Was Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to Israel Worth It

Check out my latest article in the Nashville Free Press: The Pope’s Visit to Israel – Was It Worth It?

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Cartman Atones and Butters is Probed in South Park Episode 906, “The Death of Eric Cartman”

I find this to be a particularly fantastic episode. First, I love the idea of the boys finally ignoring Cartman for doing the ultimate in unthinkable to them: eating all of the skins off of the KFC. Out of all the terrible things he’s done, that was the last straw. And it is as a result of ignoring him that Cartman believes he is actually dead.

Second, I think that Cartman’s approach to his death, as guided by Butters, is amazing. Cartman believes that his soul is stuck on earth because he has yet to do everything he needed to do. Butters informs him that perhaps his soul is stuck because he has to atone for his sins before he can be forgiven and go to heaven, where he will receive $10,000 – cash.

Cartman apologizes to everyone, including Kyle, through Butters. He tells Kyle not to be so hard on himself when Kyle insists that he is Jewish.

By far the most hilarious part of the episode, however, is when Butters is taken for experimental therapy because he can’t stop seeing the ghost of his dead friend, Eric. I won’t describe that therapy here but I will beseech you to watch the episode and laugh hysterically for yourself. And if you don’t find it funny or if I’ve built it up too much for it to be funny, well, whoops.

What did you think about this episode? What was your favorite part?

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Cartman and Kyle Argue Over Jew-Gold in South Park Episode 908, “Two Days Before The Day After Tomorrow”

The Day After Tomorrow – blech what a craptastic movie. “Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow” – what an awesome episode.

When Stan and Cartman wreck a dam with a stolen speedboat, thereby flooding a town in a valley below the dam, the entire country freaks out that global warming has caused this flooding and everyone starts panicking. I’ve already explored some of South Park‘s thoughts and skepticism about global warming in my post on episode 1006, “Manbearbig” and in episode 505, “Terrance and Phillip Behind the Blow,” so I will refrain from elaborating in great detail here except for to say that, to whatever degree Trey Parker and Matt Stone appreciate the importance of not obliterating the environment, they don’t wholly subscribe to the terror of global warming.

In any case, despite mocking global warming fanatics, this episode is particularly memorable for a hilarious exchange between Kyle and Cartman when they are trapped in a collapsing and burning building in the flooded town. Cartman refuses to allow Kyle to pass him and move to safety on the roof of the building where a helicopter awaits unless Kyle cedes his Jew-gold. What is Jew-gold, you ask? It is the bag of gold that all Jews carry in a small sack around their necks.

Obviously, Kyle contests the notion that he has such a thing or that it even exists, and what is even more hilarious than the banter between the two is when Kyle finally reveals the Jew-gold and gives it to Cartman. The ridiculousness of this scenario exposes the absurdity of many anti-Semitic beliefs, like that Jews used to use Christian blood to make their matzas, a Middle Ages belief called blood libels.

Mmmmm, matza.

What did you think about this episode? What was your favorite part?

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Kyle, as Jesus, Preaches Faith in the Economy and Saves South Park in “Margaritaville,” Episode 1303

We haven’t stopped hearing about the economy ever since it, well, started crapping all over our heads. But for some reason, I’ve only seen two intelligent pieces on the economy. The first was from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and comes from his extended debate with Jim Cramer (of Fast Money). Indeed, Stewart had Cramer admitting that he had to change the terrible way he’d been treating the public through his ridiculous show. The second is this episode of South Park.

As the economy begins crashing all around us, everyone angrily points fingers at everyone else. The only person people start listening to, however, is Randy Marsh. He preaches an end to spending and a return to constant savings and old ways (sheets for clothes, llamas for transportation, squirrels for toys, etc.). The whole town follows his advice and nobody gets anything at all.

When Cartman blames the Jews for the problems of the economy, Kyle denies his baseless accusations and rebels against this no-spending spree that has overtaken South Park. He becomes a renegade Jew, or as it were, the Jesus of the economy. The economy only exists because we have faith in it, he tells people. It’s not some powerful and vengeful, angry god. This position is much akin to that uttered by the Wise One in episode 1004. Fascinating that this would be the position taken by the Jesus figure of the episode, causing us once again to recognize that South Park‘s thought on the existence of God, inferentially, is that God is most powerful as a human idea rather than an actual divine being.

Randy and his ruling council decide to stop Kyle and his blasphemous preaching and do so with the aid of Cartman (who is Judas in this biblical reenactment). The theological jokes abound, especially when someone on Randy’s council proposes that Kyle could be the only son of the economy. Father Maxi insists that this idea is totally retarded since any omnipotent being could have more than one son. Hmm…

At a Last Supper of pizza with his friend, Kyle vows to do something he always knew he’d have to do in order to restore people’s faith in the economy: he pays off everyone’s debt on his no limit platinum American Express, ultimately sacrificing himself (i.e. his economic future) for the sake of humanity and the economy.

All the while, we’re learning what’s actually going on in the economy as Stan runs from person to person trying to return a Margaritaville blender. Everybody keeps sending him to the institition above that’s now responsible for his return. Eventually he winds up at the Department of the Treasury and learns that the government makes its decisions in a totally random fashion: by sacrificing, as it were, chickens, and then letting them run around with their heads cut off until they land on some point of a grid that determines what action the government should take.

As a blog about South Park and religion, you can imagine that this was an episode that had me squirming with delight the entire time. For me, this will go down as one of the classics.

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Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 254-257 Speaks of Monotheism and the Invalidity of Forced Conversion

From Polytheism to Monotheism

An important element of the Quran’s continual affirmation of God being the only deity (verse 255) lies in the need to do away with the other deities worshiped by the Arabs in the Hijaz in Mohammed’s day. Not that affirming God being the only deity isn’t important anyway, because it is, but at the same time, it reinforces the notion that the other shrines in the Hijaz dedicated to other deities (daughters of God?) were illegitimate.

I find this interesting because the move from Arab tribalism to Islam was a move from accepted polytheism to strict monotheism with no monism in the middle. That’s a difficult transformation, and considering the time it took monotheism to root fully in Arabia I think it’s nothing short of astounding.

Consider the ancient Israelites. They weren’t monotheistic. They were monostic. That is, they believed in their god, Yahweh (God/Allah) but not to the exclusion of other gods. They worshiped him (well, at least for the short period that they were behaving) to the exclusion of other gods, but in the world of the ancient Israelites other gods existed – theirs was just superior and the only one worth believing in. This is particularly evident in the Ten Commandments which order the Israelites to worship no other gods before Yahweh.

On the contrary, Mohammed didn’t say, “You can’t worship the other gods.” He said, “Those aren’t other gods,” which was a rather dangerous thing to say, and ultimately, sent him out of Mecca for the safety of his life. And yet despite this, very quickly, Islam spread throughout Arabia and the Middle East and polytheism became monotheism with no extended period of monism in between. Truly incredible!

No Coercion

Verse 256 is terribly important for its invalidation of the notion of “conversion by the sword,” something that even Asad points out in his note, and an idea that runs wildly through western minds.

Would I say that Muslims have at some point in history converted people at the edge of the sword? Certainly, but those were rare instances, and not recognized in Islam as acceptable behavior or valid conversions. Are we really to believe that the entire Middle East and North Africa converted at the edge of a sword, became Muslims and then didn’t ever read this verse to realize that their conversion was illegitimate. I’m doubtful.

In addition, Christians are historically far greater perpetrators of forcible conversion, yet it is conservative Christianity which continues to spread this unreasonable and unjustified message. One instance of Christian forced conversion that comes to mind is the mass forced conversions of Jews that took place throughout 14th century Christian Spain. That’s why when Islam came knocking at the door in places that Jews lived during the 7th and 8th centuries (Spain being notably one of them), Jews welcomed the Muslims as liberators and helped them overthrow many cities from Christian rule. Indeed, when Muslims moved through Spain during the 8th century, they often left Jews in charge while the army marched forward, knowing that the Jews were far happier with them in power.

So, conversion by the sword – what narrow-minded rhetoric continually believed and spewed by westerners after centuries of Islamophobic behavior. Let’s stop spreading this nonsense and make an effort to understand Islam, an incredibly important world religion, better.

Please feel free to add anything that I neglected to discuss from these verses, and share your thoughts on them with us.

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The Cow 254-257

254. O YOU who have attained to faith! Spend [in Our way] out of what We have granted you as sustenance ere there come a Day when there will be no bargaining, and no friendship, and no intercession. And they who deny the truth -it is they who are evildoers! 255. GOD – there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being. Neither slumber overtakes Him, nor sleep. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth. Who is there that could intercede with Him, unless it be by His leave? He knows all that lies open before men and all that is hidden from them, whereas they cannot attain to aught of His knowledge save that which He wills [them to attain]. His eternal power overspreads the heavens and the earth, and their upholding wearies Him not. And He alone is truly exalted, tremendous. 256. THERE SHALL BE no coercion in matters of faith. Distinct has now become the right way from [the way of] error: hence, he who rejects the powers of evil and believes in God has indeed taken hold of a support most unfailing, which shall never give way: for God is all-hearing, all-knowing. 257. God is near unto those who have faith, taking them out of deep darkness into the light – whereas near unto those who are bent on denying the truth are the powers of evil that take them out of the light into darkness deep: it is they who are destined for the fire, therein to abide.

Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 249-253 Gives Us Some Lessons From the Bible…Sort Of

But for the lesson that Asad points out (that faith is nothing without a disregard of material interests), I can’t figure out why Saul would tell his men that God is testing them based on their ability not to drink the water. From the previous few verses we know that we’ve turned to a discussion of ancient Israel, and it seems as though the Quran is teaching us what value the stories should have.

As this story about Saul, the first king of ancient Israelite, and his army is not in the Bible, I wonder where Mohammed would have heard such a story. If these verses are Medinan, then there are a few Jewish tribes around, some of whose members had converted, and others whom Muhammed would have just interacted with in the day to day. At this time, the Jews, I believe, were communicating a number of elements from their religion and scriptures to Mohammed so I’m guessing he’s learning quite a bit that is winding up in the Quran.

That said, this verse seems particularly fitting for this time period because of the escalation in tensions with the Quryash in Mecca. The Muslims early victory in the first real battle between them and the Quryash would have surely seemed like a blessing sent from heaven – one they could have never received without the faith they had and the sacrifices they were making to live away from their families and kinsmen. And the Muslims were, of course, the underdogs as the end of verse 249 suggests. Thus, lessons from the Bible and the Jews would have been most appropriate at this time.

What I wonder, though, is where this particular story came from. Was it a legend amongst the Jews that was communicated to Mohammed as they discussed the Bible, or was it something that was revealed to Mohammed and made sense after these discussions? I would love to see a book that traced the origins (to whatever extent possible) of the bible-related tales in the Quran that aren’t actually in the Bible. That would be fantastic.

On a similar note, I’m pondering the portrayal of the story with David and Goliath, only because of the different way that the Bible recounts this story – that David came later to the battleground because he was not part of Saul’s forces. Then he slew Goliath. These verses make it sound as though David was there, slew Goliath and then God loved him. Perhaps this is just the Quran abbreviating the story to its essentials since what is relevant in the Bible is not as relevant here, or when the story was getting summarized, it became naturally abridged this way.

In any case, this also seems to me to be a particularly Medinan notion because it justifies the need to fight and do battle: without the ability to defend oneself, corrupt people would have taken over everything. At a time when the early Muslim community in Medina would have been learning that it were going to have to take on a military aspect, it would have been important that they be reassured about the necessary steps to come. Not that fighting wasn’t already a part of Arab tribal life in the years before Mohammed, but the Quryash had not been fighting for a while at this point and reminding them of the need to defened themselves and the divine justifications for doing so would have been crucial.

My guess upon reading verse 253 was that the person God spoke to Himself was Moses and Asad confirmed that suspicion in his note on this verse. That makes Moses, Jesus and Mohammed those people to whom God communicated His messages in a comprehensive way. The latter part of verse 253 is quite a note about Free Will and Human Nature.

Can you help me flesh out anything that I’ve said about these verses, correct anything or add anything that I missed? Thanks so much for being a part of Quran Read-A-Long!

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The Cow 249-253

249 And when Saul set out with his forces, he said: “Behold, God will now try you by a river: he who shall drink of it will not belong to me, whereas he who shall refrain from tasting it – he, indeed, will belong to me; but forgiven shall be he who shall scoop up but a single handful.” However, save for a few of them, they all drank [their fill] of it. And as soon as he and those who had kept faith with him had crossed the river, the others said: “No strength have we today [to stand up] against Goliath and his forces!” [Yet] those who knew with certainty that they were destined to meet God, replied: “How often has a small host overcome a great host by God’s leave! For God is with those who are patient in adversity.” 250. And when they came face to face with Goliath and his forces, they prayed: “O our Sustainer! Shower us with patience in adversity, and make firm our steps, and succor us against the people who deny the truth!” 251. And thereupon, by God’s leave, they routed them. And David slew Goliath; and God bestowed upon him dominion, and wisdom, and imparted to him the knowledge of whatever He willed. And if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another,* corruption would surely overwhelm the earth: but God is limitless in His bounty unto all the worlds. 252. These are God’s messages: We convey them unto thee, [O Prophet,] setting forth the truth-for, verily, thou art among those who have been entrusted with a message. 253 Some of these apostles have We endowed more highly than others: among them were such as were spoken to by God [Himself], and some He has raised yet higher.’ And We vouchsafed unto Jesus, the son of Mary, all evidence of the truth, and strengthened him with holy inspiration. And if God had so willed, they who succeeded those [apostles] would not have contended with one another after all evidence of the truth had come to them; but [as it was,] they did take to divergent views, and some of them attained to faith, while some of them came to deny the truth. Yet if God had so willed, they would not have contended with one another: but God does whatever He wills.

Fun with the Bible: The Many Interpretations of Deuteronomy 18:15

How We Arrived at This Topic

Last week, on Quran Read-A-Long Kay asked, What do the passages of Deuteronomy 18: 15-18 refer to? (there are different English versions of this passage and not all versions use the term “brother”). She also wrote, “There is a passage in Deuteronomy 18 (NIV) 15 to 18-15 says “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him.” I don’t know what this passage means to Christians or Jews but the use of the words “from among your brothers” is interesting as from the Muslim perspective—the brotherhood of the sons of Prophet Abraham could possibly give these passages significance.”

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible translates this verse as, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”

Now usually I rely heavily upon the NRSV. It’s an excellent, scholarly translation that takes account of the most ancient Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and even sometimes Latin (the Vulgate) texts of the Bible in order to render the most accurate translation possible. It eschews translations that are misleadingly theological in nature; where discrepancies in the ancient texts exist, it footnotes those differences.

Kay has raised the issue of what exactly this verse means, and more importantly, to whom it means such things. Briefly, I’d like to say what it means to each religion and then comment on the interpretation itself.

Christians and Jews: Different Interpretations – How Strange!

For Christians, the meaning here is abundantly clear: this prophet raised up from among your own people is Jesus. How could it be anyone else? A prophet comparable to Moses, an Israelite, etc. Definitely the J-Man.

For the Jews, this isn’t anyone in particular. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that this is a reference to the future messiah, but no such word is used and it certainly wasn’t written with that in mind. For the Jews, this could be any of the prophets that came in a long line of prophets after Moses. “Like me” doesn’t necessarily mean in extreme quality, as one who speaks face to face with God, but only “a prophet, like me.” This is simply, ‘be prepared for more prophets because you said that you wanted prophecy to know what God wants so be on the lookout.’ This coincides perfectly with the fact that the verse can also be translated acceptably with all of the references to “prophet” in the plural, as in “The Lord your God will raise up prophets for you like me from among your own people; you shall heed such prophets.”

At the same time, it warns that such prophets will only come from among your own people, that is, the Israelites. This would have been quite a warning for Jews when it came to Mohammed. He was not from among their people. He was an Arab, a notably different people, though Semitic, that exists in the Bible. So, in some sense, for the Israelites/Jews, this verse is cautionary against someone like Mohammed bringing revelation from God because he couldn’t possibly be a prophet.

From A Muslim Perspective

And that, of course, brings us to a Muslim perspective on this verse and the translation of the verse itself. The word used for “your own people” is achichah, which is a plural possessive of the Hebrew word, ach, whose most immediate and obvious translation is “brother.” It’s a curious place to use the word. Of course, ach can also be translated as “kinsman” or “friend,” hence the natural leap to “your own people.” Few would question the reach. However, rather than use a word like am (nation), in which case the meaning would be pretty blatant (though, notably, still not exclude Jesus), the text uses the word ach which even when translated otherwise, still has the connotation of brother.

It is this that makes Kay’s translation from the NIV so valid and the subsequent Muslim outlook on this verse so viable. She has pointed out, quite rightly, that Isaac and Ishmael were brothers. Thus, with the Israelites/Jews descending from Isaac and the Arabs descending from Ishmael, these two tribes are in fact, brother-tribes, or in a sense, kinsman. Thus, a line in the Bible that could acceptably be translated as foreshadowing the rise of a prophet like Moses (a big-time prophet) that comes from among your brothers, could quite easily be seen as a reference to Mohammed for Muslims.

The Historical-Critical Take

Where do I stand? I think that all of these interpretations, from a religious perspective, take into account the possible and appropriate translations of this verse, and therefore are equally viable depending on the perspective of where you’re sitting. I study these things because of the many fascinating and possible interpretations, what they reveal about each religion individually and the ways that they theologically interact with one another.

However, I also know that the book of Deuteronomy was written in the middle of the seventh century BCE and that this line has been written retrospectively. What this line is really doing is letting the future readers of this book know that Moses knew that there would be more prophets to come. Seeing as how the last five hundred years of Israelite history had been littered with prophets, this was a good way of showing Moses’ knowledge and verifying the legitimacy of prophecy.

It is possible that this line also ensured the exclusion of certain people who had been coming around Judea in these tough times claiming to be prophets (remember that the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were taking over the known world at this time and people were claiming prophetic powers all over the place and there needed to be a way to discern who was legit and who was full of it – similar to what happened in Jesus’ time with the Romans). In this way, the writer of these lines used a word that would intentionally exclude all non-Judeans from possibly offering true prophecies so that his readers would have some criteria by which to discern legitimacy.

Later on, Christians and Muslims and Jews in their own ways, could look back at this line and see it as a way of foreseeing Jesus or Mohammed or whomever else – which, religiously, is fine – but reading it in the context of its historical circumstances can also help us understand what it’s doing here.

Summary

I would like to point out that interpreting this verse as Jews and Arabs being brother-tribes and kinsman, as long as no proselytizing efforts accompany the gesture, is an awesome way to look at this verse from a modern perspective. It’s a shame that more people aren’t focusing on this relationship, like Kay is. A brotherhood, kinsman perspective can sometimes help to reduce tensions and make people think a little harder about why the hatred is necessary.

What do you think? Anything to add? Questions?

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