Lt. Gen. Boykin's Torture Techniques
Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a top Pentagon intelligence officer, is already under scrutiny for anti-Islamic remarks he made in a speech last year. On Tuesday a Senate panel was told that the evangelical Christian general briefed a civilian military officials last summer on techniques that might be used to make Iraqi detainees talk.

In October, President Bush publicly criticized Boykin after the general claimed he told a Muslim, "I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol." In the same speech, Boykin said terrorists had attacked the United States because it is "a Christian nation." Boykin's remarks spurred a Pentagon review, but he did not lose his post.

Several investigations have been launched into who, if anyone, ordered the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, and what the Pentagon knew when. But Muslim critics immediately pointed to Boykin's alleged involvement as evidence of a disregard for the prisoners' humanity. "It definitely contributes to a climate in which these young MPs apparently felt it was ... OK to abuse Muslim and Arab men like this," Hussein Ibish, communications director for the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, told Reuters. The connection to Boykin, critics say, will also fuel Muslim suspicions that the atrocities, and the war, are a Christian campaign against Islam.

Remember That Movie?
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" continues to pull in cash at the box office (total gross from American theaters is up to more than $368 million as of May 9). But now that the movie has been out on U.S. screens for 11 weeks, the major money influx comes from overseas theaters. Gibson has already sold more than $212 million in tickets outside the U.S. Box Office Mojo tracks the performance of "The Passion" on overseas screens. Not surprisingly, Italy leads the way, with $24,263,182 in ticket sales as of April 25. Other big "Passion"-watching countries include Brazil, France, Mexico, the U.K., Spain, and South Korea. The website doesn't yet list any box office revenues for the movie in the Arab world.

Teenage Christian Music Pirates
It's hard to imagine young evangelicals browsing gospel, worship and contemporary Christian music and asking themselves, "What Would Jesus Steal?" Or is it? According to a recent survey by the Gospel Music Association, 77 percent of born-again Christian teens have pirated Christian tunes, either by illegally burning CDs, downloading music files or sharing uploaded music with their friends.

The GMA commissioned The Barna Group to conduct the study, GMA president John W. Styll said, because Christian music sales (down 5 percent last year) have been hurt by piracy. "We went into this study wanting to learn more about our young consumers and how their faith intersects with this vital issue," he said. "We were somewhat surprised to find out that it does not."

The study, which surveyed 1,488 Christian and non-Christian teenagers, revealed that the two groups pirate music at roughly the same rate (77 percent and 81 percent). Only 10 percent of Christian teens believe it is morally wrong to copy CDs. The GMA announced its findings in a press release headlined: "Christian Teens Take the Moral High Ground on Music Piracy...Not!"

"[The survey] furthers our resolve that we, meaning the industry, parents and spiritual leaders," Styll said, "need to do a better job educating the hearts and minds of young people to the basic principle, 'thou shalt not steal.'"

Diamond Dust
It used to be that Victorian folks would take a snippet of hair from a deceased loved one and carry it in a locket or intricately weave it into a piece of jewelry. LifeGems brings mourning jewelry into the twenty-first century with the LifeGem Diamond. Available in round cut, princess cut, or radiant cut, "the LifeGem is a certified, high quality diamond created from the carbon of your loved one as a memorial to their unique and wonderful life," according to the company's website. It does take time to create a LifeGem, just as it takes time to produce a natural diamond. But isn't a few months' wait worth it? After all, a diamond is forever.

National Day of Prayer
Tomorrow marks the 53rd National Day of Prayer. The official NDOP website, which explains that the day is not meant to be an exclusively Christian event, offers a suggested list of people to pray for and a state-by-state guide to events. For the second year in a row, American nonbelievers are countering with their own National Day of Reason.

Bond. Jewish Bond.
Sean Connery, famous for playing 007 and for his sexy Scottish brogue, will be playing a Jewish Holocaust survivor in his next film. In "Josiah's Canon," a 2005 release from 20th Century Fox, Connery's character will lead a group of bank robbers into a high-security Swiss bank to reclaim money deposited by Jews before World War II.

Denver Doctor Hammers Hindus
E-mail is flying among Hindus outraged by an April 28 Denver Post column in which an African doctor working in Colorado called Hinduism inherently racist. Pius Kamau, a Kenyan-born thoracic surgeon who writes a biweekly column for the Post, says Hindu notions of caste are ingrained and claims that "to Hindus, blacks are a rung below Untouchables." Saying Indians in his East Africa home looked down on their black neighbors, Kamau writes "Hindus can't help themselves. Humanity exists in a rigid chamber in Hinduism; one's caste never changes. Brahmins are empowered; lower castes enslaved. Blacks fit nicely within this group."

Kamau opines that an Indian he got to know well, a former roommate, never showed prejudice because he was a convert to Christ: "Christianity, it seems, releases the Hindu mind from its rigid shackles, unraveling the tight coils of dogma. Like the monotheist Muslims, Christians are more accessible because charity and love of neighbor are the central tenets of their creeds."

The column sparked protests on Indian websites like Sulekha and Desiblogs. The listserv of the Southeast Asian Journalists Association circulated the column and urged members to write to the Denver Post.

After the Post received several angry letters, Kamau responded that his recent interactions with Indian doctors in Denver "led me to explain a shallow comportment on their part with a deeper religious explanation" and says he regrets "causing pain to good people with my unguarded illustrations and words."

Spirited Campaigner
As the major-party nominees may be slugging it out in what seems like a two man fight, don't forget Congressman Dennis Kucinich. His campaign is still alive, targeting spiritual, New Age, and progressive voters in what the candidate calls "a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party." On May 2 at the "Spirituality in Politics" Forum in Ashland, Colo., Kucinich will be sharing the podium with psychic visionary James Twyman, "The Peace Troubadour," and Wes Nisker, the "Baby-Boomer Buddhist." The peace hymn "The Star-Spangled Spirit" will be sung. Organizers say the format will be a circle, chosen to be in harmony with nature and inspired by a traditional tribal council. Donations of $15-25 are suggested, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

Barbara's Baby Blues
ABC's 20/20 might have been too zealous in selling Friday's segment on open adoption as a reality show. "Be My Baby" shows teenager Jessica Bohne choosing among five couples who hope to adopt her child, but promos referred to the segment as "the ultimate reality show." An adoptive mother herself, Walters apologized, saying the promos may have been "over-the-top," but urged people to withold judgment until the show aired. Jessica, at least, realizes the enormity of her decision: "I was kind of playing God."

Abortion and Terrorists
Planned Parenthood is seeking an apology from presidental advisor Karen Hughes for comments she made this week on CNN's Late Edition connecting abortion and terrorism. Responding to a question about how the abortion issue would affect the coming election, Hughes told Wolf Blitzer that 9/11 had changed the nature of the debate. "The American people are valuing life more," she said, and added that "our enemies in the terror network ... don't value any life, not even the innocent and not even their own." In a letter to Hughes, PP president Gloria Feldt wrote, "Invoking 9/11 to defend this administration's policies regarding reproductive rights was an insensitive and divisive overreach." Planned Parenthood is urging its supporters to sign a petition and to protest in person at Hughes's appearances for her new book across the country.

Some members of Congress followed with their own letter, calling Hughes' comments "dangerous, ugly, and slanderous" and urging the president to clarify publicly that abortion and terrorism are not related.

Kosher for Beginners
Christians have been warming lately to kasrut, the Jewish kosher laws governing which foods are proper to eat and how to prepare them. "The Maker's Diet," "What Would Jesus Eat?" and other Christian flirtations with keeping kosher tend to stress the health benefits of the God-given dietary conventions, but other Christians contemplate going kosher as a matter of faith. But how to begin? "Spice and Spirit," a cookbook compiled the Lubavich Women's Organization, is the "Joy of Cooking" for kosher eating and a common present for newlyweds in the Orthodox Jewish community. One caution: though the text and recipes are for beginners, most will want to scale down the proportions, which tend to be for tables of six or more.

Sects of the Stars
You read the People magazine cover on Hollywood's faith fixations. Now for the quiz. NewYorkish, a blog of "humor, news and other useless information," provides a list of 19 movie stars and asks you to match each with his or her religious affiliation. Answers are provided.

The Secularist Gap
The May issue of First Things contains a convincing piece from Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio, two City University of New York political scientists who have argued previously that the media is quick to identify religious influence in the Republican Party, while remaining mum about the influence of secularists in the Democratic Party. According to Bolce and De Maio, traditional believers--white evangelicals and Catholics--migrated to the GOP after secularists took over the 1972 Democratic convention that nominated George McGovern, resulting in what the press calls the "religion gap," but which the profs say could as easily be called the "secularist gap."

DeMaio and Bolce slip, however, in looking only at white Democrats, dismissing the party's evangelical wing, which happens to be largely African-American. In the watershed year in the professors' research, 1992, Clinton carried thee quarters of the secularist vote. In that same year, Clinton won 83 percent of the African-American vote. Two-thirds of African-Americans call themselves evangelical or born again, according to a recent ABC poll.

Next for Mel: Assisi?
A group of Franciscan friars and sisters in New York City have proposed that Mel Gibson produce a sequel on Saint Francis of Assisi entitled "Man of the Passion." In their online petition, the Franciscans "commission" Gibson, saying he might do better justice to their order's founder than has been done in the past.

Father Glenn Sudano, head of the Community of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, told Reuters that films on St. Francis, such as "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" and "Francesco," starring Mickey Rourke, are "like caricatures."

Almost 10,000 supporters have signed the petition so far. "We believe that this is indeed the right movie with the right message at the right time," the petition says. "We trust that 'Man of the Passion' will not simply be another religious movie, but like 'The Passion of the Christ', a sacred masterpiece and holy encounter."

Buddha Bikini Busted
Victoria's Secret's "Asian Floral Tankini," which featured an image of the Buddha on the top, has disappeared without comment from their online catalogue after Buddhists complained. "Pictures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are sacred things which we never use to put on clothes," a Buddhist wrote to Victoria's Secret in an email shared with the Vietnamese-language newspaper Calitoday. U.S. Buddhists, who quickly spread word of the sacrilege abroad via the Internet, made the point that the company would not attempt to sell a swimsuit bearing an image of Jesus. While Jesus doesn't always get respect in clothing lines either, the point--that Buddhism chic may have reached the limits of tolerance--is well taken. One blogger on xanga.com who took exception to the Asian tankini also reported seeing a television segment on "a lounge called Tao ... with a 16-ft. Buddha statue, similar to ones you see at temples." She added, "I'm going to open a club called Jerusalem and serve holy water martinis."

School Shooting Anniversary
Although students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado had the day off from school today, they weren't celebrating. Today is the fifth anniversary of the Columbine shootings, the worst school shooting in U.S. history. Students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 of their schoolmates and one teacher, and injured many others before taking their own lives. Tonight a memorial and candlelight vigil are planned near the school.

Memorials abound on the web as well. The Denver Post has a touching memorial to the victims, complete with pictures and short bios by the victims' family members. Beliefnet readers can post their thoughts on this Victims of Columbine prayer circle.

Bush's Divine Mandate
In Newsweek's preview of "Plan of Attack," Bob Woodward's insider account of the decision to invade Iraq, we learn that President Bush "seems to have relied more on divine guidance than the considered opinions of his top advisers." While finding no evidence that Bush asked cabinet secretaries whether war was a good idea, Woodward says the president told him, "I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will ... I'm surely not going to justify war based on God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible."

Should James Yee Get an Apology?
Andrew Sullivan is on the warpath against the military. He says the top brass need to apologize to Captain James Yee, the Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, who was released from custody earlier this month. Says Sullivan: Yee was "smeared, attacked, prosecuted and now muzzled by his superiors--with no valid case against him."

She's No Shabbos Goy
Pop star Madonna's latest U.S. tour kicks off in about a month, with dates scheduled for every night of the week except for Fridays. "She is observing Shabbat on Friday evenings," Madonna's publicist Liz Rosenberg told New York magazine, referring to the Jewish Sabbath, which begins every Friday at sundown. Madonna is well-known for following Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and for her affiliation with the controversial Kabbalah Center. But will she really go the distance to keep the Jewish Sabbath? Traditional observers of Shabbat don't just refrain from giving concerts to sold-out crowds in huge venues. Use of electricity, transportation, money, and more are all forbidden. Check out this quick guide to Shabbat observance for an idea of what Madonna's spotlight-free Friday nights might be like.

Baseball's Bible Bobblehead Promo
Can Moses, Samson, & Noah save the franchise? In an unusual bid to attract religious baseball fans, the minor league Nashville Sounds have announced plans to offer Bible Bobbleheads to the first 2,000 fans attending the games on three upcoming 'Faith Nights'. Though the team has had bobblehead promotions in the past, this is their first experiment with figures not based on atheletes. Bypassing Jesus as "too controversial" for their first offering, the Sounds hope to expand to other Bible characters if this first effort is a success. And so far all signs look good. According to Brent High, the team's manager of church and youth programs, "The youth groups are going crazy over these things."

Terry Family Feud
Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry was a genius at creating headlines for the anti-abortion cause in the 1980s and '90s. Now the headlines are back, but less welcome. The May issue of Out magazine, due on stands April 20, will feature a story by Terry's adopted son Jamiel announcing that he is gay. Terry, who has moved on to opposing same-sex marriage since retiring from Operation Rescue in 2000, has fired back in a column this week in the Washington Times, indicting Jamiel for selling him out and Out for seducing his son with money and cooking the facts to make Jamiel's situation more embarrassing for his father. (A spokesman for Out says Jamiel approached the magazine, and that his father's column gets key facts wrong.) Terry also insists he has offered to pay for treatment to cure Jamiel's homosexuality, and that Jamiel has often requested the help, but says since "prostituting" his family, his son is no longer welcome in his home.

Passion in the Parking Lot
During Easter weekend, some shoppers in an Albany, NY, parking lot were shocked to see a man dressed as Jesus Christ, drenched in fake blood, and staging a scourging with the help of an accomplice. Children present for the display were upset. Local police were called, but Parking Lot Jesus had already left the shopping plaza by the time the police responded.

Is being whipped with a rope in front of a grocery store an appropriate expression of faith? Beliefnet member redkim didn't think so: "If you want to proclaim your faith, dressing up as Christ and getting flogged in a shopping mall parking lot isn't the way to do it," she wrote on Beliefnet's boards.

Celebs Canning Kabbalah
This week it seems like it's as vogue to drop interest in kabbalah as it is to wear a red string. Jerry Hall said in the latest issue of W magazine that she no longer associates with the controversial Kabbalah Center, the main outpost of celebrity interest in Jewish mysticism. "They always talked about giving in order to receive, but I didn't really realize that in order to go through a door of miracles, you had to give 10 percent of your income," the model and actress told the fashion magazine. And Teen Hollywood says Madonna's constant kabbalah promotion has upset pal Stella McCartney. A friend of McCartney, daughter of former Beatle Paul, told the website, "She simply doesn't believe that she should pay through the nose to worship something she believes in."

A More Conservative Fab Five
To promote its April 25th pro-choice march in Washington D.C., Planned Parenthood has released "Right-Wing Eye," a web cartoon video that borrows the format of Bravo's hit reality series "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" to assail the the right wing's "assault on reproductive rights." To techno beats, the video introduces its Fab Five: Pat Roberston (Morality Maven), Ralph Reed (Sexuality Savant), Jerry Falwell (Piety Pusher), Pat Buchanan (Culture Coordinator), and Rush Limbaugh (Grooming Guru). The five arrive to remake the home of Ted and Laura, a young interracial couple--and change their minds about abortion. Out go the condoms, the "Sex & the City" DVDs, and a copy of "Our Bodies, Ourselves," and in come a "700 Club" plaque, a picture of President Bush, and an abstinence pledge hanging on the wall.

"I wanted to talk to you about...the whole right to choose thing," the Ralph Reed character says to the cartoon woman. "That is sooo pre-right wing takeover." After the couple has been properly right-winged, the five are shown watching them on screen from an office in the White House, where they find, to their dismay, that their tactics haven't worked--Ted and Laura march anyway.

Apology for Mormons, 158 Years Later
Illinois officials traveled to Salt Lake City yesterday to officially apologize for the state's treatment of Mormons during the faith's early history. Illinois House Resolution 793 expresses "official regret" for the 1844 murder of Mormon founder Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Ill., and and the expulsion of Mormons from the state two years later. Nauvoo, founded by Mormons in 1839, is now a major Mormon tourist destination.

"We view this resolution as an affirmation that Nauvoo is a place of peace and an affirmation that Latter-day Saints will always have a place in Illinois," church leader James Faust said.

To see who else has been apologizing in recent years for crimes of the past, check out Beliefnet's chart of church apologies.

Survey: More Americans Believe Jews Culpable for Christ's Death
A new survey released today by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press finds that 26% of Americans believe Jews are responsible for Christ's death. Pew compares this to a 1997 ABC News survey, which found 19% believed Jews are responsible. The increase is most substantial among Americans under 30 and African-Americans, who believe Jews are responsible at a rate of 34% and 42%, respectively. The number of people that believe the Bible is the literal word of God has also jumped, according to the survey. A June 1996 survey found 35% believe so; this year's survey found 40% believe the Bible is the literal word of God.

Talking to God: Evidence of Insanity?
Deanna Laney, currently on trial in Texas for capital murder, claims God told the end of the world was coming soon, and that in order to prove her devotion, she had to kill her three sons.

"I thought I was being told by the Lord to do this. I believe that with all my heart," Laney told psychiatrist Park Dietz on a video tape played for jurors, according to CNN. Laney killed two of her sons, and seriously injured the third, with heavy rocks.

Laney's case is reminiscent of Andrea Yates, who claimed she drowned her five children because the devil told her to. Yates was sentenced to life in prison. Laney faces the same fate if she is convicted; her lawyers argue her supposed mission from God demonstrates she is insane.

Campaign Scripture Tussle
"The Scriptures say: 'What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?'" presidential candidate Senator John Kerry told congregants at New Northside Baptist Church in St. Louis yesterday morning, quoting James 2:14. "When we look at what is happening in America today, where are the works of compassion?"

Kerry's speech at the mostly black church may have raised clapping hands in the pews, but also raised eyebrows in the Bush campaign. "John Kerry's comment .was. a sad exploitation of Scripture for a political attack," Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt told Knight Ridder.

The verse Kerry quoted is one of the standard Catholic biblical verses addressing the theological issue of faith vs. works. The classic Matthew Henry commentary on the Bible explains, "No doubt, true faith alone, whereby men have part in Christ's righteousness, atonement, and grace, saves their souls; but it produces holy fruits, and is shown to be real by its effect on their works; while mere assent to any form of doctrine, or mere historical belief of any facts, wholly differs from this saving faith."

"Passion" Confessions Continue
Another "Passion" viewer has confessed to a crime after seeing the movie, according to news reports. A 21-year-old Texas man confessed to the murder of his 19-year-old girlfriend in January. The death had been ruled a suicide.

Less gruesome "Passion" stories can be shared on the Miracles of the Passion website. "Did a miracle occur in your life that is a result of having seen and experienced the film...?" the site asks. Videotaped stories are being compiled for a documentary, "Changed Lives: Miracles of the Passion."

Church Sues Former Member
The Church of Scientology is in the news, and this time, it has nothing to do with Tom Cruise. The controversial church is suing one of its former members for $10 million.

Gerry Armstrong, now a critic of the CoS, told the San Francisco Chronicle that this is the sixth time the church has sued him. He says that the current suit stems from a 1984 lawsuit settlement in which the CoS paid him $515,000 after he signed a contract which promised that he would "maintain strict confidentiality and silence with respect to his experiences with the Church of Scientology." The contract stipulated he would be fined $50,000 every time he said something about the Church.

According to the Church, Armstrong has violated the agreement over 200 times, entitling it to about $10 million.

Kerry's Mass Media Op
Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, who has come under fire from Roman Catholics for his position on abortion and other issues, attended Mass this past Sunday while on an Idaho ski trip--but made some embarrassing gaffes, according to the LA Times and other sources.

"Sunday morning, a caravan of sport utility vehicles swept into the parking lot at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church, and Kerry and his wife--15 minutes late for Mass--ducked through the back door," reports the Times. The American Spectator says that Kerry, "not known to be a regular Mass attendee," went to his roped-off pew "noisily, fully outfitted for skiing, not dressed for a religious service." According to the Spectator, a Kerry advance staffer said the church visit was "just a media-op...We set it up with some reporters that we knew were going to be there."

Kerry, his wife, and a security agent received the Eucharist. The senator's fitness to receive the sacrament has been debated in Catholic circles as the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic bishops have cracked down on pro-choice politicians.

Should Kerry have received Communion? All political and ethical questions aside, an unofficial Catholic rule of thumb holds that late-arriving massgoers can receive Communion if they've made it to services before the gospel is read. This usually happens at about minute 15, as sleepy teens rushing off late to Sunday morning Mass know. Kerry, being between 11 and 20 minutes late for Mass, probably wouldn't have made it under the wire.

Gefilte Fish Gluttony
The most famous eating contest in Brooklyn, and perhaps the world, is probably the annual July 4 hot dog-eating contest on Coney Island. But just down the beach last weekend, the Manhattan Beach Jewish Community Center hosted the world's first-ever organized gefilte fish-eating contest. Gefilte fish, the traditional Jewish dish consisting of chopped or ground fish and vegetables and held together with eggs and matzoh meal, apparently doesn't go down as easily as hot dogs. As the Forward reports, the contest's winner put away 11 pieces in 7 minutes; the record for the most hot dogs is currently 50 and a half in 12 minutes.

The Passion of the Python
The 25th anniversary of the Monty Python film "Life of Brian" will be celebrated by its return to the big screen in a few weeks, according to Reuters. The movie, a political and religious satire that tells the story of Brian, a Jewish political activist in Judea, is infused with the silliness the Pythons are famous for and, some would say, borders on the blasphemous. When it was first released, it was banned in Ireland and Norway.

"We decided this is an important time to re-release this film, to provide some counter-programming to 'The Passion,' " said Harry Jaglom, distributor of the film. "I intend it, hopefully, to serve as an antidote to all the hysteria about Mel's movie."

Indeed, "Brian" provides a much different look at a crucifixion than Gibson's movie. For some moviegoers, watching Brian hang from a cross singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" will undoubtedly be more fun, if less spiritually moving, than "The Passion."

PETA's Passover Promo
Celebrity gabber Joan Rivers has joined People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to promote a new item for the seder table: fake pork. "This year, you can pig out at Passover--can put some pork on your fork, and it's kosher!" Rivers enthuses on the PETA hotline. Vegetarian seder hosts and other interested parties can call 1-888-VEG-FOOD to hear Rivers' raspy delivery and order their own "Passover the Pork" kit.

Apparently PETA is wagering that Rivers' endorsement will be less of a turnoff to Jews than last year's repulsive "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign.

Hijab for Your Health
Kamal Malaker, a doctor in Saudi Arabia, believes the country's strict religious dress code is responsible for lower rates of the Epstein Barr virus, which causes cancer of the nose and throat, among women there. According to Reuters, Malaker thinks the face-covering veils the women wear act as a filter to screen out viruses.

"The hijab (veil) is a protection against upper respiratory tract infection," Malaker, head of radiation oncology at Saudi Arabai's King Abdul Aziz hospital, told the Saudi Gazette. "In the kingdom, nasopharyngeal throat cancer ailment is very low among women as compared to men."

He Chose the Scissors
A married couple in Georgia was arrested after a theological argument over "The Passion of the Christ" turned violent--though less violent than the movie. Melissa Davidson suffered injuries on her arm and face, while husband Sean had a scissors stab wound on his hand (his shirt was ripped off as well).

What were they debating after seeing the movie? Whether God the Father in the Holy Trinity was human or symbolic.

The couple was charged with simple battery on March 11 after the two called police on each other.

"Really, it was kind of a pitiful thing, to go to a movie like that and fight about it. I think they missed the point," said Gene McDaniel, chief sheriff's deputy.

"Passion" Causes Crook to Confess
Mel Gibson's blockbuster film, "The Passion of the Christ," has not only caused guilt-ridden Catholics and other Christians to get into church pews, apparently, it's also helping local police departments catch crooks.

This week, Florida resident James Anderson, walked into the Palm Beach Country Sheriff's office and confessed to the December 2001 robbery of a Palm Beach Gardens bank in which $25,000 was taken.

According to today's New York Post, Anderson, who was 51 at the time of the crime, told Detective Gary Martin, "I have to confess to a bank robbery I committed...I just saw the most wonderful movie--it moved me."

Was "Passion" Good for the Jews?
A new poll by a controversial Jewish demographer suggests that Mel Gibson's movie changed Christian opinions about Jews for the better. "In general, people are less inclined to see Jews as responsible for killing Christ" after seeing the movie, Gary Tobin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The poll, which surveyed 1,003 random American adults, found that 12 percent of those who had seen the movie said the "Passion" made them less likely to blame Jews for the death of Jesus, while only 5 percent said it made them more likely. The poll also found that 16 percent of Americans had seen the movie. A similar Gallup poll found 11 percent had seen it.

"I hope he's right," Anti-Defamation Leage chairman Abe Foxman told the JTA after hearing of Tobin's survey. "I think it's a little too early to come to any conclusions." The ADL will conduct its own post-Passion polls in the next few months.

A Physicist & a Hare Krishna
NPR's Terry Gross aired a fascinating interview yesterday with physicist Brian Greene, author of "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality." In their conversation, Greene revealed that his brother is a Hare Krishna and that the two of them often get into congenial conversations about the nature and beginnings of the universe. Greene said that he feels--even almost hopes--that there could be a supreme intelligence and that a belief in God is not at all incompatible with scientific thinking. Listen to the interview on NPR's website.

Where Would Jesus Drill?
An American oil company is combining geology with biblical scholarship to decide where to drill for oil. Zion Oil & Gas, Inc., based in Dallas, Texas, and Herzliya, Israel, recently began fundraising for its $35 million IPO to finance oil exploration in Israel. Company founder John Brown told Bloomberg News that he is basing his decisions on where to drill on the Bible--mostly. "Although most of my vision was based on Scripture," he said, "it needed to be supported with good geophysical and geological data."

According to Bloomberg, Israel now has just one active oil field, which produces 70 barrels of oil a day. "Israel has no real energy resources," Brown, a Christian, explained, "and so I prayed that God would give me an opportunity to help Israel with oil."

Low-Carb Noshing
After noticing a promo for home-delivered "Kosherlite Meals" (advertised as "Low Carb! Low Fat! Luscious!") in the New York Sun last week, I went in search of other kosher mimics of the Zone, Atkins, and South Beach Diets. It turns out the kosher food industry is cutting carbs faster than you can say "potato pancake."

"Low-carb craze infiltrates kosher market," a recent edition of the Kosher Today newsletter declared. Apparently kosher consumers are clamoring for sugar-free bagels and challahs from Lang's International, a bakery based in California. Its low-carb challah (the special braided bread Jews use for Shabbat and holidays) is "the first in the nation," according to BakingBusiness.com. One slice of the bread has 45% fewer carbs than Lang's traditional challah.

Church Clamps Down on Spaghetti Straps
A recent church bulletin of the Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury, CT, warned bridal parties that strapless, backless and spaghetti-strap gowns are "not appropriate church attire." The church's pastor, Fr. John Bevins, told local news station WTNH that he made the policy because "people were coming in half dressed. I think there should be more respect for the church and the holy institution they're entering into."

The year-old policy has cut in half the number of annual weddings at the church. However, a local bridal shop owner notes that compromising is easy--and can be stylish. Shops can make "a little jacket which looks pretty and your shoulders are covered," she says.

Atheists Form PAC
A group of atheists, secular humanists, and other freethinkers this week launched the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, with the goal of "mobilizing America's nobelievers for political activism."

The Godless Americans PAC, introduced at a March 9 press conference, "allows us to endorse political candidates who support our vision of a secular America," the group's website explains. The PAC also will help nonbelievers become involved in electoral politics.

The organization grew out of 2002's Godless Americans March on Washington, a gathering of several thousand nonbelievers on the National Mall. The PAC is headed by Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists.

Sex Abuse Scandal--On Stage
While the drama of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal continues to be played out in parishes and courts, it has now found a new venue--the stage. "Sin: A Cardinal Deposed," a play by Michael Murphy, is playing through April 11 at Chicago's Bailiwick Arts Center. The play tells the story of Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Archbishop of Boston who resigned in December 2002 amidst intense public pressure, after 19 years leading the country's 4th-largest diocese.

The play, which the Chicago Tribune calls an "important kick in the teeth," depicts Law as more concerned with his own image than with victims' needs. Using a "collage of testimonies," the dialogue draws from Cardinal Law's depositions and other documents from priests, doctors, and abuse victims.

The Hole in a Sheet Myth
Last night's episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the HBO comedy series starring Larry David, addressed the old "hole in a sheet" myth--the urban legend that, to preserve modesty, Orthodox Jewish couples have sex through a hole in a sheet. On the show, David plans a one-time tryst with his Hasidic dry cleaner (played by Gina Gershon), and brings a sheet along to the hotel where they've arranged to meet. When she spies the sheet, Gershon mocks David for believing the myth. Their love-making plan is foiled by an earthquake, and David evacuates the hotel wrapped in his sheet.

"Kosher Sex" author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach responded to the episode today by distributing an excerpt from his book examining this topic: "Not only does Jewish law not mandate that a sheet be used, it wouldn't allow it even if the couple desired it out of a misguided sense of piety," Boteach writes. "A couple can don anything they want during foreplay to arouse each other, be it lingerie, a French maid's outfit, or American football pads and helmet, if that's what lights their fancy. But when full intercourse is achieved, it must be done without a stitch of clothing so that there is no barrier to the intimacy which the couple achieve."

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Play Polo
Beliefnet's favorite supermarket tabloid, the Weekly World News, continues to astonish us with the variety and depth of its religion coverage. The March 2 issue reports that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are stirring things up--this time at a "posh polo club in Texas."

Readers will remember the Four from Revelation Chapter 6, in which the scourges of humanity ride white, red, black, and pale green horses, respectively.

How did Famine, War, Pestilence and Death do on the polo field, you wonder? According to WWN, they "won every chukker" and were praised by a British onlooker as "a splendid bunch of chaps." However, one player complained that the horsemen had an unfair advantage: "Death on a Pale Horse riding against Joe Blow on a pony? I'm sorry--for me, that just doesn't compute."

Other hot religion stories in this week's WWN include articles about the Hindu goddess Kali ("Found! Six-Armed Mummy of Indian Love Goddess") and about miracle cures associated with a recently-exposed part of Janet Jackson's anatomy.

Aramaic for Film Buffs
The UK's Guardian provides a fun "Passion" companion: a "handy glossary of useful terms" in Aramaic. It offers suggested Aramaic phrases for "Down in front!" ("Tev attuun men qdaamaa!"), "Boo, Pharisees! Boo!" ("Puuee men Preeshey, puuee!"), "Not bad, but I think I preferred Braveheart" ("Baseem, ellaa saabar naa d-etstebeeth yateer b-Lebeh d-Gabaaraa"), and much more. Much of the glossary matches up to real Aramaic words, though it's doubtful they had words for "popcorn," "mobile phone," or "subtitles" in first-century Palestine.

Snowboarding as Meditation
It's about time winter sports got spiritual. At Beliefnet we've previously covered Christian wrestling, Christian hunting, and even Christian yoga. Now an Anglican priest is trying to stir up interest in Christian snowboarding. Rev. Neil Elliot, a chaplain at the University of Central England in Birmingham, is writing a PhD thesis in the spirituality of snowboarding.

Elliot, currently spending four months in the Canadian Rockies to interview snowboarders for his research, says that many snowboarders are interested in the spiritual elements of their often risky sport. Some back-country snowboarders even refer to the sport as "soul riding."

"Soul riders are not seeking the glamour of video and magazine coverage, but the peace and solitude of riding 'out of bounds,'" Elliot told the Anglican Journal. "For some riders, and I include myself in this, there is an out-of-body experience (in snowboarding). You're there but you're not there. Your riding becomes a meditation; it takes you out of yourself."

Oprah vs. God: World Religious Views
Nigeria is the world's most religious country, according to a new survey commissioned by a BBC program called "What the World Thinks of God." Pollsters for the show questioned 10,000 people in 10 selected countries, finding that 90 percent of Nigerians believe in God, compared to just 30 percent of South Koreans. More than 90 percent of the people in Nigeria (along with similar numbers of Lebanese and Indonesians) said that their God was the only true God. Nigerians are also the most religiously active, according to this survey, with more than 90 percent claiming they "regularly attend an organized religious service." Only 7 percent of Russians responded positively to that question.

The survey also includes interesting results about the nature of belief, or lack thereof. Eighty-four percent of people surveyed in South Korea agreed with the statement, "Religion is a crutch for the weak-minded." (Just 2 percent of people in Lebanon agreed with the same statement.) More than 30 percent of all atheists surveyed said they occasionally pray. And 21 percent of Americans surveyed believe that Oprah Winfrey is more powerful than God in the world today.

The complete survey is online here (PDF document).

Not Your Mama's Monks
A team of Cistercian monks in Wisconsin isn't taking a typical monastery fundraising route. Instead of baking bread or fruitcakes to make money for the various charities they work with, these monks have created LaserMonks, an Internet-based business that sells refilled inkjet and laser printer cartridges for a fraction of what brand new ones cost. The monks' website also features a comic strip, starring the monks' real-life dogs Luxor and Ludwig.

So far, the monks say, business is doing well. The reason? "Monks are cool," one of the enterprising monks, Rev. Bernard McCoy, told the Associated Press. "Monks are in. People like monks."

Gay Marriage Confusion
I'm confused. President Bush came out in support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage but his spokesman said that he would support allowing states to provide "civil unions." Being opposed to gay marriage but allowing civil unions is basically the same position that Howard Dean and John Kerry have taken. So the main difference between the Democrats and Bush is that the Democrats want to ban marriage by law and the Republicans want to ban it by amendment?

Why are conservatives happy about this?

Lord, Save Us from Hipsters
Controversy erupted last month over a recently renovated factory-turned-luxury condo complex on the border between the Hasidic Jewish community on the south side of Williamsburg, Brooklyn and its hipster neighbors to the north.

As artists and others in search of lower New York rents move closer to the Hasidic enclave, Jews in the ultra-orthodox close-knit community are protesting the gentrification of their neighborhood. Fliers recently distributed depict the collapse of the World Trade Center and ask in Yiddish, "How long did it take the Twin Towers to fall? Eight seconds. How long will it take for Williamsburg??? God Forbid."

Hoping God does intervene, protesters are also circulating a prayer entitled: "For the Protection of Our City of Williamsburg from the Plague of the Artists." It begins, "Master of the Universe, our Father, Father of mercy, have mercy upon us and upon the borders of our village and do not allow the prosecution to come inside our home, please remove from upon us the plague of the artists, that we shouldn't drown in evil waters, and that they shouldn't come to our residence to ruin it..." (Click here to read the full prayer.)

Mel's Making Millions
Mel Gibson is expected to make a pretty penny on his controversial flick "The Passion of the Christ." Although he reportedly shelled out $30 million of his own money to produce "Passion," experts say Gibson can expect to make back his investment plus about $25 million in profit. He also has sales from video, DVD, books, and other assorted official merchandise (including pewter replicas of the nails used to put Jesus on the cross) to look forward to.

Advance ticket sales have been rapidly increasing, and yesterday Newmarket Films, the movie's distributor, said it raised the number of movie prints to 4,000 (up from 2,500), and that 800 additional theaters are expected to show the film, bringing the total to 2,800.

The increase in ticket pre-sales can largely be attributed to churches and other groups, who are buying up tickets for their members. One Southern Baptist who saw a preview of the film is reported to have purchased $42,000 worth of tickets to give away.

Publishing the "Passion"
Mel Gibson's "Passion" may be good news for the movie industry, but it has also become a boon for the book biz. The movie's official tie-in book, published by Tyndale House, has been out for only two weeks and has already sold 150,000 copies to stores and is about to enter its fourth print run. The book includes a Foreword by Mel Gibson, photographs from the film set, and biblical text. The publisher doesn't have individual sales figures yet, but a Tyndale spokesperson said the book will debut on the New York Times expanded bestseller list February 29. The book is also holding steady within the top 50 books on Amazon.

But the official companion book isn't the only "Passion"-related tome to make publishing headway this month. Sales of "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ" by Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a major influence on Gibson's movie, have also exploded. This previously little-known book by a 19th-century German nun reached #152 (out of millions) on the Amazon bestselling list earlier today.

Books that are unrelated to the movie, but focus on the last hours of Jesus, are also gaining ground. This month Ignatius Press released the first English translation in about 100 years of "On the Passion of Christ" by 15th-century German monk Thomas a Kempis, a five hundred-year old book described by the publisher as "a perfect complement to the new movie." And the AP reported that church historian and author Paul Thigpen rushed to finish his new devotional book, "The Passion: Reflections on the Suffering and Death of Jesus," ahead of schedule to coincide with the movie.

Perhaps most extraordinary are the sales figures of the not-yet-released "A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions About Mel Gibson's the Passion of the Christ" from Ascension Press. According to Matthew Pinto of Ascension, the publisher has printed an initial run of 160,000, of which more than 100,000 have already been sold to stores, churches, and individuals. A second print run is scheduled for next week. Pinto said the book "could very well become the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time" and expects to eventually print more than 500,000 copies.

Miss Piggy, Big Bird, ...Babaji?
Move over, Kermit. The new puppet in town is on a cosmic mission: to attain world peace. 'Babaji,' a 6-foot-tall, silver-bearded hand-and-rod puppet modelled after the great yogis of Eastern tradition, teaches kids Indian philosophy using humor and song.

Babaji--his full name is Swami Natyayogarishi Mahamayananda--was created by Will Mills and Scott Molampy of Brooklyn-based Geppetto Studios, which has made secular puppets for years. Inspired by their growing interest in yoga, the two built Babaji as a way to combine the practices of sacred theater (Natya Yoga) and sacred laughter (Hasya Yoga). The puppet performs at children's events, leading chanting, storytelling, and readings from Hindu sacred texts. Babaji introduces guests and then can "groove along with them, meditate with them," says Molampy.

Is Black Church-Hopping Bad Politics?
Political candidates, whether they're running for local office or for president, tend to think the best way to reach black voters is to find them in the pews. But, writes Margaret Kimberley in The Black Commentator, "last-minute church-hopping is not the grand political strategy it is made out to be." Final-hour visits to black churches by Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton in California last October didn't seem to gain votes for the Democratic party, and did not keep Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger from winning the election for governor. Kimberley notes that black leadership is still intricately tied to religion (the two African-American men who have run for president, Jackson and Al Sharpton, are both reverends), but "the history of the black church should not be an excuse for laziness and lack of imagination in making political appeals to the black community."

While candidates for office go to neighborhood events, schools, local diners, and fire stations to compete for votes in the larger community, she says, efforts to capture the black vote rarely go beyond the church doors. "Our activities," Kimberley writes, "do not begin and end at the church door and those who do not attend church are equally entitled to know what politicians are proposing for their communities and for the nation."

Marriage Amendment's First Battle
White House sources tell The Washington Post that George W. Bush will soon back a federal amendment banning gay marriage. But, intriguingly, the piece also said that key backers of the amendment are open to editing it to allow states to include civil unions like those currently available in Vermont. Religious conservatives don't much like that idea, so it looks like the first battleground is actually going to be among amendment supporters over the exact wording.

Three Wise _______
The bringers of gold, frankincense and myrrh to newborn Jesus have long been a well-known part of the Christmas story, but the Anglican Church now says that the three gift-bearing foreigners shouldn't necessarily be called "Wise Men."

At the General Synod in London, a revision committee announced "the visitors were not necessarily wise and not necessarily men."

So what should the travelers who followed the brightest star in the sky to find the infant Jesus be called? The Anglican Church will now refer to them as Magi, a gender-neutral term, allowing for the possibility that they were women. "While it seems very unlikely that these Persian court officials were female, the possibility that one or more of the 'magoi' were female cannot be excluded completely," the committee said.

Some Synod members think this is stretching the limits of political correctness. One said: "They are so eager to avoid upsetting the feminists that they will drop anything they think could be deemed offensive."

Next on the Synod agenda? Gender-neutral titles.

Too Friendly Skies?
Soon after 9/11, an airline pilot greeted his passengers by suggesting that they introduce themselves to the person in the neighboring seat, reasoning that an anxious foreign terrorist wouldn't likely be able to withstand the pressure of friendly conversation. Last week, soon after returning from a mission trip in Central America, another pilot, commanding an American Airlines flight from L.A. to New York, suggested that the Christians on board identify themselves, so that non-Christians could ask them about the glories of the faith. His reasoning wasn't entirely clear, other than his apparent conviction that those who hadn't accepted Christ were "crazy." Several passengers were sufficiently alarmed to take out their cell phones to call relatives before flight attendants assured them they were safe. The case was being investigated by the airlines' personnel department. "It falls along the lines of a personal level of sharing that may not be appropriate for one of our employees to do while on the job," said an American spokesman.

Who Owns Yoga?
With yoga becoming not only trendy but highly profitable, fights have begun to break out over who owns variants on the ancient practice. Yoga master Bikram Choudhury, founder of the popular "bikram" style of yoga has tried to copyright a 26-posture series he says he invented. More than 100 Bikram yoga schools have received cease and desist letters from Choudhury, whose supporters say is just trying to make sure his style is being taught correctly. Critics point out that copyrights on the centuries-old art are unenforceable.

'What Shakes My Faith About the National Prayer Breakfast'
"I pray for the end of the National Prayer Breakfast," Beliefnet contributor Gregg Easterbrook writes about this morning's event, in his blog for the New Republic website. Easterbook denounces the "large, ritualized, and preposterous" character of the annual event, created as an informal ecumenical event for congressional leaders and now an opportunity for not only congress and the president, but "cabinet members, generals, foreign dignitaries, [and] business people" to show their prayerful faces in huge Washington hotel ballrooms.

So what's the problem with the Breakfast? Easterbrook says his disgust isn't for any political reasons; rather it's because this "celebration of public self-congratulation" ignores the fact that "Jesus forbids public prayer." The public nature of the National Prayer Breakfast, he says, is today's version of the hypocrites praying "at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others (Matthew 6:2)."

Conservative Christian Outrage at Superbowl Stunt
Conservative Christian organizations, like many Americans, were not amused by the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake Super Bowl breast expo. But whereas the FCC called the stunt "classless" and "crass," the Christian groups are expressing their outrage in a much more extreme fashion.

Perhaps most outraged was the Traditional Values Coalition: "The Jackson family sexual problems apparently extend to Janet Jackson, who seems to suffer from exhibitionist tendencies. Her sick desire to expose her breast to millions of viewers is evidence of a strange sexual dysfunction." Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said, "CBS would do well to adhere to the adage: if you sleep with dogs you'll get fleas. I am sure there is a lot of scratching going on at CBS today." Meanwhile, Focus on the Family said this: "Forget the "Lingerie Bowl" -- the official Super Bowl halftime show was sexually explicit enough." And Beliefnet columnist Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, summed it up: "an R-rated, hedonistic exhibition of human depravity."

If Dolphins Could Vote...
Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, behind in the polls, has received a much-needed boost from the Stardoves, the New Age gurus Moi-RA Dove and RA-Ja Dove, who describe themselves as "Inter-Galactic Ambassadors from Venus and the Pleiades respectively." The Stardoves website claims the Stardoves regularly channel messages from ancient Atlantis and outer space. The pair also sponsor spiritual trips to such sites as the Bermuda Triangle and Mt. Shasta. Their email blast today, headlined "Dolphins, Inner Earth Beings & The Space Confederation Warmly Embrace Dennis Kucinich," cites a New York Times piece on the candidate's life-changing meeting with Shirley MacLaine as a reason for their support. The email also exclaims, "We may need an entirely different Party!" and promotes an upcoming announcement by "The Light Party", a group that describes itself as "a synthesis of the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian and Green Parties... a PROACTIVE, wholistic, educational, empowerment party."

To help you decide if you also back the Stardoves' chosen candidate, read Beliefnet's interview with Kucinich.

Gay Mormon Film Controversy

"Latter Days," a movie about a "sexually confused" male Mormon missionary seduced by a "a hunky, 20-something, West Hollywood party boy" opens today in New York and Lost Angeles. While the movie, written and directed by "Sweet Home Alabama" screenwriter C. Jay Cox, might not be a crowd pleaser (it's gotten mixed reviews so far), it has succeeded in stirring up controversy for its portrayal of a gay Mormon--as did the HBO film "Angels in America" in early December. The film was due to open in Salt Lake City, the headquarter city of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, today as well, but the theater chain set to release the film there canceled those plans last week. Madstone Theaters said the cancellation was due to the film's lack of "artistic quality and integrity," but admitted they had been threatened with a boycott by religious groups.

Still, Cox remains determined to bring the film to a Mormon audience. "We were getting criticized for having the audacity to make a film about gay Mormons, because of course there's no such thing," Cox told an audience at a "Queer Lounge" panel discussion in Park City, Utah that coincided with the Sundance Film Festival (where "Latter Days" was not screened). "But during the film festival circuit, every festival we would go to, people would get up and say, 'I'm a gay Mormon and this is my story.'"

Cox, raised in Nevada by a longtime Mormon family, says his film was not meant to "throw darts at the Mormon church." But it's apparent from the discussion boards on the film's website that some Mormons feel targeted. "For those of us who are Mormons," wrote one poster, "[the movie] simply bolsters the common misconceptions that the rest of society has of us."

A Secular Twist on "Sex & the City"
The actress Julia Sweeney, best known for her former role as the sexless "Pat" on Saturday Night Live, changed from her androgynous outfit to a habit to play a nun on a recent episode of "Sex & the City." She was featured in a doctor's waiting room scene, reading the book "How We Believe" by Michael Shermer while she waited to see an oncologist.

Careful viewers might have considered "How We Believe" an odd choice of reading material for a nun. The book, authored by the founder of The Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, details Shermer's loss of faith and investigates the science of belief in God. It turns out featuring this book was actually a twist suggested by comedian Sweeney, a former Catholic and current hardcore skeptic whose one-woman shows include "Letting Go of God."

Sweeney "converted to skepticism after reading, among many books, 'How We Believe,'" Shermer explained in a note to his E-Skeptic email list "The producers wanted the nun to be sitting there reading something, and Julia thought it would be ironically cool to be actually reading the book that led her down the path of righteous skepticism."

Holy Hip Hop
A crowd gathers. The boom box is turned on. The dancers begin to hop, flip, and spin to the beat.

No, it's not the Times Square subway station -- it's the Vatican, where a trio of break-dancers performed before Pope John Paul II on Sunday.

The dancers, who represented an organization that aids marginalized youth in Poland, earned applause and praise from the 83-year-old pontiff.

"For this creative hard work I bless you from my heart.... Artistic talent is a gift from God and whoever discovers it in himself has a certain obligation: to know that he cannot waste this talent, but must develop it," John Paul said.

Be sure to check out video footage of the show (RealPlayer required).

The Website from Hell
How many times have you wanted to visit Hell's official website, but found it didn't exist? That's all over, according to the ever-reliable supermarket tabloid Weekly World News. Its Jan. 27 issue informs us that the Prince of Darkness has hired a "world renowned computer nerd" to build Hades' Internet page.

According to WWN, the site will include:
  • "horrifically violent and blasphemous video games," including one in which players grab "the Heaven-bound spirits of good people" and deliver them to Satan;
  • a chat room where demons will boot anyone who doesn't use "long strings of senseless obscenities";
  • the convenience of online Faustian compacts--visitors can fill out a "sell your soul to the devil" contract;
  • a guest book "guaranteed to be read by the Devil himself"

    ...and, most intriguingly, a searchable database containing "the names of all the men, women, children and pets" in Hell--and why they landed there.

    It's definitely a good start. But as America's leading religious website, may Beliefnet suggest the following additions? Based on our years of experience, we feel visitors to Hell.sin may seek an online dating service--"Find your Hellmate"?--with "Am I hot or not?" rankings. Chatty weblogs describing "demons who possess celebrities" and the like are always popular, as are polls like "What is Lucifer's best work? a) Hitler; b) Judas; c) Britney."

    Web surfers love diagnostic tests, so we advise a quiz to help the damned understand the nature of their lost souls: "What Circle of Hell Should You Be In?" Finally, no visit to Hell's site would be complete without enforced viewing of reality TV videos in fuzzy RealPlayer format, or un-shut-offable MIDIs of Cher's "Believe."

  • Enough God Talk?
    Just days after Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish advocacy group, expressed squeamishness about a religious 'litmus test' on the campaign trail, the talk turned to Judaism--not all of it pleasant. Joe Lieberman, who has talked openly about his orthodox Jewish faith since he joined Al Gore's ticket in 2000, said he was offended when a CNN reporter asked him during Sunday's televised candidate's forum to comment on Israel's security fence "as a Jew." He preferred, he said, to answer as an American. Today, Howard Dean accused John Kerry of dirty tricks, among them calling Dean supporters to ask why, if Dean is a Christian, he is "raising his kids Jewish." (Dean's wife is Jewish.)

    Meanwhile, Wesley Clark held a national conference call for Jewish Democrats, in which reknowned Rabbi Harold Kushner endorsed the general. Foxman would have been proud of at least one participant: "If it's not okay for Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell to endorse George W. Bush," said Californian Shawn Landres, "then it's not okay for Harold Kushner to endorse Wesley Clark."

    Parting the Red Sea
    Film buffs may know how Charlton Heston's parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" was done, but what about the real thing?

    A few fellows with a familiarity with physics have new ideas about how it might have worked.

    Two Russian mathematicians recently researched the physical conditions that would have been necessary to dry a seven-kilometer reef, which now rests lower in the Red Sea than it did in Moses' time.

    Naum Volzinger and Alexei Androsov concluded that if a 30 meters/second wind billowed all night long, the 600,000 Jews would have been able to make the four-hour journey to the 'promised land'.

    "I am convinced that God rules the Earth through the laws of physics," Volzinger told The Moscow Times.

    John Ashcroft's Faith
    Two profiles of Attorney General John Ashcroft are now on newsstands. U.S. News & World Report says little about Ashcroft's faith, noting only that he was raised by Pentecostal missionaries and is a "deeply religious man." Colleagues told the weekly that the nation's top law enforcer keeps religion out of his work, adding "that they have never even seen him pray." Apparently, these colleagues don't attend the daily Bible study (or "RAMP" meetings, for "Read, Argue, Memorize and Pray") in his office.

    Vanity Fair's profile portrays Ashcroft as a combination of "piety with ambition." The magazine retells the story of his anointing with Crisco oil after being elected a Missouri senator, in the tradition of "the ancient kings of Israel." In 1999, he told students at Bob Jones University that America has "no king but Jesus," and as Attorney General, he forbade the word "proud" in official correspondence because "pride is one of the seven deadly sins." He also banned the phrase "no higher calling than public service" because "there is a higher calling than public service, which is service to God."

    None of this is very shocking coming from a devout Pentecostal, perhaps, and the uglier rumors--like his reported belief that calico cats are "instruments of the devil," Ashcroft denies. But Vanity Fair reports some disturbing customs-he calls his campaign victories "resurrections," for instance, and his defeats "crucifixions,"--and some harsh moral judgements. As Missouri's governor, Ashcroft twice vetoed a $900,000 grant to a Kansas City home for AIDS victims. When a state senator pointed out that without the grant the home's patients would be forced to "live in boxes under bridges," Ashcroft replied, "they're there because of their own misconduct, and it wasn't very reputable misconduct, either."

    "When does misconduct become reputable? When disreputable?" the senator asked.

    "'That's beside the point,' snapped Ashcroft."

    My President, Right and Wrong
    Did President Bush declare himself firmly for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a heterosexual institution in his State of the Union Address last night? Or did he punt? It depends who you listen to.

    The day before the speech, unnamed White House sources were saying the president would allow the courts to work out the issue. Some on the right were prepared to be disappointed. But in his speech, Bush seemed to talk tougher: "If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people," the president told the joint session, "the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage."

    Some amendment proponents saw the glass half full. The American Baptist Press said the speech was "Bush's strongest statement yet in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage." Others, like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, were left thirsting for more. "Disappointingly," Perkins wrote, "President Bush promised to help the families of America--after the bomb goes off and the damage is done."

    Traumatized Iraqis Breathe Deep
    The India-based Art of Living course is offering shell-shocked Iraqis its popular blend of meditation and breathing techniques to help them deal with trauma. The course, founded by guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to "eliminate stress, create a sense of belonging and restore human values," has sent 15 volunteers, including doctors, to set up sessions in medical camps or hospitals near Baghdad. "The volunteers conduct stress-busting sessions--two-hour-long special breathing exercises over four days," reports a BBC article which shows veiled Iraqi women sitting cross-legged in a meditation room doing the exercises. According to the report, as many as 200 Iraqis have lined up for daily sessions. Iraqi children, "among the worst affected by the continuing violence and insecurity in the country," are taught breathing practices and play stress-relieving games.

    Websites Where Angels Fear to Tread
    Oops...so Paris Hilton isn't a hotel in the French capital. If you've accidentally opened one of those spam e-mails and gotten an eyeful, there's a prayer to help you overcome computer porn guilt.

    "Please God, help me cleanse the computer of ...evil photographs which disturb and ruin my work... so that I shall be able to cleanse myself," reads a prayer composed by Israeli rabbi Shlomo Eliahu. The rabbi recommends that Jews recite the prayer when they log on to the Internet, reports Reuters. He also recommends that users program the prayer to "flash up on their computer screens so they are spiritually covered whether they enter a porn site intentionally or by mistake."

    Vote No on Jesus
    The flap over Howard Dean's announcement that he believes in Jesus suggested that the Good Shepherd is not so much a favorite political philosopher as much as a favorite political volleyball, as this spoof by Nathan McIntire ingeniously points out. Writing as Pat Robertson in McSweeney's, McIntire imagines what the founder of the Christian Coalition would do if the founder of Christianity decided to run for president.

    If You're Happy and You Know It...
    The Secret Society of Happy People, whose motto is "Don't even think of raining on our parade," has enthusiastically declared January 18-24, 2004 as the third annual Hunt for Happiness Week. The society was started almost six years ago as something of a joke by Dallas-area resident Pamela Gail Johnson, who was working for a drug-rehabilitation center at the time. "We live in a prevailing culture of 'what's wrong,'" says Johnson. "It's time for the happy people to come out of hiding."

    The society, which seeks to "increase happiness awareness," caught on with its promotion of "National Admit You're Happy Day" and the Top 10 Happiest Moments of the Year. It now has 6000 members, sells t-shirts and umbrellas with the group's motto, and produces a monthly e-newsletter "Carpe Diem."

    Not feeling particularly happy this week? The SOHP website has some suggestions. Check out the 21 types of happiness listed (from "amusement" to "relief" to "bittersweet") to see if there's anything you've overlooked. Do happiness activities with your kids. Give out "I Spy you being happy" coupons to friends. How will Johnson be celebrating? "Well, I'll be in corporate training all week," says the current Staples sales rep. "But hopefully I'll be happy."

    Bar Mitzvahs for Non-Jews
    Today's Wall Street Journal reports on the growing number of non-Jewish families throwing bar mitzvah-like parties for their 13-year-old kids. In affluent communities, these parties often include features similar to those of the most extravagant bar or bat mitzvah parties--disk jockeys, professional dancers, huge guest lists. For one New York girl's $12,000 birthday soiree, her guests received invitations that read, "Welcome to Melissa's Black Mitzvah.Don't get offended, it's just her 13th birthday party." Some do get offended, however--the article pointed out that some think these parties have little to do with the traditional bar mitzvah ceremony.

    Still, some kids believe that turning 13 is an important rite of passage, no matter what religion you practice. "Some of those things apply to me," one Catholic 13-year-old said after her mother explained the basis of the Jewish ritual to her. "I'm growing up and becoming a teenager. I should have a party to celebrate."

    "Average Joe" for Jesus
    Is Christ a dating downer? Last season on "Average Joe," beauty queen Melana chose between several Jewish suitors and discussed interfaith marriage with one of them. But on last night's episode, things appeared more rocky for Michael, one of the current coterie of suitors, who dropped the other "J-bomb": Jesus.

    On the show, Michael, a 31-year-old artist, explained to Larissa, the model charged with choosing a mate from among 18 average-looking men, that when it comes to dating, "Jesus comes first in my life." She seemed uneasy, and later during the hour-long show Michael admitted, "I think I scared her with the faith thing." But Michael hadn't been shy about his Christian commitment before. His bio on the NBC website informs viewers that "Church on Sunday and midweek Bible study is a must." One has to wonder if the show's producers selected Michael--one of the better-looking "Joes"--because his faith would make him seem freakier to Larissa, putting him on the same level in her eyes as the other, largely overweight and clownish, contestants.

    Wear Your Stereotype
    "Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl," proclaims a new line of t-shirts from the clothing chain Urban Outfitters. But not everyone loves the t-shirt design, which surrounds the text with images of dollar signs and shopping bags. After the Anti-Defamation league wrote letters to the company explaining the shirts "perpetuated an offensive stereotype," the ADL says Urban Outfitters has agreed to discontinue the design.

    The t-shirts are no longer for sale on the Urban Outfitters website, though Jesus Is My Homeboy and Mary Is My Homegirl tees are still available.

    "Theological Cotton Candy"
    Religious leaders have long seen ecumenical dialogue as one of the key ways to heal rifts between people of various faiths. (Interfaith dialogue also happens to be a major component of Beliefnet.) But in a Jerusalem Post column, Orthodox Jewish writer Jonathan Rosenblum argues it's better, for Jews at least, not to engage in dialogue: "Theological dialogue is completely unnecessary when it comes to fostering fruitful relations with non-Jews."Dialogue, he says, often results in the participants offering up "theological cotton candy" in an attempt to understand other viewpoints. It is also responsible, according to Rosenblum, for increasing intermarriage rates.

    Jews and non-Jews can share moral and political positions based on faith, but Rosenblum says there's no need to delve into where these similar moral stances come from. "In a healthy democratic society like America," he writes, "a studied indifference to the theological views of one's neighbors...can go a long way to furthering harmonious relations." In other words, when it comes to faith, what you don't know can't hurt you.

    Fanning the Passion
    Catholic supporters of Mel Gibson's upcoming movie "The Passion of the Christ" are urging the faithful to sell out the film's debut by buying advance tickets--including extra tickets for the unchurched. The movie, which opens on Ash Wednesday (February 25), has already stirred controversy about whether it reflects Vatican II clarifications about the Jews' role in the crucifixion.

    "WHO WILL YOU BRING TO THE PASSION?" asks email from the orthodox Catholic website CatholiCity. The email, signed by "A Man Who Loves the Cross," says "I know the Lord is going to send people into your life and my life who will ONLY go to the movie if you and I give them tickets as a gift. ...Our financial sacrifice is nothing compared to His sacrifice. ...We should have extra tickets ready for our relatives, for the folks at work, and for our friends at church. A thousand years might pass before Christians have another chance like this one."

    The leading Catholic website CatholicExchange.com calls the movie the "Catholic Cultural Event of Our Lifetime" and refers readers to a phone number where parishes can set up group screenings. "The more people who see 'The Passion of the Christ,' the greater evangelizing impact it will have worldwide--and the more movies of this kind will emerge from profit-oriented Hollywood," writes Tom Allen, the site's editor.

    Popular Catholic weblogs like markshea.blogspot.com are also plugging the movie as an evangelization opportunity.

    Kabbalah Made Her Do It
    Britney Spears's quickie Vegas wedding to a childhood friend over the weekend didn't do much to help the cause of marriage--heterosexual marriage anyway. Despite reports that Britney was inspired by the pro-family, pro-marriage tenets of the Kabbalah, the mystical Jewish lore Britney, Madonna and other stars reportedly ascribe to, the marriage was dissolved by annulment as soon as the courts opened on Monday. According to a reader of The New York Times (reg. req.), Britney's 55-hour hitch further proves that homosexuals could certainly do no worse by the institution than heterosexuals, and ought to be given a shot at it. (Another reader opined that if any constitutional amendment is passed regarding marriage, it ought to be one banning celebrities from the rite.) Las Vegas officials, meanwhile, do their part to maintain standards. Denying rumors that Britney was drunk before the 15-minute ceremony, a marriage-bureau employee said, "She was sober - we are not allowed by law to give a license to anyone who is under the influence."

    Can Howard Dean Close the God Gap?

    When Howard Dean told The Boston Globe last week that he planned to shuck off his Yankee reticence about religion when campaigning in the South, conservative pundits accused Dean of pandering, one comparing his God-talk to 1988 Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis's widely ridiculed ride in an M-1 tank. But the Globe interview, in which Dean described himself as a "committed believer in Jesus Christ," also raised hackles among many who can't believe that Dean can hold liberal positions and maintain a traditional Christian faith. "I have no doubt Howard Dean believes in Jesus. But whose Jesus?" wrote Matt Grills on OpinionEditorials.com. Dean's description of Jesus as "someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised," opined syndicated columnist Cal Thomas "makes it sound as if [Jesus] might have been a Democrat."

    It's this kind of talk that riles Rev. Jim Wallis, who has long fought this presumption of God's Republican leanings. In his Dec. 28 essay on the op-ed page of The New York Times (reg. req.), Wallis blames the Democrats for "withdrawing into secularism" and yielding the moral high ground to the GOP without a fight. "For too many Democrats, faith is private and has no implications for political life," he writes. Indeed, before his Globe interview, Dean's most widely published reference to the Bible came in a speech in which he quoted Jesus's advice to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's" as evidence of Christ's support for separation of church and state.

    If Dean is going to close the "God gap," he may have to sharpen his God rap: the most substantive criticism of Dean's interview appeared in Christianity Today's Weblog, which took issue with Dean's pedestrian-sounding praise for Jesus as a "person who set an extraordinary example," just as Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus as God incarnate.

    Muslim Christmas
    Christmas in Iraq was a tense affair this year, as rumors of planned attacks on Christians convinced celebrants in Baghdad to forego midnight Mass for more secure daylight services. Not all Muslims are hostile to Christmas celebrations, however. "Many Muslims also join in this feast, for the miraculous Immaculate Conception and birth of Christ by the Holy Virgin is a part of Islamic belief as well," writes Nasnine R. Karim in the Bangladeshi newspaper The Independent. "In Bethlehem," she notes, "one can see a spot where Allah brought forth the palm tree to feed Sitt Miriam and her Child with dates. That is why it is good for all who venerate Christ - including Muslims - to worship on Christmas Night." Even in Baghdad, a few Muslims and Christians gathered at a church on Christmas Eve to light candles to the Virgin Mary, who has her own chapter in the Qur'an.

    Elsewhere, the observance of Christmas is a matter of debate among Muslims. In Australia, a leading sheikh urged Muslims to ignore fundamentalist imams who say Muslims should even avoid wishing non-Muslim neighbors "Merry Christmas." In Lebanon, some say civil and religious strife has so torn the country apart that the Christmas spirit can only help. It's also good for business, as one Shiite businessman explained in terms anyone who's been exposed to Christmas can understand. "Christmas has been stripped clean of any spiritual reality as it has become a commercial event, particularly for children," he told a local paper.

    World's Largest Christmas Eve Service
    A single Christmas Eve worship service has had attendance in the millions every year since 1929. At 3 pm GMT (10 am Eastern) on December 24, worshipers and music lovers all over the world will participate in a beloved annual tradition: the Festival of Lessons and Carols, broadcast live from the Chapel of King's College, Cambridge, England. Many tune in to hear the carols, old and new, sung by the legendary choir of King's, starting with one small boy singing "Once in Royal David's City". For some, it's the Bible readings, culminating in the expansive poetry of John 1. For others, it's the feeling of being connected to tradition, and participating in an act of worship with so many others worldwide.

    To be part of what may be the world's largest congregation, in the U.S. tune to your local NPR radio station on December 24 at 10 am Eastern; or listen online courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio or BBC Radio 4. The program will be rebroadcast December 25 at 8PM Eastern. A replay should be available on BBC Radio 3 through December 30.

    Have Yourself an Atheistic Holiday
    In an effort to capture some of the holiday season's spirit and cheer for themselves, many nonbelievers will observe December 23 as HumanLight, a two-year-old festival created to celebrate the "Humanist's vision of a good future." More than a dozen humanist communities throughout the U.S. will celebrate HumanLight., including New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio, California, and Nebraska. HumanLight co-creator Joe Fox, vice president of the New Jersey Humanist Network, described the events as "a typical holiday party, but the theme is humanism." True to godless form, there is no proscribed HumanLight food, liturgy, or ritual. "We're trying to avoid traditions because we don't want it to be dogmatic," Fox told Beliefnet.

    If the HumanLight message doesn't appeal, there are a few other celebration options for nonbelievers at this time of year. Some celebrate Newtonmas, a commemoration of Sir Isaac Newton's birthday on December 25, 1642. Some atheists celebrated the Winter Solstice today as well.

    An Un-Convent-ional Calendar
    What's one of the hottest new calendars on the block for 2004? No, not the Britney Spears pinup calendar. It's Nuns Having Fun. Sold by Workman Publishing, the calendar features "nuns frolicking in the surf (think big dancing penguins)," nuns at the roller rink, nuns playing softball, skeet shooting nuns, and more. The accompanying commentary is from the authors of the popular nostalgia book, "Growing Up Catholic."

    Tiny Kingdom, Giant Book
    For the person on your list who has everything, the ultimate coffee table--or rather, dining room table--book might be the perfect gift. At 5 by 7 feet and weighing 133 pounds, "Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom" is a massive tome about the tiny Buddhist country between India and China. "Bhutan" is the world's largest book, and has a price to match: $10,000 ("Less than $100 per page," the Amazon review points out).

    Most of the proceeds from the sale of the book's 500 limited edition copies go to Friendly Planet, a charitable organization that supports educational programs and schools in Bhutan.

    The Car & Driver Nativity Scene
    A window display in the building of a former WWF theme restaurant in New York's Times Square captures the true spirit of Christmas. Fake snow frames a cozy living room setting-presents under the tree, a fake fire blazing away, photos on the mantel. And in the center of the room sits a 2004 Dodge Durango, the current home of a family of three. DaimlerChrysler selected the lucky Flanigans of Ocoee, Fla. to participate in a "living holiday display," a marketing gimmick the New York Times calls a "Car and Driver Nativity Scene."

    If the Flanigans last five days inside the car, they get to keep it. For every day the family stays in the car, Dodge will, "in the spirit of holiday giving," donate $5,000 to a homeless organization-"up to a total donation of $25,000!"

    "Lost in all the self-congratulatory giddiness," writes Dan Barry in the Times, "was the irony that some homeless families actually do live in cars, albeit not always with the headroom as provided by the new Durango." Given the Durango's $36,000 price tag, "the homeless organization might have done better if Dodge had simply given it a Durango to sell."

    Meanwhile, Bob Fisher of Waverly, Minn., has raised more than $1 million for the homeless by sleeping in a tent each night of the past month. This marks his 8th annual "Bob's Sleep Out," which has raised more than $2 million since he began. And to think, Bob's not even trying to sell cars.

    Wiccans vs. the White House
    Wiccans and other Pagans have been bombarding the White House with emails demanding an apology from Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives director H. James Towey for suggesting that Wiccans and Pagans don't care about the poor.

    In a November 26 "Ask the White House" chat, Towey was asked, "Do you feel that Pagan faith based groups should be given the same considerations as any other group that seeks aid?" He responded, "I haven't run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor! Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can't be used to promote ideology, the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work, and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it."

    Beliefnet's pagan community took up the cause on the message boards. Member Windsinger wrote, "Pagans are often very charitable. We just don't stand on the corner going 'Look! I'm being charitable.' In other words, we're charitable like, um, Jesus said to be..."

    In response to Towey's comments, Beliefnet contributor Selena Fox has begun compiling a list of pagan charitable organizations on her website.

    More of Jack Black on Jesus
    Some B-log readers took issue with actor Jack Black's Christological views, which the comedian airs in the current Esquire (see last Friday's post). "We need to pray for Jack Black," wrote Beliefnet member ddennis, "because he apparently is lost." But in the November issue of The Believer, Black tells interviewer Daniel Harder (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) that he likes Jesus. "He had superpowers and that's the main reason I like Him," says Black, if for theologically questionable reasons: "Anyone who can float, has power of levitation, or can shoot lasers out of his eyes..." continues Black. Lasers? "Well, how do you think he turned water into wine? With His eye-lasers."

    Black, who once played a character named Jeepers Creepers Semi-Star in a "Mr. Show" spoof, seems to regard Jesus as a kind of existential barometer, now that he's 33. "It's the landmark year," he said. "I'm a Jew. Thirty-three is when Christ died. So though I'm a Jew, in the back of my mind I still think I gotta get it done before I'm thirty-four."

    'Today I Am a Clown'
    Last night's episode of "The Simpsons" marked a major milestone in the life of the show's main Jewish character--Krusty the Clown became a Bar Mitzvah. The "Wet 'n' Wild Bar Mitzvah" episode featured Jackie Mason as the voice of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, Krusty's father, and a yarmulke-clad Mr. T, who declared "I pity the shul that doesn't let Krusty in now."

    Krusty is the show's most well-known Jewish character, but "The Simpsons" also pokes fun at religion through its depictions of Ned Flanders, the Simpsons' evangelical Christian neighbor, and Apu, the Hindu store clerk. Try these Beliefnet quizzes to see how much you know about Ned Flanders and Apu.

    Why Jack Nicholson Prays
    The January Esquire, the magazine's third annual "Meaning of Life" issue, features interviews with celebrities reflecting on what they've learned from life so far. While some nuggets of wisdom are mundane--"Styrofoam should be illegal" (Lauren Hutton); "Cattle cutting is the most fun you can have on a horse" (Christie Brinkley)--others stray into religious territory.

    Jack Nicholson: "I resist all established beliefs. My religion basically is to be immediate, to live in the now. It's an old cliché, I know, but it's mine. I envy people of faith. I'm incapable of believing in anything supernatural. So far, at least. Not that I wouldn't like to. I mean, I want to believe. I do pray. I pray to something.up there. I have a God sense. It's not religious so much as superstitious. It's part of being human, I guess.. Do unto others: How much deeper into religion do we really need to go?"

    Jack Black, on whether he'd like to meet Jesus: "I think Jesus would be a big f---in' letdown. You'd find out he's just a dude. He might be a really boring hang. He might be like a really kick-ass rabbi. You'd want to know the answer to everything, and he'd say, 'How should I know? I'm just Jesus.' Plus, you don't know how to speak the ancient Aramaic. I say, let's go back to see someone who for sure kicked ass. Let's go f---in' chat it up with Plato."

    Christopher Reeve: "Abe Lincoln put it very simply in 1860: 'When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion.'"

    Gay "Divorcees"
    Will gay marriage destabilize the institution itself? In Slate this week, Dahlia Lithwick argues that quickie marriages and divorces are the greatest threat to marriage, allowing heterosexuals to treat the sacred bond "like a two-week jungle safari."

    The available evidence from Vermont, where civil unions have been legal since July 1, 2000, seems to support Lithwick's point. The data is sketchy, since the state doesn't track non-residents' unions: of the 6,518 couples joined so far, only 925 are Vermonters. But of those, just 25 have dissolved their unions--or 2.7 percent. By comparison the divorce rate among heterosexuals after four years is 10 percent.

    Muslim Chaplain Smear Campaign?
    The government has released Captain James Yee, the former Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after locking him up for three months on accusations of espionage. But the military hasn't dropped its charges against him and is now investigating him for possible violations of the military code of conduct, including keeping pornography on his government computer and having an affair. The military charged in October that Yee, also known as Youssef Yee, disobeyed orders by taking classified information home when he was leaving Guantánamo in September.

    The Council on American-Islamic Relations applauded Yee's release but called the government's new charges an attempt to harm Yee's reputation. "These new allegations, including as they do serious violations of Islamic moral principles, have the odor of a smear campaign about them," said Ibrahim Mohamed, CAIR-Seattle chairman.

    Said military spokesman Raul Duany: "At no time have we made any implications about what Captain Yee might have been charged with. We only said we're investigating him."

    Higher Spiritual Education
    A new survey of college students across the country found that 73% think religion or spirituality is important to their identity, but 62% said their professors don't encourage discussion of religion or spiritual beliefs. The study, by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, also found that 77% of college students pray, and 71% think religion is helpful.

    Though religion is important to students, the study did find a marked decrease in religious participation during four years of college. While 52% of those polled said they attended religious services frequently during the year before they entered college, only 29% did so by their junior year.

    The Afterlife Economy
    A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that belief in an afterlife--particularly a belief in hell--is good for the economy. After studying religious participation and economic progress in several countries, two Harvard researchers found that fear of damnation enhances productivity.

    Belief itself was found to be actually more important than practice when it comes to economics, since attending church uses up resources and time that could be spent elsewhere. A review of the study in The Economist points out, however, that many successful economies don't fit the theory. Japanese religious sects tend not to have a strong fear of hell, yet economic growth is historically strong there. And China's economy is taking off despite two generations of government enforced atheism.

    Thanks to CLAL for pointing out The Economist article.

    Ossuary Debate Continues
    The French expert on ancient Aramaic script who brought to light an ancient bone box with the inscription "James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus" continues to defend the authenticity of the ossuary. Paleographer Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne, who broke the ossuary news in a fall 2002 article for Biblical Archaeology Review, has written a second article for BAR. The article disputes the Israeli Antiquity Authority's June 2003 contention that the ossuary inscription is a fake. Arguing that the IAA's findings (read a summary) leave a host of "unanswered questions," Lemaire says the patina irregularities uncovered by the IAA may be related to a cleaning, not a forgery. Some scientists at the Royal Ontario Museum, who studied the ossuary last year, and geologist James Harrell of the University of Toledo also argue that the Israeli scientists were mistaken.

    In the past, the James ossuary's defenders have complained that the IAA has a vendetta against private collectors who obtain objects on the antiquities market, which is often considered disreputable.

    In his recent BAR article, Lemaire briefly raised concerns about the scientists on the IAA committee: "incidentally, the committee included not a single Christian and no New Testament scholar of any faith."

    A petition on the BAR website calls for an independent examination of the ossuary, as it "may be of great significance to New Testament scholars and to scholars of Second Temple Judaism."

    Concrete Workers vs. Planned Parenthood
    A Texas construction company recently pulled out of a contract to build a Planned Parenthood clinic, apparently under pressure from pro-life groups.

    San Antonio-based Browning Construction said contract would be terminated "because we are unable to secure and retain adequate subcontractors and suppliers to complete the project in a timely manner due to events beyond our control."

    The building project faced a boycott in August. Later, church groups got involved. "Events soon snowballed and gave birth to the Austin Area Pro-Life Concrete Contractors and Suppliers Association, an informal affiliation of every concrete supplier within a 60-mile radius of the Austin area," reports CNS.

    Planned Parenthood has announced it will "become [its] own general contractor" and get the clinic built.

    Cutting Loose at Christian College
    Tonight is a big night on the campus of Wheaton College, an interdenominational Christian college outside Chicago. For the first time in its 143-year history, the college is hosting a school dance.

    Dancing was prohibited for both students and faculty when the school was founded in 1860. More recently, some dancing has been allowed, but only with a member of the same sex or at a square dance. Mixed dancing was banned for students both on and off campus.

    Nine months ago, the dancing ban was lifted. Wheaton students have been prepraing for tonight's event with impromptu dance classes.

    Wheaton's Community Covenant, one of many Christian college codes of conduct, still asks students to avoid acts "which may be immodest, sinfully erotic or harmfully violent."

    Mutual Fund Morality
    A new survey released yesterday reveals that two-thirds of religious investors would stop contributing to a mutual fund that invested in companies with murky ethical practices. The report from Mennonite Mutual Aid, which runs a group of mutual funds based on Anabaptist principles, found that the top five concerns of religious investors are: operation of sweatshops, product safety record, high executive compensation, environmental record, and adult entertainment.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted this week to bar their own investments, which total $175 million, from companies involved in stem-cell research, human cloning, pornography and land mine production. The bishops said they hope the new investing principles will be a model for all Catholics to follow in their investments.

    Artsy Exegesis
    Two New York artists have launched an effort to illustrate the entire bible--verse by verse. Patrick and Kate Hambrecht are soliciting illustrations from professional and amateur artists, from all faith traditions, to compile what they call The Flaming Fire Illustrated Bible.

    So far, 1,304 illustrations have been submitted to the bible; 35,361 verses are left to be interpreted. All the images submitted can be viewed online, and the parts completed are searchable by bible verse.

    According to the website for the project, which was voted 2003's "Best freaky collaborative art project" by the Village Voice, "The Flaming Fire Bible Project wasn't created as a mouthpiece for any one sect or religion in particular, but to reflect and celebrate all the various artistic, religious and sacred perspectives on the Torah, Latter Prophets and New Testament from around the world."

    Make Your Own Church Sign
    Anyone who pays any attention to outdoor church signs won't bat an eye at "What's Missing From Ch__ch? U R." But what about "Do You Smell Like Jesus?" Blogger Ryland Sanders has developed the "Church Sign Generator" so you can create a funny church sign of your own. Just type in the text and press "Go."

    Sanders also catalogues his favorite church signs. You can share yours on this message board.

    Sniper's Spiritual Supporters
    Today's Washington Post profiles a Rastafarian journalist couple (who also follow some teachings of Islam) who hope to uncover the hidden messages in the Washington-area sniper trial. Itai Iman I and Da Ura I, who have been covering the trial for their website, the Underground News Network, believe that the sniper shootings were part of a divine plan. As Iman I told the Post, the shootings were "like a message from a high priest, this initiation rite to take the world, especially black people, to a higher level, to get a higher consciousness." The couple's daily reports from the trial can be read on their website, along with their analysis of other journalistic coverage of the trial.

    A Hollywood Chuppah
    An article called "Oy Gay!" in this week's Nation calls TV's "Will & Grace" the "most radical" show in the history of television for its positive depiction of both Jewish women and gay men. Writer Kera Bolonik lauds "Will & Grace" for being the first show on network television to ever show a wedding between two Jewish characters (Grace, played by Debra Messing, married Harry Connick Jr.'s Leo) and calls the show "the antidote to this long legacy of marginalizing and stereotyping of Jews and gays." On the show, Bolonik writes, "These two über-gentiles [the characters Karen and Jack] are the eccentrics for a change."

    Who Raises Moral Standards?
    A new Gallup poll asks which groups were "raising the moral standards of the nation." The percent citing religious leaders dropped from 36% in 1994 to only 29% today. The good news is they're still cited more than anyone else but most other types of leaders or institutions (newspapers, movies, TV, advertising) actually saw growth in trust during that period.

    They also asked "which national principles keep America strong." Belief in God was near the bottom of the list, with 63% citing that. "Honesty in government" was number one (94%).

    Don't Mess With Catholic Schoolgirls
    "Goretti girls"--the young women who attend St. Maria Goretti High School for Girls in Philadelphia--are known to be tough on guys who don't show them proper resepect. Rudy Susanto learned that lesson when he appeared at dismissal last Thursday and exposed himself, for what police say was the seventh time in a few weeks. This time, 20 to 30 angry, plaid-skirted girls dropped their books and chased him through the streets of South Philly. When two neighborhood men tackled Susanto, the girls beat the hell out of him. Fifteen-year-old Kelly Simone was the first to get a piece of Susanto. "He started grabbing at my feet, so I kicked him," said Simone. The girl turned to her schoolmates and said: "Let's show him what we can do." Susanto was treated at a local hospital and will be charged with indecent exposure and disorderly conduct.

    It's unknown how many of Susanto's assailants knew that their school's patron, St. Maria Goretti, was canonized after forgiving her murderer (indeed, he attended the Vatican ceremony), who fatally wounded Maria after he "harrassed her with impure suggestions," according to a website devoted to her and attempted sexual assault. Goretti was only 11 years old.

    Jewitches--Out of the Broom Closet
    This week, the Forward examines the growing number of "Jewitches," Jewish women who practice witchcraft, Wicca, or other "goddess-directed worship." Examples of Jewitch practice include incorporating magic into Jewish rituals, welcoming the shekhina (the divine feminine), and lighting a yahrzeit candle to honor the dead. Now Jewitches--or witchy Jews, as some prefer to be called--have a gathering place on the web: Jewitchery.com. The site offers essays like "A Jewitch's Perspective of Deity" and "Shabbat as Goddess," reading suggestions, and links to mailing lists for Jewish pagans.

    Some rabbis, however, warn of combining Judaism with witchery. "Witchcraft and magic are the antithesis of what the Torah teaches," Rabbi Manuel Gold told the Forward.

    But Jewitches like Jennifer Hunter, author of "21st-Century Wicca" aren't deterred. "The goddess is just Yahweh in drag," she explained.

    Britney's Spearituality
    Our recent story, "Whatever Happened to Chastity Chic?" examined why Britney Spears gave up flaunting her spirituality in favor of flaunting her body. But an interview in Newsweek this week makes us wonder if it might be safer if the pop star stays away from the divine. Spears shared with Newsweek that she's "been into a lot of Indian spiritual religions." But when asked if one of them was Hinduism, she replied, "What's that? Is it like kabbalah?" Asked about the effect her steamy performances might have on children, Spears explains, "I'm here right now ... because I dreamed of these moments. Kids need that. If they don't dream, they have what? That's what makes you feel spiritual, connected with God."

    Bring Out Yer Dead
    Whether they observe the Feast of All Saints, All Hallows Day or the Day of the Dead, people the world over are preparing to honor their deceased loved ones. But don't expect John Schiffeler to be placing candles and mementos at his family's vault in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, Calif. He's already put a sign in the dusty window that reads: "Mausoleum for Sale: $250,000." A descendant of wealthy San Franciscans, the 63-year-old hopes to sell the large granite tomb that sits along Millionaire's Row, which features mausoleums modeled after Egyptian pyramids and Greek temples, because he is strapped for cash. Kicking out the dead, Schiffeler told the New York Times, is "a way to raise needed funds for the living."

    Schiffeler plans to move his kin to a (presumably cheaper) resting place near Carmel Valley. The vault holds his parents, grandparents, two aunts and a family friend. Schiffeler shrugs off outrage voiced in the San Francisco Chronicle. "This is not public property," he said. "It is mine. It is my choice whether to keep it, sell it or offer a 'layaway plan' of 'condocrypts.'"

    A cemetery spokesman said that Schiffeler can't legally disinter his earlier descendants or distant relatives, just his parents. "For him to sell the Wintermute family mausoleum," the representative said, "it must be unoccupied, which it's not."

    But Schiffeler is open to ideas. A potential buyer suggested keeping Schiffeler's family put and using the empty spaces around them. "I told him for a quarter million, he's welcome to join the family," Schiffler said.

    Ghost Hunting 101
    Ghosts are big this time of year--and in many parts of the country, so is ghostbusting. Halloween week is the perfect time of year for amateur ghost tracking groups to offer special tours of haunted houses and to promote their year-round services. The Indiana Ghost Trackers offers "free ghost investigations for homes and businesses" and provides a link to a page explaining How to Conduct a Ghost Hunt. The Big Bend Ghost Trackers, in Northern Florida, compiles records of local ghost sightings and lists rules for ghost hunting, including: "Maintain a positive mental attitude during all investigations as skepticism generates negative energy."

    If you're a ghost tracking novice, the Ghosthunter Store can outfit you with red lens flashlights, electromagnetic field detectors, motion sensors, and other necessary equipment. Positive mental attitude not included.

    Jacko: Not Clear on Charity?
    Michael Jackson's "What More Can I Give?"--a song he recorded two years ago with Luther Vandross, Tom Petty, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan and Beyoncé Knowles--was always billed as a fundraiser for charity, and at last Jackson has released it as a downloadable file for $2. But Fox News reports that much of the proceeds will go to programs founded and run by the Church of Scientology--a detail that may disturb both fans and the celebs who pitched in. (Scroll down.)

    Official Witchery
    Well, it was a good week for Norwegian witches. Lena Skarning, a 33-year-old witch who's been casting spells and stirring the cauldron since she was 20, has won Norway's first state subsidy to run a business of fortune-telling, potions and cures, and magic. Officials, who deemed her business plan "pretty reasonable and well thought out," awarded Skarning a start-up grant of 53,000 crowns ($7,400) to launch "Forest Witch Magic Consulting," on the condition that she not attempt spells that harm anyone. She plans to use the subsidy to read Tarot cards, create products like magic-bath oil, and teach magic tricks at corporate seminars.

    Skarning, who owns a white cat and dresses in black, calls herself a "nice witch" and attributes the growing tolerance of witches and sorcery to the success of J.K Rowling's Harry Potter books. "But Harry Potter is a fairy tale and I'm not," she told Reuters. "He rides brooms backwards. Real witches ride with the brush part in front."

    "I'm the real thing," she said. "And now I'm Norway's only state-backed witch."

    Called to Vocation, Via the Web
    Hoping to fend off the decline in the number of priests and nuns, Catholic dioceses and seminaries are increasingly using the Internet to help bring in Catholics who feel a calling to become a priest or a nun. The New York Times (registration required) reports that since people who are considering ministry often want to keep their interest private at first, without scheduling a meeting with a priest or more fully committing to the process, vocation websites are flourishing. Father Regen, who hosts www.vocations.com, estimates that 85 percent of Catholic dioceses in the U.S. have a website for those who think they have been called.

    'What If Terri Didn't Want This?'
    Wow. What a rare thing: a politician admitting that while he tried to do the right thing, he's not completely certain. Jim King, the Republican president of the Florida State Senate--and a supporter of Governor Bush's intervention in the Terri Schiavo case-- nonetheless said, "I keep on thinking 'What if Terri didn't really want this done at all?' May God have mercy on all of us."

    To me, it strengthens the authority of his argument that he's willing to admit to doubt.

    Boykin's Edited Apology
    Lt. Gen. William Boykin's apology for his remarks about terrorism and Islam was apparently edited by Pentagon lawyers. CNN has a story detailing what was taken out of his statement.

    The Controversies Within the Terri Schiavo Controversy
    As if the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman whose feeding tube was recently removed, wasn't complicated and heartbreaking enough, tangential Christian battles have erupted around it.

    At an ecumenical prayer vigil for Terri, Catholics prayed for the intercession of Terri's name saint, Theresa of Avila (some Catholics have noted that irony of Schiavo's feeding tube being removed on St. Theresa's feast day, Oct. 15). Envoy Magazine reports that evangelicals approached the Catholics, saying "Why pray to St. Theresa? ...You can go directly to Jesus." Later, however, the two groups put aside their differences over sandwiches.

    Separately, many anti-euthanasia Catholics are incensed that the bishop of Schiavo's diocese put out a statement calling for clemency in the case of Paul Hill, who was recently executed for killing an abortion doctor, but failed to take a strong stand on Schiavo. Bishop Robert Lynch's statement on Paul Hill deplores Hill's acts, but says "his execution will only perpetuate a cycle of violence and further promote a sense of vengeance in our society."

    Lynch's statement on Schiavo, some Catholics argue, is wishy-washy in comparison. The August 12 statement says it is "sad" that Schiavo's family could not come to a "unified... decision concerning Terri's situation" and notes that the case "is especially difficult because her actual medical situation is in dispute." The August 12 statement has since been followed up by a similar statement from all Florida bishops with slightly stronger wording, including the sentence "We reject outright the euthanasia movement and its utilitarian standard that some lives are not worth living."

    Gregg Easterbrook's Record
    I'm heartbroken to see what's happening to Gregg Easterbrook. In a column for the New Republic, he wrote a terrible passage criticizing "Jewish executives" at Miramax and Disney for making violent films, and then immediately and profusely apologized for it. He explained what he was trying to say, which was not at all anti-Semitic.

    It's horrifying to see headlines with the words "Easterbrook" and "anti-semitic" in them. In no way do I defend what he initially wrote, but I can think of few people less deserving of being labeled intolerant. Now I hear that ESPN, which is owned by Disney, has fired Gregg, even though none of this appeared on ESPN.com.

    I've known and admired Gregg for many years; he's one of the most honest journalists around. When I first hatched the idea that became Beliefnet, most heavyweight reporters thought it was odd. Gregg was one of the few who urged me to press forward-in part because he felt that journalists had a greater obligation to write well about religion and promote religious understanding. He volunteered to write for this fledgling website.

    Promoting religious understanding is at the very heart of what we do at Beliefnet, and Gregg has helped us with that mission since 1999. In one piece, he praised Pope John Paul II's declaration that one need not be Christian to go heaven. He wrote another arguing that a Jewish vice president could indeed win. After Jerry Falwell declared that the anti-Christ was a "male Jew," Gregg wrote a piece ripping apart Falwell's logic and Biblical justifications. He posted another article arguing that public displays of the 10 commandments should be replaced by displays of six principles that could be agreed upon by Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims.

    Gregg has done more to promote religious understanding than most journalists I know. I hope that one very bad column-followed almost immediately by a very effusive apology-will not displace that record.

    Mother Teresa, the Musical
    As the Catholic Church prepares to beatify Mother Teresa this Sunday, Italians are paying unique homage to the Calcutta nun. If you're in Rome for the festivities, you can see "Mother Teresa -- The Musical," described by the Washington Post as a "foot-stomping razzamatazz" in which actors belt out pop tunes (and the lead character wears a sari with a slit up the front).

    The Post article goes on to say that members of Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity, have not authorized the musical and are "not amused."

    Follow the Money
    Even canonical battles have money trails, and the current set-to in the Anglican church over American gay bishops and Canadian gay unions is no different. Reports this week have traced funding for the American Anglican Council, which sponsored the confab of conservative Episcoplians in Dallas earlier this month, to the Ahmanson family. Howard Ahmanson, an Episcopalian whose father made a fortune in banking, has pledged $200,000 a year to the AAC, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His wife, Roberta, the paper goes on to say, also sits on the board of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a group dedicated to "fighting for the reform of American churches," and which is supported in part by Richard Scaife, the same conservative Christian philanthropist whose funding was critical to the investigation of Bill Clinton's relationship to Paula Jones.

    Pledge of Allegiance Blues
    Today's announcement that the Supreme Court will hear the Pledge of Allegiance case is sure to increase web traffic to Restore the Pledge, plaintiff Michael Newdow's official pledge litigation site. This is good news for Newdow, who is now offering for purchase his own music album inspired by the case. The CD, which is called "Liberty and Justice for All" and costs $14.92, includes 11 songs, all written and performed by Newdow, like "(Won't You Play Fair) Bill O'Reilly" and "Let 'Em Leave," a reference to Senator Robert Byrd's quip that atheists should leave the country if they don't like how it is run.. Complete lyrics and samples of some songs are available online, including "Old Religion Blues" and "Establi-Rap."

    Pat Robertson Drops a Bombshell
    Earlier this year, Pat Robertson mounted "Operation Prayer Shield" to shelter the United States in the "shadow of the Most High" against "somebody with a nuclear device using them against one of our cities or one of our installations." Who knew that "somebody" might be Robertson himself? This weekend the State Department condemned Robertson's on-air suggestion that the department's headquarters ought to be blown up by a nuclear device.

    Robertson's comment came during a "700 Club" interview with Joel Mowbray, author of "Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America's Security." "I read your book," Robertson said. "When you get through, you say, 'If I could get a nuclear device inside Foggy Bottom, I think that's the answer.' I mean, you get through this, and you say, 'We've got to blow that thing up.'"

    State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called Robertson's comment "despicable." The Associated Press reports that Robertson had endorsed blowing up the State Department in an earlier interview with Mowbray. "Well, it looks like the Congress had better do something," Robertson said in June, "and maybe we need a very small nuke thrown off on Foggy Bottom to shake things up."

    Robertson has now posted a clarification on his site: "I want to correct my remarks. Joel did not say 'Nuke the State Department,' so we've changed. We're not going to nuke it, we're going to gut it."

    A Week Promoting Marriage
    Next week, Oct. 12 through 18, is "Marriage Protection Week," a new initiative announced by President Bush. "Marriage Protection Week provides an opportunity to focus our efforts on preserving the sanctity of marriage and on building strong and healthy marriages in America," he said. "Marriage is a union between a man and a woman, and my Administration is working to support the institution of marriage by helping couples build successful marriages and be good parents. ...I call upon the people of the United States to observe this week with appropriate programs, activities, and ceremonies."

    The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian political action group, has declared "marriage protection" to be the primary issue in the 2004 presidential election and has drafted a "Marriage Protection Pledge." Meanwhile, gay groups are opposing the Bush proclamation. Read other blogs that discuss Marriage Protection Week. (Thanks to Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute for pointing out this story.)

    Don't Bother Passing the Collection Plate
    In the U.K., a priest is encouraging parishioners to tithe by credit card. The Rev. Geoffrey Fenton has installed his "Donorpoint" credit card machine in three cathedrals so far. Churchgoers can donate from 30 to 100 pounds per visit, according to Church times. "No one carries cash much any longer," the Vice Dean of Norwich, Canon Richard Hanmer, told the paper. "In two years, everyone will have one of these."

    Less Religious I Do's
    USA Today reports that the rate of civil marriage is increasing. Though there is no national data on the rate of civil marriages--wedding ceremonies performed by a notary, judge, justice of the peace, or other civil authority--the paper analyzed marriage licenses from 18 states that have kept records since 1980. It found that in 2001, 40% of wedding ceremonies were civil marriages, up from 30% in 1980. University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz credited the trend in fewer religious ceremonies to high divorce and remarriage rates, a rise in interfaith marriage, and increasing personal spirituality in lieu of participation in institutional religion.

    Seeking God in Rush Hour
    Most drivers tend to spend so much time in the car that it's common for people to make phone calls, eat, parent, apply makeup, and change clothes while attempting to stay in lane and notice stop signs. I heard on NPR's "Car Talk" (while driving) that some people even clip newspaper coupons during their morning commute. According to a recent survey by the Royal Automobile Club Foundation an organization that works with the British government to promote vehicle and road safety, almost 75% of British drivers said they pray in their cars, and 22% said they talk to God in traffic on a regular basis. Many beseech God to "get me out of this," the survey said, while others beg not to get caught speeding.

    The survey, which polled 898 drivers, also found that 16% pray for lighter traffic or no delays, and that 6% pray to saints, such as St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Not all supplications, however, are as self-absorbed. More than 50% said they pray for others who were suffering, or for the well-being of family and friends. "A lot of people view motoring as a necessary evil," said Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, "but it might well be the opposite-a necessary good."

    "Society has changed," he said, "with many people choosing to talk to whatever power they worship in ordinary places where they feel relaxed and uninhibited, like motor cars. For some the car has simply become the new church." In which case, here's a prayer I plan to recite: "Lord, don't let the new church run me off the road."

    Nigh Time for Nuwaubians
    Time seems to be running out for Malachi (aka Dwight) York, the founder of a religious sect known as the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors. Variously claiming to be a reincarnated leader of a Native American tribe and a visitor from a galaxy called Illyuwn, York once predicted that that in 2003 spaceships would appear to take up a chosen 144,000 people for a rebirth.

    They'd better come soon. York has been undergoing psychiatric evaluation in New York after being charged with 74 counts of child molestation last year and is expected to go on trial in January, after a judge ruled a plea bargain too lenient. The Nuwaubians, a primarily African-American group, came to the attention of the FBI in 1993 for alleged "arson, welfare fraud and extortion." Soon afterward, they moved from upstate New York to Georgia, where they built themselves a compound. At one point the group numbered in the thousands, but since York's arrest, membership has dwindled, and the situation in Georgia seems to be degrading: last week, two members were arrested in a real-esate fraud case.

    Saturday Night Suicide Stunt Banned
    A Florida judge issued an injunction Thursday forbidding a rock band from hosting an on-stage suicide during one of its shows.

    The band, called Hell on Earth, planned to help a terminally ill man commit suicide on a St. Petersburg, Fla. stage Saturday night, October 4, in order to raise awareness of the right-to-die movement. Hell on Earth's previous on-stage antics include blending dead rats and feeding the mixture to an audience member.

    In Rolling Stone, band member Billy Tourtelot accused Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of "getting people to ban this show." The owner of the planned venue for Saturday's show has canceled the event, but Tourtelot insists the show will go on in an undisclosed location.

    "Catholic-Bashing" Sculpture
    A winning sculpture in the annual Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition at Washburn University, in Kansas, is being called "Catholic bashing at its worst." The controversial sculpture, depicting a heavyset priest in an ecclesiastical cap, which critics say resembles a penis, is on view near Washburn's student center and was selected for display by the Campus Beautification Committee. The artist, Jerry Boyle, said he created his "Holier Than Thou" sculpture as a "humorous piece," inspired by his Catholic upbringing. "Everybody sees something different," he told the Associated Press.

    Not Your Typical Freedom Ride
    Organized by several Christian groups under the name "Spirit of Montgomery," a truck labeled the "Save the Commandments Caravan" is making its way from Montgomery, Alabama to Washington D.C. this week to show support for Alabama Judge Roy Moore. Moore petitioned the Supreme Court this week to review a ruling by lower courts that he violated the Constitution by placing a Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse.

    The caravan includes a "lighted billboard of the Ten Commandments," and each stop along the eight-day tour will feature a rally, a prayer vigil, and a model of the controversial Ten Commandments monument. The Spirit of Montgomery's mission is to reclaim "the spiritual and moral heritage [of the U.S.] lost to a progressively more militant and anti-religious secularism imposed by the federal courts."

    Organizers are also collecting signatures for a "virtual caravan," an online petition to which they hope to have 250,000 signatories by the time the real caravan reaches the U.S. Capitol building.

    Stockbrokers Need Prayers, Too
    A "Christian think-tank" is urging people to pray for bankers and stockbrokers, saying that those working in finance tend to get overlooked in favor of those in "caring" professions, like nurses and teachers.

    "There is a feeling that you cannot mix God and Mammon" says John Raymond of the Industrial Christian Fellowship. "But I think that is exactly the opposite of how Jesus would see it."

    The group has prepared some suggested prayers for use in church services. One prayer asks God to "bless entrepreneurs, those in business, investors and those responsible for pension funds."

    Warning: Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Karma
    The last country in the world to turn on television (it was introduced in 1999) may be the first nation to ban smoking. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has outlawed cigarettes in 18 of its 20 districts, and hopes to break the habit completely by the end of the year.

    The Independent reports that government officials are concerned not only about the physical health of its citizens (the life expectancy for men is 62), but also their spiritual health. According to the director of Bhutan's health department, people in this deeply religious Buddhist country consider smoking a sin.

    The ban isn't limited to tobacco cigarettes. The Independent notes that the people of Bhutan have discovered "uses other than as pig fodder for the cannabis that grows freely in its hills."

    Gold Medals for Yoga
    If you think yoga is just people sitting in the dark twisting themselves into pretzels, catch up with this week's world yoga competition in Los Angeles.

    The yogathletes are judged on grace, proportion, flexibility, endurance and balance, completing five compulsory and two optional poses in three minutes. Says the competition's host, Bikram Choudhury, "There have been yoga championships in India for hundreds of years. Competitions have also been held in Japan, Uruguay, Brazil. Argentina and Italy."

    Next stop for Bikram? He asks, "Why not yoga at the Olympics?"

    Text Messaging Prayers
    Need to get a prayer to Jerusalem's Western Wall, pronto? For a little more than a dollar, cell-phone-toting Israeli Jews can now dial a number and text-message their prayers to the holy site. An enterprising company faxes the prayers to a rabbi, who tears off each message and places it between the stones of the ancient wall.

    Jesus Hits the Bar Scene
    Several Wales churches and Christian leaders have figured out a new way to connect to young people--through pubs and nightclubs. "Pubs by definition are public space, they feel inhabitable and unpretentious, a quality that, unfortunately, is not shared by many churches," the website for one church-in-a-pub called Bar None explains. Bar None, affiliated with an actual church in Cardiff, Wales, offers music, storytelling, and discussion group, and a newsletter called "The Tab."

    The national website of Wales reports that "the first chaplain for nightclubs" is about to begin work. Wendy Sanderson, 26, will lead a team of volunteers in Cardiff's bars and nightclubs. "When you look at the influence of drugs and the hunger for the ultimate high, it kind of all links in," she told the website.

    One of the earliest churches in a pub was started by an evangelist In Swansea, Wales, in 1998. He began "Zac's Place," a weekly Christian meeting to "provide opportunity for expression of and enquiry into the Christian faith in a relaxed pub environment."

    I'm Too Sexy for My Vestment
    Tomorrow in England, more than a dozen Christian ministers will show off their style in "Clergy on the Catwalk," a fashion show for the priestly set. Anglican Communion News Service reported the show will "feature colourful, contemporary vestments from leading ecclesiastical designers."

    The top model for the show is the Rev. Shannon Ledbetter, known for her role in 1997's "Tomorrow Never Dies" James Bond flick. Ledbetter, a former model, was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church this summer. "The only place Western culture appears to idealise the human form today is on the catwalk," Ledbetter explained. "The supermodel has become the form we place on a pedestal draped with exotic fabrics and captured on film. I hope Clergy on the Catwalk will direct attention away from the superficial to the spiritual."

    The event is part of the Christian Resources Exhibition, a British trade show for Christian products and learning tools.

    Is Mel Gibson Anti-Semitic?
    The Mel Gibson controversy has splintered now into two different disputes: whether the movie is anti-Semitic and whether Gibson is anti-Semitic. As for the movie, some who've seen it say yes; most who've seen it, say no and others have expressed opinions without having seen it.

    But what about Gibson himself and his defenders? Amy-Jill Levine argued in these pages that the film aside, the movie's advocates stepped over some lines.

    Then came Gibson's interview with the New Yorker. Relevant comments:

    "Modern secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church. And it's a lie. And it's revisionism. And they've been working on that one for a while."

    Later in the article: "I didn't realize it would be so vicious, he says of the criticism. "The acts against this film started early. As soon as I announced I was doing it, it was 'This is a dangerous thing.' There is vehement anti-Christian sentiment out here, and they don't want it. It's vicious. I mean, I think we're just a little part of it, we're just the meat in the sandwich here. There's huge things out there, and they're belting it out--we don't see this stuff. Imagine: There's a huge war raging, and it's over us! This is a the weird thing. For some reason we're important in this thing. I don't undersand it. We're a bunch of dickheads and idiots and failures and creeps. But we're called to the divine, we're called to be better than our nature would have us be. And those big realms that are warring and battling are going to manifest themselves very clearly, seemingly without reason, here--a realm that we can see. And you stick your head up and you get knocked."

    Finally, commenting on his decision to cut out a scene in which a Jewish crowd says "His blood be on us and our children," Gibson said, "I wanted it in. My brother said I was wimping out if I didn't include it. It happened; it was said. But, man, if I included that in there, they'd be coming after me at my house, they'd come kill me." The New Yorker said Gibson was referring to critics such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

    Sandy Koufax Redux
    Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Shawn Green has already announced that, should the Dodgers make it to the National League playoffs, he will probably not play in Game 5, scheduled for the night Yom Kippur begins.

    "It's something that I'm giving a lot of thought to because it's an important decision," Green told the Los Angeles Times.

    Former Dodger and Jewish sports icon Sandy Koufax is perhaps most famous in the Jewish community for his refusal to pitch the first game in the 1965 World Series. The game fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Green said he did not plan to ask Koufax for advice about what he should do.

    Does Your Faith Determine Your Net Worth?
    A sociology professor at Ohio State University has found that religion helps determine how much wealth Americans accumulate. "Religion is ... a factor that hasn't received a lot of attention," said Lisa Keister, the author of the new study.

    "What I'm finding is that families have a powerful influence on how people learn to save, and religion is often an important part of family life," Keister said. "The things children are taught in Jewish homes are very different than those that are taught in conservative Protestant homes." Jews in the study had a median net worth of $150,890, while conservative Protestants had a median net worth of $26,000. Keister said the difference could be partially attributed to Jews encouraging their children to go into high-income careers and invest early, while conservative Protestants may place more of their trust about wealth in God.

    Raising a Non-Material Girl
    We all want to give our kids a better childhood than we had, and Madonna is no exception. The star revealed on Oprah yesterday that she has been sending her daughter Lourdes, 7, to a children's program in Los Angeles called Spirituality for Kids, an offshoot of the controversial Kabbalah Centre. The program teaches the wisdom of the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, to 6- to 12-year-olds. The Spirituality for Kids curriculum offers three levels of courses, which move from teaching kids basic values, such as empathy, tolerance, and sharing, to more esoteric ideas about negativity, colors, and "the staying power of words."

    Madonna gives the program a ringing endorsement on its website, noting: "Since my daughter has been going to the Spirituality for Kids program I have noticed a profound change in her. She has become more loving and much more aware of her behavior and how it affects the world around her. I only wish I had been exposed to understanding the laws of the Universe when I was a kid. I could have saved myself a lot of pain and suffering."

    Even Madonna's new best-selling children's book, "The English Roses," a moral tale about four little girls who are envious of another girl and learn the importance of compassion, was inspired by her Kabbalah studies.

    Mormons on the Big Screen
    Screenings began in Utah and other western states last week for the new "Book of Mormon" movie, a film version of the sacred Mormon text. "Ever since I saw the "Ten Commandments," nearly 48 years ago, I have been dreaming of seeing a motion picture about the Book of Mormon," writes director Gary Rogers in his Director's Notes.

    The movie website features a trailer and also includes a note for Mormons concerned about the movie's expected PG-13 rating. "The Book of Mormon Movie may receive a PG-13 rating because of a scene dealing with cutting off Laban's head. You will not see his head come off, nor will you see guts coming out of his neck, but you will see a VERY powerful scene where parental guidance is appropriate. . I personally do not think it is possible to do justice to certain parts in the Book of Mormon with just a PG rating."

    The first movie concludes with the fifth chapter of the second book of Nephi. Rogers says he will produce eight more volumes of the Mormon epic, depending on the success of this movie.

    Faith Is a Battlefield
    A British philosophy site features an interesting online game that tests the intellectual rigor of players' religious beliefs. In a series of questions, "Battleground God" determines whether your beliefs about God follow a logical pattern. When your logic fails, the game spits out reprimands like "The intellectual sniper has scored a bull's-eye!"

    For Your Little Cherub
    Catholic parents who already have Baby Mozart--and other items for raising a high-performance child--now have an option if they want their little one to be holier than the average tot.

    Inspired by the popular Baby Einstein series, the new "Holy Baby" DVD uses 3-D animation, music, and colorful images to introduce infants to the prayers of the rosary.

    Watching the DVD can be a slightly trippy experience for adults (think back to when Teletubbies first premiered), but could entrance the playpen set. Bright moving shapes, Fisher Price toys, Mary statues, crosses, and real-life toddlers appear and disappear as prayers like the Our Father and the Hail Mary are read in seven different languages. The theme song "Holy Baby, you're the one/Lovin' Jesus, havin' fun" plays at the beginning and end. A bewimpled and presumably diapered nun, Baby Scholastica, gurgles and coos before each prayer is introduced.

    Creator Wayne Laugesen says the Holy Baby DVD reflects his family's "experience with our own children," who are stimulated by the "colorful parade of objects." If "Holy Baby" is anything like the Baby Einstein phenomenon, very young children may be mesmerized--and, potentially, canonized.

    Barbie, Enemy of Islam
    Citing her "revealing clothes" and "accessories," Saudi authorities have declared Barbie a threat to morality. Though the dolls were already banned in Saudi Arabia, they are now referred to as "Jewish" dolls and listed among items considered offensive to Islam. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the website of the country's Committee for the Propogation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice asserts: "Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful."

    The Middle East Media Research Institute reports that the website continues: "The enemies of Islam want to invade us with all possible means, and therefore they have circulated among us this doll, which spreads deterioration of values and moral degeneracy among our girls."

    A quick scan of the Barbie website reveals no information about Barbie's alleged Jewishness. But young Muslim girls in Saudi Arabia do have another option if they're desperate for Barbie: Razanne dolls, outfitted in Islamic dress.

    Woody Harrelson, Yoga Guru
    Move your mat over, Christy Turlington, yoga has a new celebrity poster child-Woody Harrelson. Last weekend, the actor, vegan, and marijuana activist led an estimated 2,000 people in a two-hour yoga session he hopes will make the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest outdoor yoga class ever. "We'll be able to say we remember this day," he told the crowd gathered at the University of Toronto campus. "Your grandkids and you will be looking at the picture and you can say, 'I was there, darn it.' Some hung-over maniac was leading it for us."

    The former "Cheers" star and self-proclaimed yoga addict was in town to promote his new film, "Go Further." The documentary follows Harrelson and some like-minded friends as they cycle from Seattle to Los Angeles trailed by a hemp-fueled bus, stopping for Harrelson to lead impromptu yoga classes and extol the virtues of an eco-friendly lifestyle.

    "When I was in college I wanted to be a minister," Harrelson told the Globe and Mail. "I guess I'm a preacher with a different message, but no less important. My god is nature and naturalness."

    The Heebie-Jeebies Explained
    When old man Scrooge had the dickens scared out of him by the ghostly appearance of his dead partner Jacob Marley, he may have actually been spooked by a low-frequency vibration created naturally. Scientists at a recent meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science presented research showing that infrasound, a very low, inaudible bass sound, can produce that creepy, haunted feeling--shivers down the spine, weird sensations, anxiety. "It makes people feel extremely strange, even though they can't tell whether it's there or not," said Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Herfordshire in southern England. Wiseman and his colleagues produced infrasound with a 23-foot pipe and tested its effects on 750 volunteers at a concert hall in London. They played four contemporary pieces of live music, two of which were laced with infrasound. The audience didn't know the infrasound was present, but 22 percent described more unusual experiences-getting chills down the spine, or feeling nervous, uneasy or sorrowful-when it was included. Infrasound can be produced by church organs, traffic, wind, storms, weather patterns and earthquakes. Animals such as elephants use infrasound to communicate and to fend off enemies.

    "It has implications for claims about hauntings, and things people think they feel in religious settings like cathedrals," said Wiseman. "What appears to happen is that people have odd sensations that they cannot explain, and so they attribute them to God. If you are in an old house, you might attribute the same thing to a ghost."

    Recalling His Religion
    With Arnold Schwarzenegger's pro-choice stance (not to mention his days as a '70s swinger) putting off Christian voters, the religious vote in California's recall election may be up for grabs. It may be no coincidence, then, that Gov. Gray Davis has stepped up his references to the almighty, catalogued in this piece from The Weekly Standard. Over Labor Day weekend, Davis, a Roman Catholic, occupied the front pew at a Mass at Los Angeles's Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, and he claimed at the Walnut Creek debate and in an interview with NBC that his "strong faith in God" has seen him through the worst moments of the recall effort. If they take him at his word, that kind of talk may serve Davis well among evangelicals as well as the largely Catholic Hispanic voters.

    Diet for the Days of Awe
    For Jews who are worried that High Holiday season might result in weight gain, Atkins Nutritional, Inc., founders of the popular Atkins diet, provide a low-carb plan for Rosh Hashanah. The holiday, an Atkins press release declared this week, "is a time for reflection, self-evaluation and the consumption of sweet, traditional dishes symbolizing the hope for a prosperous year to come. Fortunately, celebrating this meaningful holiday doesn't have to be a challenge for the millions of people who are watching their weight and their health by pursuing a controlled carbohydrate diet."

    Atkins offers special low-carb Rosh Hashanah recipes, including fish terrine (3 g carbohydrates), homemade chicken soup (1.5 g carbohydrates), and brisket with mushrooms (7.5 g carbohydrates). The company also suggests making challah, the traditional braided bread used on Shabbat and holidays, using the Atkins Kitchen(TM) Quick & Easy White Bread Mix.

    "It's about balance," Atkins food editor Stephanie Nathanson said in the release. "Tradition is very important, but so is good health."

    Britain's David Kelly Inquiry: Was Faith a Factor?
    As Britain's official inquiry into the death of David Kelly, the scientist who committed suicide after being named as a source for a BBC report questioning the validity of British intelligence about Iraq, continues, British papers report that Kelly's faith is playing a role in the investigation. The late scientist converted to the Baha'i faith four years ago, and one friend says that his religion could reveal something about his frame of mind in the days before his suicide on July 17. Manoocher Samii told the BBC that the Baha'i faith's emphasis on the unity of the world, religion's coexistence with science, and the importance of honesty, shaped the scientist's thoughts.

    The inquiry into Kelly's death received today a report from Barney Leith about the faith. "The act of suicide is strongly condemned but we in Baha'i do not take a condemnatory attitude to those that do it," Leith, head of the Baha'i faith in Britain, told Reuters.

    Out of approximately five million followers of the Baha'i faith worldwide, only about 6,000 live in the United Kingdom.

    Hitchens: Not My Morality
    Journalist and secular spokesman Christopher Hitchens rails against the Ten Commandments in Slate. Calling the commandments an example of "vague pre-Christian desert morality," Hitchens argues that many of the ideas in the Bible's ten commandments were commonplace and didn't necessarily require a "divine spark" to be understood as important. He declares the injunction against covetousness "absurd and totalitarian" and pokes fun at the commandments for leaving "rape and child abuse and genocide and slavery out of the account."

    While many of his fellow atheists have responded to Alabama's Judge Roy Moore's refusal to remove a commandments sculpture from his courthouse by holding protests or calling for Moore's arrest, Hitchens says the fight over public display of the commandments misses the point. "The true problem," he writes, "is our failure to recognize that religion is not just incongruent with morality but in essential ways incompatible with it."

    Catholic School Says Muslim Headscarf Violates Dress Code
    A Catholic high school in Ohio recently told a returning Muslim student that her hijab (headscarf) violates its uniform, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer (registration required). The student handbook of Regina High School in South Euclid says that "No hats, no bandannas or head wraps are permitted."

    The 17-year-old Muslim student, Amal Jamal, started wearing the headscarf in June, "as her faith deepened." Regina's principal, Sister Maureen Burke, said "I feel very bad about this situation. I've agonized over it...Amal is a wonderful young woman. The family is very fine." But, said Burke, "the uniform issue is very important to who we are as a Catholic school. The purpose of the uniform is to bring everybody together, not to be distracted by self-expression."

    Both Amal and her parents were shocked. "All along, they gave me a room to pray in. They asked me questions about Islam. They always accepted me for who I was. Now they have decided it is against school policy to wear my hijab," said Amal. Her mother, Samira Jamal, said the family chose Regina in part because "We know the Catholics themselves are very accepting of other religions... The lack of discrimination had a lot to do with our decision [to pick Regina]." She said she helped Amal select a flattering white hijab to coordinate with the Regina blouse and cardigan.

    According to the National Catholic Educational Association, 13.2% of students at Catholic schools are not Catholic. In most parts of the country, that percentage is slightly higher among secondary schools. Non-Catholic students are typically not required to participate in school liturgies or other religious activities. Another Cleveland-area high school, Gilmour Academy, recently made an exception to its dress code, allowing a seventh-grade Sikh student to wear his turban.

    Biblical Reparations
    An Egyptian professor wants to sue "the Jews of the world" for gold and other items he says were taken during the time of the Exodus. The Forward reports that Nabil Hilmy, dean of the faculty of law at Egypt's Zagazig University, claims that when the Israelites left Egypt, they "stole from the Pharaonic Egyptians gold, jewelry, cooking utensils, silver ornaments, clothing, and more, leaving Egypt in the middle of the night with all this wealth, which today is priceless."

    Hilmy has calculated what 300 tons of gold (his estimate), at 5 percent interest over 5,758 years, would be worth today. "The debt is very large," he told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Al-Arabi.

    Though he admits that a suit this frivolous is unlikely to ever reach a court, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told the Forward that, if necessary, "I'd be happy to defend the Jews."

    With Supporters Like These ...
    Today's New York Times reports that President Bush has put his reelection in peril by not following through on his "compassionate conservative" agenda, failing to push hard to fund volunteerism, education, Medicare reform, and AIDS programs. In particular, "religious supporters of Mr. Bush say they feel betrayed," the front page article declares.

    Curiously, the only religious figure cited in the article is the Rev. Jim Wallis, the executive director of Sojourners, a Christian ministry based in Washington. While Wallis may indeed have been "a prominent early supporter" of the Bush campaign, as the Times says, and is without doubt an evangelical, Wallis has a reputation as a progressive who often finds himself in opposition to the White House, especially when it is occupied by a Republican. In his only known encounter with Bush, at a forum on faith-based social programs, he told the then president-elect, "I hope you surprise us." In the mid-'90s, Wallis founded Call to Renewal, a network of churches dedicated to fighting poverty, largely, he said at the time, to balance the work of the religious right"--just the sort we're used to thinking of as "religious supporters of Mr. Bush."

    Who Hates Monks?
    Monks have become Madison Avenue's favorite spokesmen, according to an article in today's New York Times (registration required). The trend began in the mid-70s, when Xerox introduced a monk who used a copier to produce illuminated manuscripts. Since then men in robes have flacked everything from liqueur to Pepsi and oatmeal bars to instant messaging. The Times points out that monks create credibility for a product in part because of their reputation for austerity: if they find something indispensible, the thinking goes, the rest of us can certainly use it. But one expert says the pitch is even simpler: "You have dogs, babies and monks." says an AOL marketing type. "Who hates monks?"

    Good Books
    In a study commissioned by Duke Divinity School's Pulpit & Pew project and conducted by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, researchers asked 833 clergy from 80 different denominations about their reading habits, excluding the Bible and other work-related material. Most clergy's favorite authors, you'll be relieved to know, are perfectly respectable: Henri Nouwen for Catholics and mainline Protestants; Max Lucado for conservative Protestants.

    The study, which was reported in the current Christian Century, also reveals that Episcopal priests read the most, averaging five hours per week, and Nazarenes the least--just two hours. More than 10 percent of all clergy read an hour or less each week. Less suprising perhaps is how few authors Catholic, mainline Protest and conservative Protestant clergy overlap on: only C.S. Lewis made all three lists. And even Catholics (who like John Paul II and Raymond Brown) and conservatives (who go for Charles Swindoll and John MacArthur) don't favor any of the same authors except, again, C.S. Lewis.

    Barbara Brown Taylor is the only woman on the three top 12 lists, a choice among mainliners. And though women do appear below the top 12 picks of mainliners (Kathleen Norris, Sue Bender) and Catholics (Dianne Bergant, Joan Chittister), there's not a single female author on the list of conservative Protestant clergy.

    The 2304th Tongue
    To the King James Bible and the New Revised Standard Edition, add the newest version of the Good Book, "The Aussie Bible," the creation of a schoolteacher in London who previously rendered the Bible into the Cockney dialect. In the Australian slang version, the shepherds "shot through like a Toorak tram" when they heard about the Lord's birth in Bethlehem. When Herod gets the news, he is "as jumpy as a wallaby on hot rocks." "The Aussie Bible" is the 2304th tongue or dialect in which the Bible has appeared.

    Holy Com-moon-ion
    In all the hubbub surrounding the confirmation of an openly gay bishop, another item on the Episcopal Church convention's agenda has been overlooked. The church's bishops called for a special liturgy to commemorate the first Holy Communion on the moon, celebrated on July 20, 1969 by U.S. astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.

    The lunar communion was kept under wraps by NASA for two decades until Aldrin wrote about it in a memoir. Aldrin, an Episcopalian, brought blessed bread and wine in his "personal kit" and consumed them after Apollo XI landed near the Sea of Tranquility.

    The Episcopal Convention resolution notes that the lunar communion "was significant in other ways:

  • The first liquid ever poured in the Moon's 1/6th gravity was the Blood of Christ,
  • The first food and drink consumed by humans on another celestial body was the Lord's Supper,
  • The most remote act of worship (235,000 miles from Earth) ever undertaken was this lay-led Episcopal office."

  • Sony Nixes Kabbalah Film
    It seems Madonna's hubby, film director Guy Ritchie, may be suffering the consequences of the pop star's interest in Kabbalah. According to the New York Post, Ritchie's latest project, a crime movie set in Sin City, was rejected by Sony Pictures because of its numerous kabbalah references.

    Sony asked for a rewrite and Ritchie agreed, only days later to retract the new script and fire his talent representatives at the prominent William Morris agency.

    Pundits are blaming the Material Girl for Ritchie's increased interest in Jewish mysticism. since it's well-known she's influential with her spouses. "Let's not forget she made him do 'Swept Away,' and made Sean Penn do 'Shanghai Surprise,'" one insider told the Post.

    The Re-Birth of the Virgin Birth
    Nearly four decades since Time magazine proclaimed on its cover, "God Is Dead," Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth as in evolution.

    In his recent New York Times column, "Believe It, Or Not," Nicholas D. Kristof quoted polls showing a mere 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution, whereas a whopping 83 percent believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus, despite a consensus among most biblical scholars that it's a legend, like so many virgin birth myths in the ancient world. Faith, says Kristof, now sets America apart from the rest of the industrialized world. America has become so pious, Kristof says, that "not only do 91 percent of Christians say they believe in the Virgin Birth, but so do an astonishing 47 percent of U.S. non-Christians."

    Kristof is concerned with the growing polarization that belief in the Virgin Birth represents. "But mostly," he writes, "I'm troubled by the way the great intellectual traditions of Catholic and Protestant churches alike are withering, leaving the scholarly and religious worlds increasingly antagonistic. I worry partly because of the time I've spent with self-satisfied and unquestioning mullahs and imams, for the Islamic world is in crisis today in large part because of a similar drift away from a rich tradition and toward the mystical. The heart is a wonderful organ, but so is the brain."

    Dr. Laura's Change of Heart
    Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the conservative and controversial radio host, surprised many listeners and detractors last week when she announced she would no longer practice Judaism. Dr. Laura, who was raised in a non-religious household by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, publicly converted to Orthodox Judaism five years ago. Now, however, she told her listeners on 300 radio stations, "My identifying with this entity and my fulfilling the rituals, etcetera, of the entity - that has ended." Dr. Laura, famous for condemning homosexuality as a "biological error," lamented her lack of support from the Jewish community. "By and large the faxes from Christians have been very loving, very supportive," she said. "From my own religion ... I don't get much back. Not much warmth coming back."

    The Forward reports that Jewish leaders had mixed emotions about the news, but many seemed to agree that Schlessinger expected too much from the Jewish community. "Was Laura naive to think, 'gosh, I'll be the queen of the Jews?' Yes, she was naïve," fellow conservative radio host Michael Medved said. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who chastised Dr. Laura's stance on homosexuality on Beliefnet several years ago, agreed. "I never got great applause from my work from the Jewish community - but my people are my people, whether they love or hate me."

    They'll Be Back
    Arnold Schwarzenegger may be the leading Republican candidate for Governor of California but religious conservatives are not pleased. Some are attacking his pro-choice position. Schwarzenegger, a Catholic, has expressed support for gay rights as well. But a little-remembered line from the documentary "Pumping Iron" shows Arnold taking inspiration from Jesus as early as 1975: "I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators, people like Jesus, being remembered for thousands of years."

    Heavyweight Meditation Techniques
    Former heavyweight champ, convicted rapist, and millionaire Mike Tyson filed for bankruptcy last week, citing his inability to pay off $27 million worth of debt, despite earning between $300 and $400 million in his career. His court filing includes $17 million owed in taxes, more than $173,000 owed to a jeweler, and one unusual item that several other blogs have pointed out: $86,000 owed to two doctors in Arizona who founded the Fourth Domain, a set of exercises that combines Kabbalah, Shintoism, and other meditation techniques to increase physical, psychological, and spiritual health. As Beliefnet reported earlier this year, new studies show Buddhist meditation may be a cure for anger. Perhaps Tyson, who converted to Islam while serving a jail sentence for his 1992 rape conviction, is finally looking beyond the ring for ways to manage his anger. If only the Buddha had invented a cure for over-spending...

    Honoring the Pinball Buddha Within
    Long ago, the Who paid homage to the uniquely Zen style of a deaf, dumb, and blind "pinball wizard" who "becomes part of the machine" and "plays by intuition." More recently, Tokyo Buddhists expressed their gratitude to pinball-like "pachinko" machines that have netted companies millions and provided enjoyment for thousands of fans.

    A temple ceremony was held in honor of pinball machines "that have come to the end of their working lives," reports Reuters. Buddhist monks in purple robes chanted sutras in front of a candle-lit, brocade-draped altar adorned with a golden replica of the game machine. Executives from companies that make pachinko machines offered incense and prayed with bowed heads. "We want to tell the machines, 'Thank you very much for all your hard work,'" noted one attendee.

    Baby on Board
    A Michigan woman charged with child endangerment for breastfeeding her daughter while driving on the Ohio Turnpike claims she wasn't doing anything wrong. But even if she was, she says, only her husband can punish her. Catherine Nicole Donkers is a member of the First Christian Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty, founded in the 1990s, and her husband, Brad Lee Barnhill, is a minister in the church. According to Barnhill, the sect, which recognizes Jesus as the only legitimate authority, believes that only a husband can correct a man's wife for a public act. Donkers reportedly has no social security number, no driver's license or a marriage license. As for the civil authorities, Barnhill proposes that they prosecute him in his wife's stead. Donkers, who went on trial yesterday, maintains she has been improperly charged.

    Suggested Reading for the Jewish Jailbird
    Nextbook, a new daily listing of items of Jewish literary interest, today points to a New Yorker article about Sam Waksal's Amazon wish-list. Waksal, for those who don't keep up with the corporate scandal du jour, is the former head of ImClone whose insider trading tips led to Martha Stewart's resignation and federal indictment.

    Rebecca Mead writes that Waksal's original reading list (now down to only three out-of-print items) was "long in Judaica." Among the books the ex-CEO hopes to read during his seven-year sentence are: "Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature III," edited by Isadore Twersky and Jay M. Harris; "Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Antisemitism," by Robert Chazan; "Judeophobia: Attitudes Toward the Jews in the Ancient World," by Peter Schäfer; "A People Apart: A Political History of the Jews in Europe 1789-1939," by David Vital; and "The Legends of the Jews, Notes for Volumes Three and Four: From Moses to Esther," by Louis Ginzberg; and four commentaries on the kabbalah by Gershom Scholem.

    Bob Hope's Spiritual Side
    Bob Hope claimed that he did benefit performances for any religion, saying, "I'd hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality." But when he was in his mid-nineties, the comedian, who died last month at 100, was baptized a Roman Catholic, whose charities he'd contributed to for years. Born an Episcopalian and raised a Presbyterian, Hope became a Catholic through the influence of his wife Dolores, a lifelong devout Catholic. Hope's generosity was remembered Monday at a service at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C, attended by no fewer than three cardinals (including Boston's former archbishop Bernard Law), who helped distribute communion.

    Nonbelievers: The Movie
    Atheist, humanist, and other freethought activists are pushing an internet campaign to raise money to produce "Heart of the Beholder," described as "a secular humanist feature film production written and produced by freethinkers." As a teaser on the "Beholder" website shows, the movie, based on a true story, tells the story of a video store owner and his family being terrorized by right-wing Christians for renting a copy of Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."

    Billed as "the movie Hollywood is afraid to make," money for the film's production is being solicited on humanist and other freethought email lists, discussion groups, and websites. "If the Christers can have those wretched 'Left Behind' movies, surely we can get behind an attempt to show our side of the story," writes "AtheistDad" on Atheistparents.org. But not all freethinkers think a feature film is the best way to share their message. "I would rather see freethinkers with positive roles in mainstream productions than have a whole project dealing with freethinkers that will rarely get seen," another poster on the Atheist parents site responded.

    Could an Alien Become a Jew?
    It must seem like I'm fixated with aliens. In the past year, I've written about crop circles and the Raelian movement. But aliens are in the air--or at least in the media. In Paul Davies' fascinating article, "E.T. and God," in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly, he contemplates whether religions could survive the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Davies has his doubts. Just a single bacterium found beyond earth--say, the kind of bacteria scientists hope their probes will soon find on Mars--"would force us to revise our understanding of who we are and where we fit into the cosmic scheme of things, throwing us into a spiritual identity crisis that would be every bit as dramatic as the one Copernicus brought about in the 1500s, when he asserted that Earth was not the center of the universe."

    Davies says the discovery of aliens more advanced than us would pose serious problems for Christianity, the most "species-specific" faith. If Christ died only for humanity, as tradition claims, and not for the apes or the dolphins, then are the aliens not saved? (There are actually theologians, Davies says, who are trying to solve this problem with theories of multiple incarnations and multiple crucifixions.) The prospect of E.T. life poses fewer theological difficulties for Islam and Judaism, though Davies wonders if an alien could become a Muslim or a Jew, and he wisely asks, "Does the concept even make sense?" With their pluralistic notions of God, Hindus and Buddhists, Davies says, would probably be the least threatened by the possibility of aliens. But E.T.s should be good news for all religions-and certainly a shot in the arm for the "design argument" for the existence of God-offering a "vision of nature distinctly inspiring to the spiritually inclined-certainly more so than that of a cosmos sterile everywhere but on a single planet."

    Prayer and Petri Dishes at 'Creation Science Fair'
    Who says biblical literalists and science don't mix? "Using Prayer To Microevolve Latent Antibiotic Resistance In Bacteria" is just one of the exciting exhibits at a Creation Science Fair made up by a parody site. The fair "took place" in 2001, but the website is once again making the rounds. One elementary-schooler's winning exhibit: "My Uncle Is A Man Named Steve (Not A Monkey)." As part of her scientific study, the fifth-grader "tried to feed her uncle bananas, but he declined to eat them. Cassidy has conclusively shown that her uncle is no monkey." A runner up: "Rocks Can't Evolve, Where Did They Come From Mr. Darwin?" An exhibit by two Muslim students was "ineligible for a prize due to a number of Biblical inconsistencies" but did receive an Interfaith Outreach award.

    Though the fair is invented, the site does link to actual resources for creationist homeschoolers. Included is a Project Dinosaur video, in which a student named Mikey must defend his beliefs "even if it means he loses the science fair competition," and a list of creationism-related science projects, such as "Make a computer model of [Noah's] Flood currents."

    btw, I Divorce You :)
    Update, July 31: The Malaysian government has overturned a Sharia court's ruling that Muslim men can divorce their wives via text messaging (see below).

    The Cabinet was concerned that the court decision would give the impression that divorce is a trivial matter in Islam.

    Who says Sharia law--strict Islamic law that, for example, calls for stoning as punishment for adultery--is out of touch with the modern world? Tech-savvy Muslim men in Malaysia can now divorce their wives via text messages on mobile phones.

    The decision by an Islamic court has prompted an outcry from the Women's Aid Organization, whose spokesperson called divorce by short messaging system "distant, cowardly, undignified and rude".

    Here Come the Brides
    The new issue of Bride's Magazine, the 70-year-old grande dame of wedding publications, contains its first article ever on same-sex couples. The two-page spread, "Outward Bound" by David Toussaint, contains interviews with gay and lesbian couples on why they want to celebrate their unions publicly, as well as advice on being "a good guest" at a gay wedding.

    Millie Martini Bratten, the magazine's editor in chief and the editorial director of Condé Nast's Bridal Group, told the New York Times, "We were hearing from various retailers that same-sex couples had become an important part of their gift registries." And readers had been writing in with etiquette questions regarding same-sex couples' ceremonies.

    Nevertheless, a visit to Bride's website shows that the focus is still the traditional one of cakes, honeymoons, and dresses. This month's featured wedding trend? A heterosexual ceremony held underwater in a swimming pool.

    Clowning for Jesus
    When balloon artists, clowns, and magicians gather this weekend in Burlington, Mass. for Magicians, Clowns, and Twisters University, they'll be treated to a special Sunday "Gospel Balloon Worship Service" led by Christian balloon artist Ralph Dewey. Dewey, a regular on the balloon twisting convention circuit, runs Good News Balloons. He offers books and videos explaining his Gospel balloon creations, including Jesus and Zaccheus, a praising angel, and a "salvation hat."

    Dewey's ministry may seem unique, but he is one of a number of clowns and balloon artists who use these party tools to spread the Gospel. Clown-Ministry.com connects Christian clowns and artists and offers book reviews, a "clown's prayer," and scripts for clown ministry skits.

    Vatican Observatory
    If you have an insatiable need to hear strange stories and to meet the odd people who tell them, then UFO conventions may well be your second home. Where else might you be drawn, as I was, to a lecture on "UFOs & the Murder of Marilyn Monroe"? One of the oddest things I've heard was a UFO researcher's claim that the organization that has the most sophisticated E.T. study program in the world is none other than the Catholic Church. "They've got observatories in Arizona and just outside Rome," the man told me. "And what's more," he said, "they know the truth about aliens."

    According to the July/August issue of Science & Spirit magazine there's a shred of truth to the claim. Margaret Wertheim's article, "Looking for God and Aliens" is a profile of Father George Coyne, a Jesuit who for almost 25 years has been the director and senior scientist at the Vatican Observatory Research Group, "a small but intensive unit of cosmologists and astronomers funded by the Holy See," and headquartered in Castel Gandolfo, a fortified castle, once belonging to the Medici, that sits on the rim of an extinct volcano outside Rome. Coyne also conducts research at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory. He is working on a detailed survey of all the galaxies neighboring the Milky Way--and keeping his eyes peeled for signs of intelligent life. Wertheim is startled when Father Coyne says we should "view stars as God's sperm"--as the potential to create new life, though most of them never do. Like sperm, he says, "each star is fired with a propensity for life, but there is no reason to think any of them have achieved this."

    A New Definition of "Family"
    Gay marriage is before Massachusetts's highest court, and the question of gay unions is expected to roil this month's Episcopal General Convention. But other non-traditional forms of marriage are causing plenty of controversy as well.

    The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is considering a controversial proposal called "Families in Transition," which urges the church to treat "all forms of family" equally, including "married couples, cohabiting couples, single-parent families, and homosexual unions as equally moral and equally beneficial." The proposal was sent back to committee for further study after strong opposition arose. The chief charge hurled by opponents was not heresy, but elitism. Said Don Browning, a divinity professor at the University of Chicago, "Presbyterians are better educated and richer than most Americans. . When divorce happens, or a baby is born out of wedlock, tradition, education, and income give Presbyterians cultural capital to manage the effects."

    This is more or less the conclusion recently drawn by Mary Parke at the Center for Law and Social Policy. Working with data from a national study of single-parent homes, Parke points out that marriage itself may have little to do with those children's stumbles. Instead, she blames the poverty that, in many cases, goes along with being a divorced, widowed or never-married parent.

    No More Cashing in on Mother Teresa
    You can no longer put Mother Teresa's name on a bank, school, or any other commercial enterprise and get away with it (as several organizations in South India have done). According to an Indian news service, The Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by the candidate for sainthood in 1950, have just succeeded in copyrighting the name "Mother Teresa," as well as the order's name and its logo-a cross set in an oval and surrounded by rosary beads.

    "In her lifetime, Mother Teresa expressed on a number occasions her wish that her name not be used by any other individuals or organizations without her permission, and after her death, the permission of her successor," explained Sister Nirmala, who now heads the order based in Calcutta. Guess "The Mother Teresa Institute of Management" will be looking for a new name.

    Burning Bush on the Bible
    In a Washington Post profile published Sunday, Democratic presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt sounds like he's planning to challenge George W. Bush on his Christian credentials. We quote: "Gephardt--a Baptist who recently toyed with the idea of writing a book about religion and God's love--is not a weekly churchgoer, yet he prays often and is well versed in the New Testament. From it, he said in a recent interview, he gleans a much different message than the one he believes is taken away by the man he wants to replace: George W. Bush.

    "In short, Gephardt said, Bush focuses on the rich, while he, like Jesus, focuses on the less fortunate. Bush, he said, 'seems to read a different message out of the Bible than the rest of us.'"

    Something Special in the Air
    A self-described "spiritual healer" named Bernard Williams went on trial this week in Brooklyn, New York, after a bottle of ammonia he checked onto a flight from Florida (on Spirit Airlines, naturally) broke open in the cargo hold. The fumes made several passengers seated above sick. The healer used the ammonia--"not the kind...you'd pour on your floor to do a little spring cleaning," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Asaro said--to ward off spirits. The highlight of the trial came when a peach pit Williams had been fiddling with skittered across the prosecutor's table. The feds worried that the pit was part of a spell of some kind, and even after Williams reassured them he'd simply lost control of it, Judge Nina Gershon told him, "I don't care whether it is a peach pit, a feather, I don't care what it is, it is not to happen again."

    "Sex & the City" Takes a Dip in the Mikvah
    To Jewish "Sex & the City"-watching New Yorkers like me, it's always seemed strange that not one of the four main characters is Jewish. That has changed this season, the show's last, since formerly WASP-y Charlotte converted to Judaism. This week in a USA Today op-ed, author and journalist Samuel Freedman celebrates Charlotte's dip in the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath that marks completion of the converstion process.

    "Until the HBO series, no television show had ever presented a conversion with such visual and theological detail," Freedman writes. "Even more important is what the approving portrayal represents: a reversal of the entertainment industry's tradition of viewing Jewish identity as something to be shed in the quest to become American."

    As the Forward reports, Jewish viewers have reacted positively to Charlotte's willingness to "give up Jesus," (as she termed it) to marry her boyfriend Harry Goldenblatt (they've since broken up). Beliefnet members discuss this "Sex & the City" season and other memorable Jewish television moments here.

    Bush on Spirit & Slavery
    President Bush had some very moving and interesting language about religion and slavery in his speech at Goree Island, where slaves were warehoused before being shipped to the United States:

    "The spirit of Africans in America did not break. Yet the spirit of their captors was corrupted. Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice."

    Read the full text of the speech.

    Deion Sanders' "Jesus Discount"
    A Dallas County judge ruled on Monday that former Dallas Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders didn't have to pay more than $1,500 in a lawsuit over a 2001 repair bill for his 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible.

    "Thank God," Sanders said after hearing the verdict, according to the Dallas Morning News. The lawsuit, filed by Magrathea Inc., a vintage-car restoration business, said the former Dallas Cowboys cornerback refused to pay a $4,265.57 car repair bill because Jesus had informed him that $1,500 was all he had to pay.

    Sanders, now an NFL studio analyst for CBS, denied that he ever said anything more than "God bless you" to Phil Compton, Magrathea's owner, when the car was delivered to his Plano home Nov. 5, 2001. He said his refusal to pay the larger amount had nothing to do with his spiritual calling. Instead, he said, he felt he was being taken advantage of because he is a sports celebrity. During his testimony, Sanders took issue with Compton's attorney, Ed Edson, who said Sanders had asked for a "Jesus discount."

    "That guy was trying to rip me off," Sanders said after the 2 1/2-hour trial. "You can play with me, but don't play with God."

    Jerry Springer's Jewish Infomercial
    Though he was a former mayor of Cincinnatti, Jerry Springer is far better known for hosting a rowdy talk show than for his political aspirations. But last week Springer formally entered the 2004 Ohio senate race, and he will kick off his campaign with a Jewish twist.

    His first fund-raising infomercial, slated to air for two weeks in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and other cities, includes his recounting of his family's flight from Nazi Germany. (Watch the video.) "Much of my family was exterminated in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany during World War II," Springer, who was born in London in 1944, tells viewers. Waxing eloquent about the meaning of the Statue of Liberty, Springer explains, "My family went from extermination to this ridiculously priviledged life that I live today because of my silly show. I know that America has all kinds of possibilties."

    Truman's Surprising Anti-Semitism
    Harry Truman is often thought of as a friend to the Jews for his support of the founding of the State of Israel, but newly discovered diaries paint a different picture of the former president. Entries in a 1947 diary found at the Truman Library in Missouri include Truman's reactions to the death of his mother, news of his diagnosis of cardiac asthma, and his assessment of the Jews: "They [the Jews] care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment."

    Truman continued, "Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political, neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog." The remarks were written July 21, 1947, after a conversation with Henry Morgenthau, the Jewish Treasury secretary under Truman, who had called him to discuss the condition of a ship of Jews in Palestine.

    Though Truman's remarks are surprising, Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, put them in context. "Truman's sympathy for the plight of Jews was very apparent," she told the Washington Post. His writing was "typical of a sort of cultural anti-Semitism that was common at that time in all parts of American society. This was an acceptable way to talk."

    Hindus Put Foot Down Over "Om" Socks
    Sole-searching Beliefnet continues to monitor offensive faith-based footwear. Coming on the heels of recent flip-flop fracases, the latest controversy involves socks emblazoned with the Hindu symbol "om." Hindus revere the sacred syllable, which is often used in chants and whose written form represents the divine.

    The socks, designed by Linda Maddocks, are being distributed in the U.S. by Gold Medal Hosiery. Many Hindu groups, including India Cause, say they're outraged by the disrespectful treatment of the sacred symbol. Organizers of a petition against the socks feel that "some people deliberately attack Hindus because it is safe to do so" but that "there must be a heavy economic price and legal consequences for attacking" Hindus' spiritual values. The distributor has declined to comment.

    An editorial in a South Indian newspaper criticizes "Westerners who talk themselves hoarse about valuing customs and traditions of other religions" but "apparently don't ...care about Hindus and their religious symbols."

    Hinduism Today magazine notes, "Western people are often unaware of the significance of feet for many Asians (not only Hindus). ...One could say that touching something with the feet is, to a Hindu, about as insulting as spitting on it would be to an American."

    Yoga Gets Competitive
    It's not too late to qualify for the first ever World Yoga Championship to be held in the U.S. According to the Yoga Expo 2003 site, yoga championships have been held throughout the world for many years, but this September is the first time they will be held in the U.S. Regional qualifying championships continue through August.

    The September 25-28 program will culminate in the awarding of the Ghosh Cup, named in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bishnu Charan Ghosh, who helped spread interest in yoga in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. This is a physical competition, but organizers also emphasize the spiritual benefits of yoga, such as the "the calmness of mind" and "the beauty of spirit in the competitors."

    The Yoga Expo site notes that the worldwide Federation of Yoga Associations is lobbying to make yoga an Olympic sport as well. Will that be a winter or a summer event?

    Adventure Writer's Mormon Escapade
    "Into Thin Air" and "Into the Wild" author Jon Krakauer has gotten himself into hot water with the Mormon Church, thanks to the upcoming publication of his newest book, "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith." The book, due out July 15, examines the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her baby by her Mormon brothers-in-law, who claimed they killed her because God commanded them to. Krakauer weaves details of the double-murder with an analysis of Mormon fundamentalism, polygamy, and the more violent chapters in the history of the faith.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has criticized the book, contending that Krakauer's attempt to link religious fundamentalists with the Church and its history is wrong. "[Krakauer] does a huge disservice to his readers by promulgating old stereotypes," LDS spokesman Michael Otterson told the Associated Press. "One could be forgiven for concluding that every Latter-day Saint, including your friendly Mormon neighbor, has a tendency to violence."

    Krakauer responded to the criticism with his own statement: "I am disappointed that they continue to do everything in their considerable power to keep important aspects of the church's past hidden in the shadows."

    Appealing for Elvis
    Elvis-worship reached new heights recently in Seattle, where a taxi driver was fined $60 for driving in an Elvis costume instead of his cabbie uniform. Dave Groh, who has become a local hero for fighting the taxi dress code, appealed the fine on religious grounds, citing the exemption in the code for variations in uniform due to religion. Groh explained that his Elvis costume is a sacramental robe, since he, as a minister in the Universal Life Church, performs wedding ceremonies dressed as Elvis.

    Seattle's Elvis-impersonating cabbie is far from alone when it comes to mixing The King with religion. As we've written in the past, Elvis worship is a huge phenomenon, and many religions have their own versions of Elvis praise, from Jewish impersonators to Pagan Elvis ritual. Check out some of the best websites about Elvis and religion here.

    Doggie Coming of Age
    Last week we reported on dog yoga, but this dog trend is even more bizarre. The Forward reports that pet stores and synagogues across the country are welcoming Jewish families' dogs into the tribe with "Bark Mitzvahs." Larry Roth, of New York's Doggie Do and PussyCat Too Animal Salon, told the newspaper that he has held about 30 Bark Mitzvah ceremonies during the past 13 years. Dogs wear special prayer shawls and yarmulkes and chew on toy menorahs.

    Some dog owners who have already treated their dog to a Bark Mitzvah have posted pictures from the special day on the web. Take a look at Rosebud's Bark Mitzvah cake and Miles at his Bark Mitzvah.

    Mencken's Spirit Online
    Nobody put religion in its place better than the literary and cultural critic H.L. Mencken, who coined the term "Bible belt" and famously defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy." No atheist, Mencken read the Bible and respected faith, but bridled when religion was used to stifle independent thinking or to legislate belief. America, he criticized, "has always diluted democracy with theocracy."

    I can't help asking: Where art thou, oh Mencken? The chief justice of Alabama has installed a two-and-a-half ton Ten Commandments monument his courthouse; former Bush speechwriter David Frum reports that in the White House Bible study is "if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory, either." The senate majority leader supports a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage because it doesn't mesh with his view of marriage as a "sacrament." The media is largely soft or silent on such intrusions of faith--either out of fear or of political correctness.

    Mencken's spirit lives at www.whitehouse.org, a virtual smorgasbord of delicious timely political and religious satire. There you can buy "Bush/Christ '04" campaign stickers and read such "U.S. Department of Faith Action Alerts," as "The Make-Believe World of Harry Potter Is Driving Children to the Edge of Insanity." "Christian Patriot Alerts" include: "SARS: God's Advanced Weapon of Mass Destruction," and, my favorite, "How to Spot Atheists and Report Them to the FBI." Mencken would be proud.

    If you know of a great site that parodies the left, post it here.

    Did God Tell Bush to Attack Iraq?
    The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has published excerpts of minutes from a recent meeting between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian factions. During the meeting, Abbas reviewed what happened during the recent summit between himself, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush. According to Abbas, Bush said: "God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them."

    Asked about the comment, White House spokesman Ari Fleisher said, "It's beyond a stretch. It's an invention. It was not said."

    Kashering Middle America
    Kosher food products, a staple of most grocery stores in the Northeast and other areas with large Jewish populations, are becoming more commonly seen on the supermarket shelves in cities and towns without substantial Jewish numbers. The New York Times reports that sales of kosher food items have risen dramatically in the past several years. National grocery chains are purposely placing kosher foods in towns without many Jews, and Wal-Mart has begun to offer kosher products in about 600 of its stores.

    The increase in kosher food offerings in middle America is thanks not to more Jews keeping kosher, but more non-Jews choosing kosher items because they consider them healthier. There are about 80,000 kosher products on the market today, up from just 16,000 in 1984, according to Menachem Lubinsky, publisher of Kosher Today, the kosher food industry trade publication.

    The New Hot-Button Political Issue
    Well, that was fast. On Friday, we predicted that the political battle over gay issues will pivot on whether conservatives succeed in casting the Supreme Court's sodomy decision as really being about gay marriage. Conservative leaders came out with a unified message, pushing that theme. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist proposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Gay activists were perfectly happy to go with the gay marriage story line, since they hope that is the logical outcome.

    Newsweek's cover story this week asks, "Is Gay Marriage Next?" Not necessarily, the article concludes. "While gays can now claim some constitutional protection--their new right to privacy under the Lawrence decision--the federal government and the states can override those rights if they have a good enough reason, a 'legitimate state interest.' Thus, national security could trump privacy in the military and preserve the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays. Or the state's interest in preserving 'traditional institutions'--like marriage between heterosexual couples--might overcome a homosexual's right to not be 'demeaned,' as Justice Kennedy put it. After Lawrence, gays can no longer be branded as criminals. But that does not mean they will enjoy all the rights of 'straight' citizens."

    In other words, gay rights will be fought out in the political arena, with renewed intensity. It will now rise to the level of abortion as a hot-button political issue, affecting state politics, presidential politics, and Supreme Court nominations. Other issues besides marriage will be part of the debate, including gay adoption, gays in the military, and workplace discrimination.

    Politically speaking, Democrats would be smart to flip the question around: Do you support nominating a Supreme Court justice that would reverse this ruling and allow states once again to criminalize gay sex? But with both conservatives and gay activists having an interest in focusing on gay marriage, it looks like Democrats will be outmaneuvered.

    The Real Downward-Facing Dog
    The yoga craze has reached toddlers and pregnant moms, and now, thanks to a New York-based gym, another species. Crunch Fitness has begun offering "Ruff Yoga," an outdoor yoga class in which participants share a mat and do poses with their dogs.

    "This free yoga class will bring you and your pup closer as you do traditional and non-traditional yoga poses on the same mat," the Crunch website explains. Nine New Yorkers and their dogs attended the first class last night. Ruff Yoga will be offered two more times this summer.

    "Some misbehave and bark and run off the mat, but that's part of life and yoga - you have to be present and adaptable," Ruff Yoga creator Suzi Teitelman told the New York Post.

    For dog-owning yogis who can't make it to the New York class, Reuters reports that two new books due out this fall may help: "Doga: Yoga for Dogs'' from Chronicle Books, and ''Yoga for Pets and the People who Love Them'' by Bruce Van Horn.

    Michelangelo's Masterpiece--Now on Your Desktop
    With all the news that comes out of the Vatican these days--bishops resigning, the pope's travels and possible replacement, etc.--it might be easy to forget, unless you're planning a vacation in Italy, that the Vatican is home to one of the greatest art collections in the world. Yesterday, however, the Vatican unleashed a new way for Catholics and non-Catholics across the globe to appreciate and learn about its collection: the Vatican museums went online.

    The new Vatican Museums site offers pictures, descriptions, maps, virtual tours, and more for its major collections and rooms, including the Sistine Chapel, the Gregorian Egyptian Museum, and Raphael's frescoed rooms. Descriptions of the works are available in English, Italian, French, Spanish, and German. The site also provides links alongside the pictures to the biblical stories or verses that inspired particular artworks.

    More than 3 million people each year already visit the Vatican and its art collection. To reach the rest of the population, the Vatican said its new online resource will use art to "spread the message of evangelization around the world."

    Christian Jihad Revisited
    Time magazine's fascinating cover story this week is about a subject familiar to Beliefnet readers: the debate over whether Christians should evangelize Muslims in Islamic countries.

    After evangelist Franklin Graham announced this spring that he was "poised and ready" to head into Iraq with supplies, angry worldwide outcry was swift. Would armies of American Christian soldiers plunder Muslim soil? So evangelicals Christians pulled back and did some soul-searching. How, they asked, could they be true to their mission and not get themselves into trouble?

    David Van Biema's article gives us some much-needed answers. According to Time's research, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, suggests that the number of missionaries to Islamic countries nearly doubled between 1982 and 2001--from more than 15,000 to somewhere in excess of 27,000. Approximately 1 out of every 2 is American, and 1 out of every 3 is Evangelical.

    Many of these missionaries are clearly concerned about the work they are doing--and the sensitivity with which they should do it. "Evangelicals assert again and again that their message is based in love," Van Biema writes. "They are far better informed and more actively concerned than the average American citizen about the Islamic world's material needs, and their desire to share Christ springs in the main from a similarly generous impulse. Claims that Christian aid groups engage in charity as a 'cover' for proselytizing do a disservice to the sometimes heroic humanitarian efforts by workers."

    "Yet there should be no question," Van Biema adds, "that while most evangelical missionaries love Muslims, they hope to replace Islam."

    Baseball Toys Get Biblical
    Baseball teams have been giving away bobblehead dolls of their star players to draw more fans to games. Will churches now follow suit? One company has created bobbleheads--dolls with caricatured, oversized heads on small bodies--for the Christian market.

    "We should be celebrating Bible heroes as much as we celebrate sports heroes," Isaac Bros. Bible Bobbleheads founder Dan Foote told the Associated Press. So far Foote's company has created bobblehead dolls for Moses, Samson, and Noah. "I even suggested doing one for John the Baptist, where his head falls off and everything," Foote told Gannett News Service.

    "In no way do we want to leave the false impression that we are making fun of these great heroes of faith," the Bible Bobbleheads website explains. "In fact, our intent is to create an even greater hunger and desire to go to God's Word and learn more about these imperfect people used by a perfect God."

    Another company, Bobble Head World, offers a line of Jesus bobbleheads, including a lifesize Jesus for $2750.

    Teen Preacher Feature
    ABC News' two-parter on the American Association of Christian Schools' national preaching competition wraps up tonight on "Nightline." Last night's segment introduced three of the six finalists in the AACS's annual competition, which was held in April, with plenty of footage of the teenaged preachers fighting jitters and cracking voices as they delivered sometimes wall-shaking sermons to panels of frowning, scribbling judges. In the up-close and personal chats with the preachers and their parents, the conflict inherent in preaching for prizes is a constant theme. "They don't oppose one another," says one judge. "The opponent they face is the devil."

    In tonight's final-round, envelope-please drama, you won't see overcompetitive fathers or prima-donna pulpit moms. Though the sheer earnestness of the young men profiled (preaching doesn't seem to be a co-ed sport) can put one's teeth on edge, their passion for spreading the Word is, as the teens say, awesome.

    Jesus Returns--For His Shoes
    The satire magazine The Onion has announced that Jesus Christ has triumphantly returned to pick up some old sandals and other items he left on Earth. "'I realize this isn't exactly how the world's Christians were imagining it, but I left a really comfortable pair of sandals in Galilee, and I wanted them back,' said Christ, who died for our sins," according to the Onion.

    For more stories like this, visit the Onion's complete archive of "America's finest" religion reporting.

    No Boys Allowed
    A high school prom is a rite of passage for most American teenagers.

    But for pious teenage Muslims, for whom dating, intergender mingling and touching are forbidden, this is an American experience that is off-limits.

    However, a few creative and proactive teens in California have successfully blended their religious heritage and their American upbringing to create the all-girl prom.

    Makeup, ballgowns, Mom's jewelry, and pop music hits--they had it all!

    All except the boys, that is.

    And really, aren't they more trouble than they're worth, anyway?

    Anniversary for Prayerless Schools
    Today (June 17) is the 40th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court school prayer decision, Abington Township School District v. Schempp. Though another school prayer case, Engel v. Vitale, was decided by the Court a year earlier, the 1963 case (paired with Madalyn Murray O'Hair's Murray v. Curlett) was more far-reaching. The decision declared, ".no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord's Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day - even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents."

    Charles Haynes, a scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, calls Abington v. Schempp "one of the most vilified, controversial and widely misunderstood decisions in American history." Haynes explains that the decision does not completely exclude religion from public schools, which is what many school prayer proponents claim. Individuals still have the right to pray on their own or bring sacred texts to school to share with others. But even self-initiated prayer is controversial. A federal appeals court is currently hearing a Nebraska case to decide whether a school board official who recited the Lord's Prayer at a public school graduation did so on his own or acted on behalf of the board.

    Scandal-Plagued Bishop Arrested in Hit-and-Run Case
    Last year, Beliefnet cited Phoenix bishop Thomas O'Brien as having one of the most troubling records on handling clergy sexual abuse.

    Several weeks ago, Bishop O'Brien came to an unprecedented agreement with prosecutors, admitting that he allowed priests to work with minors despite knowing about sexual misconduct claims. The deal shields him from criminal charges related to the coverups.

    Now, the bishop has been arrested in connection with a fatal hit-and-run accident. The Arizona Republic reports that O'Brien has been charged with hitting and killing a 43-year-old pedestrian as the man was jaywalking across a street, then driving away from the scene of the accident.

    The newspaper calls the Phoenix diocese's turmoil "nearly biblical in scope."

    Is New York Becoming Less Jewish?
    A report released today by UJA-Federation of New York reveals that the town that introduced America to bagels, Yiddish, and Woody Allen is becoming less Jewish. For the first time in a century, the Jewish population of New York City has fallen below 1 million people.

    The study found 972,000 Jews in metropolitan New York in 2002, a decline of 5 percent since 1991. In the late 1950s, more than 2 million Jews lived in New York's five boroughs. A huge wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s kept New York Jewish numbers from plunging even lower.

    Former New York mayor (and Jewish New Yorker) Ed Koch told the New York Times that he expected this decline to change the liberal nature of the city. "The Jews have set the philosophical agenda based on their history, the idea of `We have to take care of everybody' and `Justice, justice,' " Koch said. "I think there will be less of that."

    'Mad Max' Mad at Bishops, ADL
    Actor-producer Mel Gibson recently threatened legal action against religious watchdogs who questioned his upcoming film about Jesus. Gibson indicated he might sue the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a result of their critique of the script of "Passion." He's now reached an agreement with Catholic and Jewish scholars from the group, stipulating that they return the script and refrain from commenting on the film until its scheduled 2004 release.

    Earlier this year, an article in The New York Times Magazine suggested that the movie's portrayal of Jesus' death might revive anti-Semitic interpretations of the event, views that the church has rejected in the past few decades. Gibson strongly denies "that the film negatively portrays Jews as responsible for Jesus' death," according to Religion News Service.

    Sister Mary Boys, a theology professor and frequent participant in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, said the ADL and USSCB jointly reviewed the script and had "concerns about the role of Jews in the movie." They sent a report to Gibson's company "hoping to get some changes. Mr Gibson's company ...retaliated by threatening a lawsuit."

    According to the Australian news report, Jesuit priest and Aramaic expert William Fulco said he saw no evidence of anti-Semitism while translating the script.

    As part of the agreement, Gibson also received an apology from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

    Toil and Trouble Over Loch Ness Monster
    A British witch plans to cast a spell to lure the Loch Ness Monster out of hiding, according to BBC reports.

    East Sussex resident Kevin Carlyon, a high priest of the British Coven of White Witches (some witches refer to themselves as "white witches" to clarify their rejection of bad or "black" magic), will perform the ritual on the shores of the famous lake. Wearing his white witch robes, Carlyon will make a circle of stones and burn incense while casting a spell invoking earth, air, fire and water.

    Mr. Carlyon claims that he cast a protection spell on "Nessie" in 2001, and that's why there have been few sightings since then. "I left the protection spell running and now I want to undo it slightly so Nessie can make an appearance," he says.

    Gun-Toting Faithful
    A pre-Father's Day raffle that annually raises thousands of dollars for St. Jerome's Catholic Church in the D.C. area is drawing fire from some members. The reason? The raffle prize is a Mossberg Model 500 shotgun, raffled off by the Catholic Sportsmen's Organization. As the Washington Post reports, the division over whether the church should accept money from the raffle has caused some members to leave the church. Washington's Theodore Cardinal McCarrick has ruled that the sporting group could help raise money for the church, but not through the sale of guns.

    Catholics aren't the only religious group with believers who support handgun ownership. Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership was formed to educate "the Jewish community about the historical evils that Jews have suffered when they have been disarmed" and offers t-shirts, videos, and more for sale on its website. And Beliefnet columnist John D. Spalding investigated the Christian hunting community in this column.

    Bringing Down the Commandments--By Crane
    Moses was able to carry the Ten Commandments down Mount Sinai by himself, but in West Union, Ohio this week, it took large cranes to remove the 800-pound granite tablets from four local schools. A Cincinnati judge ruled last year that it was unconstitutional to display the commandments on public school grounds, and ordered them to be removed Monday, after the school year finished.

    At least 30 protesters were arrested for trying to stop the removal of the monuments, and some had to be forcibly carried off the school grounds.

    A Bright Unto the World?
    Atheists and other nonbelievers often lament their lack of unity and political clout. Now two atheists in Sacramento are aiming to solve this problem by coining a new term--and a new movement: the "Brights." According to their website, Brights have "a naturalistic worldview, free from supernatural and mystical forces."

    The founders, who also developed the website Teaching About Religion, describe their goal as: "To gradually bring together under the name, the Brights, large numbers of the supernaturalism-free individuals and begin to form an identifiable and visible civic constituency."

    Not all nonbelievers are happy with this new terminology, however. Posters on atheist newsgroups have debated what the term 'Bright' implies about those who do believe in the supernatural ("Atheists that would label themselves a 'Bright' absolutely says that believers are dim! That is absurd and arrogant," one poster wrote), as well as whether there needs to be a new term at all ("I frankly think we need to EDUCATE people about the MEANING of the word 'a-theist', rather than changing the word...," another suggested).

    Demi Moore, Kabbalah Evangelist
    A new name to add to the ever-growing list of celebrity kabbalah enthusiasts--actress Demi Moore. MSNBC reports that Moore was preaching kabbalistic wisdom "to anyone who would listen" on the set of the upcoming "Charlie's Angels" sequel. "She was encouraging people to take classes and read up on it," a source said about Moore's appreciation for the ancient Jewish mystical tradition.

    This news comes amid last week's revelation that Madonna has donated $5 million to build a new kabbalah center in London. Test your knowledge of other celebrities' involvement in kabbalah here.

    Tony and the Tao
    Once upon a time (in 1982), Benjamin Hoff's "Tao of Pooh" intertwined A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh tales with the Tao Te Ching for a wry and insightful exposition of both classics. The "Tao of..." conceit has gotten the kiss of death (we can only hope) with the publication of "The Tao of Bada Bing: Words of Wisdom from 'The Sopranos'," by the actor who plays Furio Giunta on HBO's Mafia-based drama.

    Sex and the Unhappy Teen
    A new study from the Heritage Foundation links teen sexual intercourse with depression and suicide attempts. The conservative think tank found the connection strongest among girls. About 25% of sexually active girls say they are depressed all, most, or a lot of the time, compared with 8% of girls who are not sexually active. And some 14% of girls who had intercourse attempted suicide, while only 5% of sexually inactive girls have attempted it.

    Tamara Kreinin of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) told USA Today it is a "disservice" to blame sexual activity while ignoring "divorce, domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse" and other factors in kids' lives.

    Osama Bin Laden--Trusted to "Do the Right Thing"
    The new Pew study of Global Attitudes is full of fascinating findings. Among the most interesting results related to religion:

  • Negative views of the U.S. among Muslims, "which had been largely limited to countries in the Middle East, have spread to Muslim populations in Indonesia and Nigeria. Since last summer, favorable ratings of the U.S. have fallen from 61% to 15% in Indonesia and from 71% to 38% among Muslims in Nigeria."

  • Osama Bin Laden is trusted to "do the right thing" more than George Bush in Indonesia, Jordan, Morroco, Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority.

  • The majorities of the people in 7 out of 8 Muslim countries believe the U.S. might become a military threat to their countries.
  • In most Muslim countries the people want both a large role for Islam or Muslim leaders and a strong commitment to religious freedom and democracy. The majority in all Muslim countires but one (Jordan) supported religious freedom and most supported western style democracy.

  • Asked whether it is necessary to believe in God to be moral, 58% of those in the United States said yes--a smaller number than in Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, Nigeria and other Muslim countries.

  • Asked if religion is a personal matter that should be "kept separate from government," 55% in the United States agreed. Support for separation of church and state--or mosque and state--was actually higher than in the U.S. among those Muslim-majority countries with secular traditions: Turkey, Mali, and Senegal. Six in ten Muslims in Nigeria support separation.

    From Abortion to Fetal Rights
    This week's Newsweek magazine examines the murder of Laci Peterson not as a tabloid crime story, but as a barometer of Americans' attitudes about abortion. Inspired by cases like Peterson's, in which the pregnant woman's fetus died as a result of her murder, legislators around the country are making killing a fetus equal to homocide. This creates troubling questions not only for the pro-choice crowd, but for fertility clinics and supporters of stem-cell research. You can read Beliefnet's coverage of these issues here.

  • 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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