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Eternal beasts (or ‘Is this cat in heaven?’ part 2)

18 Apr

"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks (c. 1834)

I like to think that one of the gifts in the age to come will be enjoying lap time with my cat and maybe the company of other animals, but Sister Mary Martha will have none of that. No way, no how, the blogging sister says. (Motto: “Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.”) But even she acknowledges that many Christians think otherwise, and so they do. A recent article in Christianity Today, which I mentioned in my last post, offered a range of opinions.

Jewish thought is just as ambiguous. (Look here and here, for examples.) Jewish commentators hint at a possible dividing line: The Aristotelian-leaning rabbis, such as the great medieval scholar Maimonides, are less inclined to see a place in heaven for animals. But the more mystically inclined, such as those who follow Kabbalah, think animals will be in heaven, in part because their rabbis taught that souls transmigrated—that human souls not ready for heaven enter the bodies of animals (ideally kosher ones, of course). But that’s another issue.

Muslims, on the other hand, generally agree that the Koran teaches animals will be in paradise, part of the enjoyment God promises to his faithful ones. The Islamic concept of “Jannah,” or paradise, differs dramatically from the Christian, but I’m struck by the reasoning here. Animals, Muslims say, do what they were created to do by God, and so they “submit” to him–an important word, since that’s what the word “Islam” means. From that perspective, it makes that sense that God would admit them to paradise. That is, if I’m interpreting this teaching correctly, Muslims say God allows animals into heaven, rather than excludes them, precisely because they don’t have the choices we do, and he will be merciful.

I don’t know if we’ll reunite with pets and other animals in heaven. I hope so: they would fit with the joy.

I know, I know: there are all kinds of logical objections. If animals go to heaven, for instance, will we have to put up with mosquitoes and cockroaches for eternity? (C.S. Lewis helpfully pointed out in the Problem of Pain that “if the worst came to worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”)

Maybe the bigger question here is why I—why we—are so taken by this question. Why does this matter? Perhaps the way we think about animals offers clues to how we think about the creation and even the creator. I want my old cat in heaven because he was worth something, part of God’s good creation, and I like to think that God is generous even to cats and dogs, not to mention lambs and wolves who can enjoy a peaceful meal together.

I imagine heaven would give animals the same essential gift we Homo sapiens hope for: to live fully as intended. Dear departed Stache will get to live out his perfected “catness,” whatever that means, much as I look forward to fully live out my perfected “humanness.”

One last thought: If we embrace the idea of a God who cares for his creatures even into eternity, shouldn’t we care about them as well in the here and now?

Is this cat in heaven?

16 Apr

Stache

My cat, Stache, died almost six weeks ago. More precisely, I had him “put to sleep,” as the euphemism goes. Kidney failure finally brought him down, but it was only a matter of time in any case. He missed his 17th birthday by only a few weeks.

That cat was around for most of our family’s life. We watched him being born, one-fourth of a litter. He and his brother, Biggin (as in “Big One,” because he was), moved back and forth across the country with us and, odd as it seems, they became one of the few constants in our lives during those years.

I wrote this note and posted a photo on my Facebook page the night Stache died:

“RIP Stache (1995-2012), beloved and affectionate cat. (Pronounced “Stash,” as in ‘Moustache.’) Traveler (Ohio, Colorado, Tennessee), adventurer, hunter, sometime lord of the manor, and a virtual member of the family for almost 17 years. Peacefully “put to sleep” today with advanced kidney failure. Stache and his twin brother, Biggin (d. 2007) make me hope that animals are in heaven.”

The response astounded me: dozens of notes of sympathy and assurance, including this one from Paul, an esteemed church historian: “Yes, there will be dogs and cats in heaven, but the cats and dogs will lie down peacefully together next to the lions and the lambs. Really sorry to hear this, because pets are family members and they ‘make history.’”

When I went to bed that same night, I felt myself waiting for him to jump up and curl behind my knees. I mentally checked myself and then sat up and cried like a baby. It took about three weeks for me to stop looking for him to come out from the flowerbed or greet me in the driveway when I pulled in from work or jogged back after a run.

A 17-year habit is hard to break. A 17-year relationship, even with a cat, is hard to let go.

I let the subject slide until last week. Then a Time cover story (April 16) about heaven appeared, summarizing the view that heaven is more tangible than we often think. Would that include animals? (This followed a Feb. 20 cover story about animal friendships.)

And then Christianity Today published a forum in its April issue, specifically asking: “Do Pets Go to Heaven?

So between articles in major magazines, the overwhelming response from friends, including some I haven’t heard from in years, and my own experience (and the fact that Americans spent almost $51 billion on their pets last year, according to the American Pet Products Association), this seemed like a subject worth thinking about.

The three Christians who responded in the Christianity Today article, all evangelical Protestants, were hopeful but noncommittal. Reuniting with Fido (or Stache and Biggin, in my case) is a warm and fuzzy idea, but there’s not a theological consensus.

That’s pretty much the case if we look more broadly. The Roman Catholic Catechism, for example, doesn’t explicitly say one way or the other. It does, however, distinguish between “animal souls” and “eternal souls.” Thus, many Catholic and other Christian thinkers follow the logic and say that because animals’ souls aren’t eternal and because they can’t choose to believe or follow God, they can’t be in heaven.

Others, however, point to all the biblical verses that affirm the value of animals as part of God’s creation, as symbols of his “peaceable kingdom” (Isaiah 65, etc.), and even objects of his salvation. (Take a look at the last verse in the book of Job.) All this, many Christians say, would say that animals are part of God’s eternal plan.

We haven’t even considered what Jews and Muslims think. That’s in the next post.

Disaster … That’s entertainment

17 Mar

[T]ragedy is promoted on television as if it were entertainment: the trial of O.J. Simpson for a grisly murder, the car-crash death of Princess Diana, Chilean miners trapped below ground and yes, even the combination earthquake-tsunami-nuclear calamity in Japan. It is the nature of TV that everything is promoted the same way, no matter how ghastly the event.
There are rewards for doing so. According to FishbowlDC, “The Japan tragedy sets a new record for CNN.com with more than 60 million viewers watching.”

So writes Roger Simon of Politico.com. His complaint (posted March 17) echoes Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1985 classic critique of the “Age of Television,” which includes prescient passages like this:

There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening — that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now … this.” The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds, that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let’s say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.

That’s not precisely what’s going on now, in the age of 24/7 cable TV information, but Postman was on to something.

Go here to read Roger Simon’s column, which includes several other trenchant points.

The Adjustment Bureau: Stylish, thoughtful, clever and full of holes

7 Mar

The Adjustment Bureau is a fine, fun movie that’s a good place to start a conversation about free will, fate, “God’s plan for my life,” and all that. But it’s not a good place to finish that conversation. Go see this movie — it could make for a smarter-than-usual date flick — but do not let it change your theology, cosmology. psychology or any other -ology.

The Adjustment Bureau, based on an old story by  legendary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, stars Matt Damon as David Norris, a talented, up-and-coming New York politician who meets and falls in love with Elise Sellas, a talented, up-and-coming modern dancer played by Emily Blunt. But they’re not supposed to be together, according to a cosmic plan sketched out by a godlike “Chairman.”

We never see the Chairman, but we are introduced to members of the Adjustment Bureau — supernatural “case officers” dressed in 60s-style suits, overcoats and fedoras who monitor people’s comings and goings and, if necessary, perform incremental “adjustments” to make sure the humans stay on their life plans. John Slattery  (AMC’s “Mad Men”), Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”) and Terence Stamp are the main “bureaucrats” working on the David-Elise case.

The Adjustment Bureau could have either veered off into silliness or into a cinematic slog through existential philosophy. To the film’s credit, it does neither: We get to enjoy a very human story while playing mind games with what it all means.  Damon and Blunt make the movie click: they have great on-screen chemistry. (Note to casting directors: Return to this pairing, but not too often. Please don’t make them a cliché.) The movie finished second in the box office during its opening weekend.

The ideas behind the story derive not from just a good question, but some of the great questions that have inspired and haunted humans for ages, from the 4,600-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh (perhaps the world’s oldest written story) to meditations on the Nazi Holocaust. How much of life is controlled by fate, by God? Do humans have free will? Is there anything such as pure, random chance?

This is like native soil for director and screenwriter George Nolfi, who carries both an enviable box-office record (Ocean’s Eleven, The Bourne Ultimatum) and a notable educational pedigree: After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton (public policy), he did graduate work in philosophy at Oxford and in political science at UCLA.

No surprise, then, that he’s given us a movie that’s not only stylish, clever and often slyly humorous. (Metaphysical case workers doze on the job, misunderstand the boss and must deal with staff shortages — some truths really are universal.) It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking too.

Still, I felt frustrated at several points. For instance, Nolfi seems to lump all concepts of god and/or fate together, without any nuance: ancient Greek myth, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, pantheist … it all comes out in the wash. I don’t know his personal religious views, but his movie’s concept of a deity was like an Impressionist painting: interesting and engaging when considered from a distance, but fairly muddy when viewed up close.

As enjoyable as The Adjustment Bureau is (yes, I’d watch it again), it won’t take long during a post-movie chat to start poking holes in the movie’s “universe.” That random events seem to happen isn’t the problem: that’s one of the movie’s central questions. But there are also points of incoherence that aren’t satisfactorily covered by the “laws” of the story. What was Elise’s motivation at a key point in the story? What was the “fate” of one of the agents who bent the rules? Is a very good, really long kiss actually that powerful? (I’m trying not to give away any spoilers.)

And where can I get a hat like that?

Sex and the church (Hooray for Hollywood)

4 Feb

Hollywood Boulevard, from the Kodak Theater

It’s a safe guess that only a few pastors can utter the following sentence: “They do casting for porn films in our building.”

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood is the only one who can. Just to be clear: the church hasn’t sold its soul to supplement its offerings. It leases space in a building two blocks from the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine, and the skin-flick casting company happens to be in the same building.

The church is also next door to Ultra Vixen Vampwear, a lingerie shop that counts strippers among its customers. (“We have a wonderful relationship” with the store, Barkley said. “They put up signs for our Christmas Eve service. We give them cards.” He doesn’t personally walk in; he leaves that to women church members.)

Ecclesia (from the Greek word for “church”) Hollywood was planted five years ago; Barkley and his wife were among the first leaders, and he became the lead pastor a year ago. It’s a theologically conservative nondenominational church that was running about 500 last December. Now it’s closer to 800.

Why the growth? You might call it sexual attraction.

At the start of January, the church started “Skin,” a series of Sunday sermons and weekly study groups that deal frankly with sex. It started with the first three chapters of Genesis and moved into the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 5, 6 and 15, if you’re keeping score). Last week Barkley talked about homosexuality.

This Sunday – known in some remote regions as Super Bowl Sunday – he will talk about pornography, one of about 300 churches participating in “Porn Sunday.” The timing was providential, Barkley said. Ecclesia planned the “Skin” series months ago, but when a friend of his, who leads the xxxchurch.com, put together the Porn Sunday program, it fit nicely in to Ecclesia’s schedule. (NPR ran a segment about Porn Sunday on Thursday’s “All Things Considered.”)

So let’s think about this: a conservative church in the middle of Hollywood, talking about sex. A lot.

Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood

“I think it’s shocking to most of the city that there’s a church here,” Barkley told me on Thursday. “There’s an assumption that the rest of the city might make. They have this paradigm that what we have to say about sex is anemic, inadequate, judgmental.”

Try again.

“They’re surprised to find out Christians have fun talking about sex. Look, the whole account of creation in Genesis ends up with two people standing in a garden, buck naked,” he said. “We take that as a signal that God wants us to talk about it with freedom.”

Barkley’s elevator speech to explain “Skin” goes like this:

“In a culture where we no longer think the choices we make have any significance, we wanted to teach the revolutionary thought that your bodies actually matter, that they have eternal significance. Your body has a purpose … it’s not an accident. You were handcrafted. The fulfillment of that purpose is the privilege we have. So we’re trying to offer a recalibration of how we value our own bodies and what we’ve chosen to do with them.”

So “Skin” really isn’t about sex. It’s bigger than that, Barkley said, either standing Sigmund Freud on his head or spinning him in his grave.

“The biggest issue, the most nagging disease we deal with, is isolation,” he explained. “We minister to orphans and dreamers. Most people moved here from somewhere else both to chase a dream and to get away from something. They have no roots, no tradition, no sense of family. After a while they realize what that vacuum is doing to their soul. Sexual brokenness is directly linked to that sense of fear, of isolation.”

So the teaching about sex, he said, is in some ways “ancillary, a device that God is using to get to the root of the problems.”

Something’s clicking, if numbers mean anything. Maybe sex really does sell, even for church. But Barkley spoke more about all the conversations he’s been having since the series began, including a constantly ringing phone and 70-plus daily e-mails he’s been getting, a load that’s “off the charts.”

He’s especially glad that people who disagree with him say they’re going to stick around and keep listening.

“Generally, people are appreciative for us being honest,” he said. “A huge value of ours is vulnerability. People are almost surprised at the transparency with how we’re talking about sex. … We try to be honest, with as much plain language as possible. I’ve given the PG-13 disclaimer for parents from the pulpit.”

Barkley is convinced everyone in the room has some kind of sexual dysfunction. Easily half of the congregation on any given Sunday is struggling with addiction to porn in some way, he said. Honesty is the only option, considering where the church is situated and that about 90 percent of its members work in the movie industry (including some whom we’d probably recognize, if he were to name them).

“We’re trying to build a strong church, not a safe church,” he said. “I don’t want to spoon-feed people; I want us to think like grownups, to have the equipment to make theological decisions about life. How is my sexuality a demonstration of the image of God? We’re not helping anybody if we’re not having honest conversations about this.”

F2F Finale: That’s all, folks

16 Jan

This is my final “Face to Faith” column. It’s been a good run, since June 2003. If you’re keeping score, that’s 346 columns.

First, the thank-you notes. Thanks to the editors of the Johnson City Press for the opportunity to explore a lot of interesting territory. Thanks also to friends and colleagues who have generously offered their ideas, suggestions and encouragement.

Thanks to the countless people who let me share their expertise, insights, experiences and voices in this space. One of my favorite parts of being a journalist is the privilege of meeting people I would never otherwise get to know.

Finally, thanks to you for reading and for sending your comments, criticisms (honest!) and compliments. Even more, I appreciate your joining me in looking at all sorts of subjects through the lens of religion. One of my favorite parts of covering religion has been the variety, with the chance to write about everything from Trinitarian doctrine to tax law.

The breadth of religion, as well as its depth, is not a small point. More than ever, we need all the tools we can manage to help us understand our world, and it’s no secret that dozens of important news stories every week – whether in our front yard or on the other side of the globe – are ripe with religious meanings, causes and effects.

So before I go, let me suggest seven topics to keep tabs on, listed in no particular order. These aren’t predictions. Let’s just call this a kind of heads-up memo.

The unbuckling of the Bible Belt. I’ve regularly called our region “the area formerly known as the Bible Belt.” No doubt this place still has a different religious climate than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Even so, church attendance is lower than the national average and actual behavior and attitudes about several key social issues mirror the rest of America. With the increasing secularization of society and growing cultural diversity, we’re not as distinct as we used to be (or maybe like to think we are).

The continuing rise of syncretism. “Syncretism” is a fancy word for mixing beliefs and practices into a kind of spiritual stew, an inclination some people have tagged with labels like “me-ism” or “cafeteria religion.” This is a long-time trend, but I was reminded of its power and attraction when I saw “Avatar” last week. (See below, “impact of media, The.”) Regardless of what someone thinks of this development, it’s one that has real implications for how we view the world.

The politics of sex. I can’t think of one sex-related controversy being debated in the public square – birth control, homosexuality, the meaning of marriage (including same-sex marriage and civil unions) – that isn’t shaped by religious belief.

The impact of media. This issue goes beyond debates over the content of TV shows and movies. The media we invent – and how we use them – affect us. For example: In a digital world, how do you define a “community”? Is a church a church if it’s only on the Internet, or is a vague acquaintance on Facebook a “friend”?

The definition of “human.” Far from being a philosophical abstraction for eggheads, the question of what it means to be human is on our doorstep in a dozen ways. The abortion and end-of-life debates are prime examples. For future reference, we’ll also need to consider if there’s a point at which someone treated with cloning, genetic engineering or robotics might not be considered a fully human being anymore.

The spiritual dimensions of money. It’s not just the matter of garden-variety greed or even Bernie Madoff’s unfathomable fraud. Dozens of economic answers can raise scores of religious and spiritual questions. In other words: Are any religious, spiritual or moral issues connected to health care, jobs, welfare, education, foreign aid (think of Haiti this week), war, credit and debt (both personal and national), advertising and marketing, crime, the justice system or the care of elderly people?

The persistence of church-state controversies. Thanks to the massive gray area written into the U.S. Constitution and lived out in American history, the familiar tensions over faith and public life will continue. After 223 years, why stop now? This is part of our national DNA.

That’s all. In the words of an ancient Christian greeting: Grace and peace to you. Amen.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 Jan 2010.

The Top 10: Religion news in 2009

3 Jan

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June, when he declared his desire to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” was the biggest religion story of the year, according to a survey of the Religion Newswriters Association.

In his wide-ranging address, Obama said that the U.S. and Islam “overlap and share common principles … of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” focusing those themes on seven specific issues. The president quoted the Qur’an, the Bible and the Talmud as he held out the prospect of a relationship “based on mutual interest and mutual respect (and) based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”

The speech was well received by local Muslims, according to Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.

“On the whole, it was a very positive speech,” Aziz recalled this week. “The general perception of the U.S. (by most Muslim countries) was negative, and I think the president was trying to improve that. I think it’s a good step.”

It was significant that the president delivered the speech at a highly regarded university in a historic Muslim capital, he said.

“Using the greeting of ‘Assalamu Alaykum’ (Peace be unto you) was a nice touch,” Aziz added. ”I liked the way he said would like to deal with issues and conflicts in the world today.”

But how Obama’s words will ultimately translate into policy is not yet clear, and so members of the Muslim community also feel wary, particularly about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which the president addressed at length.

“(Obama’s) bias towards Israel was very evident,” according to Aziz. “On the one hand he said, ‘Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.’ And then he went onto speak about the Israelis and the elevated status they had with the U.S.”

So Aziz doubts that the U.S. can act as an honest broker in the Middle East, “and that is what is needed.” On the other hand, American Muslims understand “that if he does not toe the Israeli line, he may stand to lose the next election.”

Here is the complete list of the year’s Top 10 Religion Stories, as selected by active members of Religion Newswriters Association:

1. President Obama pledges a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations and reaches out to the world’s Muslims during a major speech at Cairo University.

2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 political topic for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.

3. Because Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, was considered a devout Muslim, the role of that faith in terrorism again comes under review.

4. Dr. Carl Tiller of Wichita, Kan., regarded as the country’s leading abortion provider, is gunned down in his Lutheran church.

5. Mormons in California come under attack from some supporters of gay rights because of their lobbying efforts in the November 2008 election on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Later in the year, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire approve gay marriage, but it is overturned by voters in Maine.

6. Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame after fierce debates at the Roman Catholic university over Obama’s views on abortion.

7. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votes to ordain gay and lesbian clergy living in a committed monogamous relationship, prompting a number of conservative churches to move toward forming a new denomination.

8. The recession forces cutbacks at a variety of faith-related organizations.

9. The Episcopal Church Triennial Convention votes to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury not to do so. In December the Los Angeles diocese chooses a lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as assistant bishop.

10. Obama’s presidential inauguration includes a controversial invocation by Rick Warren and a controversial benediction by Joseph Lowery, as well as a pre-ceremony prayer by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Dec 2009.

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