Review: “Zealot” by Reza Aslan

Author Reza Aslan has been getting a lot of press, largely because of a Fox News “interview” displaying one of those moronic performances for which the network is known. (I won’t link to it. Google if you feel the need.)

I reviewed his new book for The Seattle Times:

A scholar who sets out to put the record straight on Jesus is an anomalous creature, eager (perhaps even driven) to share diligent research and original conclusions with the very people most likely to be rattled by his findings.

“Zealot” by Reza Aslan is a fascinating book, and no doubt will be chosen by many a well-meaning and hurried gift-giver who imagines a devout Christian recipient will be delighted. Be advised, dear reader, Sunday school this isn’t. Yet Aslan may come as close as one can to respecting those who revere Jesus as the peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek, true son of God depicted in modern Christianity, even as he knocks down that image.

For the whole review, click here.



Jacobson on Hanukkah: It’s OK to laugh.

Apparently, writing a funny piece about Hanukkah and its low place  on the holiday food chain is the journalistic equivalent of kicking a puppy.

Writer Howard Jacobson’s op-ed piece headlined “Hanukkah, Rekindled” is very good.  From its start you know it’s a winner:

Everyone knows the bare bones of the story. At Hanukkah we celebrate the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, who defeated the might of the Syrian-Greek army in 165 B.C., recapturing the desecrated Temple and reconsecrating it with oil that ought to have run out in a day but lasted eight… But how many Jews truly feel this narrative as their own? …Those Hasmoneans, for example …. The Maccabees are fair enough: they sound Jewish. Scottish Jewish but still Jewish. There was a sports and social club called the Maccabi round the corner from where I was brought up in North Manchester, and as a boy I imagined the Maccabees as stocky, short-legged, hairy men like the all-conquering Maccabi table tennis team. But “Hasmoneans” rang and rings no bells.

No fewer than 280 comments rained down on the piece and most were whiny complaints about the author’s lack of reverence, understanding, sensitivity, Jewish pride. The Letters to the Editor printed about Jacobson’s piece were a constipated bunch too.

This guy is funny. He’s a humorist. He’s making fun of himself and human nature, not crapping on a religious narrative. And he’s right, the dreidel game isn’t much fun. Admit it.

Stuyvesant would have liked Fox News.

Historian Jonathan Sarna wrote this in the The Jewish Daily Forward recently, referencing Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Amsterdam (now known as the Big Apple), who lived 1647-1664.

An excerpt:

In distancing himself from Peter Stuyvesant and the many others who have defined American religious liberty in narrowly restrictive terms, [Bloomburg]  reminds us that if today’s target is the mosque, yesterday’s was most assuredly the synagogue.

(Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He’s the author of the excellent book, Judaism: A History. The book should be on every American history buff’s bookshelf.)

Sweet land of liberty. Wait, not so fast.

Right on schedule: Times are tough, jobs are scarce, so the loudmouths look around for someone to bully.

The Sunday New York Times tells me:

1. Half of the 14.6 million people out of work have been that way for more than six months.

2. A group of senior Republican senators wants to revisit the 14th Amendment, which allows American-born children citizenship, regardless of their parents’ status. And, across the country there is frantic railing against plans to build Islamic mosques–especially a proposal for one near the World Trade Center’s graveyard.

Regardless of how you feel about people who come here following the ideal of freedom or those here who insist that they should be able to worship who/what/where they wish–you’ll surely agree with this:

If the Republican senators  put their considerable energy, taxpayer-provided resources and powerful media platforms to work on solving the unemployment problem, they could do it. If the likes of mediagenic Sarah Palin, a vocal opponent to mosque construction, joined in…even better.

Instead, they are repeating mistakes of the past that will exact a price far greater than we can afford.

Keep your tired, your poor...

We perfected this behavior long ago, when the Civil War ravaged the Southern economy and led to a new kind of racism and segregation. The period called Reconstruction promised a lot to African Americans. Almost all of those promises were broken within a few years. Then, as now, citizenship was something to be denied, then granted, then denied again by the ruling class.

It took the South a century to recover and begin to thrive economically after legislation and social mores forced “free” blacks to the back of the bus and denied them the basic rights that came with citizenship for their white neighbors.

Along with the xenophobic and racist policies, the region got a culture that worked white mill workers (including their children) literally to death, and ensured they’d die in debt to the company store. Citizens and de facto slaves alike woke up to a land stripped of coal, timber and other resources by the same folks who promised that segregated mills would lead the South out of its poor past. Fast forward a few decades and see how it played out: The images seen around the world of dogs and fire hoses being used to govern are still synonymous with “the South” and “civil rights,” despite the enormous progress of the last 60 years.

We’re out of work, we’re broke, we’re scared and we’re going to fix it all by putting our collective foot on the necks of whomever we can keep down.

It won’t work this time around either.

(NYTimes stories: “Jobless And Staying That Way” by Nelson D. Schwartz and  “I’m American. And You?” by Matt Bai. Also, “Across Nation Mosque Projects Meet Opposition,” by Laurie Goodstein.)

AA in the news: Powerless, grateful and other useful feelings.

There’s an essay in Wired by Brendan I. Koerner, titled “Secret of AA: After 75 Years, We Don’t Know How it Works.” It is burning up the email channels and New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about it. As the headline makes clear, the piece is largely about the fact that the success rate of Alcoholics Anonymous can’t be measured. We can clasify addiction as disease, but unlike diabetes, we can’t say how many people get better through treatment…in this case, by working the 12 steps.

I feel safe in predicting that a lot of people will start reading it and quit about a third of the way into the piece. Not because it isn’t well-written enough, but for one of two other reasons:

(1) Squirm factor: They’re alcoholics/addicts and not ready or able to deal with the “cunning, baffling” affliction; or

(2) Gratitude factor: They’re in the program, it works, and they do not care why.

I read the whole piece, but I was skimming it by page 3.

I fall in category 2-A:  It works, I don’t care why. But yeah, okay, tell me why.

For more than 20 years I’ve thought of Alcoholics Anonymous as the equivalent of a concerned relative who took me in, made up a bed on the couch and said: You’re not doing so great. Stay here until you feel up to leaving.

I slept there around-the-clock for awhile. The couch is always made up and ready when I need it.

It’s an odd notion on the face of it, that the only way some alcoholics or addicts survive is by sitting in a room with a lot of other drunks, tweakers, pill-takers, glue-sniffers, junkies. It seems odd right up until it doesn’t. Funny how we humans can move the goalpost of “normal” up and back so many yards.

Yet, I do welcome new findings about the ways in which brain chemistry and environmental factors conspire to make an otherwise rational person ingest poison. I believe that the more mysteries we solve, the better off we’ll be.

In other words, I want the updated brain-operation manual and the couch. When I’m too weary to read the small print, I can lie down and rest.

Respecting the real Church.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has done it again: Reminded us that there is more to a news story than its biggest, boldest headlines.

His column, “Who Can Mock this Church?” points out that there are two Catholic churches–”the old boys’ club of the Vatican and the grass-roots network of humble priests, nuns and laity…”

The Vatican–and plenty of laypeople–think that the members of the press are over-zealous in digging up dirt on the Church’s priestly scandals. That’s ridiculous. When I overheard someone at a dinner party bemoaning the “negative” nature of the news-gathering, I barely restrained myself from asking: “If your kid was involved, would you want the reporter to take it easy on the sexual-predator priest?”

But Kristof makes an important point when he adds that there is often “a liberal and secular snobbishness toward the church as a whole — and that is unfair.”

He’s absolutely right.

Indicting all clergy or the whole Roman Catholic Church does a disservice to the religious women and men who bring food, medical care, education and prayer to a world that needs all it can get.

Worse, such sweeping statements diminish the evil. The youngsters who suffered while in the care of priests were not victims of a faceless, impossible-to-control plague. They were preyed upon by men who could be counted, listed, and punished.

Sursum corda…and your voices too.

I’m not always wowed by what Maureen Dowd writes in her column for The New York Times. But when she nails it, she nails it.

She’s been a fiery commentator about the Roman Catholic Church and its sinful cover-ups of clergy who prey on children and adult parishioners. The more pundits, pulpits and parents who join that chorus, the better. This fight takes more than rhetoric, it takes heart and courage of the faithful.

Dowd’s latest piece on the Church mess is very good, and an unusually humble approach for she-of-the-sturdy-eg0. She turned the column over to her brother Kevin, a creche-collecting conservative Catholic. One snippet:

“The church is dying from a thousand cuts. Its cover-up has cost a fortune and been a betrayal worthy of Judas. The money spent came from social programs, Catholic schools and the poor. This should be a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.”

The Vatican and the top-tier of the Church in this country are furious at Maureen Dowd. They dismiss what she says in ways direct and subtle. It won’t be so easy to ignore her brother.

Read the whole column here.

The Old Rugged (tasty) Cross

A few years into freelancing, I have to say I don’t miss meetings. But I’d have paid real money to sit in on the one where some marketing person made a pitch for an item I saw in the grocery store yesterday:

Just in time for Easter: chocolate crosses.

As the late George Carlin might have asked: What, no chocolate electric chairs?

I did some Googling, and apparently these treats have been on the market for a couple of years. But since I don’t buy Easter goodies, I missed this breakthrough.

Somewhere, sometime in the not-so-distant past, a confident person stood up in a conference room, flicked on a PowerPoint presentation and said: “Look, we’re getting our asses kicked on the hollow bunnies. Jelly beans have not been the same since the Reagan years. The animal-rights people think the marshmallow chicks are disrespectful. We’ve got to think outside the box, dudes.”

Maybe they kicked around an Easter-season idea of a big chocolate stone that could be rolled away to reveal…well, nothing. Okay, forget that one.

(This whole thing reminded me of a headline written by a fellow newsroom occupant in New Hampshire years ago. Two schools, Bishop Brady High School and Calvary Christian faced off in some game, football probably. When Bishop Brady trounced its opponent, the sports copy editor couldn’t resist: “Bishop Brady Climbs Calvary.” It got yanked after one edition and he edited nothing but box scores for a long time.)

But, hey, it’s possible that the idea of selling confectionery torture devices isn’t all bad. Maybe it means people are lightening up about religious matters, hardly a bad thing for the world, right?

Maybe we should all pitch in and go buy these things. It’s really not going to look good when any unsold crosses go on sale for half-off the day after Easter.

Terminal liturgy

I arrived at the airport very early for a red-eye flight the other night, settled into a pizza place for dinner, and opened my book. I adopted that selective deafness one needs to screen out all the background noise in a busy place.

But one of the taped announcements about security penetrated my traveler’s cone of silence.
“Be always vigilant about your surroundings…” said the mechanized voice.

It reminded me of a line I always loved in the Compline service, the seventh and last service of the canonical day as written for the Episcopal/Anglican Church. I used to attend Compline on Sunday nights at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. (“Compline” is a word born of others meaning “final” or “to complete.”) This was — and probably still is — one of the best-attended services at a Northwest church.

People who never darkened the door of any house of worship came to hear the beautiful, eerie chant in the remarkable acoustics of that huge stone building up on Capitol Hill. It was especially dramatic to hear the service in the fall, when darkness would start to fall during the chant.

I remembered the line as starting with “Beloved: be sober, be vigilant….” but when I looked it up just now, I found I’d done some editing. It actually reads “Brethren, be sober, be vigilant…” and continues: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.”

As many times as I heard it, I still used to wait for the “be sober, be vigilant” phrase with an anticipatory shiver. Thinking about it in the busy airport, I felt the same sense of warning mixed with excitement. The notion that being on one’s guard, being vigilant, can keep evil at bay is an idea I cling to. Not a bad thought before taking to the sky to fly all night, trusting that morning and a safe landing are at the other end.

Prayer, American Style

“The Right Way to Pray” by Zev Chafets in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday is a not-to-be-missed article.

Chafets is a fine reporter and writer. Fueled by intelligence, humor and doubt, he writes in the first person without excessive posing. I was surprised to discover that Chafets is 61-ish. I thought he was much younger.

His opinion columns drive his detractors absolutely nuts. A 2003 piece in The New York Daily News is still being quoted far and wide, usually by someone who is furious about it. It comments on the death of Edward Said, the renowned Columbia University prof widely known for his theories and work on anti-Arab/Islam attitudes in the Western world. (Said’s 1978 book “Orientalism” put him on the map.)

Chafets slammed the venerated Said, winding up with this:

“He[Said] didn’t blow up Marines in Lebanon in 1983, ignite the Palestinian intifadeh or send Wahhabi missionaries to preach violence against infidels. He certainly didn’t fly a plane into the World Trade Center. What he did do was jam America’s intellectual radar. He wasn’t the architect of 9/11, but he was the father of the 9/12 inability to comprehend it…
Ah, well, Said is in paradise now. As an Episcopalian, he’s ineligible for the customary 72 virgins, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s honored with a couple of female doctoral candidates. No one deserves it more.”

That Chafets article caused the sort of intellectual whiplash that good and controversial writers visit on me:

–Yes! I’m a Zionist too!
–No! I don’t despise Said!
–Yes! Love the one-liner about the virgins!

Anyway, back to his latest NYT Magazine piece. “The Right Way to Pray” describes the various ways Americans are approaching their theo-chats, seeking support from megachurches and prayer coaches.

Prayer is a subject usually neglected by newspapers, and very rarely written about in the first person. Selling a story on prayer to a secular publication is an uphill battle. For years I tried in vain to get whichever newspaper was employing me at the time to consider a piece on people praying in their cars. I am positive that more true prayer takes place behind the wheel than any other place in America.

Why? Because it is the one place most of us have real privacy and time for reflection. And because driving routinely puts us in situations that trigger involuntary entreaties to the Higher Power: Please don’t let that cop be coming after me. Please stop that speeding dump truck coming up in back of me at this stoplight. Please get me over this very high bridge without fainting. Please don’t let that rattling noise be anything expensive.

I’m sure cellphones have cut into drive-time prayer. Which is ironic, given that we should all be praying more often than ever: Please God, don’t let that guy texting his girlfriend plow into my car.

Let us bow our heads

It’s true: Hospitals and casinos are remarkably similar.

Years of family visits to Reno and Lake Tahoe have acquainted me with every casino restaurant for miles. That’s where you go to eat with a large group. Ditto for hotel accommodations. Even if you don’t gamble, there’s no avoiding gaming culture.

Last week I hung out in the astonishingly well-run St. Vincent’s Providence Hospital in Portland, Oregon, while my best friend recovered from scary emergency surgery. It took me a day or so to pinpoint the source of that eerie deja vu. Then it came to me: Only the slot machines were missing.

We go to casinos and hospitals seeking a change in our luck, sometimes betting against hugely unfavorable odds. The first day or so is a blur of hope and gratitude, which give way to weariness, regardless of how things are going.

The best-run of both rely on long-time staff people with inexplicable loyalty and high degree of personal pride. A discarded gum wrapper is a moral affront to the worker in both settings. While all are welcome at St. Vincent’s, it is most definitely a Catholic facility, evidenced by crucifixes in the rooms and historical murals showing the tireless Sisters of Providence who brought lifesaving care to the forested wilderness. Another sort of dogged pioneer brought life to the dessert of Nevada, an equally unlikely, and some would say, lifesaving, venture.

Both places have unique etiquette:

Use hand sanitizer at every door/Place chips on the table, not in the dealer’s hand.

Both also move us to suspend normal behaviors. We tell strangers in the elevator about losing the farm and the appendix. We call for a hooker or a chaplain to get us through the dark night. When the bill comes due, we’re shocked. Then we rally and talk about how “it could have been worse if…”

In both we hope for things that are out of reach; we mutter to God under our breath, promising to be better people if we’re dealt a good hand just this once.