Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What Church Services Have Taught Me About Prayer

When I was at Yeshiva University, a professor of mine, Dr. Steven Fine, posed a challenge to me: how could I call myself a medieval scholar if I had never actually been inside of a church? As he saw it, if I was going to study Christianity I needed direct, first hand experience of it. And so he gave me a special assignment that at some point in the school year I had to enter a church.
I have taken his words to heart and I now have made church hopping an occasional hobby of mine. I attend different church services sporting my usual OSU baseball cap so I am not obviously recognizable as being Jewish. I have been to different types of churches, Catholic, Protestant and Episcopalian. There is a wonderful revivalist service here on campus every Sunday night at 6:30. It reminds me a lot of Emunat Yisroel in Boro Park. There is lots of singing and the people there are really nice. Anyone interested in learning how to create a vibrant religious service, that can reach out to people, should come see this church group.
I find that going to church is a a good way to practice the sort of open mindedness that I preach. It also offers a wonderful opportunity to talk to/ambush Christians by getting them into discussions dealing with theological minefields. It amazes me to no end how little most Christians know about their own religion.
In addition to making me a more knowledgeable and worldly individual, going to church has helped me in my Judaism by making me appreciate certain aspects of prayer that one might miss growing up praying in an Orthodox shul. The first lesson I have learned is that music really adds something to a service. Music makes everything much more exciting and it gets people involved. We, the Orthodox Jewish community, pay a price because we do not have music. The second thing church has taught me is that praying in English is really lame. One should not be praying to the Almighty in the same tongue that you use every day. You should have a special language to come to God. Being a believer should require some work. Is it too much to ask that people learn a foreign language? Now I am very open to suggestions. You want to pray in Hebrew, Hebrew is a beautiful language, so is Latin. I don't know any Greek but my friends tell me that it is interesting. When I hear Christians, particularly Catholics say something as basic as the Lord's Prayer in English I feel betrayed. What do you mean you people cannot be bothered to study Latin? As a protest I recite Pater Noster under my breath. Stupid Christians, dumbing down their own religion.
I have a lot of respect for Christian theology. I guess it has become my pure intellectual alternative universe Judaism. To all you Christians out there: You have a beautiful religion. Why don't you bother to actually study it? For that matter to all you Jews out there: You have a religion that even manages to make sense most of the time. Please sit down and study it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My Friend the Mormon

My Mormon friend, CJ, recently wrote me an email commenting on my posts about my meeting with some Mormon missionaries. (See here and here.) CJ himself spent two years as a missionary in Peru. He is the sort of religious, intelligent, decent person that my parents probably would have wanted me to turn out like. (Just a Jewish version though) We had an interesting back and forth between the two of us, which CJ has kindly allowed me to reprint here.

Well I do appreciate you getting to know the church before you past judgment on Mormons. So many times even my closets friends never really took the time to understand its basic principals. I do realized that you are probably not looking to convert, but just to know more information. It was pretty obvious from your method of getting the book of Mormon and because I know you. By the way I have like 4 extra copies, so if you ever lose the one you have I got your back. If you are ever interested Mormons have other canonical books as well that I could get to you a free copy as well. But anyway, I think some of your concerns are quite valid, especially regarding whether a spiritual experience is from god or not. This is something that has worried me and many people I taught as a missionary. But I think there are ways to know, it just might take longer than people are willing to invest. Although I do disagree with you on one point, just because we don’t believe in Thomas Aquinas or any other post New Testament religious philosopher doesn’t disqualifies from being Christians. I always have viewed Christians as people who believe Christ is the Messiah (and subsequently follow his teachings). But I think you were more concerned about the Christian tradition than beliefs per se. So in that sense you are right. By the way the missionaries are only 19-21 years olds that haven’t had much university training. There are Mormons that are more knowledgeable regarding Mormonism versus classical Christianity. They don’t really train missionaries to encounter people have a master’s degree from Yeshiva University. (Although I do know a Mormon who went there). So that’s what I think. I still think you have good potential for becoming a Jewish Mormon Missionary. I not sure we can work that one out (you would probably actually have to become Mormon), but it would be hilarious none the less.

Well there is one Mormon, who goes to OSU, whom I have great respect for. ;)
I greatly admire Orson Scott Card, though I have never met him in person. What other holy books do Mormons have? The life of Joseph Smith, anything else? Let me get through the book of Mormon. Lord knows when that will happen. As to the issue of how one defines being a Christian. There is an evangelical Christian group known as Jews for Jesus. They argue that they are Jews who simply believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and part of the Trinity. The Jewish community as a whole refuses to view them as part of the Jewish religion. I would justify this stance by saying that Jews for Jesus is outside of the Jewish tradition and is part of the Christian tradition. In this sense Jews for Jesus is different from Reform and Conservative Judaism which, while I may disagree with their understanding of Judaism, I still view as part of the Jewish tradition and therefore a type of Judaism.You view Catholics and Protestants as Christians even though you disagree with them. Do you view people who say that Jesus is not a divine figure as still being Christians? I believe in Jesus. I believe that he was a great moral teacher. I have no problem with saying that he was born of a virgin, did miracles or that he ascended to heaven alive. I do not believe that he was God nor do I believe that he fulfilled Isaiah 11. Can I be counted as a Christian? You believe that Christianity went to pot after Paul. I believe that Christianity went to pot with Paul. As to our 19-21 year old Christian missionaries, I assume they are going to run into educated Christians at some point, who are likely going to do to them what I did. There is no way that you are going to be able to talk to such Christians unless you can talk about Aquinas or Augustine. Or have the Mormons simply decided to only talk to Christians who know nothing about Christianity. Whats the story behind the Mormon who went to YU? Did he go to one of the graduate schools or did he convert to Mormonism later in life?

… We have two other canonical books along with other inspired commentaries. In truth Mormons have a pretty loose definition of scripture. We believe revelation is a continual process.
As for defining who is a Christian and who isn’t really does not concern me. I am well aware of the Jews for Jesus movement and if they or you or anybody else wants to consider themselves Christians, I don’t really care. I just wanted to affirm that Mormons are Christians since they are followers of Christ. Hence the real name of the church: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In regards to Missionaries, I think it is unfair to expect them to have read Aquinas or Augustine, since they don’t even believe it. Would you expect a Rabbi to have read the Book of Mormon? (Or even one of the more obscure religious tracts from Mormonism.) I sure many have, but I would not view it as an expectation. We seek out all classes of people, not just the uneducated. I myself taught people as a missionary that were in the seminary and who knew a lot more about Aquinas and Augustine that I would ever hope to. But my message wasn’t about Aquinas or Augustine. The message of the missionaries is inherently spiritual. There are other Mormons that could and would be elated to discuss medieval religious philosophy, if you want to converse with them I would be glad to provide their email.
As for my friend who went to Yeshiva. To my knowledge he has been a Mormon all his life. I believe he did a master’s degree there. In what, I do not know.
I hope I don’t sound too contentious. I just want to be well understood. I not sure we are every going to agree on some of these issues, but I do enjoy discussing them. …

… My problem with the missionaries was not that they had not read Augustine or Aquinas, I myself have only read bits and pieces, but, from what I could tell, they did not know who these people were. I asked them how Mormons understood the concept of Grace and how their conception of it compared to someone like John Calvin. I got a blank stare from them. They should have gotten this in high school history. Yes I know our school systems stink, but that only means that it was all the more important for whoever trained them to make sure they knew this.By the way I have yelled at Rabbis before, not because they had not heard of the book of Mormon per se, but because they did not know what the Four Gospels were. Side story, I once, as part of a quiz, asked the students in my section what the name of the Christian Bible was and one student said the King James. I also asked them to name three early Christians. Someone put down Augustus. With the campaign of Mitt Romney the whole issue of are Mormons Christian becomes more of an academic issue. Let us imagine that a member of Jews for Jesus was running for public office. I would be offended if the media were to say that he was a Jew. I would have no objection to voting for the man if I thought he was a good candidate. All the best.

Well those missionaries must just not be very good, because I know that John Calvin is mentioned in their teaching guide, so they need to do reading. They gave us two hours in the morning to study but like school some take more advantage of it than others. I must admit though that we have in some way been trying to address some of your concerns. About 3 years ago they changed some of the training that missionaries receive to include more history. So although I think Augustine and Aquinas are a stretch, at least in theory they should know more. In fact the new teaching manual has information of non-Christian religions as well like Buddhism and Islam. I would agree though that ignorance about religion in general is high. Today asked my class about the story of Moses. One of our readings had made a passing reference to him. I got a bunch of blank stares and had to explain in detail his escape from Egypt in order for them to understand the reference. It was quite ridiculous. Oh well. I guess that’s why they have people like us teaching in University.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Continued Adventures of HaRav HaGaon HaTzadik Thomas Covenant HaKofer: Rebetzin Kofer to the Rescue II.

Stephen Donaldson wrote the original books of the Covenant Chronicles more than twenty years ago. Recently he started another round of Covenant books titled the Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. He plans to write four books for the Final Chronicles. So far he has written two of the books, Runes of Earth and Fatal Revenant, which just came out.

Covenant died at the end of the Second Chronicles. He sacrificed himself for the land he did not believe in. The Final Chronicles are really about Dr. Linden Avery, who came into the Land in the Second Chronicles along with Covenant and was his companion through the events of that trilogy. Avery does not have Covenant’s issues with believing in the Land. She struggles more with issues of power and control. In a sense, she is the opposite of Covenant in that she fears being helpless, of not being able to save others, while Covenant feared the moral implications of having power and the responsibility of saving others.

In the Final Chronicles, it is Avery’s task to once again save the Land from Foul. The thing about Foul, and what makes him such a great villain, is that, like Donaldson’s heroes, Foul is a far more complicated character than what you would usually expect from fantasy. Foul is not simply this evildoer who wants to take over everything and kill everybody. Foul is bound to the Land and wishes to destroy the Land in order to break free and once again challenge the creator. In order for this to happen, he would need Covenant’s white gold ring to willingly be surrendered to him or for someone else to use the ring to destroy the Land. Foul always works in multiple directions. While on the surface he presents a threat to the Land, his real goal is always to get either Covenant or Avery to use the ring to bring about the destruction of the Land they wish to protect. Foul has a knack for being able to put his opponents in situations in which their particular characteristics will work against them and allow them to gain powers precisely tailored for them to misuse. In Avery’s case, Foul has two weapons to wield against her, her love for Covenant and her desire to save her son, Jeremiah, who Foul has under his control. To better aid Avery in allowing her to bring about the doom of the Land, Foul has allowed Avery to regain the Staff of Law, which she now wields in addition to Covenant’s ring.

At the end of Runes of Earth, Avery was reunited with a resurrected Covenant and Jeremiah. Covenant, now a part of the Arch of Time, is no longer the same man whom Avery once knew. Covenant has a plan to destroy Foul, but he needs Avery’s help and Avery, with good reason, does not trust Covenant. The book is a bit slow until you hit page 266, at which point everything changes. The second half of the book has some awesome fight scenes. Particularly with Avery having to take on an adult and very twisted Roger Covenant.

If Lord of the Rings is the greatest overall fantasy series ever written then the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant has the most sophisticated characters. In a way, this can become a weakness of Stephen Donaldson. At times he becomes too smart for his own good and makes his characters too complicated much in the same way that Frank Herbert, in the later Dune books, made his characters so complex that they were reduced to incomprehensibility. Donaldson though manages to keep his characters human in ways that Herbert, despite his unquestionable genius, failed to do.
Fatal Revenant, as with the rest of the Covenant Chronicles, is an experience. Be warned though, whatever you might think of fantasy, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are anything but light reading.

Long Live the Unbeliever.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Continued Adventures of HaRav HaGaon HaTzadik Thomas Covenant HaKofer: Rebetzin Kofer to the Rescue I.

I met my best friend, AS, a few years ago. Some people whom I had just met invited me to come along to some friends of theirs to watch Star Trek. The couple, to whose house we were going to, had a son, which these people thought I might get along with. I walked into the basement and behold there was the Extended Edition of the Lord of the Rings Movies. So that was already one thing we had in common. It took a few more seconds to move from Lord of the Rings to a whole range of other things which we had in common, like our habit of making passing references to obscure topics which for some strange reason most other people are not familiar with.

It was AS who introduced me to the work of Stephen Donaldson and his fantasy series, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. The original books were written back in the late 70s and early 80s. They consisted of two trilogies, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and the Second Chronicles of Thomas the Unbeliever.

The story is about a man named Thomas Covenant who suffers from leprosy. Covenant found out that he had leprosy when he was taken to a hospital after a cut on his hand, which he had not even noticed turned gangrene. This accident lost him several fingers. When his wife found out about this she abandoned him, taking their young son, Roger with her. Covenant, in order to cope with his predicament, needs to believe two things about himself. One, that nothing that has happened to him is his fault. Two, that he does not have the power cure himself.

Covenant finds himself mysteriously transported to this magical place known as the Land. Covenant, with the aid of his wedding ring which is the focus of wild magic in the world, must defend the Land against the evil Lord Foul the Despiser. Now wait you say, this is Narnia and Lord of the Rings and just about every other work of fantasy ever written. Covenant must learn to believe in himself, cast off his notions of what is real and not real, have faith and all will be well. Or at least that is what you would expect. This story, as the title indicates, is not about belief but about disbelief. Covenant does not believe that the Land is real and persists in actively disbelieving in it, earning him the title Unbeliever. It is crucial for Covenant to maintain his disbelief because to believe in the Land and in himself as its savior violates the very principle upon which he has built his life, the belief in his own helplessness. As the series goes on it becomes imperative for Covenant to continue to disbelieve in the Land even as he falls in love with it and finds himself risking everything to save it. It is because Covenant refuses to give in to simple belief that he has the power to stand against Foul.

The spirit of the series can best be summed up in the tagline to the third book, the Power that Preserves, which is: “Be True Unbeliever.” AS and I have adopted this as the official salute between ourselves.

It would be easy to categorize the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant as a work atheistic fantasy similar to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant though is far more nuanced than a simple attack or confirmation of faith. It is about the dialectic between faith and disbelief. If the series is a polemic against anything it is against absolutism and the demand for simple, concrete answers.

It is for this reason that AS and I so strongly identify with this series. We are both deeply committed religious individuals. Our faith though is about questioning and challenging things. God is the person we love to yell at and Judaism the religion we love to criticize. Aside from Judaism, we love to talk about sci-fi, fantasy, and Christian theology. He does nineteenth-century evangelicals. I do medieval Catholicism. This is not an easy balancing act, but we keep each other strong in the faith.

(To be continued)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

B is for Movie Reviewed by BZ.

I received tickets for a pre-screening of the new DreamWorks cartoon, Bee Movie, which was being shown at the Drexel theater on campus. I had no particular interest in seeing this movie but a free night out is a free night out. So last night I found myself on line to watch this Bee Movie. When it came time to let us in, the theater manager opened the barrier and waved me through and pointed me to a nearby theater entrance. I walked through the barrier and headed into a movie theater and sat down. Not bothering to look up at the sign at the entrance, I did not realize that I had not entered the theater for the Bee Movie but the theater right next to it. A few minutes later the previews started to role. At this point I began to think that something was strange. Why were they showing a bunch of previews for what were clearly adult, art house films before a kids movie? Then the movie started and I got my answer. I was not in the theater for Bee Movie but the theater for Lars and the Real Girl.
A moral quandary here. Lars and the Real Girl was a movie that I actually wanted to see. It stars Ryan Gosling, who as far as I am concerned is the greatest young actor there is. If you have not heard of Ryan Gosling, watch the Believer. He gives new meaning to an off the derech Yeshiva bochur. The character he plays, Danny Balint, is a drop out Orthodox kid who becomes a neo-Nazi. To the best of my knowledge, Gosling is not Jewish nor does he have any background with Orthodox Judaism. Which makes the performance he pulls all the more impressive. This is one of the few films that I have seen that understands Judaism and what makes it tick. Gosling also stars in the Notebook, which has to rank as one of the greatest Romantic films ever made. I love the two main characters. I happen to love them a lot more when they are both dressed, but that is a separate issue.
What is to stop me, now that I am inside, from just sitting back and watching this movie? No one would have to know and no one is actually being hurt. If the case was that I had bought a movie ticket for one movie and went and watched another movie instead would there be any issue at all? It is not like I had purposely gone into another theater; I accidently wondered in. This should be chalked up as one of those many marvelous mishaps you get into when you have a brain that is high on Asperger Syndrome. I walked out of the theater and went and watched Bee Movie.
Bee Movie, in the spirit of Antz, is about a bee named Berry, voiced by Jerry Seinfeld, who is frustrated with the bureaucratic life of the hive and wonders forth into the wide world. Along the way he befriends a florist and learns all the usual good liberal lessons that one would expect from a cartoon; be yourself, be tolerant of others and help take care of the environment.
I happen not to be a fan of Jerry Seinfeld. I am one of the few Jews I know who was never into the show Seinfeld. In general I am not much into Jewish humor. I am much more of a British humor person. This film is very much a Jerry Seinfeld film. If you like his humor you will like this film if you do not then you won’t.
I found the film frustrating because it had potential at points. In the second half of the film Berry discovers that human beings are taking honey from bees and using it for their own benefit. He therefore sues the major manufacturers of honey and Ray Liotta in court. If only the people making this film had understood what makes a scenario like this funny. What we have here is a minority group claiming nonexistent rights and creating frivolous law suits. The problem with the film is that, for some strange reason, it seems to side with the bees. Berry becomes the valiant lawyer standing up for the rights of all bees against the corporations and their villainous lawyer who looks like a short, fat and ugly version of William Jennings Bryan. The lawyer, befitting his role as a good conservative villain (those are supposed to be one and the same thing right) makes snide remarks about Berry and his florist friend and implies that there is something unnatural about their relationship. So we even have our sop to the gay rights movement. We know we are in trouble when writers can write jokes and not realize that the joke is on them.
I have no problem watching liberal propaganda as long as it is done well. Mom why did you not raise me with just a few less morals?