FaithWorld

Canadians fill YouTube with “Amazing Grace” videos

If “Amazing Grace” is not already the most widely sung hymn in Christianity — and cyberlists, for what they’re worth, say it is — it should be by the time the Amazing Grace Project is finished. The Anglican Church of Canada invited all its congregations to sing John Newton‘s iconic hymn last Sunday and upload a video of their efforts to the church’s national office. The plan is to edit them into “one big, amazing “Amazing Grace” video and put it up on the web for all to enjoy by Christmas,” as the project website explains.

The uploads are piling up on YouTube (here’s the playlist) and it seems some congregations in U.S. states close to the Canadian border have joined in. There are a few entries from South Africa and a clip of bishops at the Lambeth Conference (see video above) enjoying the opportunity to sing from the same songsheet. If you want to be part of the final product, upload your video here by Dec. 1.

I first realised how widely known “Amazing Grace” was in 1999, at the end of the Yugoslav wars, when I was reporting from the Kosovo town of Prizren. The Serbian army had just left the town and NATO forces controlled the province. My Muslim interpreter and I happened to pass a Catholic Church one day and we went in for a look. To my surprise, a Mass was being said and the congregation was belting out a familiar tune. When I finally realised it was “Amazing Grace” in Albanian translation, I sang along softly in English. On leaving, the interpreter asked me “How do you know an Albanian hymn?”

How about you? Have you heard this famous hymn in languages other than English? If we get enough different examples, I’ll pass them on to the Amazing Grace Project.

Harun Yahya dangles big prizes for creationism essays

Turkey’s Muslim creationist Harun Yahya is not satisfied with sending lavish books against evolution and Darwin to western schools. He’s now running an anti-evolution essay contest with a top prize of $64,000. He has just doubled the prize money from $32,000 and boosted the maximum length for essays from 15 to 60 pages.

“The competitors of the competition “Why Is the Theory of Evolution Invalid?” held by Science Research Foundation had some righteous demands, stating that given the too many dilemmas of Darwinism, 15 pages is too short for their essays and that the time is inadequate,” his group has written in a message I just received. “The purpose of this competition is to raise young people’s awareness of Darwinism, which has inflicted immense damage on mankind and to put them on their guard against this terrible fraud in science.”

The procedure is a bit complicated. One hundred participants have to first be accepted on the basis of the essays. They will then have to take a test consisting of 80 questions about evolution. The announcement says the test will be held in December 2009 at a location to be announced.

Vatican forgives John Lennon for “more popular than Jesus” quip

When John Lennon said in 1966 that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” there was a furious reaction in the United States. Dozens of radio stations in the South and Midwest banned Beatles music and some concert venues cancelled scheduled appearances by the band. Their manager Brian Epstein quickly flew to the U.S. to try to quell the storm. Soon afterward, Lennon told a news conference in Chicago that he was sorry for making the comparison, although he added he still thought it was true. The Vatican, as far as I can see from online archives, stayed silent and aloof even thought it could hardly agree with or approve Lennon’s message. (Photo: Japanese band performs in Lennon’s memory, 8 Dec 2005/Toshiyuki Aizawa)

When the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano came out with a nostalgic look back at the Beatles on the 40th anniversary of their 1968 White Album on Saturday, it lead off the article with Lennon’s famous quote and promptly shrugged it off. “The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a ‘boast’ by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up with the legend of Elvis and rock and roll,” it wrote. The Beatles’ music was creative and original, even more so than their haircuts and clothes, and has stood the test of time, it said. The Italian-language original has now been overtaken on the OR website by the latest edition, but an English translation will certainly pop up somewhere (on Zenit?).

At the risk of possibly over-interpreting an arts page story, I wonder what all this says about the ridiculing of religious leaders. The uproar back in 1966 was mostly from the U.S. “Bible Belt” and the Vatican seems to have been quiet. Would it be the same today? At the Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome three weeks ago, the two sides agreed in a statement about religious minorities that “their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule.” Muslim countries, which were not very vocal on the international scene back in the 1960s, are now working hard at the United Nations to push through a global blasphemy law.

Thirst for faith in Angola, but which kind?

“Those who are thirsty need to seek the right fountain: the one without the spoilt water” — Angolan Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento

There seems to be quite a thirst for faith these days in Angola, which abandoned Marxism in the 1990s after three decades of civil war and is now experiencing a boom in religious sects that often mix traditional African belief in witchcraft with elements of the Christianity brought by the Portuguese colonialists.

Some 900 religious groups are waiting for the official registration required by the government, which has launched a campaign to stamp out illegal sects in the capital Luanda and provinces bordering Democratic Republic of Congo where witchcraft is believed to be widespread. Last week, an ailing 28-year-old woman died when her sect barred her from seeking medical treatment and 40 children were rescued from two other religious groups that accused them of possesing evil powers.

Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento, the leading Catholic cleric in this mostly Catholic country, told Reuters in an interview (full story here) that he saw a bright side to the sect boom: “The positive side of this phenomenon is that it shows there is an increasing thirst for God. But those who are thirsty need to seek the right fountain: the one without the spoilt water.”

A new twist on the “Is Obama a Christian?” debate

The “Is Obama a Christian?” discussion is starting up again, this time not by people who suspect he’s a Muslim but those who think he’s a phony follower of Jesus Christ. The occasion for this is the posting on Beliefnet of an interview he gave to the Chicago Sun Times in 2004, while he was still an Illinois state senator. Conservative Christians have taken his religious views as proof he’s not a real Christian, but there’s support from a more liberal corner for his views.

That there is disagreement isn’t really a surprise. Theologians have been debating who is a Christian almost since the dawn of the faith and still dispute where the dividing lines lie. What is more interesting is that critics are picking apart his views — or purported views — on theological issues that have no obvious importance for his job as president. (Photo: Obama at Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, June 15, 2008/John Gress)

Bloggers Joe Carter and Rod Dreher read in Obama’s interview a denial of the Nicene Creed since he called Jesus “a bridge between God and man” rather than clearly saying he is the Son of God (hat tip to Steve Waldman). “Unless Obama was being incredibly and uncharacteristically inarticulate, this is heterodox. You cannot be a Christian in any meaningful sense and deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. You just can’t,” Dreher writes. Has Obama denied the divinity of Jesus Christ here? That’s not clear here. Another point that Carter notes is that he doesn’t believe that people who have not embraced Jesus as their personal saviour will automatically go to hell. “I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity. That’s just not part of my religious makeup,” he said.

Time to re-think ban on women at Greek holy site?

Last month I visited Mount Athos, a self- governing monastic state in northern Greece where some 1,500 monks live according to rules which have changed little in the last millennium. Athos’ 20 monasteries are considered by the world’s 300 million Orthodox as perhaps the second most holy site of their faith, after Jerusalem. They are home to breathtaking religious art and thousands of manuscripts dating back to the Byzantine empire, as well as priceless relics, like fragments of the True Cross, believed by the Orthodox faithful to have performed countless miracles. (Photo:Simomos Petras monastery at Mount Athos/Daniel Flynn)

For many Orthodox it is the fulfilment of a long-held dream to visit the rugged Holy Mountain — but not if you a woman. Women are completely banned from the 300 sq kilometre peninsula and any breach of this strict rule is a criminal offence in Greece punishable by up to two years in prison. Athonite tradition has it that the Virgin Mary’s ship was blown off course as she travelled with St John the Evangelist to visit Lazarus in Cyprus and that on making ground in Athos she immediately prayed to her son to dedicate the beautiful peninsula to her, which he did, meaning that other women were banned. Modern day monks say there are good practical reasons why women are prohibited: “God built a sexual attraction between men and women. To have them here would distract us from our main aim, which is prayer,” one monk told me. Many pilgrims have more flippant excuses. “Women would not like it here, there are no mirrors,” said one elderly Greek. The ban on women has already raised the ire of the European Parliament, which has two voted to criticise the prohibition: European Union taxes are helping to fund a massive renovation of the monasteries, which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In January a group of women including a Greek MP briefly entered Athos in a protest. Apart from accepting some female refugees during the civil war in the late 1940s, the most the monks have done to open up is allow many of their most precious treasures to be briefly seen at exhibitions in Greece.

But the main treasure of Mount Athos is the place itself and many Orthodox women feel frustrated by the ban on visiting it. “I would love to see it, but I know I never will,” is a common comment, though some say they understand the ban. At the same time, many Greek women are angry that their taxes are being used to fund wealthy institutions that they are banned from setting foot in, arguing that UNESCO status means the monasteries are treasures of humanity, not just of male humanity.

Religious rumble slide show

OK, it happened a few days ago, but I still can’t get over that “Christian” fist fight at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem between the Greek Orthodox and Armenians. Our photo desk has put together a slide show of Ammar Awad’s shots from the scene — click here to see it.

Christian Science Monitor to shut down daily print edition

For the past 30 years or more, I have unintentionally been disappointing Christian Scientists on a regular basis. Whenever I was in the United States and came across a Christian Science Reading Room, I walked in and asked for the latest copy of the Christian Science Monitor. Behind the desk was usually a kindly older man or woman, probably a retired volunteer, and they seemed happy to see a young (and then not so young) person dropping by. They seemed even more pleased when I also took copies from the day before or the day before that. They often asked how I knew the paper and I’d say I used to subscribe when I was a grad student in Boston. With a kindly smile, they would then inquire if I was a Christian Scientist or wanted to learn more about Christian Science. I would say no, thank you very much, and leave.

I thought about these people today when I heard that the Christian Science Monitor will scrap its daily print run for web-only edition in April 2009 (plus a weekly in print). It’s been struggling for a while and circulation has fallen from the levels back in the early ’70s when I read it daily. But it continued to publish high-quality journalism and I enjoyed picking up a copy or two whenever I came across it.

For a church-related publication, the Monitor was curious in that it did not promote its own faith in its pages (apart, perhaps, from its lack of obituaries). There was just one daily religious feature on the Home Forum page, towards the back of the paper. Otherwise, it focused on serious analytical reporting of national and international news, especially foreign stories that mainstream American newspapers were not good at covering. It was a must-read for anyone interested in world affairs.

Churches take stock of Christian-Muslim dialogue

Christian churches have been taking stock of where they stand on dialogue with Islam. With so much interfaith discussion going on, they’re not all singing from the same sheet and wonder whether they should (or even could). So about 50 church leaders and experts got together near Geneva last weekend to exchange information on their approach to, and experiences concerning, dialogue with Muslims. “With such a succession of meetings where we get together with Muslims, we wanted to have a meeting among ourselves and ask whether we have 2,000 different answers and what that might say about us,” said Thomas Schirrmacher of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

The World Council of Churches (WCC) said the idea for the meeting“emerged from an ecumenical process of response to the Common Word”  initiative on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Held outside Geneva, it brought together representatives from the WCC, World Evangelical Alliance, Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, Lutheran World Federation, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, World Methodist Council, several Orthodox churches and other Christian groups. I have spoken to a few of the participants and received some texts since the meeting to get an idea of how their exchange shaped up.

“The idea was that we come together to share our different experiences with Islam and our different theological approaches to Islam to seek an ecumenical understanding,” said Rima Barsoum, the WCC’s person responsible for relations with Muslims. An “ecumenical understanding” does not mean a common understanding, as became clear at the meeting. Participants described various points of view that no two-day meeting could overcome. Orthodox and eastern churches that live as minorities in Muslim countries have a different perspective from those in the West that know Muslims as a minority. The Vatican’s approach is to focus more on the theological questions while the World Evangelical Alliance has stressed the issue of living together peacefully. “My feeling after Geneva is that there is such a wide spectrum of representation that a common stand would be very difficult indeed,” said David Thomas, professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham in Britain.

Does Sony need a religious affairs adviser?

Box art for LittleBigPlanet/Sony handoutDoes Sony need a full-time religious affairs adviser? Someone who says “that’s OK” or “whoa, don’t go there!” It looks like they could use one, judging by its decision to recall and remaster its Playstation 3 video game LittleBigPlanet because it might offend Muslims. LittleBigPlanet was supposed to be one of the biggest releases of the season. And then Sony found out some background music had a few phrases from the Koran in it and they decided to replace the disks with different music. An in-house religion maven who does some “content debugging” would cost much less than this embarrassing exercise.

Sony isn’t the only company to trip over religious sensitivities. Microsoft had to withdraw its Xbox fighter game Kakuto Chojin; Back Alley Brutal in 2003 because of Koran verses chanted in the background. Back in 1998, Muslims accused Nike of sacrilege for selling sneakers bearing a logo showing the word “air” written in fiery letters that looked like the Arabic word “Allah.” Nike ended up withdrawing the shoes, giving sensitivity training to employees and building playgrounds at several mosques in Virginia.

Muslims haven’t been the only ones complaining. A French jeans poster showing women imitating Jesus Christ and his apostles in the Leonardo da Vinci painting, “The Last Supper”, was banned in France and Italy after Catholics there complained. A leading anti-Semitism watchdog howled last spring when a South Korean cosmetics company advertised a skin lotion with a picture of a young woman sporting what appears to be a Nazi officer’s hat.