of the internet as a popular means of connection and communication, in or about 1995.

Human beings evince a tremendous reluctance to become a conscious species. Whether we are going to participate in the shift, or wait it out, or spend our energies joining the forces of reaction (always an integral part of a shift) is a live question for the Church. Religious communities are among the best—maybe among the only—places where people can gather to look intently at the implications of deep cultural changes affecting the entire planet.

Some of the dimensions involved in the emerging consciousness are
 the transition from top-down leadership to dispersed leadership
 profound exploration into the nature and location of authority
 growing understanding of the interrelatedness of everything on the planet
 communication enabling immediate interpersonal and political connection
 limitations of free-market capitalism to solve world economic problems
 re-emergence of the Feminine and its effect on the exercise of power
 awareness that a finite supply of oil dictates re-thinking energy
 boundaries of power and the failure of coercion.

None of these things taken singly is new, with the possible exception of the revolution in communication. But together they are forcing us to confront the fact that some of our cherished narratives, such as the notion of the exclusive appropriateness of heterosexual marriage, are inadequate to address the multiformity of human experience in the 21st century.

There is gospel in all of this. While many narratives, including those believed by some Christians (e. g., “marriage has always been between one man and one woman”), are headed for the dust bin, the core of our faith is that God can never be contained in any cultural or creedal formulation. And at the heart of our Story are the words to shepherds, to disciples, and to grieving women: “Fear not.” As a people, we keep celebrating Easter and Pentecost, affirming not only a Risen Lord who does not abandon us to muddle through on our own, but a Holy Spirit—God present among us here and now—guiding us into all Truth.

That message is one that might not only comfort us but inspire us to help shape the conversation around a rapidly changing earth, beginning in our own assemblies of faith.

The Rev. Frank Dunn is senior priest at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D. C.

Truth, metaphor, Star Trek and the Bible

By Leo Campos

The other night at the end of our monthly lectio meeting at my church one of the participants shared with us an insight she had while we were doing lectio on Mark 6:1-6. In our group we take turns reading the passage from different translations, to keep it fresh. She excitedly told us that these various translations reminded her of "Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra" - and that reference made me jump from my seat! She had broken through our near-Pharisaical search for meanings and caught a glimpse of the Living Word of God residing just below the text. In monastic circles we call that Contemplation, but it does not matter what you call it.

For those of you who are not Trekkies here’s the a quick synopsis: at the surface the episode deals with the problems of communication, especially intra-species communication, with Capt. Picard and an alien captain stuck together in a hostile planet where their only choice is cooperate or die. But how do you cooperate with someone whose language you do not understand?

This may seem a relatively trivial problem, but remember folks that this is the 24th century, and everyone has a "universal translator" which means, basically, that everyone speaks the same language. Now you meet a race where your computer is incapable of translating their language. Inconceivable! The only thing that the alien keeps saying over and over is "Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra." (Trust me in the hands of a fantastic actor like Patrick Stewart this stuff reaches near Shakespearean levels).

Is language really translatable that way? When I say "I love you" would it be instantly translated into another language? I have a little book at my desk called In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World given to me by a dear friend and fellow logophile. The book lists hundreds of words which are untranslatable into English, or at least there is not a one-to-one correlation between those words and English.

I have personal experience of this. Having grown up in Brazil until my early teens, then living in England, and now the US - I am the incarnate version of that little book. "Untranslatable" would be a great epitaph for myself. If you came to me asking for help in translating one of the more famous untranslatable Brazilian words (saudades) I would tell you - "Come to Brazil, spend a summer with us, dance in the Carnaval, hang out in the beaches of Rio and fall in love with a beautiful girl and take a walk with her by the sea, sip some fresh coconut juice while holding hands and looking up at the Jesus statue at the top of the Corcovado, and then leave. And then I will call you in about a year and what you will feel - that's saudades!"

This is the fundamental issue of language, at its roots it is not made up of solid atoms of language stuff. Perhaps one time we might have fallen for that idea. Those of us who are avowed (or even born-again) Modernists think that language is made up of fixed signs. But the reality is frustratingly, beautifully more complicated. Language, like atoms themselves, tends to dissipate into a cloud of metaphor when we look closer. For example when I mentioned the "meaning" of "saudades" in the last paragraph, what exactly does "meaning" mean? If you want "meaning" to mean one thing it will, and if you want it to mean something else it will too. Light can be both wave and particle - what you are looking for? What meaning are you looking for?

One of my (spiritual) mentors is the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. And as every other poet whom I have read or met, the metaphorical nature of language is of grave importance to him. He says "If we are a metaphor of the universe, the human couple is the metaphor par excellence, the point of intersection of all forces and the seed of all forms. The couple is time recaptured, the return to the time before time" (in "André Breton or the Quest of the Beginning," 1967).

Back to Star Trek - here we are in the 24th century, stuck in a hostile planet with an alien who just keeps repeating "Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra". There is an urgency in this. There is a life and death struggle here. What are we to do? How am I say I love you? How am I to pray?

In the episode it turns out that the reason the alien's language was untranslatable was because it was completely metaphorical. Once they uncovered the key to the alien's metaphor (their religious texts - aha!) then Capt. Picard and the alien could begin to communicate. Trust me guys, this is worth watching, and even using in an adult Bible study group.

A question of language that is important for us spiritually is the truthfulness of the Bible. "Is the Bible literally true?" At times the question is about truth, sometimes the emphasis is on the literalness. When I am asked this I feel like the Pharisees who were asked by Jesus about the source of John's prophetic gifts: if I answer "yes" then...on the other hand if I answer "no" then...

Is the Bible true? Yes. Is the Bible literally true? Yes. It is absolutely literally true poetry. It is the only true poem I know. It is the clearest truth we have, perfectly metaphorical. I use the adjective "perfect" the same way my scientist friends use the term "absolute". It is not a trivial thing. When you can grasp this, the Truth of Christ can dawn upon you, and it will change you inside-out, and you will be seen in public with your Bible, and you will go home, no run home, just to spend a few precious minutes with these stories. You might just spend days marveling at "At the beginning was the WORD and the WORD was with God and the WORD was God." You just might recite the Lord's Prayer and realize that the Kingdom is here as you speak it.

Can we all speak the same language? Let the poet have the last word: "Today we all speak, if not the same tongue, the same universal language. There is no one center, and time has lost its former coherence: East and West, yesterday and tomorrow exist as a confused jumble in each one of us. Different times and different spaces are combined in a here and now that is everywhere at once"
(Paz, in "Invention, Underdevelopment, Modernity," 1967).

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude , a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

Another look at Narnia

By Deirdre Good

I recently watched the first Chronicles of Narnia movie again in preparation for a talk and was struck by its own interpretation of a book I enjoyed as a child, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. For many, the appeal of the movie will be because it is Christian. But for me its appeal is in a Christian author taking seriously another reality, another world created by God, and asking what redemption might look like in that other context.

An author shapes that other context. The book belongs to post-war Britain. Fathers are absent because they've gone off to war or have been killed. Stiff upper lips are prominent and cups of tea sustain the faint of heart. The movie emphasizes combat: it opens with the bombing of Britain and closes with the battle between the armies of the White Witch and Aslan in which gryphon-like creatures drop large rocks on the enemy. The Pevensie children, forced to hide in the middle of the night from German bombs, will in the end fight and win against the enemy with the weapons of children: swords, bows and arrows. Both worlds center on children, particularly boys. Battling the enemy is the way Peter becomes a man. Aslan tells Peter never to forget to wipe his sword. But "Battles are ugly when women fight" says Father Christmas to Lucy. Separation from parents is normal and brings about closer sibling relations. In the movie, Lucy's friendship with the faun Tumnus is the only real relationship. Mothers and fathers are absent. C. S. Lewis lost his mother to cancer at the age of eight. Since his father was consumed by grief, he and his brother Warren (Warnie) grew up together in a world of their own.

There are some other strange features of the grown-ups in the movie and the book: Aslan, the White Witch, and Father Christmas. Aslan is not a human. He is a divinity who has become flesh. But what is his intrinsic connection to the children? He is neither a father nor a brother; he is present to them one moment and absent from them the next. Their "conversion" from fear of him to affection and loyalty is on the level of sensation: "his voice was deep and rich and somehow took the fidgets out of them." The White Witch, however, looks human. Ann Peacock, the movie's screenwriter, emphasizes the White Witch's maternal sentiments when she first meets Edmund. "I have no children of my own," she says as she wraps her fur around him, feeding him with Turkish Delight and notions that he might succeed her. To be sure, in C. S. Lewis' book the White Witch utters these same words, but to Edmund abject at her feet, not nestled next to her in the sledge. In the movie, sitting next to him, the White Queen caresses Edmund's face. Next time they meet he will lie in shackles at her feet imprisoned in her castle in order to lure his siblings to her, but their first encounter is all cuddles and maternal care. Father Christmas appears in a world where there is no Christmas simply to hand out presents and (in the book) a tea tray with hot tea for the children and beavers.

It is not surprising that there are these anomalous features of the Christianity of Narnia. Douglas Gresham points out that C. S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to say "Suppose there were a world like Narnia and it needed rescuing and the Son of God (or the "Great Emperor oversea") went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, have been like?" (8 June 1960, Letter to Patricia).

Viewers of Narnia and readers are invited into the same imaginative exercise not just in imaginary worlds but also in our world. Aslan's breath re-creates Narnia and restores the dead to life. What involvement in a world does the creation of (or giving birth to) a world imply? What might the creative and redemptive roles of animals in our world or other worlds be? Lucy finds the way to Narnia first. Are there other prophetic roles children and women play in our world or other worlds? In Narnia, the betrayal and treachery of siblings is the greatest sin. However, Edmund repents and is forgiven. This is not the same thing as the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. For one thing, Edmund is a child. In other religions and other worlds there may be different and greater sins. In Narnia, the world is in thrall to winter of the White Witch. What if the world were not viewed as "enemy-occupied territory?" While Lewis might be thought to articulate the worst of Christian triumphalism and exclusivity, if one takes his explanation of what he intended to do in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe seriously, our consideration of how the triumph of love might work in our world and other worlds to defeat evil in fact respects diversity and religious pluralism.

Dr. Deirdre J. Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

Good Riddance Day

By Jean Fitzpatrick

Everybody knows about the ball dropping, but Good Riddance Day in Times Square is a newer tradition, only two years old. "SHRED YOUR BAD MEMORIES – EVERYTHING FROM WORTHLESS STOCK CERTIFICATES AND DEPRESSING BANK STATEMENTS TO PHOTOS OF OLD LOVERS AND DEAR JOHN LETTERS – IN THE HEART OF TIMES SQUARE," read the invitation on Craigslist. For just one hour on December 28, shredders were stationed along Broadway between 45th and 47th Streets, near the snazzy new TKTS booth, where New Yorkers or tourists could discard any distasteful, embarrassing or depressing memories from 2008. Passers-by could also write their bad memories on stationery available onsite and watch them get shredded. Or you could post your message online to be printed out, shredded and carted away for disposal or recycling. "Because sometimes," said the Times Square Alliance invitation, "you just need to let go."

And let go they did, getting things off their chest with all the spontaneity New York inspires in residents and visitors. One woman shredded a photograph of her ex-fiance posing with his current girlfriend. A Brooklyn man brought a picture of his appendix, taken after it was removed during emergency surgery. A woman visiting from San Diego used the onsite stationery to write "strife with my family," and her 13-year-old daughter wrote "getting bad grades on report cards." Another woman shredded a printout of her boyfriend's email breaking up with her. A Yankee fan shredded a poster of the Boston Red Sox: "I hate them," she said. "It felt good."

This year's Good Riddance Day saw the addition of a sledgehammer "to pulverize all those bad memories away." You could bring a broken cell phone or DVD player and a Times Square Alliance worker in protective glasses would smash it to smithereens.

The event was "part early-spring cleaning and part public exorcism, without the benefit of a cleric," The New York Times "City Room" blog noted in its coverage of the event's 2006 inauguration. A clean slate for the new year. Can we learn something here? People may be attending church less, but they are apparently still attracted to public rituals, at least those that speak their language. What are churches offering to help people let go of pain? Shredding and sledgehammers are a far cry from the reverent Anglican tradition, of course, although the Psalmist would certainly have understood that Yankee fan's desire to destroy her enemy. But what if we held a service that responded to our human need to transcend hurt and disappointment, one whose sole purpose was to welcome newcomers to the overflowing, unconditional love of God? Most of the churches I know happily welcome dogs and cats and goldfish from miles around for an annual St. Francis Day blessing. Does anyone out there celebrate the New Year by offering a similar ritual for human beings? A simple service that conveys acceptance and forgiveness and hope?

I can already hear my clergy friends protesting: that's what every service is designed to do, it's what confession is all about, it's what Advent and Lent are for, not to mention Good Friday, Christmas and Easter. But judging by our declining numbers, it's not clear that the word is getting out. Many nonchurchgoers still seem to think religion is about getting up too early on a Sunday and either getting scolded or sitting through a dull service that doesn't speak to their real-life struggles or longings. My public library does a better job getting the word out about its Amnesty Day.

I say it's time to launch a Hit the Spiritual Reset Button service. How about it? And we can advertise it on Craigslist.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

Mass-produced madness

By Luiz Coelho

Nobody can resist the capitalist Christmas madness. After all, everybody loves presents (some love receiving them even more). Some, who have children, might be engaged in the well-known pilgrimages to different malls and department stores, with whole-page toys lists (which usually include the most expensive and recently released toys). Other, more fortunate, have the possibility of actually choosing what to buy and give to their beloved ones. In both cases, however, many of our Christmas gifts may bear the ubiquitous tag: “Made in China.”

All of us, especially in these times of economic hardship, have wondered why all of a sudden, every single manufactured good seems to be made on the other side of the world. However, such reality only jumped to my eyes when, right after doing some religious shopping, I realized that even the statue of the Virgin Mary in my hands was also made... in China.

Suddenly, several questions came to my mind. How was the plant that produced the statue set up? Who made those little statues? Were they Christians? Probably not. But did they have any clue of what they were doing? I am scared to admit the answer is once again: probably not. And this leads me to the striking conclusion that even objects of devotion that are so dear to us are now produced in the coldest way possible.

In the last three months, my artwork was focused mainly on studying the Baudrillardian concept of hyperreality, applied to the visual arts. Such exploration will probably go on for years, as I more properly dig into the equivalent contemporary visual arts style. As an initial result, however, this exploration led to two series of paintings that expose the overwhelming presence of mass made imports on our shelves nowadays.

One of them, composed of twelve 12 inch by 12 inch acrylic paintings on panel depicts random objects which can be bought at any supermarket or department store, with their tags “Made in China” exposed to the viewer. Most of them were really made in China, but some others had their tags deliberately changed, in order to engage the viewer with the not-so-unrealistic possibility of having such objects really made in an environment of mass-production. At the end, is it possible to realize with certainty where an item is made?


Allow me to relate such topic to our initial discussion: Christmas and other religious gifts. Not so long ago, gifts – especially fine ones – were still produced in a way that somehow honored their final purpose. Imported products were frequently of very good quality, and different regions and countries were known for their fine crafts. That was the way, after all, that designer brands started. Nowadays, however, even local businesses rely heavily on cheap imports, mostly from China, that cover almost every single type of possible products.

My point here is not to criticize China, or imports from China per se. In fact, for centuries, the West has imported high quality goods from China. What worries me is the kind of reaction we should have to ubiquitous cheap imported products – especially at a time it is very hard to find alternative options. These products generally come from far away lands, and often look better, and “more real” than their hand-made and unique predecessors. Nevertheless, they do not point to any real past, and are the mere sub-product of industrial plants built only a few years ago. Human rights concerns, and the depletion of local companies, which cannot compete against the cheaper imports, are also issues that must be addressed, especially by people of faith, who theoretically espouse values of economic justice.

I do not have any pre-conceived answer to this problem and I am pretty sure that any “boycott” can be easily be forgotten after listening to the plea of a child who dreams about the newest electronic toy. Even everyday shopping duties, and objects that are necessary to modern life (such as computers and cell phones) force us to “close our eyes” and not question the evil we might possibly be supporting. But is there a way of implementing more responsible shopping practices, especially at Christmas, when we feel so compelled to look for sales and cheaper gifts? And, in the long run, how can people of faith help change this scenario? Are we still relevant enough to do something? What would Jesus do in this case, after all, especially since this is his birthday?

Lost in the supermarket

By Lauren R. Stanley

SPRINGFIELD, Va. – Grocery stores in this country are incredibly amazing places; really, they are. They’re light and airy and spacious and have literally tens of thousands of items for sale.

But they’re also incredibly scary places. They’re light and airy and spacious and have literally tens of thousands of items for sale. Which makes them very scary indeed for those of us who don’t have regular access to them.

So I have this love-fear relationship with grocery stores. I love to go to them and see all the wondrous items they have: fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, cereal, teas, coffees (oh, the smell of the coffee aisle!). But I fear going there, too, because they overwhelm me: Why do we need all those varieties of cereal? Where, pray tell, is the tea? And how can I possibly choose from all the varieties of apples?

I’ve just come back from three months in Sudan, living in a small town called Renk. It’s growing rapidly, with the return of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons, but it has very little in the way of food, especially fresh vegetables and fruits. There’s running water on a sporadic basis only, and it’s not clean. Electricity generally comes from generators for a few hours at a time. The roads are dirt, most homes are mud huts, most roofs are thatch. Life there is very, very basic.

So whenever I return to the United States, I find American grocery stores pretty overwhelming. There are simply too many choices and it takes time for me to adjust. I waited five days after my return before going to the store. I used up the last of my travel toiletries: toothpaste, shampoo, soap, baby oil, ear swabs. Much as I wanted to resupply, I couldn’t bring myself to face the complete overload that I knew awaited me there.

But then my little tube of toothpaste, which was turning a tad bit … um … yucky from all the heat in Sudan … began to flatten ominously. So I finally had to give in and face the great boogieman, the American grocery store.

The store I went to recently underwent a renovation, making it even bigger, even brighter, even more spacious. And it had even more items to sell than before. Just looking at all the fresh produce made my head swim. Apples! Oh, my, nice crisp apples, such a difference from the mushy ones in Renk. Bananas! Look how big they are! Five, six, seven kinds of lettuce … what a change from jejeer, the bitter greens we eat. Only the tomatoes didn’t faze me; we have a tomato farm on an island in the White Nile, so fresh, beautiful tomatoes, up to six per day, are a norm in my life.

Then I saw the cereal aisle … how in God’s name can we have so many varieties? Why? (Note: All those choices didn’t stop me from buying a box …)

And on and on, up some aisles, skipping others. Buying only those things I thought I needed, trying not looking at all the options. Every once in a while, I’d forget to keep my eyes averted and would see rows upon rows of pastas, or canned soups, or soaps, and I’d feel a moment of almost panic. Then I’d remember my list, pick one item, go find it, and move on.

Whenever I try to explain American grocery stores to my friends in Sudan, they don’t understand. They think I’m making it up. I’ve shown them pictures, even, but still, they can’t believe that Americans would have so much food in just one place, with so many choices to make. I have this dream of bringing a bunch of my friends to America just so I can take them on a tour of our grocery stores. It would be great fun to see their reactions, but then again, I’m worried that even one quick trip to the store might overwhelm them completely.

We are blessed in this country with an abundance, an overabundance, of goods. We have more choices than we can possibly need, more than we even can handle. In reality, we have too much. I know that by the end of my three months here, I’ll be fully adapted to all this abundance. Then I’ll go back to Sudan for another three months, and when I return next summer, I’ll have to work out this whole love-fear relationship all over again.

My prayer is that one day, I won’t have to do through this anymore, not because we have any less here, but because one day, there will be at least a modicum of abundance in Sudan as well.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Greek, Old Testament and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

Please submit your comments in the form of a question

By Kit Carlson

I was on Jeopardy! recently. Maybe you saw it. I was the woman in the middle. The one with the clerical collar on.

It’s strange enough to be a contestant on this 25-year-old, beloved game show (and it’s even older, if you count the original incarnation with host Art Fleming), but stranger still to be a priest playing Jeopardy!

“Wear your collar,” advised a former parishioner, who had won three days in a row a few years ago. “Oh, please, please, please wear your collar,” urged one of my Sunday School teachers. “You’re going to wear your collar, aren’t you?” asked a vestry member. For some reason, it was very important to these people that I be identifiable to the world as a priest playing Jeopardy!

It does seem odd, I guess, to have a cleric up there, zinging one-liners with Alex Trebek and trying to take home cash in Ken Jennings-sized quantities. Not as odd as you may think, however. There has been a little boomlet in clergy contestants on Jeopardy! Yes, usually they get lawyers and librarians and teachers. The show does self-select for geeky types who love to read. But most clergy fit that exact description: geeky types who love to read. At my live audition in Chicago (at which I did wear my collar), there was a UCC pastor in the group as well. In the intervening weeks between the audition and my own taping, I saw at least three other clerics give it a run.

And I have always wanted to go on Jeopardy! My cousin Richard Cordray (now Treasurer of Ohio) went on in the ‘80s and won five days in a row, then went back for Tournament of Champions. My mother always nagged me, “Why don’t you go on that show? You know as much as Richard. Look how well he did. You should go on Jeopardy! too.” And playing from my sofa, I often figured, yes – I could do this. I could be on Jeopardy!

So when I saw last winter that there was an internet audition, I did it. Just for laughs, and for my late mother’s memory, too. Then last spring, they called me to go for a live audition. So I went. Just for a few more laughs, and to silence my mother’s nagging inside my head. And four weeks later, they called and asked me to fly to LA to COMPETE ON JEOPARDY!!!! (Insert high-pitched squeals here …)

But it also messes with your head, to be a priest who plays Jeopardy! First of all, it’s hard to just get into the greedy, greedy, give-me-more game show mentality. Did I want to win five days in a row? Did I want to go on and on and on like Ken Jennings? That would totally mess with vestry meetings and hospital visitations, for sure. And what about that money, if I did win? Yes, I have credit card debt and kids in college and I need every penny of my salary and then some. But it also seemed inappropriate to just take a bunch of winnings and keep them to myself.

W.W.J.D? as the bracelets say. In between learning in April that I had been selected to go for a live audition in Chicago in May, I went on a mission trip to Haiti. This nation, only 500 miles from Miami, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The level of poverty is beyond imagining. And the group I traveled with, the Haiti Outreach Mission () (a group of Catholic and Episcopal parishes, mostly from Detroit), has built a clinic and an orphanage and is making some real impact in the town of Mirebalais. So that answered the question for me. Whatever I got, I would give to the Haiti Outreach Mission.

So I went to L.A. I wore my collar. I played the game. I came in second, by just $100 there in Final Jeopardy! But that still meant I would get a $2,000 runner-up prize. And that, at least, could go to Haiti.

The only issue then became dancing this strange dance of publicity and notoriety. Because after all these years of wanting to go on Jeopardy!, I did want people to know that I had finally made it on, and to watch the show. But it’s vaguely embarrassing to be calling attention to myself. Everything I do I want to point not to me, but to the gospel and to the joy of knowing that God loves us, and to the things that are good and strong about the Episcopal Church.

But Lansing is a smallish city, so the newspaper wanted to interview me. And the local affiliate that airs Jeopardy! wanted to interview me. And so I put the collar on again, because this time I also wanted the world to know that I was a priest who plays Jeopardy!

I wanted to see printed very boldly in the paper, and filmed very prominently on TV, the words ALL SAINTS EPISCOPAL CHURCH, so that people in our region would know there was a community that went with the collar, a place they might want to explore on a Sunday morning (if only to see if the sermon is delivered entirely in the form of a question).

But more than that, I hoped that people would stop for one second and think about that disconnect – a priest playing Jeopardy! I hoped they would think about what happens when a person who stands for God also stands in the crack between the church world and the secular world so that each can see the other. So that each might speak to each other. So that each might, a little bit less, stop fearing the other.

Answer: A priest and Jeopardy!

Question: What are two things that maybe do have something to do with each other after all?

The rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich., she blogs at Saints Alive!
Who is the Rev. Kit Carlson?

Bill Maher's Religulous: an exercise in caricature

By Deirdre Good

I went to see Bill Maher's "Religulous" with friends last night. It was a strange experience. I've seen and enjoyed Bill Maher as a stand-up comic and as a TV host on his HBO talk show interviewing guests and commenting on politics. But what is "Religulous"? Neither stand-up comedy nor talk show. True, the film has elements of comedy in the way that it caricatures religious practitioners for what they say and how they look. We don't just meet ordinary Christians; we meet Christians like the Jesus actor in the Jesus world theme park in Orlando, Florida and a minister José Luis de Jesús Miranda who thinks he is a biological descendant of Jesus, actually Jesus incarnate. We don't meet ordinary Jews; we meet Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, an anti-Zionist Jew who shook the hand of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. And while Bill Maher provides humorous commentary on the interviews he conducts with religious people around the world, he can leave an interviewee, in this case, Rabbi Weiss in mid-sentence. So he doesn't come across as someone who actually wants to hear what religious people say.

"Religulous" isn't a documentary film either. A documentary film is a movie that documents reality by describing it through interviews and commentary. Michael Moore's films would be examples of documentaries shown in movie theaters. Several have proven to be very popular. But a documentary tells a story by starting out with a description of the topic and ending with a new understanding as a result of the investigation. More often than not, things seen and heard along the way have informed the one doing the documentation. This isn't true of "Religulous." Maher starts at Megiddo where he says many people who read Revelations (sic) think the world will end and he ends in the same spot at Megiddo by saying that religious people may well blow up the world. In 90 minutes we haven't actually gone anywhere. Along the way, religion is reduced to the point of distortion and caricature. Eastern religions are never considered. Religious people are shown in interviews and film clips only as gullible and fanatic, as fraudulent and nutty. There's one exception that proves the rule, a Catholic astronomer priest who shows that a scientific worldview can only be post-enlightenment and that therefore the biblical view of creation cannot be seen as scientific. Alas, he gets two minutes.

It would have been more intriguing if Maher had included conversations with theologians who after all have been part of most religious traditions and who have rather interesting takes on reading the creation accounts of the Bible or on miracles. Now and again interviewees say things along these lines but Maher quickly dismisses such observations as quirky or dishonest without following them up. It would be even more interesting to find out why Maher is obsessed with religion. In a charming interview with his sister and his mother before she died this summer, he notes that never once when he was growing up did he question why his (Jewish) mother didn't go to Catholic Church with them each Sunday. Maher professes to be agnostic about religious certainties and critical of those in public office who want to pray to God (an "imaginary friend," Maher says) when confronted with crises. But he falls too easily into caricature rather than the challenge of uncertainty. By the end of the movie we've only gone in a circle and I don't mean a hermeneutical one.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

Salvation and spin class

By Melody Wilson Shobe

A few months ago, I began going to spin classes at the local YMCA as part of my exercise routine. Spinning is a group exercise class in which an instructor leads a group of people on stationary bikes through a cycling routine designed to simulate an actual bike ride. The students increase or decrease the resistance on their bikes to imitate climbing hills, sprinting, or intervals. It is a great workout, and usually a lot of fun. My husband and I make a habit of going to a particular class on Thursday nights, because it’s the one night of the week that neither one of us has a standing church commitment.

On Maundy Thursday, however, we had a service in the evening. So I decided to try the Thursday morning spin class instead. Little did I know, the Thursday morning class is “Devotion in Motion:” an hour-long spin class during which the instructor plays praise and worship music and talks about God. The instructor, a layperson who attends a local non-denominational church, uses the idea of a bike ride as a metaphor for the spiritual life to direct his devotional comments throughout the class.

The class was problematic for a number of reasons. The first problem was merely a matter of my personal taste. The instructor, who seemed like he was a very nice guy, had the unfortunate habit of singing along to snatches of the praise music pulsing through the room. This in itself would not be so bad, except for the fact that the instructor in spin classes wears a headset microphone in order to give directions to the class. So, throughout the class, interspersed with the instructions, we got a miniature concert. It was all a little too Brittany Spears for me.

The second problem was purely practical. As I mentioned earlier, spinning is a class in which “the students increase or decrease the resistance on their bikes to imitate climbing hills, sprinting, or intervals.” This instructor, however, starting telling us to increase the resistance on our bikes from the minute we began riding. Then he kept yelling, “Increase!” every two minutes for the rest of the class. By fifteen minutes in, I was at the maximum amount of resistance on my bike, waiting for him to tell us to decrease so that we could build back up. By twenty-five minutes, I was physically incapable of riding at maximum speed any longer. As a spiritual metaphor, it didn’t work very well for me; if, in fact, my faith journey is like a bike ride, it has both hills and valleys, steep climbs and long smooth descents. My relationship with God, at least, has not been all uphill. But regardless of the spiritual implications, it certainly didn’t work as an exercise regime. Asking a room full of people, some of whom have never been on a spin bike before, to “increase” every two minutes is neither feasible nor safe.

But my biggest problem with the class that I attended was theological. It was obvious from the beginning that the instructor and I differed on a number of theological points. He spent a good bit of time talking about the lies that the Enemy (you could actually hear the capitol E) whispers in our ears, which revealed a different understanding of evil than mine. He made a remark about God conquering your depression that revealed a different understanding than I have about mental health. But our theological differences weren’t an obstacle until, in between repeatedly saying, “Increase,” he yelled, “There is no ‘I can’t’ in the spiritual vocabulary!”

I almost fell off of my bike. In the midst of Holy Week, those words struck a deeply dissonant chord inside of me. Because “I can’t” is what Good Friday is all about. When we look at the cross, we are forced to acknowledge that Jesus did something there on that day that I cannot do for myself. And the same is true of Easter and the empty tomb; resurrection is something I can’t do. The transformation of places of death into places of life, the victory over death and the grave, life after death: these are all things that I cannot reach or accomplish. Through his life, death, and resurrection, God does for me something that I can’t do for myself.

In fact, I think the words “I can’t” aren’t just Holy Week words, or Easter words. They are the foundational words of the life of faith. They are integral, not inimical, to the spiritual journey. I grew up going to Baptist summer camp, and each summer counselors would give their testimonials, telling us how they had been saved. As an Episcopalian, I had a great discomfort with that language. But I was also uncomfortable because I felt out of place. My counselors always seemed to have dramatic stories: they had been saved from a life enslaved to drugs or alcohol, they had been saved from illness or injury or anorexia, they had been saved from dangerous or depressing home situations. My own life seemed, by contrast, inadequate and boring. Just what, exactly, was there for God to save me from?

It took me a long time to figure it out. But now, when I’m asked to talk in “salvationspeak,” I tell people that God saved me from thinking I could ever save myself. As an oldest child, I’ve always worked extra hard to be good and do the right thing; I’m the classic over-achiever. But through the years I’ve come to know there’s nothing I can do to earn God’s love, and nothing I can do to make God love me less. God saved me by teaching me to say: “I can’t.”

Holy Week is over, and my Thursday evening is open again. I’m back to my usual spin class this week, and I think from here on out, I’ll try to keep my spinning and my salvation separate.

The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.

Don't just do something

By Sara McGinley

In a twenty minute drive the other day I heard at least three advertisements that claimed to offer people rest, for a price.

America doesn’t need any more things to keep them awake. What we really need is something to help us sleep better. Buy a mattress.

Buy this condo and spend more time doing what you want to do – even if what you want to do is nothing.

Get mom what she really wants. A day of relaxation.

These are not self-help things. There is nothing inherently spiritual about a condo or a mattress or a pedicure, although I have several friends who would disagree certainly about the pedicure and perhaps about the condo and the mattress.

People are aching for rest. For a break. For a time out.

Large companies are selling a break. They’re selling a rest. They’ve spent thousands of dollars trying to figure out what will sell their product and their answer is rest.

The beginning of our bible starts with God doing a whole lot of work and then resting.

Jesus was known to even annoy people by resting when he needed it.

Despite that fact, many of us still over-work. Many of us schedule one day off a week which we rarely take. Many of us are given vacation every year that we don’t use.

I’m getting more and more accustomed to hearing people brag about how long it has been since their last day off.

I’ve heard and read sermons in which clergy talk about how long its been since they had a break as if this is normal, healthy, expected and something that should earn them a badge of honor.

Why are we doing this?

What is stopping us from scheduling and taking two days off every week?

What is stopping us from scheduling vacations? Why aren’t we scheduling actual vacations that last at least five days during which we don’t check our email or voice-mail.

I’m sure the answer to those questions are good, important, valid things.

So many good, important valid things that we’re all tired.

It seems that tiredness has been around so long we think we invited it to our party.

It doesn’t have to be here. It really doesn’t have to be here. We were made for good hard work. We were also made for rest. Rest with integrity and regularity.

Amazingly, rest has become something that is hard to come by and hard to admit to.

A colleague recently apologized for not coming to a meeting because he was going on a much needed weekend away with his new wife.

Since when to we apologize for making our families more important than meetings?

There is a way to invite rest back into our lives and to encourage it to stay.

It means pulling out our planners and that good old ‘just say no’ skill Nancy Reagan encouraged us all to propagate back in the 80s.

It means sticking to it even when other people get annoyed, when you’re tempted to schedule just that one little, tiny meeting, or when everything feels absolutely weird.

In the last five years of working with people as a life coach I’ve seen people make significant and life-giving changes in their lives.

Many of these changes are simple things that change the whole way in which they order their lives.

Finding rest by taking time away from work is one of the most profound I’ve seen.

When you’ve had enough rest your mind will work better, your body will feel better, your ideas will be more clear, you will be more inspired and inspirational.

Here is the challenge:

Find two days a week, preferably in a row and schedule them as days off. Meetings, email and voice mail are off limits.

Experts say it takes 60 days to create a habit. I say giving a whole 3 months to a new habit means it’s really there.

The summer is a perfect time for this new habit. Others will have less resistance to your new, free-er schedule and you can hopefully enjoy those days off outside.

After committing to this for the three months of summer it will be part of your life by the fall and you can continue it more easily than if you started this in September.

When you’ve had enough rest and it’s a part of your life again others will catch the bug. They’ll get what mattress companies, and spas and real estate developers are trying to sell them for hundreds and thousands of dollars.


Sara McGinley, irreverent priest's wife and mother of two, writes the blog subtly named, Sara McGinley.

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our
Feedback Policy.


Hat tip to Lionel Deimel who noiticed that Peter Berg, executive producer of NBC's Friday Night Lights, who also directed and co-wrote the 2004 film of the same title, will be a guest on NPR's Fresh Air program today.

The season finale airs tonight at 8 EST. In a cruel twist of fate, I will be unable to watch. So if you see me on the street, DON't TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS, I plan to watch it online over the weekend.

The AV Club on FNL: "Save this Show"

The season finale--and possibly the series finale of my beloved Friday Night Lights airs on Wednesday at 8 on NBC. The AV Club says this is a show worth saving.

Friday Night Lights wins a Peabody!!!

Our favorite network television show has won a prestigious Peabody Award.

Said the judges: "No dramatic series, broadcast or cable, is more grounded in contemporary American reality than this clear eyed serial about the hopes, dreams, livelihoods and egos intertwined with the fate of high-school football in a Texas town. (Produced by NBC Universal Television Studio in association with Imagine Entertainment and Film 44.)"

The season finale airs next Wednesday at 8 p. m. on NBC. I can't emphasize enough what an excellent program this is to watch with teenage children. (Or youth groups!) Almost any issue that arises in the course of high school life is examined with great intelligence and sensitivity. If you have to talk to your child about sex, for instance, you will want to say more or less exactly what Tami Taylor said to her daughter Julie. (See Episode 17.)

Into Great Silence opens in DC

My friend Desson Thomson reviews the film about life in a Carthusian monastery. (An earlier item on the film is here.)

He writes: At first, the silence feels imposing -- practically deafening -- as we watch the documentary "Into Great Silence" and the monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery praying, reading the Bible or simply sitting in quiet contemplation.

But as we become acclimated to this muted atmosphere (we have plenty of time, as the film is nearly three hours long), something extraordinary happens: Our senses sharpen. The whispering of snow outside, the occasional clearing of a throat and -- sweet mercy! -- the clanging of a bell that summons these befrocked Carthusians to prayer reach our ears with a resounding purity. We may not experience their inner glories, but when we hear the monks' Gregorian chants, it's as though we have slipped from our seats into the back pews of Chartreuse."

Into Great Silence

A documentary about life among Carthusian monks is getting terrific reviews. The LA Times loves it. So does Newsday. A. O. Scott of the New York Times, writes: I hesitate, given the early date and the project’s modesty, to call “Into Great Silence” one of the best films of the year. I prefer to think of it as the antidote to all of the others.

The Boston Globe's story about filmmaker Philip Groning is here. It includes this summary.

... the austere, 162-minute film, with its sublime, painterly images and ambient sounds, is contemplative, meditative , and intensely introspective, capturing the poetic, unhurried rhythms of everyday life in the monastery. Gröning, who directed, produced, shot , and edited the film, sought to collapse the dividing line between the screen and the audience, immersing viewers into the world of the monastery and allowing them the opportunity to surrender to the rituals and repetitions of its inhabitants and the changing seasons that occur outside the windows of the stone charterhouse.

(Hat tip to Robert Ginn)


If the Anglican Communion should collapse between 8 and 9 p. m. EST, you will ned to read about it elsewhere. Like all right thinking people, I will be watching Friday Night Lights.

The Politics of 24

The show is a sometimes guilty pleasure for me. Jane Mayer examines the politics of the men behind Jack Bauer in The New Yorker, with particular attention to the torture issue.

A question I wasn't expecting

I seldom mention the unusual questions I sometimes field from members of the press, because, really, it is my job to be asked unusual questions and to help whoever is going to write about us to feel comfortable in their knowledge. But in this case I can't resist. I just had a call from a reporter from an overseas news agency asking me what we as a Church thought about the commercialization of Saint Valentine's Day in America. I admitted that I had never given the issue a moment's thought, and was willing to wager that not even Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity would see the profusion of ads for pendants and posies as a sign of resurgent secularism.

EW still loves Friday Night Lights

Ken Tucker on actor Gaius Charles: [H]e's offering one of the most nuanced presentations of a young black man on TV.

Read it all.

Not nice

The most annoying sentence of the week was written by Lee Siegel in an otherwise insightful, not to mention exhausive examination of the peculiar genius of Norman Mailer in Sunday's New York Times Book Review.

He writes:

"Early on, Mailer understood that in a democracy in which the most radically different types of people are thrown together, a harmonious encounter with “the other” is an American dream (e.g., the national obsession with the Relationship), the reality of which often becomes an American nightmare (e.g., popular culture’s obsession with crime). For the Brooklyn-raised, Jewish, middle-class Mailer, who once wrote about himself that there was “one personality he found absolutely insupportable — the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn” — a perfect sense of the more extreme forms of otherness became artistic and intellectual mother’s milk.

No surprise, then, that Mailer’s previous novel, “The Gospel According to the Son,” in which he attempted to inhabit Jesus Christ, felt less like a creative vision than a head-butt against eternity. The material had a built-in obstruction to Mailer’s gift of sympathetic self-surrender: Jesus was a nice, middle-class Jewish boy from Nazareth. Now Mailer has returned to the right side, which is to say, the wrong side, of the tracks." (Italics mine.)

You needn't believe in the mystery of the Incarnation to find this characterization of Jesus preposterous. Jesus taught that the values of the Kingdom were the obverse of those of the world (Blessed are the poor. Woe to the rich.) He challenged the religious and imperial leaders of his day with a directness that got him killed, and he moved his followers so deeply that they continued to believe he was alive, even after his crucifixion.

Jesus was not "nice"; he was ferociously good.

It is hard to imagine that the Times would allow so uninformed a characterization to appear in its pages.

You can save Friday Night Lights, or you can turn the page!

My favorite network TV show is facing fourth and long, says Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly.

Go figure. FNL may be the only show on television that treats religion authentically in the context of daily life. It is one of few willing to look issues of teen sexuality--and its consequences--in the eye, and it features perhaps the most realistically happy marriage on television. Yet it can't seem to find an audience.

Tucker writes:

In real life, Lights is the underdog series that a rah-rah cult audience and critics love, but one that can't find even a modest victory in the ratings. It consistently finished third in its original Tuesday-at-8 p.m. time period, and isn't doing much better in its new Wednesday-at-8 p.m. slot, still averaging around 6 million viewers. Indeed, the drama of whether NBC will commit to a second season of this gridiron soap opera is as awkward and tense as whether the wheelchair-bound former star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) will break up with his devoted but conflicted cheerleader girlfriend Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly). NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly professes love for the show but also cites ''the biggest disconnect'' he's ever experienced: ''People talk and write to me to say they love it, but not enough people watch. It's a sports show, but it's a relationship show; it's a soap, but it's got social issues. What makes it great makes it hard to market.''

Wednesdays at 8, Eastern. You don't have to like football to love the show. Give it a try.

For your weekend perusal

If you are in search of a thought-provoking chuckle, check out Geez magazine.

"Geez has set up camp in the outback of the spiritual commons," it's Web site says. "A bustling spot for the over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even the un-churchable. For wannabe contemplatives, front-line world-changers and restless cranks. A place where the moon shines quiet, instinct runs mythic and belief rides a bike (or at least sits on the couch entertaining the possibility)."

They won me over with their Make Affluence History campaign, which urges low-income families to sponsor privileged children in the hopes of showing them a less-cluttered more grounded way of life.

Happy New Year!

On behalf of the Diocese of Washington, I am authorized to wish you a Happy New Year.

On behalf of my older son, I am authorized to say: Go Blue!

And on behalf of myself, I direct your attention to an article in today's Washington Post which lists my beloved Friday Night Lights, among the shows in "Decent Shape," meaning it will endure at least through the end of this season. It's new time slot is Wednesday nights at 8.

It's a Wonderful Life

I realize that I am out of liturgical season here, but the end of Frank Capra's Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life (which we watched tonight) always reminds me of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. As George Bailey's friends come forward in joyful procession with the contributions will save him from prison, I am reminded of all the leftovers from that scanty meal that Jesus offered to the multitude. It was in giving himself away that George Bailey became, in his brother Harry's words, "the richest man in town."

The last of The Wire

Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz discuss the heart-wrencing last episode of The Wire on Slate. Here and here.

Kotlowitz offers a trenchant quote from Nelson Algren, the great Chicago novelist:

"We are willing, in our right-mindedness, to lend money or compassion—but never so right-minded as to permit ourselves to be personally involved in anything so ugly. We'll pay somebody generally to haul garbage away but we cannot afford to admit that it belongs to us."

The Nativity Story

The first reviews that I read of The Nativity Story were negative, and I decided to ignore it rather than trash it. But recently I have come across some more positive ones, and decided to provide some links. If you have seen it, weigh in.

We've got a nice audio-visual meditation based on The Magnificat here. (It's the second one down on the right.)

David Simon on the future of The Wire

Slate has an excellent interview with the creator of The Wire. My wife and I watched the next-to-last episode of the current season last night, and just sat on the couch afterwards, worrying about the four kids around whom this season's narrative is constructed, as though they actually existed. The show is that powerful. And if you've never seen it before, you can probably (depending on your cable system) call up the first episode of this season and watch it straight through, as though you were reading a novel. We did that with the first three seasons, renting them one at a time, and it was incredibly engrossing.

The weekend

My wife and I thought Stranger than Fiction was much better than the reviewers did. That may be because we would pay to hear Emma Thompson read meatloaf recipes. And Helen Mirren is not to be missed in the new (and final) Prime Suspect on Sunday night on PBS.

For your weekend reading, can I suggest this column by Martin L. Smith. It is about finding a "spirituality of shopping," and seems appropriate to the season.

Friday Night Lights IV

It is only fitting that a blog that was brought into existence by one doomed TV show should champion the cause of another possibly doomed offering from NBC. But believe me, Friday Night Lights is a much better show than The Book of Daniel (except for that one stellar Daniel episode when they flashed back to the death of one of their children.)

Even Tom Shales, television critic of The Washington Post, a man who is not free with praise, speaks well of it:

"Friday Night Lights" has plenty of realism -- as well as passion, soul and heart at levels rare in episodic TV."

Like regular commenter Widening Gyre, Shales thinks that the show may be misplaced at 8 p. m. on Tuesdays. (That's tonight: hint, hint.) "Even so," he writes, "and whatever it takes, a place just has to be found for 'Friday Night Lights' on the prime-time schedule. It has already won a place in many a serious viewer's heart.

Defending the faith

"I’m sick of theology done by cocky salesmen, atheistic or otherwise," writes Giles Fraser in his review of Richard Dawkins latest argument for atheism.

"The God of Israel is the God of the burning bush, the God who exists in the cloudy mountain-top, whose face cannot be seen. This is not the God who doubles as my best pal, or who fits a snappy one-line definition. The God who has been at the centre of the Church’s life for centuries is a God who is disconcertingly inscrutable, and utterly resistant to cheap certainty."

I can't tell you what a delightful change of pace it is to read a liberal Christian arguing about faith with an atheist rather than with a conservative Christian.

The Wire 2

Slate is hosting a fascinating discussion of my favorite TV show, The Wire. I've extolled the virtues of the show here, but not with this kind of insight. One of the participants is David Mills, a writer for the show, who once upon a time sat across a divider from me in the Style section of The Washington Post. (And yes, if you pick his name up, I will drop it again.)

Friday Night Lights III: AP is on the case

Frazier Moore, a television critic for the Associated Press, laments the small audiences tuning in to Friday Night Lights. (Tuesdays at 8 on NBC.)

He picks up on a point I've pushed a couple of times:

"Friday Night Lights" has claimed a world far from TV's beaten path, and depicts it with such honesty that we viewers behold its ordinary people (and, by extension, ourselves) with new eyes. In the writing, acting and on-location filming (the production is based in Austin), "Friday Night Lights" debunks the "TV AP version" of things, depicting real life on its own indigenous terms.

"That, alone is a powerful reason to watch.

"Here's another: It includes religious faith among the forces at work in Dillon, Texas. Viewers who complain about a spiritual void in TV drama should embrace this show for how it weaves prayer (along with Panthers football, barbecue and the Red Hot Chili Peppers) into the community's belief system."

Friday Night Lights II

I’ve found another fan of Friday Night Lights the new NBC show on Tuesday nights. Slate has a glowing review today.

Troy Patterson writes: "If you understand that a touchdown is worth six points and have a rough idea of how many feet are in a yard, you should be able to follow the show. If you're interested in thoughtful, low-key riffs on community, Christianity, and youth culture in America, you should love it."

I wrote about the way religion was handled in the first episode last week, and I continue to be impressed. The second episode, which aired last night, began on a Sunday morning with various characters at their various churches. The head cheerleader, whose quarterback-boyfriend has been paralyzed while making a tackle, says a prayer for his heeling while lying on this chest in this hospital room. All of this is handled matter-of-factly, as part of the wharp and woove of everyday life. The series’ creators do not keep their characters at an ironic distance in these moments, and I appreciate that.

Friday Night Lights

A new television show, based loosely on Buzz Bissinger's marvelous book, made its debut on NBC last night. I thought Friday Night Lights was pretty good, except for the clichéd outcome of the big game. I am calling it to your attention, though, because it featured some of the few instances in which I've heard people pray on a prime time television show. Players recited most of the Lord's Prayer in one scene, and a star halfback offered an extemporaneous prayer for the healing of an injured teammate in another. Add to this mix the question that a Pop Warner player asks the team's star quarterback--Do you think God likes football?--and you've got an episode that takes seriously the role of faith in people's everyday lives. I am eager to see whether this theme is sustained.

Get Wired

Some day when I am in good paen-writing form, I will extol the many virtues of my new favorite television show, The Wire. It is an astonishing achievement, both morally and artistically. But paen-production is on the back-burner for the moment, and you really shouldn't miss a single episode. So read Jacob Weisberg's review of the current season on Slate, and then hustle off to the video store to rent the first three seasons on DVD.

If you need more convincing, look here, here and here.

The last of these articles, from Newsday, begins as follows: "A critic for this paper once declared "The Wire" "the greatest dramatic series ever produced for television" and as the fourth season gets under way Sunday night, there's no reason to quibble with that assessment."

I imagine that the creators of the series would balk at this characterization, but if The Wire isn't urban ministry, I don't know what is.

The Funniest Religious Joke of All-Time

Or so says an article I just came across in the Ottawa Citizen.

(as told by Emo Phillips)

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!

"Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.

Snakes on a Plane

What are the implications for the Episcopal Church? Discuss.

Elective reading

When it comes to engaging your propensity for intellectually enriching procrastination, there's no place quite like Arts and Letters Daily.

A few morsels from today's buffet:

the moral theology of Homer Simpson (not fresh, but well-done)

the aesthetics of athletic performance

and an examination of whether Gnosticism ever actually existed.

Changing the subject

I am in Day One of attempting to be what church people (and probably therapists) refer to as a NON-ANXIOUS PRESENCE.

(Do all those upper-case letters work against the impression I am trying to create?)

So, rather than link to various predictions about what will happen when our General Convention gets underway in Columbus next week, I thought I would mention that I agree pretty much entirely with Heather Havrilesky's downbeat assessment of The Sopranos, which wrapped up its most recent season last night.

Watch a brief ad, and then read it on Salon.

The Foreign Correspondent

It is a happy day in our house when Alan Furst publishes a new book. Not quite as happy as the days on which J. K. Rowling publishes a new book (and Jim Dale does the book on tape!) but happy nonetheless. Furst's writes intensely atmospheric, historical spy fiction set in Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s. His latest is The Foreign Correspondent (reviewed here) about an expatriate Italian journalist running an antifacist newspaper that is written in Paris and then smuggled into Muzzolini's Italy. It appeared in our house about three days ago, and my wife has already finished.

You can read an interview with Furst, and read his Wikipedia entry.

Child Protective Blogging 2

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have apparently named their child Shiloh. This is a better choice than, say, Vicksburg or Cold Harbor, but perhaps not as sonorous as First Manassas. Meanwhile, comedian/magician Penn Teller has named his second child Zoltan. The first is named Moxie Crimefighter.

These developments confirm that celebrities cannot be trusted to name their own offspring. Society must step in. I propose the following legislation:

Anyone who has appeared in a) more than one top twenty television show; b) more than two motion pictures or c) the Billboard Top 40 will be required to submit the name they wish to bestow on their newborn to a panel composed entirely of people named Kathy and Bill. The panel will decide whether the name will inflict undue hardship on the child.

If the panel decides in the negative, the ruling may be appealed to a panel composed entirely of people named Jane and Doug. Its decision will be final.

However, the name will be held in escrow until the child's 15th birthday at which point he or she may adopt it of their own volition.

All in favor signify by writing to Us magazine.

Belated X Men blogging

As I mentioned in the entry just below this one, my wife, younger son and I saw the new X Men movie on Friday night at a packed theater in Silver Spring, Md. We'd been planning this for awhile, but an obstacle to my attendance arose earlier in the week when the son in question (he's 11) told my wife that he had "a very strong opinion" that I should not be allowed to see X Men III until I had seen X Men I and II, or at least I.

So, for the sake of family unity, I spent a few hours in front of the TV viewing the earlier installments, and, to my surprise, I liked them. I was actually eager to get to the theater on Friday night.

I don't want to give too much away, but let me give a quick summary for those of you who know as little about the X Men as I did a week ago. The X Men are mutants--good mutants. There are also bad mutants--bent on world domination, or course. In this installment, the non-mutant world discovers a "cure" for mutancy, thus confronting the mutants with a choice about whether to take the cure or not. The non-mutant world also has a choice: does it simply offer the cure, or does it impose it?

Some of the mutants are glad to get rid of whatever special characteristics their mutancy gave them. Some are unwilling to sacrifice what they regard as the essence of their identity. If you've followed the controversy over homosexuality in our Church, the parallels here are obvious.

For further ethical reflection, there is also a subplot involving a mutant whose powers are so great she may not be able to control them. Should she be liberated to do with her powers as she pleases? Should she be controlled so that her powers can be managed? Or does she present such a great threat to the world that she must be killed?

I am not a fan of special-effect-heavy set-piece battles, but the one that ends this film is a doozy. My favorite scene, though, is a brief, heartbreaking moment toward the beginning of the movie when a young boy is locked in the family bathroom trying to scrape away the physical symptoms of his mutancy. The look of desperation on his face as he struggles against these changes in his body will put you in mind of every adolescent you've ever known who suddenly felt betrayed by their bodies--including yourself.


A couple of weeks ago, poster Widening Gyre and I agreed that we would take a pass on The DaVinci Code, but not on X Men III: The Last Stand. If the crowds in Silver Spring tonight, where the movie was showing on four screens, are any indication, it will be the top-grossing film of the weekend. My 11-year-old, not given to understatement, has proclaimed it the "greatest movie ever."

It is better than the reviews led me to believe. More tomorrow.

Child Protective Blogging

I have taken an interest recently in the welfare of two children whom I know only through the media. One is the offspring of Brittney Spears. I can’t believe that having the paparazzi following his mom around all the time attempting to document her maternal failings is going to be good for young Sean Preston in the long run. Who is in charge of making them stop?

I don’t know the other child’s name, but I know that his father’s cancer was cured by a drug manufactured by a major pharmaceutical company. In a radio commercial I have heard at least a dozen times, this father says that now that he has his life back, he can realize his dream of teaching his 4-year-old son to play baseball. So far so good. Then he says that he believes he is coaching a future major leaguer.

I am deputizing readers of this blog to find this man and sit him down for a long talk.

Tell him as gently as possible that the counter-example of Earl Woods notwithstanding, there are few surer ways to blight his son’s life than by aiming him at athletic stardom at an early age. And let him know that there are men who make their living figuring out who has got the stuff to play major league baseball. These men have several significant advantages over him. They evaluate young men at a much later stage in their physical development, and they bring professional expertise to the task. . Nonetheless, they are wrong more often than they are right. (I covered the New York Mets in the mid-1980s when two nice young guys named Sean Abner and Kyle Hartshorn were thought by some of the best mind’s in the game to be the future of the franchise. They weren’t.)

Tell him not to ruin baseball for his son by making every swing of the bat another step in a lifelong journey toward a destination his son may have neither the desire nor ability to reach.

The Good, Good Pig

There's no sense in having a blog if you can't call attention to your friends when they've done something wonderful. At this Web site you can read about the forthcoming book The Good, Good Pig by Sy Montgomery. The book is a memoir of a pig named Christopher Hogwood and the people who loved him--particularly Sy (who has written a number of wonderful books about animals, and the way humans perceive them) and her husband Howard Mansfield, whose own books In the Memory House and The Bones of the Earth (to name just two) are meditations on the importance of place, the manipulation of history and the old Faulknerian dictum: "The past is never over. It isn't even past."

I went to college with Sy and Howard, worked on the campus newspaper (The Daily Orange) with them, and lived just a mile from them in New Hampshire twenty years ago when I was writing my first book. My family and I still visit them in New Hampshire about once every other year or so, so I had a chance to know the pig in question, and I can testify to his good-goodness.

Christopher Hogwood was named after the classical music conductor who, at the time of the pig's birth was, I believe, the leader of the Hayden and Handel (or vice versa) Society. He is just a cute piglet in the pictures on the Web site, but each year, in the photos that almost always graced Sy and Howard's Christmas cards, you could see him growing toward his full magnificence. At top weight, he was about 650 pounds, I think, but that pig could dance like Fred Astaire. Okay, I exaggerate, but he could move like Barry Sanders in the open field. He was a muse, and a pal for Howard and Sy, who also sheltered a border collie named Tess who'd been abused as a puppy and had once bad leg, but could really soar for a frisbee. (She's featured in the slide show on the Web site.) Like a lot of border collies, she was also given to trying to "herd" small children, which was kind of comic when my sons were younger.

Tess and Chris died within a few months of each other, and that was a sad time. I'm eager to read the book, and renew my acquaintance.

Read an interview with Sy here. The interviewer never asked her if she made stupendous pies. So I would just like to put that on the record.

"Is Teen Sex Bad?"

Why, yes. Yes it is.

The Washington Post poses the question quoted above in what I found to be a disappointingly superficial special issue of its health section. It isn't so much what is in the issue that bothers me. It's what isn't.

Reporter Elizabeth Agnvall surveys the public health data, she compares attitudes toward teen sexuality in several deveoped nations, and she provides decent tips for parents. She righfully points out that American teens receive mixed messages about sex: "No, no, no," from many churches. "Yes, yes, yes," or at least "Wink, wink, nudge, nudge," from the culture at large. And she suggests, perhaps plausibly, that the resulting confusion may have something to do with the fact that while "levels of teen sexual activity look remarkably similar here and abroad," the U. S. has among the highest rates of "teen pregnancy, childbirth, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases" among industrialized nations.

So far, so good. But there is little discussion about the emotional impact of teen sexual activity, nothing said about the effect of such activity on one's attitudes towards one's self, one's partner or one's future partners. There is no discussion of whether one can diminish or damage the gift of one's sexuality through precocious experience. There's also nothing that deals with moral issues of when, with whom and under what circumstances the profound, complex act of mutual self-giving --with all its generative and destructive potential--should take place.

These are not strictly health section issues, but the headline asks "Is Teen Sex Bad?" not "Is Teen Sex Healthy?" I hope the Post takes another pass at this issue, perhaps on its religion pages where the conversation might have greater depth.

The Deadwood Promos on HBO

Have all you "Soparanos" fans out there seen the new commercials for Deadwood? What do you make of them?

For those who don't watch HBO on Sunday nights, these ads feature the various characters of the gold rush boom town of Deadwood, South Dakota reciting verses of Scripture as they go about their business or turn dramatically toward the camera. The first of these commercials took the Beatitudes as its text; the second took 1 Corinthians 12 on the unity of the body.

I gather that if you watch the show, you get a deeper appreciatiion of why character X is reciting verse Y. But I don't watch it, and I still think the commercials are pretty compelling. The shots are perfectly framed, and each character reads with quiet intensity.

These spots have led me to wonder why we in the Church haven't attempted to present the Bible to the world in similiarly innovative ways.

I've hunted around a bit for a link to these spots, but come up empty. If anybody has one, please let me know.

In the case of Darfur v. Cruise, Jocko and the Runaway Bride

... the television networks find for the celebrities.

Just in case you were wondering whether television news executives thought you were a shallow individual obsessed by trivial concerns, The St. Petersburg Times provides decisive evidence: They do.

Reporter Susan Taylor Martin's story begins:

As a measure of what the broadcast and cable news networks consider important, here’s how many segments they devoted last June to the runaway bride, Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise: 8,303.

Here’s how many they devoted to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan, that has killed at least 180,000 people: 126.

''There is a discounting of African lives that is complex, but what it comes down to is that the people of Darfur are poor, black, Muslim and don’t sit over any valuable natural resources,’’ said Eric Reeves, a Smith College expert on Sudan. “You can’t get any poorer than that geopolitically.’’

To the paper's credit, the story doesn't remain fixated on the imbecility of television news (fish in a barrel) but explains why it is in American's self-interest to be concerned about crises in distant lands.

Says Edward Kissi of the University of Soth Flordia: “It is very imperative — and practical — for the American people to do what they can to encourage their government and Arab governments to stem a tide of what is likely to be a very serous refugee inflow to the United States or other parts of the world.’’

After Somalia, another country in Africa’s eastern “horn,’’ descended into civil war and chaos in 1991, Minnesota, Maine and other states absorbed an estimated 40,000 Somali refugees. Critics say they have put a serious strain on schools, housing and social services.

(My thanks to FaithStreams for pointing this one out.)

Virtual Apocalypse

Here is an LA Times story that really gives me the willies. The video gaming industry has found God.

Dawn C. Chmielewski reports from the Electronic Entertainment Expo that the creators of video games are trying to reach a Christian audience by giving gamers an opportunity to do all the horrible stuff you can do in Grand Theft Auto, but do it in the name of God.

"One game, "Left Behind: Eternal Forces," which debuts today at the expo, features plenty of biblical smiting, albeit with high-tech weaponry as players battle the forces of the Antichrist in a smoldering world approaching Armageddon.

The creators hope the game packs enough action to appeal to a generation of kids reared on such titles as "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" and subtly coax them to consider their own spirituality....

The game is based on the best-selling series of "Left Behind" books, which offer an account of the end times as predicted in the biblical book of Revelation. One of the series' authors, Tim LaHaye, said the game had the potential to communicate ideas such as salvation to people who might not think of themselves as particularly interested.

'We hope teenagers like the game,' LaHaye said. "Our real goal is to have no one left behind."

But critics counter that, in an effort to make Christian games appealing, developers such as Lyndon and Frichner are doing little more than putting a religious veneer on the same violent fare."

A valid criticism. But what bothers me more is the possibility that kids who play these games might abosrb the warped theology of LeHaye, and begin thinking that they are competent to pass judgement and mete out punishment on God's behalf.

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