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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Reza Aslan: Zealous about Jesus

Reza Aslan (Photo by roanokecollege)
Although Reza Aslan is currently a Muslim, this hasn't at all dampened his enthusiasm for mulling upon the historical Jesus.

This Muslim (turned Christian, turned Muslim again) is the author of a book titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. During a recent interview with Lauren Green of Fox News, Aslan was repeatedly asked questions of this ilk:  What's a Muslim doing writing a book about Jesus?

Each time that Green perseverated on this line of inquiry, Aslan responded with statements like these:  "I'm an historian…  I have a Ph.D. in the Sociology of Religion…  I have a Master's Degree in Theology…"

None of that helped to quiet Green down.  She just couldn't get past the "Muslim" part of Aslan's bio long enough to hear what he was actually saying (even though many a Christian Fox News reporter has issued many a statement about Islam).

Nor could Green get past Aslan's current religious affiliation long enough to mindfully discuss what his book was actually about…  If she had, she might have realized that there were some actual weighty points to discuss – such as Aslan's claim that Jesus was "a troublemaker" (for starters).

As for Aslan?  He explains his preoccupation with Jesus in this manner:  It's the fact that he was such a
troublemaker that I think makes him so compelling.  


Copyright July 31, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pope Francis: Who am I...

(Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter)
Although Pope Francis recently made a somewhat conciliatory statement regarding gays who search for the Lord and have good
will, he did not do the same for women who want to be Roman Catholic priests. 

Regarding these latter requests about women, the Pope firmly stated:  The Church has spoken and says no… that door is closed.  It would be hard to convince any impartial individual that
this response is not a judgmental one.

And yet… during these same "free ranging talks during his [recent] flight home from Brazil," Pope Francis also said:  …who am I to judge? Although this question came on the heels of a statement particularly pertaining to the abovementioned gays, it does raise other questions about who the Pope really is.

Wikipedia tells us that the very word "Pope" comes from the Latin word papa, meaning "father."  His "fatherly" roles include being Bishop of Rome, head of the Roman Catholic Church, and successor of Saint Peter the Apostle. 

Although popular culture often believes that "father knows best," this has not always pertained to popes.  In fact, the doctrine of "papal infallibility" is comparatively quite young, having officially begun in 1870 AD.

Therefore, when the Pope says that "the Church has spoken," and that its door for female Roman Catholic priests remains closed, by what/whose authority is he issuing that pronouncement?

If that authority is not truly an infallible one, then perhaps it's well past the time for it to be conscientiously challenged.


Copyright July 30, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rio confessionals: Sun, sand and sin

Christ the Redeemer (Photo by Cyro A. Silva) 
Although Rio's famous mountain-top statue reminds Catholics that Jesus is always watching, there is nevertheless a great deal of sin hidden between the sun and sand.

This may be especially true during the World Youth Day event that "recently attracted more than 1 million faithful to Rio de Janeiro…"  Faithful or not, temptations run rampant within
such a setting; therefore, the Church has come up with a creative way for forgiveness to occur.  Paulo Prada of Reuters reported that "100 makeshift outdoor confessionals" (designed to resemble mini Christ the Redeemer statues)
were set up "at two focal points of the gathering."

This "tent camp" type assembly was staffed by polyglot priests (doing two-hour shifts) so that penitents could confess in either Portugese, French, Polish or German.  One of these priests,
Ademir Alves from Goias, explained the importance of this spiritual practice:  Each confession helps you find your way back to God.

The uniqueness and accessibility of these confessionals appealed to many of the youth that were present. Elise Johnson, an attendee from Seattle, declared:  This is way cooler than confession in a church.  Noelia Meza, a young woman from Argentina who had been away from the Church for quite some time, also felt that she had "a lot to tell."


Copyright July 29, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Kateri Peace Conference: 15 years strong

Kateri Statue (Photo by Jim McIntosh) 
Kateri Tekakwitha, now Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, would surely be pleased with all of the loving preparations for this year's 15th Annual Kateri Tekakwitha Peace Conference.

The conference website explains:  We are deeply committed to nonviolence as we firmly believe that nothing moral or sustainable can come from violence.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.  Gandhi stated, "Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.

It is within this Spirit that presenters and participants will gather together at the National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda, New York on August 16 - 17, 2013.  On the 16th (a Friday), there will be an all-day retreat with Rev. Chris Antal, an ordained Unitarian Universalist Minister.  The title of this retreat is Being Peace: Spiritual Disciplines for Sustaining Social Action.  Antal knows whereof he speaks, having recently served as a military chaplain in Afghanistan.

On the 17th, there will be a number of equally-riveting presenters.  Ellen Barfield, a quarter-century "nonviolent peace and justice activist," begins the day with a talk on Civil Resistance and Civil Disobedience.  Cathy Breen, who recently visited Iraq, continues with a discussion of the Iraqi Occupation and its Aftermath.  Attorney Stephen Downs then explains how War Destroys Law.  Martha Hennessy, Dorothy Day's granddaughter, afterwards details Day's Life and Work.  Ray McGovern, former CIA Analyst, then addresses The Moral Imperative of Activism.  Catholic Worker Brian Terrell afterwards speaks about Protest to Prison and Back Again.  Author Jack Gilroy will also "be on hand to comment on his play 'The Predator.'"


Copyright July 28, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dr. James Wolf: What's not an illusion

(Wedding Gown - 1882)
Although some traditions speak about this world as an illusion, Dr. James Wolf has found one thing that's not.

Dr. Wolf, a Family Practice, Board Certified M.D. who rates 4.9 out of all five stars on a Healthgrades patient-satisfaction survey, is
suffering from pancreatic cancer.  Possibly having only three more months to live, he is getting down to bare essentials – which for him spells "relationships."

What he would miss most could be the family milestones, such as his daughter Rachel's wedding-to-be (someday to someone not yet determined).  Therefore, Rachel came up with a poignantly unique idea.  Why not create the circumstances for a father-daughter wedding dance right here and now?

This dance recently took place at the Auburn (California) Recreation Park.  According to Gabe Gutierrez of TODAY, Rachel's white dress "sparkled in the evening sun."  Just a few hours before, Dr. Wolf had been lying there exhausted in the hospital.  Gutierrez reports that "he could barely get dressed without help from his wife." 

However, he was now gazing adoringly at his daughter as they glided across the dance floor to "Cinderella" by Steven Curtis Chapman.  His wife Jeanine, and his other daughter Lauren, were right close by, and he danced with them next.  Also present was "a group of Dr. Wolf's patients."

During this most bittersweet of occasions, Dr. Wolf stated:  Each and every day, we have a choice.  We
have a choice to either love that person in front of us or not.  It's the relationships that you build over
the years that is the most important thing in life.  Everything else is just an illusion. 


Copyright July 27, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 26, 2013

Online anti-Semitism: Running rampant

(Burning Synagogue - 1938)
Lauren Markoe of The Slate reports that online expressions of anti-Semitism have become "simply too numerous to track."

Barry Curtiss-Lusher, National Chair of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), warned that this "explosion of viral hate is impossible to quantify…"  He added that "the potential for online hatred numbers in the millions, and the danger is that it can fuel real-world violence."

Some instances of real-world violence against Jews are already on the increase within the United States.  These include vandalism and "anti-Jewish hostility on college campuses."  Some of the campus incidents involve "anti-Semitic imagery under the guise of anti-Israel activism."

Anti-Semitism is also on the rise in Europe.  For example, the Jewish Community Security Service in France recorded a "58 percent jump" in anti-Semitic acts between 2011 and 2012.  

Unfortunately, online anti-Semitism is as hard to control as it is to track.  As Curtiss-Lusher pointed out, "…the haters and bigots are more likely to take to the Internet to express themselves anonymously, rather than acting out in a public setting" (where they could more easily be stopped).


Copyright July 26, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Black Mary: Virgin of Aparecida

Our Lady of Aparecida (Public Domain)
The very first major stop that Pope Francis made during his current trip to Latin America was to the Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Sao Paulo, Brazil. 

There he warned Catholics against the "ephemeral idols" of "money, power and pleasure."  Jenny Barchfield of the Associated Press reports that he also "stood in silent prayer in front of the 15-inch-tall image of the Virgin of Aparecida, the 'Black Mary,' his eyes tearing up as he breathed heavily." Barchfield goes on to say that "like many Catholics in Latin America," the Pope "places great importance in devotion to Mary."

Wikipedia explains that this 18th-century clay statue of Mary was originally "caught" by three fisherman who had prayed to Our Lady for a good catch.  On that miraculous day back in October 1717, they first netted the statue's body, then its head, and finally an unusually-heavy load of fish.

This "Black Madonna" statue was originally named "Our Lady of the Appeared Conception" and quickly began being venerated by the local population. Afro-Brazilians particularly related to the statue – not only because of its dark brown coloring, but also because "one of the first miracles attributed to the image was
reportedly performed to an enslaved young man."

October 12th has been celebrated as the Feast Day of Our Lady of Aparecida since the 1800s.  That day
coincides with the 1822 founding of the Empire of Brazil, and is also known as "Children's Day."  It has been a Brazilian national holiday since 1980.


Coopyright July 25, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke    All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Slow Living Summit: Ditching the fast lane

Brattleboro Municipal Hall (Photo by Beyond My Ken) 
There's a movement afoot, and it's deliberately
plodding along one step at a time.  That may be why - during an age when centennials and the like
abound - we are only up to the Third Annual
Slow Living Summit...

The Slow Living Summit website explains the
meaning of it all.  "Slow" – as opposed to the "fast" of "fast food, fast money, fast living" – embraces "cooperation, respect, sustainability, gratitude and resilience."  "Living" refers to a "life well lived" – meaning one that is "mindful and purposeful, but also celebratory and filled with beauty, joy and gratitude."

"Slow living" includes such things as living within our means (individual and planetary), making more time for loved ones, stewardship and giving, socially-responsible entrepreneurism, sustainable communities, and "the right balance between spirituality, sensuality, introspection and community."

The Third Annual Summit recently concluded, and the Fourth Annual Summit will be held on June 4-6, 2014 in Brattleboro, Vermont.  The 2013 plenary topics included the following:  "Reconnecting Farmers, Eaters, and Healthy Communities; Slow Design: The impact of mindful design on the quality of public spaces and their communities; and Transitioning to community resilience."    


Copyright July 24, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Church attire: What would Jesus wear?

1858 Bathing Suit (Public Domain)
In modern-day Western societies, the amount of clothing is inversely proportional to the outside temperature.  In other words, as the heat scales up, the clothing scales down.

Although this might (greatly) please bikini fans, it might not bode as well for church attendees.  That is why some churches have taken to posting signs like this one from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Bethesda, Maryland:  Dignity & Decorum: Please try not to wear beach shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Thank you.

Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post points out that casual 
is superceding formal on airplanes, in offices, and pretty much everywhere.  One of the last outposts of formal wear has (somewhat)
been churches.

There has even been a movement called "Modest is Hottest" among evangelical Christian women.  However, younger women have been challenging this slogan, announcing that a woman's heretofore private parts "all proclaim the glory of the Lord."  Some women also interpret "Modest" to refer only to "the depth of one's spirit, not their neckline."  In other words, modesty is "an orientation of the heart" which "begins with putting God first."

Judging people is certainly something that Jesus was very clear about - and very clearly against.  Therefore, is judging people by what they wear (or don't wear) to church holy – or is it merely holier than thou?   


Copyright July 23, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

CLF: Church of the Larger Fellowship

(Photo by Jonathunder) 
Back in the 1800s, itinerant Unitarian ministers were dispatched from Boston to the American Midwest.  Their goal was to spread the liberal Unitarian message via written materials that "were carried on foot and horseback, house to house, and to Civil War soldiers in their camps."

This "Post Office Mission" soon caught on, and was looked upon as a "church without walls" by the early twentieth century.  This "church" was formally launched by Rev. William Channing Gannett in 1904, and was named the "Church of All Souls."

Rev. Frederick May Eliot then expanded upon the concept.  Members of this church without walls would now be "active participants in the life, governance, and the financial support of the society…"  The church would also have a minister for pastoral correspondence.

This Unitarian CLF was officially founded in May 1944.  Its stated purpose was twofold:  "To provide a spiritual home for isolated Unitarians and their families, and to transfer the allegiance of its members to local Unitarian churches whenever and wherever possible."

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) began in 1961 when the two "U's" merged.  After that, their individual CLF's also joined together.  Today it is still going (and growing) strong.  An educational component also developed; it began as a "Church School by Mail" program and is now an "Independent Study Program."

These days, the CLF also offers a "Directed Discussion Course" (featuring "interactive religious learning") - as well as "a variety of youth publications and a handbook for ceremonies of marriage, baby dedications, and memorial services."


Sunday, July 21, 2013

King David's palace: Or not

King David praying (Pieter de Grebber)
This past Thursday, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced the discovery of palace remains that may be linked to King David.  However, Alan Boyle of NBC News warns that this perceived link may not be "the gospel truth."

The remains in question are located within the Khirbet Qeiyafa archaeological site, located approximately 20 miles from Jerusalem.  This site is believed to lie within what was once
ancient Judean territory.  The site has been excavated for the past seven years, and archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have been finding "ample evidence of a fortified city dating back to around 1000 B.C. (alleged era of the House of David).

Evidence has now been uncovered that a 10,000-square-foot palace once existed in the center of Khirbet Qeiyafa, along with a 100-foot-long protective wall.  Not only that, a "pillared building to the north was apparently used as an administrative storeroom."

Although Hebrew University's Yosef Garfinkel and IAA's Sa'ar Ganor stated that these two buildings show "unequivocal evidence of a kingdom's existence," others beg to differ.  Some have theorized that the buildings may instead indicate that "an ancient Canaanite settlement" once existed there.  Some have also wondered whether the site was part of Northern Israel rather than of Judah.


Copyright July 21, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Maharat: Orthodox female spiritual leaders

(Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)
Wikipedia defines rabbi as "a teacher of Torah" and further explains that "all types of Judaism except for Orthodox Judaism and some conservative strains ordain women…"

Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis due to "the ruling of the Talmud" (a key text of rabbinical Judaism).  Although women are permitted to study halakhah (Jewish law), they are not permitted to "serve in positions of authority over a community, such as judges and kings."  Because rabbis traditionally hold such authority, Orthodox women are not allowed to be rabbis.

Nevertheless, the modern American "liberal fringe of Orthodox Judaism" has created a new clerical position for women called maharat ("female spiritual leader").  Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post reports that "several prominent but controversial rabbis" have begun the Yeshivat Maharat, a school that prepares Orthodox women for this groundbreaking role.

Many within Orthodox Judaism are feeling that the maharat role is so close to a rabbi's role that it violates "the spirit, if not the law, of Judaism…"  Others in favor of this new position are saying that it is merely the formalization of a role that Jewish women have been playing since ancient times.


Copyright July 20, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 19, 2013

Atheist diversity: Six shades of A

(Greek - Atheos)
It's no longer enough to simply say, "I'm an atheist."  These days, one must clarify exactly what is meant by that.  Otherwise, you come off sounding so vague that you might be mistaken for a mystic.

Fortunately, two researchers from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman) have cho-cho-chosen to take most of the guesswork out of atheism.  They interviewed 59 folks, and concluded that "atheism is an ontologically [look it up] diverse community."

They also concluded that there's not just one – or even two, three, four or five – type(s) of atheism.  Folks… there are six (that's half a dozen to those who buy eggs).

They be as follows:  Intellectual atheist/agnostics (you know the type - always citing, quoting and contending),  Activists (trying to convert the rest of society to their views), Seeker-agnostic (they "embrace uncertainty"), Anti-theist (aggressively opposed to what they interpret as "obvious fallacies"), Non-theist
(simply not concerned - one way or another - with religion), and Ritual Atheist (although not believers in "God," they still enjoy some religious-type rituals, gatherings and ideas).


Copyright July 19, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Living Interfaith Church: No 'us' or 'them'

All Religions Temple (Photo by Maarten) 
The "Interfaith" within the Living Interfaith Church of Lynnwood, Washington isn't what most think it is.  Rather than simply a dialoguing amongst faiths, it is instead a faith in its own right.

Billy Hallowell of The Blaze explains that the "Interfaith" that is practiced in this church "…recognizes that we are all brothers and sisters, and that at different times and different places we
have encountered the sacred differently."  Therefore, this "Interfaith" never tries to prove one religion better than another; it simply honors the best that all of them have to offer.

In so doing, a typical worship service might include elements from many different traditions.  For example, one service included such diverse books as Black Elk Speaks and the Koran.  Musical selections at this same service included "an African-American spiritual and a rabbinical song."    

The background of Rev. Steven Greenebaum, faith leader of this church, reflects this type of diversity.  He's been an associate minister at the Interfaith Community Church in Seattle, a music director at the Evergreen Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Marysville, Washington – and the author of a book titled The Interfaith Alternative.

Hallowell states that Greenebaum's foremost goal is to "knock down the barriers that often divide."  In other words, Greenebaum heartily believes that "there is no 'them.'  And there is no 'us' who are somehow superior to them."

Copyright July 18, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Nones or Alls: Benvenuti's perspective

Neither Nuns Nor Nones (Beyond My Ken)
It used to be that religious groupings inevitably included "Nuns."  These days, they inevitably include "Nones."

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported back in 2012 that "Nones" were on the rise.  Their accompanying explanation was that "one-in-five [U. S.] adults have no religious affiliation."  This 20-percent figure (which increases to 30 percent when just those adults under the age of 30 are taken into account) breaks down in the following manner:  6% "self-described atheists and agnostics," and 14%  "who say they have no particular religious affiliation."

In writing for The Interfaith Observer, Anne Benvenuti (an Episcopal priest - as well as a licensed clinical psychologist, poet, photographer, professor, spiritual director, etc.) makes the point that many of the "Nones" should instead be called "Alls."  That previously-mentioned 14% includes "people who, while they don't want a religious label, also don't want the traditional secular-rationalist-humanist label."

Many of these supposed "Nones" have stated that they practice yoga.  Perhaps many also meditate. (Meditation was not specifically asked about.)  The majority responded that they "felt close to the natural world."

Benvenuti states that she knows quite a few "Nones" who distrust "prepackaged beliefs," yet value "spiritual heritage."  They are often "more comfortable in a variety of religious settings than they would be in only one."

Hence, "All" seems more descriptive of their beliefs than "None" does…


Copyright July 18, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Metta World Peace: What's in a name?

Metta World Peace (Almendarez)
Some might say that Ron Artest had no business changing his name to Metta World Peace. 

These cynics could point out that his background has been far from peaceful.  Artest himself has told the story of why he plays basketball "really rough."  It has a lot to do with growing up in a neighborhood where, if there was a dispute, someone could easily end up dead.

And someone did. 

Wikipedia explains that Artest "witnessed the death of a fellow player on a basketball court."  This was no accidental occurrence.  In his own
words:  "It was so competitive, they broke a leg from a table and they threw it, it went right through his heart and he died right on the court."
This "altercation" took place "at a 1991 YMCA-sanctioned basketball tournament."

Violent surroundings are prone to stick with you, one way or another.  Critics certainly remember Artest's 2007 domestic-violence conviction.  Not to mention his 2003 TV-camera incident.  And that 2004 Michigan brawl…

So the question remains:  Does a history like Artest's mean that a person has no right to a name like "Metta World Peace" - or does it mean that he needs it all the more?

There's something to be said for taking on a moniker like that – no matter how many all-too-human failings we all have.  It's a constant reminder that there is a better way and that life can be turned around.

For those outside the Buddhist loop, Metta means "loving kindness and friendliness towards all."  And World Peace?  Artest has stated:  "Changing my name was meant to inspire and bring youth together all around the world." 


Copyright July 16, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 15, 2013

Rembrandt: Religious faith revealed

(Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at Age 53)
If Rembrandt were a Patriarch, he would just about be in the middle of his life cycle on this 407th anniversary of his birth.  After all, the Bible tells us that Adam lived to be 930, and Noah lived to be 950.

Although Rembrandt was not a Patriarch (and died at the age of 63 in 1669), he certainly was religiously inclined.  However, Wikipedia tells us that "there is no evidence that Rembrandt formally belonged to any church" - although his "mother was Roman Catholic" and his
father "belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church."  Wikipedia also mentions that the Dutch Republic that they lived in was "famously tolerant" at the time.

In writing for Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), Jack Kinyon explains that it is "in Rembrandt's religious paintings that we actually get a glimpse into the spiritual life of the Dutch Master himself, revealing a faith that was affected by the world around him, while still retaining a uniquely intimate tone."

In referencing the publication Rembrandt's Faith, Kinyon states that the great painter's religious art was influenced by both "the Dutch Republic of the 1600s and Rembrandt's own personal faith…"   He lists three recurrent themes within Rembrandt's religious works:  Covenant Theology ("God's interaction with His chosen people through Covenants"), the Temple (of Jerusalem and of Christ's Body), and the Millennial messages of that age (i.e., "that Christ's return could be quickened by converting Jews to Christianity").  


Copyright July 15, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Omniscience: DNA footprints

DNA - A, B and Z (by Zephyris)
It seems no accident these days that the word "science" is hidden within the term "omniscience."

Whereas omniscience used to be strictly God's domain, science seems bent upon catching up.  Researchers are eagerly following DNA footprints in order to determine who it is that left them, and
what it is that makes these people tick.

Jill Lawless of the Associated Press reports that you "can ditch your computer and leave your cellphone at home, but you can't escape your DNA."  And the unsettling truth is that it not only "belongs uniquely to you," but also more and more "to the authorities."

Because these "authorities" are all-too-human, the concern arises that their increasing omniscience might not work out quite so well as that of an omnibenevolent God.  Lawless suggests that our biological identities might be as vulnerable as our social-security numbers and other supposedly inviolable information.

Case in point:  MIT researcher Yaniv Erlich recently disclosed that identifying individuals from DNA samples was as easy as one, two, three (one being "a computer algorithm," two being "a genetic genealogy website," and three being "a search of publicly available Internet records").   Then he added:  … our work shows there are privacy limitations.

Or are there?  Perhaps our right to privacy has a Snowden's chance in you-know-where of actually surviving such an investigative onslaught …


Copyright July 14, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Narwhal: Unicorn of the sea

Male Narwhals (Public Domain)
When Daniel Botelho was on a mission for Disney, he saw something so fantastic that it could have come straight out of a Disney movie.

That something was a narwhal.  Wikipedia explains that this mythical-looking creature is actually "a medium-sized toothed whale that lives year-round in the Arctic."  The name "narwhal" is from the Old Norse word nar, meaning "corpse."  This refers not only to the narwhal's "greyish, mottled" coloring (like that of a drowned human), but also to "its summertime habit of laying inactive at or near the surface of the sea…"

However, it is this creature's scientific name – Monodon monoceros – that hones in on the narwal's "mythical" aspects.  This Greek terminology means "one-tooth one-horn."  From there it's an easy jump over to "one-toothed unicorn."

According to Pete Thomas of The Big Blue, what appears to be this "unicorn's" tusk is actually "a single tooth that sprouts through a narwal's upper lip."  Imagine a canine tooth that just keeps growing and growing until it's nine feet long.  Now you've got a pretty good idea of what the male narwal's ivory "tusk" actually is.

Sounds magical?  Some medieval Europeans believed so.  They thought that narwal tusks could "cure poison and melancholia."  There is also an Inuit legend which states that a harpooning woman was transformed into a narwal, and her long twisted hair became its spiral tusk.        


Copyright July 13, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 12, 2013

Amish concern: Will fracking fracture the soul?

Fracking in Progress (Joshua Doubek)
When Jesus was tempted by the treasures of this world, he adamantly refused them.  Amish families that own land ripe for fracking are now grappling with some similar temptations.

Whereas many are concerned with fracking's effects on the soil, these families are focused upon fracking's effects on the soul.  In an article for MSN Money, Julie Carr Smyth and Kevin Begos discuss this dilemma.

Carr-Smyth and Begos point out that the "stakes can be huge."  Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is capable of creating oil and gas wells so big that they "can generate hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars in royalties for a property holder."

The issue for most Amish is not primarily an ecological one.  Jerry Schlabach, an Amish Ohio resident, explained:  "… the world was created for the benefit of man.  And nature, as we see it, is made to be used as long as it's kept in proper perspective."

Nevertheless, Schlabach worries about the BIG picture.  He stated:  Amish are no different than anybody else.  The power of big money can bring spiritual corruption.

Still, Schlabach sees some silver linings in the mix.  If the wealth is used to help others, then things might work out well.  He philosophically adds:  Life doesn't consist of your possessions.  Possessions are nothing, and it is what you do for other people that lasts.


Copyright July 12, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 11, 2013

969 vs.786: Remembering spiritual roots

[Location of Burma (Myanmar)]
Alex Bookbinder of The Atlantic writes that the number 969 is being strongly linked to religious violence within Burma (Myanmar).

He reports, "A wave of anti-Muslim violence has engulfed a number of towns in Central Burma over the past two weeks, and people fear the violence may soon move further south…  One number has become indelibly associated with these attacks – 969… "

Bookbinder explains that this number - which has long symbolized "the nine attributes of the Buddha, the six attributes of his teachings, and the nine attributes of the Sangha, or monastic order" – is now being politically utilized in response to Muslim use of the number 786.  He states that 786 is used by many South Asian Muslims to numerologically represent the phrase bismillah-ir-rahman-ir-rahim ("In the name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful").

In a post to the CNN iReport, UKovida cautions that "969 should not be used for any kind of violence."  He gives an in-depth explanation of what this number has meant spiritually.  Just the first 9 alone includes the following components:  freedom from defilement, realization of the Four Noble Truths, the alignment of knowledge and conduct, wise speech, profound knowledge of the world, remarkable teaching/mentoring, and higher consciousness.


Copyright July 11, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Yogic tale: Alexander the Great Slave

Alexander Coin (Photo by PHGCOM) 
It is well known that Alexander the Great had been hoping to conquer far more of the Indian subcontinent than he actually did.

H. E. Marshall explained that after Alexander fought many bitter battles within the Punjab region, he was "eager to reach the holy river Ganges and conquer the people there."  His men, however, were just as eager to bid adieu to India's elephants and climatic extremes.  They therefore begged Alexander to go no further, and
he very reluctantly agreed.

Nevertheless, Alexander allegedly remained fascinated by stories he had heard about yogis. tells us that when Alexander was about to leave the subcontinent, he "remembered that his people had asked him to bring to them an Indian yogi" in order to receive blessings. 

After meeting such a yogi, Alexander asked him to come to Greece.  After the yogi politely declined, Alexander was enraged.  No one had ever dared to refuse such a "majestic" request.  Therefore, Alexander replied:  "I am the great king Alexander.  If you will not listen to me, I shall kill you – cut you into pieces!"

The yogi replied:  You cannot kill me!  You can only kill my body…  You say you are a king.  May I tell you who you are?  You are a slave of my slave! 

He then explained to Alexander:  Anger is my slave…  You are a slave of anger, and, therefore, a slave of my slave!


Copyright July 10, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cockatoos: Cracking the code

Cockatoo (Photo by Arpingstone) 
Although cockatoos (which are part of the parrot order) are certainly adept at cracking nuts, they might also be versed in cracking codes.

Elizabeth Barber, in her Christian Science Monitor article "Da Vinci-code, bird-style: Cockatoos can solve complex puzzles,"
reports on research findings from the Goffin Laboratory at Vienna University.  Alice Auersperg and her team there discovered that untrained cockatoos were able to successfully complete a sequential "puzzle" that consisted of the following five steps:  "…remove a pin,
then a screw, then a bolt; then turn a wheel 90 degrees and then a latch sideways…" 

Barber reports that except for work with chimpanzees, "a nonhuman animal successfully completing more than three, completely novel, sequential steps without prior training has not been previously
documented in scientific literature."

Although science might first be recognizing the grandeur of these birds, religion has long acknowledged it.  Wikipedia reports that the "Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped birds and often depicted parrots in their art."  Amitabha, a "celestial buddha" of the Mahayana school, once morphed into a parrot.  The
bodhisattva Guanshiyin is sometimes shown with a parrot ("clasping a pearl or prayer beads in its beak") hovering above her upper right side.  

Copyright July 9, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gettysburg Address: Psalm 90 and counting

Psalms Scroll (Photo by Pete unseth)
The King James Version of Psalm 90 waxes philosophical about the fleeting days of human lives:  The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away…  So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

Certainly "labour and sorrow" was the order of the day on July 4, 1863 when the Battle of Gettysburg had just ended.  Huff Post Religion writer Marc Saperstein explains that this was a Saturday, and Rabbi Sabato Morais of Philadelphia's Mikveh Israel Congregation was therefore set to deliver a "Sabbath morning sermon."

Morais was faced with a paradoxical task.  It was not only July 4 – a traditionally upbeat holiday in American history, but it was also the 17th Day of Tammuz – a traditional day of mourning in the Jewish calendar.   Plus, the outcome of Gettysburg was not yet fully known (news did not travel that fast back then), and Philadelphia was a mere 90
miles away from the tragic site.

The rabbi therefore chose a different biblical text from the one recommended by the Union League (i.e. the "Liberty Bell verse" from Leviticus, which stated:  "Proclaim liberty throughout the land…").  Morais instead read these words from Isaiah 37:3 concerning the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem:   This is a day of trouble, of rebuke, and derision.   

Nevertheless, he assured the congregation that he "was not indifferent" to that first Independence Day "which four score and seven years ago, brought to this new world light and joy."  The complete text of this sermon was then published in the Jewish Messenger on July 10, 1863.

Had Lincoln read it?  Had the phrase "four score and seven years ago" remained with him while composing the Gettysburg address?  Saperstein emphasizes that possibility…


Copyright July 8, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Brain scans: Big Brother is watching

(George Orwell in 1933)
That somewhat private sanctuary known as the human brain is now being invaded – not only by a benevolent omniscient God, but also by fellow humans with their own agendas.

Megan Gannon of Live Science reports that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is able to reveal "what people are thinking and feeling."  This is made possible through brain scans that indicate "patterns of neural activity."

For example, "anger, disgust, envy, fear, happiness, lust, pride, sadness  and shame" (got those Seven Deadlies covered pretty well here) are associated with specific areas of the brain.  Therefore, brain scans could indicate which emotions were at play at a given time.

This is currently far from an exact science (and the wayward among us might be praying that it never will be).  Some of the scanned emotions, such as envy, have been confused with others. However, scanned lust "was rarely mistaken for any other emotion…"  

The silver lining of all this may be the realization" that thoughts and emotions are sorely in need of self-control.  Otherwise, they may eventually be controlled by outside Orwellian influences.

"1984" may have chronologically passed, but its unsettling essence may be yet to come.   


Copyright July 7, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Salvation from asteroids: Let the bids begin

951 Gaspra (NASA enhanced-color photo)
In the bad old days, salvation was on sale via Roman
Catholic Church indulgences.

Nowadays salvation is still being auctioned off, but this time around in a very scientific manner. Robert Z. Perlman from tells us that astronauts Rusty Schweickart ("Apollo 9 spacewalker") and Ed Lu ("International Space Station flight engineer") will be selling their "flown-in-space mission patches, flags, medals and pins" to the highest eBay bidders.  By doing so, they hope to raise funds to "support the launch of the private Sentinel space telescope."

This telescope has been designed to "discover, map, and track asteroids with orbits that approach Earth…" In other words, it could find asteroids that might otherwise hasten many - if not all - humans to their just (or hopefully merciful) desserts...

Schweickart and Lu are determined to "get" those space rocks before they smash us to smithereens.   As Lu (humbly?) put it:  We want to literally save the world.  He then explained:  Both Rusty and I were privileged to see the Earth as few others have, and that experience has convinced us that…  there is no more important mission than protecting our home planet.


Copyright July 6, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 5, 2013

Superman Jewish? His 'ancestors' were

Jerry Siegel (Photo by Alan Light)
As much as superheroes (or anyone else for that matter) can be created by mere mortals, Superman was created by two Jewish "parents."

His "fathers" were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two children of Jewish immigrants to North America.  Wikipedia tells us that Siegel's parents were from Lithuania and Shuster's were from Rotterdam and Kiev.  Siegel grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and Shuster in Toronto, Canada.  After Shuster's family moved to Cleveland, Superman's "parents-to-be" met in high school there.

Larry Tye, writing for The Miami Herald, describes Clark Kent, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in this manner:  All were classic
nebbishes.  What better way for Siegel and Shuster to outshine the dominant culture than to have their counterpart Kent morph into the quintessential Anglo-Saxon ("perfect pug nose, electric blue eyes" and all) superhero.

Although as Tye points out, "Who ever heard of a Jewish strongman?" – evidence of Superman's true heritage begins with his original Kryptonian name:  Kal-El.  "El" in Judaism means "God."  Tye reports that "Kal" is similar to the Hebrew words for voice and vessel.  Put that together, and what have you got:  "Voice of God."  Downright prophetic…

Next there are the parallels between Moses being rescued and raised by Egyptians and Kal-El being rescued and raised by Americans. Tye goes so far as to say that "Kal-El's escape to Earth was the story of Exodus."  He also explains that the language of Kal-El's birth story was very much the language of Genesis.

Who knew?  Apparently the Third Reich did.  A 1940 SS article accused Jerry Siegel of working in cahoots with Superman to sow "hate, suspicion, evil, laziness and criminality" in American youth.


Copyright July 5, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day: Freedom of or from?

As I was saying... (Public Domain)
As the years go by, it's getting tougher and tougher to decipher whether Americans are celebrating freedom of or from religion.

This Fourth of July there's a debate going on that threatens to be every bit as intense as the ones that preceded the Declaration of Independence.  Luckily, this is just a war of words – at least for now.

Many who claim to be on the "freedom of" side have been welcoming the full-page newspaper ads that Hobby Lobby (an arts and crafts company) has been running since 2006.  According to Jeff Shapiro of The Christian Post, its 2013 ads feature religion-friendly quotes from "former U.S. presidents, founding fathers, a Supreme Court justice, the
Bible and other sources."  At the bottom of each ad is a hotline number "for those who 'would like to know Jesus as Lord and Savior.'"

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is attempting to respond in kind (although they certainly can't afford the widespread coverage that Hobby Lobby has been able to purchase).  The FFRF ad is titled "In Reason We Trust" (Hobby Lobby's is titled "In God We Trust").  FFRF also includes quotes from founding fathers such as George Washington.

It's a matter of pick-and-choose your quotes carefully.  FFRF chose this one from Washington:  Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause…  Hobby Lobby chose this other one from the very same Father of our Country:  It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits,  and humbly to implore His protection and favor.


Copyright July 4, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Judge flexible on yoga in school district

(Photo by LocalFitness)
The many proponents of yoga in the schools were concerned that San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer might do a backward bend on the issue.

However, the forward-thinking judge instead ruled that because yoga - as it's being taught in the Encinitas Union School District - has been
stripped of its religious significance, including it within the curriculum is not "in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state."

Dean Broyles - the attorney for parents who had sued the school district concerning this matter - begs to differ.  He thought (out loud) that the judge "got some of his facts wrong."  Although District Superintendent Timothy Baird had described this curriculum as simply "a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it," Broyles argued that yoga is "inherently religious."

Candy Gunther Brown, a Harvard-educated religious studies professor, seems to agree with Broyles. According to MSN News, she found this yoga program to be "pervasively religious" – with "roots in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and metaphysical beliefs and practices."

Perhaps she and Broyles see this yoga program as being the philosophical equivalent of having a school aerobics program that would be based on repetitive speedy genuflecting…     

Copyright July 3, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Stutzman's flower power fading fast

Crateva religiosa (Photo by Marshman) 
The times they certainly are a changing – and changing fast.  When a flower shop becomes rife with controversy about whether to provide wedding displays for a same-sex couple, it's a sure sign
that Dylan's words were downright prophetic.

The shop in question is Arlene's Flowers of Richland, Washington.  Its proprietress, Barronelle Stutzman, has "refused to provide
wedding flowers for a longtime customer [Robert Ingersoll] who was marrying his [same-sex] partner."  Daniel Burke of CNN
reports that Stutzman's refusal stems from her evangelical Christian beliefs.

This controversy has garnered intense responses from both sides of the issue.  The ACLU sued Arlene's Flowers on behalf of Ingersoll - and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against the shop.  With conservative Christians, "Stutzman has become a byword – part cautionary tale and part cause célèbre."

Stutzman herself stated:  I was not discriminating at all.  I never told him he couldn't get married…  

Meanwhile, an online campaign is being waged against her.  Burke explains that she "has been called a bigot, and worse."

Stutzman's response, as she "gets ready to face a judge," is this:  Don't give in.  If you have to go down for Christ, what better person to go down for?

Copyright July 2, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 1, 2013

Martian genealogy: Little green microbes

(Granddaddy Mars)
Sounds a bit sci fi?  Perhaps.

However, the idea actually came from a recent article titled "We Might Be Martians."  Nope, not from The National Enquirer, but from The Atlantic…  Writer J. J. Gould points out that the findings of astronomy have been pretty much of a down-hill run for human-centered cosmology.  Ditto for Earth-centered cosmology…

Not only are there billions (upon billions) of stars other than our own sun, but there are also untold numbers of orbiting planets.  The possibility of life (either carbon-based or otherwise) on other planets (within or beyond our solar system) seems therefore quite real.

Gould reports on evidence-based indications that "billions of years ago, Mars had water and atmospheric conditions that could, theoretically, have supported life."  Since meteor strikes "have meanwhile caused serial ejections of material from Earth to Mars and from Mars to Earth," it's possible that microbial life from Mars may have found its way to Earth.

Given eons of evolution, these Martian microbes might have eventually morphed into human Earthlings.  If that is correct, then would have to expand its investigations way beyond Ellis Island.

And the all-too-human (so we thought) expression "green with envy"?  Well, it's finally beginning to make a lot more sense… 

Copyright July 1, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved