From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Monday, January 31, 2011

No smoking: No joking

Native American Tobacco Flower

The latest warning against smoking has not come from the United States Surgeon General.  It has instead come from the Narcotic Drug and Law Enforcement Unit of Bhutan. 

According to Reuters, that is because the “tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan” is determined to be the world’s first smoke-free country.  This specifically pertains to smoking in public; smoking in private is still permitted.  However, it has become harder and harder to legally obtain tobacco products.

Bhutan’s anti-smoking law first went into effect in 2005, allegedly because “smoking is considered bad for one's karma.”  Because this law was largely ignored, the government then upped the enforcement ante.  The recent first casualty of this reinvigorated anti-smoking crusade is (ironically, but perhaps not coincidentally)
a Buddhist monk.

This student (name being withheld) at a centuries-old monastery brought along 72 packets of chewing tobacco (which he claimed was for personal use only) when he crossed the border from India to Bhutan.  This young man can therefore now be charged with the “smuggling of controlled substances” - a fourth degree felony that can entail up to five years in prison.

Even more ironic is that this is occurring at about the same time as the Iroquois Midwinter Ceremonies in
North America.  Pure tobacco has never lost its sacred status as far as the Iroquois (and many other Native
American tribes such as the Cree and Ojibway) are concerned.  For them, natural tobacco signifies the
very best of karma.  According to Wikipedia, it is considered by many shamans to be “a gift from the
Creator” that carries “ones thoughts and prayers to heaven” along with its smoke.

The bad karma occurs, as it is said to in Bhutan, when the tobacco is used addictively rather than respectfully.  Many Canadian Algonquians believe that people who abuse the tobacco plant will in turn be abused by the tobacco plant (which can be far worse than prison, as the U.S. Surgeon General has often warned).


Copyright 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 30, 2011

End Times: If not now, when?

The Last Judgment    ( Lochner, 15th century)
For those whose only long-term goal is to get to heaven unscathed, it may be well past the time to put aside lesser goals of earning money, getting married, having kids - you get the drift…  The Associated Press reports that many are convinced that May 21, 2011 is the target date for all things Rapturous.

According to Marie Exley - this is not, then, the time to party.  It is instead the time to earnestly start preparing for the return of Christ.  This two-time veteran of Iraq is therefore hitting the road in order to spread the good (or, perhaps for some, bad) news.  She is joined by others across the land.  One such colleague, Allison Warden, addressed the question that would then logically follow:  What about May 22, 2010 and thereafter?

Warden has responded:  If May 21 passes, and I’m still here, that means I wasn’t saved.  Does that mean God’s word is inaccurate or untrue?  Not at all.

But what would it mean?  Would it mean that Warden then has absolutely no chance of redemption?  Would
she simply be condemned to waiting it out on an earthly “death row” for her ultimate punishment?  One leader of this movement, a retired civil engineer named Harold Camping, answers “Yes!” and “Yes, again!” to these dire queries.  He predicts that those not taken up to heaven on May 21, 2011 will be tormented here on Earth until October 2011 – when time will then end.     

Some physicists beg to differ.

According to Cosmos, a team of U. S. and Japanese scientists are saying:  Time is unlikely to end in our
lifetime, but there is a 50% chance of the final countdown ending in 3.7 billion years.  Not all
astrophysicists agree with this.  Some are convinced that this universe will continue to expand, and spawn other universes, forever and ever.


Copyright January 30, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Noah's Ark: Not exactly a zoo

Islamic depiction of Noah's Ark
Many zoos today are named “Noah’s Ark.”  Is this entirely a misnomer, or are similarities valid enough to warrant such an association?

According to Genesis 6, Noah was an exceedingly righteous person – as compared to others of his time.  Therefore, God entrusted him – not only with the continuation of the human race, but also with the continuation of the animal kingdom.  Genesis does not really give many specifics as to how Noah was able to insure the health and survival of all these animals.

That’s where the Rabbinic Midrash comes in.  Some stories credit Noah with round-the-clock, zookeeper-like duties.  These same stories say that Noah was therefore unable to sleep for his entire floating tour of duty.  In answer to the many questions regarding why the animals didn’t have one another (or Noah) for dinner, Midrash tells us that these animals were also exceedingly well-behaved as compared to others of their time.  As for the, ahem, “refuse” – Midrash is still divided as to whether it was stored on one of the ark’s three decks, or shoveled regularly into the sea.

The story of Noah’s Ark is also featured in Christianity, Islam, and the Bah’ai Faith.  These versions also focus far more upon themes of human righteousness than they do upon themes of zoological ethics.  Christianity often compares Noah’s Ark to the overall Church.  The Latter-Day Saints consider Noah to be the archangel Gabriel’s mortal incarnation.  Islam ranks Noah as one of the five great prophets.  The Bah’ai Faith views Noah as a symbol of spiritual vitality.

Perhaps, then, naming a zoo “Noah’s Ark” could be running the gamut from ridiculous to blasphemous.  Unless zookeepers are touched by angels on a regular basis, the comparison seems fraught with arrogance.  However, Dr. Stephen Miller of the North Carolina Zoo might beg to differ.  He states that many zoos are also keeping animals from going extinct.  He claims:  We are preserving elephants so that your kids can see them in 20 years.  If we don’t, one more generation and you won’t be able to see them.


Copyright January 29, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 28, 2011

Mind control: From LSD to LCD

Liquid Crystal Nematic Phase   (By: Minutemen) 
Whether it’s with LSD or LCD, seeking to control the mind (and with it the body) by any material means is like dancing on the razor’s edge. 

Such type mind-control is no longer (if it ever were) just the stuff that science-fiction is made of.  Elisabeth
Armstrong Moore recently reported on CNET that Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have figured out ways to control the muscles and brains of worms and other small organisms via the use of “inexpensive components” from liquid crystal display (LCD) projectors.

After genetically engineering light-sensitive proteins into these organisms, researchers were able to manipulate
neurons and muscles by projecting red, green and blue lights at them.  When the lights were selectively aimed at a nematode worm’s head or tail, it was then stimulated to move either backwards or forwards.

One of the researchers, Hang Lu, concluded:  This illumination instrument significantly enhances our ability to control, alter, observe, and investigate how neurons, muscles, and circuits ultimately produce behavior in animals.  Is this supposed to be good news?  The “observe” and “investigate” parts sound  innocent enough.  But how about the “control” and “alter” components?

Bottom line:  Do humans have the moral and spiritual fibers to go along with the optic ones?

And worse yet:  Will this just be opening up another can of worms?

Richard Alpert, a one-time leading proponent of mind-altering LSD, came to realize that spiritual practices
were far more trustworthy when delving into such territory.  For him, it might have been a matter of
discovering God versus playing God.


Copyright January 28, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 27, 2011

One man's meat is another man's best friend

Photo by John Haslam
Once upon a time (9,400 years ago, to be exact) – a man chomped down upon a dog, and afterwards excreted a fingernail-sized piece of its skull.

The proof of this might have (tastefully) remained forever buried within the depths of a southwest Texas cave had archaeologist types not dug it up in 1974, and FedEx types not shipped it off to Maine in 2011.  Even so, this ancient pile of you-know-what might still have gone unnoticed but for the nagging curiosity of one University of Maine graduate student, Mr. Samuel Belknap III.

Belknap claims that he wasn’t thinking dogs as he began poking into the matter.  (He was likely doing what most might do during a harsh Maine winter – he was daydreaming about the sunny Southwest, and wondering what they might have eaten there thousands of years ago.)  According to the Christian Science Monitor, when the orange-brown skull fragment surfaced from its mucky surroundings, Belknap had an “Aha!” moment.  He afterwards explained:  It just so happens this person who lived 9,400 years ago was eating dog.

Holy cow!  How could that possibly be?

Think hamburger.  This obscenely popular cow sandwich is a far cry from the sacred cows of Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and a number of other religions.  Ancient Egyptians would not sacrifice cows because cows were revered by the goddess, Hathor.  Audomilla was a ancient Scandinavian holy
cow that suckled the gods.  Cows cannot be legally slaughtered in many areas of India today.  The Zoroastrian Avesta declares even the urine of cows to be “a panacea for all bodily and moral evils.”

So what’s a hungry soul to do?

Think lettuce and carrots…


Copyright January 27, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Jack LaLanne: Preaching carrots

Jack LaLanne  (circa 1950)
Some say that Jack LaLanne was the world’s greatest fitness expert.  However, they might not have known this if he weren’t also one of the world’s greatest preachers.

What he was preaching wasn’t religion per se.  Or was it?

According to LaLanne’s Los Angeles Times obituary, Jack felt that it most certainly was.  When talking about his fitness crusade with an interviewer from What Is Enlightenment magazine, LaLanne explained:  It is a religion with me…  It’s a way of life.  A religion is a way of life, isn’t it?

WWWS?  (What would Webster say?)

According to Merriam-Webster, one of the main definitions of religion is this:  a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.


And preaching?  Merriam-Webster offers this emphasis within the “preaching” definition: to urge acceptance or abandonment of an idea or course of action.

By these yardsticks, excerpts from LaLanne’s many “sermons” sound downright scriptural in nature.  Slip some into “Proverbs”or “Sutras,” and it might be tough to discern them from the rest of the text.  Some “LaLanneisms” from his website are these:  Make haste slowly.   Do – don’t stew.    Don’t exceed the feed limit.    Anything in life is possible if you make it happen.

Jack himself flirted with religious imagery.  He described his initial change to a healthier lifestyle at age 15 as being “born again” and “like an exorcism, kicking the devil outta me!”  This conversion sounded as if it could have taken place on the road to Damascus.  Never once did LaLanne turn back to his former dietary decadence.  Whatever couch potato was once in him was forever mashed.

When compared to Billy Graham in terms of preaching abilities, LaLanne had this to say:  Billy Graham was for the hereafter.  I’m for the here and now.

Baba Ram Dass couldn’t have said it better.


Copyright January 26, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vsevolod Chaplin's remarkable remarks

It’s not every day that an official spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church makes international
headlines - but then again, it’s not every spokesperson that makes remarks as ear-catching as those of Father Vsevolod Chaplin.

Moscow Patriarchate (early 20th century)
The latest of the Archpriest’s controversial assertions critiques the dressed/undressed ratio of many modern-
day Russian women.  Recent AFP headlines have shrieked that Chaplin accused some scantily-clad females of “dressing  like strippers.”  Even more attention-getting was his recent outcry that “women who wore mini-skirts and got drunk were to blame if they got raped…”

These remarkable statements should come as no surprise to those who have followed Chaplin’s announcements right along.  Voices from Russia reports on a number of his more recent quotables.

In a December 2010 brawl between Russians and Caucasians, Ygor Sviridov was murdered.  His death provoked a number of nationalist protests.  At the funeral, Chaplin urged that people follow the laws of God and man rather than the law of the jungle.  He added that seeking no revenge and coming together as a society “should be our prayer.”

Father Chaplin is all for speaking out about abortion, as well.  He announced that - because of the “horrific” number of legal abortions that have taken place in post-revolutionary Russia – the number of unborn victims “is greater than the number of soldiers killed in all the wars of the twentieth century.”

It is clear - even if only by virtue of these recent headlines - that Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin is a master at getting his points across.  Although some of these points may seem rather sharp around the edges, they are nonetheless more mellow than many biblical admonitions.


Copyright January 25, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, January 24, 2011

Creed of Scott Stapp: Is it a Christian one?

Scott Stapp at a Navy Performance
Wolves might not want to stick around long enough to hear what Creed has to say, but humans often do.  Some particularly want to know just what kind of a Christian Scott Stapp really is.

In Mark Moring’s Christianity Today International interview with Stapp, the Creed chief songwriter was specifically asked about his personal Christian faith.  This interview had occurred at a tumultuous time in Stapp’s life.  Creed had recently broken up – and Stapp had recently begun a solo career (which included his participation in The Passion of the Christ: Songs – an album made by artists that were inspired by Mel Gibson’s similarly-named movie).

Stapp’s contribution – the album’s first single, Relearn Love – is a combination plea/prayer to Jesus, somewhat reminiscent of King David’s Psalms in temperament.  In it he begs Jesus for “shelter” from his personal storm - and for a “chance to relearn love.”  As Stapp explained to Moring - these lyrics reflect the anguish of a divorce, plus the underbelly of fame.

This was Stapp’s “Doubting Thomas” phase in which he was earnestly questioning his past beliefs.  His quest was to love God, rather than simply to fear God.  Seeing Gibson’s Passion film was a turning point in this quest.  The film helped to clarify Stapp’s concept of “relearned love” as being “giving without expecting anything in return.”

During this same interview, Stapp claimed that he had never been asked whether he were a Christian before - only whether Creed were a Christian band (which he said it wasn't).  When then asked “the question” by Moring, Stapp replied that he definitely was a Christian, and had been one right along.  However, he also freely admitted that – for much of his time as a Christian - his “life wasn’t right with God.”

This can be said of many – Christian or not.  However, few are honest enough to so publicly admit their ethical shortcomings.


Copyright January 24, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Animal rights in China: Galloping forward

Like the Eastern Han Dynasty’s Bronze Galloping Horse, China’s animal rights policy just took a flying leap forward.  However, unlike this bronze horse (which is stepping on a swallow), China’s new policy is upholding the rights of defenseless animals.

According to The Huffington Post, this new policy went into effect on January 18, 2011.  It includes the following zoo prohibitions:  no more routine extractions of tiger-cub teeth; no more body-part hawking in the souvenir shops; no more exotic animals on the restaurant menus; no more throwing of live animals to the big cats for sport; no more inadequate animal housing; and no more monkey-fighting showmanship.  Long-term lobbying by the Animals Asia Foundation has played a significant role in the adoption of this new policy.

Does this perhaps mean that the adoption of a significantly-improved Chinese human rights policy is not far behind?

Studies have long linked the treatment of animals to the treatment of humans.  PAWS quotes famed anthropologist Margaret Mead as saying:  One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it.  It also reports on the AniCare Model of Treatment for Animal Abuse, which is based upon research linking cruelty to animals with all sorts of violent human-to-human behaviors.  This treatment model shares some of the accountability aspects of China’s new policy.

If cruelty towards animals can lead to violence towards humans, perhaps a reduction of cruelty towards animals can also lead to a reduction of violence towards humans.  In 2007, AP writer Dennis Passa reported that this public statement was made by the Dalai Lama during an hour-long visit to an Australian zoo:  Taking care of animals is essential to developing more happiness in human beings.

Buddhism has long upheld the interconnectedness of all sentient beings.  As one of the major official religions of China, it might therefore be instrumental in extending increased rights to humans also.


Copyright January 23, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Baby twisting: Is this really yoga?

Bhakti Yoga   (Photo: Kalyan Kumar) 
The video-gone-viral of Russian “guru” Lena Fokina twisting, twirling and otherwise manipulating a two-week old infant is being billed as an example of “baby yoga.”

Naming this kind of theatrical display “yoga” seems about as accurate as naming subtler kinds of verbal gymnastics “prayer.”

The Parmath Niketan website explains:  Yoga should never be mistaken for any other mode of exercise, which is operational only on a physical level.  Instead, yoga is a spiritual means of attaining Moksha (liberation from all things transient and illusory).  The very word “yoga” means “union” – not just between parent and baby – not just between mind and body – but ultimately between “the limited self and the Divine Self.”  This is more a matter of realization than it is of obtaining anything that isn’t already present.

In a DadWagon exclusive interview with Lena Fokina, she at first defined “yoga” as “just life, whether you are an adult or a child.”  She afterwards reiterated that “life invented it” - and that her teacher, Igor Borisovich Charkovsky - simply conveyed it.  According to Haaretz, Charkovsky is an elderly, Siberian-born, non-medical practitioner whose methods of baby dunking, shaking, tossing, chilling, etc. (during his repeated visits to Israel) have elicited descriptions of him as being everything from a sacred healer to a dangerous charlatan.

Parmath Niketan reports that true yoga encompasses inquiry (Jnana), selfless service (Karma), devotion
(Bhakti), introspection (Raja), and balance of bodily forces (Hatha).

All that, it would seem, goes far beyond a blatant rendition of “Shake it up, Baby.”


Copyright January 22, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Governor Bentley, who's your daddy?

Dexter Avenue King Baptist Church

Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama has an impressive official biography.  Not only is he an applauded doctor, a former Air Force captain, plus a Sunday-school teacher and deacon – but he is also a dedicated family member.  However, Bentley’s definition of “family” might differ sharply from the definition that is used by many of his recently-disgruntled constituents.

On Martin Luther King Day 2011, just hours after being sworn in as Alabama’s new governor, Bentley made a rather shocking announcement.  Standing before a big crowd at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (which Dr. King once pastored) - and shortly after proclaiming that he intended to be the “color blind” governor of all people” (italics mine) – Bentley added:  …if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved…  it makes you and me brother and sister…

Perhaps realizing that he had just dug himself a political hole, Bentley went on to dig himself an even deeper theological one by attempting this off-the-cuff “exegesis” of his own prior remark:  Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters…

Although Governor Bentley has highly praised his biological father, David Harford Bentley, as having been a fine example of “All American” work ethics – this aforementioned use of the word “daddy” seems to go far beyond worldly ties.  That, in and of itself, is not incompatible with Christianity.  Even Jesus was prone to asking:  Who’s my mother, and who are my brothers?

However, Jesus used the term “Abba” (the Aramaic equivalent of Bentley’s term “daddy”)  in reference to God.  Without getting inextricably tangled up in creedal debates, suffice it to say that most Christians follow suit – in that they generally refer to God as “Father” (and to Jesus as “Son”) in everyday speech. 

Did Bentley therefore mean to imply that followers of other religions are not just as much God’s children as Christians are?  If so, it’s no wonder that his Jewish and Hindu “siblings” were vociferously opposed to these ill-advised remarks.


Copyright January 21, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tu B'Shevat: A tree grows in Zion

Flowering Almond Tree (Nicolas Perez)
Tu B’Shevat (literally, the 15th of the Jewish month Shevat – which coincides with late January or early February) in Zion is the equivalent of apple blossom time in North America.  It is the time when the wild almond trees begin to flower, and springtime has arrived in the holy land.

It is also a time to sow.  This Jewish New Year of the Trees is particularly honored by the planting of more and more trees.  The Jewish National Fund’s (JNF’s) reforestation efforts have turned barren lands into (literally) fruitful ones.  Participants can either plant trees with their own hands, or purchase certificates that equate the planting of a tree with the honoring of an individual or event.  This planting of trees, as well as the symbolic sowing of Passover crops such as parsley, takes place outside of Israel also.

The sacred relationship between trees and Judaism began way back in Genesis 1.  As soon as the land had dried, seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees were produced.  And G_d saw that was good.  Not too long after that, in Genesis 2, came the Garden of Eden with its central Tree of Life.  This tree has become a key symbol of Judaism.

According to My Jewish Learning, Talmudic tradition considers trees to be as sacred as the Torah does.  Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who lived through the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, said this:  If you should be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling, then go out and greet him.  Planting trees is also looked upon as a way of passing goodness on from one generation to another.

It is also customary to eat the fruits of these sacred trees on Tu B’Shevat.  The fruits that coincide most with this tradition are dates, pomegranates, figs, grapes and olives.  An accompanying blessing is this:  Blessed are You, L_rd our G_d, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.


Copyright January 20, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dolly Parton: Biblically adorned

Joseph's Brothers Fooling Jacob

Long known for her neon fashion statements, Dolly Parton is still singing about one technicolor article of clothing.

According to Wikipedia, Parton regards “Coat of Many Colors” as her favorite of all the (3,000 or so) songs she’s ever written.  It tells the true story of a coat that her mother patched together from rags for her when Dolly was a child in the hills of Tennessee.  (Today that coat hangs proudly in the Chasing Rainbows Museum at Dollywood, along with the original dry-cleaning receipt that Dolly first penned the lyrics on.) 

The lyrics explain that Dolly’s mother told her young daughter the biblical story of Joseph and his coat as Dolly’s coat was being stitched together.  The moral of the song is summed up in these last two lines:  Now I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be  In my coat of many colors my momma made for me.

The biblical coat of many colors was given to Joseph by his father, Jacob, as a token of Jacob’s intense love for him.  Hopefully, Dolly’s mother didn’t favor Dolly over her 11 siblings in the way that Jacob favored Joseph over his.  Jacob’s favoritism, as symbolized by his gift of the coat to Joseph, resulted in a tragic degree of sibling rivalry.  Joseph’s brothers contemplating killing him, but instead settled upon selling him into slavery.  How did they explain Joseph’s sudden absence to Jacob?  Again, the coat played a significant role.  The brothers seized it, then smeared it with blood in order to fool Jacob into thinking that Joseph had met an untimely end.

The ruse worked until karma (not instant in this case) caught up to them.  A severe famine took hold, and Joseph’s brothers were forced to seek goods from Egypt.  There they met up with Joseph, who was now the Vizier.  Although they didn’t recognize Joseph, he sure recognized them.  Things could have gotten quite ugly had Joseph’s better nature not ultimately prevailed.

As Dolly’s song concludes – people are only as poor (or as rich) as they choose to be.  This seems especially true when dealing with matters of spirit.


Copyright January 19, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved    

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Kings of King: MLK once stood on these shoulders

MLK:  Library of Congress Photo
Martin Luther King, Jr. was nothing if not eclectic. 

He is often associated with the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, as well as with the social-gospel heritage of his African-American Baptist roots.  However, during his crucial years of doctoral study at Boston University, King was heavily influenced by the two reigning theological giants of that time:  Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.

In a 2005 essay, Arthur Schlesinger called Reinhold Niebuhr “the most influential American theologian of the 20th century.”  Niebuhr was not a believer in “national innocence” (a phrase widely used in the United States after 9/11).  His was a Calvinist background with an emphasis upon the sinful human condition.  Certainly, America - with its historical persecution of Oriental railroad workers, African slaves, and Native American tribes – was in no position to claim a spiritually clean slate.  Niebuhr summed up his political philosophy in this now-famous quote:  Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.  He is also the author of the Serenity Prayer that is well known for its use in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

Not only did Niebuhr share his own theological gifts generously, but he was also largely responsible for
introducing Paul Tillich to Americans.  Tillich, like Niebuhr, taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City for years.  He was famous for his correlation of Christian insights with the questions that modern-day sciences were asking.  According to Wikipedia, Tillich’s three main sources for determining these insights were the Bible, church history, and the history of religion and culture.  He believed that faith was the ultimate human concern, and that it is “ecstatic” (“standing outside of oneself”) in nature.  He also believed that God is both personal and transpersonal.

Standing upon the gigantic shoulders of Niebuhr and Tillich gave King vantage points that he had not
previously had.  King's genius was that he was able to blend diverse socioreligious perspectives in ways that the world is still trying to catch up with.


Copyright January 18, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved