Category Archives: Mass Media and Religion

March on, Democracy. March on.

When you look up at the sky, what do you see? Meteorologists must see the presence or absence of clouds and the likelihood of precipitation. Astrologers probably think, “When are we finally going to rotate away from that sun so I can 16142735_10211738442004652_2931030917139632431_nsee stars?” Religious people often look up there and imagine God in Her heaven, wistfully, blissfully, earnestly, or desperately. I’m not sure what atheists see. Maybe they just say, ‘I’m glad I’m alive to look up at this sky.’ That’s close to what I was thinking on Saturday, January 21st when I was in our nation’s capitol for the Women’s March on Washington. I looked up to the sky and said, “I am glad I am here.” And just in case Mother God was listening, I said, “Thank you.”

When I first decided to march, it was to protest the election of a wannabe Emperor who has boasted about assaulting women and inspired millions to freely come out to express their inner bully and wide-spread bigotry. His character flaws and shocking mental health issues are too numerous to waste words here. As we got closer to the March day, I just wanted to make myself a better citizen. I traveled with three acquaintances whom I barely knew before the March and I now consider good friends. They stayed overnight at my house so we could make a 5:15 a.m. bus with as little pain as possible. The night before we all admitted to both hope and skepticism that the March would make a difference.

The March program opened with one of the most deeply spiritual expressions I’ve ever experienced  – and please note here I’m a religion writer who has been in quite of few religious gatherings in my life. The program started with what the organizers called a “song” but I would call a chant or a musical prayer. If YouTube is correct, it was the Native American Norine Hill from #IndigenousWomenRise. I hope you will find a quiet place and click on this link. Please imagine yourself outdoors under an overcast sky with people in every direction, and even in the trees. Then listen. I don’t know if there were words, or what her intention was, but I heard a call to all of our souls, to rise to the greater good.

Native American opening song

I don’t really like crowds. I like to be home where it’s quiet with my dog and cat at my side. It takes something to get me out, other than working for a living, of course. But the experience started much before daylight when three buses left from my small suburban community and joined 1,900 of them in the stadium parking lot. Then a very diverse river of people climbed stairs, walked to the Metro station, got in and out of subway cars, then inched out onto the street. All the while in the metro station there were sweeps of chants and a sort of woo-hoo kind of high musical sigh that was to your ears what the wave at a sports stadium would be for your eyes.

The YouTube video was shot close to where I was standing, which was blocks from the stage. You can see people actually climbed the tree to get a better look. This img_20170121_100727street was intended to be a route for the walking part of the March, but it was too crowded. After a couple hours of standing with a crowd pressing in, I got a little claustrophobic, so we inched our way from where the crowd was packed to an area where it was only slightly less packed behind the Smithsonian and toward the Mall.  All the while, people were pouring in from every direction. We walked about 10 or 15 blocks to find something to eat. The whole time we were walking away from the stage, people from every direction were streaming in. While we ate lunch we watched the March on a muted CNN in the restaurant and realized that it so much bigger than we could comprehend at street level. When we went to return to the marching part of the March, it was everywhere. It was not just one street, but many streets, all filled with people marching. There were spontaneous chants to fun rhythms (picture Bill Murray in “Stripes”). The one I’m still chanting while I walk my dog is: “This is how democracy works!” Oh, yes it is.

It was difficult to hear all the speeches while we were there, so I’ve been listening online. (Thank you New York Times; link follows.) I was able to hear most of Gloria Steinem and some Michael Moore live, and they remain my favorites.

New York Times online speeches

What was clear on Saturday, and is even more vivid listening online, is that the speakers were embracing multiple issues, not just their own agenda. The over-arching theme was democracy, tolerance, equity. These values were more powerful than the crowd’s clear disdain of the newly elected  “Groper-in-chief,” (quoting Jane Fonda on Bill Maher’s show). In fact, much more potent than the mass dissatisfaction with the incoming president was the urgent need to put common values in place that assure people are treated fairly and have more equal opportunity.

It’s important to ask: What started all this? One idea, from one woman in Hawaii on Facebook. Her what-if/what-can-we-do moment launched an important action for millions that was not just an expression but a movement to a more engaged populace willing to work to keep democracy vital. One woman’s idea started this. As Steinem told us, “…370 marches in every state and on six continents…” Check out the New York Times article with photos from around the globe and highlights of signs and chants.

New York Times global photos

The United States is a secular democracy with a constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state. I remind you that it matters because while all religions are protected, it assures you can practice the one of your choosing, or none at all, without fear of imprisonment. The new president is threatening to require Muslims to register. With no exaggeration at all, this is not unlike what Hitler did to Jews before he started the genocide. It’s also a short walk from registry to rounding people up for camps like the Japanese in this country after Pearl Harbor. Make no mistake that the current governance threatens to take us into very dark times. Are you going quietly?

In spite of the efforts of the White House to make shameless bigotry and greed the new policy, Steinem tried to give us perspective and said, “I have been thinking about the use of a long life and one of them is that you remember when things were worse…This, [she waved her hand across the crowd] this is the upside of the downside. This is an outpouring of energy and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life.” Right with you on that, Gloria.

Saturday’s global March proved that we don’t need laws or religion to guide us into a secular morality that can be embraced by diverse masses. Click on the link below and scan the list of speakers, most of whom mentioned other issues in their own speeches. And when is the last time you heard someone running for office even talk about the common good? Well, of course, we can thank Hillary for: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”

List of speakers

Rhea Suh, NRDC president said, “Each one of you is an individual that made a powerful decision – a choice to be here…because you believe in the fundamental principles that we matter…We are not helpless. We are still a democracy.” The March was a call to remember that democracy only thrives with engaged citizens, who are watching to assure the balance of power. Democracy also needs a free press to recognize and publicize corruption. Some work needs to be done there since they largely failed us in this last election cycle. But we need to do our part by buying newspapers and turning off fake news and reality TV. We need to demonstrate that as media consumers and citizens, we want more than unsubstantiated or un-investigated sound bites.

And, since this is a religion column, I am compelled to remind you that freedom of religion means you get to make your own choice and practice it as you want. If you want the government to impose your religion on others, then prepare yourself for the day when what they impose is not your religion. That said, if they really do impose a Muslim registry, I’m with Madeleine Albright and I’m signing-up as Muslim. -J.B.

New York Times photo: Chang W. Lee

 

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Hell Hath No Fury: The Pissed-off Passive-aggressive Church Lady

ChurchTrialAt the time of this writing, two weeks have passed since the Methodist church trial in Pennsylvania, and two weeks remain for the final response to the quickie guilty verdict.  It is sad and paradoxical that the church denomination this minister served for 20 years wants him to choose human rules over his own conscience.  Rev. Frank Shaefer said, “Love was my only motivation.  I did what I believe Jesus called me to do and I acted out of love.”

One tension between atheists and people of faith is the response to paradox.  It is difficult to be a religious person if you have an intolerance of paradox.  Atheists interpret it as hypocrisy or evidence that religion is not valid.  I see it as interesting, often frustrating, and certainly sometimes it is hypocrisy.  In this case it is also tragic. 

I attended the first day of the Methodist church trial in rural Pennsylvania (11/18/2013) and read most of the news stories that followed.  It took place at their camp in rural PA about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia.  Serving as judge, was a retired Methodist bishop with a pronounced southern accent and perpetually creepy smile.  He frequently reminded everyone that “this is the work of the church,” something about which I thought he should have been embarrassed.

Philadelphia Inquirer on church trial

Usually the secular press is not very good at covering religion.  I asked one of the reporters if he liked doing religion stories.  He said he likes the ones that are less theological and more about crime and religion, then told me that this one is “largely a theological argument.”  He is the same reporter who had the stones (literally and figuratively) to follow Shaefer into the men’s room at one of the breaks.  This guy did write a good story, but I do not agree that the trial represented a theological debate.  It is a story of church politics, which is not really about God or theology.  The trial and what it represents is exactly like current secular politics, with the conservatives waging war on progressives, in this case using obscure Bible passages and an outdated Methodist rule book as their weapons.

Reuters story

Methodists call their rules the Book of Discipline.  The index alone is 75 pages and the two sections of content are 364 and 467 pages.  What do you think are the odds that some Methodist pastor around the country is breaking another one of those rules?  Of course they are.  So the trial of Frank Shaefer and others is selective enforcement of a cultural hot-button issue.  Please don’t pretend that the church is above the prevailing culture.  The no-gay-marriage rule for Methodists is only 38 years old.  It was not carved in stone on the 10 commandment tablets.

The Methodist gym-turned-courtroom had bailiffs, a jury, and clergy serving as lawyers.  The jury was not truly comprised of Shaefer’s peers because the “leadership” of the Methodist church is not only clergy but deacons and elders who are lay leaders and not obligated to have a theological education.  The “counsel for the church” was an Ichabod Crane (pre-Johnny Depp) sort of conservative.  The defendant’s counsel seemed educated, well-intentioned, but weak.  The only two witnesses were first the accuser, Jon Boger, and then the accused, Rev. Frank Shaefer.

Meet the first witness, the accuser Jon Boger, who is active military and clearly fancies himself as a hero in this.  It seems on Facebook that he lives in North Carolina with his wife and two kids, though at the trial he said he hasn’t lived with his family for 27 months, while starting to weep slightly – in a manly way, of course.  If you take a look at his Facebook wall you will see guns, dead animals, and the link to a story on why semen is good for women’s health.  Boger has “liked” Pat Robertson, yet on the stand he said he doesn’t go to church.  On the stand he also lumped gay rights, abortion and gun control together and talked about his “interpretation of the Bible,” which of course is more morally correct than Rev. Shaefer’s.  The Pennsylvania church-goer in the family is Boger’s mother Deborah, who is a Century 21 real estate agent in Lebanon, PA.  On her real estate Web site, she lists being a “senior choir director” at Shaefer’s church for 33 years.  Do you see where this is headed? 

Deborah Boger was at Shaefer’s church before he was, and she clearly expects to be there after he’s gone.  I maintain that hell hath no fury like a pissed-off passive-aggressive church lady.  No one reported, at the trial or otherwise, what that disagreement was about.  The “defense counsel” barely questioned son Jon about it.  The accuser, young Boger, described the disagreement as “Pastor Frank requested my mom’s termination.”  Termination means fired, though other accounts are that the pastor suggested she resign, which she didn’t do.

Within 30 days of the disagreement between the choir director and the pastor, the non-church-going out-of-state son, did some online research.  He located a document for a legal gay marriage in Massachusetts.  By the way, why didn’t Deborah Boger do her own dirty work?  And why did the Methodist church accept the accusation of a non-church-goer?

Nearly seven years ago, Shaefer presided at a restaurant wedding of his son and gay partner.  He reported this to his Methodist supervisor at the time.  Shaefer did not disclose it to his Pennsylvania church – probably because there are lots of homophobes there, but also because it was a private family function.  He was not making a political statement at that wedding.  He has not presided at any other gay weddings.  The gay community has not been a ministry for him, either expressed or covert.  He did not lie to his congregation; he kept family business private.  He was acting as a father who loves his son and believes God also loves and accepts his son.

When testifying, one of the quirky things Jon Boger said, which was picked-up by a few of the reporters, “When I see him, I see a clerical collar that is shattered.”  That is a nice sound bite; however, it was odd because every single clergyman (of course they were all white men) at the trial wore a suit and tie, not the collar of clergy, which many Methodist ministers do not wear.  Further, take a look at the church’s Web site and you will not see even a necktie on Pastor Frank.  So who coached Jon Boger on that sound bite?

Zion United Methodist Church of Iona

Methodist Web site version of the first day of the trial

A huge blow to Christian compassion was delivered in the closing comments by Ichabod.  Here’s how the Washington Post reported: ‘“You’ll give an account for that [verdict] at the last day, as we all will,” he told the jury, to audible gasps from spectators.’  Prior to that threat, Ichabod had implied that the reason Shaefer’s son is gay is because of parents who don’t “have their children in proper submission.”  He raged against “sexual immorality and perversion.”  Again, this is why people don’t go to church.

Washington Post story

Even with seedy church politics, vengeance of the church lady, and the redneck military son, there was an inspiring paradox.  In the gallery during the trial there were about 100 people, with another 30-ish outside.  Among the spectators, inside and out, about 90 percent were there supporting Shaefer.  When Ichabod was on his final tirade, appointing himself to speak for an angry judgmental god, something happened in the gallery with the spectators.  Slowly, without prior collusion, the people started to stand silently in an unspoken protest of his homophobic Biblical interpretation.  It was not pre-planned because most of the people there came from different geographic areas and didn’t know each other.  It was silent, one-by-one, and powerful.  It gave me chills.  As the jury was being dismissed the same people started spontaneously singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

In everything I write on this blog, now nearly 10,000 views, it is my intention to tell you a story that is worthy of your consideration, whether you are a person of faith, an atheist, or someone in between.  It is my hope that as a reader, in the story of Rev. Frank Shaffer, you see something of humanity at our best, in a father risking his career for his son and his conscience.  For every good and decent Frank Shaffer in this world, there will be a pissed of church lady, an avenging son, and a host of those in hierarchy who want to put someone in their place, simply to prove they can.  This is not only in religion, but neither is religion above it.  It is a human dynamic, sadly.  So when someone is out there trying to do good stuff, stay tuned, because there will be someone trying to undermine them, fire them, or worse.  I encourage you to look for your opportunity to stand silently – or not so silently – supporting the Frank Shaefers of the world. – J.B.

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Anger Mismanagement

It is probably a mistake to admit this, but on the way to church, I flipped someone off.  Even at the time, I recognized the irony of my actions.  I admit I think they deserved it, and I did feel better doing it.  They were walking in the middle of the street in slow motion.  It was in a quiet neighborhood – but it was a street.  They saw my vehicle and just kept walking slowly in the middle of the street, before they finally sauntered to the shoulder. 

Even though at the time of my indiscretion I was driving to church, I don’t consider myself one of those typical church ladies, mostly because I enjoy cursing like teamster.  (Yes, I have heard them do that.)  But in my experience, very often church ladies have the same inclinations as me and my one-finger salute.  You see, I think passive aggressive is still aggressive and sometimes worse because it masquerades as nice.

At a place I worked I had a co-worker who was one of those sweet middle-aged women who everyone thinks is kind.  She was in church about four times a week always talking about praying for people and God’s will.  My perception is that she was more of a self-martyred doormat, and expected other women to be the same.

In the department in which I worked I was being picked-on by a male co-worker and quite honestly had groused about it a little too much.  Church Lady didn’t come to my rescue or defend my honor.  Nor did she communicate directly to me that my commentary was wearing thin.  When she became chilly (passive aggressive) I made several attempts to offer to help her with work or see if anything was wrong and got no response.  Instead she complained to a manager about me.  No complaints about the male for his actions, but instead about the female (me) and my reaction to being harassed.  As a female, she expected me to suffer in silence.

It seems that there are too many opportunities to feel out of control, frustrated, pissed off, and even enraged.  Fewer and fewer people know a safe way to handle those feelings.  Here’s what I don’t do – pray it away.  Turning anger in toward religion just creates an angry religion.

In my readings, I have come across an expert on this: a humble Vietnamese, Buddhist monk whom I have heard speak and whose books I have read.  His writing style is not challenging to serious readers (English is not his first language), but thePanOnStove content of his books is spiritually inspired, and almost magic in its simplicity.  (It is wise to read it as poetry.)  In Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hahn talks about “cooking anger,” (p.29).  He compares it to cooking potatoes.  “But even at a very high flame, if you turn off the fire after five minutes, the potatoes will not be cooked.”  I take this to mean that my anger deserves respect, and a minimal amount of time to process.  My anger has validity and deserves recognition by me, though perhaps something more positive than flipping someone off.

What kind of anger led the two men accused of the Boston Marathon bombing to such behavior?  Like most of us, this has been disturbing to me.  The Wall Street Journal article (link follows) tells the story of a lost, frustrated young man (the older brother).  The guidance he received from his mother was to pursue extreme Islam.  That’s not a reflection on Islam.  It is, in my opinion, bad parenting.  I sincerely believe that any religion, or any ideology for that matter, could have been exploited to the extreme by this young man.  He had a need to lash out, as he did once at his local mosque.  Reasonable Muslims told him to knock it off, just like moderate Muslims have condemned what it seems he did in Boston.

Wall Street Journal on family religious issues of accused Boston bombers

Salon article on deceased and accused Boston bomber disrupting mosque service

Religion News.com on Muslim leaders against terrorism

Religious people will likely disagree with me, but I don’t think religion is the answer for all one’s woes.  Religion may offer inspiration or guidance, and hopefully spiritual growth, but if someone has serious psychological problems or is socially disenfranchised, religion will be received and exercised in that same way.  Every religion is interpretive and angry people will interpret religion as angry.  Put more simply: people find the god they want.

That takes me to Bill Maher.  I usually agree with him, so when he went on a rant about Islam I really had to stop and think.  It is difficult to argue that Islam is not a dangerous religion, though I don’t really believe that it is.  With religion, much like human beings, context is everything.  There is a difference between understanding the Islam of Mohammed and his writings, and perceiving Islam only through the eyes of angry Muslims who have embraced a cult-like interpretation of what is truly an inclusive, peaceful religion.  As tragic as recent incidents have been, the actions of extremists represent a very small minority of practicing Muslims.  In the same way most Christians would not want to be thought of as people who bomb abortion clinics (I hope); nor would Buddhists want to be known for the “War Monk” in Sri Lanka.

When Bill Maher judges a religion on the behavior of its practitioners, it makes sense and seems fair.  But we live in a mass-media, global world with a lot of troubled people.  Some of them are going to choose a religious interpretation that validates their anger and allows them to lash out.  That can happen in any religion, or political group for that matter.  Remember, the moderate people are not newsmakers.  Peaceful, reasonable people do not make good headlines.

Bill Maher on Islam

I feel like we have learned enough about the accused Boston Marathon Bombers.  It was a sensational and horrible tragedy played out on live feeds for days on television and the Internet.  But now it is time to learn and heal.  We need to “cook” our own collective anger and learn from what has happened while we find ways to support those who have been hurt.  I do not want to see one more photograph of those young men. They should not be the news any longer.  We are the news.  People helping people is “Boston Strong” and that’s the only news I want.  And religious people around the globe – for this is not just about Islam – have to prove our worth by serving.  It takes a lot of compassionate service to offset those working for angry interpretations of religion. – J.B.

Religion and Theatre of the Absurd

If you think religion and religious people are not influenced by popular culture, then you just aren’t paying attention.  More often, the religious folk are in search of headlines and news clips, not truth or enlightenment.  This happens in small towns and mega-churches.  For the record, I have blogged about mega-churches before (“The Religion of Me Part Two: The Mega-church,” 09/29/2010).  They are not churches, they are theatrical events with a religious theme.  If you disagree with me, then I ask you to consider a Texas story.

Yes, I understand Texans like to do things in a big way.  My best friend from college lives there and turned me on to this story, so apologies to the Lone Star state, but sometimes y’all are just crazy.  At Fellowship Church in Grapevine, “Rev.” Ed Long thought the Easter story of Jesus rising from the dead was not dramatic enough.  He authorized the church to hire a real lion, lion handler, and four-day-old lamb to symbolize Jesus as both a lion and a lamb (April 2012).  One story reported the show cost the church $50,000.  I guess that’s not a lot of money to Pastor Ed because he makes more than $1 million per year.  (Usually I would offer links to stories, but my best source was the Dallas Morning News and you can’t get the story for free.  The Humane Society of Flower Mound has a good summary.)

I was unable to find anything about the pastor’s credentials or education online, but I was able to find plenty of press.  He and his wife made news (February 2012) by doing a 24-hour bed-a-thon on the roof of the church to promote sex in marriage.  More accurately, Rev. Ed was promoting his latest book, from which he doesn’t have to share sales revenue from with his church.

The absurd is not limited to big-time money-grubbing showmen.  It also infects in smaller arenas.  I posted a story on my Web site (http://allthingsreligiousonline.com/) about an Assembly of God Church in Central Pennsylvania that kidnapped youth group teens at gunpoint to show them what life is like for missionaries.  Neither the teens nor their parents knew this was going to happen and the designated kidnapper was an off-duty police officer with a real gun.  It wasn’t loaded, but the kids didn’t know that.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/27/pennsylvania-church-kidnaps-teens-holds-them-at-gunpoint-to-teach-a-lesson_n_1382605.html?ref=religion

Stories like these are why atheists think religious people are nuts.  It’s a difficult point to defend.  The practice of faith is not a concrete endeavor.  Still, there are lots more people quietly honoring their own spiritual interpretations without circus stunts and contrived violence – or real violence for that matter.

If the church folks in Central PA wanted to demonstrate real courage, they would fire their minister.  Rural Pennsylvania is known as fertile ground for hate groups like the Klan.  I am certain that the Assembly of God church could find actual mission work spreading compassion, if they chose, like that ‘love your neighbor’ stuff that is in their Bible.

The best thing that they could do in Grapevine, Texas would be to convert their ‘mega-church’ into a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.  Then they wouldn’t need their $1 million-per-year Showman Preacher and his private jet.  Even if they took all that money and started a business, they would be creating jobs, which would be of more service to the community than devoting extraordinary resources to religious theatre.

Jesus had a lot to say about peace, poverty and humility.  But you wouldn’t know that if you went to church in Grapevine, Texas or Middletown, Pennsylvania.  It’s not just ironic that these two churches are doing such a poor job of representing their own religion – it’s tragic.  These stories demonstrate that you can’t immunize religious practice from human ego any more than you can protect organized religion from politics, or politics from organized religion.

There is a desperate need for reasonable people to have a stronger voice.  This is true in religion and in democracy.  Quite frankly, I don’t know how to make that happen.  The only response I can think of for us non-wealthy regular folks, is to respond to news stories.  I want to believe that if regular people, regularly, demanded better news, we would get it.  If we stopped being consumers of sensationalized non-news, maybe there would be less of it.  That means writing letters and e-mails to news editors.  It also means turning off the TV, or changing the channel.  It might mean getting more news from National Public Radio.

I admit that watching a story about “tanning bed woman” from New Jersey (where else?) who is being referred to as beef jerky on Facebook is a hoot.  We might need to watch a water-skiing squirrel to balance our day.  But if we don’t work in some real news stories of greater length and depth than sound bites, then we can’t expect much more than sound bites and beef jerky, the latter offering more to chew on.  –J.B.

Billboards and God

There was a time I worked for a small environmental nonprofit.  Instead of concentrating on environmental education, for which they were funded, they would periodically get on a rant about billboards.  (The logic to that escapes me.)  When I first moved to Philadelphia, billboards helped me find restaurants, bars, and frequently the right exit.  I always like to know at which exits I could expect find a Dunkin Donuts, for example.  However, I must withhold my enthusiasm for outdoor advertising when it comes to religion.

Consider the New Jersey turnpike.  A friend of mine was once pulled over and ticketed for driving the speed limit because she was impeding the flow of traffic, i.e. going too slow.  I am convinced that if you get in the way, those trucks will very willingly run you down.  So why does anyone think billboards along the New Jersey turnpike are an effective means of communication?

Last December some ambitious atheists decided billboards are a great place to attack Christmas.  Really?  Attacking Christmas is quite like hating puppies.  I applaud the American Atheists for being “reasonable since 1963” but I’m thinking that was not the most reasonable campaign.  Naturally, there was a response.

Granted, that’s sort of old news, but while on the New Jersey turnpike this week I noticed several boards.  First I saw “The Bible” board, which said something like, “Infallible.  The Truth.”   (It’s hard to capture perfectly while driving to avoid being run down by truckers.)  Shortly after that I saw one with a 1-800 number over an American flag that said “Why Islam?”  Congratulations to American Muslims for jumping in the fray, but no one has time to write down a 1-800 number while driving on the NJ Turnpike.  We’re all just driving to stay alive.

Here is an attempt at something more artsy that was edited with graffiti.  Now that’s public discourse!

And let’s not forget the warning of impending doom.  How did that work out Harold?  I want to see: “Oops.  I got the date wrong.  My bad.”

Here are two of my favorites from the “Freedom From Religion Foundation” Web site.

I may now have to amend my view of religion and billboards.  This proves that outdoor advertising can be public expression and pop-art.  It reminds me of my favorite Joan Osborne song, “One of Us.”  (She did the theme song for “Joan of Arcadia.”)  One of the lines is, “What would you ask [God] if you had just one question?”

“What if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us.  Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home.”  I’m wondering what God would look like on the Number 9 bus from Center City to Roxborough.  Is God really everywhere?  “If God had name, what would it be?  And would you call it to His face?”

I want a billboard that just says, “Why?”  That’s it.  Nothing else.  You know everyone would be claiming credit – both the atheists and the religious folk.  So this summer while you’re traveling, instead of playing “I Spy,” how about playing “What would you ask God?” or any of the questions in the Joan Osborne song.

Enjoy your summer.  And don’t forget the Dunkin Donuts.  Eating Boston Kreme can be a religious experience.  –J.B.

Oprah, one more thing before you go

Could you please stop talking about God?  Please.

I do respect what Oprah has achieved, but I admit that I am not a fan of her show.  I have been laid-up with a pinched nerve, hence the delay in posting a column.  I took this opportunity to try, again, to watch an entire program.  I failed.  In spite of my infrequent viewing, I still catch god-speak peppered throughout her shows.  Recently, when she spoke with the author of Women, Food and God, she said, “The issue isn’t really the food.  It is about your connection to that which is real which we call God,” (May 12, 2010).  I’m just not comfortable with Oprah defining God.

Encouraging religious dialogue is the primary purpose of this blog, so it may seem hypocritical of me to wish that Oprah would do less of it.  I ask you to think about religious conversation in the context of the recently released Pew study.  The survey conducted 3,400 phone interviews asking 32 religious knowledge questions, with the average respondents getting 50 percent correct.  Atheists and agnostics got the highest scores and Protestants and Catholics did the worst – worse than the “nothing in particular” category,  (“U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey,” September 2010, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, http://pewforum.org/).  A previous Pew study showed that “Americans are the most religious of the world’s developed nations,” yet their knowledge about religion, even their own, is lacking.  Pitiful, I would say.

God-speak, in the vacuum of information, is a dangerous thing.  What I concluded from reading (and taking) the survey, is that when people talk about religion, they are most often talking about their own religion, and their interpretations may or may not be informed.  Kudos to Oprah for being well-read, and I don’t doubt that she has had enlightening experiences which she so annoyingly likes to call those “ah-ha moments.”  Still, I think it is irresponsible for her to position herself as a religious advisor – even inadvertently.  When she speaks, millions listen.  And when Oprah says, “What God intended for you goes far beyond anything you can imagine,’’ she is dragging theology into pop psychology and dumb-ing it down to trite.  Religion is not supposed to be easy.

Karen Armstrong’s 2009 bestseller, The Case for God, opens with “We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often so facile.”  She goes on to say, “There is also a tendency to assume that, even though we now live in a totally transformed world and have a totally transformed worldview, people have always thought about God in exactly the same way as we do today.  But despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably underdeveloped, even primitive.”  Primitive and over-simplified, I would say.

I suppose it is possible that Oprah’s world is so insulated by sycophants that she is unaccustomed to being challenged or listening to common sense.  That’s the only explanation I can come up with for her agreeing to debate convicted felon and online Christian radical, Bill Keller, (March 17, 2008) on the definition of a Christian.  There’s a YouTube clip of Oprah explaining and embarrassing herself.  Perhaps she thought she could talk her way around the label of the “The Most Dangerous Woman on the Planet” assigned by the Internet evangelical equivalent of Glenn Beck.  Theology is not an area where Oprah needs to comment or debate since she clearly can’t discern between crackpots and seekers.

On a day-to-day basis, there is harm done by simplistic theology.  We know bad things happen to good people, and under those circumstances it is common to hear that old chestnut, “When God closes a door He opens a window.”  I have never found this comforting.  Envisioning a puppet-master God makes free will and individual choice irrelevant.  That kind of thinking perpetuates a sense of fatalism and hopelessness.  Joseph Campbell told us (in the series with Bill Moyers for PBS “The Power of Myth”) that we imagine the God we are capable of understanding.  Some people need to imagine a small demanding god with an arbitrary temperament.  That is their business, until they try and impose this view on the rest of us.

It would be better if Oprah would stop spreading her brand of trite theology and the rest of us understand that it is unwise to look for simple answers to difficult questions.  A little struggle goes with searching and sorting through it all is more important than the answers.  The journey is more important than the destination, and when it comes to religion and spirituality, the journey is the destination.

As for me, I’m thinking maybe my search would be easier if I would eat some peyote, make my pinched nerve feel better and talk to God all in the same trip.  I hope Oprah doesn’t do a show on that.