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Kabbalists on Ice

posted by ellen leventry

That red string around U.S. figure skater Sasha Cohen’s left wrist wasn’t part of her colorful costume–it was a Kabbalah bracelet. Ubiquitous among celebrities, including Madonna, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher and even Paris Hilton, the trendy talisman of Jewish mystical tradition has made its way to center ice.

Cohen, who skated her way to first place after the women’s short program last night, was introduced to the bracelet–thought to ward off evil and negative thoughts–by ice skating teammate Johnny Weir.

”I’m not deeply into Kabbalah,” Cohen said on NBCOlympics.com when asked if she was wearing a Kabbalah bracelet at Nationals, “but I appreciate the principles of it…. I had a Kabbalah string before this one and it fell off–which is good luck. Johnny Weir tied that one on me the year before.” Another teammate, U.S. men’s figure skater Evan Lysacek, tied on this most recent bracelet.

While Cohen may not be a devotee of Kabbalah, the flamboyant Weir is. “A friend introduced me to Kabbalah actually before Esther (Madonna) started doing it,” Weir told Salon. “For a while I was getting a big head about how good I was becoming and what was going on with me, and it just sort of helped me stay centered and that sort of thing.”

Weir says he wears a Kabbalah star charm on his necklace, as well as the red string that “kind of saves you from other people dissing you.”

Unfortunately for the three-time national champion, his bracelet may need to work harder, since many in sports media have been savaging him for his comments blaming his poor performance and fifth-place finish on missing the bus and bad auras. Cohen’s bracelet, for the moment, can rest easy, as her graceful short program impressed the judges and is keeping the press more than pleasant.

Will “House” Ever Find Hope ?

posted by kris rasmussen

He may be a rude, bitter man who likes to pretend he is God, but I am still crazy about Gregory House. Fox’s critically acclaimed series “House”–which centers around a brilliant infectious disease specialist who solves life-or-death medical mysteries–features one of the most emotionally complicated yet morally ambiguous characters ever written for television. Sure, House (played to perfection by Golden Globe winner Hugh Laurie) wants us all to believe he cares more about solving a medical puzzle than cozying up to his patients, and, yes, he has a little pill-popping problem, but last night’s episode confirms what “House” fans knew all along–his snarky behavior is all a mask to hide his struggle with his own personal demons, as he searches for some kind of hope to make his life worth living.

Fresh off of the ending of an affair with his ex-wife Stacy, House begins to notice increasing amounts of pain shooting through his leg, which was premanently damaged in an accident years ago. Though he does not want his co-workers to know about his worsening medical condition, he does confide in two people–his only friend, Dr. Wilson, and his boss, Dr. Cuddy. Wilson suggests that maybe the nerves in his leg are trying to regenerate and heal, giving House a sense of false hope. But when the pain becomes too great for the doctor, he goes to Cuddy and insists she give him morphine, because the Vicodin pills he takes constantly don’t help him anymore.

The morphine shot works–or so House thinks–because suddenly his leg feels better. It is then that Cuddy reveals that she, too, gave House a false sense of hope. The morphine was actually a placebo, indicating that the pain is in House’s heart and head, but not in his leg. The final scene reveals House’s vulnerability in a way we the viewers have never seen before. Face-to-face with his past failures and disappointments, all of which are deeper than the scars on his crippled leg, which he now realizes won’t ever heal, House sits alone in his home staring at a bottle of pills with a look of utter despair. In a moment of defeat, he opens the bottle and pops some pills, once more hoping to deaden the pain inside.

Could this mean that House has finally hit rock bottom emotionally and spiritually? I sure hope so. It will not only make for good TV drama, but it could be a soul-searching reminder to us all that we cannot wrestle our inner demons alone and expect to win; we need the help of a higher power.

What the Bleep!? A New Universal Spirituality?

posted by donna freitas

Mindboggling, jaw-dropping, thrilling, engrossing. All these adjectives apply–and then some–when describing “What the Bleep!? Down the Rabbit Hole: Extended Director’s Cut,” playing in select cities now. (It’s basically a long version of last year’s very popular “What the Bleep Do We Know!?“–already available on DVD.)

“Is the spirit and science tying the knot once more?” an announcer asks at the beginning of the film, following a hilariously irreverent and brief history of religion’s bumpy relationship with science (complete with bumper car illustrations). If “What the Bleep!?” has anything to say about the current and future state of science and spirituality, it’s that tying the knot between them again is an inevitability driven by the extraordinary knowledge that quantum physicists and mathematicians are uncovering today. This knowledge may eventually require a “quantum conversion” or a “quantum horizon shift” (to use the language of scholars describing spiritual awakenings) among all of us when it comes to how we perceive reality, and therefore religion and spirituality.

Mostly documentary, with a tiny bit of story featuring Marlee Matlin as Amanda (who experiences a kind of “quantum horizon shift” over the course of the movie), the scientists, mathematicians, and scholars interviewed collectively deconstruct the classical, “mechanical” understanding of the human body, the world, and how everything operates in relation to everything else (as individuals, as separate objects). They then build on the notion that all the universe, consciousness itself, is a great collective organism in which we all swim, move, live. This notion takes the statement “what I think effects the world” to a new level, since, as one scientist explains, the universe–and we, the human elements of it–are made of an “ocean of pure potentiality, abstract potentiality, pure abstract self-aware consciousness that gives rise to everything.”

In other words, as conscious elements of the larger universe, we are its co-creators. For lack of a better term, as conscious beings we are each of us gods (but not the only gods, as all consciousness is god), creating reality with our thoughts, actions, choices, and by merely being here and watching and paying attention.

One of the most mindboggling things in the movie’s commentary is the fact that elementary particles act differently when they are observed than when they are not. You need to go see the film yourself to get more on that one. It’s one of the most fascinating ideas of all, but I’d need a quantum physicist here with me right now to explain it for you.

What does this mean on a spiritual level (other than the fact that we are all co-creators of existence–that “God is not within, but in fact we ourselves are divine”)? Those interviewed cite the idea of separateness as the single biggest problem across humanity, because quantum physics “has its own spirituality of unity” in this area: It tells us that separateness does not exist, that we are all literally connected. One scientist wonders: “When do we make the shift from me to one?” Since life is effected by observation (again, literally), another scientist talks about the importance of “practicing the skill of observation” within the world, with regard to our own bodies and health, that of the people we care about and those we’ve never met, because attention and intention changes the world. The potential impact this idea has on “the power of prayer” could be extraordinary, and the notion that prayer can “work” and that prayer “helps” patients who are sick, for example, begin to make sense at a new level.

Totally mindboggling stuff.

If it’s playing at a theater near you–GO! I am planning on going again and buying the DVD when it comes out, since I think it would add some much-needed spice to my Intro to Religious Studies class at some point during the semester (perhaps when discussing the Scientific Revolution and its impact on religious thinking?), especially that funny quick bit at the beginning about rocky relationship of science and religion across the ages.

A Martyr’s Death

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I’d never heard of Sophie Scholl until last week, a fact I am embarrassed to admit, especially now that I’ve seen “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Scholl is today a national hero in Germany for her resistance efforts against the Nazis, and her trial and execution for distributing leaflets at a Munich university. Hopefully, the movie will make her equally well known in the U.S.

In Scholl’s story, a few individuals do what little they can to oppose the evil that engulfed their nation. Members of a group called The White Rose, these young Germans are not the usual resistance fighters on which filmmakers love to focus; they’re not warriors taking up arms, nor are they Oscar Schindler types who save large numbers of Jews through ingenious planning. The story of Sophie Scholl is much simpler, much smaller than that–and in that simplicity lies the understated power of this film (which is, fittingly, much smaller in scope and more modest in sweep than a movie like “Schindler’s List”). Scholl and her brother Hans are caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets on a university campus. The Scholls and their comrades are not larger-than-life heroes whose bravery and accomplishments are virtually impossible to relate to. Instead, they are us, everyday people, albeit caught in an impossible situation. Sophie, only 21 years old, is engaged to a man fighting for Germany in the Nazi army; she tells her cellmate that her fiance is loyal to his oath to Hitler. Her brother is a medical student. Yet faced with the oppression of the Nazi regime and the mounting casualties of a unjust and unwinnable war, they did what little they could: Through leaflets and grafitti, they urged widespread resistance. It wasn’t going to end the war, and perhaps it was naive of them to think they could make a real difference, but with their world out of control, they took a small step toward righting the wrongs around them.

The film follows Sophie’s interrogation, as she at first denies any involvement and keeps repeating that she and Hans are apolitical. The next day, faced with strong evidence of her “guilt,” she neither maintains the charade that she is innocent nor turns into some sort of fiery orator denouncing her captors. She speaks her truth quietly but assertively, by admitting what she did–and saying she is proud of it and would do it again. She looks her interrogator in the eye and is unafraid to denounce Hitler and his followers. At the trial, her voice grows even stronger, as she defends her actions and tells the judge: “You will soon be standing where we are now.”

The film makes clear where Sophie and her brother got their strength and their conviction. Their father, a former mayor, had been jailed the previous year for calling Hitler “God’s scourge to mankind.” He shows up at his children’s show trial, and before being kicked out, he uses his split second not to beg for mercy from the unmerciful judge but to remind the court, “There is a higher justice.” And in the couple of minutes Sophie is granted to say goodbye to her parents, her father tells her he is proud, adding, “You did the right thing.” It was one of the movie’s strongest moments.

“Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” just opened in New York, will open Friday in L.A., and will go wider in the coming weeks. The film itself is a bit formulaic–I could have done without the pulsating “suspense” music foreshadowing Sophie’s arrest, for instance–and the translation can be overly formal, but despite its flaws, it’s still powerful and moving. Just before she is led away to her death, Sophie, a committed Lutheran, looks up and sees a crucifix on the wall, the suffering Jesus still on the cross. It is a stark reminder that our faith, whatever it is, calls us to fix this broken world in whatever way we can. I am glad to now know how Sophie Scholl tried to fix her world.

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