The Bible as textbook

“An educated person knows the Bible.”

This is the theme of a national public service campaign now underway, co-sponsored by the “National Bible Association”: and the “Bible Literacy Project.”: More than 5,000 “billboards”: across the country are spreading the message this week.

It is an interesting question that does not get much public debate: Should the Bible be taught for its literary, cultural and historical value — apart from its religious meaning?

Scholars have been making this argument for some time, but their message gets swallowed up by the always-raging debate over church/state boundaries. It seems to me it’s not a church/state issue if you consider the undeniable influence of the Bible on American history, politics, culture and — yes — values.

Do the groups involved in this project want people to ultimately find religious meaning in the Bible? Sure. But the truth is that an educated American really does have to know something about the Bible.

The Bible Literacy Project has created a Bible textbook for schools that is being used in 28 states after one year.

The public service campaign is urging people to read two recent reports conducted by the Bible Literacy Project and funded by the “John Templeton Foundation”: that deal with biblical literacy.

Among the findings:

— University professors surveyed, including those at the “secular” Ivy League, listed more than 60 books they use that require knowledge of the Bible.

— A Gallup poll of teens showed that students “do not know enough about the Bible to properly understand British and American literature or understand the Bible’s impact on art, music, history and culture.”

ABC: No God on the jumbotron

In 2003, I wrote about Reuters banning the United Methodist Church from advertising on the company’s 7,000-square-foot Times Square billboard known as “The Big Picture.”

Reuters eventually reconsidered a policy that banned ads of a religious, political or sexual nature.

Up went the United Methodist message, for all of Times Square to see: “If you wish to share your gifts with others, and perhaps receive something in return, we are the United Methodist Church.”

It’s deja vu in 2006, except it’s a Pentecostal message getting nixed instead of a mainline theme.

The Assemblies of God began a “14-day outreach”: in New York City on Monday. As part of the campaign, the Pentecostal denomination contracted to advertise on two “jumbotrons” in Times Square, one owned by ABC and one by NBC.

The denomination, based in Springfield, Mo., planned to run spots with the theme: “God gives hope.”

But Disney-owned ABC pulled the plug on their jumbotron at the last minute because of the “religious nature” of the message.

There hasn’t been much of an outcry. The Assembies of God, in a “press release,”: played down the whole thing in favor of emphasizing their overall outreach.

And they are still on the NBC jumbotron. They’ll be there on Thanksgiving day and through Nov. 26. Let’s see if ABC is pressured to reconsider their decision.

A fellow religion writer named Frank Lockwood of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader first wrote about the ABC decision on his outstanding “Bible Belt Blogger.”: He points out that the Assemblies of God have been very critical of Disney in the past.

Does “Head of Christ” still hang?

Dimitri Cavalli is a freelance writer from the Bronx who has written several thoughtful notes to me over the years on matters of religion. He’s also had a few op-eds in The Journal News.

Today, Cavalli has an interesting “opinion piece”: in The Wall Street Journal about a bizarre church/state conflict in Bridgeport, W.Va.

It seems that a copy of Warner Sallman’s famous portrait, “Head of Christ,”: had been hanging outside the principal’s office at Bridgeport High School for 37 years. Then two residents decided that it shouldn’t be there.


Read Cavalli’s column to find out what happened and to get his take on what’s at stake.

Cavalli, a graduate of Fordham with a master’s from Catholic University, is a social studies editor for a textbook publishing company. He’s written for everyone from the Jerusalem Post to Inside the Vatican to First Things.

He tells me he’s planning to write books on Pope Pius XII and Joe McCarthy, the late Yankees’ manager.

Clear-eyed fundamentalists

I just read an AP report about the last of several hundred Southern Baptists leaving the Buffalo, N.Y., area. They came to help Western New Yorkers dig out after last month’s two-foot snowfall.

The group answered more than 700 calls for help, handed out hundreds of Bibles and elicited 15 “professions of faith,â€? said Gerald Peters, the “incident commander” from near Muskogee, Okla.

The volunteers, in bright yellow shirts and caps, met at suburban Amherst Baptist Church for breakfast before sunrise and then went out on assignments with chainsaws, Bibles and bagged lunches.

Buffalo is an old-time Catholic hub, just down the road from Canada. Buffalonians had to be a tad mystified by their southern Protestant visitors. But Southern Baptists are spending more time in the Northeast these days. In fact, they just finished a multi-year evangelism campaign in NYC.

You have to love this comment from volunteer Richard Barnwell of Charleston, S.C.:

“The image of the Southern Baptists is that we’re wild-eyed fundamentalists. We may be fundamentalists but we’re not wild-eyed.�

Thou shalt laugh (if it’s funny)

A pay-per-view feature on Direct TV this month is called “Thou Shalt Laugh.”:

It’s a collection of stand-up routines by Christian comedians, hosted by Patricia Heaton, who played Ray Romano’s neurotic wife on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

I’m not sure what Christian comedy might sound like. Funny takes on verses from Scripture? Goofy tales from church socials? You have to figure that there won’t be any four-letter words. No, Chris Rock is not participating.

The line-up: Thor Ramsey, Michael Jr., Jeff Allen, Teresa Roberts Logan, Joby Saad, Gilbert Esquivel and Taylor Mason.

Nobody I know. But that doesn’t mean they’re not funny. In fact, the website brags: “If you are looking for funny, your prayers have been answered!

I’m not sure if cable system are showing it (I get Direct TV for the pro football package). But you can order a DVD from the website.

When are Jewish comedians going to do a show? Just kidding.

I think I’ll check out “Thou Shalt Laugh” and report back…

Priestly celibacy not going anywhere

Many American Catholics like to predict that priestly celibacy is on its way out. It’s just a matter of time.

No, it’s wishful thinking.

Pope Benedict XVI and top Vatican officials met today and “reaffirmed”: the value of celibacy for priests.

“The value of the choice of priestly celibacy according to the Catholic tradition was reaffirmed, and the need for solid human and Christian formation was underlined, both for seminarians and for those already ordained,” a brief Vatican statement said.

They did leave open the possibility that some former priests who left the priesthood to marry may be able to return to ministry in some way.

The evangelist at the Garden

A “born again” evangelist opens a four-day run today at The Garden. Madison Square Garden.

His name is “Pastor Ock Soo Park.”: Heard of him? Probably not.

He’s the guy who had a full-page ad in the New York Times a few days back. It included an entire sermon.

I don’t know how many New Yorkers are aware of the growth of Korean Protestant churches across the entire region. Some of the most vibrant Methodist and Presbyterian churches around are Korean congregations.

For decades, South Korea’s Protestant community has been growing in numbers and zeal. It is an evangelistic community — cutting across denominational lines — and Korean immigrants are bringing that passion to the U.S.

Park says he has been preaching “the faith that is born again after receiving the forgiveness of sin” in churches, prisons, military bases, leper villages and schools.

He is “preaching”: at the Garden at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. today through Sunday. Admission is free.

Talking Jewish education in L.A.

The 75th United Jewish Communities “General Assembly”: concluded this morning at the LA Convention Center, where 3,000 Jewish activists from across the U.S. spent the week talking about the issues of the day.

There was a lot of focus on Israel, of course, especially with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaking on Tuesday. He said that it would be an “unbearable sin” if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

“We cannot tolerate, we will not tolerate, those who challenge Israel’s right to exist while actively seeking to develop the catastrophic weapons to fulfill their goals,� Olmert said.

Of course, what he means by “will not tolerate” is one of the great questions facing the Bush administration and the world.

But closer to home, the three heads of the major seminaries for Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism also gathered at the GA for a joint appearance. It was the first public meeting for Richard Joel, president of modern Orthodoxy’s Yeshiva University; Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary; and Rabbi Norman Cohen, provost of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

They talked about what they have in common: engaging and educating young Jews.

Joel said that the movements will never see eye-to-eye on many things:

“We have huge differences between us that will never be overcome. There are boundaries we can’t bridge. Good will will not overcome those boundaries.â€?

But he also said that he’s glad that the Conservative and Reform movements are stressing Jewish education:

“We are better served by having a generation that’s in play Jewishly than people who just disappear. I think we all share that.�

Eisen said that Jewish communities have to do a better job of reaching young adults:

“We can’t really look at 18-year-olds and 25-year-olds as future propagators of the Jewish people. We have to work with them as individuals with hearts and souls and minds that we need right now; that we have something to say to right now.â€?

Cohen said that the joint appearance was an important statement on the priority of Jewish education:

“Our mere presence here is a statement of unified vision.â€?

I was wrong on Episcopal vote…

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.

A few days back, I blogged about the “annual convention”: of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, which was being held in Tarrytown. Delegates were preparing to vote on whether to ask Bishop Mark Sisk to ignore a recent directive of the national church, which asks bishops not to choose openly gay bishops for the foreseeable future.

The 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, as Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire has, of course, divided the church and threatened to separate the Episcopal Church from the worldwide Anglican Communion.

A resolution adopted by the national church’s General Convention in July asked bishops to “exercise restraint” when selecting new bishops.

I wrote that delegates to the New York convention were likely to ask their bishop to ignore the national church’s request.

I was wrong.

Instead, delegates broke their resolution into two parts. The first simply reaffirmed that when the New York Diocese considers someone for ordination, the person’s sexual orientation will not be raised. Everyone knows this is the position in New York and the resolution passed overwhelmingly.

The second resolution raised the key question. It read like this:

“Resolved, That, notwithstanding Resolution B-033 of the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church that calls upon Bishops with jurisdiction and Standing Committees ‘…to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion,’ this 230th Convention of the Diocese of New York calls upon the Bishop of New York and the Standing Committee of this Diocese nevertheless to uphold the canons of our church and the resolutions of this Diocese in both letter and spirit and to consider irrelevant the sexual orientation of candidates when considering consents to the ordination and consecration of Bishops-elect.”

The resolution was defeated 138 (no) to 114 (yes).

I wasn’t there, but I’m told that at least one speaker made the point that liberal Episcopalians always complain about conservative Episcopalians ignoring decisions of the General Convention that they don’t like. For the New York Diocese to do the same thing would be hypocritical.

Delegates also avoided putting Bishop Sisk in the difficult position of having to choose between allegiances to his diocese and the General Convention.

Now it’s about “kitchen table” values

Two years ago, all we heard was that the evangelical Christian vote had turned the tide for President Bush and the GOP. It was all about “moral values.”

Not surprisingly, religious groups that don’t see eye-to-eye with the “religious right” are trumpeting the values that supposedly drove voters to go for Democrats this year.

Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, two groups that might be described as liberal to moderate, say that a “new exit poll”: shows that voters were moved by “kitchen table” moral issues. What does Faith in Public Life mean by kitchen table issues?

“Iraq was considered the ‘moral issue that most affected your vote’ by 45.8% of voters, almost 6 times as many voters as abortion and almost 5 times as many as same-sex marriage,” the group said. “Iraq was the top moral issue among Catholics, Born-again Christians and frequent church attendees.”


“Poverty and economic justice topped the list of ‘most urgent moral problem in American culture.’ â€?


“When Catholics were asked to name the most important value guiding their vote, 67% chose ‘A commitment to the common good – the good of all not just the few’ while 22% chose ‘Opposing policies such as legal abortion, gay marriage, and embryonic stem cell research.’ â€?

The national poll was conducted Nov. 7-10 by Zogby International for Religion in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

What does it all mean? Did a large number of Americans change their moral priorities — their values — during the past two years, leading them to look at different issues (poverty, say, instead of stem cells)?

Or did many Americans simply focus on different issues (say, Iraq) that don’t fit it in the conservative moral values framework, but can easily be considered kitchen table fare?

Probably both. You can bet that whichever party takes the White House in 2008 will claim that the right values inspired voters to see the light.