Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Religious Literacy, or Lack Thereof

A new Pew Forum study points out something that shouldn't shock anyone: "Americans are by nature a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion" (thanks to the New York Times for summing up the issue so well).

In my admittedly brief lifetime, I have never seen a time when people in this country seem to be so judgmental about other religions. And that's saying something, given that the rise of the religious right happened not long before I was born. 

This study by the Pew Forum confirms what I've been thinking for a while now. The reason that so many people are expressing such strong and frequently hateful opinions about other religious groups is because they are completely ignorant about who these groups really are. If all you know about Islam comes from 9/11 footage and American flag-burning rallies in other countries, then it's easy to hate Muslims. Fear is rooted in ignorance, and this study documents the ignorance that feeds the fear and hatred we are seeing right now.

The most interesting part of this study is that atheists and agnostics consistently had the best scores on the  test, because they have given the most serious thought to religious questions, as opposed to many religious people who just accept major truth claims without questioning them at all.

So here's my question for you all. How much do you need to know about other religions to give you license to criticize them? Take a short version of the Pew Forum's quiz on CNN's website. Does your score show that you know enough about other religions to make intelligent, informed comments? Or does it tell you that you have some more to learn?

I'll share my score on the quiz later, but I want to see what other folks have to say first.

Tuesday evening update- the Pew Forum site has a 15 question version of the quiz, and you can compare your results against their statistics. Take the quiz here, report your score (if you want), then decide if that gives you sufficient ground to critique another faith tradition.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mean Guy on a Monday

Check out this guy attempting to tear Adam Hamilton a new one, Glen Beck style. All he's missing is a chalkboard.

There are, quite literally, no words. The irony is just so perfect that any comments from me would take away from the experience.

That doesn't mean that you can't comment, though. Share your thoughts!

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Due to the number of disrespectful and sometimes downright hateful anonymous comments made on this blog, I have changed the settings to only allow comments where people identify themselves. Yesterday's post on health care was not the first time this has happened, but it is the last straw.

I will continue not to moderate comments, because I want people to be able to speak their mind, and to feel free to disagree. A few cowardly people have necessitated this change. If you can't sign your name to it, don't say it, at least not here. There are literally millions of other sites where you can continue that kind of garbage, but The Truth As Best I Know It is not one of them.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Health Care Changes

Yesterday a number of provisions of the new health care legislation went into effect. As with any highly charged political issue, folks are making a lot of noise over it. The legislation isn't perfect, but I have a real problem with those who want to repeal it altogether, because one of the provisions that just went into effect prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to people because of pre-existing conditions.

If the legislation is completely repealed, this is one of the people who would be hurt:

Her name is Becca Hill, and she's the smallest premie ever to survive in the state of Tennessee. Her parents (whose permission I received to post this) are dear friends of my family and I. My daughter, Kate, and Becca enjoy playing together and share a love of Elmo. Becca is now two years old, and while she still has a laundry list of medical issues, she's a walking, talking miracle. 

As of yesterday, health insurance companies are no longer allowed to deny her coverage based on pre-existing conditions. This walking, talking miracle is a walking, talking pre-existing condition. She's already exceeded half of the lifetime caps mandated by most insurance companies, so those who say we should completely repeal the health care legislation are effectively saying that it should be OK to deny Becca the care she needs. Whether or not these people realize that's what they're saying, I can't accept their argument.

You can follow the progress of this miracle baby on her mom's blog.

I think there should be ongoing discussion about amending the legislation. But it seems that fear rather than reason or compassion is dominating the political discourse. It's easy to forget that real people are being helped by these changes, and going back to square one would bring great harm to people who are already among the most vulnerable among us.

Perhaps we should think about how these real people are affected by our political actions instead of comparing anyone we don't like to deceased German dictators.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mad Men, Sad Men

I recently read a great profile of Mad Men's Jon Hamm in The Guardian, where (in stark contrast to Don Draper) he talks a lot about some formative, painful experiences early in life, including struggles with clinical depression for which he took medication.

Since I'm not a regular reader of The Guardian, I became aware of it through references in several other media outlets. An article on CNN referencing the Guardian profile all expressed surprise at Hamm's depression, since he plays such a "dapper, suave" character on TV.

I'm not sure if this writer has actually watched Mad Men, but it seems pretty obvious to me from the show that Hamm has a very deep understanding of the insecurity and self-loathing that people who suffer from clinical depression are able to successfully hide behind a confident exterior. Hamm is not Don Draper, but he clearly knows that man very well. (He says that the character is based, in part, on his father)

I've like Jon Hamm ever since I saw him host SNL. I was already a fan of Man Men, but I gained a tremendous amount of respect for him as a person when he was willing to make jokes about the very thing that made him famous, never mind demonstrating his range as an actor. He doesn't take himself too seriously, which enables him to be so good at what he does.

I hope that Jon Hamm's openness about his struggles help clear away the stigma associated with mental illness. It takes a lot of courage to admit that you need help, and doing so does not make you weak or less manly. One of the best decisions I ever made was to admit I had a problem I couldn't control, ask for help and to allow others to help me get better.

Hamm's comments on anti-depressant medication are helpful, too: "And honestly? Antidepressants help! If you can change your brain chemistry enough to think: 'I want to get up in the morning; I don't want to sleep until four in the afternoon. I want to get up and go do my (stuff) and go to work and…' Reset the auto-meter, kick-start the engine!" Anti-depressants don't change your personality. They take the edge off enough so you can talk yourself through the low moments, so you can will yourself to get out of bed and go live your life.

Jon Hamm doesn't need to become the national spokesman for NAMI or anything, but I do hope that he continues to speak up about issues of mental illness. Depression can be such a crippling condition because you believe that you're all alone, and seeing someone else openly talk about how they've struggled and made it through reminds you that's not true.

If you're feeling depressed and alone, and you think that it will never get better, listen to a handsome actor or a goofy blogger: you're not alone. Talk to a counselor or a doctor. There are brighter days ahead.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

See You After the Pole

"See You at the Pole" time is upon us once again. On Wednesday morning, students and youth pastors all over the country will gather around flag poles in front of schools to pray together.

I hate to be a buzzkill, but I'm not impressed. And it has nothing to do with the idolatry of ostensibly praying to God with the symbol of a nation at the center of your gathering. (Well, not nothing, but that is kind of ironic, isn't it?)

No, the reason I'm not impressed with "See You at the Pole" is because of the massive gap between the rhetoric that surrounds it and what actually happens there.

One morning when I was in high school, I saw a large group of people gathering around the flagpole in front of the school. I walked over and asked what was going on. Someone explained to me what "See You at the Pole" was, and they were surprised that I went to church but didn't know about it, implying that something was wrong with my church. (Later in life I realized that my church didn't feel the need to flaunt our faith, since Jesus said not to do that.)

I listened as one of the youth pastors from a nearby church told us how courageous we all were for being there that morning and taking a stand for God. I looked around and saw that all the pretty, popular people were there, and I thought that statement was strange because it didn't take a whole lot of courage to join a large group following the lead of the popular kids. That's what always happened at school. Looking back, I think it would have been much more courageous of me to speak up and challenge that guy's assertion, or even to simply walk away.

After the prayer (that I had a difficult time paying attention to because I started counting all the "Lord God/Lord Jesus"-es, and couldn't keep track somewhere after 30ish), I went up to say hi to one of the pretty, popular students, since I had heard the youth leader say that all of us there were each others' true friends and whatnot. The girl gave me a "why are you talking to me?" look of surprise/disgust and quickly walked away. As she was getting as far away from me as she could, I heard her say to one of her pretty, popular friends, "wow, did you see how (girl's name) was dressed? What a skank!"

I'd like to think that my experience at See You at the Pole was an exception, and that it really is a great, encouraging thing for students. And if that is or was your experience, that's great, and I certainly don't want to take away from it. But over the years I've met too many people who have had very similar experiences, and because of them they have given up on Christianity altogether, to simply dismiss it.

I've come to believe that it doesn't take a whole lot of courage to stand around a flag pole and hold hands with a bunch of people while listening to a religious speech with your eyes closed. It takes a lot more courage to seek out the kid who sits by himself at lunch and be friends with him, or to speak up when a group of people is laughing at some girl behind her back. It takes real courage to not only forgive someone who has done hurtful things to you, but also to treat that person with the same love and kindness that you would show to your best friend.

If someone sees you at the pole, that's great, but what's really going to make a difference is what they see after we walk away from the pole.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Pope and the Queen

Pope Benedict XVI (who will always be Joey Ratzinger to me) began a historic state visit to the UK today. There's been lots of media coverage, but no one seems to have noticed an interesting exchange they had as they were standing together observing the adoring crowds.

Apparently Her Royal Highness and His Holiness are trying to one up each other with demonstrations of who can sway a crowd better. "Watch this, Joe," says Her Majesty. "With a wave of my hand I can make all the Brits cheer and go crazy." So she stands up, waves (elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist), and of course, all the Brits cheer and go crazy.

"Ah, zat is nothing," His Holiness says, in a very bad German accent. "Vit a nod of mein head, I can make all the Irish people scream, cheer, and talk about it for ze rest of their lives!" So Benedict stands up, smoothes his cassock, and head-butts the Queen.

Why the mainstream media hasn't reported this, I have no idea.

If you thought the preceding joke was stupid, blame Lisa Maniker-Hewitt for making it part of one of my favorite high school memories ;) If you really want to know why, ask nicely.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What We'd Be Missing

if the Park 51 Center in Lower Manhattan isn't built

See more funny videos and funny pictures at CollegeHumor.

Yes, yes, it's not serious. But they're right that we really aren't all that different. I mean, laser tag! Soft pretzels! Free puppies!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Honoring the Victims of September 11 by Blogging the Quran

In memory of those who lost their lives nine years ago today in an act of senseless violence, I feel like the best thing we can do is to witness to the hope we have in the face of evil and terror.

I've written in more detail about this previously, but I believe that if we allow hatred and fear to divide us, particularly hatred and fear of our Muslim neighbors, then the terrorists who hijacked those planes and turned them into missiles nine years ago win. Their message was loud and clear: "it's us or you. We can't live together, so one of us has to win and the other has to lose."

If, however, we refuse to accept the "us or them" argument and live in such a way that shows we can love our neighbor (something Jesus talked about repeatedly), no matter how different or strange that neighbor may be, the the men who killed thousands of people from all over the world on 9/11 will be proved wrong.

With the goal of defying the terrorists in mind, I attended Friday afternoon prayers at the Islamic Center of Clarksville yesterday. They were extraordinarily gracious in welcoming a Christian minister to pray with them and explaining how to participate in their prayers. Soon I'll post in more detail about my experience praying with my Muslim brothers, but for now I'll simply say that it was very uplifting and I look forward to getting to know them better.

I'm very encouraged by demonstrations of love like the Memphis area church that is actively building relationships with the new Islamic center next door.

At the urging of Andrew over at Tall Skinny Kiwi, I'm also participating in "Blog a Quran Day", sharing some verses from the Muslim's sacred text as a way of proclaiming that those who died in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania were not casualties of a war with winners and losers, but victims of murders who falsely believed that all of God's children cannot live together in peace. May they never be forgotten, and may our witness help end the conflict so tragedies like 9/11 will never happen again.

From Surah 10, verses 9 and 10 of the Quran (Sahih International Translation):

Indeed, those who have believed and done righteous deeds - their Lord will guide them because of their faith. Beneath them rivers will flow in the Gardens of Pleasure. Their call therein will be, "Exalted are You, O Allah ," and their greeting therein will be, "Peace." And the last of their call will be, "Praise to Allah , Lord of the worlds!"

(For those that are wondering, Allah is simply the Arabic word for "God". Arabic speaking Christians pray to Allah, just as Spanish speaking Christians pray to Dios, Germans to Gott, etc. Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe in the same God.)

With men and women of all faiths, I pray for peace to grow in the hearts of all of God's children this day.

Friday, September 10, 2010

This Just Keeps Getting Weirder

The sad "Quran burning, or not, well maybe" saga in Florida just keeps getting weirder.

Word came yesterday that the event was canceled, causing a mass wave of elation and linking/posting online (including yours truly). Woo hoo!

Then we discover the Quran burning was canceled because a deal was made (perhaps nowhere other than in Pastor Terry Jones' mind) for Jones to fly to New York City and negotiate the moving of the Park 51 Center. When the respective imams in New York and Gainesville said they had no idea what Jones was talking about, Jones left the door open for the burning to go ahead.

Meanwhile, here in Middle Tennessee, a pastor plans to burn a Quran on Saturday and post the video online. I hope he decides to back down, too.

All of this leads me to conclude that those who have been challenging the media not to make this a bigger story are on to something. Prior to the last 24 hours, I thought that this was news and that blaming the media was using a cheap target and missing the point.

However, seeing the flip-flopping on the burning and the competing claims about meetings, I'm starting to wonder if Pastor Jones isn't crazy (he is a pastor, after all; we've all got a screw loose!), but extremely savvy when it comes to manipulating the media.

After all, what to the Park 51 center in New York and a tiny, hateful church in Gainesville have to do with one another? Nothing, except for the fact that they're both front page news, and Jones sees that fabricating some kind of connection between them will keep him on the front page for a little bit longer. And that might be the whole point of this exercise.

It may be that Pastor Jones shares a compulsive need for attention with people like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, willing to say and do anything to get people to notice them regardless of what they really believe or who they may hurt. We, the media consuming public, eat it up, because like a car wreck, we're horrified but we can't look away.

Semi-related aside: Mark Silk over at Spiritual Politics has a humorous take on all this. Perhaps a good laugh will ease the tension. Thanks, Mark.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

More Positive Steps for Observing 9/11

Earlier I posted about "Read a Quran Day", an alternative and much more beneficial way to observe the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks than a Gainesville church's "Burn a Quran Day".

I've since seen a few more good ideas. Andrew over at Tall Skinny Kiwi has suggested that bloggers all join in for "Blog a Quran Day" on Saturday, sharing verses or passages from the Quran to show that there are Christians who are not afraid of and can actually appreciate other faiths.

I'll be participating on Saturday. If you're a blogger, put the address of your page in Andrew's Comments section so he can add you to the blogroll.

I'm also personally going to step out of my comfort zone and take my witness physical, not just virtual. I hate to admit it, but I've lived in Clarksville for over three years and not met anyone from the local Islamic Center. So I'm going over for Friday prayers at 1pm tomorrow, as a way of saying that not all Christians are intolerant, hateful bigots. Anyone in the Clarksville area is welcome to come, or go to your local Islamic Center or mosque wherever you my reside.

That's what I'm doing. What about you, dear readers? What are some other concrete steps Christians can take to provide a positive witness to our Muslim brothers and sisters? How can we extend the hand of friendship today?

A Good Alternative This Saturday

Tragically, this Saturday, on the 9th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a Florida church will be holding a "Burn a Quran Day".

I've blogged previously on why I think this kind of demonstration shows how some Christians have a lot in common with the terrorists they claim to oppose. In fact, I think events like "Burn a Quran Day" means the terrorists win. (The aforementioned post will explain what I mean).

(Interesting sidenote- over at Essence Restored, Will McCorkle writes about how this demonstration shows America's solid commitment to truly free speech. Kudos to Will for finding the silver lining.)

For a moment there was a ray of hope that the burning wouldn't take place. Not because Pastor Terry Jones had seen the light or anything, but because General David Peraeus, Commander of American Forces in Afghanistan, said that such a demonstration could put American troops in danger. For a day or so Jones claimed to be rethinking the burning because of his respect for our troops.

I'm glad Jones is concerned about our soldiers' safety, but it would be nice if he had equal concern for the picture this would paint of Christianity. After all, his church is ironically named "Dove World Outreach Center". The dove is a universal symbol of peace, but burning another religion's holy book is neither peaceful nor an effective outreach for the gospel. So it's already clear where his priorities lie.

During the Labor Day weekend, an idea for a peaceful alternative demonstration occurred to me, but before I could put a blog post or a Facebook group together, someone beat me to it, and frankly, I couldn't be happier that they did.

The pastor of a UCC Church in Gainesville (where God lived for a few years, before Tim Tebow graduated) has proposed a "Read the Quran Day". I'm going to participate, and I hope you will, too.

The best alternative to the kind of ignorance and hatred displayed by Terry Jones and his church is education. Grab a copy of the Quran from your local library or look it up online. If you'd like to go the extra mile, pick up a copy of Islam for Dummies (written by one of my professors from my Butler University days, Malcom Clark).

Take some time to educate yourself and you'll see that Islam is a beautiful religion and we have nothing to fear from Muslims. Sure, there are violent extremists, but we have them in Christianity, too. They're called the KKK. To say nothing of televangelists who joyfully advocate bombing our enemies (not exactly how Jesus said to deal with them).

If you're still against Islam, that's certainly your right, but at least you'll understand what it is you're against. As GI Joe said, "knowing is half the battle".

To see the deep irony of the Quran burning, check out this parody commercial. (Warning- some NSFWish language here)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Quote of the Day

Sometimes I think John the Revelator might have been a crazy old man whose creative writing assignment for the Patmos learning annex accidentally made it into the Bible.

from Rachel Held EvansEvolving in Monkey Town: How A Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions

Evans' book is one of the many excellent spiritual memoirs that have come out in the last few years. I didn't grow up a small town evangelical like she did, but I found a lot that I could relate to in this book. Check this book out.