Mark Twain speaks freely

This week’s New Yorker has a new piece by Mark Twain.

Yeah, that Mark Twain.

It’s from a collection of previously unpublished writings, called “Who is Mark Twain?,” that comes out in April.

The essay, called “The Privilege of the Grave,” was written in 1905. It’s classic Twain.

The “privilege” of the grave, he contends, is that one can finally speak freely. Living people, on the other hand, almost never say what they really believe.

The essay includes this:

“An unpopular opinion concerning politics or religion lies concealed in the breast of every man; in many cases not only one sample, but several. The more intelligent the man, the larger the freightage of this kind of opinion he carries, and keeps to himself.”

A larger snippet is available on the Web for non-subscribers (and all of it for subscribers, of course).

Obama chooses Rick Warren to pray for him

So Rick Warren, the pastor-turned-celebrity who seems to be replacing Billy Graham as Rev. Icon, will give the invocation at Obama’s inauguration.

It’s a choice that will be analyzed to death.

Many will say, no doubt, that Obama’s selection of Warren instead of a classically liberal minister signals that he will indeed try to present himself as a centrist.

And, hey, Warren has a HUGE following.

Liberal standard-bearer People for the American Way is already blasting Obama’s choice:

Pastor Warren, while enjoying a reputation as a moderate based on his affable personality and his church’s engagement on issues like AIDS in Africa, has said that the real difference between James Dobson and himself is one of tone rather than substance. He has recently compared marriage by loving and committed same-sex couples to incest and pedophilia. He has repeated the Religious Right’s big lie that supporters of equality for gay Americans are out to silence pastors. He has called Christians who advance a social gospel Marxists. He is adamantly opposed to women having a legal right to choose an abortion.

If you want to learn more about Warren, Beliefnet boss Steven Waldman recently interviewed him.

The headline is Rick Warren’s Dark Night of the Soul. Oooohhhh…

I haven’t had a chance to watch the video (I will, I will), but Beliefnet released a set of talking points that are quite juicy, as far as these things go. I’m going to paste the whole thing, as it’s worth skimming:

*****

Most Likely to Infuriate Liberals:
Gay marriage is morally equivalent to allowing brothers and sisters to marry.
He opposes torture but didn’t try to convince President Bush to change course because “I never had the opportunity.”
A possibly veiled slap at Islam: “He could have made us all puppets. … He could have put us on strings and we’d pray five times a day and we’d have no choice.”
“Abortion reduction” efforts are mostly a “charade.”
His historical argument that “social gospel” Protestantism was “just Marxism in Christian clothing” and that “the mainline [Protestants] died.”

Most Likely to Infuriate Conservatives:
He supports partnership rights for gays including insurance and visitation benefits. This appears to be a similar position to that which just prompted the resignation of a top official of the National Association of Evangelicals.
His declaration that it’s a “no brainer” that divorce is a bigger threat to the American family than gay marriage, and that Christian leaders focus on gay marriage instead because “we always love to talk about other people’s sins.”
Religious conservatives have misled people into thinking Christ’s message was primarily about conservative politics and that politics is the primary way to change culture.
The Bush administration seems to have engaged in torture, which he condemned.
While condemning abortion as a Holocaust and abortion reduction as a “charade” he nonetheless said he would support those efforts, which he equated to Schindler’s list — a way of reducing the harm of an overall evil.

Most Likely to Titillate Theologians:
While your behavior doesn’t determine whether you get into heaven, it does determine what you do once you’re there.
His statement that “I really don’t know” whether people who don’t know about Christ will be blocked entry into heaven.
“God’s will is not done most of the time on earth. When people go, ‘oh, that hurricane must have been God’s will’ – baloney!”

Most Likely to Inspire and Challenge:
The story of his daughter in law’s brain tumor and its surprising lesson the family learned.
His relentless commitment to awakening Americans to African poverty.
His personal Christmas prayer.
His argument that the economic collapse comes from abandoning Biblical principles of thrift.

Your brain activity may trigger transcendence

A University of Missouri neuropsychologist is suggesting that feelings of transcendence and selflessness are related to decreased activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain.

Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the MU School of Health Professions, says that prayer or meditation can decrease activity in that part of the brain and increase one’s shot at transcendence.

He said:

The ability to connect with things beyond the self, such as transcendent experiences, seems to occur for people who minimize right parietal functioning. This can be attained through cultural practices, such as intense meditation or prayer or because of a brain injury that impairs the functioning of the right parietal lobe. Either way, our study suggests that ‘selflessness’ is a neuropsychological foundation of spiritual experiences.

In his research, Johnstone studied people with brain injuries and found that people with injuries to the right parietal lobe of the brain reported higher levels of spiritual experiences. As he explained:

Our research focused on the personal experience of spiritual transcendence and does not in any way minimize the importance of religion or personal beliefs, nor does it suggest that spiritual experience are related only to neuropsychological activity in the brain. It is important to note that individuals experience their God or higher power in many different ways, but that all people from all religions and beliefs appear to experience these connections in a similar way.

Johnstone is head of the spirituality and health research team for the Missouri Journalism School’s Center on Religion & the Professions.

After 7 years, Lutheran 9/11 relief agency done with work

In the days after 9/11, numerous religious groups stepped up to the challenge of providing for the material and spiritual needs of New Yorkers.

Among those that stepped up the most was Lutheran Disaster Relief of New York, an agency that was formed by the leaders of the two main Lutheran denominations in New York — the New York synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Over seven years, the agency distributed more than $9 million in grants, assistance, programs and services.

Lutheran Disaster Relief of New York recently disbanded and is worthy of a tribute. Lutherans don’t have the highest profile in New York’s religious mix these days, so many people not be aware of what the agency did.

The agency seemed to be involved with every corner of 9/11-related relief. John Scibilia, its first executive director (that’s him), helped me out with several 9/11-related stories and knew the right person to call on everything. The agency provided food vouchers for families, college tuition to people who lost parents, and was involved in numerous interfaith responses to 9/11.

The agency also provided $500,000 in grants to Koinonia, a Lutheran summer camp based in Sullivan County that offered numerous programs in NYC after 9/11: faith walks at Ground Zero, spiritual tours of downtown, summer Bible programs at city churches, and retreats for out-of-towners who wanted to do acts of kindness in NYC.

The agency’s commitment was due in large part to the commitment of Bishop Stephen Bouman, then head of the ELCA’s New York Synod, and the Rev. Dr. David Benke, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Atlantic District. The two are personal friends who didn’t let their theological differences affect their ability to work together to help those in need.

In 2004, Bouman wrote:

It has become clear to me that we’re entering an intense period of recovery. Far from being a distant memory, the tragic events of September 11, 2001, are looming larger than ever in the lives of its victims. A pastor tells me that he has just returned from visiting a widow of this tragedy in the hospital, who tried to take her life. The economic victims are struggling to find jobs, keep apartments, locate food, care for children in the midst of the hardest economy in recent memory. Many of the private and public disaster institutions are moving on, and many of the religious organizations have ceased giving any money for direct relief or funding of programs.

A theology of the cross and the generosity of our brothers and sisters in Christ keeps LDRNY in the midst of the comfort and renewal, working with others to help keep hope alive.

Around the same time, Benke wrote:

We’ve been learning what it means to be the Body of Christ. As the dust and ashes of mourning are remembered on this third commemoration, we pledge never to forget. But central to our remembrance is the Body and Blood of Christ, given and shed for us. Central to our remembrance is the strength of common action on behalf of hurting humanity granted to us as the Body called to action. Central to our remembrance is the connective tissue of our common Lutheran bond. Central to our remembrance is the frailty of the human condition and our desire to leave no one behind. And central to our remembrance is the undying commitment of LDRNY to bring comfort and renewal for years to come.

I know a lot of other religious agencies did big-time work after 9/11, but Lutheran Disaster Relief of New York was involved in everything and stuck it out for a long time. People should know.

Jewish groups lost tons with Madoff

It appears that Bernard Madoff’s allegedly vast Ponzi scheme is causing great pain for numerous Jewish institutions.

The Jewish Week reports that Yeshiva University has lost about $100 million from its endowment and that SAR Academy in Riverdale, a modern Orthodox school, lost about $1.3 million.

The LA Times reports that the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles lost about $6.4 million and that other Jewish groups in Southern Cal — not to mention Steven Spielberg — suffered losses.

“In a word, it’s a catastrophe — by far the biggest Jewish story of the year,” Rob Eshman, editor in chief of the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal, tells the LA Times.

According to the Associated Press, the Boston-based Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, a charity that financed trips to Israel for Jewish youth, said on its Web site that its operational money is gone.

“The money needed to fund the programs of the Lappin Foundation is gone,” it said. “The foundation staff has been terminated today.”

Burn on, Yule Log!

We just had a holiday lunch here at LoHud/The Journal News.

While a group of us were sitting around eating a Big Sandwich, assorted chicken dishes and sides, someone brought up the famous Yule Log on Channel 11 in New York.

Well, it’s famous to those who grew up in New York. In fact, someone at lunch said that you can tell a real New Yorker by whether or not one is familiar with — and has warm feelings toward — the Yule Log. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, it was popular with people of all faiths (make that Catholic and Jewish) because of the sheer absurdity of it.

The Yule Log was a TV program that aired on Christmas morning and, I think, Christmas Eve. It showed nothing more than a log burning in a fireplace. That’s it. No narration. No rolling headlines. No shifting camera angles. Just a log burning in a fireplace. Christmas music and secular, seasonal music played in the background.

It was such a city thing. Anyone who grew up in an apartment (like I did) or the kind of multi-family houses that were all over south Brooklyn could never imagine having a fireplace. Where would it go? How would the smoke get out? Where do you get wood? Fireplaces were for the country.

But we had the Yule Log. According to a fan site (hey, there is a fan site for everything), WPIX in New York — Channel 11 — started the Great Tradition in 1966. It was a film loop of a burning log that played over and over (some colleagues insist they remember seeing the film end and start again, but I don’t recall).

The original film was shot at Gracie Mansion, according to the WPIX website. On the first Christmas Eve it aired, WPIX sacrificed $4,000 in advertising and and canceled a roller derby show.

The Yule Log was discontinued after 1988. But WPIX brought it back in 2001, after 9/11.

In 2006, for the 40th anniversary of the Yule Log, WPIX aired a one-hour special about its strange but undeniable popularity through the years.

The WPIX website does not list the dates or times for this year’s Yule Log. But check back.

The website does make available a downloadable Yule Log for use on your video iPod.

Burn on, Yule Log! Burn on!

NCC speaks out on ‘Christian Zionism’

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the growing numbers of evangelical Christians who support Israel.

The movement — or belief — is often described as “Christian Zionism.”

It’s often said that Christian Zionists believe that Jews must be gathered in Israel before Christ can return, fulfilling biblical prophesy.

Now the generally liberal National Council of Churches has put out a brochure called Why We Should Be Concerned About Christian Zionism.

A release explains:

Christian Zionism, while ostensibly a Christian movement in support of Israel, actually has the opposite effect. This brochure shows Christian Zionism to be a misguided ideology that considers the State of Israel divinely ordained with the role of ushering in the end of history, where unconverted Jews and Christians of “questionable status” will be judged by God’s wrath. In fact, the brochure points out, many evangelical Christians and Israelis reject the notion.

Belief in Christian Zionism will get in the way of a two-state solution in the Middle East, the NCC says.

“The danger of this ideology is that it is a manipulation of Christian scripture and teaching,” says Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, NCC Senior Program Director for Interfaith Relations. “Unfortunately it has influence in American churches, to the point where many well-meaning Christians are swayed to support particularly destructive directions in U.S. foreign policy with regard to the Middle East.”

Arrangements for Cardinal Dulles

The Jesuits have announced the wake and funeral arrangements for Cardinal Dulles, both at Fordham and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Tomorrow and Wednesday, there will be a wake from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Fordham University Church in the Bronx. There will be a Mass of the Holy Name of Jesus there tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. and a Mass of the Holy Eucharist on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

On Thursday, there will be a wake at St. Patrick’s from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 2 p.m. Burial will follow at the Jesuit Cemetery in Auriesville, N.Y.

I’m on the ball…

Maybe it’s me, but…

Until today, I didn’t realize that Christmas is a federal holiday, designated by Congress. I didn’t think that any religious holidays were federal holidays.

But now that I think about it, there’s no mail on Christmas Day.

President Grant and Congress designated Christmas as a federal holiday in 1870.