Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Eastern Orthodox Easter

Easter ended on Sunday for Protestants and Roman Catholics, but it falls on this Sunday, April 19, for the world's 200,000+ Eastern Orthodox. And for this version of Easter, red eggs are better than chocolate bunnies.

Start with Fact Monster. It's a surprisingly lucid yet accurate explanation of why the Greek, Russian and other Orthodox churches don’t celebrate Easter along with their Catholic and Protestant counterparts. If you do want a more detailed explanation, you can get it here.

Of course, there’s no substitute for the original sources. For that, there’s the Orthodox Christian Network, with Podcasts and streaming videos. They're produced by St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, Fort Lauderdale, which has a production studio onsite.

Also click this link, from a newspaper in southern California, for a rundown of Easter that takes in several Orthodox branches -- including Russian, Serbian, Antiochian and others. The story is also handy for the pop-up notes for terms like "subdeacon" and "Holy Saturday."

A heartfelt article by actress Rita Wilson, wife of Tom Hanks, tells of Easter preparations growing up in her Greek household: the blood-red eggs, the braided cookies called koulorakia, the funeral procession as worshipers follow the Epitaphio, a stylized casket for a Christ icon.

Along the way, you’ll learn some fascinating lore. Like how Russian jeweler Peter Carl Faberge created those incredibly ornate eggs that bear his name. And how a priest reads the Gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection on Easter in as many languages as he can manage.

Finally, click this link for an Orthodox Church in Anaheim, Calif., and see all the translations -- "Christos Anesti," "Chrestos Voskrese," "Al Massi eh Kam," "Kristo Ame Fu Fuka," "Ua Ala Hou 'O Kristo," " Ha Ri Su To' Su Fuc Katsu" -- that mean "Christ is Risen." That will give you a taste of how universal the Eastern Orthodox Communion is.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

DVD review: 'Jerusalem: Center of the World'

More blood and tears must have been shed over Jerusalem than any other city in history. Rather ironic for a city whose name means "City of Peace." But perhaps not for the literal touchstone of three enormously influential religions.

Its history is beautifully retold in Jerusalem: Center of the World, which premiered on PBS on April 1 and was released as a DVD shortly thereafter. Handsomely shot and diplomatically written, it is a rarity among documentaries -- a film on the Holy Land that's well done, but doesn’t graft someone's pet theory onto the topic.

The two-hour show traces the historical reasons -- still visible today in the holy sites -- why those few acres have grabbed and held our attention for four millennia.

With the sure, steady hand of PBS newsman Ray Suarez, Jerusalem: Center of the World plays it straight with biblical history. It tells of Abraham's call to move to the land, and how God tested his loyalty by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. It tells of the magnificent Temple built on the spot centuries later by his descendant Solomon. And it tells the grief over losing the land when the Romans scattered the Jews.

The documentary continues with the story of Christianity, and Jesus' final days in Jerusalem. It shows the Via Dolorosa, the winding street said to mark the 14 events between his arrest and his burial. It also ventures into the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditional site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

But it moves on to tell of the importance of the city to Muslims as the "Farthest Mosque," or al-Masjid al-Aqsa, mentioned in the Quran. There’s an awe-inspiring walk through the Dome of the Rock, the golden-domed shrine that dominates nearly every photo of Jerusalem.

Not that the special swallows all the legends whole. It acknowledges that non-biblical evidence is scant for people like David, and for events like Muhammad's nighttime visit to Jerusalem. But it doesn’t air historical gossip or shifting archaeological fads.

Jerusalem: Center of the World tells how the Romans put down a Jewish revolt, then destroyed and rebuilt Jerusalem after 70 A.D. The film also covers -- perhaps a bit too lightly -- its rebuilding as a Roman city, then a Byzantine pilgrimage site, then the Ottoman period, heading into the 20th century.

The documentary producer, Two Cats Productions, clearly found a soulmate in the Muslim family entrusted with the key to the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The head of the family is given considerable camera time explaining the complexities of caring for such a sensitive holy place.

Jerusalem: Center of the World also skirts controversy in saying that scholars agree the Temple once stood on Mount Moriah, but all evidence for the structure is gone. Left unmentioned are the arguments of Asher Kaufman and others that the Waqf, the Arab authority governing the mountain, has purposefully destroyed such evidence.

But it seems to lean toward the Muslim side in dealing with the Crusades. It relates the the brutality of the First Crusade, but stays silent on the destruction of all churches and synagogues in Jerusalem by the Muslim ruler Hakim a century earlier.

Still, Jerusalem: Center of the World is a welcome tone of moderation about a city so given to extremes. When PBS makes the DVD available, it will likely get bought up by a lot of libraries -- and by families who want more light than heat.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Film review: 'One Day You'll Understand'

What if you thought your father might be a Nazi? How deep into public records would you dig? How far would you push your mother to divulge the facts?

Those questions plague Victor, a usually calm businessman at the center of One Day You'll Understand. In Paris in 1987, he listens with growing tension to media reports of the trial of Klaus Barbie, an accused Gestapo police chief in Nazi-era France.

Why is he anxious? Because his mother, Rivka, is a Jew, and his father may have been a collaborator with the Vichy government, a French version of the Third Reich. (Pictured: Hyppolyte Girardot as Victor and Jeanne Moreau as Rivka. Photo Courtesy of Kino International. )

How else to explain the father's SS dagger? Why else did he sign a document certifying Victor's sister as an "Aryan"? Why Rivka's silence about her parents, who died at Auschwitz? Was the father another Klaus Barbie?

Victor learns of a small village hotel where his grandparents hid out, and he drives there for answers. There he finds the room where they lived -- and he has a mysterious vision of that night when the Nazis finally found them.

The film is very un-American; it's low-key and talky -- in French, yet, with English subtitles. The film is short on the sex and blood and exploding helicopters that U.S. directors seem to consider vital ingredients. Yet One Day You'll Understand has its own neck-snapping suspense. The more Rivka deflects, the more you want to scream: "DAMMIT, JUST TELL HIM! GET IT OUT IN THE OPEN!"

But of course, she can't. Not after locking up secrets for four decades. And the film title comes true. When Victor finally grasps what she went through -- and what knowledge she protected him from -- he does understand.

The film troubles the conscience on several levels. One is the conflict of needs in a family: the need for truth versus the simple need to go on living, whatever the past may hold. Another is personal responsibility: How would we face a massive, genocidal force like Nazism? Would we flee? Join some guerrilla group? Lie to save our families? Or, as many did, collaborate?

Why do people act as they do? Or speak as they do? Or, sometimes, keep silent? We can only hope one day to understand.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Noble Sanctuary for Muslims

Explore the 35-acre quad in Jerusalem known to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary via this attractive, fact-filled site. From the Dome of the Rock to Al-Aqsa Mosque to the Islamic Museum, you'll gain a glimpse of why this is considered the third-holiest site in the Islamic world.

You'll get a little history, starting with Muhammad's legendary ascension to heaven from the mountain. You'll see some closeups of the stunning Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome and its blue-and-white calligraphic tiles added by Suleiman the Magnificent. You'll learn how informal centers of discussion at Al-Aqsa Mosque gradually grew into the four main schools of religious thought.

You'll also see the vaulted underground prayer room sometimes called Solomon's Stables. This is the structure that drew much controversy a decade ago, when it was being excavated by the Waqf, the Muslim trust that administers the area. Some Israeli observers said the Muslims were dumping truckloads of valuable archaeological materials. As this site says, Muslims counter that it was actually built during an eighth-century caliphate.

The writing is fairly lucid and direct, with only a few of those pious expressions like "peace be upon him." Surprisingly, the site acknowledges that many people believe the mountain was the site of Solomon's Temple. Some Muslim leaders deny that a temple ever stood there, loathe to concede any Jewish claim on the land.

One quibble: The siderail with the crosslinks is blue text on a field of green, making it hard to read. Green is supposed to have been Muhammad's favorite color. But I suspect that unlike the designers of this site, he would have opted for function over form.

The Noble Sanctuary is a fairly complex Web site, and not all the sections are linked from the homepage. Fortunately, there's a Contents page, which works as a site map for the 21 main sections.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Christian yoga: Too much of a stretch?

Yoga: Hindu implant or useful import? Christians don't agree on the answer. But there is a coterie of believers who try to merge the two, and their case in Christians Practicing Yoga is about as good as it gets.

"Christians connect instinctively with an embodied spiritual practice that inclines toward deeper prayer," the homepage says. "It is embedded in our spiritual DNA to go to God the way God came to us -- in and through the body."

The site offers a variety of approaches. There's the ancient devotional method called Lectio Divina. Contributor Lori Smith suggests chanting, a practice it shares with Christianity -- and with Sufism and native American religions.

Writer Bernadette Latin goes into satisfying, lucid detail about yogic values, such as Brahmacharya (moderation) and Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion to God). She draws some parallels between eastern and western beliefs, likening, for instance, the Sanskrit prana (life energy) to the Hebrew ruach (spirit).

Many Bible verses are offered, including Acts 17:28: "In Him we live and move and have our being." There's even a mini-directory of schools for face time with practitioners.

Much of the site is rather defensive. Latin, who seems to be the main ideologue, argues that yoga is a mere discipline that has been used by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, and can be adapted to Christianity as well.

Father Tom Ryan, another site maven, supplies a helpful FAQ file for questions about mantras, Kundalini, and invoking Hindu deities. He even takes the offensive, saying that "incarnational faith" must include actions -- not just yoga but benevolence, human rights and social justice.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

And the bleat goes on

Sheeple, Churchianity, herd mentality -- churchgoing Christians often get accused of being meek, bland and mindless. But instead of rebuking or repeating the snark, Sheep Comics turns it into satire.

The strip starts with Lionel, a youngish sheep who feels disaffected when his church doesn't match what he reads in the Bible. When the pastor rebukes Lionel for questioning him -- and even threatens to excommunicate him -- Lionel concludes the church is designed to control access to the Great Shepherd.

Sheep Comics has gone on for 87 episodes like that, ever since it premiered in 1999. Various episodes skewer tithing, guilt, coercion, prayer meetings, denominational rivalries, theological quarrels, trite praise and worship music, "responsive bleatings," even Thomas Kinkade's "inspirational" paintings.

It's a clever, subversive idea to take a common criticism of Christians and make it the theme of a comic strip. But the site's unnamed Web Shepherd often blunts the effect with long "editorials" after the cartoons -- 4,788 words in the very first installment. How ironic that some of his strips rant against boring sermons.

Still, so little cartoon satire is even attempted in religious circles, it's worth your time to look through Sheep Comics. After all, to err is human; to forgive is ovine. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Jewish and secular: Is it possible?

"Secular Judaism" may sound like a contradiction in terms. But according to at least one study, up to half of all American Jews believe in separating faith and public life.

For them, there's Cultural Judaism. Its creator, the Center for Cultural Judaism, aim to help secular Jews "celebrate their Jewish identity and pass it on to the next generation."

The main attraction is the back articles from the group's Contemplation magazine, contributing some fresh thinking. One article, by Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis, honors secular Jews from the 17th century thinker Baruch Spinoza to the 19th century feminist Ernestine Rose to the 21st century record manager David Katznelson.

Sarna sees a kind of renaissance of Jews in recent years. He says the Cold War gave secularism a bad name. But since the fall of communism, he notes the rise of institutions like Heeb magazine and the National Yiddish Book Center.

European Jewish writer Diana Pinto's essay is a sad irony. She argued that multicultural tolerance gave room for Jews to take part fully in European society. An editorial note says the 1999 essay predated a flare-up in anti-Semitism, but was again relevant since the outbreak faded. How sad: anti-Semitism has returned, since the Gaza incursion by Israel -- and European Jews once again have to keep their heads down.

Cultural Judaism also has some absorbing news articles, many from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The stories discuss matters like humanism, children of interfaith marriages and the "December dilemma" -- whether a blended family should celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.

One of the articles is a review of Secular Culture & Ideas, a site worth its own bookmark. That site digs into issues like Hanukkah, female prophets, and Jewish involvement in sports.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Helping you find the way, maybe

Explore dozens of faith-based topics -- meditation, tribal beliefs, prophecies, etc. -- on the ambitious All Things Spiritual. The 25 main categories on the homepage index the usual world religions, plus a few surprises: Enlightenment, Mind-Body beliefs, even Sikh, Confucian and Zoroastrian groups. But those are just the start.

Click "More" and you'll definitely get it: angels, ghosts, Nordic gods, Rosicrucians, African myths, benevolent "cosmic people." There's a collection of prophecies -- biblical, Mayan, Hopi, Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, Our Lady of Fatima. There's some nice poetry from a variety of people, from William Blake to Omar Khayyam to Thich Nhat Hanh.

One site tries to show how England's Rosslyn Chapel -- featured in the movie The Da Vinci Code -- links the Masons with the Knights Templar. Another link offers a book titled Am I Crazy or Just Haunted? The free, downloadable book offers guidance on living with the paranormal.

As with any superdirectory, some of the classifications are up for debate. Yes, it's smart to put meditation and shamanism in their own categories; they bridge many faith traditions. But why is there a separate link for Sufism, a branch of Sunni Islam? Or for Veda, one of the Hindu scriptures? And why is native European spirituality separate from paganism?

It's also not great to see a lot of links that aren't so much resources as online catalogs. Sites like Cross Pendants Online, or the Bodyelement Yoga Studio, or the Eye of Horus Myth & Ritual Store.

Finally, although it may not need saying, "Buyer Beware." Just because it's on a Web site, doesn't mean it's accurate. An example: messianic groups -- i.e., Jews who became Christians -- are grouped under Judaism. Jewish communities object strongly to such mixing. The folks at All Things Spiritual should have known that.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Public faith: A different approach

For people who equate conservative Christians with Americans -- and with the religious right -- Faithworks is a healthy antidote.

The UK-based organization began in 2001 as a campaign for the recognition of Christianity in local communities and an end to "discriminatory practices" in funding and partnerships.

From that start, the movement has broadened to helping local churches serve their communities. Faithworks has also developed a 6-point plan to reduce "fear of faith" in society -- especially the fear that it necessarily causes bigotry and divisiveness.

"We need to move beyond fearful, knee-jerk reactions to faith and develop an understanding of what it means to be motivated by faith and how active faith can actually benefit society," says Joy Madeiros, Faithworks public policy director.

The organization also posts the contents of its magazine and newsletter, in PDF form. A recent magazine issue deals with matters like rural and gang ministries. It also talks honestly about ethical dilemmas: family life versus public activism, and reducing personal debt versus fighting global poverty.

However you feel about separation of church and state, approaches like Faithworks are a cooling, calming way to address the issues. Maybe American Christians should take a few tips from their British brethren.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Some places are just ... different

You've been somewhere like that. The place feels different. It may put you in a trance, send you somewhere outside yourself. Or maybe just the opposite: It may make you feel more awake than ever before.

Sacred Destinations has catalogued those places, in astonishing variety -- 1,200 buildings, mountains, lakes, monuments, etc.

Here you'll see the familiar ancient Stonehenge in England (below), and the even older Carnac Stones in France. Learn of the 42,968-square-foot Grand Mosque of Mali, the world's largest mud structure. Discover the huge, mysterious mountainside animal carvings at Samaipata, Bolivia. Dip into the holy waters of Crater Lake and the Ganges River, and sacred mountains such as Mt. Sinai or Mt. Shasta.

Look through 59 countries, on pages featuring those beautiful Google maps marked with the sites. You can also search by category, such as Roman or Hindu sites, sacred mountains, Mayan ruins, even paths for fans of C. S. Lewis or The Da Vinci Code.

Don't know where to look? Just tap your F5 key a few times. Each time the homepage reloads, it shows a different picture -- from St. Basil's Cathedral in Russia, to Chichen Itza in Mexico, to the Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal.

Even better: You can download a collection of the photos in a Google gadget, for your Web site for desktop. If you dont have a gadget, Sacred Destinations has a link to help you get one.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Not so stingy, guys

As a superdirectory, the National Council of Churches has a lot going for it -- but it could have more if it gave away more.

The homepage has a good selection of religion news, analysis and other helpful information. A recent edition included an article on a mainline Protestant leader's selection to preach at the National Prayer Service after Barack Obama's inauguration as president.

Other links tell of the NCC's work in opposing human trafficking, as well as fighting the widespread abuse of women in the Congo. Other reports look at dangers of Christian Zionism and Islamic extremism. Still another has NCC's Rev. Michael Kinnamon joining Jewish and Muslim leaders in praying for peace

Many of those concerns get an ongoing look in EcuLink, a crisp, good-looking quarterly newsletter with more than 150,000 readers. Leave your mailing address and get it free.

Also click the link for Worldwide Faith News, a clearinghouse for denominational press releases and other documents. You can get them all e-mailed to you daily, but it's probably best to read them online -- unless you don't mind several per day.

So what's the problem with the site? Well, one is the link for the New Revised Standard Version , the NCC's elegant, accurate translation of the Bible. When you open it, do you get the Bible? Nope, just some sales talk and a price list. Other translators actually post Bible texts online -- such as the International Bible Society, with its New International Version.

Slightly better is the council's Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. It offers sample pages from the upcoming 2008 edition, plus the latest stats for the member denominations. It also has a directory of denominational Web sites, plus general sites like Ecunet and For more, you'll have to buy the book.

All told, the NCC's resources offer many uses: sermon fodder, small-group topics, candidates for special appeals, subjects for personal prayers. But it could have been as generous as other such sites.

Monday, February 16, 2009

DVD Review: 'City of Ember'

The underrated City of Ember deserved more attention during its brief theatrical run last year. Catch it on DVD and marvel how closely it tracks the apocalyptic beliefs of several religions.

The city is a Dickensian slum deep underground, an immense bunker lit by bulbs on the cavern ceiling and powered by a huge generator. It's a result of desperate planning two centuries ago by its founders, who saw the world about to end. (The movie wisely doesn't say how. It's not the point anyway.)

Emberites live a meager life, carrying on amid food shortages and increasing terrifying blackouts. But the corrupt mayor (Bill Murray) does nothing about the crises, except fend for himself.

He also enforces a law against anyone trying to escape the city, warning of doom and darkness on the surface. But two teens, Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan), don't wait placidly for the end: They determine to fix the generator, or find a way out.

As luck or fate would have it, their answer comes with a click under Lina's bed. The metal box she inherited from an ancestor -- a former mayor -- has suddenly opened, to display a cryptic message. They eventually realize it's a set of instructions from the founders for leaving Ember.

The current mayor naturally tries to stop them from escaping, first with lies, then with force. The kids then strike out on their own and endure a harrowing voyage, not knowing what they'll find.

It's a remarkable set of elements for a children's movie. Self-determination. Staying true to oneself. Following ancient wisdom. And the kids' final ascent to the surface is about as spiritual as it gets: climbing a long flight of stairs, candle in hand, as reverently as any pilgrim approaching a holy site.

Doon and Lina are, in fact, walking well-traveled steps of several religions. Christianity, Judaism and Islam teach that God will step in one day and set everything right -- through the Messiah, or Mahdi, or the Hidden Imam. Buddhists and Hindus have their own versions, called Maitreya or Vishnu, although they must come repeatedly whenever things get too bad.

And the faiths have all left instructions in various records, often as overlooked in modern life as a box under a bed. Some Christians even like to say BIBLE stands for "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth."

Have we outgrown such superstitions, as some might call them? Look at the peace and environmental and New Age movements. Read the warnings of food justice movements like Hazon, which runs the Jew & the Carrot blog. They all call for radical change in our lives, or else.

But can we save ourselves? Especially when we, or our ancestors, are the ones who got in peril? Maybe we need outside help. Maybe we need a vision of another world. This film may not provide answers, as scriptures can, but it could start the quest. Or light an Ember.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Right from the homepage, the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua is ambivalent toward religion.

On the one hand, it claims to be "dedicated to enlarging religion as a source of inspiration and diminishing religion as a source of conflict in the world." But the homepage also has the slogan: "More to religion than pleasing your imaginary friend."

The creator, a 53-year-old weapons scientist(!) self-named Scooper, says he's a Lutheran and former atheist. He says the site is merely trying to make us all admit that, as the Bible says, "now we see through a glass darkly" (1 Cor 13:12). Or, in his own style, we bark at everything like a little, sight-impaired dog.

So, what can we bark at? Well, the "church" lets people post essays. There's a story on a man who joined radical Islam in Britain, then left. There's an excruciating testimony from a woman who says she was seduced by a priest.

A gallery has some beautiful pictures of people, animals, flowers and scenery, many of them by Scooper himself. There's also a list of religious jokes, some genial, some lame, some snarky. Heavier theological stuff is available in the so-called Scriptorium section.

The site has discussions on several faiths, and those can be lucid and insightful. The one for Buddhism, for instance, says the faith's literature "is both immense and non-essential" -- non-essential, because the core of the faith is personal, unmediated enlightenment. Curiously, the article mentions Zen, but doesn't acknowledge that Zen is a blend of Buddhism and Taoism.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The facts on evolution

Before you have one more quarrel with a creationist -- or an evolutionist, if you're on that side -- click The Debate Over Evolution. This extensive story gallery, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, may not settle all arguments. But it will equip you for more intelligent ones.

The seven articles give an overview, then a rundown on social and legal dimensions of the debate. There's a piece on Charles Darwin and his theory. There's a timeline on developments and counter-developments -- such as the creation of the Institute for Creation Research in 1970, and the National Center for Science Education 11 years later.

A graph shows the percentage of people in 11 religious groups who believe evolution is the best explanation for the origins of life. Another article summarizes the religious standpoints -- and, in a true reader service, provides links to the denominational Web sites for you to see for yourself.

If you're in America, you can see how the controversy shakes out in your home state. Finally, you can read some fascinating findings and opinions on evolution and related topics. You'll find the famous (notorious?) cases like the Scopes Trial and the battle over Intelligent Design in Dover, Pa.

Also click the refreshing Q&A interview with Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project. An evangelical Christian as well as a first-class scientist, Collins argues both for faith and evolution. His is a rare voice for theistic evolution, and for respectful discussion.