Good Friday, the ‘Coffee Haggadah’ and the Catholic-media showdown

A few things today after a day off:

First, two Good Friday items. For the last decade, the largest non-denominational Protestant service in the region has been held in Westchester, usually at the Westchester County Center. I covered the “Westchester  One in Praise” service a couple of times and saw thousands gather on Good Friday — mostly evangelicals and Pentecostals, a racial and ethnic mix.

This year’s 7:30 p.m. service will be at Mount Vernon High School. The featured speaker will be Dr. Carolyn D. Showell of First Apostolic Faith Church in Baltimore.

What else? Last year, I visited the Peale Center for Christian Living up in Pawling to write about their annual Day of Prayer on Good Friday.

I sat in the back of a chapel at the home of Guideposts magazine and watched a few dozen people read prayer requests from strangers and then pray for them. Rotating teams of staff and volunteers prayed for something like 16,000 people between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

If you want to know more or might want to send in a prayer request for this year’s 40th anniversary Good Friday Day of Prayer, go to www.Ourprayer.org.

Second, Passover. Someone gave me a copy the other day of a Maxwell House Haggadah. I found myself wondering how a coffee company wound up creating the most popular Haggadah in the U.S., used by countless families at their seders over decades.

I came across a short article from Moment magazine that answered my questions.

Here is the opening:

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In 1923, when Maxwell House Coffee signed on with the Joseph Jacobs Advertising agency in New York, it was already a legend. Theodore Roosevelt supposedly drank a cup in 1907 at the Nashville hotel for which it was named, proclaiming it “good to the last drop.” Fortune smiled even more on the brand when Jacobs conceived a plan to entice American Jews to serve the coffee at their Seders. First, he lined up a prominent rabbi to assure Jews that coffee beans were not forbidden legumes but fruit. Then he convinced his client to underwrite America’s first mass-marketed Haggadah. When it appeared in 1934, free with the purchase of a can of coffee, the Maxwell House Haggadah swiftly revolutionized how American Jews celebrated Passover.

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So there you go. Producing a Haggadah — and a good one — was good for business.

Kraft, which now owns Maxwell House, still produces the Haggadah. One million copies were printed in 2009 for distribution through supermarket chains like ShopRite.

Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, notes: “Local custom ruled liturgy. Maxwell House did more to codify Jewish liturgy than any force in history.”

Being something of a coffee snob, I haven’t had a sip of Maxwell House in a long time. Now I find myself wondering what it tastes like.

Third, an international conflict grows over the recent media coverage of various sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

Several reports that have called into question the past decision-making of Pope Benedict have unleashed passionate defenses of the pope and increasingly  harsh criticism of the media — especially the New York Times.

Most of the criticism has focused on extensive NYT reporting about a late Milwaukee priest who allegedly molested close to 200 boys at a school for the deaf, where he worked from 1950 to 1974. While no one seems to dispute that the priest, Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, was a monster, the Times’ contention that the pope — then Cardinal Ratzinger — was slow to react in 1996 has created the firestorm.

Archbishop Dolan, who defended the pope after Palm Sunday Mass by comparing attacks against him to the persecution of Jesus, now writes on his blog about “diatribes” against the church and the pope.

He concludes with this GREAT soundbite:

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Let me be upfront: I confess a bias in favor of the Church and her Pope.

I only wish some others would admit a bias on the other side.

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Meanwhile, a Milwaukee priest who presided over a canonical criminal trial involving Murphy, has stepped out in the Catholic media to complain that he has been widely misquoted — even though he was never interviewed by a journalist.

“As I have found that the reporting on this issue has been inaccurate and poor in terms of the facts, I am also writing from a sense of duty to the truth,” writes Father Thomas Brundage.

Brundage writes that Murphy was guilty of “unmitigated and gruesome crimes.” But he takes the Times to task for all sorts of things, which I can’t fully summarize here.

Among other things, he writes:

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With regard to the inaccurate reporting on behalf of the New York Times, the Associated Press, and those that utilized these resources, first of all, I was never contacted by any of these news agencies but they felt free to quote me. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In an October 31, 1997 handwritten document, I am quoted as saying ‘odds are that this situation may very well be the most horrendous, number wise, and especially because these are physically challenged , vulnerable people. “ Also quoted is this: “Children were approached within the confessional where the question of circumcision began the solicitation.”

The problem with these statements attributed to me is that they were handwritten. The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them. As a college freshman at the Marquette University School of Journalism, we were told to check, recheck, and triple check our quotes if necessary. I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by an unknown source to me. Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct.

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On NationalReview.com, Raymond J. de Souza also dissects the Times’ coverage of the Ratzinger connection.

“The story is false,” he writes. “It is unsupported by its own documentation. Indeed, it gives every indication of being part of a coordinated campaign against Pope Benedict, rather than responsible journalism.”

Finally, Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and prominent historian of American religion, suggests on ReligionDispatches.org that Catholics who are “disgruntled” by scandal go Episcopalian.

He notes that the Vatican has reached out to conservative Anglicans who are fed up with their church’s leftward drift.

Balmer writes:

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So what do we learn from these developments over the past five months? Consider the evidence. I gather that the lesson from the Vatican is that homosexuality, even on the part of those in loving, committed relationships, is sin, must be exposed to the light of day for its shamefulness and must never be countenanced. It’s okay, however, to turn a blind eye to pedophile priests, to reassign them quietly to do harm elsewhere or simply to ignore the problem.

I’ll take my Episcopal Church, warts and all, any day.

Michael Jackson as pop theologian (and celebrity god)

Wondering this morning if there was a religious dimension to the life — or death — of Michael Jackson, I came across reports that he had converted to Islam.

Somehow I had missed it.

Reading several reports from last year about his conversion, it’s not clear to me that he really did become a Muslim. The guy was pretty reclusive, after all. And he could have changed his mind by now. But it’s possible.

We know that he spent most of his life as a Jehovah’s Witness. And that he was, well, Michael Jackson, with everything that being Michael Jackson entails.

Anthea Butler, an historian of American religion who is in residence at Harvard Divinity School’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program, writes on ReligionDispatches today that MJ was something of a tabloid god.

If you think about it, it makes some sense.

It’s been over the last 25 years or so — the age of Jackson — that America has become a celebrity-worshiping nation. I know we’ve always loved Marilyn and Bogart and Bing and all those guys, but things have been different since the ’80s.

Celebrities now dominate the news, the royalty of our culture. And Michael Jackson was the king — or a god.

Butler also notes the spiritual, if humanistic, component of MJ’s songs. And I guess you can find it, if you can put aside some of the ugliness and weirdness that surrounded the last third of his life.

She writes:

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Yet, for all of the crass tabloid fodder, Michael was his best when singing these hopeful songs that called listeners to become a better human being. He most certainly reached more people than the average religious figure, and his songs had an affect on an entire generation weaned on MTV. His own religious journey, from his childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness, to a foray in the Nation of Islam, to finally professing Shahada to become a Muslim, shows an interior struggle, despite all of the fame, to find the peace he so often sang about. In all of the accolades and obituaries to come, Jackson will never be called a theologian, though he was one. A Pop theologian, to be sure, but a theologian nonetheless. Struggling with his humanity, half man, half child, he danced as much to entertain I suspect, as to take away his pain. In the dance, he became transcendent, divine. And in the end, it was the very body that he used to beguile millions that failed him.

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(AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

ADD: Deepak Chopra, who was a friend of MJ’s and had contact with him in the last few days, shares his thoughts about the Mysterious One on Beliefnet.

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.

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 ReligionDispatches.org, 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.

And:

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.