A right to Wal-Mart’s head, a left to the body

Boy, Wal-Mart can’t catch a break.

Last year, the American Family Association and the Catholic League called for a boycott of Wal-Mart and other retailers that asked employees to greet shoppers with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Wal-Mart learned its lesson and “reversed”:http://money.cnn.com/2006/11/09/news/companies/walmart_christmas/ its greeting policy last month, in time for this month’s national shopping spree.

Now activists on the left are going after Wal-Mart for selling the “Left Behind: Eternal Forces” video game.

The “Campaign to Defend the Constitution,”:http://www.defconamerica.org/ a group that says it is trying to combat the growing power of the religious right, is taking aim at the game — “in which born-again Christians aim to convert or kill those who don’t adhere to their extreme ideology. Disturbingly, the game’s apparent attempts at religious indoctrination are aimed at children and focus on violent, divisive, and hateful scenarios.”

The CDC has joined with CrossWalk America, the Christian Alliance for Progress, The Center for Progressive Christianity, and The Beatitudes Society in calling for Wal-Mart to take the game off its shelves.

Wal-Mart has grown so big and powerful that every step it takes — every word its employees say and every item it sells — is seen by some as a measuring stick for what’s right or wrong with America. Imagine the time that Wal-Mart’s big-wigs must spend trying to anticipate the reactions from right and left to their every move.

Bad joke, but good bulbs

I don’t know about the name of the campaign — “How many Jews does it take to screw in a light bulb?” It’s a bit too obvious, I think.

But two national Jewish groups are urging Jews to mark Hanukkah, the festival of lights, by switching from regular light bulbs to compact energy-efficient bulbs.

The groups, the “Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life”:http://www.coejl.org/Hanukkah/index.php and the “Jewish Council for Public Affairs,”:http://www.jewishpublicaffairs.org/ are promoting the switch as part of a larger push for Jews to become more environmentally aware.

The coalition sells the good bulbs itself. “We estimate that we will be reaching to 50,000 bulbs sold, which will prevent over 18,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions from entering our atmosphere,” the group says.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said this:

“Climate change is causing climate injustice around the world. As Jews we can not stand idly by as others suffer.�

Christmas Radio (and Hanukkah, too)

Coast to coast, 399 radio stations are now playing Christmas music around the clock, according to the Associated Press.

Most of the stations switched over after Thanksgiving and will keep going until around New Year’s. Some markets have several competing stations all playing Christmas tunes round the clock.

The tabulations come from Tom Taylor, editor of “Inside Radio.”http://www.insideradio.com/

The top 10 Christmas songs played the week after Thanksgiving were:

1. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, Brenda Lee
2. A Holly Jolly Christmas, Burl Ives
3. Jingle Bell Rock, Bobby Helms
4. Feliz Navidad, Jose Feliciano
5. The Christmas Song, Nat King Cole
6. White Christmas, Bing Crosby
7. Please Come Home For Christmas, The Eagles
8. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, Andy Williams
9. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) John Lennon
10. It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, Johnny Mathis

While Christmas music is everywhere right now, satellite radio is making it possible for Hanukkah music to reach its audience.

XM Satellite Radio has “Radio Hanukkah”:http://www.xmradio.com/hanukkah/index.xmc playing almost 24/7. The music will stop for candlelight blessings beginning on Friday night (the start of Hanukkah) and for some special Hanukkah programming.

“Merry Christmas” no problem for most

Wal-Mart and other retailers can feel pretty darn comfortable wishing shoppers “Merry Christmas,” according to a new Zogby “poll.”:http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1213

A whopping 95 percent of Americans are not offended when they are greeted with a “Merry Christmas” while shopping, according to the poll. But 46 percent DO take offense at a greeting of “Happy Holidays.”

Among non-Christians, only 10 percent do not want to hear “Merry Christmas.” Among Jews, in particular, 32 percent prefer not to hear it.

According to the poll, 36 percent of shoppers have cut their shopping short or avoided returning to a store where they heard “Happy Holidays.”

What does it mean? The U.S. is overwhelmingly Christian (surprise) and even among non-Christians, Christmas is a cultural season or even a secular holiday that is just a fact of life.

Can a non-Christian even avoid being wished a “Merry Christmas” in December? One would have to live in a Jewish or Muslim enclave, not turn on the TV, not go to work and not go shopping.

The myth of ‘Christmas myths’

For quite some time, scholars have insisted that many aspects of the Christmas story are myths steeped in pagan tradition.

But not all of them. Jack Kinneer, a New Testament professor at the generally conservative Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, insists that modern scholarship about the Christmas narrative is itself a web of myth.

He recently “outlined”:http://www.rpts.edu/pres_news_article.asp?articleid=37 some popular beliefs about Christmas and just why they’re wrong.

For instance:

Popular Myth: We can only vaguely date when Jesus was born within years.

Kinneer’s Reply: Scripture, ancient historical records, and modern astronomy enable us to pinpoint the birth of Jesus within a few months prior to the death of Herod over the winter of 5-4 B.C.

Popular Myth: Matthew made up the story about the appearance of a star.

Kinneer’s Reply: No he didn’t. Modern astronomy calculations confirm extraordinary planetary phenomena during this exact time period.

There are others.

“Popular culture suggests, but good scholarship demonstrates,� Kinneer says. “Scripture is very precise on the particulars of the Christmas Story. It all fits with other known facts and is easy to see if you’ve done your homework.�

Bridgeport abuse papers may see light

So, a Superior Court judge in Connecticut ruled Wednesday that sealed documents from sex abuse cases in the Diocese of Bridgeport should be open to public view.

Judge Jon Alander ruled that that there is no reason to keep the documents secret, according to the Associated Press. The cases were settled, so ensuring a fair trial is not an issue.

“The public’s right of access to those documents is particularly strong in these cases due to the extraordinary public interest in knowing whether minors in Connecticut were sexually abused by priests employed by the Diocese and whether the Diocese was responsible for perpetuating that abuse,” Alander wrote.

The Diocese of Bridgeport has been fighting like heck to keep the documents shuttered away since several newspapers sought to have them unsealed in 2002.

The diocese is not happy. Here is its “statement”:http://www.bridgeportdiocese.com/story_12-6-06.shtml in full:

“We are disappointed by Judge Jon M. Alander’s decision.

“Judge Alander acknowledges that these sensitive materials are protected by recognized legal privileges, but he has decided to release them to the public anyway. This case raises significant legal questions concerning the rights of litigants – particularly those who settle their cases to preserve their privacy and hope to move forward with their lives.

“The Diocese of Bridgeport has been open and proactive on the issues surrounding the sexual abuse controversy. We will continue that approach. In our view, however, reopening and exposing long-settled cases, extensively covered by the media, to renewed public scrutiny is not a productive way to achieve the healing and resolution that the community seeks on these issues.

“All parties before the courts should be assured of the impartiality of the legal process. For this reason, the Diocese had previously sought to disqualify Judge Alander because, at the very moment he was considering this case, he sat on a judicial panel with jurists and media representatives – including one from the Hartford Courant (a party adverse to the Diocese in this case) – to discuss and recommend policies regarding public access to documents.

“Judge Alander ruled against this disqualification himself.

“The Diocese is now considering what we believe to be significant grounds for appeal in this matter.”

Sounds like an appeal is likely. According to AP, Alander placed a 20-day stay on release of the documents, anyway.

The ruling affects about two dozen sex abuse lawsuits against the diocese that were settled in 2001 by the Connecticut firm of “Tremont & Sheldon,”:http://www.tremont-sheldon.com/church_timeline.htm representing at least 23 victims of abuse, the diocese and Cardinal Edward Egan. Egan was bishop of Bridgeport when some of the abuse is alleged to have taken place.

This case has been bouncing around for years, so who knows where it will end. This much, however, is known: If the papers are released, there will be tremendous interest in what they say.

America’s most fascinating pastor

Barbara Walters will unveil her “10 Most Fascinating People of 2006”:http://www.abcmedianet.com/ph_search/search_lv.htm?prog_num=PH7904&leftcol=none next Tuesday (the 10th) at 10 p.m. EST on ABC.

One of the 10 is “Joel Osteen,”:http://joelosteen.lakewood.cc/site/PageServer?pagename=JOM_homepage the friendly, non-judgmental, always positive televangelist from Lakewood Church in Houston. He’s on TV all the time, even in New York, and people periodically ask me about him.

My impression is that when people are clicking around and land on one of his sermons, they stick around a while. Even folks who would never listen to a televangelist. There is something about Osteen preaching to 16,000 people in a former basketball arena.

Joel Osteen

He’s so positive and cheerful (you can’t imagine him having a fight with his wife or yelling at his kids to turn down the TV) that he makes you want to know what he’s talking about.

But I can’t quite figure that out. Critics say his theology is paper-thin. Many don’t like his emphasis on building material wealth. His best-selling book, “Your Best Life Now,” struck me as a typical stay-focused-and-have-goals self-help job.

But it’s working. I walked into a Barnes & Noble in NYC yesterday and there was a big display of an audio version of his book — right between Jon Stewart and Mitch Albom.

Let’s see in Barbara can make him cry. Or get him to say what he thinks.

Gay men OK, but not gay sex

Several people have already asked me today how Conservative rabbis could endorse the idea that gays and lesbians should have full Jewish rights — but that gay men cannot have anal sex?

One person asked me why the rabbis picked on what gay men do, but had nothing to say about lesbians?

A few wondered how gay men can be considered equals if they are not allowed to have gay sex?

One person asked how the rabbis could even talk about it. They’re rabbis, not Dr. Phils…

Fair questions all.

As I wrote in today’s “Journal News/LoHud.com,”:http://www.lohud.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061207/NEWS01/612070373/1276 Rabbi Elliot Dorf, who co-authored a position paper that made the case for full gay rights but no anal sex, addressed this question at yesteday’s press conference at Park Avenue Synagogue. The meeting was called to announce the decisions of Conservative legal scholars on how to understand homosexuality in the modern world.

It all comes down this most famous line from Leviticus: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a abomination.”

Dorf said that Conservative Judaism relies heavily on rabbinic tradition, which has held that the line from the Torah is referring to male gay sex. Anal sex.

Dorf, who has a lesbian daughter, said that he and the two other rabbis who co-authored the paper wanted to bring gays and lesbians into full Jewish life. Their paper says that gays shoud be eligible for ordination as rabbis and that same-sex relationships should be recognized by Conservative Jews.

He even said that he hoped same-sex couples would have lots of children and help build Conservative demograpics.

But he could not cross the line on accepting anal sex. Rabbinic tradition has been too clear on this point.

“We are a rabbinic tradition and what is really important is how the rabbis understood the verse,” he said. “They understood it to prohibit anal sex between men.”

Still, what does it mean that anal sex is prohibited? As one rabbi told me after the press conference, it’s prohibited officially. The ban is on the books.

But no one is going to be asking gay couples about what goes on in their bedrooms.

The big Conservative decision(s)

It was quite a scene this afternoon at Park Avenue Synagogue in NYC, where leaders of the Conservative Jewish movement called a press conference to announce the results of a three-year study of how to understand homosexuality in the modern world.

We gathered inside a small sanctuary, where the press and cameramen filled most of the first three pews. Rabbis sat in the back pews looking mostly anxious.

So it was announced that a committee of Conservative rabbis had approved two positions. The first was a “renewal” of the prohibition of homosexuality (meaning no gay rabbis and no blessing same-sex couples).

But the second offered something like equal religious rights to gays and lesbians, saying they can become rabbis and their unions can be blessed by the movement. The only hedge — and it’s a big one — was a ban on anal sex. But, as several rabbis said afterward, no one is going to check.

So now Conservative Judaism has two contradictory positons on homosexuality. Each individual congregation can choose to abide by one — or go in their own direction. It will take a lot of time to sort things out.

The movement’s leaders did a good, patient job of trying to explain the complex, nuanced process that led to the two-headed finale. They answered lots of questions from TV reporters, some insightful, some not so much. And they tried to put a good spin on the whole thing, saying that Conservative Judaism is used to having several positions for rabbis and congregations to sort through.

They weren’t so keen to explain why four rabbis quit the decision-making committee. One of the rabbis who quit, Rabbi Joel Roth, actually succeeded in having the traditional ban renewed. But he couldn’t abide by three position papers (one that passed, two that didn’t) that he felt were beyond the pale.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker of White Plains looked amused through much of the proceedings. He wrote one of the papers that did not get approved, calling for full inclusion for gays and lesbians.

He told me afterward that it was a kick to hear reporters ask all the questions that the rabbis have been asking themselves. For instance: Can the movement stay together when it has adopted such different positions on the most controversial religious question of the day?

Refining the ‘portable church’

The storefront church has always been unique because of its informality, its smallness, its gumption.

When you drive by a start-up church wedged into a tiny storefront, you know that a pastor or a handful of people are taking a faithful shot at building a congregation despite the odds. They’re often on the go, moving from spot to spot on short-term leases, or even renting spaces just for Sunday (meaning they have to set up and break down every week).

But even storefront churches, apparently, can learn to do it better.

On March 1 and 2, pastors from across the country who started small are holding the “Momentum Conference”:http://www.momentumconference.com/index.html in Miami to give advice and training to folks from “portable churches.” They’re talking about churches in movie theaters, schools, community centers, rolling skating rinks and “even Taco Bells.” (The safe Taco Bells, you have to figure).

The website puts it like this:

“Momentum is a conference for churches that don’t have a permanent home, but desire to ‘do church’ with excellence no matter where they meet.”