The “season” is coming

Publishers send me a lot of books about religion. I don’t ask for them, because I don’t do reviews. But I must get 5-15 a week. I read as many as I can and save others for reference (My bookcase, across from my desk, looks like it may crumble at any moment).

I think I’ll flag some interesting books here. Some that I’ve read. Some that you may want to read.

It’s mid-October, meaning that the Christmas season is near. Soon as the pumpkins and witches come down, supermarkets and department stores will break out the green, red and white lights.

And then people will start complaining about the commercialization of Christmas. Happens every year. It’s part of the season. (The supposed “War on Christmas” is a much more recent concern, which I’ll get to one of these days, I’m sure).

Well, “Sharon Hanby-Robie,”: a home designer who appears on the QVC network, has a new book, “A Simple Christmas: A Faith-Filled Guide to a Meaningful and Stress-Free Christmas.”

She talks about the “myth of the perfect Christmas,” reigning in “Christmas competititon,” the reasons for the rituals, the “gift of giving” and other mini-subjects that may appeal to a lot of folks.

I’m not sure which Christian tradition Hanby-Robie belongs to, but she’s starting a monthly article for evangelical superstar Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life website.”:

Observing the Amish reaction

Last week’s horrible tragedy in Lancaster County, Pa., has brought an inevitable, newfound curiosity about “the Amish.”: In general, observers seem to be deeply impressed with, and moved by, the Amish reaction.

The Rev. Timothy Schenck, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor, wrote in a Sunday column in The Journal News/ that the Amish reaction was a testament to the power and strength of their faith.

“The Amish have modeled a different response; a response that says closure begins with forgiveness rather than retaliation,” he wrote. “They have given us as a nation much to reflect upon in our own dealings with the world community.”

The Rev. Rob Schenck (no relation to Tim), president of the conservative National Clergy Council, has written about attending the Amish mourning rituals for the five girls who died.

“The talk was constantly of God and prayer and love,” Schenck wrote. “It was so pronounced it was palpable. The mother tending to her daughter as the girl lay in an open coffin, said with a teary smile to the many children around her, ‘See, she’s with God in heaven now.’ ”

I think it’s fair to say that many people look at the Amish with bemusement. They refuse to accept the modern world, basing their daily lives on a very simple Christian faith. But how many people will never think the same way about them after reading about how they immediately embraced the relatives of the man who brought them sorrow?

At the movies…

I’ve got to see “Jesus Camp.”:

I’ve been hearing people talking about the movie, even people who don’t normally talk about religious matters. There’s something about the subject — a summer camp for evangelical Christian youth — that has people mighty curious. The film, from what I understand, focuses on efforts to make these kids want to get involved in political and civic life, as committed Christian soldiers.

Some evangelicals like it. Some really don’t. I suppose it’s the kind of movie that can influence the way non-evangelicals (Hello liberal New Yorkers) think about evangelical culture.

I better see it soon, because a slew of religion-themed movies is on the way. “One Night With the King,”: about the biblical queen Esther, is opening Friday. “Conversations with God: The Movie,”: about the best-selling author Neale Donald Walsch and his angry letter to God, opens Oct. 27.

And it’s not even holiday season. Yet. 

Meet the Faith Club

I just got back from Larchmont, where I interviewed Priscilla Warner for an article I’ll write next week. If you haven’t heard of her, that may change over the coming months.

Priscilla and two acquaintances have just released a book called “The Faith Club.”: She is Jewish. Suzanne Oliver is Christian. Ranya Idliby is Muslim. The book describes their relationships and their ongoing conversations on matters of faith.

It may sound like a feel-good, touchy-feely kind of project. But it’s not. The book deals head on with the major conflicts between the three Abrahamic faiths — the blaming of the Jewish people for the crucifixion, the dislocation of the Palestinians at the creation of Israel, and other minefields.

The three are all moderate to liberal on religious matters. More conservative or orthodox readers will have bones to pick, I’m sure.

But when you read the book, you get to watch three people grow. They learn not only about the other faiths, but about their own. Priscilla, in particular, in disarmingly funny and honest. They want to encourage people around the country to start their own faith clubs.

“I do not represent all Jews,” Priscilla told me. “I’m just one Jew! I feel like I’m channeling Jackie Mason.”

The Faith Club will appear together at “Bryant Park”: in NYC on Oct. 15 and at “Larchmont Public Library”: on Nov. 19.

The quiet Reformation

If you believe a new study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, something along the lines of a second Christian Reformation is taking place around the world. Right now.

Pew released a “major study”: today on Pentecostal and charismatic Christians in 10 countries. Among its findings: at least one-quarter of the more than 2 billion Christians in the world are Pentecostal or charismatic (including — get this — almost one-quarter of all Americans).

I bet that many New Yorkers, including Catholics and mainline Protestants, are not quite sure what Pentecostal and charismatic Christians believe. Many are probably vaguely aware that these groups are part of the vast evangelical culture “out there.”

In general, Pentecostals and charismatics believe that the Holy Spirit works in their lives through divine healing, prophesy and speaking in tongues. Pentecostals identify themselves as such, often belonging to Pentecostal churches and denominations. Charismatics may belong to Catholic, mainline Protestant or other broader church movements.

These groups are often quite conservative on theological and moral matters. The Pew Forum did its study, in fact, because of the impact that Pentecostals and charismatics are likely to have in politics and social affairs — in the U.S. and around the world.

One finding: In the U.S., 79 percent of Pentecostals and 71 percent of charismatics believe that religious groups should express their views on social and political questions.

You have to believe they will.

U2 in church

The idea of an Episcopal worship service featuring the music of U2 might sound inappropriate or just goofy, the latest attempt to bring the elusive “youth” into church.

But the Rev. Timothy Schenck, rector of “All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor,” last night walked me through the “U2 Eucharist” that his church will offer next Saturday, Oct. 14, at 7:00 p.m.

You may have to see it to understand — and I know that it will not be for everyone — but it just kind of made sense. Depending on where you’re coming from, it may be pretty cool and perfectly acceptable as an Episcopal service.

The liturgy is an Episcopal liturgy, including Communion. But the music is all Bono and the boys.

An Episcopal priest in Maine, the “Rev. Paige Blair,”: devised the U2 Eucharist last year, and it’s been catching on across the country. I know a lot of people will scoff. But stop a second and listen to or read the lyrics to “In the Name of Love” or “One.”

And it’s all about raising money for Bono’s well-known “cause:”: to stamp out extreme poverty around the globe.

An exciting opportunity

I was doing some work at home this morning when the phone rang. It was one of those pre-recorded voices that usually belongs to County Exec Andy Spano or another politician who wants to remind me that Election Day is approaching.

This time, though, the voice asked me if I might be interested in a new church that a group of Christians had founded in my area. The voice promised a contemporary church, but “one rooted in the historic Christian faith.” The church has a “high energy” nursery school, he said.

Finally, the voice promised to send me “literature about this exciting opportunity” if I left my name and information after the beep.

I don’t know if churches are using this kind of telemarketing elsewhere in the country, but I haven’t heard of such a thing. Did the new congregation in my region hire a marketing consultant? How did they pull this together? I wonder.

After the beep, I left my name and identified myself as a religion writer for The Journal News who would like more information about the new church and its recorded message.

Let’s see if I hear back and what I find out.

All Spirit, but no spirituality

Maybe it’s me, but the marketing for Friday’s “Power Within”: gathering at the Jacob Javitz Convention Center in NYC sure rings of — for lack of a better word — evangelism.

The ads promise “One Full Day of Inspiration, Motivation and Entertainment that will ignite your Spirit!”

Ignite your Spirit? They even capitalize the “S.” It’s like evangelism without the religion part.

The Big Day will feature Bill Clinton on leadership, Lance Armstrong on motivation , former Walt Disney CEO Mike Eisner on management and other preachers, uh, I mean, motivators.

I guess it’s no surprise that the motivational speaking universe would borrow some jargon and marketing tactics from the evangelism world. It’s not hard to imagine televangelist/megachurch pastor/best-selling author Joel Osteen on the same program.

“And featuring Joel Osteen on Your Best Life Now!” Yeah!

Tickets for the event, by the way, range from $195 for “festival seating” (I wonder if they’ll have those big, foam, #1s with Bill Clinton’s mug on them) to $995 for “VIP executive rows 1-5.” 

The evolution debate (elsewhere)

On Friday evening, I’ll be very interested to hear “Eric Rothschild”: speak at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains. He was one of the lead lawyers who helped kill “intelligent design” in the Dover, Pa., public schools last year.

Much of the time, when you cover religion in New York, you kind of feel cut off from the rest of the country.

Many issues and conflicts that are of great interest in the “red states,” especially those that are driven by evangelical Christians, don’t really resonate in the New York suburbs.

One of the hottest church/state controversies the past few years has been the growing evangelical opposition to the teaching of evolution in public school classrooms. Polls show that 35 to 50 percent of Americans believe that the world was created in less than 10,000 years, meaning that the theory of evolution can’t possibly be right.

But when I looked last year into the situation in New York state, I found…quiet. No controversy. No conflict. The New York science curriculum is filled with evolution and natural selection. Students have to understand these concepts if they want to pass their Regents exams. There is no call — at least, not yet — for the teaching of anything like “intelligent design.”

So I’ll be curious to hear what Rothschild has to say. Dover, Pa., isn’t that far away. Is evolution safe, for now? Or will the battle spread to the blue states?

His talk is open to the public. 8 p.m. Kol Ami is at 252 Soundview Ave.

Madonna the martyr

Madonna really does think she is some kind of a martyr, doesn’t she? I think that those of us who have had to live through one Madonna controversy after another for the last 20 years are truly suffering.

Regardless, the tension is building over whether Madonna will “crucify” herself on NBC next month. During “sweeps week,” of course.

On her current tour, during the song “Live to Tell” (a pretty good one, by the way), Madonna appears on a mirrored cross. She wears a crown of thorns. This part of the show was not received all that well in Rome, or by a few outspoken Christian leaders in the U.S.

It might not be that big a deal if NBC wasn’t going to show an entire concert next month. Bill Donohue, the in-your-face president of The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is one of several Christian watchdog-types who have demanded that NBC not show the crucifixion scene. Yesterday, Donohue said that if the scene is not removed, his group and the Parents Television Council will organize a boycott of one of the show’s sponsors.

As of two weeks ago, NBC was reported to be uncertain about what to do. It seems to me that if NBC doesn’t tip its hand before the concert airs, ratings will be through the roof. Everyone will tune in to see who gets crucified — Madonna, NBC or a sponsor.