Beliefnet's weblog of religion and spirituality in the news and on the internet

BY: the Editors and Contributing Writers of Beliefnet


Continued from page 5

Rock Your Rite of Passage
For the more extravagant Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations in New York City and Long Island, proud parents often turn to party motivators to get their guests on the dance floor. As The New York Times reports today, party motivators act as "part camp counselor, part crowd-control officer and part gyrating dance wonder."

Pictures from these kind of parties seem like they'd be ripe for featuring on Bar Mitzvah Disco, a new site seeking photographs for an upcoming book "that seeks to capture every delicious detail of bar mitzvah celebrations from the 1970's, `80s and early `90s." The website showcases the best bar mitzvah themes, portraits, cakes, and invitations that have been submitted for the book so far.

Pop Diva's Peace Plan
We're all fretting about Middle East tensions. But peace may be just around the corner now that pop star Whitney Houston and her husband Bobby Brown have met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Houston is in Israel with the Black Hebrews, a controversial group that espouses polygamy and traditional gender roles.

What did the diva and Sharon discuss? Opines Entertainment Weekly: "Maybe she was telling him that, if a couple as volatile as Houston and Bobby Brown can get along, then surely there's hope for the Israelis and the Palestinians."

Kosher Ed for the Golden Arches
Big Mac burgers wouldn't taste the same without cheese on top, but McDonald's will soon be spending a chunk of its profits on educating about the separation of milk and meat. McDonald's recently settled a $10 million lawsuit with various religious and vegetarian groups who had charged the company with falsely advertising the company's french fries as vegetarian (they actually contain beef tallow). Five U.S. Jewish groups will divide the $1 million allocated in the settlement to support kosher education.

The McDonald's company does know a bit about keeping kosher already. McDonald's Israel operates more than 80 restaurants in the country, serving "100% kosher beef patties, potatoes, lettuce, buns, and milkshake mix." Most of the restaurants are not strictly kosher and are open on the Jewish Sabbath, but seven are under kosher supervision and do not serve any milk products.

Answered Prayers?
In the new hit film Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey plays a character who rails against God and then gets a chance to fill in for Him when the real One (Morgan Freeman) takes a holiday. During his stint, Bruce exercises his omnipotence by saying yes to everyone's prayers.

In an interview on Entertainment News Wire, Carrey recalls that his own faith was strengthened when, as a child at a Catholic elementary school in Canada, he prayed for a special kind of bike that his parents couldn't afford. Two weeks later, the exact model, a CCM Mustang, was delivered to his house--it seems a friend had entered his name in a drawing at a local sporting goods store without his knowledge. Concerning his current religious beliefs, Carrey says, "I don't know what God is, but I know that he's at least an energy that rules all and walks the earth.... I'm not a Bible-thumper, but I do believe that the Force is with us."

A Lark for Christians
The Christian parody site LarkNews.com is funny--even for Christians--because it knows its stuff.

Born-Again Yoga Mats
Taking seriously the 1 Corinthians verse to "glorify God in your body," Oklahoma resident Laurette Willis has developed a "Christian alternative to yoga." Willis spent years as a New Age seeker before becoming a Christian and, as she writes on her website, has seen many Christians "struggle with yoga's undercurrents of Hindu and 'new age' mysticism." So Willis developed PraiseMoves: Fitness for His Witness, a workout combining stretching, movement, and scripture that she says offers the same benefits of yoga without the problematic elements for Christians.

Willis begins her PraiseMoves classes with "Walkin' Wisdom Warm-ups", which she describes on her website: "While walking to a peppy pace, the PraiseMoves leader calls out the first few words for our scripture from Ephesians 6:10, 'I AM STRONG IN THE LORD!' Participants repeat, 'I AM STRONG IN THE LORD!' Then the class can move on to "PraiseMoves Alphabetics," which uses postures that correspond to letters in the Hebrew alphabet. "PraiseMoves Scripture Sequences" is a series of movements performed while reciting the Lord's Prayer or the 23rd Psalm. Willis offers PraiseMoves classes in Oklahoma, and hopes that a PraiseMoves video will be available by August. Willis even offers a suggestion for how to "redeem" an old yoga mat. "My old mat had the name of a Hindu 'earth goddess' on it until I 'redeemed it' with a PraiseMoves logo sticker," she writes, noting the sticker can be purchased for $5.

Relief Work in Iraq, Chapter 2
The furor has subsided over the announcements in March by the Southern Baptist Convention and Franklin Graham that they were "poised and ready" to bring aid to Iraqis as soon as the war was over.

Now the question is: What are they actually doing there?

Christianity Today provides some answers this week. According to writers Dawn Herzog and Deann Alford, the Southern Baptist Convention is "seeking the right balance between sensitivity and boldness" as it sends nearly 80,000 boxes of beans, rice, flour, and other staples. According to Herzog and Alford, printed in Arabic on each box are words from John 1:17: "For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ."

The reasoning behind the use of that verse: "Moses and Jesus are both prophets for Muslims," SBC official Jim Brown told CT. "I don't think a Muslim would find that verse offensive."

Meanwhile, other groups are also at work, according to Herzog and Alford. World Relief is working with Christian communities in Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey to assess needs in northern Iraq. World Vision will work with the United Nations to distribute food to 250,000 people in northern Iraq. World Relief, Food for the Hungry, and Venture International are among the Western agencies working with a coalition of 11 Jordanian churches and agencies called the Jordanian Evangelical Community for Relief and Development.

No word on whether Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse is still planning to head into Iraq, but a check of the organization's website no longer shows any mention of work there.

Is Barney Torture?
Some have argued that torture is morally defensible in the war on terror. But revelations that U.S. "psy ops" forces are trying to break down Iraqi prisoners by playing Barney music will surely cause hardliners to reconsider their position.

Virginity in a Gold Box
In this week's cover story, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Sunday Magazine investigates the workings of a local teen abstinence organization, Operation Keepsake, which teaches more than 24,000 Cleveland-area students each year about the dangers of sex before marriage. Mary Anne Mosack, the group's director, told the Plain Dealer that her organization was in "a cultural war fighting for the hearts, minds and sexual purity of Cleveland's youth." The official symbol of the group is a gold box, wrapped with a gift tag that reads, "Do Not Open Until Marriage," representing sexuality as a precious keepsake.

The Plain Dealer story appeared the same week as a new report about teen sex, which found that one in five American teenagers has sex before the age of 15. The study, titled "14 and Younger: The Sexual Behavior of Young Adolescents," compiles the results of seven studies from the 1990s. The head of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy told the New York Times that it appeared fewer teenagers had been having sex since the years the studies were conducted.

Either way, this report will likely have an effect on the Bush administration, which, as the Plain Dealer reported, hopes to increase spending on abstinence education to $135 million (up from $60 million in 1998). Operation Keepsake is just one of many abstinence groups, some of which are affiliated with religious organizations and ask teens to sign an abstinence pledge. With this sample pledge from True Love Waits, readers can even promise sexual purity online.

Matters of Church and States
On Monday the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Joshua Davey, a student at a Kirkland, Wash. Christian college who tried to use a state scholarship to pay tuition for his pastoral ministries degree. Washington's constitution prohibits the state from funding religious education, but when the state challenged the student's application, Davey sued, and the U.S. 9th Circuit ruled in his favor, saying the constitution "supressed a religious point of view." In February, Gov. Gary Locke asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on whether states can pay for secular degrees but not religious ones.

While Congress remains unable to decide the most controversial church-state issues, the courts continue no such reluctance.

Norman Lear--'Unaffiliated Groper'
In his May 16 commencement address to USC Annenberg School for Communication, Norman Lear suggested that having brought on Archie Bunker, George Jefferson and other unwise characters, he could not himself be charged with being wise. Still, he ventured some advice. He noted that he has sometimes been cautioned not to talk about spirituality because it would undermine his credentials as a civil libertarian. Lear founded People for the American Way, which, like the ACLU, fights for strict separation of church and state.

But, Lear said, "Where is it written that civil libertarians do not care about the spiritual condition of our species? Well, whatever habits and inhibitions our culture has conditioned us to accept, this civil libertarian believes that humankind has been embarked since the beginning of human history on a search for transcendent meaning -- and that the next great and much needed improvement in our species' condition will come from more public discussion and a better understanding of the great mystery which frames our lives."

Norman, who calls himself "an unaffiliated groper," has never been able to build a strong TV series on religion, but that's not for lack of searching. He and his wife, psychologist Lyn Davis Lear, lead dinner symposia and e-mail dialogues with original theological minds and lure thinkers such as Bill Moyers and Sam Keen to their Vermont home each Columbus Day for a weekend of leaf-walks and humble spirituality talk.

Religious Conservatives: Republicans Are Going Soft On Homosexuality
The Economist reports that conservative Christians are terrified the Administration is going to go soft on gay rights. They thought they'd been making progress when, on May 6, they met with party chairman Mark Racocot and got him to promise that he'd meet with a group of ex-gays. But days later, White House officials met with the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group, again setting off alarm bells for the conservatives.

Yesterday, the Family Research Council sent around its daily email saying that Racicot is so out-of-touch with the GOP's most loyal and committed voters that "his qualifications to serve as chairman of the president's re-lection campaign must be seriously questioned." Racicot is leaving his post as RNC chairman to take charge of the Bush 2004 campaign. FRC charged that Racicot believes social conservatives are "ignorant bigots." The email concluded: A battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party on the issues of marriage and family is underway. Meanwhile, the conservative news site NewsMax takes it a step further, reporting that leaders of the Christian right are thinking of bolting the Republican Party in 2004 over the issue.

Do the Jews Need Geraldo?
Back from covering the war in Iraq for FOX News, television journalist Geraldo Rivera has a new project ahead of him. The Washington Post reports that the half-Puerto Rican, half-Jewish Rivera has decided it's time to "take this whole Judaism thing seriously."

"I think the Jews need me right now," Rivera told the Post. Will the Jews agree? Not necessarily. Rivera, who has described himself as a longtime supporter of Israel, sparked controversy in the Jewish community last year when he accused Israel's military of terrorizing the Palestinian people.

Faith-Based Flip-Flop Flap
Several days ago, the B-Log noted that American Eagle Outfitters company, under pressure from American Hindus Against Defamation, had pulled sandals irreverently displaying the Hindu god Ganesh's image. Beliefnet's flip-flop monitors do not rest, however. Now Christian religious figures have been blasphemed by beach footwear.

A Danish supermarket chain selling flip-flops sporting colorful images of Jesus and Mary received protests from "bishops, priests, Protestant ministers and angry Christians," says a store spokesperson. A local Catholic parish filed charges against the store, saying "We Catholics pray to Jesus and Mary and now they want us to walk all over them."

AFP reports that "Christian demonstrators of Middle Eastern origin stormed one of the chain's stores and destroyed the 'flip-flops of shame' that they said 'trample all over' their faith." The store has since yanked the product.

For all the complaints, no one seems to have a problem with CSO Industries' popular "Shoes of the Fisherman" flip-flops, which print "Jesus Loves Me" in the sand as the wearer walks.

Can't Nail 95 Theses to This Church
It's filled with the breath of the Spirit--or is that helium? The world's first inflatable church recently opened its squashy doors in a town outside of London. Though it contains a blow-up organ, a polyvinyl pulpit, and an air-filled altar, it's no lightweight: It weighs 22,000 pounds and is 47 feet high.

Like a Moon Bounce, the church can be transported by truck and set up "on patches of grass or in village squares for impromptu services," says creator Michael Gill.

Local Church of England Minister Michael Elfred applauded the church's mobility, noting that "God's ancient people worshipped in a tent... God is on the move and tells us not to be sidetracked by our buildings."

Non-Christians take heart: Gill has been requested to design inflatable mosques and synagogues.

The Elephant in the Log Cabin
Looks like the Rick Santorum controversy is far from over. At least, it's not over for conservative evangelicals. Subscribers to Gary Bauer's "End of Day" report on Monday learned that the Log Cabin Republicans, a homosexual group, had a special White House briefing last Friday and criticized the Pennsylvania Senator for being anti-gay.

Log Cabin member Sheri Clemons explained her views: "What Rick Santorum said was stupid. It's not really representative of what the Republican Party is moving toward. I think we are the future of the Republican Party, people like us."

That remark incensed Bauer, who wrote, essentially, that if Log Cabin Republicans are the GOP's future, then Republicans like Bauer are...outta there.

Sister Sinead
Roman Catholics who were happy to hear pop singer Sinead O'Connor announce her retreat into private life will be chilled to hear of her future career plans: she wants to teach religion. O'Connor riled many when she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on a 1992 "Saturday Night Live" telecast. Seven years later she was ordained a priestess in the Latin Tridentine Church, a Catholic splinter group, going by the name Mother Bernadette Mary. She soon admitted that she couldn't hack the celibacy requirement, and defrocked herself.

Now, says the Irish singer, she's planning to study to teach religion to primary schoolers. She also has an interest in a group that helps terminally ill patients, called Death Midwives.

Gutsy Evangelicals
Congratulations to a group of evangelical Christian leaders for their intellectual courage in criticizing their brethren, including Franklin Graham, for their anti-Islam rhetoric. Courage? Yes. It's hard to overstate how important a figure Graham is in the evangelical community. For these folks to disagree so publicly with his views is principled and gutsy.

The conceptual breakthrough was the notion that engaging with Islam in a respectful way does not mean giving up one's faith in Christianity. "You can say our way is true and yours is untrue," Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Institute told Beliefnet. "If you've you're going to have Muslim-Christian dialogue, you can't start off with 'we're right and your evil.''

Some speakers at the meeting argued that liberal Christians, in the interest of interfaith dialogue, have ignored the very real excesses of many Muslim leaders.

The Institute for Religion & Democracy proposed for Christians an set of guidelines for Christian-Muslim dialogue that does affirm the evangelical nature of the faith. "Give testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is our duty to do so," it says, but warns that "negative judgments about Islamic beliefs and practices--although these are sometimes necessary and are often implicit in the affirmations--should not be the principal theme of the Christian participants in the dialogue."

Jews Shifting Right?
Though Al Gore and his Jewish running mate Joseph Lieberman won about 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2000 election, Democratic and Republican Jewish analysts are predicting a strong rightward shift among Jews in 2004. The Boston Globe reports that many Jews are becoming more attracted to the policies of the Bush administration, especially because of the strong stance against terrorism, something Jews can relate to in regard to Israel. The American Prospect points out that no Republican presidential candidate has won a majority of Jewish voters since Warren G. Harding in 1920. But there is already "'a detectable shift in the Jewish community, in terms of their openness and willingness to support Republican candidates," Matthew Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition told the Globe.

This shift is most visible among young Jews, a trend prominent Jewish Republican Elliott Abrams wrote about on Beliefnet after the 2000 election. A poll earlier this year by Steven M. Cohen found that 26% of Jews under 35 considered themselves Republicans, while only 11% of Jews over 65 did.

The Family that Prays Together...
The new National Study of Youth and Religion seems to prove the old saying that "the family who prays together stays together." Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that adolescents age 12 to 14 who participate in religious activity (attending worship services, reading scripture, praying) with their families at least 5 to 7 days a week (heavily involved) have stronger family relationships.

These kids are more likely to participate in family activities, such eating dinner together, and to not run away from home. They look to their mothers and fathers as role models and say they enjoy spending time with them more than children from non-religious households do. Not surprisingly, the study also found that kids whose parents attend worship services more once a week or more perceive their mothers as more strict than others. And 60 percent of families who are heavily involved in religion eat dinner together 7 days a week, while in families that never participate in religious activities together, only 38 percent eat together every day.

Bless this Shrimp Boat
'Tis the season for first communions and confirmations, but also for a more unusual rite of spring--the blessing of vehicles. Last weekend's Blessing of the Fleet in Biloxi, Mississippi, which takes place annually at the beginning of the shrimping season, has been a regional tradition for 75 years. A priest sprinkles holy water on each member of the shrimp fleet and says a prayer for a "safe and prosperous fishing season." Boat blessing has caught on in other communities. At yesterday's Blessing of the Fleet in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, one shrimper told the Associated Press, "We've got shrimp prices so low we can hardly stay in business. We all need a little help from above this year."

New York City cyclists will gather May 17 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for the annual blessing of the bikes, when bikers bring their bikes to the cathedral to be sprinkled with holy water. And in Napa Valley, California, the Blessing of the Balloons, led by a Native American spiritual leader, is part of the annual Napa Valley Mustard Festival (the event was canceled this year). Rolando Solis blesses the festival's hot-air balloons with a 100-year-old eagle feather.

In case an eagle feather won't do the trick for your preferred mode of transport, one Catholic website provides an appropriate blessing for "a wagon or other vehicle."

Gambling vs. Smoking
In their eagerness to defend William Bennett, Washington-based conservatives implicitly made an argument bound to make religious conservatives uncomfortable--that gambling on this scale is simply not that big a deal:

Referring to the assertion in the Washington Monthly and Newsweek articles that he lost $8 million, Jonah Goldberg of National Review writes: "If, as is more likely, his losses are half that, he'd have spent less than what numerous movie stars and CEOs spend on their country estates, private jets, and divorces."

And James K. Glassman in Tech Central Station writes, "He enjoys life. What he does with his money is his own business. He can buy a house in Aspen or a private jet or collect Impressionist paintings or travel to the Antarctic or dine out with family and friends at expensive restaurants every night. It's up to him."

Jonathan Last in the Weekly Standard writes, "On the scale of legal, common, private activities, gambling is much closer to smoking than adultery. Would the world shudder if it turned out that Bennett was a two-pack-a-day man?"

Britain's Pat Buchanan?
The British now have their own version of 'dual loyalty' conspiracy theorists. This month's Vanity Fair quotes Member of Parliament and senior Labour party representative Tam Dalyell accusing Prime Minister Tony Blair of being overly-influenced in his Mideast policy by a "cabal of Jewish advisers." Dalyell said these advisers included "Lord Levy, Tony Blair's personal envoy on the Middle East, Peter Mandelson, whose father was Jewish, and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who has Jewish ancestry." He also accused Blair of being influenced by Bush administration members Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, and press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Dalyell's comments echo accusations of dual loyalty in American media immediately before the Iraq war, when Jewish neoconservatives were accused (by Pat Buchanan and talk show host Chris Matthews, among others) of pushing the war because it was in Israel's interests. But as Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg explains on Beliefnet, whether the war was good for Israel is still up in the air.

The Anti-Prayer Day
While tens of thousands of Christians throughout the country marked the National Day of Prayer yesterday, a smaller number of Americans countered with the new National Day of Reason. Events in at least 12 states included: a protest of the National Day of Prayer in San Jose, a trivia contest in Las Vegas, a humanist leafleting campaign in New York, and a video presentation about Frederick Nietzche in Cincinnati. "I encourage all citizens, residents and visitors," a sample NDOR proclamation states, "to join in observing this day and focusing upon the employment of reason, critical thought, the scientific method, and free inquiry to the resolution of human problems and for the welfare of human kind."

The Day of Reason even got official status in one city--by a fluke. Charleston, S.C. mayor Joseph P. Riley signed a proclamation making May 1 a Day of Reason in Charleston. But, Riley told the Charleston Post and Courier, had he known the day conflicted with the National Day of Prayer, he would not have signed the proclamation.

After the Rosary, the Stairmaster?
New York-based fitness expert and inspirational author Debbie Mandel has been offering new exercise classes for nuns. The sisters "love it," she told Reuters. The nuns have told her that when they enter a room now, "they evaluate the wall space so they can do wall push-ups."

Mandel is currently writing a book based on the workout titled "Changing Habits: The Sister's Workout." Her nun-specific routine includes an arm exercise she calls the "iron cross" and a stretch named the "Resurrection," according to the New York Post.

"We are expected to be signs of joy and hope," Sister Peggy Tully, 60, told the Post. "But I cannot be joyful without energy, so I work out."

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