Biblical Conspiracies

I love conspiracy theories. That’s not to say I believe them, but I do love them. I’m not sure why. If you’re like me and enjoy reading conspiracy theories, tell me in the comments why you do. Maybe it will help me figure it out. Anyway, I love me a conspiracy theory and as you might guess from my website, I also love religions. So when the Science Channel folks reached out to me with an advance screener for an upcoming episode of a show called “Biblical Conspiracies” you know I took them up on the offer.

This particular episode, just in time for the Easter/Passover season, is “Biblical Conspiracies: Jesus Family Tomb?” It discusses the controversy of The James Ossuary, a burial bone box that dates to the 1st century, and has on it, an inscription that states, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Some believe it is a simple forgery, others point out that the names James, Joseph, and Jesus were super common names during that time period, and others think it may have a link to the “Jesus Family Tomb”, discovered in 1980 in Talpiot, a Jerusalem suburb. I don’t want to give too much away, but this episode has plenty of history, science, and yes, conspiracy. It was a good time.

“Biblical Conspiracies: Jesus Family Tomb?” premieres Easter weekend, Saturday, April 15 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Science Channel.

The Student

I’ve got to tell you, there’s another movie I’m going to have to be on the lookout for and perhaps you will be too. “The Student”.

After Venya’s mother receives a call from school reporting her son’s refusal to participate in mixed swimming lessons, she first suspects her teenager of being shy and derides his claim that it is “against his religion.” As Venya is finally exempted by the school’s devout principal, he grows confident that his strict and rigorous study of the Bible gives him the ability to manipulate all forms of authority.

Challenged by a teacher who refuses to consent to his dogma, he sets out to eliminate her and subdue an entire community. At a time when arguments over the teaching of religion in public schools are prominent in the media, this wildly escalating classroom drama — based on a play by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg — serves as a frightening cautionary tale.

Variety says, “At a time when arguments over educational ‘safe spaces’ and belief-based ‘micro-aggressions’ are prominent in the media, this wildly escalating classroom drama — based on a stage work by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg — serves as a frightening cautionary tale. Whether it ultimately comes down for or against unqualified free speech, however, is one of many potential topics of post-screening conversation.”

“The Student” opens in San Francisco this month with more screenings nationwide to follow. You can learn more here.

A Bible Above the Rest

I’m not here to pass judgment. Oh wait, that’s EXACTLY what I’m here to do, since this is a book review. I’ve got to tell you, spoiler alert, that I am duly impressed with the “NIV First-Century Study Bible” with notes by Kent Dobson. Now you may be wondering how does a piece of work like yours truly go about accessing the worth of a Bible? Honestly, I could have just gone by sheer mass. Seriously. If it wouldn’t be some sort of vortex opening super sin, you really could kill a man with the latest hard cover edition. The publisher used thinner than normal paper. Not flimsy or shoddy, just thinner. I would hate to imagine the size and heft if it had been printed with standard paper. The injuries my wrists take just getting out my copy of “Absolute Watchmen” are intense. I would need an assistant to get this off the shelf if they hadn’t taken appropriate measures. Now before you think I didn’t put any thought or consideration into this at all, let me show you that I do know how to do my non-paying job.

NIV stands for New International Version. According to the Preface, “The complete NIV Bible was first published in 1978. It was a completely new translation made by over a hundred scholars working directly from the best available Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. The translators came from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, giving the translation an international scope. They were from many denominations and churches – including Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Brethren, Christian Reformed, Church of Christ, Evangelical Covenant, Evangelical Free, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, and others. This breadth of denominational and theological perspective helped to safeguard the translation from sectarian bias.”

The even created a committee to keep up on biblical scholarship and to those ends the NIV Bible has been revised twice. The latest copy available builds on those revisions and reflects the latest effort to best translate international scholarship to English. That kind of work impresses me. But then, just in case their efforts to be as neutral and throrough in their interpretation as possible slips up, that’s where Kent Dobson comes in.

Dobson lived and studied in Israel where he earned a Masters Degree in History and Geography of the First Temple Period from Jerusalem University College. He also studied Comparative Religion at the Rothburg International School of Hebrew University. And Dobson provides all kinds of notes throughout the Old and New Testament and each Book has an introduction that provides outside context to the religious text you’re about to read. I know this is going to sound stupid, but I’m still going to say it, someone could really use this to study the Bible!

An important reason to not only have outside context notes as well as the best attempt at neutral translation can be found with everyone’s much loved Leviticus 18:22 which gets bandied about as the Biblical argument against homosexuality. “The NIV First-Century Study Bible” says:

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.

However when we go to the note it is revealed that, “Most of the Old Testament information about homosexuality is in the context of either rape or ritual prostitution. The Bible associates homosexuality with Canaanite depravity and cultic pagan worship. A clear break from Canaanite practices is a major theme in Leviticus, from dietary restrictions to sexual relations.

That’s a bit different, eh? And it’s there, thanks to the addition of Kent Dobson’s notes.

It’s not every day a gal is asked to assess the worth of a Bible, and I have to say, I never really thought I would find that much here to set it apart. Yet as they say, “The Lord (in this case) works in mysterious ways” and I’m sitting here with a Bible I’m pretty enthusiastic about reading. Who knew?

If you find yourself in the market for a Bible for spiritual or academic reasons, I heartily recommend the “NIV First-Century Study Bible”.

Bible Verses By Heart

I received word about an iTunes app that I thought some of you might be interested in.

Penguin, creators of the popular “Poems by Heart” app, launches “Bible Verses by Heart”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: The Bible is the most important book for millions of Christians around the world, but it’s also a classic work of literature. Now, Penguin Random House is proud to launch “Bible Verses by Heart”, an app that will appeal not only to the faithful, but to those who view the Bible as literature and want to better understand the extent to which the “Good Book” permeates our culture and values.

Inspired by the successful” Poems by Heart from Penguin Classics” app—which has more than 30,000 active users a month, has been downloaded over 412,000 times, and is one of only six educational apps recognized as an “App Store Best of 2013”—“Bible Verses By Heart” is a beautiful, intuitive app designed to help readers memorize key passages from the Bible. Joel Fotinos, a licensed minister and the publisher of Tarcher Books, a Penguin Random House imprint, was hugely influential in determining the app’s 20 passages, which were gathered from the Old Testament, the New Testament, as well as Psalms and Proverbs.

“We wanted ‘Bible Verses by Heart’ to appeal not only to people who love the Bible and want to memorize key scriptures, but also to casual readers interested in knowing more about it—i.e., those who see the Bible referenced in literature, the news, and in popular culture, and would like a better understanding of the Bible’s verses, selections, and stories,” said Fotinos. “We narrowed down the selections to what I jokingly call “The Bible’s Greatest Hits” – meaning those passages that would have the greatest recognition and that fit within the guidelines we had set.”

Fotinos then ran the passages by a tough set of critics—a pair of nuns from a well-known Christian monastic community. The result: a collection that draws from five different translations and encompasses everything from 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and Genesis 1:1-2:3 to Psalm 40:1-17 (A Prayer for Help) and Judges 5:1-31 (Song of Deborah).

“Since these are poetic selections, we weren’t trying to create a ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version. Nor did we want to choose only inspiring verses,” said Fotinos. “Rather, we picked selections that would add to a person’s Bible literacy. When someone memorizes these passages, they gain a greater appreciation of how pervasive these verses are in our culture. Eventually we hope to record and include more selections from the Bible to keep this project expanding and evolving.”

“Bible Verses by Heart” is free to download, and comes with three free passages, with 21 more available for in-app purchase. As users progress through five stages of difficulty, they are rewarded with high scores and Game Center Achievements. They also have the ability to record and share their own recitals via email and SoundCloud. The app was designed and developed by inkle, who also designed “Poems by Heart from Penguin Classics”.

“The Bible Verses by Heart” app is available for download for iPhone or iPad via iTunes. Click to read more about the “Bible Verses by Heart” app on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/bible-verses-by-heart/id925083573?mt=8

Now because I’m like this, and I know a bunch of you would be curious too, I checked with the public relations person for this project to find out exactly which Bibles these verses were coming from. As many of us know, that can make a real difference. It turns out it’s pretty diverse. “Bible Verses by Heart” uses passages from the King James Version, New King James Version, New American Standard, New Revised Standard Version, and the Contemporary English Version.

The State of Faith in America

In 2012 a Pew Research study showed that one-fifth of the U.S. public identified themselves as unaffiliated with any religion. This means atheist, agnostic, and just darn nothing. Apparently two years later this inspired the folks at Larry King Now to put together a show on “The State of Faith in America” that primarily focused on the rising tide of nonbelievers in the United States. Assuming that two years later we’re still trending that way. (I just want some newer data to prompt a show on Larry! That’s all I’m saying.)

Now I am a lady that has watched more than her fair share of round table television shows and many, okay all, of them have featured people on opposite ends of the issue being discussed. The guests for this one are: Gus Holwerda, who directed the documentary “The Unbelievers”, Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist who is featured in the film “The Unbelievers”, Michael Beckwith, a new thought minister and author, David A.R. White, a Christian actor who stars in “God’s Not Dead”, and Jay Bakker, pastor, speaker, author, and son of Jim and Tammy Faye.

The participants were respectful of each other and although I may have detected a hint of exasperation in Krauss’s voice on the rare occasion, voices were never raised and tempers never flared. The problem is the show is only 30 minutes so no thoughts were given a chance to be expanded upon and no responses were given a chance for the other side to then make a brief rebuttal. King’s heart was in the right place, but he needed at least 60 minutes for it to be a real conversation.

Let’s be honest, we could have a million round tables like these and many of the questions posed by King may never be settled to the satisfaction of every American. The folks over at Larry King Now were nice enough to bring this episode to my attention and now I’m sharing it with you, if you’re interested.

Also for those who may be interested, here is the trailer for the movie “God’s Not Dead” that guest David A.R. White is in.

And for those of you who want the flip side trailer, here’s the one for “The Unbelievers”.

Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines

If you’re looking for a resource for information about goddesses why not go straight to the best, Patricia Monaghan? Monaghan published the first encyclopedia of divine females in 1979, and that book has stayed in print in one form or another right up to today with “Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines”. The latest is newly expanded and features more than 1,000 heroines and goddesses from folklore, literature, and religion from around the world. The amount of information is dizzying.

The “Encyclopedia” is broken up by region and country; South America and the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, North America, South Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Rome, Greece, Celtic World, Pacific Island and Australia, Japan, Southeast Asia and Indonesia, India, Circumpolar North, China and Korea, Eastern Mediterranean, and Africa, and I’m sure I missed some!

Do you know who Uti Hiata is? How about Ececheira? What about Pidari? They’re all pretty cool. I bet you’d find them interesting. You know a good way to learn about them? Yep. “Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines”.

The “Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines” is an invaluable resource, written by an undeniable expert in the field.

Does Religion Play a Positive Role?

Zurich, Switzerland: 17 April 2014 – A global poll by WIN/Gallup International has revealed that over half of respondents believe that religion plays a positive role in their country, with people in Western Europe recording significantly lower positive results than other regions.

In the run up to the Easter period, WIN/Gallup International has released findings that show just over half (59%) of the 66,806 people polled feel that religion plays a positive role in their country. This, however, is not a sentiment reflected across all the regions, with Western Europe showing a low net positivity (the net score is the total positive percentage less the total negative percentage) at only 4% – a figure that is significantly less than the global average (37%). When compared to other regions, there is a notable step to Eastern Europe at 33%, followed by Asia at 37%. This lower positivity in Western Europe may be attributed to the secular nature of the region in comparison to other parts of the world.

Religion's Influence

In total there were nine countries whose net scores were negative when asked about religion, with six of those falling within Western Europe (Belgium, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden). Of these, Denmark was the most net negative at -36%, followed by Belgium (-30%), France (-22%) and Spain (-22%). By contrast, the most net positive country in this region was Iceland (43%) followed by Portugal (39%), which may be due to these countries having one dominant religion. On a global scale, the most net negative country was Lebanon (-43%).

While Western Europe may have come in significantly less positive than the other regions polled, there is generally a positive belief in the role of religion elsewhere in the world. The most net positive region globally is Africa (65%) followed by the Americas (54%) and MENA (50%), and these high response rates may be due to the less secular nature of these regions. The most positive country globally was Indonesia, with 95% stating religion played a positive role, whilst, as a comparison, the USA and the UK are both net positive at 43% and 6% respectively.

Religion still holds great importance in the US with 62% of respondents saying religion plays a positive role in the country, culminating in net positivity of 43%. This shows that the majority of US respondents hold religion central to their values, something which is still reflected in the country’s politics – and something this poll would suggest is unlikely to change in the near future.

The impact of education?

The data also shows a clear correlation between the level of education people have received and their perceived positivity about the role of religion in their country. The results would suggest that those who have been educated to Masters or PhD level have 20% lower net positivity compared to those who have had less education. The results also showed that net positivity increased gradually to an average of 57% for those who have no education at all. The table below highlights this staggered increase:

Chart 1

How do religious beliefs affect results?

When analyzing the data by religion, a marked difference can be seen across the various religious groups in terms of their positivity towards the role of religion in their country. Globally, net positivity was 37%, however, of the major religious groups Muslims and Protestants both came in above the global figure at net positive 60% while Hindus were the least net positive at 24%. It is of note that a large proportion of Hindus surveyed are located in India where in fact net positivity is 19%.

The overall results broken down by religion can be seen here:

Chart 2
Chart 3

Sixty-Minute Seder

A few of years back I admitted to being a “bad” Jew and hosting less than polished Seders. However each year we have a Passover Seder, a special ritual dinner where we tell the story of the Jews flight from Egypt. Seder comes from the Hebrew word for order, referring to the order of the ritual. I always hope that like in most things, it’s the thought that counts.

You know who are some awesome Jews? Cass (Yickezkale) and Nellie (Nechama) Foster. These guys aren’t “bad”, they’re Orthodox. They’re some hardcore, boxing up pots, pans, dishes, silverware, etc. keeping Kosher folks. That also means they were hosting what could politely be called marathon Passover Seders. 50 or more dinner guests were attending Passover Seders that would last 3 or 5 hours.

Cass Foster, known for having written “Sixty-Minute Shakespeare” plays was soon jokingly, or not so jokingly, being asked, “What about a Sixty-Minute Seder?” And so the “Sixty-Minute Seder: Preserving the Essence of the Passover Haggadah” by Cass (Yickezkale) and Nellie (Nechama) Foster was born.

The Haggadah helps guide you through the Passover Seder and there are tons available with loads of different focuses; ranging from feminism to children. “Sixty-Minute Seder” is traditional but simple enough to follow that even a below Reform level Jew can follow what’s going on. It also has recipes, and you all know how I love recipes!

With Passover in just a couple of weeks, now may be the time to consider taking a new Haggadah out for a test drive. Perhaps this will be the year you’ll have a “Sixty-Minute Seder”.

Misconceptions of Science and Religion Found in New Study

David Ruth
612-702-9473
david@rice.edu

HOUSTON – (Feb. 16, 2014) – The public’s view that science and religion can’t work in collaboration is a misconception that stunts progress, according to a new survey of more than 10,000 Americans, scientists and evangelical Protestants. The study by Rice University also found that scientists and the general public are surprisingly similar in their religious practices.

The study, “Religious Understandings of Science (RUS),” was conducted by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklundand presented on February 16th in Chicago during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference. Ecklund is the Autrey Professor of Sociology and director of Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program.

“We found that nearly 50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together and support one another,” Ecklund said. “That’s in contrast to the fact that only 38 percent of Americans feel that science and religion can work in collaboration.”

The study also found that 18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services, compared with 20 percent of the general U.S. population; 15 percent consider themselves very religious (versus 19 percent of the general U.S. population); 13.5 percent read religious texts weekly (compared with 17 percent of the U.S. population); and 19 percent pray several times a day (versus 26 percent of the U.S. population).
“This is a hopeful message for science policymakers and educators, because the two groups don’t have to approach religion with an attitude of combat,” Ecklund said. “Rather, they should approach it with collaboration in mind.”

Ecklund said that the way the science-religion relationship is portrayed in the news media influences the misperception.

“Most of what you see in the news are stories about these two groups at odds over the controversial issues, like teaching creationism in the schools. And the pundits and news panelists are likely the most strident representatives for each group,” she said. “It might not be as riveting for television, but consider how often you see a news story about these groups doing things for their common good. There is enormous stereotyping about this issue and not very good information.”

Ecklund noted that portions of the two groups are likely to stay put in their oppositional camps. As an example, she found that evangelical Protestants are twice as likely as the general population (11 percent) to consult a religious text or religious leader for questions about science.

Other key findings:

• Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
• 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict.
• Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
• 48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
• 22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
• Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
• Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
• Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

Ecklund found another counterintuitive result in the survey. The conventional wisdom is that religious people who work in science will have more doubts about their faith, but the survey revealed the opposite: Evangelical scientists practice religion more than evangelical Protestants in the general population.

“Those scientists who identify as evangelical are more religious than regular American evangelicals who are not in science,” Ecklund said.

“Evangelical scientists feel that they’ve been put under pressure or they find themselves in what they view to be more hostile environments,” she said. “They potentially see themselves as more religious, because they’re seeing the contrast between the two groups all the time.”

RUS is the largest study of American views on religion and science. It includes the nationally representative survey of more than 10,000 Americans, more than 300 in-depth interviews with Christians, Jews and Muslims — more than 140 of whom are evangelicals — and extensive observations of religious centers in Houston and Chicago.

The study is being provided to the AAAS Dialogue on Science Ethics and Religion program to help foster dialogue between religious groups and scientists.

The study was supported by the John Templeton Foundation.

Photo courtesy: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Thou Art That

How sad is this? I honestly feel just awful. I seriously started this book review over 5 times. That’s right kids, OVER 5 TIMES! I was given a copy of “Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor” by Joseph Campbell. It’s collected from previously unpublished work. It does what Campbell does best, compares the Judeo-Christian faiths similarities and misrepresentations with scholarship that is authoritative, yet a dummy like me can understand.

What do I say about that besides I liked it? That I REALLY liked it! Here’s what I’d like to say, it comes from Eugene Kennedy, Ph.D., “Thou Art That’s” editor:

“Tat tvam asi” is a phrase that appears often in these collected spiritual reflections of the late Joseph Campbell. These words also inscribe a signature of celebration on his life and work. Translated from the Sanskrit as “thou art that,” this epigram captures Campbell’s generous spirit just as it does his scholarly focus. The great student of mythology not only understood the profound spiritual implications of the phrase but, quite unselfconsciously, lived by them as well.

Joseph Campbell was fond of asking Schopenhauer’s question, found in his essay “On the Foundation of Morality:” “How is it possible that suffering that is neither my own nor of my concern should immediately affect me as though it were my own, and with such force that it moves me to action?…This is something really mysterious, something for which Reason can provide no explanation, and for which no basis can be found in practical experience. It is not unknown even to the most hard-hearted and self-interested. Examples appear every day before our eyes of instant responses of the kind, without reflection, one person helping another, coming to his aid, even setting his own life in clear danger for someone whom he has seen for the first time, having nothing more in mind than that the other is in need and in peril of his life….”

Schopenhauer’s response, one Campbell delighted in making his own, was that the immediate reaction and response represented the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization best rendered as “thou art that.” This presupposes, as the German philosopher wrote, his identification with someone not himself, a penetration of the barrier between persons so that the other was no longer perceived as an indifferent stranger but as a person “in whom I suffer, in spite of the fact that his skin does not enfold my nerves.”

And I feel like that’s the real story this collection of previously unpublished works is trying to tell us. Christian, Jewish, whatever. You are a person that’s part of this crazy experiment called humanity. “Thou art that.”