Photo Essay: Religion in the Hood

Last week I wrote a piece about dusting off my old Pentax K-1000, loading it with black and white film, and rediscovering the joy of taking photos with film. Here are a few of the photos I took.

For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the religious diversity in my neighborhood, so when I went out to shoot photos with my old camera, I decided to take pictures of interesting religious expressions near my home.

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Sarah Palin’s Crusade

This column also is published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum.

When her critics point out that Governor Sarah Palin is inexperienced on matters of foreign policy they tend to note what she hasn’t done —she seldom has traveled outside the United States. In fact The New York Times reports that Governor Palin had to apply for a passport before traveling to Kuwait and Germany to visit deployed members of the Alaska National Guard in 2007. She also visited Ireland on that trip—The Wall Street Journal says she was there just long enough to refuel her plane—and it’s fair to assume that she’s seen the parts of Canada between Alaska and Idaho.

Governor Palin never has been to Iraq and she’s never visited any of America’s most important allies. Even though their population is roughly equivalent to that of Memphis, Tennessee, Alaskans must engage in foreign commerce, yet Palin has not visited Alaska’s trading partners. I have no idea if Palin has received foreign delegations to Alaska. I’ll leave it to more astute political observers to decide if what Sarah Palin hasn’t done qualifies her to set our nation’s foreign policy. I am a religious commentator. My job is to point out that, what Sarah Palin has done (or, more precisely what she has said), suggests that this affable hockey mom is theologically ill-prepared to lead on matters of foreign policy; and the American people should be singularly concerned if Sarah Palin ever is in charge of representing the United States in its relationships with the Muslim world.
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Religion and Global Warming: A Wager

This column also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum.

Sometime this fall, HarperCollins’ imprint, HarperOne, will be releasing a “Green Bible,” in which all of the scriptural passages that speak to the Christian responsibility to care for creation will be printed in green letters. Also bound between the eco-friendly covers of this Bible will be several essays and a couple of poems by great Christian thinkers such as St. Francis, Desmond Tutu, and Wendell Berry.

Last week HarperOne interviewed me for a short video that will be used as part of its advance publicity for the Green Bible.  During the interview I had to answer questions about the connection between faith and environmentalism, and for the most part, I think I gave responses worthy of my being the pastor of one of the most intentionally and publicly green Presbyterian congregations in the United States (and perhaps the world).

On one question, however, I think I stumbled: “why,” the interviewer asked, “should Christians care about global warming?” For an answer I sort of mumbled through what I hoped would make for a good sound byte, something about global warming being an issue in which care for the earth and care for humanity intersect. It’s not a bad answer, but my thoughts about global warming are a little more complex than the answer I gave. Continue reading

Salvation by Beer

This post was also published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on June 22, 2008.

In the brave new world of blogging, there is an emerging breed of friendship, one in which a person writes an entry on her or his blog, a complete stranger leaves a response, and, after some cyber chat, the two people meet in person, bringing the conversation out of the internet’s ether and into real life.

This happened to me last Thursday.

Earlier in the week I had published a column in which I quoted a sermon by John Calvin as a way of supporting the notion that Presbyterians ought not break fellowship with one another over our divergent views on human sexuality. The column was (by my standards) well-read and it generated a lot of comments on my website.

One of the responders—who wrote a thoughtful dissent—gave his full name and mentioned that he was planning to be in my hometown of San Jose for the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, the mammoth biennial meeting of the denomination’s highest governing body. I invited him for coffee but we went out for a beer instead, Continue reading

To the Presbyterians Meeting In My Hometown.

This column was also published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum.

On June 20th the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) will convene its biannual meeting in San Jose. For the following nine days something like five thousand Presbyterians will be in my hometown, working, arguing, worshiping, and partying.

When the General Assembly meets this year I’ll have a front row seat because I have the odd distinction of being the Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament who lives closest to the convention. This is not an accomplishment that makes me eligible for any kind of recognition or honor. I’m not even going to get a tee shirt, let alone fifteen minutes in a pulpit at one of the Assembly’s several worship services, but if my proximity awarded me the opportunity to address the General Assembly of the PC(USA) I’d remind those gathered to be inspired by our Calvinist tradition and set aside any talk of schism. Continue reading

Book Review: “The Family” by Jeff Sharlet

This column was first published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on May 26, 2008.

Jeff Sharlet is the best journalist currently covering American religion. Among those who connect subject to predicate, there are few who do so with Sharlet’s grace, insight, or humor. His recently published book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper Collins, 2008, $25.95 cloth) was every bit as good as I expected it to be. Often, while reading The Family I found myself interrupting the conversations of those around me to read aloud Jeff’s well-crafted insights.

The subject of Sharlet’s book is “The Family,” also called “The Fellowship,” a self-identified “Christian Mafia” which, for seven decades, has operated in the shadows of American power, exerting great influence without accountability or oversight. They are evangelists and powerbrokers with a theocratic agenda, a lust for power, and a strange fondness for such creeps of history as Adolf Hitler, Mao Tsedung, and Genghis Khan. Continue reading

From the Archives: A Perspective on Proposition 22

In celebration of the California Supreme Court’s decision to strike down laws baring same-sex marriage, I have pulled the transcript of my first radio commentary from the archives. This commentary was broadcast in February of 2000. An extended version of this commentary ran on Beliefnet, opposite a piece by James Dobson, who–naturally–supported California’s Proposition 22, which provided for a strictly heterosexual definition of marriage in California


Soon Californians will be privileged to vote on a ballot initiative, dubbed Proposition 22, which, if passed, would enact a statute whose entire wording, written in ten point font, could fit inside a fortune cookie: Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

And so it is that our own dear state which gave the nation the Free Speech Movement, the legalization of medical marijuana and Boogie Nights now stands poised, at the cusp of a new millennium, ready to position itself in the avant garde of the Reactionary Right. Continue reading

Buddhist Bocce in the Barrio

This week my column is an edited version of the sermon I preached at Foothill Presbyterian Church on April 27, 2008. The text for the sermon is Acts 17:16-34,the story of St. Paul preaching in Athens.

If you ever ask me what I like about the neighborhood in which I live the first thing I will tell you is that around the corner from my house and about three blocks from the childhood home of Cesar Chavez, in my overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood, there is a house that has been converted into a Cambodian Buddhist monastery. If you are lucky, when you walk by this house, you can see the monks, all dressed up in their bright saffron robes, playing bocce ball in a court that has been built in the front yard.

This is why I like living in East San Jose: we have a graffiti problem and we have gangs; the slump in the housing market has decimated the wealth of equity my neighbors and I had in our homes, but deep in the heart of a very catholic, very Hispanic barrio, you can find southeast Asian monks, playing an Italian game. To me it’s a vision of the future, and if I’m right, if the future looks like Cambodian monks playing bocce ball in an Hispanic neighborhood, then, to my mind, the future will be a friendly and pleasant place. There is hope for the world. Continue reading

John McCain and Rod Parsley: Sacrificing Peace for an Ohio Victory

By now we all know about Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor whose homiletical remarks have become a serious liability for the Obama campaign. Less known are the “pastor problems” of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. This week’s column is the second in a series of two columns that will look at the religious baggage being carried by Barack Obama’s fellow presidential hopefuls. Last week I wrote about Hillary Clinton’s involvement in “the Fellowship,” a secretive, powerful and sometimes abusive affiliation of our nation’s power elite. This week I’m focusing upon John McCain’s relationship with Rod Parsley, a Mega-Church pastor from Ohio.

Whatever you may think of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—he of the “Goddamn America” homiletics—it doesn’t take much examination to find that Barack Obama’s relationship with his former pastor was good in many ways. A tendency toward radical theology notwithstanding, Jeremiah Wright’s church provided the Obama family with the kind of spiritual home that every family should have regardless of religious affiliation.

Something similar can be said of Hillary Clinton’s participation in the ministry of The Fellowship, a secretive network of mostly rich, mostly white, mostly powerful, mostly men, who have extraordinary influence in Washington and who have  a well deserved reputation for being creepy.  The Fellowship provided the then First Lady with a place of sanctuary and healing in the wake of the Monica Lewinski scandal. As a senator, Ms. Clinton’s Fellowship connections have helped her to forge significant and (I think) nationally beneficial bi-partisan relationships. On these two points the Fellowship gets no complaints from me.

There is, however, nothing good to be said about John McCain’s courting of Rod Parsley, the pastor of World Harvest Church, a 12,000 member congregation outside of Columbus, Ohio. Continue reading