Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Faith and Film

"Jesus Camp," for all the attention it received, flopped.

The documentary, which focused on a radical, evangelical children's camp in North Dakota, generated scads of interest at first -- at least among religious wonks like me. Gross so far, according to Variety magazine: $594,000. Probably not too bad for a documentary, but below what its makers hoped for, I'm sure.

It shows that my A-minus review in The Gazette's Go! just didn't have a lot of pull. I thought the film was well done and, to a point, fair -- though it certainly showed an extreme form of evangelicalism that many evangelicals wish would go away. The Rev. Ted Haggard, on the other hand, hated the thing, and his organization the National Association of Evangelicals even issued a press release condemning "Jesus Camp."

The filmmakers seem to blame Haggard for the film's failure, believing the Colorado Springs preacher stirred up a negative Christian avalanche that doomed it from the get-go.

There's some truth in that. Certainly the militant version of Christianity runs counter to the "big tent" evangelicalism that Haggard advocates. But I think there's more to it: When I watched the film, I thought the filmmakers did their best to humanize their evangelical subjects. But they also came at the subject with a perspective of "whoa! Look at this odd subculture we've uncovered!"

The result was a sincere but patronizing portrait of faith, culled from America's most extreme form of Christianity. Do camps like "Jesus Camp" exist? Yes. Was it portrayed fairly in the film? I believe so. Does it represent the Christian mainstream? In my experience, no.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Stepping down in style

I went to the final service of the Rev. Benjamin Reynolds yesterday -- a month after he told his congregation at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church that he was gay. From what I gather, it's been a painful month both for Reynolds and the congregation. Reynolds is being forced out of the pulpit sooner than he planned, and some congregants intimate they were wounded when Reynolds made his announcement.

There were probably some real raw emotions underneath the surface at yesterday's service. As an outsider, though, I didn't see them. What I saw was a combination of a business-as-usual church service with an exuberant, supportive farewell. Reynolds was there to preach. The congregants were there to learn and listen. Sure, there are differences. But, on Sunday, the love the pastor and his congregation feel for each other drowned out any discord.

"Some folks think that why we're parting is (because) one is good and the other is bad," Reynolds said from the pulpit. "The God I serve is God over us all."

You can read more about the service this coming Saturday in the Lifestyle section of The Gazette.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Full Court Press

News flash: This week The New Jersey Supreme Court declared that it was illegal for the state to withhold marriage licenses from same-sex couples and told the legislature to allow gay and lesbian couples to "marry," either by way of marriage or civil unions.

The ruling both angered and rejuvenated conservative groups pushing for so-called "marriage protection" amendments in eight states, which, if passed, would constitutionally define marriage as between a man and woman. With the Republican party in the doldrums and run-of-the-mill evangelicals apparently apathetic over their choices this election cycle, opponents of same-sex marriage worried their cause was losing steam.

Now these leaders can focus on New Jersey and get their constituents fired up again about the evils of same-sex marriage and, just as importantly, "activist" judges.

"This ruling once again highlights the need for voters to enact state marriage-protection amendments to keep marriage out of the hands of activist courts," said James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. "Nothing less than the future of the American family hangs in the balance if we allow one-man, one-woman marriage to be redefined out of existence. And, make no mistake, that is precisely the outcome the New Jersey Supreme Court is aiming for with this decision."

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Let It Snow

Snowed in? Well, there's nothing better to do on a cold, snowy day than settle under a big blanket with a cup o' soup and have a heart-to-heart with God.

According to a survey by (a good place for spiritual seekers to poke around), 97 percent of Beliefnet users say they talk with God, and 90 percent say God talks back to them. But they don't chat with him in church (only 1.5 percent say they do that).

What are you saying to God today? And what's God's response?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Flip Side

Focus on the Family has pulled out all the stops in pushing for Amendment 43, an amendment that would define marriage as solely between a man and a woman. And a cadre of like-minded churches has proffered their support, as well.

But there are other folks of faith who think differently, as illustrated by an ad that ran in The Gazette this morning, signed by a bevy of more liberal-minded religious leaders.

"Amendment 43 will not prevent one divorce, it will not stop a single case of spousal abuse, and it will not bring forgiveness or joy to one relationship," the ad reads. "Referendum I (which would give some domestic rights to same-sex couples), on the other hand, will make a concrete difference in the real lives of our families, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens."

The ad was signed by 22 local faith leaders such as the Rev. Benjamin Reynolds, pastor for Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Matthew Johnson-Doyle of High Plains Unitarian-Universalist Church, and the Rev. Bruce Coriell, chaplain for Colorado College.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Crucified in the Media

OK, so there's plenty of serious news to report:

There's a major religious symposium going on at CC.

The Center for Christian-Jewish Dialogue talked about chaplains last night.

James Dobson is dedicating a two-part radio show to the elections.

And a priest has come forward to say that he frolicked naked with a young Mark Foley.

But it's Friday, and we deserve to talk about something lighter. Like Madonna.

Apparently the Material Girl is pulling a controversial scene from her upcoming NBC concert, where she climbs on a cross while singing "Live to Tell." The concert will air Nov. 22.

The move was done under pressure from a host of religious groups who felt the scene (wherein Madonna also wears a crown of thorns) was mocking Christianity. Madonna begged to differ, saying, "I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today he'd be doing the same thing."


Thursday, October 19, 2006

"Hope is a choice."

I spent much of the day yesterday at Colorado College's symposium on religion and politics ("Why Be Afraid?"), and I had a chance to hear progressive evangelical Jim Wallis not once, but twice.

Wallis subbed for no-show Ted Haggard (he had an out-of-town emergency to deal with) for an afternoon debate, and he gave his own scheduled talk that evening titled "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It."

Wallis didn't speak: He preached. He called on CC students to become activists -- to use their own beliefs or ideals to change the culture and the nation. He railed against the "religious right" but stressed that the public square needs religion, invoking the name of Martin Luther King Jr. several times during his hour-long presentation.

"Hope is a choice," he said. "It's a decision we make because of this thing called faith."

CC gave the evangelical preacher a standing ovation: As assistant professor Gail Murphy-Geiss noted, will wonders never cease.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

They Pity Darfur

An organization called Evangelicals for Darfur ran a full-page ad in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and dozens of other daily papers (including The Gazette) imploring President George W. Bush to take more action in Darfur, Sudan. The region has been the site of bloody fighting since 2003. Most of the signatorees are well-known in evangelical circles, and include our own Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

This is interesting for a whole host of reasons.

1) From what I gather, most of this in-fighting -- characterized as a "genocide" by the ad -- is predominantly between Muslims. No "protect the persecuted Christians" backstory here.

2) The Signatorees represent the astoundingly broad scope of the evangelical movement -- from the right you see Joel Hunter, president of the Christian Coalition of America; on the left, there are folks like Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren.

2a) It's also interesting to see who's missing -- namely the standard-bearers of the traditional Religious Right. There's no James Dobson. No Chuck Colson. No Pat Robertson. If I was a religious pundit, I might say it's a sign of a split between evangelicalism's old guard and young Turks. But I'm not, so I'll move on.

3) Two of the signatorees, Haggard and Wallis, will speak at today's CC Symposium, which fortuitously focuses on the intersection between religion and politics. Here, literally in black-and-white, is an example of such an intersection.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Catholic Conscience

Conservative Christians get a lot of attention for being "values voters" -- folks who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage and generally vote for the candidates (overwhelmingly Republican) who agree with them.

And yeah, this constituency has been pretty powerful. But nearly every issue on the November ballot has a moral and even religious component to it.

Example: the Amendment 42 rally in Pueblo this morning. Amendment 42 would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.85 an hour, and a number of community and labor leaders attended the Pueblo rally.

Also in attendance: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pueblo.

Broadly, Catholics are a values-voter wildcard. Catholic leadership shares the conservative Protestant concern over abortion and same-sex marriage, but they've also been committed to a host of social justice issues, more typically in line with more liberal values.

The Catholic Church has typically defended the rights of immigrants in the immigration reform debates, and many Catholics are active in anti-war efforts. Catholics are pretty evenly split, too: In 2004, about 52 percent voted for Bush, 47 percent for Kerry. Compare that with the all but seven Conservative Christians who voted for Bush last time around.

Just a hunch: Over the next two to six years, Catholics may be the nation's most important swing vote.

Monday, October 16, 2006

All Saints Day

On Sunday, the New Orleans Saints squeaked past the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-24 to go to 5-1.

On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI canonized four new saints into the faith's growing heavenly club.

Coincidence? Hmmm.

In Catholicism, saints are designed to serve as holy role models: Catholics often turn to the lives of saints to draw inspiration on how to live good, just and godly lives. One saint just canonized, Rosa Venerini, pushed for the education of women back in the 17th century. Another, Bishop Rafael Guizar Valencia, disguised himself as a street vendor to minister to the wounded during the Mexican Revolution.

I'm skeptical as to whether many of today's New Orleans Saints will qualify for real sainthood. But, in their own way, they're inspiring folks in New Orleans with a different sort of faith.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Are you triskaidecaphobic?

Forget TGIF -- at least for today. Fear of Friday the 13th turns out to be, essentially, religious.

According to Web sources, Christian tradition has it that Adam and Eve snacked on a particularly potent apple on a Friday. Jesus, of course, is said to have been crucified on a Friday, as well.

As for the number 13, well, there were 13 folks at The Last Supper (12 apostles plus Jesus), and we all know that the 13th guy there -- that'd be Judas -- betrayed the Big Guy.

But most folks say the day's modern fear-mongering origins stem from a papal decision on Oct. 13, 1307. On that Friday, the Pope signed a secret "death warrant" against the Knights Templar, an order that had been Christendom's heroes during the days of the Crusades. Rumor had it these knights were getting a little kooky in their faith, though, so the Pope had them deemed as heretics and had the order's Grand Master, Jacques DeMolay, tortured and crucified.

Which would, when you think about it, make for a very bad day indeed.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Focus on Foley

Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family has spent a great deal of time over the last few days talking about disgraced ex-Sen. Mark Foley, who resigned after it was discovered he had been flirting, through e-mail and text messages, with teenage pages.

First, V.P. of Public Policy Tom Minnery said Foley should be "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." Then, Oct. 6, FofF founder James Dobson dedicated his daily radio show to the matter, calling Foley's actions "excusable, reprehensible and morally depraved."

Unfortunately for Focus, Dobson also repeated a rumor that the pages may have set up the whole thing as a sort of "joke." Some Internet neighborhoods picked up on the comment and began to make a pretty big stink over it. So yesterday, Dobson and Minnery devoted another radio program to the issue, stressing again that Foley was WAY out of line. And, they added, so are the Focus critics who took this "joke" thing out of context.

"People are trying to do you in," Minnery said to Dobson.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Juche do it

With North Korea testing nuclear bombs and threatening to go to war and such, it's important to note that the truncated peninsula is home to the world's 10th-largest religion: Juche.

And, with all 19 million inhabitants of North Korea followers of Juche, it's a force to be reckoned with.

OK, so the North Korean government created Juche in the 1950s to quash the other religions and philosophies frolicking in the country, and Kim Jong Il would be horrified if someone classified Juche -- which purports to stress independent thinking -- as a faith. He might even declare war on me for writing this blog.

But, a Web site that tracks such things, begs to differ. Indeed, if religion is defined as simply a belief involving a philosophy and code of ethics, Juche qualifies. Even if the definition is narrowed to include only a superhuman focal point of worship, Juche might squeeze in there. After all, the North Korean calendar counts 1912 -- the year longtime leader Kim Il Sung was born -- as its year No. 1, much as our own calendar is split into "before Christ" and "after Christ" periods. It's said that when Kim Jong Il was born, non-flowering trees burst into bloom.

And then, of course, there's Kim Jong Il's godlike prowess at golf, when he reportedly shot 38-under-par his first time out, according to North Korean news services. And we think Tiger Woods is pretty keen.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Death of an artist

The obituary of Bonnie Woolsey Benschneider, a local artist, was published in this morning's paper. It recounted her education, her work, her family. But it did nothing to capture her exhuberance or charm.

I met Woolsey Benschneider (she called herself just Bonnie Woolsey then) about two years ago, when she was 83. She showed me her paintings based on the biblical book of Revelations -- abstract and luminous, filled with angular creatures of light. She called it "the art of the dream."

I also had a chance to see her eclectic home/studio, so crammed with artwork and the flotsam of her life that her living room looked a little like a gallery -- and a little like a family's attic. She scurried around the place like an anxious bird, telling me stories about her paintings, her sculptures, her family.

Here's the story I wrote from that visit. I wonder whether her art now matches the dream.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Fluff my shield of faith, would you, Ma?

For some kids (or some parents), the old "now I lay me down to sleep" prayer just doesn't go far enough in protecting them from that thing under the bed.

For those people, a company has created "Armor of God PJ's," based on Ephesians 6:10-18.

The creators thought it would be wonderful if the PJs would give kids some peace of mind " ... that with their belief in Jesus and His protection they will feel safe and secure during the night as they sleep."

The pajamas come with their own soft breastplate of righteousness, cushy helmet of salvation (the girls' version looks a little more like a veil, though) and a shield of faith pillow. Each outfit costs about $40. Sorry, no adult sizes.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Rallying Cry

James Dobson, founder and chairman of Colorado Springs' Focus on the Family, is exhorting Focus constituents to cast a vote for the War on Terror.

"For the first time in the 29-year history of this ministry, I feel I must address the burgeoning threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism," he writes. "The security of our homeland and the welfare of our children are, after all, 'family values.'"

The themes in the letter, which will be mailed to more than 2.5 million constituents next week, were essentially what he talked about at last month's Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. Though he did not explicitly ask constituents to vote for a particular candidate or party, the issues he stressed -- homeland security, the war on terror, abortion, "liberal" judges and what he terms "marriage protection" acts -- are issues typically associated with the GOP. And Dobson's evangelical Christian base votes overwhelmingly for Republican candidates.

Dobson tells his readers that 21 million evangelicals failed to vote last year.

"Turnout is the key to the entire election," he writes. "May the Lord grant each of us the passion and conviction to 'vote our values' on November 7."

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Praying for school

There are times to argue about what place religion has in public school. And perhaps there are times when grief silences debate.

Teens went back to class in Bailey today -- eight days after Duane Morrison killed student Emily Keyes and kidnapped and molested several other girls. Many students stood around the school's flagpole and prayed before class. And the students who came were given colorful "prayer scarves," knitted by folks in the community.

To be honest, I'm not that familiar with the background of prayer scarves. But, according to a quick Google check, they seem to be used in several religions: Most of the references I came across were for Buddhist scarves, but some Christian churches apparently make them as well, saying prayers as they go. The maker then gives the scarves to others, hoping the recipients will feel both God's love and the support of the community.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Closing its doors

St. Francis Episcopal Church at 3445 Parkmoor Village Drive will hold its last service at 7 tonight -- appropriately on the feast day of its patron saint.

Many parishioners say St. Francis is closing, in part, because of the upheaval within the church's denominational body, the U.S. Episcopal Church. The denomination ordained an openly gay bishop a few years ago, which deeply shook conservative churches like St. Francis.

St. Francis also was shrinking and graying. There weren't enough parishioners to fund the parish much longer, and most of those that remained were in their 50s or 60s, leaving little hope of rejuvenation. That scenario is being played out across the country, where the average church draws 90 or fewer regular attendees.

I'll talk more about St. Francis and the issues surrounding its closing in an upcoming story. But I'd be interested to hear what's happening in your church (if you have one). Is it shrinking? Growing? Aging? Getting younger? Let me know.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Separation of church and school?

In California, it's still OK for public school seventh-graders to take a three-week course on Islam.

In one of its first actions of the new term, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit brought by California parents who objected to the class, saying it violated the separation of church and state. According to the Associated Press, the parents said their son was forced to study pages from the Quran and study Islam's Five Pillars -- the central points of the Islamic faith.

The school says it wasn't trying to convert anybody, and the case brings up the prickly issue of just how much religion should be taught in schools. Islam has been a driving force in history for a good long while, as have been a good many other faiths. To understand history, some might say, requires some understanding of these important and, in many cases, revolutionary religions.

Teaching religion in secular classrooms is nothing new. Palmer High School has had an elective course, "Literature in the Bible," for a decade, and there's a move afoot to make public school students more "biblically literate," saying such literacy helps students understand history, literature and civics.

But, if such religious education is good and perhaps even necessary, it does create a fuzzy line. If a student is attracted to the tenants of one religion and decides to convert, is the school then guilty of prostyletizing?

Monday, October 02, 2006

What will the IRS say?

According to -- a site that bills itself as "a good source for Christian news" -- Colorado Springs' own James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is putting his evangelical heft to the test by endorsing a whole family for president in 2008.

John Richardson, head of the Missouri-based Richardson family, said difficult decisions will be put to a family vote, and foreign policy will be based on Dobson's book "Dare to Discipline."

It's a joke, we think. LarkNews is a satirical Web site of evangelicalism, sort of a Christian "The Onion." Previous headlines on the site included "Prophet downgrades earthquake forecast" and "Southern Baptists, Republican Party merge."

That said, if you see "Richardson Family" on the ballot come November, you'll know who's backing them.