Obama in Cairo tops news list

What was the biggest religion story of 2009?

obama-speech-cp-w6814811According to the members of the Religion Newswriters Association, it was President Obama’s speech in Cairo about relations with the Muslim world.

Number two: The role of Catholic bishops and other faith groups in shaping the health-care reform debate.

Number three: Questions surrounding how Nidal Hasan’s Muslim faith affected the Fort Hood massacre.

My top choice came in 5th: The Proposition 8 gay-marriage vote in California and the debates over subsequent gay-marriage measures in other states. Seems to me that the ongoing, intensifying national debate over gay marriage is one of the most immediate and pressing issues in many religious communities.

I voted for another Obama speech — his super-controversial “abortion” speech at Notre Dame — for number 2. It actually came in 6th place in the voting.

My third choice was the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller, which led to intense reflection over many aspects of the abortion question. This story came in 4th.

See the full top 10 HERE.

RW_Nov_2007_Web2The 2009 Religion Newsmaker of the Year? The voters chose Rick Warren, the megachurch pastor who gave the invocation on Inauguration Day, spoke out on Proposition 8 and continues to fight global poverty. He recently spoke out against a bill in Uganda that would make homosexuality punishable with death or life in prison.

Warren was my second choice.

I voted for the many “faceless” people in religious communities whose lives have been affected by the recession.

(Obama photo by Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Is God in control of our lives?

Polls religiously show that most Americans believe in God, so it’s no surprise that a new Harris poll reveals that 82% of Americans are believers.

1-1251132666T9gKBut the Harris folks dug a little deeper and things got interesting: only 59% percent said they are “absolutely certain” there is a God.

I don’t recall seeing that question asked before.

87% of born-again Christians are absolutely certain the Big Guy/Gal is up there, compared to 67% of Catholics and only 38% of Jews (another 29% of Jews are somewhat certain).

More good stuff: Overall, 43% of respondents said they believe that God observes what happens in our world but does NOT control things. This is a bit higher than I would have expected.

Only 30% believe that God does control what happens on earth (19% are  not sure and 8% believe God neither observes nor controls stuff).

Another quirky finding: More people (38%) believe that God is a male than believe (34%) that God is neither male nor female. Maybe it’s because athletes are always pointing heaven-ward, giving the impression that God is a big sports fan.

Oral Roberts dead at 91

Here’s the AP story:


Associated Press Writer

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Oral Roberts, the evangelist who rose from humble tent revivals to found a multimillion-dollar ministry and a university bearing his name, died Tuesday. He was 91.

Roberts died of complications from pneumonia in Newport Beach, Calif., according to his spokesman, A. Larry Ross. The evangelist was hospitalized after a fall on Saturday. He had survived two heart attacks in the 1990s and a broken hip in 2006.

Obit Oral RobertsRoberts was a pioneer on two fronts — he helped bring spirit-filled charismatic Christianity into the mainstream and took his trademark revivals to television, a new frontier for religion.

Roberts overcame tuberculosis at age 17, and credited that triumph with leading him to become one of the country’s most famous ministers.

He gave up a local pastorate in Enid in 1947 to enter an evangelistic ministry in Tulsa to pray for the healing of the whole person — the body, mind and spirit. The philosophy led many to call him a “faith healer,” a label he rejected with the comment: “God heals — I don’t.”

By the 1960s and ’70s, he was reaching millions around the world through radio, television, publications and personal appearances. He remained on TV into the new century, co-hosting the program, “Miracles Now,” with son Richard. He published dozens of books and conducted hundreds of crusades. A famous photograph showed him working at a desk with a sign on it reading, “Make no little plans here.”

He credited his oratorical skills to his faith, saying, “I become anointed with God’s word, and the spirit of the Lord builds up in me like a coiled spring. By the time I’m ready to go on, my mind is razor-sharp. I know exactly what I’m going to say and I’m feeling like a lion.”

Unity of body, mind and spirit became the theme of Oral Roberts University. The campus is a Tulsa landmark, with its space-age buildings laden with gold paint, including a 200-foot prayer tower and a 60-foot bronze statue of praying hands.

His ministry hit upon rocky times in the 1980s. There was controversy over his City of Faith medical center, a $250 million investment that eventually folded, and Roberts’ widely ridiculed proclamation that God would “call me home” if he failed to meet a fundraising goal of $8 million. A law school he founded also was shuttered.

Semiretired in recent years and living in California, he returned to Tulsa, Okla., in October 2007 as scandal roiled Oral Roberts University. His son, Richard Roberts, who succeeded him as ORU president, faced allegations of spending university money on shopping sprees and other luxuries at a time the institution was more than $50 million in debt.

Richard Roberts resigned as president in November 2007, marking the first time since Oral Roberts University was chartered in 1963 that a member of the Roberts family would not be at its helm. The rocky period for the evangelical school was eased by billionaire Oklahoma City businessman Mart Green donated $70 million and helped run the school in the interim, pledging to restore the public’s trust. By the fall of 2009, things were looking up, with officials saying tens of millions of dollars worth of debt had been paid off and enrollment was up slightly.

That September, a frail-looking Oral Roberts attended the ceremony when the school’s new president, Mark Rutland, was formally inaugurated.

Hashing out the Hanukkah story

The literary/cultural critic and devout atheist Christopher Hitchens is famous for disliking Mother Teresa.

So it should come as no surprise that he’s taking swipes at Hanukkah.

seedo_onlineWED_01_hitchensBut it’s worth pointing out because, well, who attacks Hanukkah?

Hitchens calls the long-ago triumph of the semi-fundamentalist Maccabean Jews over the Hellenism of the Syrian Greeks the “triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness.”

He writes: “When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.”

Hitch even goes after liberal Rabbi Michael Lerner for liking Hanukkah.

Lerner is fighting back, asking readers first to read Hitch’s diatribe: “After you’ve read it all, you could try to figure out why anyone with a serious intellectual curiosity would give a moment’s attention to Hitchens’ intellectual clownishness.”

c_ml_photoLerner (right) also cites a recent column about Hanukkah by the NYT’s David Brooks, who writes about the messiness of the good guy/bad guy Hanukkah story.

Brooks writes of the Festival of Lights: “It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today.”

Whether you agree with him or not, Brooks’ take on the holiday is worth reading and giving some thought.

Lerner writes of Brooks:


Brooks is entirely right to raise the fact that in the actual struggle, the Maccabees were often brutal in imposing their religious system on others and in using violence to achieve their ends. But David Brooks has been a supporter of using violent means to achieve democratic ends in the Middle East. I’d feel more convinced by Brooks if he had raised the same objections to celebrating July 4th or Veterans’ Day in the U.S. Why raise these issues around Chanukah but not about the use of the atomic bomb against Japan’s civilian population. And how does imposing “democracy” at the point of a gun on societies that are resistant to it on a higher moral scale than imposing some other relgious, ethical or ideological system through violence?

Bloody good revenge showing at Jewish seminary

I’ve never been a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s movies.

With few exceptions, they strike me as the work of 13-year-old boy who really likes action movies (especially bloody ones) and has some talent with a camera.

I mean, “Kill Bill?” What was that?

So I was surprised to see that the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, long the home of some of Judaism’s top scholars and deep-thinkers, will screen Tarantino’s latest, “Inglourious Basterds,” on Wednesday.

tjndc5-5sa2l1wndckca7y781h_layoutThe screening will be followed by a panel discussion: “Jewish Persecution and the Fantasy of Revenge.”

I haven’t seen IB. But as soon as I read about it, I figured that the movie was easy to imagine. In it, the Jews not only fight back against the Nazis, but break heads and match the bad guys in overall nastiness.

We all know Tarantino is really good at violence, and I know some movie buffs who think he’s a genius. The movie’s been called a “Jewish revenge fantasy.”

The panel will include Lawrence Bender, the producer of “Inglourious Basterds.” Also on board: Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of JTS; Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky of JTS; and Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia.

If it goes over well, maybe the seminary will screen “Grindhouse” next?

Check the JTS website for ticket info. Space is limited.

(AP Photo/The Weinstein Co., Francois Duhamel)

Introducing…No Limit Texas Dreidel

As Hanukkah begins this evening…

If you’ve ever played the Dreidel game, you know that it can get old fast.

imagesYou take turns spinning the top-like Dreidel. Depending on which of four Hebrew letters comes up, you either win the pot (of pennies, candies, whatever), win half the pot, lose what you have or lose a turn.

And that’s it.

So I laughed when I learned that a company called ModernTribe.com has jazzed up the old Dreidel game by inventing No Limit Texas Dreidel, a game that combines Dreidel with poker.


Their website proclaims: “Experience Dreidel in a whole new way.”

The Greenburgh Hebrew Center is holding a No Limit Texas Dreidel tournament next Thursday (Dec. 17) at 7 p.m. If you want to take a look, visit their website at
www.g-h-c.org or call (914) 693-4261.

A little bit of this, a touch of that

Anyone who speaks to real people about religion knows that individual faith is much more complicated than what tradition one belongs to.

People who officially belong to a given denomination often have beliefs that go beyond the boundaries of their identified religion. This has become especially true in recent decades, as people from Judeo-Christian backgrounds have become influenced by eastern spirituality.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life confirms that many people dabble in several different faiths at once or at least add “foreign” practices to their own traditions.

The Pew people say:


Though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.

image002Nearly half of the public (49%) says they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” This is similar to a survey conducted in 2006 but much higher than in surveys conducted in 1976 and 1994 and more than twice as high as a 1962 Gallup survey (22%). In fact, this year’s survey finds that religious and mystical experiences are more common today among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (30%) than they were in the 1960s among the public as whole (22%).


USA TODAY’s Cathy Lynn Grossman explores this spiritual terrain very well. She writes:


And, according to the survey’s other major finding, devotion to one clear faith is fading.

Of the 72% of Americans who attend religious services at least once a year (excluding holidays, weddings and funerals), 35% say they attend in multiple places, often hop-scotching across denominations.

They are like President Obama, who currently has no home church. He has worshiped at a Baptist church, an Episcopal one, and the non-denominational chapel at Camp David.

“Mixing and matching practices and beliefs is as much the norm as it is the exception,” Pew’s Alan Cooperman says. “Are they grazing, sampling, just curious? We really don’t know.”

Even so, says Pew researcher Greg Smith, “these findings all point toward a spiritual and religious openness — not necessarily a lack of seriousness.”


Many religious leaders and seminary types, especially those from conservative or traditional camps, will gnash their teeth over these findings. They’ll see this “One from column A, two from column B” approach to spirituality as inauthentic, weak, and a diversion from the practice of their true religion.

But how can they stop it?

The cover story in the December issue of the evangelical monthly Christianity Today is headlined: “Still the Way, the Truth, and the Life: More people than ever doubt that anyone has a corner on truth. So why do Christians keep insisting on the incomparable uniqueness of Christ?”

The author, John Franke, of Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Penn., writes: “Denial of the uniqueness of Jesus as the Life ends up compromising the distinctive Christian teaching that God is triune. Doing so cuts the heart out of Christian witness in the world.”

He concludes:


As we try to witness to our relativistic world about the uniqueness of Christ, we have to abandon the idea that this is something we can demonstrate with definitive proof, particularly to those who are predisposed to deny this. It is beyond the scope of human ability to produce in others the faith to see Jesus as he is. But it is the church’s calling to continue to bear witness to Jesus and demonstrate the significance of his person for the whole fabric of Christian faith.

The belief that Jesus Christ is none other than God come in the flesh shapes our understanding of every point of distinctive Christian teaching. I’ve argued in a recent book that the diversity of the church is not a problem to be solved but is, in fact, the blessing of God. Indeed, the proper expression of orthodox, biblical faith can only be characterized by plurality. But in the midst of our diversity, we must remain unified on this point—Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If we fail to stand fast here everything else will be in vain and the Christian church will lose its bearings. We will fail in our missional vocation to be the image of God and the body of Christ in the world.


Chart: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

The big Catholic story

I should have mentioned this before now, but…

Fordham U’s Lincoln Center campus is hosting a very interesting and timely forum TONIGHT called “Becoming Latino: The Transformation of U.S. Catholicism.”

We all know that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is quickly becoming an Hispanic church, but how much attention has been given to what this really means?

When I attended a catechetical convention put on by the Archdiocese of NY last year at the Westchester County Center, it was immediately apparent that most of the catechists there were Hispanic.

But there seems to be an unwitting quasi-segregation in much of the church. You have largely white parishes and largely Hispanic parishes. Many parishes have English-speaking Masses and separate Spanish-language Masses for Hispanics.

People still think of the Catholic Church in New York as an Irish church, but it really isn’t anymore.

When Archbishop Dolan got to New York, he said several times that there is a perception that the Catholic Church faces a “Hispanic problem” or “Hispanic challenge.” He refuted this notion, of course.

Here’s the line-up for tonight: Luis Lugo, director, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Claudio Burgaleta, S.J., coordinator, Latino studies program, Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, Fordham University; Arturo J. Bañuelas, pastor, St. Pius X Church, El Paso, Texas; and Maria Odom, executive director, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), Washington, D.C.

The moderator will be Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., executive director, Office for Cultural Diversity in the Church, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It’s 6-8 p.m. The Lincoln Center campus is at 113 West 60th Street.

How about the ‘Truce for Christmas?’

When I was driving in today, it occurred to me that I haven’t heard much “War on Christmas” stuff this year.

And that’s a reason to say “Happy Holidays!” or “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Hanukkah!” or whatever else you like.

Then I read this little essay that Archbishop Dolan had in the Daily News yesterday, which offered a nice little touch of holiday-time reconciliation.

tjndc5-5qxce77ojdg11ntdqa9f_layoutHe wrote: “As I prepare to celebrate my first Christmas as archbishop of New York, I realize it might seem presumptuous to interject myself into this annual battle. But if any time of year calls for us to follow our better natures, this is that time. Thus, I call for a truce!”

A truce. What a novel idea?

Dolan notes, of course, that he is quite enthusiastic about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” But he also writes: “However, many others don’t believe as we do but still wish to celebrate this wonderful time of the year. Parties, decorations, holiday specials, gifts – I’m all for it!”

And he notes: “Even more troublesome is that this season, when we should be celebrating peace, we find instead so many ways to be at odds with one another.”

I did discover today that the American Family Association, a religious right-ish group big on Culture War stuff, has called for a boycott of the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic because of TV commercials that do not use the word “Christmas.”

The group says: “For the Gap to pretend that isn’t the foundation of the Christmas season is political correctness at best and religious bigotry at worst.”

And I thought that the Gap sells pants.

ADD: By the way, Dolan will be at St. Patrick’s Church in Yorktown on Thursday evening to meet with representatives of all the churches in northern Westchester and Putnam.

They’ll be laughing in the pews. Dolan is very engaging at these get-togethers.

The Episcopal drama continues

The next step in the slow break-up (or whatever it is) between the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communication appears to be underway.

Episcopalians Gay BishopsThe Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has elected a lesbian priest as a bishop. If U.S. church leaders affirm the decision and the Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool (that’s her) is consecrated, well, the chain reaction is pretty easy to foresee.

In fact, it’s already started.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, normally a cautious fellow, has already released this statement:

The election of Mary Glasspool by the Diocese of Los Angeles as suffragan bishop elect raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.

The process of selection however is only part complete. The election has to be confirmed, or could be rejected, by diocesan bishops and diocesan standing committees. That decision will have very important implications.

The bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold.


Of course, it was the consecration of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in 2003 that really highlighted the growing divide between the Episcopal Church and much of the Anglican Communion over homosexuality.

As has been reported ad nauseum since then, Episcopalians are much more liberal on these matters than many of their Anglican brethren overseas.

Episcopal leaders decided in 2006 to try to refrain from picking any more gay bishops for a while. But they said “oh forget it, we’ll do what we want” this past July.

So we’ll see what happens.

As I often say at the end of these Episcopal break-up posts, it’s all much ado about nothing here in the Diocese of New York, where bishops, most priests and most parishioners are gay-friendly, proud of it and largely disinterested in doing anything to please their would-be detractors.

The diocese’s statement about gay marriage being defeated by the NYS Senate last week included this: “In calling your senators and in continuing to advocate, be sure to let them know that the Episcopal Diocese of New York remains on the record as supporting marriage equality for same-sex couples, as per our resolution at the 2008 Diocesan Convention.  Although the governor and the senate leaders were told of this, we should continually remind them as we go forward, so as to balance out the voices of other religious groups that fought against marriage equality.”