• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Cash for Chicks

A man named Kurt Kuersteiner is offering $500 to anyone who can provide him with the rare African-American edition of Jack T. Chick’s tract “A Demon’s Nightmare”. According to a Reuters report (read via Religion News Blog):

Since the Chick collecting base is still in its infancy, it’s a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor, Kuersteiner said.

Chick, of course, is both an icon of American popular culture and an appalling religious bigot. His early works contained villainous hooked-nosed communists and evolutionists, although he later dropped the anti-Semitism in favour of attacking Catholics, about whom he wove elaborate conspiracy theories with the help of an alleged renegade Catholic priest called Alberto Rivera. His other targets have included liberal Christians, Muslims, Hindus, homosexuals and really just about any form of religion, cultural expression or scientific theory that is not in full agreement with Fundamentalist Christianity, and as such are part of a satanic conspiracy. He has also provided a platform for the likes of Rebecca Brown, a mentally disturbed individual obsessed with demons, witches and the evils of vegetarianism.

What many Americans might not be aware of is his global reach. His tracts and comics are sold in Africa (1); I’ve also seen them in Jerusalem and quite frequently in London, especially in Pentecostal churches. As it happens, I once met Jack Chick’s British importer, an ancient and personable Scot who runs a Christian bookshop in Edinburgh. He was very pleased when I bought a whole bundle of Chick’s “Crusaders” comics, and told me that Chick’s previous importer had fallen out with Chick because they thought he was too liberal in his depiction of women. To the right of Chick is a very scary place to be…

Chick has also recently made a movie about Jesus, but unlike Mel’s effort it has gone straight to DVD, no doubt because of the Jesuits and homosexuals who control Hollywood…

(1) Paul Gifford, Christianity and Politics in Doe’s Liberia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 105 n. 16, 269 n. 105

Repent at Leisure

The Washington Times gets Medieval (well, Late Antique to be more precise) on John Kerry:

Bishops have been denying Communion to politicians since A.D. 390, when Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, excommunicated Roman Emperor Theodosius I for killing 7,000 unarmed Greeks during a tax rebellion.

The Times fails to add that Ambrose and Theodosius had earlier clashed over the Emperor’s decree that a synagogue in Callinicum should be rebuilt at Christian expense just because a Christian mob had burnt it down. However, it does note that

Theodosius had to endure a ceremony of public penance before Ambrose agreed to accept him back into the church.

Meanwhile, Archbishop O’Malley told the Boston Globe (quoted via Christianity Today) that

a Catholic politician who holds a public, prochoice position should not be receiving Communion and should on their own volition refrain from doing so. The church presumes that each person is receiving in good faith. It is not our policy to deny Communion. It is up to the individual.

So we won’t be seeing Kerry standing barefoot in the snow for three days outside the Archbishop’s Residence.

Academics Under Fire from Defender of Hinduism

The Washington Post reports on several controversies over Indian history and religion: James W. Laine’s book on the 17th century Hindu king Shivaji; Paul Courtright’s 1985 book on the god Ganesha, which waxes Freudian over his trunk; and Wendy Doniger’s alleged “eroticised” view of Hinduism. All three scholars have faced threats and, in Doniger’s case, a thrown egg. The article introduces “New Jersey entrepreneur” Rajiv Malhotra, who brought Courtright’s old book to the attention of Hindus, and “former Microsoft engineer” Sankrant Sanu, whose critique of Doniger’s entry on Hinduism in Encarta apparently led to the article being replaced.

Encarta has tinkered with its entries in the past to suit its audiences (giving differnt accounts of Waterloo for British and French readerships; asking genocide scholar Helen Fein and Armenian expert Ronald Grigor Suny to revise material disliked by the Turkish government), but Sanu’s deconstruction of Doniger’s article, in which he compares her approach with how other religious traditions are treated by Encarta, is actually very strong. The new article for Encarta was, it seems, written by Arvind Sharma, Birks Chair of Comparative Religion at McGill University and previously Infinity Foundation Visiting Professor of Indic Studies at Harvard University, although Doniger insists that: “I wrote it and someone named Sharma did not” (a perplexing point the Post does not elaborate on – Malhotra suggests that she means that her article was spiked because of her race, but the Post‘s wording is unclear).

The Infinity Foundation (formerly the Educational Council on Indic Traditions) was founded by Malhotra, and according to its website it exists “to promote East-West dialogue and a proper understanding of the Indian civilizational experience in the world, particularly in the United States and India”. In an interview, Malhotra argued that

The Buddhists have good scholars, themselves practising Buddhists, who teach the Buddhist religion…But Hinduism, Sikhism or Jainism are too often taught by Americans who themselves believe in other thought systems! This is even considered desirable in the name of ‘objectivity’, while the same arms-length rule does not apply to Christianity for instance, which is taught by Christians and even preachers.

A profile of the IF by Pankai Jain notes that it prefers “to be called an Indic think-tank, rather than a Hindu organization”, and concludes that:

From almost a one-man show, Rajiv Malhotra has succeeded in attracting many like-minded men and women as advisors to his foundation. The readership of the essays written by Rajiv Malhotra and many of the IF advisors on Sulekha [an e-zine] ranges into five figures. It is interesting to note how awareness about these issues has steadily increased with the Sulekha audience as evidenced by their comments; it is a sign of the growing intellectual impact of IF on the Indian diaspora. It is important to note that most of those readers are not related to IF except through reading on the Internet, and yet their views seem to resonate very well with the essays. One is left amazed to see a telecom entrepreneur constructing an influential Indic think-tank.

Malhotra has written numerous articles, in which he takes aim at Doniger’s scholarship and those who have been influenced by her. In response to his criticisms, Doniger tells the Post that

Malhotra’s ignorant writings have stirred up more passionate emotions in Internet subscribers who know even less than Malhotra does, who do not read books at all…And these people have reacted with violence. I therefore hold him indirectly responsible.

However, Malhotra can hardly be put in the same bracket as the Hindu nationalist Hindutva. Malhotra is on record as being against the Hindutva:

They have been devoid of rigorous scholarship and serious think tanks…There is often a certain crudeness in many of their leaders…They have a general disregard for complex arguments that don’t seem to deliver immediate payoffs. This issue is related to an overall anti-intellectualism that seems to have prevailed through much of the history of the RSS. This has made them intellectually inbred, and many of their people come across like sycophants. Their geriatric leaders are out of touch with today’s modernity, youth culture, and global perspective…VHP has no right to taint the name of Hinduism in making its choices, as though they were acting on behalf of all Hindus, whereas they did not even get elected by a majority of Hindus to represent them.

On the other hand, Malhotra is primarily an apologist for his religion, meaning he has a somewhat different perspective from, say, Edward Said or many other critics of Western scholarship of the east. Sulekha has provided right of reply to those he has attacked, and has published a defence of Doniger.

UPDATE (3 May): Malhotra has produced a strongly-worded response to the Post article.

PS – thanks to those who left comments. To clarify, I use the word “apologist” in a neutral sense. I suppose the word now has a popular nuance of “make excuses for” or “defend something that shouldn’t be defended”, which was not what I meant at all. What I meant was that Malhotra, like the late Edward Said, wants the main religious tradition of his original homeland to be treated accurately. However, unlike Said vis-a-vis Islam, Malhotra is an adherent of the religion he writes about, a positionality which should be remembered when reading his (often polemical) articles. But I take the point that he does not (to my knowledge) spend time writing articles about how his religion is “the truth”, which is the main activity of a religious apologist.

Worst Example of Religiously Illiterate Reporting in the History of Journalism

Courtesy of the website of the British newspaper The Guardian, where you can see an interesting photo-essay showing how Good Friday is commemorated around the world. However, the pic from the “Holy Land” shows neither the Via Dolorosa nor either of the two sites that are venerated as Golgotha. Instead, we have, er…this:

A Christian woman prays inside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Some believe the church to be Jesus Christ’s final resting place.

Bethlehem? Nativity?? “Final resting place”??? John 11:35!

One Nation, Under Gods

One hundred and eighty teachers in Tokyo face a reprimand for declining to sing the Kimigayo, Japan’s national anthem, in graduation ceremonies:

May the reign of the Emperor continue for a thousand, nay, eight thousand generations and for the eternity that it takes for small pebbles to grow into a great rock and become covered with moss.

As ideology, these lyrics are no worse than “God Save the Queen” – atheists might even say they are slightly better, as they avoid mentioning God, although the Emperor’s past status as a divinity needs to be remembered. However, the song is controversial for reasons of context. The words go back to the ninth century, and the tune to Meiji era, but for many the anthem (which was made official only in 1999, despite its long history) carries nationalistic overtones that recall Japanese colonialism and the nationalism of the 1930s and 40s. As well as those who object to the anthem for historical reasons, the Asahi Shimbun (linked via History News Network) notes that some

think the anthem and the flag are just fine, but refuse to be treated like puppets, forced to sing or stand up when they don’t feel like it.

With so many differences of opinion, would it not be going overboard to force every single person at any school ceremony to stand facing the flag and sing the anthem?

The crackdown was ordered by the Tokyo Board of Education on instruction from Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro. This in itself is likely to have put a lot people off: Shintaro is a populist authoritarian who has accused the Chinese of exaggerating the Rape of Nanking and has warned that when the next earthquake comes the biggest problem will be rioting foreigners. The dissenting teachers recall to me the famous event of 1891, when the Christian Kanzo Uchimura failed to bow low before the Imperial Rescript on Education, also in Tokyo. Uchimura was forced to resign his post.

Meanwhile, a district court has found PM Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to be an unconstitutional breach of religion-state separation. The shrine, which commemorates Japanese war dead, is also controversial because in 1978 the souls of several war criminals were enshrined within it, including that of Hideki Tojo. Prime Ministerial visits to the shrine have been going on for some years, despite protests from various groups within Japan and from Japan’s neighbours. Koizumi’s defence, like that of his predecessors, is that he is visiting as a private citizen, not as Prime Minister. This “private” explanation got short shrift back in 1979 when PM Masayoshi Ohira (a Christian, by the way) visited. One Korean-Japanese, despite having a brother enshrined at the site, objected to the visit and noted that:

Even though Ohira says his visit is private, the fact that he used an official car and signed the registry giving his title as Prime Minister has given his visit a strong public colouring. (1)

Koizumi also signs himself as “Prime Minister”, and he has declared that he wants to make official visits.

****

Postscript: Before the Second World War, Japan developed “State Shinto”, which was distinct from “Sect Shinto”. The government argued that State Shinto was civic rather than religious, and so its citizens could reasonably be obliged to show respect for its symbols and rituals whatever their personal religous beliefs (it was abolished after the war). Reading about how the American Pledge of Allegiance was recently defended brings this to mind. As Leon Wieseltier at the New Republic puts it (link via Vincent at Religion Related Injuries):

In the Pledge of Allegiance, the government insisted, the word “God” does not refer to God. It refers to a reference to God. The government’s argument…solicitor general [Theodore B. Olsen] maintained, “is a statement about the Nation’s historical origins, its enduring political philosophy centered on the sovereignty of the individual.” The allegedly religious words in the Pledge are actually just “descriptive”–the term kept recurring in the discussion–of the mentality of the people who established the United States. As Olson told the Court, they are one of several “civic and ceremonial acknowledgments of the indisputable historical fact that caused the framers of our Constitution and the signers of the Declaration of Independence to say that they had the right to revolt and start a new country.”

Although in the age of Bush and Ashcroft this may be unfashionable, might we not get some mileage out of the old American Civil Religion Thesis, which sometimes spoke of an “American Shinto”?

(1) Quoted in Mark R Mullins, Handbook of Christianity in Japan, p. 367.

British “Intelligence”?

As Britain remains fearful of an attack by Islamic extremists, the UK public can feel confident that airport security officials know how to spot a terrorist. According to Nigerian newspaper The News, in March 2002 a perfectly innocent Nigerian Muslim named Abdullah Adeyanju Binuyo entered the country at Oxford airport after a flight from Dublin. Following an unexpected interrogation, close scrutiny of his passport yielded damning evidence: this Muslim’s birthday was 11 September!

Thinking he had found someone with a link to the terrorist attacks in New York, the official was thrilled. He went back to his duties, ordering Binuyo to stand aside…”He just told me that in spite of the fact that he did not find anything incriminating against me, he would not allow me to enter Oxford because my birthday and the terrorist attacks fall on the same date,” Binuyo said.

Madonna’s Manager Gets Rights to Last Days Movie

With the last Left Behind novel topping the bestseller lists and American television preparing for Revelations, an apocalyptic thriller penned by Omen author David Seltzer (see here), comes news (via email from Publishers Lunch) that the film rights have been bought for Joel C. Rosenberg’s novels The Last Jihad and The Last Days. Weirdly, the rights have been acquired by Freddie DeMann; DeMann has produced a couple of films, but he is better known as sometime manager to Madonna and Michael Jackson.

Rosenberg is an Evangelical Christian of Jewish Orthodox background, and he has an impressive conservative CV, according to his website: political columnist for World magazine, collaborator with Steve Forbes on a number of Regnery titles, Rush Limbaugh’s Research Director, and employee of Benjamin Netanyahu. Both of his novels are published by Forge, an imprint of the firm that also owns the SF and fantasy imprint Tor, and to his followers he is a “modern Nostradamus” with “eerily prescient” imaginative abilities. His website gives examples, the most impressive being that The Last Jihad features Islamic fundamentalists using a hijacked plane to attack an American city, months before 9/11. (That this rather obvious method of terrorism had also previously been imagined by William Pierce and the Columbine killers, among others, is not noted) His other “Fact or Fiction?” moments concern acts of violence in Israel/Palestine that have been paralleled in real life, such as the deaths of CIA agents in last October’s Gaza bombing. He also helpfully provides links to show why his prediction of Yasser Arafat’s assassination may well come true, and would be a good thing.

The books themselves are standard schlock, although the novels may require considerable reworking for the big screen, since the first one features Saddam Hussein as a major character. Reviewer Patrick Anderson describes The Last Jihad:

The president is James MacPherson — Vietnam hero, Wall Street legend, former governor of Colorado — who has succeeded George W. Bush. Between them, Bush and MacPherson have brought joy to our troubled land. The war on terrorism is won, Osama bin Laden is dead, and al-Qaeda is obliterated. Taxes are low, employment high and our hearts even higher: “Presidential promises made were promises kept. And the sense of relief is palpable.”

However, Saddam is plotting his “Last Jihad” just as Israelis and Palestinians are about to enjoy peace as the result of an oil bonanza. Israeli intelligence discovers that Saddam has acquired nuclear Scuds, and the novel ends with (*spoiler*) the US President nuking Baghdad. As Rosenberg explains:

After working in Washington for a decade at that point—most recently for former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky—I was convinced that the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was real and that American policymakers were not properly focused on that threat. I wrote The Last Jihad almost as a Paul Revere-like exercise to raise people’s awareness of what could happen if we ignored Saddam Hussein for too long. I never imagined it would be published just as the debate over Iraq was heating up and just months before coalition forces went to war.

Rosenberg is generous enough to reproduce an NY Times profile that describes the books as “not very good novels. The plots streak along at breakneck speed. But there is no subtlety and no attempt at character development.” The profile links his success to his connections on the right, with endorsements coming from Limbaugh and Oliver North.

Talking about the apocalyptic element to his novels, Rosenberg explains that Jesus gave

His followers a checklist, a “Road Map,” if you will, of things to watch for. And the research I began coming across was so intriguing, I decided to name my next novel THE LAST DAYS and begin raising the same questions for others.

The LaHaye and Jenkins bandwagon, of course, had nothing to do with it.

(NB – Don’t confuse Joel C. Rosenberg with fantasy author Joel Rosenberg)

UPDATE (7 May): See my post for today.

LaHaye Boasts of Support from Bush

The British Daily Telegraph carries an interview with Tim LaHaye to coincide with the last Left Behind novel (well, last except for the numerous spin-offs, prequels and postscripts in the offing). LaHaye explains the Rapture, the Tribulation and the 1,000 year millennial kingdom, where

there’ll be trees that, each month, will grow a different fruit. It will be familiar to this world, but more perfect. Sheep will still be sheep. Grass will be grass. But they will be perfect…There will probably be singles’ groups [for the unmarried]…We’ve been told that we will be able to travel at the speed of thought. Personally, I plan to go planetary exploring.

LaHaye also talks of his links with Bush:

he met the President ahead of the election and has been told that Bush is a supporter of his work.

“I would think that he is a believer [in the Rapture],” he says. “He said he had a personal faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour, and that he prayed on a regular basis.”

However, this should be qualified by noting LaHaye’s comments to Rolling Stone back in January:

I have seen nothing from this president that would indicate that he is influenced one way or the other by my prophesy teaching.

By supporting LaHaye’s “work”, Bush is more likely to be referring to LaHaye’s long-time conservative activism.

The pre-election meeting between Bush and LaHaye was at a closed conference of the Council for National Policy in 1999. Skipp Porteous of Freedom Writer ordered a set of tapes of the meeting, only to find the Bush speech missing by order of the Bush election campaign. What Bush said to the CNP remains unknown.

(revised – link to Rolling Stone via Get Religion 5 April)

UPDATE (8 April): This article in the NY Times contains a quote from the novel, as Jesus takes out the armies of the Anti-Christ:

Men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood…It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin…Even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated.

Not sure what the horses are supposed to have done to deserve this…