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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The Art of Taking Ourselves Less Seriously For the Public Good

Read my latest Nashville Free Press article.

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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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Motivational Posters That Rock My World: The Pope, Virginity, Sharks and Cake

It’s Tuesday again and that means six more choice motivational posters for you, my friends:

Which was your favorite? Got any good ones? Send them to me and I’ll make sure they get into next week’s post.

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Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 72-82 Speaks of Presuming to Know God’s Will

Connection to Last Week

These verses about the perversion of God’s word echo the verses that we read last week and the conversation that JDsg and I had – particularly, I think, verse 75. We read here of a different way of people taking what God wants – which becomes religious legal practice – and perverting it into something else. In those central verses of The Cow last week we read of this happening through questions and not simply doing what was asked, and here we read of it happening knowingly and intentionally.

Verse 78 then produces this notion in a most forward fashion by connecting it to the Book (the Bible) and those who know nothing about it in actual fact (I wonder if this is meant to mean all Jews, or focus on the rabbis, or simply any Jew who doesn’t follow the Book with good intentions or something else) and only that which they wish to believe. Are the fantasies referring to the rabbinic laws or some less specific set of perversions?

Claiming to Know God’s Will

I want to talk about the notion in verse 80 about claiming to know God’s want, will and ways. This, I think, is a common problem and extends far outside the bounds of the Quran, Islam, or its perception of those who impute things to God.

Everybody does it (purport to know God’s will), and they do it with such excess that they’ve destroyed the concept of God’s will in their constant hammering away at the idea. What do I mean?

People say, “God wants this or God wants that.” “God wants me to do this.” Etc. etc. This is the opposite, in a sense, of the Arabic phrase “inshallah” which means, “if God wills it.” This phrase says, yes, it’s possible that what is being discussed will occur but only if God wants it to become so.

If someone believes in God and if this someone thinks that God controls everything then it follows that after anything has occurred, God willed it to be so or at least, in a more passive sense, allowed it to happen. Okay, that’s fine and I can accept that if it’s someone’s belief.

Death and BLTs

However, to assume that God wants anything – whether something as serious as another’s death or as meaningless as you eating a BLT (though I’m guessing few Muslims think God wants them to eat BLTs and if He did that wouldn’t seem meaningless), is to impute our own desires and wishes onto God. This, I think, totally undermines the notion of God’s will. It follows that thinking that God wants something and carrying it out ourselves means that God must have wanted it because he allowed it to happen. This connects back to inshallah in the opposite way that I previously characterized it and makes me wonder to what degree we can apply this concept to things that we insist on making happen.

For instance, (and this is just an example and not meant to reflect my own stance one way or the other), if an abortion takes place, must we assume that God willed it since it happened? My guess is probably not.

The Issue at Hand

Now, what we have here is a big conversation about determinism verses free-will and that is not the issue, whether theologically inclined or otherwise, that I want to hash out here. If you’re interested in that, check out the conversation between myself and JDsg from the first Quran Day post (HERE). What I want to bring up is the constant attribution of our will to God, which is what seems to be pissing off Quran verse 80 of the Cow. We should not walk around imputing to God what we think He wants. To focus the issue, this leads to an enormous body of jurisprudence when God would have said, “Just do what I told you and stop asking questions,” (see last weeks verses) and to a whole bunch of fantasies about what we think we know when we’re actually perverting God’s will (re: this week’s verses).

To assume God’s will is futile and quite frankly, I think pretty obnoxious. In fact, it’s a very papal concept, and I think that many of us can agree about the presumptuousness of the papal notion of being God’s mouthpiece on earth. Hey, maybe that’s what God had in mind when He told Mohammed in verse 80 that this was a problematic thing to do – to know that you weren’t going to burn because God had supposedly promised certain things. Of course, I wouldn’t presume to know that because I don’t think that anyone can know God’s will…especially when that will coincides so eerily with our own.

Follow up

What do you think of these verses? What do you think of assuming that we know what God wants? Can you help me answer some of the questions I posed here?

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The Cow 72-82

72. Remember when you killed a man and blamed each other for the deed, God brought to light what you concealed. 73. We had pronounced already: “Slay (the murderer) for (taking a life).” Thus God preserves life from death and shows you His signs that you may understand. 74. Yet, in spite of this, your hearts only hardened like rocks or even harder, but among rocks are those from which rivers flow; and there are also those which split open and water gushes forth; as well as those that roll down for fear of God. And God is not negligent of all that you do. 75. How do you expect them to put their faith in you, when you know that some among them heard the word of God and, having understood, perverted it knowingly? 76. For when they meet the faithful, they say: “We believe;” but when among themselves, they say: “Why do you tell them what the Lord has revealed to you? They will only dispute it in the presence of your Lord. Have you no sense indeed?” 77. Do they not know that God is aware of what they hide and what they disclose? 78. Among them are heathens who know nothing of the Book but only what they wish to believe, and are only lost in fantasies. 79. But woe to them who fake the Scriptures and say: “This is from God, so that they might earn some profit thereby; and woe to them for what they fake, and woe to them for what they earn from it! 80. Yet they say: “the Fire will not touch us for more than a few days.” Say: “Have you so received a promise from God? Then surely God will not withdraw His pledge. Or do you impute things to God of which you have no knowledge at all?” 81. Why, they who have earned the wages of sin and are enclosed in error, are people of Hell, where they will abide forever. 82. But those who believe and do good deeds are people of Paradise, and shall live there forever.

Religion in the News: Anglicans Can’t Resolve Growing Tensions about Acceptability of Homosexuality

I know! I was also shocked to learn that religious institutions are concerning themselves with where people choose to put their private parts. But you read right.

The Issue

The Lambeth Conference, a once a decade event that assembles 670 Anglican bishops from around the world in Canterbury, is coming to an end, and one of the most contentious issues was how to deal with the presence of homosexuality within the church – both at the clergy and member levels. Apparently, there’s been a harsh division that’s only worsened since some homosexual clergymen were actually ordained.

The issue of homosexuality and its permissibility within the church was discussed at the conference, but apparently no conclusions were reached, perhaps due to the divided structure of the debate and discussion. Leaders who organized the conference think the inability to make decisions was positive since this issue is only moving towards an irreconcilable split within the Anglican Church.

My Thoughts

My dilemma here is whether or not to care if the Anglican Church splits over the issue of homosexuality. If it’s not obvious that I’m for letting people do that which makes them happy so long as they aren’t harming other people, I think I’ll go ahead and state that now, emphasizing that I think gay people should be allowed to do as they please. Why should I care? It doesn’t affect me and it’s not hurting others. What should anyone care?

Well, I imagine that religious fellows care because if they tolerate homosexuality and God really does turn out to hate homosexuals then these religious leaders fear that they will be sent to Hell for allowing it. I suppose that’s something to worry about if you’re convinced of such things. So since I’m not here to convince anyone to alter their worldviews, I have to return to what I can worry about: how much I care about the fate of the Anglican Church.

Why should we care at all what happens in the Anglican Church, you ask? Well, for one, if the church splits, it will become two separate churches, one fairly liberal (that tolerates homosexuality) and the other conservative (that shuns homosexuality). Currently, those factions keep one another in check and we have one institution that struggles internally with policy. That means people pretty much do what they want and though some people try to stop them, there’s no official policy backing their decisions.

On the other hand, if the Church splits, we will have one progressive religious institution (which I’m down with) but another institution that is dominated by religious conservatives and people who think that tradition is of the utmost importance. It’s basically the bishop’s call the way his territory goes; that means people in countries with fewer rights (e.g. African ones) will be subject to harsh persecutions for their life choices. People subject to the authority of this conservative “bent” will be screwed – but not by who they want. Already, some Nigerians have already had to flee their homes, seeking sanctuary in England, because the leaders of their church have sufficient power to hurt them.

This is my concern: that the conservative half of the church will become increasingly conservative and continue hurting and destroying the lives of people who are making their own decisions. Thus, I do care if the Anglican Church splits over the issue of homosexuality because the last thing I want is more conservative religious institutions in this world.

What do you think about this issue? Do you support the ordaining of homosexual bishops? Do you care if the Anglican Church splits over this issue? Are you Anglican and can you shed some light on this issue for us?

Click HERE to read about the Pope and his trip to Australia and HERE to read about some of the new changes starting this week at The Zen of South Park blog.

“Bloody Mary,” episode 914, Demonstrates South Park’s Tasteful Humor

This is not one of my favorite religious episodes, and it could offend for more than the usual reasons (like, by taking up a stick to AA), but it should be watched because its points are well-delivered.

The episode discusses the nature and existence of miracles. A fascinating topic. Do miracles happen? Have you ever witnessed a miracle? What constitutes a miracle?

Additionally, the Pope has a really excellent line after a statue of the Virgin Mary squirts blood into his face from a special orifice. Another great conversation takes place between Stan when he confronts AA about what they told his father.

A controversial episode no doubt. What did you think?

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Jesus Returns in “Fantastic Easter Special” and the True Secrets Behind the Papacy and Vatican are Revealed

Guess who frickin’ loves this episode? When I first watched this episode, my jaw hung open the entire time.

Talk about bringing theological concepts full circle. That’s one of the things I love most about South Park and religion: the show’s ability to employ the theological concepts that we take for granted and craft them in such a way as to make us think about why we call them what we do and think about them as we do.

In this episode, Jesus’ resurrection, the relationship between Jews and Jesus, the meaning of Easter and so much more are explored in a fascinating way. Plus, the juxtaposition of the religio-historical Jesus’ life and that of the South Park Jesus’ life is hilarious.

The eleventh season hardly ever missed a beat, and episode 1105, “Fantastic Easter Special,” not only lives up to its name but bulldozes right on through the season. Oddly enough, I had just been sorting out my Christianity material around the time this episode was aired and couldn’t help but think to myself why there had not been anything ever done on Easter aside from an off-handed joke. And then here came this episode – an awesome response to my mental query.

Have you seen it? What did you think? Favorite line?

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Pope Mixes Signals, Apologizing for Priestly Molestations While Focusing on World Youth Day

For South Park, a show that comments on and mocks so many facets of American society but also manages to focus on religion quite frequently, the fact that Catholic priests are repeatedly accused and often found guilty of child molestation seems nothing less than a really, really, really easy shot. Interestingly enough, molestation arises in a variety of episodes without the mention of Catholicism, including 406, “Cartman Joins NAMBLA” and 416, “The Wacky Molestation Adventure.” But episode 608, “Red Hot Catholic Love,” is definitely the big Catholicism and child molestation episode and has already been discussed at length in the post, Around the World Pic of the Day: The Vatican & Red Hot Catholic Love.

Apparently, like the United States earlier in the century, Australia has been hit by a host of scandals related to Catholic priests molesting young boys. Thus, Pope Benedict XVI, who I must say, I’ve been totally impressed with thus far as a world diplomat, is going to apologize. But why am I impressed? Well, this pope, like his predecessor, has not shied away from the public light. Maybe he’s a media whore, though I doubt it, or perhaps he just wants to use his influence as pope to send some positive messages and broker some deals. Fortunately for the world, most of those deals have emphasized peace and positive change.

Unfortunately, none of that change has related to the strictures of the Catholic church that would probably help curb child molestation, like say, allowing priests to marry women and live ‘normal lives’ (though I think they should be allowed to be gay too and marry men – full grown men – if that’s their preference, I don’t want to push it…one step at a time). But hey – change is still good if it’s in the right direction (unlike the change that pre-Vatican II Catholics like Mel Gibson want which is a reversion to the way things were before the Church said things like, sorry Jews for all the persecution since you didn’t f-up our savior).

However, the pope has met with Turks and Muslims (mostly due to a verbal faux pas) in an attempt to broker more peaceful relations and diffuse some tense situations. He has met with numerous world leaders about far more than the Catholics in their countries but also about maintaining peace and general human progress. It may sound like fluff and nonsense but when you’re the ruler of the tiniest country around but with the largest ex-pat community, so to speak (and a faith based community at that), you better believe that there’s not so much else you have to talk about. Except when it comes to apologizing for child molestation. Well, that and a climate change festival titled World Youth Day.

The mixing of these messages is not one that I see as tactically wise, though I understand where the sentiment comes from. It’s like when Charlie Sheen, the notorious sex addict, was involved with rumors about seeking girls that were a little too underage (yes, there’s underage and a little too underage) and then released a line of clothing for pre-school aged girls. Harmless? Probably. Well-intentioned? No doubt. Good timing? Oooo – not so much. And that’s how I feel about talking about World Youth Day while apologizing for Catholic sexual abuse scandals.

However, World Youth Day is about positive change in our daily lives in order to affect the environment for sustainable future development. Though I’m not big on the global warming rhetoric, as you may know, I do appreciate positive social and personal change for the sake of improving the environment and seeking more sustainable resources. So, large goofy hats off to you Pope Benedict XVI, and keep up the good work.

In the News: Protestants and Catholics Still Over Centuries-Long War

U.S. President George W. Bush has just gone to the Vatican where he was welcomed warmly by Pope Benedict XVI. That is, an evangelical leader of the free/WASP/non-Catholic world (perhaps that’s giving a lot of credit to Bush, but allow it for the sake of comparison, please) has met with the Pope, the spiritual leader of the world’s billion or so Catholics.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to not the sixteenth century.

Now, of course, pope’s and U.S. presidents have been meeting for years now, and the Catholic Church and the Protestant world (though it isn’t so easily grouped in a unified way as Catholicism) have long since made amends…effectively. I for one, would like to state quite clearly how awesome that is.

We really take for granted in our day how wonderful it is that there is a relative amount of unity, a high degree of peace and a general disregard for the differences between Catholics and Protestants. The Christian world is pretty much A-ok on an inter-denominational basis. Sure, the Christian and Muslim worlds are effectively at war (though I neither believe that it is as ubiquitous as I have made it sound nor as dichotomized as Christian v. Muslim), but it’s great that Catholic-Protestant relations are at the height of their strength. Why am I harping on this issue, you ask?

Well, it really wasn’t like that for a very long time. The Puritan roots of this country can be traced back to a need to escape the Anglican Church because it was too close to and corrupted with popery – or Catholicism – Puritans claimed. People in the colonies hated, persecuted and banned Catholics in various places for a very long time. Life as a Catholic in America wasn’t easy for a while. Now, can I blame Protestants (back-in-the-day Protestants, that is), for being terrified of and hating Catholics? Considering the Church’s history and the way it treated dissenters, no, I really can’t, but let me be frank: relations never had to normalize.

Wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe were on an unimaginable scale, comparable to parts of the crusades, in certain areas of Europe killing up to a third of the population (sometimes more deadly than the Black Plague), and many people believed that Catholic and Protestant countries would never be at peace with one another. Slowly but surely, however, countries realized that interests other than religion set them at odds with one another and unified them with each other, and today, in our post-industrial, post-Cold War, newly hyper-globalized world, issues like whether you are a Protestant or Catholic country are really not the issues at hand. And that’s spectacular.

But then again, we’re not talking about countries, per se. The Holy See may be a country, but at the end of the day, it’s the Roman Catholic Church through and through, and I still think it’s awesome that an evangelical Protestant leader and the pope can greet each other warmly and genuinely, get along, discuss their common goals and interests (even if, unfortunately, some of those happen to be banning abortion and stem-cell research and continuing to promote abstinence – issues we will get to in due time, I’m sure), and be so friendly. It’s important, and not what one would expect after a few centuries of animosity and wars. If in the seventeenth century you’d asked who a Christian’s biggest enemy was, he’d say, a Catholic – never a Muslim, a Democrat or Oprah Winfrey or anything like that (don’t you love topical humor!).

So, that’s my thouhgt: we shouldn’t take for granted that the Protestant and Catholic worlds are effectively at peace (save a few small pockets of course), and when U.S. Presidents and Popes are hanging out together, we should appreciate that we’ve come a long way since the Thirty-Years War.

Note about tomorrow’s post: I will be posting in the afternoon because tomorrow is Movie/Book review day and I am going to see a matinée of The Happening. I have pretty low expectations but a close friend is a screenwriter of horror movies so we’re going – let’s see if it can break the low bar I’ve set. Check back tomorrow afternoon for the review of The Happening.