Thursday, October 29, 2009

Have You Seen This Missing Jew?

MASA is a campaign designed to fight assimilation among American Jews. Sponsored by the Israel based Jewish Agency, MASA’s latest Israeli television ad sought to raise funds for its programs by placing photos of young American Jews on missing-person posters with the tag line, “over 50% of Jews abroad are assimilating.” The 50% of Jews abroad who had not assimilated complained and the ad was pulled.

Obviously assimilation of Jews into the broader culture is still a sensitive issue. But pulling ads that highlight it doesn’t really do much to stop it. In fact nothing really does much to stop assimilation.

What does it mean to assimilate, anyway? Am I assimilated?

I try not to be. I have a beard, that’s Jewish. I wear Levi’s, their Jewish. I make a point of being able to pronounce the “ch” sound in Hebrew and Yiddish, and make fun of those Gentiles who can’t. I can spread my fingers in such a way as to offer the Priestly Blessing or say hello to Mr. Spock and wish him a “Live long and prosper.” And I get Jon Stewart’s Jewish jokes on the Daily Show. Is this good enough? How Jewish do I have to be?

On the other hand, I just bought the remastered Beatles collection, I read the latest Dan Brown novel (being a newly minted Master Mason myself, I wanted to see how we secretly rule the world), I like country and bluegrass music, and own a pair of cowboy boots. How goyish do I have to be?

I really don’t care about assimilation. If Jews want to be something else, that’s their right. Nor do I think that MASA’s program of schlepping young Jews to Israel to show them the Walls that define us (the Western Wall and the Separation Wall) is actually going to stem the tide of assimilation. If you want people to be Jewish, you have to make being Jewish matter.

Orthodox Judaism, for example, matters. It matters because it takes itself seriously, it believes what it says, it makes demands of its members. Unfortunately this is also why most Jews who are not Orthodox don’t choose to become Orthodox. To many Jews, Orthodox Judaism is a bit too Amish. I don’t want a Judaism that is afraid of zippers, or that makes a fetish of Canaan.

How can we liberal Jews make Judaism matter? By reclaiming its roots as a radical counter-culture. By promoting Shabbat as a global play day, free from work and consumerism. By promoting kashrut (kosher) as a way of uplifting our consuming to the highest ethical and environmental standards; forget about separating milk and meat, and promote vegetarianism instead. By promoting tzedakah as right livelihood: the just earning and use of finances. By excommunicating Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff.

Judaism at its best, at its coolest, is in fact unassimilatable. It is counter-culture. It is all about argument, doubt, and imagination. It is about everything that our conformist, consumerist society is not. Why not sell that to the kids?

Why not? Because most of the so-called unassimilated are really assimilated! Sure they refer to themselves as Jews, and maybe even attend synagogue once in a while, but they share the same values as the majority of Americans.

Assimilation is a nonissue. It is like dealing with a leaking bucket by adding more water rather than plugging the leak. The real challenge is imagining and then teaching a Judaism that challenges people to be something other than the middlebrow, middle-class, middle-mind self-satisfied liberals who think watching MSNBC makes them superior to those who watch FOX News. I know these people. I am these people. Come on, MASA, don’t put my picture on a milk-carton, offer me a Judaism that matters.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Courting Disaster

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, appointed to protect the Constitution of the United States, seems to have a poor understanding of just what this Constitution says. In discussing the case of the cross erected as a war memorial on federal land in the Mojave Desert, Justice Scalia displayed a frightening sense of ignorance. When told that the cross is a Christian symbol and violates the First Amendment, Justice Scalia said that it was no such thing, adding, “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead.”

Either Justice Scalia is stupid, or he is completely blind to the existence of other religions. I hope it is the latter, but I fear it is the former. I can deal with a Justice who is in fact a Christian Triumphalist seeking to make America into a Christian nation. Eventually he will discover that Christianity isn't monolithic, and those Christians who will be marginalized in Scalia's America will fight back alongside others (religious and secular) to put an end (albeit temporary) to such theocratic insanity.

But if Justice Scalia is simply stupid; if he doesn't understand what a cross is or what the First Amendment stands for, then we have a problem. Why? Because then he represents the majority of Americans and there is little hope for change.

When told that the cross affirms one’s belief in Jesus as Christ, and that Jews, for one, never put the cross on their graves, the justice angrily snapped, “I think that is an outrageous conclusion.” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, appointed to protect the Constitution of the United States, seems to have a poor understanding of just what this Constitution says. In discussing the case of the cross erected as a war memorial on federal land in the Mojave Desert, Justice Scalia displayed a frightening sense of Christian triumphalism. When told that the cross is a Christian symbol and violates the First Amendment, Justice Scalia said that it was no such thing, adding, “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead.”

When told that the cross affirms one’s belief in Jesus as Christ, and that Jews, for one, never put the cross on their graves, the justice angrily snapped, “I think that is an outrageous conclusion.” Obviously Justice Scalia only visits Christian graveyards.

Justice Scalia is on record saying that he believes it is constitutional for the United States government to favor religion, and that the First Amendment does not affirm the government's neutrality toward religion.

Needless to say nonChristians are unhappy with a Supreme Court Justice who is ignorant regarding the First Amendment, but don’t image that all Christians are happy with Justice Scalia either. “America,” a Catholic weekly magazine, accused the justice of reducing the cross "to just a couple of pieces of lumber."

It scares me that a Supreme Court Justice is so ignorant of the First Amendment, one of the truly revolutionary documents in human history, and a foundation stone of American life. Why didn't this come up at his confirmation hearing? How did a man who is so ignorant of our founding principles get to be one of nine people responsible for securing them?

It's simple: he is anti abortion and wants to do away with Roe v. Wade. That is all it takes to be a Supreme Justice in America. You can know nothing else, but if you are anti abortion you're our guy.

Day by day, news story by news story, my faith in America fades. Let us hope that a wise Latina can bring some Constitutional knowledge to the court.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Black Tooth Down

Soupy Sales died yesterday. He was one of the greatest Jews who ever lived. Or, to be more specific, one of the greatest Jews who ever lived in Franklinton, North Carolina. There were five Jews in Franklinton: Mr. and Mrs. Milton Supman (pronounced “soup man”) and their three sons whom they nicknamed Hambone, Chickenbone, and Soupbone (honestly). Milt owned a dry goods store and sold sheets to members of the KKK (also honestly).

I watched the Soupy Sales Show religiously. He seemed to be a true anarchist. And he loved pie. What’s not to like? Plus he had his two dogs (puppets really) White Fang and Black Tooth, the meanest and nicest dogs in America, respectively. My favorite line of the show was “Black Tooth, don’t kiss.” I use it to this day. In fact I spend most days looking for a opportunity to say, “Black Tooth, don’t kiss.” When I finally find the right moment and utter these immortal words, I get a warn feeling inside and know my day is complete. I should probably live alone.

I learned how to dance from Soupy Sales. Soupy did this odd shuffle thing that I copied. It made me stand out on the dance floor. When I realized people were just staring at me, I would say, “Black Tooth, don’t kiss.” It was a non sequitur, but I could never think of anything else to say.

Some of you know this dance move, though unlike myself you may not performed it in the last day or two. As a tribute to and in memory of Soupy Sales I invite all of you who know this dance to dance together with me today at noon Eastern Time (11 Central, 10 Mountain, 9 Pacific).

Soupy Sales is famous for lots of things, not the least among them his on-air pitch to each of the children of America to send him a dollar. Eighty thousand dollars in Monopoly money flowed in. I like to think that it was Soup Sales, a Jew, who gave Evangelical preachers the idea to go on television and ask for money. It isn’t true, of course, but I like to think that.

I like to think a lot of things. Right now I like to think of Soupy Sales, the Greatest Jew of Franklinton, NC, being graciously welcomed into Heaven by God, and having Soupy pie the Almighty in the face. With God and Soupy laughing joyously, Black Tooth runs up and licks God’s face clean while Soupy himself says, “Black Tooth, don’t kiss!”

My day is complete.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Boredom. The Newest Crisis?

Boredom is the newest crisis facing our country today. I just read this in a book catalog promoting a new book on religion and boredom. At first I was inclined to dismiss the notion. Left to my own devices, I’m never bored. I find life infinitely fascinating. I read constantly, and write daily, and love to think about things and listen to smart people talk about things. I don’t get boredom. But on further consideration I have to admit that when it comes to organized religion, especially religious services, I am bored out of my mind.

Jewish liturgical yoga—the incessant standing up and sitting down during our services— bores me. We should do one or the other. I prefer sitting in a chair that offers true ergonomic support so that I can comfortably slip into a meditative state. Few churches or synagogues provide that. I wonder if we should build sanctuaries with Back Saver chairs in them. Probably not: it would make it too easy to fall asleep during the service. Maybe that is why we keep jumping up and down—it keeps us from falling asleep.

Most liturgies bore me. The language is flat and the reading is flat and the content is flat and it leaves me, well… flat. We never say anything that excites me. Either we are reading something so trite that I can’t affirm it with any enthusiasm, or something so inane that I can’t even be bothered to argue against it. Take the idea that God is the Lord of Hosts, for example. What is that? I imagine God presiding over a Toastmasters-like gathering of hosts and hostesses. Is the best we can do in a democratic country: reduce the King of Kings to the Maitre d' of maitre-ds?

The music in most synagogues and churches bores me as well. Christian praise music is fun for about three minutes, and then it becomes trite and tedious. The lyrics are insipid and reduce Jesus to a one-dimensional cartoon. Hasidic niggunim (wordless melodies) are more palatable to me, but these too become tame after a short time. And I am put off by liberal Jews forcing out a few di d’d’di niggunim as if a niggun could make up for a theology that pretends we haven’t read a science or philosophy book in 300 years. Why is it that I can listen to Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger over and over again without getting bored, but I can’t take synagogue music two weeks in a row?

Most sermons bore me. If it’s on the Gospel, Jesus turns out to be a prototype of Dr. Phil, and if it is on the Torah, the rabbi has to jump through hoops to make the text say what it clearly doesn’t say. I love Torah because it is upsetting, and all efforts to make it safe are robbing Judaism of any relevance.

So maybe boredom is our problem, at least when it comes to religion. I have no idea how the book that sparked this line of thinking deals with boredom, but I suspect no amount of esthetic or institutional change is going to fix this crisis. We can train our clergy to be more entertaining, but that won’t really help when the content is essentially irrelevant.

So religion is going to stay boring for a long time. Why? Because we are boring. Our services reflect ourselves. If there is a God we must bore the crap out of her.

So what can we do? First, stop being bored. Do something that ignites your passion. Then, once you remember what it’s like to be on fire that way, refuse to attend any worship service that douses that fire. Demand the same quality of thought, music, poetry, and speech in your place of worship that you would from a commercial venture. Refuse to be bored. Refuse to join a community that bores you. Refuse to support clergy that bore you. Refuse to sing boring songs, and read boring prose and poetry. Demand more.

You probably won’t get it, but at least you won’t be bored. That’s one crisis down, a few dozen to go. Health care, anyone?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Christ vs. Krishna: Smack Down in Delhi

I spend much of my time participating in interfaith gatherings where the vast majority of participants accept the premise presented in the Hindu Rig Veda: “Truth is one. Different people call it by different names.” Most of us understand that religions and the gods they cherish are human inventions seeking to articulate what is at heart ineffable.

As the Tao te Ching reminds us, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” Any god you can institutionalize, any god you can theologize about, any god you can sell to your neighbor, just isn’t God. The true God is found in silence, stillness, and compassion. This doesn’t mean that religions have nothing to offer. On the contrary, our lives would be much poorer without them. It only means that they should realize their own limitations and be humble.

Of course this never happens. No matter how much we learn about the nature of religion, religion never seems to grow up. Case in point: the new push by Catholics to bring the Good News of Christ to the Bad News Brahmins of India.

Fifteen hundred Catholics attended the Indian Mission Congress in Mumbai last week to fire themselves up about sharing the light of Christ in the dark land of Krishna. Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana, Apostolic Nuncio to India, said that Christians have an obligation to spread the Gospel in India as that nation falls ever more deeply into the depravity of illicit sexuality, drug abuse, poverty, and violence.

When I read this I thought, “Finally, someone is going to clean up the moral cesspool that is India! And who better to do it than Catholics?” I mean the Catholic Church is all about goodness, and ending poverty and violence. Just look at the lives of people in predominately Catholic countries such as Mexico (95% Catholic) and Columbia (91.90% Catholic). These good people under the guidance of the Catholic Church all live peaceful lives of financial sobriety and security, free from violence, drugs, and sexual perversion. And who could possibly suspect the Church and its priests of sexual immorality?

So I say, “Go get ‘em, Jesus!” This is exactly what India and the world needs, more religious strife.

Not that Catholicism doesn’t have much to offer the world; it does. But if the Church wants to share its light the best way to do it would be to create ideal societies in the countries that are already Catholic. Show us how it’s done, Papa. This is hard work, of course. It is much easier to go out and convert others to your faith than it is to actually live that faith yourselves.

Here is my best-case scenario for the Catholic Mission in India. First, they offer such a clear alternative to the caste system that Hindus worldwide finally free themselves of that oppressive idea. Second, they discover that Jesus was an incarnation of Vishnu, and realize that Hindus, too, are speaking the Truth, they are just doing so using their own names. I doubt either of these things will happen, of course. But I can dream, can’t I?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Don't think twice, Ma. I'm only believin'

It’s irrational to argue rationally. At least that’s the conclusion I draw from a recent study on the nature of belief and reason.

According to Lane Wallace in THE WEEK (October 9, 2009), recent studies show that people will defend their strongly held beliefs regardless of the facts, and will do so using what researchers call “motivated reasoning.”

Motivated reasoning is actually illogical thinking fueled by the desperate need to be right. People so identify with their opinions that to be wrong is to lose some sense of one’s very existence. In other words, facts, logic, and reason are irrelevant when dealing with passionately held beliefs.

So is discussion on deeply held issues useless? Probably. If other people are going to resort of illogic to defeat my logic,* I can’t win. And if I can’t win, why bother playing?

This is both refreshing and troubling. Refreshing because now I have scientific evidence that other people are crazy. Troubling because now the only way to win an argument is to kill the person with whom you are arguing. This isn’t news. The Bible and the Koran make it pretty clear that there is no point in arguing with infidels; kill them and be done with it. Kill their cows, too, while you’re at it; you can never be too careful.

But perhaps there is hope in these findings. Now that we know we will employ all kinds of irrationality to maintain the pretense that our beliefs are rational, we might hold our beliefs with a bit more humility.

How might that humility manifest? It might allow us to listen to one another a bit more carefully. If I know that I resort to irrationality to defend my beliefs, I might be more careful in my positions and defense of them. If I know that my beliefs may be bolstered by unreason, I might be more open to hearing the beliefs of others, and less inclined to attack those beliefs. And, if I don’t attack the beliefs of others, perhaps they will feel less inclined to resort to illogic themselves. And if all of us are wary of our own irrationality we might actually learn something from one another, and that would be refreshing.

But I suspect I am being Pollyannaish; it is just too inconvenient having different-believers around. All you have to do is watch the insanity that passes for discussion and debate in Congress or town hall meetings or cable news shows to know that people are addicted to irrationality.

So what will we conclude from this study? It’s simple: stop worrying about being rational and just up the volume.

*I would never resort to irrationality, illogic, or falsehood. Or, if I did, I would never admit, just as I am not admitting it here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Going Brown: Valuing Butts Over Bark

I am not an environmentalist. I used to be, but not any more. I mean, I was one yesterday, but not today. What made me change my mind? Al Gore’s war on my ass.

I enjoy taking a good shit. I am happy when you have one, and happier still when I have one. Following the Jewish tradition, I offer a prayer of thanks every time I go to the toilet, expressing genuine gratitude for the wondrous workings of the body. When push comes to shove, constipation is not my friend.

One of the joys of moving one’s bowels is cleaning up afterward using a high quality 127-ply perfumed industrial strength absorbent roll of toilet paper. I like the feel of it—thick as an Amish quilt; the fragrance of it—as strong as Aqua Velva; and the way it gloves my hand with four or five inches of protective paper. What could be better?

Enter Al Gore. No, not Mr. Gore himself, I am using his name to represent all those inconvenient truth speakers who sap the fun out of ruining the planet. It seems that my precious toilet paper is made from old-growth trees, and that my desire for comfort is killing the planet one wipe at a time. Well, you know what? I don’t care. There are other planets. When I flush the last of this one down the toilet, I’ll just move to another one.

What is the point of having an old tree, anyway? It doesn’t do anything. At least if we turn one into toilet paper it gets the satisfaction of being useful to us, and that is what trees really want, isn’t it? To be of service to selfish boys like me? I’ve read Shel Silverstein’s scientific study of trees and I understand their need to be self-sacrificing. This is what they live for; this is what they die for.

And, now that I’m thinking about it, why should old trees take precedent over young trees? We expect old things to die. President Obama isn’t proposing death panels for young people (the unborn excepted), but for old people. Why should it be different for trees? After all if you have to make toilet paper out of people would you choose the elderly or the newborn? True, the newborn are softer, but with the proper processing the elderly would do quite nicely.

And have you tried the other brands of toilet paper? Well, I have. I’ve tried the ones that feel like sandpaper and leave your butt bloody and raw. I’ve tried the lesser ply brands that rip apart at the exact moment to allow for a quick check of your prostate while you wipe. And I’ve lived in Israel where they seem to mistake wax paper for toilet paper. So I’m no stranger to the hardships of not having the proper tool to deal with the blessed stool. I just want that tool, and don’t care how old the tree is that can give it to me.

So I’m going brown rather than green. Given the current climate of Democratic Socialist Fascism I fully expect Mr. Obama to create a Toilet Paper Czar who will strip our stores of old-growth toilet paper and imprison those of us who value butts over bark, so I am building an underground bunker in which to stockpile enough quality toilet paper to get me through the Mayan collapse of civilization and the election of Sarah Palin as POTUS. My suggestion: you ought to do the same.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Prophet or Clerk?

During my first year of rabbinical school I was told that a rabbi could be a prophet or a clerk, and that most of us would turn out to be clerks.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the head of Conservative Judaism’s rabbinical association, chose to be a prophet when he claimed that his colleagues lacked missionary zeal, adding, “We want to get paid. We don’t believe.” The clerks revolted, and Rabbi Wernick was forced to recant and apologize.

Are rabbis really in it for the money? No. There isn’t enough money to be had. But we do have families, and mortgages, and college tuitions to pay, and that takes money, and money comes from people who like you and who think you are a good rabbi. And most people think rabbis are good because they say what the people want to hear. People like clerks. True, clerks don’t inspire us, but they don’t upset us either. Prophets ruffle feathers, and people with ruffled feathers rarely pay to support the ruffler. So if you want to survive in the congregational world you learn to be a clerk.

And it isn’t just in the congregations that money matters, denominational power is also determined by money. The most powerful rabbis in any movement are those who raise the most money for that movement. And to do that you need to build a large congregation willing to donate to that movement. And to do that you have to cultivate people with money. And to do that you have to be the rabbi they want you to be, you have to be a clerk.

In the process of building a wealthy congregation, of course, the rabbi too becomes wealthy, and the more rabbis earn the more they are expected to give to their seminary and their movement, and the more they give the more say they have in shaping the policies of that movement. Whether we are talking about Congress or congregations, it is always all about the money.

But what about Rabbi Wernick’s other claim, that liberal rabbis don’t believe? What he meant was that they don’t believe enough to live in near poverty as so many Chabad rabbis do who gladly set out to serve Jews in the remote outposts of world Jewry. We liberal American rabbis didn’t sign up to serve the Jews of Calcutta, especially if we have to live in Calcutta in order to do so. Chabad rabbis go where they are sent because they believe saving a single Jewish soul is worth any sacrifice. They believe they are doing God’s work. Do liberal rabbis believe this? I don’t know. But even if they do, they have a hard time imagining that God wants them to do God’s work in a place that lacks proper sanitation, air conditioning, and cable television.

Not that liberal rabbis don’t sacrifice. Anyone burdened with the task of clerking middle class American Jews with a strong sense of personal entitlement knows about sacrifice.

Anyway, I wish Rabbi Wernick well in his job, and I applaud his moment of prophetic zeal. I fear, though, that he has learned a sad lesson: if he wants to keep his job he has to abandon any pretence of being a prophet. The clerks have won again. They always do.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Simchat Torah 2009

Sunday is Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing with the Torah”), the day on which we Jews conclude the annual cycle of Torah reading, and begin the reading all over again. The synagogue service on Simchat Torah is marked with wild dancing and song, and the Torah is paraded around the shul. Lots of us have fond memories of the holy day as kids, and some of us continue to observe the holy day ourselves. But so what?

What’s the point of reading and rereading a book that most of us don’t believe in? Few Jews believe that God dictated Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Most of us understand that the books of the Torah are compilations of different texts written at different times by people with different agendas. Most of us choose not to live our lives by the dictates of Torah, and few of us bother to read (let alone study) it. So why bother with Simchat Torah at all?

Let me be as concise as I can about this: Without Torah there is no Judaism and no Jews. God may be a figment of our imagination; Israel may be just one nation among others; Jews may be chosen only in our own eyes; but Torah is indispensible.

Identity depends on story. You are who you are as a person because of the memories you have, and the stories you tell about yourself and the lives of those with whom you identify. Story is everything to humans. That’s why memory loss is so devastating. Without our memories we lose our stories, and without our stories we lose ourselves.

Torah is our story. And like most stories, it is largely fiction. But that doesn’t matter. Truth is not the enemy of fiction. As any great novel demonstrates, fiction if often the best vehicle for telling the truth. Torah is that kind of fiction; the kind that tells truths, often discomforting truths.

People complain that Torah is filled with xenophobia, misogyny, and genocidal rage. Of course it is. Torah is our story, and mirrors our wickedness as well as our goodness. That’s what makes it worth reading over and over again. The more sophisticated we become regarding human nature, the more Torah helps us explore that nature. The more we are willing to open ourselves to the promise and perversity of humanity, the more Torah reveals these to us. We see what we are ready to see, and are beckoned by Torah to see a bit more as well.

This is why we read Torah differently throughout our lives. This is why we read it over and over, year after year, millennia after millennia. It evolves as we evolve; and it promotes that evolution my mirroring not just what we are at the moment, but we can become—both good and bad—in the next moment.

But what about the supernatural nonsense of the Torah: all the magic and miracles? Torah is myth, and often speaks through parable, puzzle, and paradox. That’s what makes it fun and challenging. To mistake myth as literal fact is to blind ourselves to the meaning of the text. When we read about the impossible we are challenged to test what is possible.

Simchat Torah celebrates the power of story to shape identity. The challenge is to read Torah with fresh eyes year after year; to see new possibilities in it that lift us Godward.

If we read Torah passively, our Jewishness becomes passive, and a passive identity creates stale people, stale lives, and limits the future to an imitation of the past. But when we dare to read Torah actively, when we challenge its madness and allow ourselves to be challenged by its genius, then we continually reinvent our story and ourselves. The future of Judaism and the Jewish people doesn’t depend on where we live, how we vote, or whom we marry. The future depends on whether or not we engage Torah passionately and creatively.

Whether or not you attend shul this Simchat Torah, I urge you to make Torah study a habit. Even if you have a copy of Torah in the house, buy yourself a new one. Check out the different versions and see which one speaks to you. Then read the parsha of the week and jot your thoughts down in the margins. Make the Torah your Torah. Then each week—or monthly as we in Murfreesboro do it— gather over Shabbos dinner with family and friends and wrestle with your different insights.

If there is one thing all Jews can do to insure not just the survival of our people but the thriving of our civilization, this is it.

Chag sameach.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Ain't Religion Grand?

Scripture doesn’t kill; people do.

That seems to be the motto of retired Naval Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt who, according to Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has been praying for Mikey’s death.

Mr. Weinstein’s organization fights Christian proselytizing in the armed forces of the United States. Since founding the organization, Mr. Weinstein has had a swastika painted on his home, and animal carcasses dumped on his doorstep. Despite the ambiguity of my grammar, these things were not done at the request of Mr. Weinstein. Nor is Mr. Weinstein blaming these things on Chaplain Klingenschmitt. Chaplain Klingenschmitt doesn’t want to bother Mr. Weinstein, but, at least according to Mr. Weinstein, he wants Jesus to kill him.

Mr. Weinstein claims that Chaplain Klingenschmitt regularly for Jesus to “plunder my fields … seize my assets, kill me and my family then wipe away our descendants for 10 generations."

In his defense Chaplain Klingenschmitt said, “I never prayed for anyone’s death. I never prayed for anyone’s violence (sic). All I did was quote the Scriptures.”

In the interest of Biblical literacy I tried to find the passages that Chaplain Klingenschmitt may have been citing, but I couldn’t find anything that resembled Mr. Weinstein’s charge. This doesn’t mean that Chaplain Klingenschmitt isn’t praying for bad things to happen to good Weinsteins, only that in doing so Chaplain Klingenschmitt isn’t really quoting scripture. But I could be wrong about this, so I invite you to search the Word yourself and share with us just what it might be that Chaplain Klingenschmitt is citing.

If in fact you do find the citations, please explain to me how Jesus can kill Mr. Weinstein and his family and then wipe away their descendants for 10 generations. If Jesus kills Mr. Weinstein and his family, how can there be any subsequent generations? And if it is possible why limit it to ten generations, or if you must limit it, how is Jesus going to restore the Weinsteins in the 11th generation?

Somehow I doubt Mr. Weinstein believes that Jesus can or would do any of this, but I would not be surprised if some follow of Jesus would take it upon himself to do them in Jesus’ name. Ain’t religion grand?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Religion on Parade or Parade on Religion

Sunday morning’s Parade Magazine (October 4, 2009) published the results of a Parade survey on American spirituality. While all such surveys have their limits, I enjoy reading the findings. Here are some brief comments on the more intriguing findings.

1. While 69% of Americans say they believe in God, 77% of Americans pray to him. That means more people pray to God than believe in God. To whom are these 8% of Americans praying?

2. Religious Americans comprise 45% of the population, while 50% rarely bother with religious services at all. A little over half of these people (27%) don’t practice any kind of religion, which leaves 24% of the respondents who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” (Plus the 1% left over who didn’t really understand the question.) This SBNR thing is really taking off, but there are still millions of Americans who don’t fit this label. Maybe someone should start a support group for them: Religious but not spiritual.

3. While I am often told that the reason people belong to a religion is for community, it turns out that this is true of only 8% of Americans. I get this totally. The older I get the less inclined I am to join something or to seek out a community. Most of the I want to be left alone. But not all of the time. What we SBNR types need is a “once in a while” community where we gather maybe once or twice a year to share our spiritual lives and struggles.

4. Here is a number that I found surprising: only 14% of Americans feel their religion makes them safe and secure. Does this mean that the other 36% of the religious but not spiritual crowd join a religion to feel more anxious and fearful? Or does it mean that religious is scaring the shit out of most of the people who profess to belong to one? If your religion is all about hell and damnation, or blowing yourself up to get a date in heaven (which probably doesn’t allow dating anyway), or about why God keeps kicking you when you are down, then I can see why you don’t find religion all that comforting. Personally, I think comforting religions are a scam. I want a religion that discomforts me; that challenges me to see through the egoic bullshit that passes for spirituality and theology in this country, and helps me to live justly, kindly, and humbly with the fact that I don’t know jack.

5. The survey wasn’t very kind to clergy. Only 12% of Americans believe their religion is the one true religion, while 59% believe that all religions are valid. Cleary we clergy are failing at our stated mission: getting people to join our brand and shun the competition. In the real world, Macy’s doesn’t send it shoppers to Gimble’s (which is why there is no longer any Gimble’s). We clergy aren’t supposed to help you find the religion that best suits you, we are supposed to sell you our suit no matter how unsuited you are to it. If 88% of Americans think that other religions are equally effective as their own they might consider shopping for salvation elsewhere. This does not bode well for our job security.

6. And it gets worse: only 17% of respondents say they consult clergy for help when dealing with a problem. As a writer of a spiritual Q&A column for Spirituality & Health magazine I am dependent upon those who ask me for advice, so this number has got to increase or I will be out of a job. Who do they consult? Friends and family! Can you imagine? What does your married friend know about marriage that your celibate priest hasn’t read in a book? To be honest, anything you need to know about male-female relationships you can find in the Bible. Which is why priests are celibate. Who wants to live the biblical family ideal? My favorite book on relationships is “Men are from Mars, Women are from Penis.” Or something like that.

So if people don’t turn to clergy for advice, and they don’t think that any clergyperson has the pick that will unlock the gates of heaven, why bother with clergy at all? Man, this is depressing.

Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe clergy, too, know the old ways are no longer speaking to most Americans. Maybe a growing number of clergy are admitting to themselves that they too are spiritual but not religious. Certainly that speaks to my situation.

So what should we SBNR clergy do? Given the way Americans are moving, there may be a real need for post-religious spiritual mentors to help people navigate the intricacies of SBNR. SBNR “clergy” would be trained in spiritual practices and post-modern theologies. They wouldn’t care about brand labels and denominations. They would care about you waking up to your innate divinity. They wouldn’t be limited to one way, but grounded in the full spectrum of the wisdom of the world’s religions, mythologies, transpersonal psychologies, etc., and capable of helping those who wish to deepen their spiritual nature without having to align themselves with one brand of faith or another.

Those SBNR clergy interested in exploring the evolution of classically trained clergy in a SBNR world should contact my friends Rev. Ian Lawton and Steve Frazee at Let them know that you are interested in attending a gathering of SBNR clergy to explore our role in the emerging SBNR world. If enough of us are out there, I bet we can do a lot of good, and can help us do it.

If you aren’t part of the clergy and yet still find yourself in the SBNR camp, check out for yourself. There is a lot of exciting things happening there.