03/31/14

Advice for a Happy Life by Charles Murray

Consider marrying young. Be wary of grand passions. Watch ‘Groundhog Day’ (again). Advice on how to live to the fullest 

By

CHARLES MURRAY
Updated March 30, 2014 1:01 a.m. ET

Consider marrying young. Be wary of grand passions. Watch “Groundhog Day” repeatedly. Charles Murray, author of “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead,” joins the News Hub with some advice for young adults on living a good life. Photo: Getty Images.

The transition from college to adult life is treacherous, and this is nowhere more visible than among new college graduates in their first real jobs. A few years ago, I took it upon myself to start writing tips for the young staff where I work about how to avoid doing things that would make their supervisors write them off. It began as a lark as I wrote tips with titles such as, “Excise the word ‘like’ from your spoken English.”

But eventually, I found myself getting into the deeper waters of how to go about living a good life. At that point, I had to deal with a reality: When it comes to a life filled with deep and lasting satisfactions, most of the clichés are true. How could I make them sound fresh to a new generation? Here’s how I tried.

1. Consider Marrying Young

The age of marriage for college graduates has been increasing for decades, and this cultural shift has been a good thing. Many 22-year-olds are saved from bad marriages because they go into relationships at that age assuming that marriage is still out of the question.

But should you assume that marriage is still out of the question when you’re 25? Twenty-seven? I’m not suggesting that you decide ahead of time that you will get married in your 20s. You’ve got to wait until the right person comes along. I’m just pointing out that you shouldn’t exclude the possibility. If you wait until your 30s, your marriage is likely to be a merger. If you get married in your 20s, it is likely to be a startup.

Merger marriages are what you tend to see on the weddings pages of the Sunday New York Times: highly educated couples in their 30s, both people well on their way to success. Lots of things can be said in favor of merger marriages. The bride and groom may be more mature, less likely to outgrow each other or to feel impelled, 10 years into the marriage, to make up for their lost youth.

But let me put in a word for startup marriages, in which the success of the partners isn’t yet assured. The groom with his new architecture degree is still designing stairwells, and the bride is starting her third year of medical school. Their income doesn’t leave them impoverished, but they have to watch every penny.

5 Rules for a Happy Life

Charles Murray offers some tips on how to live to the fullest, adapted from his new book, ‘The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead.’ Luci Gutiérrez

What are the advantages of a startup marriage? For one thing, you will both have memories of your life together when it was all still up in the air. You’ll have fun remembering the years when you went from being scared newcomers to the point at which you realized you were going to make it.

Even more important, you and your spouse will have made your way together. Whatever happens, you will have shared the experience. And each of you will know that you wouldn’t have become the person you are without the other.

Many merger marriages are happy, but a certain kind of symbiosis, where two people become more than the sum of the individuals, is perhaps more common in startups.

2. Learn How to Recognize Your Soul Mate

Ready for some clichés about marriage? Here they come. Because they’re true.

Marry someone with similar tastes and preferences. Which tastes and preferences? The ones that will affect life almost every day.

It is OK if you like the ballet and your spouse doesn’t. Reasonable people can accommodate each other on such differences. But if you dislike each other’s friends, or don’t get each other’s senses of humor or—especially—if you have different ethical impulses, break it off and find someone else.

Personal habits that you find objectionable are probably deal-breakers. Jacques Barzun identified the top three as punctuality, orderliness and thriftiness. It doesn’t make any difference which point of the spectrum you’re on, he observed: “Some couples are very happy living always in debt, always being late, and finding leftover pizza under a sofa cushion.” You just have to be at the same point on the spectrum. Intractable differences will become, over time, a fingernail dragged across the blackboard of a marriage.

What you see is what you’re going to get. If something about your prospective spouse bothers you but you think that you can change your beloved after you’re married, you’re wrong. Be prepared to live with whatever bothers you—or forget it. Your spouse will undoubtedly change during a long marriage but not in ways you can predict or control.

It is absolutely crucial that you really, really like your spouse. You hear it all the time from people who are in great marriages: “I’m married to my best friend.” They are being literal. A good working definition of “soul mate” is “your closest friend, to whom you are also sexually attracted.”

Here are two things to worry about as you look for that person: Do you sometimes pick at each other’s sore spots? You like the same things, have fun together, the sex is great, but one of you is controlling, or nags the other, or won’t let a difference of opinion go or knowingly says things that will hurt you. Break it off.

Another cause for worry is the grand passion. You know a relationship is a grand passion if you find yourself behaving like an adolescent long after adolescence has passed—you are obsessed and a more than a little crazy. Not to worry. Everyone should experience at least one grand passion. Just don’t act on it while the storm is raging.

A good marriage is the best thing that can ever happen to you. Above all else, realize that this cliché is true. The downside risks of marrying—and they are real—are nothing compared with what you will gain from a good one.

 

3. Eventually Stop Fretting About Fame and Fortune

One of my assumptions about you is that you are ambitious—meaning that you hope to become famous, rich or both, and intend to devote intense energy over the next few decades to pursuing those dreams. That is as it should be. I look with suspicion on any talented 20-something who doesn’t feel that way. I wish you luck.

But suppose you arrive at age 40, and you enjoy your work, have found your soul mate, are raising a couple of terrific kids—and recognize that you will probably never become either rich or famous. At that point, it is important to supplement your youthful ambition with mature understanding.

Years ago, I was watching a television profile of David Geffen, the billionaire music and film producer. At some point, he said, “Show me someone who thinks that money buys happiness, and I’ll show you someone who has never had a lot of money.” The remark was accompanied by an ineffably sad smile on Mr. Geffen’s face, which said that he had been there, done that and knew what he was talking about. The whole vignette struck me in a way that “money can’t buy happiness” never had, and my visceral reaction was reinforced by one especially memorable shot during the profile, taken down the length of Mr. Geffen’s private jet, along the rows of empty leather seats and sofas, to where he sat all alone in the rear.

The problem that you face in your 20s and 30s is that you are gnawed by anxiety that you won’t be a big success. It is an inevitable side effect of ambition. My little story about David Geffen won’t help—now. Pull it out again in 20 years.

Fame and wealth do accomplish something: They cure ambition anxiety. But that’s all. It isn’t much.

4. Take Religion Seriously

Don’t bother to read this one if you’re already satisfyingly engaged with a religious tradition.

Now that we’re alone, here’s where a lot of you stand when it comes to religion: It isn’t for you. You don’t mind if other people are devout, but you don’t get it. Smart people don’t believe that stuff anymore.

I can be sure that is what many of you think because your generation of high-IQ, college-educated young people, like mine 50 years ago, has been as thoroughly socialized to be secular as your counterparts in preceding generations were socialized to be devout. Some of you grew up with parents who weren’t religious, and you’ve never given religion a thought. Others of you followed the religion of your parents as children but left religion behind as you were socialized by college.

By socialized, I don’t mean that you studied theology under professors who persuaded you that Thomas Aquinas was wrong. You didn’t study theology at all. None of the professors you admired were religious. When the topic of religion came up, they treated it dismissively or as a subject of humor. You went along with the zeitgeist.

I am describing my own religious life from the time I went to Harvard until my late 40s. At that point, my wife, prompted by the birth of our first child, had found a religious tradition in which she was comfortable, Quakerism, and had been attending Quaker meetings for several years. I began keeping her company and started reading on religion. I still describe myself as an agnostic, but my unbelief is getting shaky.

Taking religion seriously means work. If you’re waiting for a road-to-Damascus experience, you’re kidding yourself. Getting inside the wisdom of the great religions doesn’t happen by sitting on beaches, watching sunsets and waiting for enlightenment. It can easily require as much intellectual effort as a law degree.

Even dabbling at the edges has demonstrated to me the depths of Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism. I assume that I would find similar depths in Islam and Hinduism as well. I certainly have developed a far greater appreciation for Christianity, the tradition with which I’m most familiar. The Sunday school stories I learned as a child bear no resemblance to Christianity taken seriously. You’ve got to grapple with the real thing.

Start by jarring yourself out of unreflective atheism or agnosticism. A good way to do that is to read about contemporary cosmology. The universe isn’t only stranger than we knew; it is stranger and vastly more unlikely than we could have imagined, and we aren’t even close to discovering its last mysteries. That reading won’t lead you to religion, but it may stop you from being unreflective.

Find ways to put yourself around people who are profoundly religious. You will encounter individuals whose intelligence, judgment and critical faculties are as impressive as those of your smartest atheist friends—and who also possess a disquieting confidence in an underlying reality behind the many religious dogmas.

They have learned to reconcile faith and reason, yes, but beyond that, they persuasively convey ways of knowing that transcend intellectual understanding. They exhibit in their own personae a kind of wisdom that goes beyond just having intelligence and good judgment.

Start reading religious literature. You don’t have to go back to Aquinas (though that wouldn’t be a bad idea). The past hundred years have produced excellent and accessible work, much of it written by people who came to adulthood as uninvolved in religion as you are.

5. Watch ‘Groundhog Day’ Repeatedly

The movie “Groundhog Day” was made more than two decades ago, but it is still smart and funny. It is also a brilliant moral fable that deals with the most fundamental issues of virtue and happiness, done with such subtlety that you really need to watch it several times.

By the end of ‘Groundhog Day,’ Bill Murray’s character has discovered the secrets of human happiness.Everett Collection

An egocentric TV weatherman played by Bill Murray is sent to Punxsutawney, Pa., to cover Groundhog Day. He hates the assignment, disdains the town and its people, and can’t wait to get back to Pittsburgh. But a snowstorm strikes, he’s stuck in Punxsutawney, and when he wakes up the next morning, it is Groundhog Day again. And again and again and again.

The director and co-writer Harold Ramis, whose death last month was mourned by his many fans, estimated that the movie has to represent at least 30 or 40 years’ worth of days. We see only a few dozen of them, ending when Bill Murray’s character has discovered the secrets of human happiness.

Without the slightest bit of preaching, the movie shows the bumpy, unplanned evolution of his protagonist from a jerk to a fully realized human being—a person who has learned to experience deep, lasting and justified satisfaction with life even though he has only one day to work with.

You could learn the same truths by studying Aristotle’s “Ethics” carefully, but watching “Groundhog Day” repeatedly is a lot more fun.

This essay is adapted from Mr. Murray’s new book, “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life,” which will be published April 8 by Random House. He is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

03/31/14

Book Review: ‘How the West Won,’ by Rodney Stark

A mighty engine for growth—avoiding asceticism on the one hand and profligate consumerism on the other.

 Henrik Bering
March 30, 2014 5:24 p.m. ET
One of the most striking traits of American and European academics is a kind of masochism that manifests itself in books celebrating the superior claims of cultures not their own. Fortunately, a few unapologetic defenders of Western civilization can still be found. In “How the West Won,” Rodney Stark details how and why the vital aspects of modernity—defined here as a combination of sensible economic arrangements, political freedoms and scientific knowledge—developed in the West rather than elsewhere. In the process he adds considerably to the content of the old Western Civ courses, which would often discreetly ignore the contribution of Christianity and neglect practical matters such as advances in technology and banking.

Surveying the great empires of the past—Egyptian, Roman, Ottoman and Chinese—Mr. Stark identifies as their common denominator the greed of the ruling classes, who thwarted their subjects’ motivation to produce with confiscatory taxes and lawless seizure. Without property rights, people could only hide and hoard. These empires built great public works through forced labor, but their populations were stuck in poverty for centuries.

Busily consuming rather than investing, imperial elites saw work as degrading: As a sign of their superiority, the Mandarins had their long fingernails encased in silver sheaths. And the elites were generally hostile to invention and improvements in technology. China is credited with inventing the blast furnace, Mr. Stark notes, but in the 11th century the Chinese court killed a budding private iron industry as a threat to its rule. In 1485, the Ottoman Empire banned the printing press. Both the Chinese and the Ottoman empires forbade the mechanical clock.

How the West Won

By Rodney Stark
(ISI, 455 pages, $27.95)

Mr. Stark contrasts such balkiness to medieval Europe’s ready adoption of new technologies such as gunpowder, the blast furnace, watermills and windmills. “Invention per se is not the most crucial factor to consider with technologies,” he says. “More crucial is the extent to which the culture values inventions and puts them to use.” In Europe, the culture was defined by Christianity.

The link between Christianity and a dynamic economy was famously outlined by Max Weber in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1904-05). By combining restraint with a striving for profit, Weber argued, the “frugal entrepreneur” in Protestant Europe hit upon a mighty engine for growth, avoiding asceticism on the one hand and profligate consumerism on the other.

As elegant as this theory is, Mr. Stark notes, historians have long known that the birth of capitalism lies further back in time, in what is referred to as the Dark Ages, when Europe was supposedly benighted by the narrow doctrines of the early medieval church. Mr. Stark is having none of it. Capitalism’s source, he says—and the seeds of modernity itself—can be found in Christianity’s emphasis on reason and free will. Toaism, Confucianism and Buddhism dissolve in vague mysticism, he says, while for Muslims doctrine is forever fixed, and the main task of their clerics is to enforce the commands of Allah. By contrast, one finds an eminent Christian philosopher like St. Augustine arguing that man can reach a deeper understanding of God through the use of his reason.

“The most fundamental key to the rise of the western civilization,” writes Mr. Stark, “has been the dedication of its most brilliant minds to the pursuit of knowledge.” Not only about God but about his whole creation. Hence Europe owes the founding of its great universities to the Scholastics, the medieval scholars of Christian theology. For Mr. Stark, “the Dark Ages is a myth invented by 18th century intellectuals determined to slander Christianity and celebrate their own sagacity. It was in this period that Europe took the great technological and intellectual leap forward that put it ahead of the world.”

In Mr. Stark’s telling, the teachings of St. Benedict, who branded idleness bad for the soul, helped nudge monastic estates toward an early form of capitalism. They invested the money earned from selling indulgences in farmland, which they cultivated using the latest methods. By the ninth century, about a third of the estates along the Paris part of the Seine had watermills, most of them on religious estates. The monasteries would also diversify, branching into banking and money lending; as Mr. Stark notes, they weren’t squeamish about foreclosing when a loan was not repaid.

For the first full-blown secular versions of capitalism, Mr. Stark turns to the Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice of the mid-12th century: As they developed as trading and manufacturing centers, power was extended down from the aristocracy, military and clergy to include merchants, bankers and representatives of the various crafts or trades, and the church played an active part in this democratization. In short, Max Weber’s Protestants did not invent something that the Venetians had not come up with long before.

It is true, Mr. Stark concedes, that the Counter-Reformation of the 16th century, with its emphasis on asceticism, was hostile to business and banking, a development that in turn lent credence to Weber’s Protestant-centered theory. It is also true that capitalism’s development in Europe was patchy. There was no lack of rapacious European despots, and modernity’s emergence was fitful. That Britain would go on to become the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution can come as no surprise, possessing as it did the right mix of freedom, property rights and an educated population. And it was equally natural that the U.S. should take over Britain position in the world, having been founded on the same values—many of them, Mr. Stark emphasizes, originating in religious belief and practice.

Mr. Bering is a journalist and critic.

03/26/14

1,300-year-old Egyptian mummy had tattoo of Archangel Michael

By 

Published March 26, 2014

| FoxNews.com

A mummy of an Egyptian woman dating back to 700 A.D. has been scanned and stripped to reveal a tattoo on her thigh that displays the name of the biblical archangel Michael.

The discovery, announced by researchers at the British Museum over the weekend, was made during a research project that used advanced medical scans, including Computed Tomography (CT) images, to examine Egyptian mummies at a number of hospitals in the United Kingdom last year.

The woman’s body was wrapped in a woolen and linen cloth before burial, and her remains were mummified in the desert heat. As deciphered by curators, the tattoo on her thigh, written in ancient Greek, reads Μιχαήλ, transliterated as M-I-X-A-H-A, or Michael.

Curators at the museum speculate that the tattoo was a symbol worn for religious and spiritual protection, though they declined to offer additional details.

But other scientists and theologians offered their thoughts on the tattoo’s cultural context.

“There was a sizable Christian population in Egypt in the 700s, perhaps close to a majority of the population,” said Maureen Tilley, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York.

“Like Greeks and Romans across the Mediterranean, the portion of the population that was literate was fascinated by the shapes of letters and delighted in making designs with letters in names. Hence, we have the odd shape of the tattoo composed of the letters.”

Placing the name of a powerful heavenly protector on one’s body by a tattoo or amulet was very common in antiquity, Tilley told Foxnews.com. “Christian women who were pregnant often placed amulets with divine or angelic names on bands on their abdomens to insure a safe delivery of their child,” she said.

“Placing the name on the inner thigh, as with this mummy, may have had some meaning for the hopes of childbirth or protection against sexual violation, as in ‘This body is claimed and protected.’ Michael is an obvious identity for a tattoo, as this is the most powerful of angels.”

Christian Gnostics, religious cultists in that era, were especially interested in the names and functions of intermediary beings between humans and the divine, Tilley noted.

“The Gospel of Truth and the Book of Enoch were both popular among them and have much about an angel whose story sounds very much like that of Archangel Michael in many Christian stories, the angel who led the heavenly army against Satan and the Fallen Angels.”

She added that Christians were not the only ones to use the names of angelic powers in ancient days. “Jews of antiquity were fascinated by the identity and nature of angels,” she said.

Villanova University biology professor Michael Zimmerman, who also has used advanced technologies to study Egyptian mummies, said this kind of find has been sought for years.

“I did participate in an expedition to the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt’s western desert several years ago,” he told FoxNews.com. “This was an early Christian site (around 200 AD), and the deceased were still being mummified, by simply being dried in the very hot climate.

“We did not see any tattoos on those mummies, so the British Museum find is remarkable.”

The museum, which is located in London, will reveal what it has learned about this and seven other mummies in “Ancient Lives: New Discoveries,” an exhibition scheduled to run from May 22 to Nov. 30.

John Taylor, lead curator of the ancient Egypt and Sudan department at the museum, told a local newspaper over the weekend that the exhibition will tell the story of the lives of eight people from antiquity, portraying them as full human beings, rather than as archeological objects.

Using sophisticated medical imaging usually reserved to study strokes and heart attacks, the research team discovered that these eight ancient individuals, whose remains have been held in the museum for some time, had many of the same traits that modern man does, including dental problems, high cholesterol levels and tattoos.

The exhibition portrays one mummy that dates back to 3,500 BC, as well as the tattooed female, aged between 20 and 35, who lived and died about 1,300 years ago. Researchers pointed out that regular Egyptians – not only the royals – were mummified.

The tattooed mummy, the remains of which were found less than a decade ago, was so well preserved that archaeologists could nearly discern the tattoo on the inner thigh of her right leg with the naked eye. But medical infrared technology helped them see it clearly.

The Vatican’s school of science, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, did not return multiple requests for comments made by FoxNews.com.

03/25/14

Dr. Charles Z. Gardner continues his Lent sermon series

 

The videos of our Sunday, March 23 worship service are now online. Dr. Charles Z. Gardner continues his Lent sermon series, this week focusing on Gifts: the gifts from God to us and the gifts we share with a world in need. Guest musicians Hannah Lee, on cello and piano, and Joshua Crook on French Horn enhance our already wonderful music experience. To view the whole worship service, please click here:

http://youtu.be/mKpvORNqVOc

To view just the sermon, “Gifts,” click here:

http://youtu.be/rVmyAFvKUXs

Atlanta First UMC 3/23/14 Worship Service
www.youtube.com
The Sunday, March 23, 2014 worship service of Atlanta First United Methodist Church. Sermon “Gifts” by Dr. Charles Z. Gardner. Sermon scripture: 2 Corinthian…
03/25/14

Vatican Chief Justice: Obama’s Policies ‘Have Become Progressively More Hostile Toward Christian Civilization’

News

March 24, 2014 11:14 AM

 Cardinal Leo Raymond Burke walks on St Peter's square after a cardinals' meeting on the eve of the start of a conclave on March 11, 2013 at the Vatican. (credit: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

Cardinal Leo Raymond Burke walks on St Peter’s square after a cardinals’ meeting on the eve of the start of a conclave on March 11, 2013 at the Vatican. (credit: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY (CBS St. Louis) — The Vatican’s chief justice feels that President Barack Obama’s policies have been hostile toward Christians.

In an interview with Polonia Christiana magazine –and transcribed by Life Site News — Cardinal Raymond Burke said that Obama “promotes anti-life and anti-family policies.”

“It is true that the policies of the president of the United States have become progressively more hostile toward Christian civilization. He appears to be a totally secularized man who aggressively promotes anti-life and anti-family policies,” Burke told the magazine.

The former archbishop of St. Louis stated that Obama is trying to “restrict” religion.

“Now he wants to restrict the exercise of the freedom of religion to freedom of worship, that is, he holds that one is free to act according to his conscience within the confines of his place of worship but that, once the person leaves the place of worship, the government can constrain him to act against his rightly-formed conscience, even in the most serious of moral questions,” Burke said.

Burke took a swipe against Obama’s Affordable Care Act over the law’s birth control mandate, saying “such policies would have been unimaginable in the United States even 40 years ago.”

“In a democracy, such a lack of awareness is deadly,” Burke told the magazine. “It leads to the loss of the freedom which a democratic government exists to protect. It is my hope that more and more of my fellow citizens, as they realize what is happening, will insist on electing leaders who respect the truth of the moral law as it is respected in the founding principles of our nation.”

Burke also believes there is hope that abortion will be overturned in the U.S.

“There is hope that the evil anti-life laws of the United States can be overthrown and that the anti-life movement which urges yet more of such legislation can be resisted,” Burke said. “The pro-life movement in the United States has been working since 1973 to reverse the unjust decision of the Supreme Court which struck down state laws prohibiting procured abortion. It is true that the Supreme Court decision stands, but it is also true that the pro-life movement has grown ever stronger in the United States, that is, that more and more citizens, especially young citizens, have been awakened to the truth about the grave evil of procured abortion.”

Pope Francis removed Burke from the Congregation for Bishops last December.

Obama will be meeting Pope Francis for the first time at the Vatican on Thursday.

03/25/14

Ritual is the DNA that defines who we are

A cultural Judaism stripped of religious practice is no recipe for survival

By Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, March 10, 2014
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Rituals like havdalah, marking the passage of Shabbat, enable us to pass on our values from one generation to anotherRituals like havdalah, marking the passage of Shabbat, enable us to pass on our values from one generation to another

The language of Judaism is ritual and, as quintessential moderns, we Jews have lost our appreciation for its expressive power. For one thing, we’re not very good at it and like normal adults we don’t like doing what we don’t do well.

Is there anything more nerve-wracking than having to recite alone the Aramaic mourner’s Kaddish in a synagogue service when we can barely read Hebrew? When speaking a foreign language poorly, we’re painfully self-conscious. Then as moderns, we value our individual autonomy above all else and bristle at the thought of having to fall in line. All too often, the piano lessons our parents subjected us to as youngsters failed to instil us with an appreciation for the instrument or music.

And yet without its ancient, salient and resonant language, Judaism falls mute. Its functions are as varied as our needs. Ritual can unite parents and children, bind members of a community and bring citizens of a country together.

Jewish ritual imbues us with a reverence for nature, making us better stewards of God’s creation. It is an inexhaustible source of sanctity. To kindle Shabbat candles Friday evening alters our home into a sacred space and to bless our children with the priestly blessing before kiddush is to tell them how much they mean to us.

To fast on Yom Kippur helps create the contraction conducive to self-reflection and contrition, a demanding effort with a modest ask: just one more year to do better. If Yom Kippur is for the pintele yid (“the Jewish spark within”) then the fast of Tishah b’Av takes up the fate of the nation, reminding us of the all too many dark days that have bloodied our history. Remarkably, the staves by which the ark with its stone tablets was carried in the wilderness were never to be removed once placed in the Tabernacle, a symbolic acknowledgement that impermanence is part of human existence.

Nothing is more illustrative of the tenacious grasp of ritual than the anguish-filled saga of the tens of thousands of New Christians created by the Catholic monarchies of Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries through forced conversions. Over generations many of them were secretly and at great risk able to preserve shards of memory through fragments of ritual observance.

Thus when Samuel Schwarz in 1917 tracked down an enclave of crypto-Jews in the mountains of northern Portugal, he identified himself to them by reciting the opening line of Shema Yisrael, at which the aged matriarch and preserver of group memory instinctively covered her eyes. The long-term fear of detection by the Inquisition had not crushed every single capillary of Jewish consciousness.

To my mind, the most worrisome statistic in the Pew Foundation Study of American Jewry and the recent Institute for Jewish Policy Research report on British Jewry is the more than 20 per cent (22 per cent for Pew and 24 per cent for JPR) whose Jewish identity is wholly secular, a percentage that rises steadily with each younger age cohort.

Despite the degrees of separation, some may still be valuable social capital for the Jewish people. But will their children be? Judaism’s ritual system, as shown by the Conversos, is also a medium of transmission. Rituals are vessels by which we pass on to the next generation our values, ethics and beliefs. How many of our rituals are connected to the doing of some form of social action. As abstractions, our inner states rarely grab. They need to be objectified and concretised, wrapped in sanctity, beauty and love till they become habitual.

Recently, Michael Steinhardt, who has certainly done more than his share for world Jewry, suggested that the alumni of Birthright (the Israel tour programme for young adults) get together for Shabbat meals on Friday evenings without its “encrusted … rituals and rules”.

As a secular Jew, he wrote, “it is at Shabbat meals – whether as a host or a guest — that I feel most profoundly and intimately Jewish”. But that is a gastronomic proposal that sucks the marrow right out of the bone! A Judaism stripped of its ritual language has no way to transmit its collective DNA to the next generation. Our challenge is to learn to speak that language better. Ritual doesn’t work if not fraught with a touch of existential intensity.

Rabbi Schorsch, chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, will be in London as guest of honour at a special Shabbat to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Belsize Square Synagogue, March 21/22. He will also speak at JW3 on March 24 and the New North London Synagogue on March 25.

03/25/14

Christians in captivity — the agony of waiting

By 

FoxNews.com
  • RTXZ8TK.jpg

    Orthodox Christian worshippers hold crosses as they take part in the Eastern and Orthodox Church’s Good Friday procession along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. (REUTERS)

Patience is in short supply these days. Despite our instant communication capabilities, just about everyone is waiting for something.  The phone doesn’t ring. The cable guy never shows up. A check is always “in the mail.”

Last week I found my own patience stretched into a thin membrane by a pile of complaints – thankfully small ones. But mostly I was struck by the inevitable silence of waiting. When we’re hoping for answers, no news is far from good news.

When we’re hoping for answers, no news is far from good news.

And in fact, it was bad news that distracted me from my own woes as a headline scrolled down my iPhone.“Asia Bibi appeal hearing postponed.”

Asia Bibi is a Pakistani Christian, and her name is familiar to those of us who follow international human rights. Her story is almost unbelievable – and all too true:

“In June 2009, Asia was involved in an argument with a group of Muslim women with whom she had been harvesting berries, after the other women became angry at her for drinking the same water as them. She was subsequently accused of insulting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, a charge she denies, and was arrested and imprisoned. In November 2010, a Sheikhupura judge sentenced her to death. If executed, Asia would be the first woman in Pakistan to be lawfully killed for blasphemy.”

Many have spoken out on Asia Bibi’s behalf, including Pope Benedict. Two prominent Pakistanis, Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Christian minorities,  and Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, were assassinated in 2011 for opposing Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws on her behalf.

Nonetheless, since 2009, this falsely accused woman has been on death row in a filthy prison cell, wondering if and when her death sentence will enforced. She longs for husband and five children. Day and night, in squalid surroundings, she fights off her fears, endures physical illness and prays.

Unsure if she will live or die, Asia Bibi waits.

Another story emerged last week from Iran, about US-citizen and former Muslim Pastor Saeed Abedini, who is serving an eight-year sentence because he “undermined the Iranian government by creating a network of Christian house churches and … attempting to sway Iranian youth away from Islam.”

Despite urgent requests for medical care – his body is internally wounded from abominable prison conditions including beatings and torture – he was denied treatment. Eventually, presumably under pressure from several international organizations’ outcry, Abedini was taken to a medical center, unshackled and even permitted a brief visit from a family member.

What happened after that? Once the encouraging proceedings passed, Abedini was still in pain, still bleeding from internal injuries. He remains hospitalized but untreated. Like Asia Bibi, he is the focus of much international prayer and non-governmental activism. Even the EU has spoken up, as has President Obama. But Abedini is entirely unsure about the future. Will he see his wife and two small children again? Will he live or die? He has been behind bars since September 26, 2012.

The family watches and keeps faith. Concerned people post and tweet and pray.

And day in, day out, Saeed Abedini waits.

Other captives are waiting, along with their loved ones, in Egypt. According to my friend and colleague, Coptic scholar Samuel Tadros, the big stories of church burnings and murdered Christians have diminished somewhat under Cairo’s new military regime.

But less publicized evils remain. Most notably, kidnappings are rampant. On March 20, MidEast Christians News reported that two young women, 17 and 18, were abducted in separate incidents just days before.

Coptic World observed, “Coptic children or adults abducted at gunpoint and held (and sometimes killed or forced to convert to Islam) by “unknown persons” in exchange for money—are on the rise in Egypt…”

Muslim kidnappings of Christians are also taking place in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and beyond. Captives are often raped, beaten, forcibly married, starved and eventually, if financial terms aren’t met, murdered.

Meanwhile, the victims’ loved ones worry, weep and console each other. Of course, like all believers they pray, recalling the ancient promise:

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint (Is 40:31).

So hoping against hope, they wait.

Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world and abuses have surged exponentially in recent years. At the same time, the United States government, once a global champion of religious freedom, offers dwindling intervention.

Reliance solely on the nations of the world to act, diplomatically or politically – with rare and notable exceptions – will likely result in the longest wait of all.

And waiting is agonizing.

 

Lela Gilbert is author of “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner” and co-author, with Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, of “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.” She is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Instituteand lives in Jerusalem. For more, visit her website:www.lelagilbert.com. Follow her on Twitter@lelagilbert.

03/21/14

Post-Purim reflections on women’s empowerment

By MARINA SMOLYANOV

03/20/2014 17:04
Since last year my costume for Purim was Queen Esther, I remembered how inspired I was from learning about this woman’s courage in one of the boldest biblical stories.

The Queen Esther of the carnival in 1934

The Queen Esther of the carnival in 1934 Photo: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.
I realized today that this is a unique year where we celebrate International Women’s Day and the Jewish joyful holiday of Purim, just a week apart. Without realizing it, I got carried away making a comparison between women’s rights in Israel, the Middle East and Guatemala. Unfortunately, the gaps of inequality in those countries are still significant, but Israel is an example of a country where women are more influential and are being heard. It also made me think about the inspiring women I know, and even about the role of women in the Bible. Since last year my costume for Purim was Queen Esther, I remembered how inspired I was from learning about this woman’s courage in one of the boldest biblical stories.

Coming from the Middle East where in general, women are frequently excluded from public life and are even being abused, I can proudly say that Israeli women stand out as leaders in all walks of life, including law, politics, conflict resolution and civil service. In fact, since the inauguration of our new government in 2013, we have had four female ministers and three female heads of political parties, and women are represented almost equally in our judiciary and academic systems. Yes, it is true that there is still a lot to be done to ensure equality for all residents and citizens of Israel. In the meantime, many women’s rights organizations are working passionately these days to improve access to healthcare for women while encountering discrimination in the religious and family court systems, and advocating for equal representation of women in public institutions, and within the media and in business.

I am personally familiar with Israeli activism through involvement in protesting for women’s rights.

I was surprised to discover that 10,000 people were marching here in Guatemala City for women’s rights as part of International Women’s Day. I learned that they were marching for raising awareness of the crucial role that local women’s movements play, and for improving the status of Guatemalan women in society. They also marched for the elimination of economic, political, ethnic and social inequalities, and in order to reinforce compliance with their individual and collective human rights.

I found out that in Latin America — in countries like Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico and Chile — women’s trade unions where they are dedicated to the struggle for women’s voting rights and for social justice at the workplace, initiated the International Women’s Day celebrations.

In Guatemala, women started to raise their voices in the name of these causes in the early 80’s. But only since 1994 has a public institution been dedicated in a formal way for the commemoration for International Women’s Day. Currently, there are different legal frameworks that support Guatemalan women’s rights internationally and nationally. The Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala passed a Social Development Act to that effect, creating laws for fair access to family planning services and sexual and reproductive health; laws of dignity for women, laws against violence towards women; laws to prevent domestic and sexual violence; and laws against the exploitation and trafficking of women.

It made me think of the horrible stories about the trafficking of women and sexual slavery here in Guatemala, that I heard recently from my local friend, Gabriela. It was hard for me to digest that in our modern times we can still hear about this inhuman phenomenon, and that it is occurring right under our noses.

On a more positive note, I thought how symbolic it was that this year’s International Women’s Day and the Jewish joyful holiday of Purim are only a week apart from one another. Purim is a traditional Jewish holiday where we are supposed to come up with the most creative costumes for ourselves. It is also a unique celebration that comes to salute a woman’s (Esther’s) courage. Queen Esther was the savior of the Jewish nation from the evil Haman’s plan to massacre all the Jews during the time of the Persian Empire.

The fact that this holiday praises a woman’s courage, which saved a whole nation, is a real source of inspiration for Jewish women, and for me as well.

This makes me think that only a woman, as a wise mediator, is capable of promoting peace in the Middle East.

Purim also symbolizes the most divine level of spirituality that humankind is capable of feeling or expressing. When we put masks on our faces, this is the time for us to focus on our inner world, to reach a genuine moment with our true selves.

The costumes symbolize that sometimes our inner world can be changed by external actions and that we are taking a break from the categories that people attempt to place us into; categories such as: white, woman, Israeli, from the Middle East, vegetarian, brunette, young, etc. We can empower our inner being by shaping our outer appearance however we like.

The writer is a former Knesset spokeswoman, now living and working in Guatemala.

03/21/14

Noah: Film Review

10:00 PM PDT 3/20/2014 by Todd McCarthy

The Bottom Line

Before Paul Ehrlich and Al Gore, there was Noah.

Opens

March 28 (Paramount)

Cast

Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand

Director

Darren Aronofsky

Russell Crowe stars in Darren Aronofsky’s Bible-based epic.

Darren Aronofsky wrestles one of scripture’s most primal stories to the ground and extracts something vital and audacious, while also pushing some aggressive environmentalism, inNoah. Whereas for a century most Hollywood filmmakers have tread carefully and respectfully when tackling biblical topics in big-budget epics aimed at a mass audience, Aronofsky has been daring, digging deep to develop a bold interpretation of a tale which, in the original, offers a lot of room for speculation and invention. The narrative of the global flood that wiped out almost all earthly life is the original disaster story, one that’s embraced by most of the major world religions, which means that conservative and literal-minded elements of all faiths who make it their business to be offended by untraditional renditions of holy texts will find plenty to fulminate about here. Already banned in some Middle Eastern countries,Noah will rile some for the complete omission of the name “God” from the dialogue, others for its numerous dramatic fabrications and still more for its heavy-handed ecological doomsday messages, which unmistakably mark it as a product of its time. But whether you buy these elements or not, this is still an arresting piece of filmmaking that has a shot at capturing a large international audience both for its fantasy-style spectacle and its fresh look at an elemental Bible story most often presented as a kiddie yarn.

PHOTOS: ‘Noah’s’ Berlin Premiere, Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly, Douglas Booth Flood the Red Carpet [5]

The director/co-writer serves notice of his revisionism right away, mutating the opening line of Genesis into, “In the beginning there was nothing.” In the Bible’s ark story, God does most of the talking, whereas here, Noah does, at one point raging at the silent one he only calls the Creator, “Why do you not answer me?” This Noah, who receives his instructions about what to do from disturbing, quasi-hallucinatory visions, is presented as the last good man on Earth, the chosen one who will preserve the world’s life forms along with his immediate family while the wicked will be swept away, forcing humanity to make a fresh start.

One of the striking things about the Noah tale is that it presents a fallible Creator, one who admits to disappointments over shortcomings in the product of the sixth day of creation with the remark, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” The exceptions are middle-aged Noah (Russell Crowe), his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo Carroll), who are estranged from the rest of humanity and live apart from it, struggling to survive in forbidding surroundings. Noah’s physical and mental toughness is strengthened by an abiding faith, and Crowe’s splendidly grounded work here recalls some of his finest earlier performances, notably in GladiatorThe Insider and Cinderella Man, in which he embodied values of tenacity, trustworthiness and resourcefulness that inspired confidence that his characters would do the right thing.

To be sure, this is not the genial, grandfatherly Noah charmingly evoked by John Huston when he led an orderly assemblage of animals into the ark two-by-two in his 1965 epic The Bible. Crowe’s Noah is a fighter, a survivalist and yet a tortured man dismayed by the ruin brought upon the land by the others of his species. In a visit with his ancient grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), the men agree that, “It’s men who broke the world,” and that, as a result, the Creator will destroy it. Foraging with one of his sons, Noah instructs, “We only collect what we need, what we can use.” For many today, this sort of environmental, back-to-the-earth religion has replaced the old-fashioned kind, with nonbelievers as shunned and disdained by the faithful as heathens once were by the righteous.

Working on by far his biggest budget in the wake of the great global success of Black Swan, Aronofsky bulks up his film not only with naturalistic spectacle but with fantastical elements that evoke both Ray Harryhausen and Peter Jackson; creatures rise up from the sea, a whole forest takes instantaneous shape at Noah’s convenience and there is far more swordplay and fighting than one ever imagined in this story.

But by far the most startling apparition in this context are the Watchers, the so-called Nephilim, or fallen angels only glancingly mentioned in the Bible. Here they take the form of giant, ferocious-looking rock people (given great, gravelly voice by Nick NolteMark Margolis and Frank Langella, no less) who not only come to Noah’s aid by doing the heavy lifting in building the ark but cut down, stomp on and otherwise decimate the hordes who eventually besiege the ark in hopes of climbing aboard at the last minute.

STORY: Paramount Denies Report That Pope Canceled Meeting With ‘Noah’s’ Russell Crowe [4]

Leading this army of outcasts and misfits, the very people the Creator has deemed unworthy of continued existence, is the formidably nefarious Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who more than lives up to his heritage as the descendent of the world’s first murderer. He also becomes the world’s first stowaway, his secret presence aboard the ark eventually provoking a profound crisis that helps widen the rift through the once tightly-knit but now fraught family.

Like previous Noahs, this one embraces the massive responsibility of sustaining life on Earth. But one of the ways this film takes the character deeper is forcing upon him certain monumental moral decisions that, in the absence of direct word from above, he’s got to make himself. Drawing often painful conclusions based on thinking through his “visions” as best he can, Noah prohibits any other humans from boarding the ark and, in the process, forever alienates his middle son, Ham, who is angry because he believes he’s destined never to know a woman, whereas his older brother, Shem, has Ila (Emma Watson), an orphan the family took in years earlier.

When the barren Ila miraculously becomes pregnant, Noah’s absolutist interpretation of what he must do prefigures Abraham, creating a terrible family schism that sets even his wife against him, startlingly so given how close the couple has always been. Crowe and Connelly were paired before in A Beautiful Mind, and their rapport is manifest in the intimate bond one feels between their characters here.

If anything, the animals get short shrift here. Noah never has to go out and gather them; hundreds of them just show up, as if they’d experienced the same vision as Noah’s, push aboard the waiting ark and promptly go to sleep, not to reawaken or be seen again until the voyage is done. This not only comes off as something of a cheat — after all, it’s always interesting and fun to examine the occupants of the world’s first and most famous temporary zoo, especially given some of the fanciful and/or extinct critters the filmmakers ever-so-briefly put on show here — but it’s also a convenient way to avoid the dilemma of explaining how the animals got along so well for the duration without eating each other.

STORY: ‘Noah’ World Premiere in Mexico City Gets Mixed Reception [6]

Foreground family melodrama takes precedence over the voyage itself in the final stretch; other than for Ila’s pregnancy and the growth of Noah’s hair from unlikely buzz-cut to a shaggier look, there is no indication how long they’re at sea, no sense of the flood’s duration or the passage of time. Noah‘s ultimate sense of having failed in his mission feels off-kilter given the overriding theme of providing the world with a fresh start, as does the inevitable question of with whom, exactly, Noah’s heirs are supposed to repopulate the land. (Monty Python would have a good answer for this one.)

The ark was built, of all places, on a 5-acre grassy field in a state park in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and there is no faulting the film’s outstanding technical achievement. Production designer Mark Friedberg came up with a boxy, barge-like conception for the ark rather than the more conventional bowed vessel, and its rough-hewn, homemade look is entirely of a piece with the rugged overall approach. Varied Icelandic landscapes provide fantastic backdrops for much of the early action. Some of Michael Wilkinson‘s costumes trend noticeably toward the modern, while Matthew Libatique‘s muscular cinematography seamlessly incorporates live-action and abundant CGI elements. Clint Mansell‘s score is entirely in sync with the director’s intentions, which means that it repeatedly crosses the line between the intensely dramatic and the bombastic.

Production: New Regency, Protozoa Pictures
Cast: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenwriters: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Producers: Scott Franklin, Darren Aronofsky, Mary Parent, Arnon Milchan
Executive producers: Ari Handel, Chris Brigham
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editor: Andrew Weisblum
Music: Clint Mansell

Rated PG-13, 127 minutes

03/21/14

Christians should use human rights laws to defend their freedoms, says top judge

Baroness Hale: ‘paradox’ over faiths in England

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
  • Baroness Hale
    Baroness Hale: ‘paradox’ over faiths in England Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Frances Gibb and Ruth Gledhill
Published at 12:01AM, March 21 2014

Britain is one of the least religious countries in Western Europe because the Church of England is a “very undemanding church”, the UK’s most senior woman judge has said.

“It has no dietary laws, no dress codes for men or women, and very little that its members can say is actually required of them by way of observance,” said Baroness Hale of Richmond, a Supreme Court justice.

England was a “parodoxical country” when it came to religion, she added. Despite having an established church, half the population did not belong to any religion. Affiliation to the Church of England fell from 40 per cent in 1983 to 20 per cent in 2010.

“Politicians are not encouraged to wear their religion, if any, on their sleeves,” she said in a lecture to a conference at Yale Law School released yesterday. “Religous observance is much more common amongst minority communities than it is among the majority, who would once unhesitatingly have described themselves as ‘C of E’ even if they never went to church.

Despite this, Baroness Hale said that it was “not difficult to see why Christians feel that their religious beliefs are not being sufficiently respected”.

She suggested that human rights laws, rather than discrimination laws, were the correct way to decide such cases as they would allow courts to take account of religious beliefs and balance the competing rights of individuals and the community.

The law could require “the providers of employment, goods and services to make reasonable accommodation for the beliefs of others”, Baroness Hale said.

That would enable a “general defence of justification in discrimination law” in which courts can weigh the merits of a case. If there was a “good reason for a difference in treatment they will try to find a reason why it is not unlawful”.

She also suggested that if human rights law had been applied, Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who claimed religious discrimination after refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, might not have lost her claim.

The case was originally a discrimination claim, Baroness Hale said. “I wonder what would have happened if Ms Ladele had brought a Human Rights Act claim in England against the London Borough of Islington rather than, or as well as, a discrimination claim.”

Lady Hale’s comments come as church attendance figures released today show that Sunday church attendance — typically 800,000 people — has halved since 1968.

However, average weekly attendance has shown very little change over the decade from 2003 to 2012, with a million people attending church each week on average in October 2012 and the average church welcoming 50 people — 30 in rural parishes and 100 in urban ones.

There is also positive news, with numbers showing a rise in under 18-year-olds and newcomers, with the numbers of joiners said to be exceeding that of leavers overall.

More than half of the worshipping community are aged between 18 and 69, 28 per cent are 70 or over and 20 per cent are under 18. The proportion of the worshipping community aged 70 or over ranges from 13 per cent in London to 41 per cent in Norwich.