Italian Author, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose Is One of the Most Compelling Books I’ve Ever Read

This book was spectacular, as my post title indicates. I read it a month ago (maybe longer now) and have been wanting to write this review for a while. Of course, the distance between me and the book grossly jeopardizes the thoroughness, accuracy and quality of my assessment but I suppose that’s a risk you just have to take

….and if you’re still reading have decided to take.

The brilliance with which this book reflected its time period (the first half of the 14th century) is simply marvelous, but I suppose that Umberto Eco is a scholar of the Middle Ages. I once wrote a post about my love of historical fiction and how important I find the accuracy of historical fiction to be, and I think that this book just takes the cake in the quality with which the period was understood and researched. In fact, though the story itself revolves around a series of disturbing deaths in a monastery in Italy, it also focuses heavily on a few key religious issues that were important at the time. Had the characters themselves not been distracted by these issues and literally had their own fascinating story thrust into the middle of them, then the book would never have been as accurate as it was.

One of these issues was the papal seat being moved to Avignon and the decadent lifestyle being lived there. This, of course, contrasts with the centrally important theological issue of Jesus’ poverty (or not) and whether that meant that all devout men (i.e. monks or those associated with the church) should be poor. Obviously the Pope and the wealthy bishops and cardinals insisted that Jesus was not destitute and to whatever degree he lacked property didn’t think that others should, and many different sects of monks insisted the opposite. Some monks took to condemning the pope as an impostor and the anti-Christ and were branded as heretical and persecuted by the Inquisition which had just started to get warmed up at the time. These central issues (pope at Avignon, Jesus’ poverty, heresy of disagreeing monks) were crucial to the time period.

Outside of these fascinating topics were intense and highly relevant philosophical conversations about the value of reason and revelation, learning and knowledge, life and death, the place of religion and so much more. But none was mentioned in some high-minded independent fashion. Rather, it was imbedded in the fascinating story that revolved around these murder mysteries.

Truly, The Name of the Rose is a work of genius. A wonderful book. Get your copy of The Name of the Rose today.

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Religion in the News: Exciting New Discovery of Syria’s Largest Ancient Church

In Palyrma, a town in central Syria, what is thought to be the largest church ever discovered in the state has been unearthed. Archaeologists think that it is 1500 years old; they have even discovered other building of significance, including an amphitheater, in the area of the church.

I love new discoveries like this: anything that sheds light on our picture of early Christianity and allows us to understand the religion’s dissemination and early theology better. Plus, it’s an interesting reminder to us all that Christianity was so popular in certain regions of the modern Middle East. In fact, Syria’s Antioch is one of the five patriarchates.

There is no period of Christianity (or history for that matter!) that I don’t find fascinating, but I’m particularly intrigued by the early period, which is often dated between the first and sixth centuries – though I don’t think it would be inappropriate to cut it off earlier. In any case, this church is a really cool find from that period, and I hope that the archaeologists continue to find other things in the area that shed light on the period and religion. After all, the dry dessert heat preserves scrolls really well, so it’s not impossible that some awesome texts stored in ancient jars will be unearthed!….but nothing yet.

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Religion in the News: Monks Brawl at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Where Jesus was Supposedly Crucified

As many of you know, I used to live in Jerusalem. I did my masters at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. One of my favorite places to visit in the city, and one of my absolute favorite to bring visitors, was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was such a fascinating place with so many cubbies to explore and so much history on top of myth. Truly, it was a special place whether or not you believe that Jesus was crucified, laid and entombed there.

However, as history would have it, six different Christian denominations have control over various parts of the Church and since a treaty in the latter half of the 19th century, not a single element of the status quo of the church is allowed to be changed, for fear of a resumption of the often violent disputes that used to erupt there. Though squabbling is still common amongst the monks of the controlling denominations, there are only rarely outbreaks of violence.

As it happens, one of those outbreaks was earlier this week. Armenian monks trying to celebrate a festival commemorating the discovery of the cross Jesus was supposedly crucified on and Greek Orthodox monks who wouldn’t leave a certain space for fear of losing control over it, got into a violent scuffle where fists and anything moveable were thrown.

Now people, this is a little ridiculous. Is that what Jesus would want? Personally, I’ve always felt that Jesus would want everyone to leave him alone and stop bringing him into their disputes but in the meantime I’m pretty sure that Jesus would actually prefer that nobody fight over such stupid things. And this is freaking stupid.

Get a grip people. Set a frickin’ example.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an amazing place and things like that just ruin the atmosphere.

Have you ever been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Tell us about your experience.

Want to read another post on the Church that includes pictures and more detailed history? Click HERE.

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Around the World Pic: Scientology Church in Los Angeles

I went to Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend and had a great time exploring the city (great tour guide), hanging out at the beach (great weather) and visiting Universal Studios (great day).

One thing I noticed, though, as I cruised the streets of L.A. (something many before me have noticed but as this was my first visit I just saw it for myself), was that there were Scientology churches everywhere. You couldn’t escape them. What is it about L.A. that makes it such a bastion for this cultish pseudo-religion? I have some theories that involve personal emptiness, gullibility, the need to remain fashionable, money, etc., but they’re little more than that: theories.

Though I do have a picture with me in the foreground and the primary Scientology headquarters in the background, you really can’t tell what that building is, so I opted to give you this photo instead, which I took right on Hollywood Boulevard.

Have you ever been to this church? To L.A.? Did you notice the Scientology churches everywhere? What’s your theory for why they’re there?

To read about South Park’s Scientology episodes, 912 and 1001, click HERE or HERE, respectively. To read about the Religion in the News day concerning Scietology, click HERE.

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Topical Tuesday: How Historical Should Historical Fiction Be?

I’m going to have to preface this with the qualification that I’m a historian by training, specializing in Judaism, Christianity and comparative religion. This makes me, for all intents and purposes, a little biased when it comes to my opinions on the necessary degree of historicity of historical fiction.

The Benefits of Historical Fiction

But this doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. It actually means I love historical fiction, because I think, when done well, historical fiction can provide a flavor and understanding of a time and place that is missed amidst facts and theories and trying to understand the whys of history. Historical fiction allows us to imagine dimensions of historical circumstances not previously thought about by creating characters with personalities and lives that before were only a series of dates and events.

Moreover, by including a complex story in a finite amount of space the disconnected facts can more easily be visualized as a multitude of simultaneously occurring factors and motivations that coalesced in that which we consider to be the relevant moments. That reflects history better than many history classes can. Though this is often the goal of historians – to properly blend the whys and hows in order to arrive at the historical circumstances in question – historical fiction allows far more people to achieve this outcome and see the beauty of the events as the historian might wish for them to be seen.

Good Historical Fiction

There are some television shows right now that I think do a particularly great job: Mad Men and The Tudors, to name but two (The Tudors is a complicated issue though). One book that I found to be particularly well done historical fiction was The Last Jew. Another excellent one was Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore, written as a lost gospel and the parts of Jesus’ life that are entirely absent in the Bible. Truly excellent stuff.

How Historical It Should Be

That said, I expect an incredibly high level of competence and understanding on the part of the author before s/he undertakes a project of historical fiction. A veritable expert s/he must be. I think it’s fine to invent people that don’t exist and conversations that didn’t happen amongst people that did, and to create new events so long as they don’t distort history. It’s a difficult line to walk.

I think that the characters who were real should reflect all current and respected scholarship on the personality of that character, though interpretive liberties are obviously acceptable so long as the character does not become someone else. If, in the Tudors, Henry VIII were portrayed as a courteous, non-self-centered, timid fellow, I would be pretty put off. Historical fiction should seek to better explain and bolster what we do know and our understanding of the people or era under discussion – as well as to entertain of course. Changing known historical events, which isn’t to say embellishing, is unacceptable.

I also think that all historical fiction should come with an explanation by the author of what’s being done: the goal, what’s being changed and what liberties taken, what’s not, why these decisions were made, and anything the reader should know to be able to differentiate between history and historical fiction. There’s nothing I hate more (hyperbole) than someone with a poor knowledge of history (or religion) reading historical fiction and then thinking that what they read is all true and having no way to differentiate the true from the invented. Case in point, The DaVinci Code.

First of all, horrible book – so bad I wanted to rip my own head off. Worse still, that a friend of mine thought he understood the fine points of Christian theology and the truth behind Christianity and the Church after reading this book. Yes, we are told up front that places and works of art are being described as they are, but I don’t think that helped everyone. Even if it was a sufficient explanation, the book itself sucked: three page chapters with suspense that turns out to be nothing at the end of every one. I thought I was reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps again.

But that’s more than enough from me for now. What do you think about historical fiction? What’s important to you and how historical should it be? What are your favorite works of historical fiction and why?

Check out Chandler’s different take on the matter HERE.

To read some other Topical Tuesday posts, click HERE. To read Fun with the Bible, click HERE.

Interview with Psychologist and Author, Marlene Winell, about Recovering from Religion

Today we’re going to speak with Marlene Winell, psychologist, author and educator. Marlene has spent her life trying to help people recover from lives that have been torn asunder by religion and religious indoctrination. She has made it her mission to help people feel better about themselves, and their choices and to begin living their lives again.

Marlene runs retreats, one of which is actually happening this weekend. You can read about her and her work on her website by clicking HERE. If you or anyone you know could benefit from speaking with her, please don’t hesitate to contact her. For now, please enjoy this interview with her about her book, work and experiences helping people recover from religion.

What got you interested in the work you do?

I find people fascinating and it is very rewarding to be of help. I come from a missionary background so it is natural to be in a helping profession, but this is very different because I assist people in developing their own resources from within, not an external source.

Please tell me about your book, Leaving the Fold.

My book is Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. It’s the only self-help book for recovering from harmful, restrictive religion. My own story is one chapter. The first half names and describes the important issues in recovery, along with many examples from my interviewees and clients. The second half is about concrete steps for recovery with exercises to do.

How about a word about your retreats?

“Release and Reclaim” retreats are small group experiences where we spend a weekend together telling our stories, getting support, and doing healing activities together. It’s a powerful experience because you are with real people who understand. Past participants have described it as a big turning point in their recovery.

Who are they designed for?

People who have decided to leave their religion and need some help and support.

How often do you have them?

For the last 3 years, it’s been twice a year, but I’d like to do more, particularly in other areas of the country.   I could use some help organizing them.

What do you hope to accomplish at the retreats?

“Release and Reclaim” refers to letting go of old, toxic beliefs and systems and then reclaiming one’s life and one’s self. The biggest area of healing is overcoming the fear that has been conditioned at a deep level.  People then learn to trust themselves again and reconstruct their lives based on their own inner wisdom instead of external authority.

What kinds of techniques do you use to accomplish these goals?

We use discussion, writing, guided imagery, art, movement, and group exercises such as psychodrama. It’s a combination of both intellectual and emotional methods.

What kinds of religions are people when they come to you?

Mostly Bible-based groups – Christian fundamentalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh-Day-Adventists. . . but also Eastern religious cults. The key is an authoritarian mindset.

What are their largest issues with their religions?

They have grown to realize that their religion has it wrong – intellectually, emotionally, morally, socially – and that it is possible to give it up and move on, despite the fear. Many have been hurt in some way.

Are they generally still embedded in their religions when they come to you or have they already left their religion and are now lost and in need of guidance?

They have already left but they haven’t worked through all the issues and some are afraid of letting go entirely. The phobia indoctrination is very powerful, which is why the group dynamic is also so helpful. I have a beginning retreat and more advanced retreats. At the first one, people are often pretty terrified; they need to tell their story and get support for their new insights about what was wrong. Later on, the groups are helpful for people reconstructing their lives with confidence and self-love. We also have participants who have been out of their religion for quite a while but have deep-seated “left-overs” they want to address.

What are your personal thoughts about religion?

I think people do need to have a framework of values and beliefs to use in approaching life, but it does not have to be a religion.  An organized religion with rigid dogma is not good because it robs the individual of the responsibility (and the privilege) of critical thinking and forming one’s own conclusions.

Despite the difficulties you see that people experience with religion, do you believe that religion has certain benefits or a certain value? If so, what are those/is that?

A group which provides community and a place for shared values that serve human needs in a tolerant, inclusive manner can be a good thing. Churches that emphasize the more humanitarian teachings of Jesus rather than his death on the cross provide better guidelines for how to actually live. But belonging to any group should always be done responsibly, i.e., never give away your right to think and feel for yourself.

What do you do for people after the weekend retreat is over to help them maintain what they’ve learned?

We have a confidential online support group with monthly conference calls. People also make friends at the retreats and stay in touch on their own.

Do people ever lapse back into old religious patterns or is this generally a turning point in their lives?

We have never had anyone return to their same religion. Some have retained a personal spirituality or belief in God but on their own terms, which I encourage. I have an article about this.

The retreat is most definitely a turning point for many people. I have followed up with past participants, many of whom have told me this. One man who traveled here from New York had been isolating himself in his apartment, overwhelmed with guilt and fear, never venturing out except to go to work. He was terrified when he arrived at the retreat and very quiet at first, afraid to tell his story. Then with the warmth and acceptance of the group, he shared and participated. On the last day, he gave everybody big hugs, and left smiling. About two months later, I spoke with him and he said the burden of his abusive religious past had lifted thanks to the retreat. He had new friends, was going out, and was also back into playing music he loved. Returning to his religion was simply not an option and he felt free for the first time.

A woman who came to the retreat was leading an outwardly successful life with career and family but had secret fears about the “Rapture” that would shake her up despite being irrational. The retreat helped her let go and even laugh about the idea for the first time. Two years later, we talked and she said the retreat was a turning point for her – she had had no more anxiety attacks.

What do you think is most important about the work you do?

I provide a safe, therapeutic place where it is okay to question religion first of all. In terms of healing and growth, my approach is to empower people, and I think I have found good ways of doing that!

What advice would you give to people who are struggling with their religions but who are unable to attend your retreats or work with you?

Don’t be afraid. Read everything you can. Trust yourself for a change and don’t believe the self-serving lines you have heard from your religious group about how sinful and dangerous it is to question. Get support of some kind. On-line forums can be good – stay away from the ones where religious people try to shame you. Take baby steps into the larger world and find out what’s going on and how other people are approaching life. Try new things in small ways and learn to enjoy life here and now. Congratulate yourself often for your courage.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Working with me may not be as hard as it seems. I talk with people on the phone a lot, and it works well.  We can make the cost affordable. The retreats also have affordable options, so don’t rule it out. The investment is worth it considering the time, effort, and money it can take to get therapy, or the loss of living fully if you don’t get better. I’m open to traveling if someone wants to organize a retreat in their area too.

That was wonderful, Marlene! Thank you.

If you’d like to read past interviews with ex-cult members, please click HERE and HERE. If you have any questions for Marlene, please feel free to ask them in the comments or contact her directly with more personal matters.

Cartman Takes to the Pulpit in “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?”

I’m not sure if Comedy Central is just trying to delight me and my senses these days or if it’s just a coincidence that great religious episode after great religious episode seems to be on. Actually, it reminds me of how many episodes in which South Park focuses on religion. And tonight’s episode is 410, “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?”

The show begins with Father Maxi preaching fiery brimstone and damnation to his congregation after catching the boys behaving poorly in church. By scaring them into going to Sunday School where they can prepare for their first communion by taking their first confession, Father Maxi ends up filling the boys with all sorts of theological diatribe that they can’t seem to shake.

Concerned by what they’ve heard, Cartman, Stan, Kenny and the other boys try to save their friends who might otherwise be destined for Hell – Timmy, for instance, who can’t say more than his own name, much less confess. Oh, and obviously Kyle. Father Maxi’s ill intentions are best demonstrated when he quotes the Bible to tell Kyle he’s going to Hell but actually quotes from a passage that doesn’t mention anything about the Jews. It is also clear that all he cares about is greater church attendance.

Realizing that it is the Bible from which both the priest and the church’s sister, Sister Anne, draw their authority when making their bold assertions about going to Hell, the boys begin to fear the power of this book. That is, until Father Maxi is caught having sex in the confessional booths and ousted by the children, only to have Cartman take up the pulpit in his place, determined to save the souls of all of South Park’s children. You can’t miss the conclusion of this two-part episode, “Probably,” tomorrow night.

The reason I love this episode is multi-fold, but two issues in particular are its treatment of theology and the Bible. The Bible is used as a source of authority – almost the source of authority – and it’s only by getting a hold of it that Cartman’s power can actually take shape. We see him mimic the terrible lessons he’s learned from his Church: how to wield undeserved and unjust authority through threats and coercion.

Second is the use of theology. When the boys are taught theology as children, they are simply confused. Communion is illogical to them because the notion that crackers and wine really become Jesus’ body suggests that Jesus was made of crackers and wine. They approach these issues like children: skeptical and curious. Why? Why? Why? they ask. In typical dogmatic fashion, they are told, because the Bible says so, because that’s the way it is, and stop bothering me or you’re going to Hell.

And then there’s so much more.

To read up on tonight’s other episode, “Fantastic Easter Special,”  click HERE. Click HERE to read about other South Park episodes.

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