Posts filed under ‘Religion’


”Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, spirituality is for those who’ve been there” anonymous

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May 2, 2009 at 2:07 pm Leave a comment

Best Practices in Internet Ministry

I dislike the term ‘best practices.’ My experience is that most best practices, aren’t. But, there are always exceptions. Dave Bourgeois, Associate Professor of Information Systems at Biola University recently presented a workshop for the Center for Congregations, “God in the Tubes: Developing an Internet Strategy for Your Congregation.” Dave  did some really interesting research on congregations and related non-profits who use the internet as part of their work. I like Dave’s research because it affirms many things I’ve been saying! Here’s a sampling:

  • Only 36% of the respondents felt their Internet ministry was successful
  • 64% of organizations with an annual budget >$10,000 reported success vs 30% or less with budgets under $1000
  • Organizations that integated outside services like Flickr and Youtube reported up to 45% more success than those that didn’t
  • Organizations that integrated social networking tools… Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. reported 24% more success than those that didn’t
  • Organizations who had volunteers build the web site reported success 16% less often than those who did not (that’s a -16% success rate)
  • Collecting data or research in preparation for developing a web ministry, 52% of organizations that answered “yes” reported success, compared to 26% success for those who reported “no”

Check out the rest of Dave’s best practice data at For more information on Dave and his research check out

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March 20, 2009 at 5:44 pm Leave a comment

Cool website (and even cooler interview of me)

Menachem Wecker edits and hosts a fascinating website about relgion and art called Iconia: Wherever faith meets art. I ‘met’ Menachem on twitter and he subsequently asked if I’d like to be interviewed (I made the mistake of telling him my wife was an artist… guess he assumed I knew something about art). Of course I said yes! The following is what’s posted on his fine site.

Rabbi Aaron Spiegel is information technology director for the Center for Congregations. According to his bio on the CFC, he has served several congregations in South Florida, has a B.A. in comparative theology from Union Institute & University, ordination from the Rabbinical Academy of Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk, and is a D.Min. candidate in congregational studies at Hartford Seminary. I “met” Rabbi Siegel, who is a “transdenominational rabbi,” on Twitter, where his handle is @rebaaron. (Image courtesy of Rabbi Spiegel.)

MW: Your blog “Ma Hamatzav?” (site) describes you as a former pulpit rabbi and a rabbi at the Hillel at Butler University, and the CFC site calls you “transdenominational.” Most people have enough trouble keeping Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, etc. straight. What does it mean to be a transdenominational rabbi?

AS: I wish I could claim that I made it up but alas I’m not that creative. Trans – beyond – denominational is just that, beyond the movements or denominational tags. While I have great respect for each of the movements and their historical significance, I believe we’re now in a period in which their relevance is severely diminished. It used to mean something when someone said ‘I’m a Reform Jew’ or ‘I’m Conservative.’ Most Jews, particularly those younger than baby boomers, have little or no attachment to these monikers. In some cases, the labels are seen as negatives. I like to refer to myself as a Reformativadoctionist. Or in other words, I’m confused!

MW: You are one of very few rabbis that I have found on Twitter, and I’ve spent a lot of time looking. I see you do information technology for CFC, and have written on congregations and technology. Why do you think there is such an aversion to new media in the rabbinate, and why do you think you’ve managed to overcome that?

AS: I can easily answer the second part of the question – my first career was in information technology (starting in the late ‘70’s, early ‘80’s) so I’m a techno geek at heart. As to why rabbis have an aversion to technology I can only speculate.

Rabbis are still trained as scholars. There is little in the way of ‘practical’ leadership and management in rabbinical school. Technology, at its best, is a tool to lead and manage. I’m oversimplifying, but without an incentive to use these tools, i.e. it’s what the secular world uses to communicate, rabbis often see them as irrelevant.

I will contradict somewhat your statement that I’m the only rabbi on twitter. I’ve now found another four or five of us. I’m also seeing rabbinical students on twitter as well. I should also point out that though the numbers aren’t exactly proportional, Christian clergy have the same problem adopting technology tools in their ministry. Many find themselves doing so because their congregants are forcing them. I just did a survey on congregational use of social networking (link) and the responses were interesting. Most of the respondents were church leaders and while most agree these tools are important for maintaining relationships and communications, very few are actually adopting the tools.

MW: Your Twitter profile includes: “technologist, motorcyclist, sailor, cigar smoker, renaissance man” and “friend o’ bill(stein).” I won’t even ask about the first list, but who is Bill Stein?

AS: It’s an inside joke!

MW: As a technologically-inclined rabbi and husband of a painter, you must deal with art and design a lot. What sort of religious role can the arts play in a transdenominational setting?

AS: I’m not sure art is much different in a transdenominational setting than in any of the liberal Jewish movements. Jews have been and are great supporters of the arts. We have data that Jews give to the arts disproportionally to non Jews. I believe that Judaism is a religion of aesthetics. Judaism appreciates beauty and values individual expression.

In his book Congregations In America, sociologist of religion Mark Chaves (link) reported from the findings of the first National Congregations Study that Jews had a higher proclivity to the arts than non Jews – so I’m not making this up!

MW: Are there subject matters that are off limits to a Jewish artist — whether nudity, idolatry, or heresy?

AS: I don’t think so. Nudity is one thing and I do believe there’s a line between tasteful nudity and pornography (though I can’t tell you what it is). Regarding idolatry and heresy, I’m not sure there’s much chance for either.

It’s very difficult to define idolatry in Judaism. The commandment against idolatry was written (or channeled by God if that’s ones beliefs) during a time when idols were still common. Judaism doesn’t anthropomorphize God nor even hint that God has human characteristics. The prophets and later thinkers like Maimonides all stated that humans don’t have an adequate language with which to talk about God. Therefore we use the human language we have to describe God and ascribe attributes to God that we can grasp. To depict God as an old man with a long white beard isn’t depicting God – it’s merely depicting our idea of God, albeit a limited, human depiction.

The same goes for heresy. What’s heretical about depicting God? Judaism is not like Islam or some Christian sects who hold an image of a prophet or saint as sacred. They’re just pictures.

MW: Who are some of your favorite Jewish artists and works? Do you think there is a such thing as Jewish Art?

AS: I do believe there’s such a thing as Jewish art. It’s art created by Jews that has some kind of Jewish influence. In the visual arts I’m a big fan of Chagall. I do like some of his famous pieces (like the stained glass) but my favorite works are his attempts at creating a Bible. While one can see his Eastern European influences, he also showed he was very influenced by Christianity. Some of the pieces show the Bible stories from a Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible rather than a Jewish interpretation – it’s fascinating to me.

I love the photography of Roman Vishniac, especially his photos of Eastern Europe before the Shoah. The illustrations of Arthur Szyk are amazing. One of my prized possessions is a Szyk Haggadah (link) which my parents bought me and my two brothers when we were kids. I still use it at our sedar to bring the story to life. But of course, my favorite Jewish visual artist is my wife! (site)

If we include authors and websites as art (which I do) the list is too long to name. There are some outstanding young Jewish authors like Dara Horn (site) and Michael Chabon (site). I love new ventures like Nextbook, Jewcy, Jewlicious, Zeek, and Heeb Magazine. I give special mention to the new website G-dcast (link). In music, there are some outstanding artists like Craig Taubman, Josh Nelson, Joshua Nelson (yes, two different people), Rick Recht, Matisyahu, JDub Records, etc who are bringing Jewish music into the 21st century.

MW: How much is Jewish art on the radar screens of American Jewish communities? Are Jewish educational institutions doing enough in your mind to engage the fine arts, as opposed to literature and music?

AS: I won’t speak for Jewish educational institutions (because they have problems that almost preclude them from worrying about art!), but I think art is very much a part of the ethos of the American Jewish community. As I mentioned in the previous question, I think there’s a ‘new crop’ of exciting projects – in print, on the web, and music. I wouldn’t yet call it mainstream, but only because the mainstream is slow to shift. Ten years from now I think (hope) these will be the mainstream.

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February 16, 2009 at 3:26 pm Leave a comment

Dear President Bush…

By Jimmy McCarty
January 14, 2009

This is a brilliant treatise on the Bush presidency, especially his alleged faith.

Dear President Bush,
As you approach the end of your time in the White House, I want to make sure I say,”Thank you.” Thank you for transforming my faith and my politics.

When you were running for president back in 2000, I was an ardent supporter of yours. I believed you were “God’s man” for the job and that you would restore righteousness to our nation because of your personal relationship with God and your commitment to “pro-life” politics.

I was a high school senior at the time, only seventeen and unable to vote, but I was behind you all the way. My dad, a soldier from Tennessee, loved you and so did the preachers I knew, so I did too. I wrote my high school senior thesis on the evils of abortion and was so compelling in my arguments that a few people told me they became “pro-life” after my presentation. I knew the Republican Party was God’s party and so you were God’s man. You made this clear with your references to gospel songs and saying Jesus was your favorite philosopher. If I could have, I would have voted for you.

I remember one of my all-time favorite high school teachers having a discussion with me questioning my support for you. You’ll be glad to know I defended you passionately. He didn’t understand how I could idolize Tupac and vote for you. (Ahhhh…what goes on in the mind of a biracial kid at a high school where students are called “a bunch of thugs” by the students at more “well to do” schools while also attending a conservative church!) See, I was for affirmative action and helping single mothers, but I knew abortion was the most important issue there was and you were the “pro-life” candidate, not that “Slick Willy” chump Al Gore. So, I had your back.

After graduating I began working at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. That’s right, I was working a government job supporting our military. (I even worked on the USS Lincoln before you landed that plane on it with “Mission Accomplished” emblazoned behind you. You’re welcome.) I remember when 9/11 happened. I was driving to another day at work fixing our ships and submarines when I heard about it on the radio. It was eerie. At first they said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Sad, but to an eighteen-year-old it was an interruption to my morning music (it was the same day Jay-Z’s The Blueprint came out and I was hyped!). A few minutes later they said another plane crashed into it and they didn’t think the crashes were accidents. I arrived at the shipyard to extra security and we watched news the rest of the day. I won’t forget that experience for a long time. I was scared and I was pissed.

It was shortly after that the transformation began to happen. I was making good money (in my world $35,000 to $40,000 is really good money) but was extremely unhappy. I began to question the righteousness of preparing ships for war, and wondered if I would somehow be responsible for the blood of those killed by the weapons on board if they were used. Then you declared war in Afganhistan and Iraq. And it was then God began calling me out of my unfulfilled life to a life in ministry.

At the first church I worked with I heard a sermon about how John the Baptist was a patriot and so we should be too. The implication was clear: “Support our country and our president.” This seemed odd to me considering John the Baptist’s harsh words for Roman and Jewish authorities and his withdrawal from and harsh critique of Jewish society. How could this preacher have missed such an obvious message of the Baptist’s life? Anyways, it was at this point in my life my world began to change and I began to look at faith and politics differently.

I went to Pepperdine University. You’re familiar with it. It’s the private Christian school where Ken Starr is Dean of the Law School and your wife gave the commencement address at my graduation. In fact, she mentioned me by name in that address. I wasn’t the only one that received a degree that day because she was awarded an honorary doctorate. She seemed like a sweet and loving lady. Anyways, it’s not some bastion of liberal propaganda to say the least. But it was there my faith and the course of my life changed.

My degree was in religion, but it was really a Bible and ministry degree. I learned about the Kingdom of God, the Anabaptists, inner-city ministry, and the Civil Rights movement. I have studied the lives of great Christians: Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Andre Trocme, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, Sojourner Truth, Ronald Sider, Jim Wallis, Clarence Jordan, Fannie Lou Hamer and others. I met devoted Christians, some of the most devoted I’ve known, who were loud and proud political progressives. I did service work in India, Uganda, Kenya, Detroit, and post-Katrina New Orleans. I worked for a nonprofit and a church in inner-city L.A. I was given a worldview that enabled me to make sense of all of the injustice and oppression I saw, and that worldview was Christianity. It was a Christianity different in many ways from the one I grew up with, but it is still recognizably and unabashedly Christianity.

I learned something during my time at Pepperdine: God cares deeply about the poor, hungry, homeless, downtrodden, and oppressed, and about peace, and the Republican Party’s policies don’t seem to. In fact, you haven’t seemed to, in your presidency, either. I thought you were the Christian candidate but I have failed to see Jesus in most of your presidency.

You lied, as far as I can tell (even the youngest Sunday school student knows that’s a no-no) about the reasons for going into Iraq, and are convinced that killing people is the best way to stop other people from killing people. This does not square with Jesus’ message to love one’s enemies, pray for those who persecute you, do good to those who do bad to you and renounce violence. We have lived, during your presidency, by the “smart” bomb and guns, and I am afraid we may die by them as well.

Taking from the poor to give to the rich is an evil thing to do. It is the opposite of Jesus’ declaration that his ministry, and that of Christians, is to declare the year of the Lord’s favor. (This is a reference to a policy in the Hebrew Bible where God commands Israel to redistribute wealth every seventy years so that, in effect, generational poverty is stamped out.) And yet you did just that with your tax cuts to the richest one percent of the nation. You have continually given the rich more and the poor less. In no way does that square with Christian faith.

You talked loud about giving more funding to religious (code-word Christian) organizations performing social services and backed it up with little real money. (David Kuo opened my eyes to this.) This is just one example of the way you wooed Christians with good rhetoric and failed to fulfill your promises. Using religious faith as a political tool is what history’s villians have done, and I am afraid you may be closer to that than you realize.

When Hurricane Katrina happened you stayed on vacation (I just learned today my tax money paid for you to spend one year, 1/8th!, of your presidency at your ranch in Texas) instead of getting to work. And then with black people floating on New Orleans’ streets you said you couldn’t wait to chill on the racist Trent Lott’s new porch. It made me wonder if Kanye West was right. Do you really care about black people (or poor people of any color)? God’s Kingdom is a kingdom of all nations and colors. Hurricane Katrina, and the government’s response to it, demonstrated that the United States clearly is not in many ways.

You approved of the use of torture. How can you, one who claims to call a victim of torture Lord, in good conscience condone treating human beings in the way Jesus died so that humans would never have to die in such a way?

You approved of and condoned as unregulated a free-market as possible and have watched as our nation falls into economic collapse. You encouraged excessive greed and now millions are paying the price when it proved unsustainable. Millionaires and billionaires padded their pockets with money they had no use for while literally millions are on the brink of homelessness or are already homeless. You helped build America’s house on the sand and now that the storm has come it may not stand.

One of the first jobs God gave to humans was to care for the earth God created. You have continually drawn the ire of those seeking to live this call by seeking public policy that threatens some of the little nature we have left. You have perpetuated our dependence on oil which harms the earth when taken from it and when it is used. This does not make America any better stewards of what God has graciously given us.

I have become an adult during your eight years as president, Mr. Bush. I watched your presidency closely and have renounced the politics many of my formative teachers and mentors taught me. I am one member of the generation Jim Wallis talks about that has had a “Great Awakening” and moved beyond the “Religious Right.” Your presidency opened my eyes to how un-Christian Republican public policy can be and led me to reject it as it is today. Thank you for helping me to live more like Jesus in every part of my life.

Yes, even my political life.

Jimmy McCarty is a student at Claremont School of Theology studying Christian ethics, a minister serving cross-racially at a church in inner-city Los Angeles, and a servant at a homeless shelter five days a week. He blogs at JimmyMcCarty.

January 17, 2009 at 10:25 pm Leave a comment

Religion is Ridiculous?

Sightings  10/23/08

— David G. Myers

Ridiculous, and worse.  So say the new atheist books:  In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens does not mince words, calling religion “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”  Now Bill Maher’s movie Religulous lampoons the plausibility and social effects of all religion, ominously concluding that the world will end if religion does not end.  But I suggest that social science data point to a different conclusion than do the new atheist anecdotes of hypocritical and vile believers.

Many in the community of faith gladly grant the irrationality of many religious fundamentalists − people who bring to mind Madeline L’Engle’s comment that “Christians have given Christianity a bad name.”   But mocking religious “nut cases” is cheap and easy.  By heaping scorn on the worst examples of anything, including medicine, law, politics, or even atheism, one can make it look evil.  But the culture war of competing anecdotes becomes a standoff.  One person counters religion-inspired 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta with religion-inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.  Another counters the genocidal crusades with the genocidal atheists, Stalin and Mao.  But as we social scientists like to say, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Maher and the new atheist authors present anecdote upon anecdote about dangerous and apparently irrational religious behavior, while ignoring massive data on religion’s associations with human happiness, health, and altruism.  The Gallup Organization, for example, has just released worldwide data culled from surveys of more than a quarter-million people in 140 countries.  Across regions and religions, highly religious people are most helpful.  In Europe, in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia they are about fifty percent more likely than the less religious to report having donated money to charity in the last month, volunteered time to an organization, and helped a stranger.

This finding – that the religious tend to be more human than heartless – expresses the help-giving mandates found in all major religions, from Islamic alms-giving to Judeo-Christian tithing.  And it replicates many earlier findings.  In a Gallup survey, forty-six percent of “highly spiritually committed” Americans volunteered with the infirm, poor or elderly, as did twenty-two percent of those “highly uncommitted.”  Ditto charitable giving, for which surveys have revealed a strong faith-philanthropy correlation.  In one, the one in four Americans who attended weekly worship services gave nearly half of all charitable contributions.

Is religion nevertheless, as Freud supposed, and Maher’s film seems to assert, an “obsessional neurosis” that breeds sexually repressed, guilt-laden misery?  Anecdotes aside, the evidence is much kinder to C. S. Lewis’s presumption that “joy is the serious business of heaven.”  For example, National Opinion Research Center surveys of 43,000 Americans since 1972 reveal that actively religious people report high levels of happiness, with forty-three percent of those attending religious services weekly or more saying they are “very happy” (as do twenty-six percent of those seldom or never attending religious services).  Faith (and its associated social support) also correlates with effective coping with the loss of a spouse, marriage, or job. 

Maher would surely call such religiously-inspired happiness delusional.  But what would he say to the surprising though oft-reported correlations between religiosity and health?  In several large epidemiological studies (which, as in one U.S. National Health Interview Survey, follow lives through time to see what predicts ill health and premature death) religiously active people were less likely to die in any given year and they enjoyed longer life expectancy.  This faith-health correlation, which remains even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and education, is partly attributable to the healthier lifestyles (including the lower smoking rate) of religious people.  It also appears partly attributable to the communal support of faith communities and to the health benefits of positive emotions.

These indications of the personal and social benefits of faith don’t speak to its truth claims. And truth ultimately is what matters.  (If religious claims were shown to be untrue, though comforting and adaptive, what honest person would choose to believe?  And if religious claims were shown to be true, though discomfiting, what honest person would choose to disbelieve?)  But they do challenge the anecdote-based new atheist argument that religion is generally a force for evil.  Moreover, they help point us toward a humble spirituality that worships God with open minds as well as open hearts, toward an alternative to purposeless scientism and dogmatic fundamentalism, toward a faith that helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.


David Myers is a professor of psychology at Hope College and author of  A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists:  Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn’t Evil (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

October 23, 2008 at 5:27 pm 4 comments

Wonderful new website

Check out Kudos to Sarah Lefton and team for making Torah accessible and interesting!

October 22, 2008 at 4:54 pm Leave a comment

Brand new religion blog

My friend Jeremy Hinsdale, web genius for PBS, just launched a brand, spanking new blog on religion, He’s encouraging open, honest, interaction on all issues religious and for the moment, isn’t moderating posts. I’m sure that will change, especially after I start posting!

October 7, 2008 at 3:34 pm 1 comment

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