Are there spiritual questions as Japan’s nightmare unfolds?

I haven’t heard or seen much coverage of the devastation in Japan that has raised religious or spiritual questions.

Maybe because so many of those questions were asked after relatively recent disasters — the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the quake in Haiti. Maybe there isn’t much left to say or ask.


My friend Cathy Lynn Grossman at USATODAY wrote about how the Japanese will turn to their Buddhist and Shinto traditions for solace. She writes, in part:


Seven days after the quake and tsunami, waves of memorials will begin in whatever temples remain near the disaster zone. In Buddhist traditions, the seventh day ritual begins 33 years of formal mourning ceremonies ahead, Williams said.

Just as Christians and Jews in the West may offer prayers for those who have died and those who mourn, so these rituals and prayers will come from throughout Japan, as well as from Thailand and Taiwan, where many share the Japanese form of Buddhism, said Williams, a native of Japan.


Williams is Duncan Williams, a survivor of the Friday quake and a scholar of Japanese Buddhism at the University of California-Berkeley.

I also came across a note about Glenn Beck saying — sort of — that the disaster was a message from God:


I’m not saying God is, you know, causing earthquakes — well I’m not not saying that either! What God does is God’s business, I have no idea. But I’ll tell you this — whether you call it Gaia or whether you call it Jesus, there’s a message being sent. And that is, ‘Hey you know that stuff we’re doing? Not really working out real well. Maybe we should stop doing some of it.’



I also found that someone asked Yahoo! Answers this question: “Did japan tsunami start the end of the world?”

But Yahoo! deleted the question based on their community guidelines.

ADD: Apparently, the governor of Tokyo said Monday that the earthquake and tsunami were “divine retribution” for Japanese egoism. He apologized today.

Gov. Shintaro Ishihara had used the Japanese term “tembatsu,” which means something along the lines of “heavenly punishment.”

“The way [Ishihara] used it was a prewar understanding of the will of heaven or the gods to discipline the Japanese people,” John Nelson, the chair of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco, told CNN.

(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Dolan vs. NYT, Round ?

Archbishop’s Dolan ongoing criticism of the New York Times is getting a lot of attention this week.

As I’ve pointed out before, Dolan has been going after the Times since he came to New York, often using his blog to point out examples of what he believes to be anti-Catholicism.

In a blog post last week, the big guy pointed to an “insulting photograph” of a “nun” that accompanied a write-up of an off-Broadway comedy. And he strongly objected to a review of an art exhibit featuring posters produced by ACT UP, the anti-AIDS advocacy group that often attacked the Catholic Church. The review included a photo that showed a poster denigrating Cardinal O’Connor.

Dolan opened his blog by acknowledging that he’s been there before:


I know, I should drop it.  “You just have to get used to it,” so many of you have counselled me.  “It’s been that way forever, and it’s so ingrained they don’t even know they’re doing it.  So, let it go.”

I’m talking about the common, casual way The New York Times offends Catholic sensitivity, something they would never think of doing — rightly so — to the Jewish, Black, Islamic, or gay communities.


Numerous Catholic blogs have supported Dolan’s stance.

One said: “Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice it seems to me in America.” Another: “It seems every time you open a paper or scan the news, there is someone else misunderstanding or mocking the Catholic Church.”

The producers of the play, called Divine Sister, actually responded to Dolan. Their response in part:


Charles Busch is a wonderfully talented playwright who for decades has lovingly parodied classic Hollywood films in his work. His newest play, The Divine Sister, continues that tradition as a comic homage to nearly every Hollywood film involving nuns: “The Song of Bernadette,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “The Singing Nun” and “Agnes of God.”

The image the New York Times ran on Friday, October 15, 2010 of The Divine Sister shows Mother Superior teaching Timothy how to properly hold a baseball bat. This scene references the classic 1945 film “The Bells of St. Mary’s” where Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict gives a young boy boxing lessons.

The Divine Sister is not a commentary on religious faith; it is a joyous look at these films. While our show is indeed irreverent, it is a celebration of the nuns in those iconic works, with a wink and a smile.


Mark Silk, a prominent analyst of media coverage of religion, caused somewhat of a stir by dismissing Dolan’s criticisms as off-the-mark, if not silly.

He writes: “I don’t exactly know what it is the Dolan would have the Times do. Avoid reviewing plays that deal with nuns and popular culture? Bar from its pages any organization that disrespects his church? Do penance by urging the Empire State Building to light itself up for Mother Teresa?”

CBS New York followed up on the story (as GetReligion points out). CUNY Prof Paul Moses — former religon writer for Newsday –told CBS: “That’s a really scathing image of Cardinal O’Connor. I think that was a lapse with the Times, not that they’re anti-catholic. Maybe it’s more they simply didn’t do a very good job on that story.”

Dolan wrote a second post today.

He’s standing by his guns. But he promises: “No more comment from me on this spat.”

We’ll see.

Where is God on ‘Mad Men?’

I’m a Mad Men fan and watched the season finale Sunday night with great interest.

I look forward each week to dissecting the show with my mad colleagues at the JN.

But, honestly, it never occurred to me that religion is an afterthought on the show until I read a blog post today by Diane Winston, a religion scholar who holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at USC (not a bad gig).

She starts off:


Religion never registered in this season’s installment of Mad Men. It didn’t need to. The implications of faith, morality and Protestant privilege echoed through the episodes, delineating expectations about work and family, gender roles and even child-rearing. Off-screen in 1965, the Supreme Court Case Griswold v. Connecticut upheld women’s right to contraception, the Rolling Stones spread “Satisfaction” and the Roman Catholic Church absolved present-day Jews for the crucifixion. LBJ declared the Great Society, Vietnam escalated and Watts burned. In each instance religious tropes and taboos that had seemed immutable were summarily overturned.


She’s right on, I think. The show deals largely with the social transition from the ’50s to the ’60s. And part of that transition was the loosening of religious observance in the U.S., across traditions and denominations.

I don’t think a single character on MM attends church — or, at least, mentions it. I have to assume that most are Protestants.

The character Peggy did have an interesting relationship with a Catholic priest during the first few seasons. I couldn’t possibly summarize it here.

Winston notes that Don Draper, the show’s central figure, has had relationships with two Jewish women (among a cast of thousands). She writes:


n 1960, Don Draper never seemed fully comfortable with Rachel Menken, the Jewish department store heiress with whom he had an affair. Seeing her as another “Other,” his uncomfortable kinship climaxed with a surprising proposal that they run away together. But five years later, Faye Miller’s Jewish identity barely rates a mention. When she compliments Don’s handsome punim (Yiddish for “face”), Don barely arches an eyebrow. Could it be that the Herbergian trinity–Protestant, Catholic, Jew—has, ten years after the publication Herberg’s seminal essay, finally taken hold?


The season just ended with Draper, recently divorced, getting engaged to his secretary.

I wonder if they’ll marry in a church.

(AP Photo/Evan Agostini for Chase Sapphire)

Rabbi calls archbishop to apologize for rabbi (even though they all kind of agree)

The repercussions continue from Carl Paladino’s attempted buttering up of Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community.

Paladino, of course, appeared with Flatbush’s Rabbi Yehuda Levin to denounce gay marriage and try to build support in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Paladino wound up backtracking a bit — even though he still opposes gay marriage. And Levin pulled his support for the Republican’s candidacy for governor.

Levin, who has worked with evangelicals to oppose gay marriage and abortion, decided to denounce Paladino from outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

As a result…Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, called Archbishop Dolan to apologize.

Levin is not a member of the Orthodox Union.

The Orthodox Union surely opposes gay marriage.

The Roman Catholic Church opposes gay marriage.

But Weinreb didn’t think that it was right for Levin to take his stand outside St. Patty’s.

So there you go.

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The challenges of inter-marriage

So much has been said and written over the last couple of decades about religious inter-marriage.

It’s been one of the most discussed and debated issues in the Jewish world because of the threat posed to Jewish continuity if too many Jews have children who are not raised Jewish.

In New York, of course, many Catholics marry Protestants, Jews and people of little or no faith, posing all sorts of questions and challenges for families that want their sons and daughters married by the parish priest.

There are so many “minority” religions in town these days that all sorts of inter-marriage combos are now taking place.

But I don’t believe I’ve seen a reference to the relative success of inter-marriages, compared to single-religion marriages, until a recent story in the Washington Post. It noted that the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 — a massive study that I thought had been picked dry at this point — found that “people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.”

I would imagine that this finding has been reported, but that I missed it. Still interesting.

The Post article by Naomi Schaefer Riley notes that in our tolerant, inclusive society, inter-marriage can seem almost hip:


The belief among young couples that love will conquer all is not exactly new. But today some young Americans seem to even pride themselves on marrying someone very different from themselves. One woman I spoke to who was raised as a Catholic recalled her thoughts on dating when she went off to college a few years ago: “To limit yourself to only people of your own religion seemed bigoted. . . . There is a whole world of people that I don’t know.” To write them off as potential partners before she even met them “seemed rude,” she said.

Her language is revealing. It’s as if our society’s institutional rules about nondiscrimination in hiring an employee or admitting someone to college have morphed into rules for screening romantic partners.


But for even the most tolerant people, Riley notes, raising children in a foreign faith can push all sorts of buttons that one is not even aware of.

She writes:


Even among those who have tough conversations, says Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonpartisan research organization, religion can become a serious point of contention later on. One parent may agree to raise the children in the other’s faith, he says, but then that faith “becomes repellent” to him or her. Coleman doesn’t think that people get married with the intention of deceiving their spouse; “they just have no idea how powerfully unconscious religion can be.”

6 Catholics, 3 Jews, 0 Protestants

We’ll probably hear a lot over the coming weeks about the U.S. Supreme Court becoming Protestant-less for the first time ever.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Obama’s nominee to replace John Paul Stevens, is Jewish. If she gets confirmed, the court will have six Catholic justices and three Jewish justices (although not all are religiously observant).

How important is it that the court won’t have a Protestant justice?

I guess it’s one of those “turning the page” moments, a solid reminder of the long, slow demise of mainline Protestant numbers and influence in this country.

Mainliners used to run the show, basically, dominating many American institutions. As we all know (at least those of us who follow this stuff), this hasn’t been the case for quite some time.

One might wonder if and when evangelical Christians — who make up at least a quarter of Americans — might replace mainliners on the top bench.

A CNN report notes:


Evangelical Protestant colleges, meanwhile — including Regent University and Liberty University, founded by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell respectively — have had law schools only since the 1980s.

And law schools with Protestant roots, like Harvard and Yale, shed their religious identities a long time ago, part of the broader fading of a distinct mainline Protestant identity in the U.S..

Some legal and religious scholars say the dearth of qualified evangelical candidates for the Supreme Court came into sharp relief in 2005, when President George W. Bush nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to the high court.

An evangelical Christian whom the White House promoted strenuously among evangelicals, Miers had her nomination brought down largely by conservatives — nonevangelicals, mostly — who said she was not qualified for the position.


I’m not sure if there have been “evangelical” justices in the past.

Several websites I found that compiled the religions of past justices list about a dozen who were believed to be only “Protestant.” Some of them could have been evangelicals, at least in terms of belief and practice.

It would surprise no one if Obama picked a mainline Protestant for the court. But you have to figure that it will be a Republic president who chooses the next evangelical justice.

And what about an atheist justice, an outright nonbeliever?

He or she would have to be chosen, one would think, by a Democratic president with really high poll numbers.

(AP Photo/Harvard University News Office, Stephanie Mitchell)