The curse of Abraham?

Among people trying to promote interfaith relations, it is a common cry to note that Jews, Christians and Muslims are all children of Abraham.

But Bruce Chilton, a distinguished prof of religion up at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, has wondered about the legacy of Abraham’s story. In a new book, Abraham’s Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he looks at the meaning of sacrifice, in particular God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice a son.

He says that the religions have used the story to glorify the idea of human sacrifice…

And get what Chilton what told ReligionDispatches about the genesis of his project:

In the autumn of 1976, I began my first full-time academic appointment at Sheffield University in England. One afternoon, after meetings with students, I struck up a conversation with a colleague who was (and is) an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

We talked about Abraham’s offer to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. Both Judaism and Christianity took that story and changed its ending. According to some graphic accounts, Abraham actually slaughtered the boy on Mount Moriah, just as God commanded him to do, and that is what made him a noble patriarch. Intrigued by these strange variants, my colleague and I wrote articles that explained the literary development of the texts.

Might the ending of the story have been changed? Now that’s food for thought.

Asked for the biggest misconception about Abraham and sacrifice, Chilton says:

It is easier to see Abraham’s curse in others than in oneself. Christians spot it in Islam, but fail to recognize it in the Crusades. Muslims deny it in the Qur’an, and call attention to how Jewish tradition turned it into a literal sacrifice. Jewish believers often deny any connection with the idea of sacrifice, and so ignore a great deal of the Bible and Judaic tradition.

Some writers have recently blamed religion as a whole, or belief in God, for all forms of violence. They conveniently ignore the deadliest ideologies of all time— from the modern period—that have called for self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of others in the name of atheist values. Abraham’s curse has been with us since the Stone Age, and can only been overcome by self-criticism, not new versions of the blame game.

Do you feel the oneness?

How many times have you heard someone say that they’re “spiritual,” but not necessarily religious?

Spirituality is a much-used word these days by people from many faith traditions — and none.

I’ve been meaning for some time to write something about spiritual-but-not-religious folks. And I met a bunch of them this morning at a gathering of the Westchester Holistic Network.

I’m talking about people who practice healing touch, acupuncture, hypno-therapy, feng shui, pyschotherapy, reflexology, yoga, meditation, Reiki, “spiritual living,” neurofeedback and other things.

Many started as Catholic (hey, this is New York). Most say they have been on “a path.”

Just about all emphasize the connectedness of all things and their feeling of connectedness to something larger, which they might call the source, the light, the spirit or even God (or god).

On the network’s website, they describe themselves as “An alliance of spiritual beings having a human experience.”

They are an interesting and diverse group. I’ll be writing about them soon…

3 million on Hajj pilgrimage

Here’s the AP story on this year’s Muslim Hajj in Saudi Arabia:

Associated Press Writer

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — The young Iranian threw stones at symbols of the devil Monday and had his beloved black locks shorn — one of 3 million Muslims on the hajj pilgrimage performing rituals to symbolize rejection of temptation and a new, purified self.

The Iranian, Mohammad Kheirkhah, later joined other pilgrims in a feast of freshly slaughtered sheep, goats and camels at a huge tent city in Mina, a desert valley east of Islam’s holiest city, Mecca. Similar sacrifices, marking the start of the Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, were carried out by Muslims around the world.

The holiday commemorates a story celebrated by Muslims, Jews and Christians in which God asked the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove his faith, but then in the end offered a sheep to kill instead.

Muslim tradition says it was at Mina, 3 miles (5 kilometers) from Mecca, that the devil tried to tempt Abraham to disobey God by refusing to sacrifice his son. Hordes of pilgrims dressed in their white robes streamed across Mina valley Monday toward three walls symbolizing the devil known as the Jamarat, chanting “at thy service, my God, at thy service.”

The massive crowds streamed through a four-story platform the size of an airport terminal built around the walls, and each pilgrim stoned the largest wall with pebbles collected earlier on the nearby rocky plain of Muzdalifah. They will return on each of the final two days of the five-day pilgrimage, which ends Wednesday, to stone all three walls.

The stoning ritual has caused frequent stampedes that have killed more than a thousand pilgrims in past pilgrimages. More than 1,400 people were killed in 1990 in a stampede in a tunnel leading to the Jamarat. In 2006, over 360 people died in a similar incident while they were on a platform performing the stoning ritual.

Col. Khaled al-Mahmadi, the head of security at the Jamarat, said precautionary measures have been taken to avoid a stampede — including expanding the Jamarat platform from two to the current four stories to provide more room for the pilgrims.

“We have become experts in crowd management after handling enormous gatherings on the Jamarat over the years,” he said. Continue reading

Notes to God

A Brandeis University sociologist named Wendy Cadge (that’s her) has analyzed hundreds of prayers left by a statue of Jesus at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital between 1999 and 2005.

Sounds like a fascinating project.

In an article at, she wrote:

Most of the prayers penned in these books are improvised, not the Lord’s Prayer, prayers to Saint Jude or other standards. Most who write pray for themselves and/or their families or close friends. They write prayers to thank God, to make requests of God, or to both thank and petition God.


As a group, these prayer writers conceive of God as accessible, as actively listening, and as a source of support. They begin prayers with Dear, Hello or Hey and sign them with their name or initials, almost like e-mails. Some make immediate requests and others thank God for listening; Sweet Jesus, Thank you for listening. The word love is common, We lift up N. to you, heal her heart and Help P. and her boys cope… I love you. Love, M.

Many of these prayers read as snippets of ongoing conversations between the writers and God.

Read the rest. Great stuff.

How a Catholic childhood influences writers (and you know it does)

Sounds like an interesting program at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus tomorrow (Dec. 9) from 6 to 8 p.m.:

“The Indelible Mark: The Writer and a Catholic Childhood.

According to a release: “The temptations, excitements, satisfactions and angst of going from childhood memories to written text—join us for an evening of readings and discussion with four distinguished writers (who had Catholic childhoods).”

Here’s the line-up:

Patricia Hampl (that’s her), poet and memoirist, author of A Romantic Education, Virgin Time and most recently The Florist’s Daughter. She is Regents Professor and McKnight Distinguished Professor at the University of Minnesota.

Stuart Dybek, short story writer and poet. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Atlantic. He is distinguished writer-in-residence at Northwestern University, and a 2007 MacArthur fellow.

Lawrence Joseph, author of five volumes of poetry. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He teaches law at St. John’s University School of Law and also wrote Lawyerland, a book of prose.

Valerie Sayers, author of five novels, including Who Do You Love and Brain Fever—both named “Notable Books of the Year” by The New York Times Book Review. A recipient of a Pushcart Prize for fiction, she teaches creative writing at the University of Notre Dame.

Know your bioethics

The Hastings Center — once based in Hastings and now up in Garrison — was the first bioethics think tank and remains the most prominent.

I just wanted to note that they have a Bioethics Briefing Book on-line that offers fine explanations of many of the most pressing (and controversial) issues in bioethics. On abortion, brain injury, cloning, end-of-life care, genetic testing, stem cells and other issues, you get the history and a solid framework of the questions and disagreements involved.

The Hastings Center bills itself as a “nonpartisan research institution” and that’s what it is.

The briefing book is aimed at journalists and policy makers, but it is accessible to all. Enjoy!

He helped revive a post-Soviet faith

Here’s the AP obit for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, who died today. He was one of the world’s most influential and interesting Christian leaders, at least in his part of the world.

Associated Press Writer

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, who presided over a vast post-Soviet revival of faith but struggled against the influence of other churches, died Friday at age 79

The Moscow Patriarchate said he died at his residence outside Moscow, but did not give a cause of death. Alexy had long suffered from a heart ailment.

Alexy became leader of the church in 1990, as the officially atheist Soviet Union was loosening its restrictions on religion. After the Soviet Union collapsed the following year, the church’s popularity surged. Church domes that had been stripped of their gold under the Soviets were regilded, churches that had been converted into warehouses or left to rot in neglect were painstakingly restored and hours-long services on major religious holidays were broadcast live on national television.

By the time of Alexy’s death, the church’s flock was estimated to include about two-thirds of Russia’s 142 million people, making it the world’s largest Orthodox church.

But Alexy often complained that Russia’s new religious freedom put the church under severe pressure and he bitterly resented what he said were attempts by other Christian churches to poach adherents among people who he said should have belonged to the Orthodox church.

These complaints focused on the Roman Catholic Church, and Alexy refused to agree to a papal visit to Russia unless the proselytization issue was resolved.

Those tensions aside, Pope Benedict XVI praised Alexy on Friday.

“I am pleased to recall the efforts of the late patriarch for the rebirth of the church after the severe ideological oppression which led to the martyrdom of so many witnesses to the Christian faith. I also recall his courageous battle for the defense of human and Gospel values,” the pope said in a message of condolence to the Russian church. Continue reading

ELCA bishops heading for Middle East en masse

Bishop Robert Rimbo, the new boss of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for the “Greater New York” region, will be among 60 ELCA bishops visiting the Middle East next month.

That’s 60 out of 66 bishops.

They’ll meet with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian religious and community leaders.

The Rev. Allan C. Bjornberg, bishop of Denver and chairman of the ELCA Conference of Bishops, called the visit “unprecedented:”

I am proud of the commitment of our bishops, and those of the ELCIC, to visit this fascinating and troubled region of the world to learn, to support Christian sisters and brothers, and to advocate for peace and justice for all people. As we prepare for this historic visit, members of the Conference of Bishops are working diligently for a successful and meaningful journey. We thank members throughout the ELCA for their support of this visit. We pray that our journey will bring many blessings to the ELCA.

There has been tremendous controversy in recent years over the positions that mainline Protestant denominations have taken on the Middle East. Jewish groups have criticized Presbyterian Church (USA) and other denominations for coming down hard on Israel. Within denominations, there have been many squabbles between “peace and justice” advocates and more conservative voices.

The ELCA has a campaign called “Peace, Not Walls,” that calls for “a viable, contiguous Palestinian state; a secure Israeli state at peace with its Arab neighbors; and a shared Jerusalem with equal access and rights for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”

My God vs. Your God

And just in time for the holidays…

A new board game called Playing Gods lets “religious figures” fight it out for spiritual supremacy.

But they’re all bad guys.


So the game is a commentary of sorts on the propensity of religious types to fight. You’ve heard it before, I’m sure.

USA TODAY writes that the game’s creator, Ben Radford, 38, is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. So he’s probably more likely to see the bad in religion than the good.

He says his game is not anti-religion, but “anti-zealot, anti- people who kill for their beliefs, whatever those are.”

Who exactly will sell this game (which goes for $39.99)? The website lists seven stores in four states, plus Singapore. Or you can order over the Web.

(NOTE: Radford writes that the game is available at thousands of independent stores. The website only lists seven.)

If you want to see Moses slugging people with the Ten Commandments — which, after all, do not say “Thou Shalt Not Slug With These Tablets” — this is your chance.