Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Is Religion Making Us Fat?

From the Chicago Sun-Times ... Is religion making us fat? This one almost made me spit out my Egg McMuffin ... with an Adam Ant reference, no less. Now I've got that song in my head. In full ...
Back in the decadent early 1980s, New Wave rocker Adam Ant mocked clean living in his maddeningly catchy song, "Goody Two Shoes."

"Don't drink, don't smoke, what do ya do?" Ant taunted.

A new Purdue University study may hold the answer to Ant's question.

If they don't drink and don't smoke, what do they do?

Eat, apparently.

"America is becoming known as a nation of gluttony and obesity, and churches are a feeding ground for this problem," says Ken Ferraro, a Purdue sociology professor who studied more than 2,500 adults over a span of eight years looking at the correlation between their religious behavior and their body mass index.

"If religious leaders and organizations neglect this issue, they will contribute to an epidemic that will cost the health-care system millions of dollars and reduce the quality of life for many parishioners," he says.

Casserole as sacrament

Ferraro's most recent study, published in the June issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, is a follow-up to a study he published in 1998, where he found there were more obese people in states with larger populations of folks claiming a religious affiliation than elsewhere -- particularly in states with the most Baptists.

So it's not surprising that Ferraro's latest study found that about 27 percent of Baptists, including Southern Baptists, North American Baptists, and Fundamentalist Baptist, were obese.

Surely there are several contributing factors to such a phenomenon, but when Ferraro accounted for geography (southern cooking is generally more high-caloric), race and even whether overweight folks were attracted to churches for moral support, the statistics still seem to indicate that some churches dispense love handles as well as the love of the Lord.

Having attended a Southern Baptist church for most of my formative years, I was hardly shocked by Ferraro's discoveries. From the coffee (and doughnuts) hour after Sunday-morning worship, to the huge potluck dinners and the Sunday-night ice-cream socials, there was always food around, and it was rarely the lo-cal variety. Ambrosia salad. Seventeen different kinds of chicken/broccoli/cheese casserole. Banana-and-Nilla-wafer-pudding. Fried chicken. Barbecue chicken. Sweet tea.

Those were the elements of our social sacraments at the Baptist church.

In religious traditions where drinking alcohol, smoking anything and even dancing are vices regularly preached against from the pulpit, overeating has become the "accepted vice," Ferraro says.

Or, as Homer Simpson so eloquently put it on his way to a First Church of Springfield picnic: "If God didn't want us to eat in church, he'd have made gluttony a sin."

'Overgrazing of the flock'

Food often is substituted for alcohol at Baptist and other conservative Protestant gatherings, Ferraro says. I once attended a wedding at a conservative Bible church where, instead of an open bar or champagne fountain, the bride and groom toasted their new beginning with a massive ice-cream sundae buffet.

I kid you not.

"Baptists may find food one of the few available sources of earthly pleasures," Ferraro says.

Exhibit A: The Rev. Jerry Falwell, Baptist king of the Christian right. Falwell has been accused (rightly) of being many things.

Chubby, for instance.

He may not drink or smoke, or think lusty liberal thoughts, but it looks like the good reverend has never met a plate of cheese grits he didn't love. And it may have cost him. Falwell, 73, was hospitalized last year for acute congestive heart failure. His hefty weight, doctors said at the time, wasn't helping matters.

"Baptist and fundamentalist Protestant leaders may want to consider interventions for the 'overgrazing of the flock,' " Ferraro says.

No Protestant dietary rules

While some megachurches have fitness facilities and long have offered exercise classes as well as Bible studies, in most congregations you're still more likely to find a bake sale than a spinning class on any given Sunday.

Ferraro's study also found that about 20 percent of "Fundamentalist Protestants," (Church of Christ, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God and Church of God); about 18 percent of "Pietistic Protestants," (Methodist, Christian Church and African Methodist Episcopal), and about 17 percent of Catholics were obese.

By contrast, about 1 percent of the Jewish population and less than 1 percent of other non-Christians, including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others), were tipping the scales with commensurate gusto.

"In my mind, one of the distinctive things about Christianity, particularly American Protestant Christianity, is we don't have any [dietary] behavior codes," said Daniel Sack of Chicago, a historian and author of the 2000 book, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture.

"Islam does, Judaism does, Catholicism does, but basically there's nothing scriptural and in most [Protestant] traditions as long as you don't drink, you're fine. Particularly in that Baptist cohort, that's the only real rule."

This is true. Even on the Sundays when we celebrated the "Lord's Supper," i.e., communion, we had thimble-sized cups of Welch's grape juice to go with our chunks of home-baked white bread. No Jesus juice allowed.

Often gathering around food

"Food plays an important social role in the life of a religious community, particularly in the Protestant tradition," said Sack, an ordained United Church of Christ minister. "In Judaism and Catholicism, [religious celebrations] are largely family-oriented and so they're home based. Typically Protestant food practices tend to be much more congregational."

And that might have a lot to do with how most Protestant congregations are formed. Increasingly they're not geographic. People will drive for miles to attend the church they like. Theologically speaking, this kind of community is called a "gathering congregation."

"A gathering congregation has to gather around something, and it's often around food," Sack says.

Perhaps, as Ferraro suggests, more churches might want to consider turning the fellowship hall into a gym, putting down the Krispy Kremes, and gathering instead around a plate of crudite before taking a brisk walk with the pastor after church.

Because, ya know, blessed are the weight watchers


Monday, August 28, 2006

Ministry Leader Urges Christians to Pray for Islamic Terrorists

From Agape Press ... Ministry Leader Urges Christians to Pray for Islamic Terrorists. In full ...
A Virginia-based ministry is trying to encourage Christians to pray for the salvation of Muslim terrorists. Truth for Muslims is an evangelical Christian group that has recently published a prayer guide to that effect.

The publication is called Islamic Terrorism and Muslim Terrorists: a Prayer Guide for Christians. The guide is written by John Marion, project director of Truth for Muslims, who says the recent arrest of Muslim terrorists in connection with a plot to blow up passenger airplanes over the Atlantic ocean has refocused the world's attention on terrorism.

Christians must combat terror with prayer and with boldness, Marion urges. "The Islamic terrorists want to throw Western society -- and, in our case, particularly, American society -- into fear and confusion," he says, "and it is in that context that they can move their agenda forward."

But that very context, the ministry leader contends, offers Christians a chance to demonstrate their faith to others, including the terrorists. "So as they try to instill fear and confusion," he says, "we as followers of Christ have an opportunity to just go before the Lord and ask that he would give us peace and wisdom."

Meanwhile, Marion notes, this situation also offers Christians a chance to demonstrate the love of Christ for all people. This is an opportunity, he says, even to "impact the lives of terrorists" by praying for their salvation, always remembering that, although the followers of radical Islam may seem faceless and far away, nevertheless, "they are real people."

Marion and his wife have lived in Afghanistan and have worked among Muslims in the United States since the early 1980s. He urges Christians to realize that their prayers can have an effect even on the hearts of terrorists halfway around the world.

"We can be here in America and pray for these people," the Truth for Muslims spokesman asserts. "We don't know many of them; some of them are hidden," he says, "and that's one of the concerns that we have as Americans -- who are the terrorists among us and what are their plans? Who are they, and how do we know them? But God knows them, and we can pray for them and impact their lives through a ministry of prayer."

Christians should not hesitate to pray for those behind terror plots targeting the United States and other nations in the free world, Marion says. After all, he points out, the Apostle Paul was an anti-Christian "terrorist" of sorts before his life was radically altered through a relationship with Christ.


Lest We Forget, Part XXIV

From WorldNetDaily ... Christian convert faces death threats. In full ...
A Malaysian woman who was born a Muslim but converted to Christianity is learning the peril that comes with that decision in a Muslim-controlled society.

WND columnist Michelle Malkin is telling the story of the woman who was born Azlina binti Jailani but changed her name to Lina Joy and was baptized a Catholic in a Kuala Lumpur church.

It parallels in many ways the story of Adbul Rahman of Afghanistan, whose decision to choose Christianity netted him a death sentence, and only the intervention of the highest government authorities under international pressure provided his safety.

Lina Joy wants to marry a Christian man and start a family, but while she converted from Islam in 1990 and was baptized several years later, the government maintains her religious designation as Muslim on her identity card.

That's significant because if she does marry and have children, they could be taken from her under the Islamic religious law which does not allow parents who are "apostate," or in defiance of God, to raise children.

So she is asking the Malaysian government to stop classifying her a Muslim. She says the government has no right to tell her what she should believe.

Malkin noted that even Joy's legal advisor, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, has faced death threats because of his defense of her case.

The Wall Street Journal yesterday summarized her plight:

"While Muslim-majority Malaysia is considered a largely moderate, modern society, renouncing one's Muslim faith still is considered both sinful and illegal by Islamic authorities – who have gained increasing sway of late. Ms. Joy's apostasy case, now before Malaysia's highest court of appeal, has inflamed public debate, divided the legal community … and threatens to set off political tremors in this Southeast Asian nation of 25 million people."

The circumstance is that before the civil government, which is heavily controlled by Islamic belief, can remove the Muslim designation, it says Joy first must get a decision of the Islamic religious court, a parallel court system in Malaysia, declaring her "apostate."

She is resisting that, because that conclusion would provide the same result for her: a government standing by to take any children she might have.

The court ruling is expected in the coming weeks.

"We are at a crossroad, whether we go down the line of secular constitutionalism or whether that constitution will now be read subject to religious requirement," Benjamin Dawson, one of Joy's lawyers, told the Journal.

A previous court opinion in her case said as long as she is ethnic Malay, she is Muslim, even though the civil constitution in Malaysia guarantees freedom of religion. The court's opinion said that was not freedom of "choice" but a freedom to practice Islam.

A number of groups working with persecuted Christians around the world have noted the loss of right to marry, the loss of the right to work, illegal imprisonment and even torture of Christians, especially those who choose to leave Islam.

An Islamic scholar, Malkin reported, told the Journal why Muslims cannot leave Islam.

"If Islam were to grant permission for Muslims to change religion at will, it would imply it has no dignity, no self-esteem," said Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad, of Malaysia's Institute of Islamic Understanding.

"And then people may question its completeness, truthfulness and perfection," he said.

"Got that?" wrote Malkin. "It's a Religion of Peace of those who submit, and a Religion of Pieces for those who even dare think of leaving."

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said the court hearing will focus on whether she does, in fact, need that religious court declaration that she is apostate before the civil court can move.

The Becket Fund said the government's refusal violates customary international law protecting freedom of conscience as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It also violates the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Malaysia is legally bound, the Becket Fund said.

The earlier case involving Rahman, who now chooses to be identified as Joel, did have a happy conclusion.

As WND reported, he reached Italy where he was granted asylum after he had been charged with the death sentence under Afghanistan's Islamic law.

International pressure was credited with having prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to intervene.

Rahman, or Joel, reportedly converted to Christianity 16 years ago in Germany while working with an international Christian organization. He was charged with crimes carrying the death penalty after he was seen holding a Bible in Afghanistan.


For 56 Years, Battling Evils of Hollywood With Prayer

Now I've got that old Misfits song, Hollywood Babylon, in my head. From the New York Times ... For 56 Years, Battling Evils of Hollywood With Prayer. In full ...
Sister Mary Pia, wearing a threadbare habit, spoke from behind the bars of her gated parlor about the boundless power of prayer.

“Hollywood is the Babylon of the U.S.A.,” she said. “For people who need prayers, we have to be here.”

Just two long blocks from her monastery, you are in the thick of the electric lights of Hollywood Boulevard: among the dopers, the runaways, the surgically augmented, the homeless, the sex salesmen.

Sister Mary Pia, as pale and innocent as an uncooked loaf, prays for all of them, while knowing virtually nothing about them. There is nothing ironic about this, she believes: “One doesn’t need to be of it to know of it.”

Indeed, in her 56 years at the Monastery of the Angels, she has ventured out no more than a few dozen times to attend religious retreats or make preparations for dying loved ones. Rarely has she set a shoe onto the stained sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard.

Yet the signs of iniquity are everywhere. Police helicopters routinely hover over the cloister. There is the dull roar of the Hollywood Freeway. The head of the monastery’s statue of St. Martin de Porres has been stolen twice. Neighbors recently complained so loudly about the belfry’s morning chimes to prayer that the authorities forced the peals silent.

“I think we pricked their conscience,” she said of the neighbors. “Is 7 o’clock too early to get up?”

Sister Mary Pia is one of 21 Dominican nuns cloistered in this walled complex of stucco and steel. From a distance, the place looks more like a loading dock than a religious retreat.

They do no missionary work here, canvass no alleys, cook in no soup kitchen. Prayer is the occupation. Until recently there were 23 nuns, but Sister Mary the Pure Heart and Sister Mary Rose were sent to a convalescent home because there were not enough youthful and vigorous nuns to care for them.

The sisterhood is a dying way of life in America. Forty years ago, the United States had about 180,000 nuns. Today there are perhaps 70,000. Fewer than 6,000 are younger than 50. There are estimated to be about 5,000 cloistered, contemplative nuns, a piece of women’s history that may be on the way out.

Reasons for the collapse can be traced to the mid-1960’s: the flowering of the women’s movement, which broadened opportunities beyond secretary, housewife, nurse, teacher and nun. But the Roman Catholic Church unintentionally inflicted damage on itself when it ratified the Second Vatican Council.

“Basically it said that religious women were no more holy than lay women,” said Sister Patricia Wittberg, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. “It was devastating.”

Still, the sisters of the Angels, frail and birdlike, go on with a vocation to which they sacrificed their youth: perhaps never to have known a man, never to have rowed the banks of the Seine, never to have taken a moonlight drive. High heels and self-adornment were given up after high school graduation.

As a young woman, Sister Mary Pia might have become an opera singer. Sister Mary St. Peter, 78, the daughter of a Protestant, thought of becoming a nurse. Sister Mary St. Pius was good at photography. They gave away these things, without regret, for something they say is incalculable.

The average age at the Monastery of the Angels is about 70. From this generation also came feminists like Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug. Hugh Hefner, too, is of their era, as was the centerfold pinup Bettie Page. This generation helped create the cultural chasm that divides America today.

“It’s a materialistic age,” said Sister Mary Pia, gray now, her eyes milky with years. “For young women, religion is far down on the list.”

Sister Mary Pia grew up in the Wilshire District of Los Angeles and joined the monastery at 17, despite the tears of her parents. Prayer, she said, had delivered her brother home from the South Pacific battlefields, and so, seeing the power in it, she dedicated her life to God. She became a novitiate in 1950, years before the birth of rock ’n’ roll.

“I’ve heard of Alex Presley,” she offered. “But I wouldn’t know his music.”

Sister Mary St. Peter gave over her life in 1947, six years before the founding of Playboy magazine. “I never heard of Hugh Hefner,” she said with a shrug in the cloister’s front garden.

Sister Mary St. Pius, who arrived in 1953 from a small town in the Mojave Desert, does not know the work of the political satirist Jon Stewart. But after a brief moment, she squealed: “Martha Stewart? Oh, yes!”

Asked about Father John Geoghan, the Boston priest and serial molester who was the catalyst of the sex scandal that rocked the Catholic Church, the sisters went blank-eyed.

When told about him, Sister Mary Pia’s eyes became flinty, flashing defiance. She said she believed that one of the last respectable prejudices in America was that against the Catholics, and that the news coverage of abusive priests had been excessive, almost joyful.

“You get a little tired of all the bad news,” she said. “The media,” she wrinkled her nose, as if catching a whiff of a bad onion. “They never write about the good things.”

The important thing, then, is that there are still old women in America with the charity to care about something more than themselves, about strangers, even if they do not know those strangers’ manias and motivations. But take a walk down the boulevard any evening, and one wonders whether their prayers are reaching the intended destination.

“That’s the meaning of faith,” Sister Mary Pia said.


Saturday, August 26, 2006

This Week in Blasphemy

From the Telegraph UK ... Air ban on woman in blasphemy row. My first thought was that this lady was over-reacting a bit. But is that more of a condemnation of my own lack of sensitivity regarding blasphemy in others? As Aretha Franklin said in the Blues Brothers: "Don't you blaspheme in here!" Interesting. In full ...
A devout Christian was banned from flying with the budget airline Easyjet after she asked staff to "stop blaspheming".

Fiz Thomson, 55, was returning from a trip to Israel where she had been helping war victims, when she heard boarding staff at Stansted airport repeatedly exclaiming "Oh, my God" after a child fell and hurt herself.

She said she politely asked them to stop taking God's name in vain. She was then approached by a security official and she claims she was called a "racist" for remarking that her complaint would have been taken more seriously had she been Islamic.

As a result of the altercation on Tuesday, her boarding card was withheld, her luggage was taken off the Edinburgh-bound flight and she was barred from flying with the airline for 24 hours.

The grandmother, from Burntisland, Fife, who worships at the independent Vine Church in Dunfermline, said: "There was absolutely nothing at all that I said to the airport staff which could have been interpreted as racist. "I was very polite and non aggressive, but one of the ladies angrily asked me if I expected everyone to follow my religion and do as I did.

"A member of the security staff then appeared and started arguing with me."

Mrs Thomson, a registered foster carer with Fife Council, added: "All the other flights to Edinburgh that evening were with Easyjet. I ended up having to hire a car and drive to my daughter's home in Bolton. "I stayed the night there before driving home the following day. It cost me more than £200, including petrol."

According to Easyjet, Mrs Thomson was "ranting at female gate staff of Indian origin" who had had no intention to be blasphemous.

A spokesman said her remarks appeared to be racist and a view was taken that she needed to calm down and would not be allowed to fly.


World Trade Center

Brian Godawa writes what, in my view, is the premier movie review blog from a Christian perspective. They are not really reviews so much as analyses of the worldview of the films in question. Mr. Godawa gives his take on Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. In full ...
Based on the true story of two cops who survived the collapse of the twin towers and their rescue from the rubble. I must admit, I was amazed that Oliver Stone made this film. This is a very human exploration of courage, hope, pain and heroism that touched my soul with the value of family, faith and country that is usually feverishly attacked by Stone. He should be applauded for the beauty which he has created in this film. Perhaps one of the reasons why his conspiracy theorizing is absent is because he chose to focus exclusively on individual New Yorker's reactions to the events and almost completely avoided the bigger picture of what is happening, even to the extent of reducing the planes hitting to a mere shadow on a sky scraper passing by, and the sound and thunder of the hits from a distance. Of course, it is entirely possible that Stone may believe the insane ludicrous theories that the American government or "the Jews" did it, and this is merely the ant's eye view of the common man. Be that as it may, this was a truly great story and film.

What I love about stories like this is the existential factor that places the heros in such peril that you project yourself into them and wonder how you might face death, or wonder how much of your own life you have squandered in missing what's really important.

It is important to note that the Marine who went alone into the rubble was positively portrayed as a man of Christian faith, courage and duty, who entered the rubble as a symbol of how the Marines are the first to arrive and often unspoken heroes in that sense. When he walked into those ruins alone and willing to die to help find survivors, it may have been the most moving part of the film for me. He says, "You are my mission," to the trapped officers, which reminded me of the symbolic heroism of Saving Private Ryan, "The mission is a man." So there is this entirely positive symbolic portrayal of the military in this film that is diametrically opposed to his other films. Why? I don't know. Maybe he considers the military only good if it rescues people from the aftermath of evil, rather than being a positive force against evil on the battlefield. But then again, this good Marine says that there will be pay back and the story notes that he went on to two tours of duty in Iraq, so that softens that theory. Anyway, thank you, Mr. Stone, for portraying Christian faith and the Marines as positive in this picture. God knows, the negative stereotypes in movies are more typical.

Some may claim that the heroism is weakened because the cops that got buried in the rubble didn't do anything, they just went in and got covered. But this misses the point, They DID act heroically. They went in to the building to help. Sure, it was their job in a way, but it was also a choice. Not everyone went. And they were there trying to help people, so they are clearly heroes.

As for those who say, "it's too soon," Balderdash! It's not soon enough. We need to revisit September 11 intimately, because already too many people have forgotten and have reduced the war on terror to political grandstanding and party politics. 3000 Americans died from an attack by Islamofascists and Islamofascism is seeking to take over Britain, Europe and indeed the world in order to kill Jews, Christians and infidels and enslave women along with the survivors.


Friday, August 25, 2006

Christians Ended the Slave Trade

Michael Barone at US News & World Reports reviews a book review? Regardless, it's good. Read it and find out Who ended the slave trade? In part ...

English academic Howard Temperley's review of David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Davis is a veteran scholar who won a Pulitzer prize for one of his books published 40 years ago; Temperley delivers a fascinating appreciation of a distinguished body of work (I prefer book reviews that appreciate good work to those that slam bad work, though the TLS runs some Englishly pungent examples of the latter). I'd like to put a spotlight on three of the last four paragraphs of Temperley's review, which I trust it will not violate copyright laws to quote:

"While it is easy to account for the rise of American slavery, its abandonment is harder to explain. At first glance the reason may appear obvious. Quite simply, slavery was wicked. The problem, it might be argued, is rather how supposedly Christian societies had put up with it for as long as they did. Yet the fact remains that, up to 1770, not only had it been all but universally accepted, but the Bible had been one of its principal mainstays. Recent revelations regarding the strength and flexibility of slavery make its demise all the more puzzling. Why, if it was so successful, did people turn against it?

Britain's behaviour is particularly hard to account for. As Davis points out, the British are not thought of as having been particularly humane in other respects, including their treatment of their own working population. He sees the intermittent slave rebellions that shook Britain's colonies as having been a response to the growing tide of abolitionist feeling rather than its cause. Indeed, on the basis of the available evidence it would appear that Britain's interests would have been best served by expanding the slave trade and broadening the frontiers of its slave empire. Just as the US expanded its slave system westward along the Gulf Coast into Texas, so Britain could have established new slave regimes in Trinidad, British Guiana and other recently acquired territories. Instead of seeking to suppress the slave trade, it could have dominated it, and in the process outproduced Brazil and Cuba, increased its own wealth, and contributed to the economic growth of the Americas. No wonder Disraeli called abolition "the greatest blunder in the history of the English people."

In his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (1869), W. E. H. Lecky describes England's crusade against slavery as "among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations." Great powers do not as a rule behave selflessly. Not surprisingly, Lecky's comment has generally been regarded with scepticism. Now, knowing vastly more than he did about slavery and its abolition, Davis believes Lecky was basically right. Although the American abolition movement came later and assumed a somewhat different character, the same might equally well be said of it. Slaves had never liked being slaves, but the rise of a climate of opinion that objected to slavery on moral grounds was something new. There had been nothing like it in ancient or medieval times or in any other society of which we have record. The upsurge of popular support for abolition both in Britain and the northern USA was unprecedented. Perhaps, David Brion Davis hypothesizes, moral progress is possible."

This is not the lesson that today's transnational and multicultural elites in the United States and the United Kingdom like to tell. They like to portray American slavery as particularly vicious and slavery as a system imposed by evil Dead White European Males on a virtuous but unfortunately powerless Rest of the World. Davis and Temperley know better. Almost all human societies had slavery. Only one human society--the Anglosphere, starting in Britain and then in America--set out to abolish first the slave trade (enormously profitable to many Britons) and then slavery itself (enormously profitable to many Americans). "There had been nothing like it in ancient or medieval times or in any other society of which we have record." The philosophes of France, with their emphasis on pure reason, did not think to advocate the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. (See Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Road to Modernity: the British, French, and American Enlightenments on this point: The French philosophes' idea of a good society was one ruled by enlightened despots, i.e., despots governed by themselves, which their successors tried to put into place during the French Revolution.) English Evangelical Christians, like William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, did--and accomplished their goal. So, in their wake, did Americans like William Lloyd Garrison, the Grimke sisters, and Frederick Douglass. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 (much to its economic detriment) and the United States followed, at the earliest date permissible under the Constitution, in 1808 (though the economic detriment to the United States was much less).

Secular elites of our day, or for that matter their counterparts of a century or two centuries ago, like to think that all human progress is due to secular reason. But Christian belief in the moral equality of every person played a key role in inspiring the Britons and then the Americans who led the fight to abolish the slave trade and then slavery. Others followed in their wake. This, I think, is a lesson also of Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, a book I have written about with admiration before but that I have not yet read all of; I'm putting it on my carry-on for reading on my next long flight on my tour to flog the paperback version of The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again.

Hochschild, I gather, approaches the subject from the perspective of the American left; but he is also a gifted writer who eschews annoying cant, has immersed himself in the documents that tell this story, and gives the Christian inspiration of the first opponents of the slave trade--the first opponents of the slave trade in human history--its due. As we try to fathom the mindset of Islamofascists who fight violently for genuine evil, it is worthwhile to take some time to fathom the mindset of people--Evangelical Christians, most of them, in this case--who fought nonviolently for genuine goodness.

Thanks are due to David Brion Davis, Howard Temperley, and Adam Hochschild for helping us to do that.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Choosing Sides This Side of Heaven

More from Gary DeMar ... I link to this site often, perhaps because it always seems to have some good food for thought. This time its: Choosing Sides This Side of Heaven. In full ...

Two opinions vie for our attention in current Christian thinking regarding the legitimacy of social involvement and kingdom demonstration this side of heaven.1 The escapist view proposes that gospel proclamation is the church’s singular duty and no more. Concern for this world is a distraction. Heaven, and heaven alone, is the Christian’s calling and sole domain. The Christian’s citizenship is one-dimensional (Phil. 3:20; cf. Acts 21:39; 22:28). Christ’s lordship is delayed until the millennium or the eternal state.2 The Christian life is primarily individualistic and other-worldly, therefore there is no consideration of joining with other Christians to battle the effects of evil in this world as it relates to society. The Christian’s task is to remove himself from the world. There is no possibility of societal change since there can be no corporate response to the programs put forth by “inventors of evil” (Rom. 1:30). This view believes in God, but not in history. The decline of the church into apostasy is inevitable and unrecoverable.

The pilgrim view holds that gospel proclamation is the biblical priority, but there are further societal obligations which enhance gospel proclamation. Heaven is the Christian’s inevitable home, but during the time that God has determined that we remain on earth, we are called to faithful service.3 The Christian has a dual citizenship (Acts 21:39; 22:28; cf. Phil. 3:20). Christ’s lordship is a present reality and will one day be consummated by His ultimate and comprehensive victory over all His enemies. While salvation by grace through faith is an individual act by God on sinners, there is corporate solidarity in what the Bible calls “the body of Christ.” The corporate nature of the church is an effective weapon against “the schemes of the devil” (2 Cor. 2:11). The pilgrim view espouses a belief in both God and history. The failure of the forces of evil are inevitable (2 Tim. 3:7–9).

Which view is correct? It is clear that the second position, the pilgrim way, is the biblical position. While we are admonished to “flee immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18), nowhere are we told to flee the world.

Although we must be strangers in the modern world, we cannot be self-isolated hermits. The people of God have always been strangers and exiles, seeking a city built by him (Hebrews 11:13–16), even the Jews in the Promised Land and the Christians in the “Christian” Roman Empire. But it is in this world that we are exiles, and through it that we must make our intellectual as well as our physical pilgrimage. We cannot reject it in toto, and we must not accept it or succumb to it. In short, we must heed the words of St. Paul, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). He lived in the world of imperial, pagan Rome. He could not flee it, and remain obedient to his Lord, who had commissioned him Apostle to the Gentiles.4

It is true that pagan Rome eventually killed Paul the pilgrim and stranger. But biblical revelation knows of no inevitable transfer of godly construction to ungodly dominion. The kingdom of God was not obliterated by Rome with the death of countless martyrs. In the end, Rome gained nothing with the death of Paul, except ruin. The church gained everything. If we wish to follow the Bible’s command, “our world may eventually kill us.

We all have to answer the important question: on whose side will you live? But we must also be prepared to answer the other one: on whose side will you die? On Nero’s? Or Paul’s?”5 Living is the issue. Escapism of whatever kind (monasticism, pietism, or rapturism) is not the answer. Sides must be chosen and lived out in this world. There is no neutrality. There is no escape.

God takes account of how we live for Him in the here and now. Today counts forever. If the early Christians had only been concerned about heaven, then there would have been little need for Rome to deal with Christians like Paul. But the early church believed in God and history, heaven and earth, this age and the age to come. This is why Paul and his followers were considered a threat. If he had only been “other worldly” where the only legitimate sphere of Christian activity was heaven, then Rome would have dismissed him and others like him as religious mystics. But the gospel Paul preached forced men and women to choose sides, and the choice of sides had an effect on the world in which they lived.

1 Naturalism, with its attendants Humanism, Materialism, and Darwinism, would be a third view. For the Naturalist, “nature is the whole show.” Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and its Confrontation with American Society (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, [1983] 1993), 41, 141.

2 “Many dispensationalists, of course, do not hesitate to map out a divine cosmic program, but this program has little place for human activity (except for the activity of sinners), and is discontinuous with space-time history.” Howard A. Snyder, The Community of the King (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 195, note 21.

3 “Modern man has largely defected from the divine cultural‑mandate and the spiritual‑moral loyalties within which he is to exert his dominion over nature.” Carl F. H. Henry, A Plea for Evangelical Demonstration (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1971), 114.

4 Harold O. J. Brown, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969), 217.

5 Brown, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant, 217–218.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Calif. Lawmakers Advance Another 'Sexual Indoctrination' Bill

From Agape Press ... Calif. Lawmakers Advance Another 'Sexual Indoctrination' Bill. In full ...
The California State Assembly has passed yet another bill that pro-family groups have warned would sexually indoctrinate school children.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly voted 46-31 (five more than required for a majority vote) in favor of legislation that would alter K-12 public education textbooks, instructional materials, and school-sponsored activities so as to positively refer to homosexuality, including same-sex "marriage," as well as bisexuality, trans-sexuality, and transvestitism. SB 1437, sponsored by lesbian State Senator Sheila Kuehl, now goes to the State Senate for a concurrence vote.

Randy Thomasson of the Sacramento-based Campaign for Children and Families says the bill is the real face of the California Democratic Party.

"Democrats pushed this bill through," he says in reference to SB 1437. "They have authored three other bills that are similar, and the Democrats are showing their allegiance to the homosexual, bisexual, and trans-sexual agenda."

The pro-family leader asserts that those pushing the pro-homosexual legislation are not listening to their own constituents. "It's not what the people want," he says. "It's amazing how Democrats are going against the democratic wishes of the people."

Thomasson has repeatedly referred to the current complement of education-related pro-homosexual bills as "sexual indoctrination" legislation. He says the 36-minute debate on SB 1437, during which seven Republicans spoke against it and six Democrats spoke in favor of it, confirmed that characterization.

"The Democrat Assembly speaker actually got up and said, 'This means "Jill and Jill" can go up the hill in the textbooks, and you can't say anything bad about that,'" says Thomasson. "He said that you've got to outlaw bias because perspective and point-of-view should not be against anything that is the homosexual or bisexual or trans-sexual agenda." Such statements are "scary," he adds, because "he's talking about outlawing values."

Prior to that debate, a Republican-proposed amendment requiring schools to get parental permission before teaching sexual curricula to children failed in a 26-48 vote.

The CCF spokesman is calling on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to keep his promise to veto SB 1437. He contends the bill "micromanages public schools by forcing them to promote a gaggle of sexual lifestyles that disturb parents and confuse kids." If the governor of California "abandons children" by signing this or any of the other school sexual indoctrination bills, Thomasson predicts that "pro-family voters will abandon him" when he runs for re-election in November.


Can America Be Saved?

The shock heavy metal group Gwar had an album called 'America Must Be Destroyed.' It was tongue-in-cheek. I used to think it was funny. It's not anymore.

Gary DeMar asks, and answers, the question Can America Be Saved? In my view, hits the nail squarely on the head with this:
The church has always struggled to find answers to these questions. Unfortunately, the church has often been out of balance: Either putting all of its efforts into social reform while neglecting personal reform through gospel proclamation (the social gospel movement) or retreating into an unscriptural pietism where personal salvation is seen as the evangelical’s only duty to the neglect of the world (pietism).

Here's the rest ...
Is it possible to change a society? Has there ever been a time in history when progress could be measured against the spiritual and cultural decay of a previous era? When the church suffers a setback after a period of progress, is this a sign of the end, or does the possibility exist that God will graciously redeem and restore His people? What has the church’s position been toward social reform? Has social reform hindered the work of the gospel or has the lack of evangelical social reform been an obstacle to gospel proclamation?

The church has always struggled to find answers to these questions. Unfortunately, the church has often been out of balance: Either putting all of its efforts into social reform while neglecting personal reform through gospel proclamation (the social gospel movement) or retreating into an unscriptural pietism where personal salvation is seen as the evangelical’s only duty to the neglect of the world (pietism). Is this the reason why “American Protestant orthodoxy has produced no unified social ethics or program of evangelical social action”?1

In addition, there has been an unhealthy preoccupation with the timing of Jesus’ Second Coming. Because it is always “imminent,” and since reform efforts take time, there is no motivation to reform society. The question always is: Do we have time? But every generation has asked this question. And for two thousand years the answer has been yes. There is time because we are not privy to God’s timetable. The church has a history of predicting the end, telling Christians that there is no time left on God’s prophetic clock. Today is no different. With such a shortened view of the future, reform efforts are, at best, secondary concerns. Charles Hodge wrote the following in 1873, demonstrating that little has changed in more than 125 years of prophetic speculation:

It can hardly be questioned that a portion of our brethren, both in this country and in Great Britain, pay undo attention to the prophetic parts of Scripture. On this account they have been designated the “Prophetical School.” While there are many exceptions, it is yet a characteristic of this class of writers, that they seem more concerned in future hopes than in present duty. They have no faith in the conversion of the world under the present “dispensation of the Spirit.” They often speak in disparaging terms of the work of the Spirit, saying that the gospel has never converted a single town or village, and that it is therefore vain to expect that it will convert the world. The world according to their theory, is to be converted through the terrors and judgments attending the second advent of Christ: not otherwise, and not before.2

Reform efforts are never easy. They depend on much prayer, gospel proclamation, and ministry. The results are often very discouraging. One way out of the duty of reform is to deny its validity and project a state of future earthly blessing that’s just around the corner.

The Bible strikes a balance between personal salvation and outward reforms. This was certainly true in the Old Testament. The New Testament’s emphasis is no different. Of course, the context of the New Testament is somewhat different from the Old. Under the Roman occupation there was little opportunity for a broad application of reform. Certainly within the church community reform efforts were operating. But it didn’t take long for the church to extend its witness “even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

As we study Church history, we recognize that there was a balanced relationship between regeneration and reformation. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the gospel of the kingdom began to reform the world. While there was speculation regarding Jesus’ imminent return among the early church fathers, this emphasis changed as Rome’s place in world history began to decline.

1. Carl F. H. Henry, A Plea for Evangelical Demonstration (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1971), 23.

2. Charles Hodge, “Introduction,” in James B. Ramsey, Revelation: An Exposition of the First Eleven Chapters, originally published under the title The Spiritual Kingdom (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, [1873] 1977), i.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Praying Aloud Gets Man Jailed

From the Calgary Sun ... Praying aloud gets man jailed.
Maybe if Artur Pawlowski had been holding a flag of the outlawed terrorist organization Hezbollah, Calgary Police would have left him alone.

Perhaps had they seen him on a street corner smoking crack cocaine -- or selling it -- they would have turned the other cheek, as is so often the case.

But Pawlowski was clearly doing something much more provocative Wednesday afternoon on the corner of 17 Ave. and 8 St. S.W. He -- along with about six other people -- were praying and reading the Bible.

Pawlowski, 33, who has been helping the homeless for years, gave up his lucrative home-building business last year to start up The Street Church full-time.

With the support of area churches, he spends most of his time feeding, clothing, housing and loving members of Calgary's homeless population. He starts by taking his church to them -- in front of the Drop-In Centre mostly, but for the past four years, he has often preached to the drug dealers and street kids who congregate in the block-long park in front of Mount Royal Village shopping centre.

Because Pawlowski has been threatened so often by drug dealers angry their clients often turn away from drugs as a result of his message of hope and help, he started videotaping every outing. Wednesday's was no different.

Pawlowski and his friends, including his younger brother, David, stood in the far southeast corner of the park praying and reading the Bible.

Shawn Pierson, 25, once a street person himself who is "one of the fruits" of Pawlowski's ministry can be seen and heard on the videotape reading from Psalm 140: "'O Lord, I say to you, 'You are my God.' Hear, O Lord, my cry for mercy.' "

Such activity was clearly too fringe for the Fringe Festival underway in tents further west (and out of earshot) in the park. On Monday, Pawlowski and his brother went to the park, talked with tarot card readers and other practisers of "sorcery" to tell them the Bible condemns such practices. Video shows they remained calm but the vendors became agitated. Event organizers called police and Pawlowski and his brother David were asked not to talk to the vendors again. They agreed and left.

On Wednesday, when they returned to pray, they stayed far away from the vendors. Organizers called police anyway.

The video shows Pawlowski standing on the public sidewalk with his hands in his pockets. He asks a burly police officer in a calm voice, "Why are you harassing me? What did I do wrong?" The police officer responds with: "I'm going to arrest you for obstruction."

At that, Pawlowski is handcuffed and made to walk backwards to the police cruiser where he was frisked.

Pawlowski is then heard telling the police officer about his Charter rights to freedom of speech, assembly and religion, pointing out his family immigrated to Canada from communist Poland so they could be free from oppression.

He was also charged with trespassing and disturbing the peace. He spent one night in jail and is to appear in court on Sept. 7.

Insp. Ed Yeomans confirmed Pawlowski's story, saying Wednesday's arrest was the police's second dealing with Pawlowski. "One vendor closed up her booth and others left the park because that man and his group were causing a disturbance to other users of the festival," said Yeomans.

But the video shows clearly Pawlowski and his group did not approach vendors.

Do people have a right to read the Bible in a public place? Obviously, some don't think so.

Many Calgarians will likely read this and shrug. But consider this: The video clearly shows six police officers attending to the calm Pawlowski. Your tax dollars at work, folks!

What's ironic, said Pawlowski, was he saw a couple of known drug dealers watching as he got arrested.

Something's not right with that picture.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

Iran: Mother of 2 Faces Death by Stoning for Adultery

From WorldNet Daily ... Mother of 2 faces death by stoning: Petition to Iranian authorities urges clemency for 34-year-old 'adulteress'. In full ...
Human rights groups and concerned individuals worldwide are demanding an end to stoning executions in Iran – and right now are pressuring the head of the Islamic nation's judiciary to lift the death sentence against a 34-year-old mother of two young children.

Malak Ghorbany was sentenced to death June 28 by a court in the Iranian city of Urmia after being found guilty of committing "adultery."

Under Iran's strict Sharia law, women sentenced to execution by stoning have their hands bound behind their back. They are wrapped from head to toe in sheets before being seated in a pit. The ditch is filled up to their breasts with dirt, and the soil is packed tightly before people assemble to execute the woman by pitching rocks at her head and upper body.

Under Iran's strict Sharia law, women sentenced to execution by stoning have their hands bound behind their back. They are wrapped from head to toe in sheets before being seated in a pit. The ditch is filled up to their breasts with dirt, and the soil is packed tightly before people assemble to execute the woman by pitching rocks at her head and upper body.

Article 104 of the Iranian Penal Code states that the stones used for execution should "not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes, nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones."

Ironically, the court sentenced the woman's brother Abu Bakr Ghorbany and husband Mohammad Daneshfar to only six years in jail for killing her lover. According to Sharia law, murder carries a lesser penalty than "crimes against chastity."

Stonings decreased after international pressure on former reformist President Mohammad Khatami in the late '90s. And Ayatollah Shahroudi, the current head of Iran's judiciary, issued a ruling to judges ordering a moratorium on execution by stoning in December 2002. But the brutal killings have continued and the practice was never abolished from the penal code of the Islamic Republic. In May, two other women, Abbas Hajizadeh and Mahboubeh Mohammadi, were executed for committing adultery, with more than 100 members of the Revolutionary Guards and Bassij Forces participating in the stoning.

Adding to the voices urging Shahroudi to lift the stoning order, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors this week unanimously passed a resolution urging the U.S. State Department to condemn the impending execution by stoning of two Iranian women, Ghorbany and Ashraf Kolhari.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, an Iranian-American, introduced the resolution and brought it to a vote August 15.

Lily Mazahery, president of the Legal Rights Institute in Washington, D.C., had the lead role in drafting the San Francisco resolution, telling WND: "Malak is receiving the penalty of death for having committed 'adultery,' which, under the Sharia legal system includes any type of intimate relationship between a girl/woman and a man to whom she is not permanently or temporarily married. Such a relationship does not necessarily mean a sexual relationship. Further, charges of adultery are routinely issued to women/girls who have been raped, and they are sentenced to death."

The other woman referenced in the resolution, Kolhari, was sentenced to 15 years in Tehran's Evin prison for allegedly participating in the murder of her husband. Her lawyer, Shadi Sadr, said: "After she was arrested, they obtained a forced 'confession' from her, stating that she had been involved in an extramarital affair with the man who had murdered her husband." This led to a sentence of stoning for adultery as a married woman. The 37-year-old mother had previously filed for divorce, but it was rejected by the court because she has four children.

An Islamic women's organization, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, announced Aug. 11 that Shahroudi had responded to pleas for Kolhari's life. The group's website stated, "We are glad to inform you that we have heard that Ayatollah Shahroudi has acted to stop the execution of Ashraf, the 37-year-old mother of four, who was sentenced to stoning for having had extramarital sex. However, her fate is not yet clear and we urge you to continue writing to the Iranian authorities on her behalf."

Sadr reportedly encouraged continuous public outcry to ensure Kolahri's safety. She said, "I am asking you to please continue your efforts and keep your voices loud until we make sure that [Kolhari] is safe."

However, Ghorbany's fate remains undecided.

The Islamic regime has officially stayed her execution until a new trial is conducted. Mazahery holds little hope for re-examination of the case, and she intends to put intense international pressure on Shahroudi. She told WND the Islamic regime tries to silence the objections of the international human rights lawyers and organizations by initially caving in and granting a stay of execution until a new trial is set.

"The Islamic regime has been known to say one thing and do exactly the opposite," Mazahery said. "It is still quite possible that the Islamic regime will schedule a rush sham trial and re-issue the same sentence before we have a chance to take the appropriate legal actions. It is also possible that even with a new trial, Ghorbany would still receive the same sentence or be sentenced to death by public hanging instead."

Ironically, Iran is a member of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or ICCPR. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has indicated that treating adultery and fornication as criminal offenses does not comply with international human rights standards. Article 7 of the ICCPR reads, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." And Article 14 guarantees the right "to have legal assistance assigned to (the accused), in any case where the interests of justice so require."

"In 99 percent of these cases," Mazahery said, "the accused women have received no legal representation, and because, under the Sharia legal system their testimony is at best worth only half the value of the testimony of men, their so-called 'trials' last only a few minutes – after which they are immediately sentenced."

"There are no scheduled dates for such killings in Iran," Mazahery told WND. "A prisoner can be executed at any time with little or no notice at all. Needless to say, that makes matters that much more complicated and urgent in these types of cases."

Her petition to save Ghorbany's life is rapidly circulating online with more than 9,847 signatures.

"Let us all express our outrage to prevent these barbaric executions," Mazahery said. "Let us – all of us – take steps to ensure that no innocent woman will ever feel a rope around her neck or any stones launched at her helpless body by the hands of her own peers."

Mazahery translated a message written in Farsi from Ghorbany, which said: "I am not guilty of a crime. I have only committed an act that is the natural right of every human."


Pharmacists with No Plan B

Interesting piece from Christianity Today: Law or Free Market? Can a pro-life pharmacist be compelled to fill a prescription for a pill that goes against his or her religious beliefs? In full ...
On July 6, 2002, Neil Noesen found himself on the front line of the culture wars. Less than three days after taking a job as a pharmacist at a Kmart in Menomonie, Wisconsin, he received a refill request from University of Wisconsin-Stout student Amanda Renz for the contraceptive Loestrin.

Noesen, a devout Catholic, had always refused to dispense birth control. For six years previous, he had been willing to refer patients seeking contraception to another pharmacist, but a recent trip to Calcutta—where he realized anew that health care is about helping the suffering—had convicted him that this was wrong. "Finally, my conscience caught up to me," Noesen told CT. "I couldn't do it anymore. I felt like I was being used by the system, that I was becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution."

Now back home in Wisconsin, he faced the first real test of his new policy. He told Renz he could not provide Loestrin.

The store's head pharmacist, who knew Noesen's concerns, had agreed to personally fill such prescriptions, but he was out of town for the weekend. Renz asked where else she could get the prescription filled. Noesen declined to tell her. Renz went to the local Wal-Mart, but when the pharmacist there attempted to transfer her prescription over the phone, Noesen refused.

The resulting deadlock put Noesen's name in newspapers around the country and brought the case to the attention of the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing (DRL). Though Noesen had violated no state law or administrative code, DRL's Pharmacy Examining Board looked into the matter. They found that Noesen was within his rights when he refused to fill the prescription, but that he had not served the public in a "minimally competent manner," because no procedure was in place to ensure that patients could fill prescriptions to which he objected.

On April 13, 2004, an administrative law judge agreed. She ruled that Noesen must take six credit hours of ethics courses and pay the full costs of the proceedings against him—around $20,000. Noesen's principled stand cost him dearly.

A Contested Right
Noesen's case is not an isolated incident. Since 2004, pharmacist refusals have made headlines across the country—and have often spurred local governments into action. In Denton, Texas, three pharmacists were fired from Eckerd after refusing to fill an emergency contraception prescription for a rape victim. Gene Herr told the Associated Press that he "went in the back room and briefly prayed about it" and decided that he could not in good conscience provide the pills, which he believes can cause an abortion. Similar refusals have been reported in Georgia, Alabama, New Hampshire, Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Some states have already acted to limit such refusals. In response to reports that some Chicago pharmacists were refusing to fill certain prescriptions, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed an emergency rule in early 2005 that ordered pharmacies to dispense drugs in a timely manner—no transfers or referrals allowed. Blagojevich argued that the state's Health Care Right of Conscience Act does not cover pharmacists. He later moved to make the rule permanent, saying there should be "No delays. No hassles. No lectures" (ct, June 2005, p. 29).

In 2005 alone, state legislatures considered more than 20 bills aimed at sorting out the situation. Some would force pharmacists to dispense all legal prescriptions, while others would allow pharmacists to refuse for any reason of conscience and prevent employers from taking action against them. Arkansas, South Dakota, Mississippi, and Georgia already have laws that give pharmacists the right to refuse, and many other states will decide one way or another in the next year.

The issue has exploded during the last five years, in part because of the recent availability of emergency contraception (EC). Both Preven (approved in 1998) and Plan B (1999) can be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. If properly used, they are more than 70 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. Though all forms of contraception raise ethical issues for Catholic pharmacists, EC raises the ante for Protestant pro-lifers as well, because some claim that the drug is an abortifacient.

"For pro-life pharmacists, this is a real bright line in the sand," David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, told CT. "There's a difference between dispensing EC and a birth-control pill."

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice—a group that represents Episcopalians, Presbyterians (PCUSA), Conservative and Reform Judaism, United Methodists, and Unitarians, among others—argues that EC is little more than a potent birth-control pill of the kind that Christian women take routinely. It works the same way and contains the same ingredients as birth control (unlike the abortion pill, RU-486, which is not available in pharmacies), so it should pose no moral problems for pharmacists. The Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, the group's president, told CT, "People need to understand: The medical fact is that neither birth-control pills nor emergency contraception—a concentrated dose of these same birth-control pills—cause an abortion."

Defining Terms
So is this simply a case of some pro-life Christians refusing to look at the science? Not quite. As with many aspects of the abortion debate, defining terms is critical.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines conception (and therefore pregnancy) as beginning at the moment of implantation. "Conception is implantation," says ACOG, and therefore EC cannot, by definition, cause an abortion—even if it affects a fertilized egg. But, as Karen Brauer of Pharmacists for Life International told CT, "Our issue has to do with human life, not their definition of pregnancy." In her view, human life begins the moment that an egg is fertilized.

This difference in emphasis is crucial. According to its maker, Plan B "prevents pregnancy mainly by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary and may also prevent the fertilization of an egg. Plan B may also work by preventing it from attaching to the uterus." Though EC will do nothing to stop the growth of a developing fetus, it has the potential to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall. To many pro-life pharmacists, this makes it an abortion-inducing drug, and its presence in the neighborhood pharmacy has caused them to fight for their right not to dispense it.

Their refusal got the attention of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which launched a campaign in March 2005 to pressure pharmacies and legislators. NARAL president Nancy Keenan said, "In 2005, it is appalling that women do not know whether their prescriptions will be filled. Pharmacies have no right to override a decision made by a woman and her doctor."

This move brought publicity to the debate about whether pharmacists should have the right to refuse any drug to any patient at any time. Most states passed "conscience clauses" years ago, but these were generally targeted at individual physicians, approved in the years following Roe v. Wade to allow doctors to opt out of performing abortions. The position of pharmacists has been more ambiguous. Few states have laws explicitly granting them the same conscience protection that doctors have.

Polls show that pharmacists want to be treated like true health care professionals, not automated pill dispensers. More than two-thirds of them want freedom to refuse to fill prescriptions, Glenn Kessler of HCD Research told CT.

The American Pharmacists Association, which represents more than 50,000 pharmacists across the country, has adopted a policy that supports a pharmacist "stepping away" from but not hindering a transaction. The association says that it "recognizes the individual pharmacist's right to exercise conscientious refusal and supports the establishment of systems to ensure [the] patient's access to legally prescribed therapy without compromising the pharmacist's right of conscientious refusal."

This right of refusal can take several forms. If at least two pharmacists are available, the one who objects may simply hand the prescription to the colleague. Or the pharmacist may refer the patient to another pharmacy.

Not all pharmacy chains find this an acceptable solution, however. Eckerd, CVS, and Kmart all have policies allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, but only when another pharmacist is available. When pharmacists work alone, they are generally expected to fill all prescriptions.

Fighting Words
Target, by contrast, allows its pharmacists to "refuse and refer" a patient to another pharmacy. This stand has earned Target the wrath of Planned Parenthood, which organized a nationwide protest against the retailer last December.

Though "refuse and refer" sounds moderate, it satisfies neither groups like Planned Parenthood nor some pro-life pharmacists. To Brauer, an Indiana pharmacist, giving a referral is like saying, "I don't kill people, but I can send you to a specific person who does."

Brauer believes that EC and some forms of birth control can cause abortions, and she was fired from a Kmart pharmacy in 1996 for telling a patient that the store was out of birth control (it was not). She went on to found Pharmacists for Life International, a group that represents about 1,500 members. The group's rhetoric is angry; members call their opponents names such as "Klan Parenthood" and "Slobodan Blagojevich," and they are on a mission to stop the work of "abortoholics" in this country.

Brauer's group can be uncompromising, but it's not the only one dishing out tough talk. On the other side, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice argues that Christians working in public professions have no right to bring their views into the workplace. Those who want to do so should find a new job. "The pharmacist has a professional responsibility to fill prescriptions accurately and according to established standards, not to advocate personal or political views while on the job," says Veazey. "If the pharmacy is dispensing products the pharmacist objects to, then he or she should not be working there."

The public tends to side with Veazey. A 2005 poll by HCD Research found that 73 percent of Americans believe pharmacists should be required to fill all prescriptions despite religious objections. Responses of Catholics (70 percent) and Protestants (68 percent) were not much different from the general population, and among Orthodox Christians, the majority still sided with the patient (55 percent).

Advocates who oppose conscience clauses for pharmacists worry about the slippery slope. "Are we going to let the pharmacist ask for a marriage license?" Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice, told CT. "Are we going to allow them to deny prenatal vitamins to unmarried women because they shouldn't have gotten pregnant? How far does the right of conscience go?"

The discussion often comes down to one of rights: the right of pharmacists not to do something that violates their consciences versus the right of patients to obtain legally prescribed medications. Steve Aden, a lawyer at the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, has represented several pharmacists, including Noesen. Aden told CT that most pro-life pharmacists are not out to deny legal medications to anyone—they simply don't want to be forced to dispense them personally.

"In every case that I've ever heard of," he said, "a woman can get access to her contraceptive medication by alternative means if for some reason the nearest pharmacy doesn't have a pharmacist on duty who will dispense it."

Indeed, Amanda Renz, the young woman in search of Loestrin, got the contraceptive two days later and missed only a single dose.

But Kissling finds this scenario unacceptable. "I cannot in good conscience say that a woman who has been raped should shop around," she said, "before she finds [a pharmacy] that actually will fill the prescription."

Such overt refusals happen infrequently, especially when it comes to EC. Ron Stephens, a pharmacist who serves in the Illinois General Assembly, said Plan B is the least prescribed medication in the state. "I own parts of two pharmacies in downstate Illinois," he told CT. "We fill hundreds of thousands of prescriptions a year, and we've not seen one for the morning-after pill."

Kissling, however, said that's because many women don't know about EC.

Legislators Stepping In
Legislators at every level are attempting to settle the dispute. While bills introduced at the state level have varied widely, a consensus appears to be emerging within the federal government. Both the Access to Legal Pharmaceuticals Act (S.809) and the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (S.677) were introduced in 2005, and both take the same approach: They allow a pharmacist to refuse a prescription but make sure that another pharmacist can fill it. Everyone from John Kerry, D-Mass, to Rick Santorum, R-Penn, supports such legislation, but nothing has yet been passed. Until a federal bill is in place, both women and their pharmacists will remain uncertain about their rights and responsibilities.

Dilemmas like Noesen's will only multiply in the coming years. The last few decades have brought abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and contraception. Newer technologies such as cloning and stem-cell research present similar challenges.

But this year, the main event is in the local pharmacy, and the outcome will define conscience rights in the public sphere for years to come. That's a prescription for battle.


Fire and Brimstone, Guns and Ammo

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.

When the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ apes the popular culture, the result is rarely good. Take, for example, this Washington Post piece: Fire and Brimstone, Guns and Ammo. A sampling: "The game is about killing people for their lack of faith in Jesus. The Gospel is not about killing people in the name of the Lord, and Jesus made that very clear." Amen to that. In full ...
As the camera pans over a smoldering representation of New York City, the booming voice says it all: "For those left behind, the apocalypse has just begun!"

That's the tail end of the promotional trailer for Left Behind: Eternal Forces, an upcoming computer game based on the best-selling book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

The "Left Behind" books, which center on Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus, have sold more than 70 million copies and are the basis of three movies, making the franchise overdue for a video game. The game, which will soon be marketed in churches and video game stores across the country, is due out in October.

In Eternal Forces, which is based on the first four books, the rapture has occurred and billions of people have disappeared from the planet. Players command the left-behind Tribulation Forces and battle the forces of the Antichrist, who happens to be employed as the head of a U.N.-like world government organization. The game's action takes place across 500 carefully re-created New York City blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Harlem.

The object of the game is to recruit the members of New York's remaining "neutral" population to the side of God during a seven-year reign of the Antichrist. Players have to win over the remaining agnostics and unbelievers of New York City or kill them -- either before or after they are pulled to the forces of evil.

In the parlance of computer games, Eternal Forces is a "real-time strategy" title, in which players have to marshal a limited number of resources as the clock ticks. In multiplayer mode, players can choose to command the Antichrist's armies.

Left Behind Games chief executive Troy Lyndon, a game industry veteran who was involved in early incarnations of Electronic Arts' Madden football franchise, is particularly fond of the game's "pray" button. Sending one's holy warriors into a bloody battle can hurt their morale; having them pray first can bolster their faith.

Still, the game has attracted controversy, from critics who argue that it will promote religious intolerance.

Miami attorney Jack Thompson, already famous to a generation of Xbox and PlayStation owners for pitching campaigns against game companies, argues that games are rotting the minds of young people. But, as a practicing Christian, he says, he has more reasons than usual to dislike the latest target of his ire. The Eternal Forces game "breaks my heart," he said.

"The game is about killing people for their lack of faith in Jesus," he said. "The Gospel is not about killing people in the name of the Lord, and Jesus made that very clear."

Thompson worries that the existence of this game will be taken as proof by radical Muslims that Western culture is mounting a modern-day crusade against non-Christian faiths. Thompson says he broke off a publishing relationship with Tyndale House -- the company that puts out the "Left Behind" books -- because it approved licensing the book franchise to the start-up company that is just now putting on the game's finishing touches.

But Lyndon claims that the game doesn't get into religious denominations.

"It doesn't say who you pray to," he said. "I don't think the word 'Christian' is anywhere in the game play." Likewise, the game has only a " 'Star Wars' level" of violence. "There's no blood or gore; people just fall over," he said.

Lyndon says he hopes to give parents and gamers an option for an action-packed title that also gets players thinking about eternal matters.

"If you have two games and one has a good theme and one has a bad theme, people are generally going to reach for the one with the good theme," he said.

The Grand Theft Auto games are well-designed but have a bad theme, in his view. Lyndon intends for the Left Behind games (follow-ups to Eternal Forces are already in the works) to contain a religious theme that is "not preachy or dogmatic."

An early version of Eternal Forces has already won respect in write-ups on gamer Web sites. Until now, religion-oriented video games have tended to be relatively weak efforts -- far from cutting-edge and more the sort of lame thing Ned Flanders's kids might play on "The Simpsons."

One of the best-selling Christian game titles, called Catechumen, sold 86,000 copies, just a fraction of what most games need to make a profit.

In addition to the usual ads in gamer magazines, Left Behind Games is taking an inventive approach to the market by sending a million free sample copies of the game to churches around the country. It's a marketing tactic reminiscent of last year's "Left Behind" movie, called "World at War," which screened at megachurches and avoided commercial theaters altogether.

Game fans who like the "Left Behind" books say they are looking forward to Eternal Forces. Heath Summerlin, a Christian gamer who lives in South Carolina, said he thinks the game "could reach a broad spectrum of people who wouldn't necessarily be exposed to the books or go to church."

Summerlin has read a few of the "Left Behind" books and is interested trying the game when it comes out. In all honesty, though, he said, he's still more interested in the popular online game World of Warcraft, where he belongs to a Christian-oriented group of players called "Redeemed." The club, which Summerlin calls "a ministry outreach within the game itself," has about 250 members, who gather their characters in an online prayer before going on missions each day.

Ralph Bagley, designer of Catechumen and a spokesman for the Christian Game Developers Foundation, said Eternal Forces could turn out to be the first game to break out of the Christian market and appeal to secular audiences, though he is concerned by some reports about it.

"You can't kill people in the name of God and put it in the game play and hope it won't offend people," he said.

On the other hand, Bagley said he understands the need for a gamemaker to put in plenty of action to appeal to the market.

"There are people out there who think that if it's a Christian game, it has to be about putting two animals on an ark," he said. "But how many people are going to play that?"


Friday, August 18, 2006

The Eschatology of Islam

Eric Rauch over at American Vision writes a very thought provoking piece called The Eschatology of Islam.
Europe is quickly becoming Muslim. Conservative estimates predict that “Europe will be Islamic by the end of the century.” Less optimistic estimates have this happening much sooner. France has had its troubles with young, anxious and unemployed Muslims. More recently, England has found itself in the middle of a terror scheme to explode trans-Atlantic planes. What was an interesting demographic upsurge is now being found to have real social and economic consequences. A united front that includes Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the true leader of Iran1), and thousands of young Muslim converts, is beginning to emerge and demands notice by the rest of the world.

England is still shaking its head in disbelief over the terror plot that its anti-terror police were able to thwart. 24 suspects were arrested in connection with the plan to smuggle liquid explosives on planes from United, American and Continental Airlines. A neighbor of one of the suspects asked, “If you truly believed in God, you wouldn’t go out and do that kind of thing. It’s all about peace, isn’t it?”2 Well, no, actually it’s not. It’s about victory and supremacy; and it’s about time that we realize this fact. All religions are not equal, all religions do not lead to God, and all religions do not promote peace. It is this very naïve, pluralistic approach that is allowing terrorism to flourish.

This is the principal reason why jihad terrorists routinely refer to American troops as “Crusaders.” In their view, the War on Terror, which began for Americans on September 11, 2001, is only the latest installment of a conflict that has continued for over a thousand years. This conflict, in their view, is destined to end with the hegemony of Islam. In the words of Osama bin Laden, jihad warriors the world over are fighting, “so that Allah’s Word and religion reign supreme.”3

All religions have an eschatology—a view of the future—that informs how its adherents live their lives today. The so-called “radical Muslim terrorists” are simply living in accordance with their scriptures. But why does it seem that all of this terrorist activity is increasing? It could very well be the result of the eschatology of the Shiite Muslims that are looking for the 12th Imam.

In Islam, as in Judaism and Christianity, there are certain beliefs concerning the cosmic struggle at the end of time—Gog and Magog, anti-Christ, Armageddon, and for Shiite Muslims, the long awaited return of the Hidden Imam, ending in the final victory of the forces of good over evil, however these may be defined. Mr. Ahmadinejad and his followers clearly believe that this time is now, and that the terminal struggle has already begun and is indeed well advanced. It may even have a date, indicated by several references by the Iranian president to giving his final answer to the U.S. about nuclear development by Aug. 22. This was at first reported as "by the end of August," but Mr. Ahmadinejad's statement was more precise.4

A corollary to this apocalyptic belief is the leveling of Israel, the “Mini-Me” or Little Satan to the Great Satan, the United States. In fact, Khamenei broadcast his support of Hezbollah in their recent attacks on Israel. “Your unprecedented holy war and steadfastness are beyond the limits of my description. It’s a divine victory. It is a victory of Islam. With God’s help you were able to prove that military superiority is not (measured) in the number (of soldiers), planes, warships and tanks. Rather, it depends on the power of faith and holy war. You have ridiculed the myth that the Zionist army is invincible.”5 The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah could very well be the barometer by which to measure the potential for Iran to use their nukes. If Hezbollah appears to be weakening or falling back, the Shiite Iranians would have no problem with pulling out the big guns to ensure that the stage is clear for the “Hidden Imam’s” return.

The phrase "Allah will know his own" is usually used to explain such apparently callous unconcern; it means that while infidel, i.e., non-Muslim, victims will go to a well-deserved punishment in hell, Muslims will be sent straight to heaven. According to this view, the bombers are in fact doing their Muslim victims a favor by giving them a quick pass to heaven and its delights—the rewards without the struggles of martyrdom. School textbooks tell young Iranians to be ready for a final global struggle against an evil enemy, named as the U.S., and to prepare themselves for the privileges of martyrdom.6

How can you possibly defeat an enemy that wants to die? This is one of the main attractions for young Muslim converts, like the plane bombers of Britain. Why struggle through life, hoping your good deeds outweigh your bad, when you can accept the call of martyrdom and get head-of-the-line privileges into “heaven?” Here at American Vision we struggle on a daily basis to convince Christians to get involved and take dominion of this world; instead of sitting around, believing the rapture is coming and this is all just a prophetic inevitability. Muslims are having the exact opposite problem. Their eschatology is such that they have volunteers waiting for a chance to sacrifice their life for Allah. The story of Ibrahim Savant, one of the 24 suspects arrested in England, brings a sobering reminder.

“My cousin, who went with Ibrahim to the same class, said that he converted, because one day he went to a priest and asked him some questions that he wanted to be answered,” [said] Hamza Ghafoor, 20, a Walthamstow resident and friend of Mr. Savant. “But the priest couldn’t give him any plausible answers,” Mr. Ghafoor added. “And so some of his friends told him to go to the mosque and ask the imam there. And he liked the way, how the imam answered him the questions. He was 18 years old when he converted.”7

Apologetics matter. The priest didn’t have the answer, so the 18-year-old went looking elsewhere. It’s about time that the Church and Christians begin to understand the very real danger of “spiritual warfare.” One’s belief in “first principles” will inform his entire walk of life. Jihad has been declared and the bombs and rockets are only the results of the individual or group’s beliefs and ideas. You can’t convince someone who is hell-bent on dying as a martyr with a machine gun or a tank. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God…” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). The real holy war is a war of ideas, and the Church has the real nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, most Christians aren’t prepared to launch nuclear weapons. Much training is needed, much work is still to be done. We need to begin to view our churches as boot-camps and armament centers, instead of rest homes and hospitals.

1. “ Iran in fact has two governments: its formal democratic government run by Ahmadinejad and a religious-ideological command structure headed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” John von Heyking, “Iran’s President and the Politics of the Twelfth Imam,” Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, November, 2005. Online here.

2. Ian Fisher, “Shock Reverberates Among Acquaintances of the Young Suspects,” NYTimes, August 12, 2006. Online here.

3. Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2005), 184.

4. Bernard Lewis, “August 22; Does Iran have something in store?” Opinion Journal,, August 8, 2006. Online here.


6. Lewis, “August 22.”

7. Fisher, “Shock Reverberates.”


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Lest We Forget, Part XXIII

Evangelist Remains Faithful Amidst Persecution in Indonesia Prison. In full ...
An Indonesian Christian has been handed a 4-and-a-half year prison sentence for defaming Islam and its Prophet Muhammad.

Open Doors UK, a ministry working as a voice for the persecuted Church, has reported that Abraham ’Abe‘ Bentar, 55, has no choice but to adjust to his new life behind bars. Sentenced by the local court on 17 May for defaming Islam and its ‘prophet’ Muhammad, the evangelist now spends his days in Tasikmalaya prison in West Java province.

Although gradually recovering from the stroke that impaired his right arm, Abraham still struggles with high blood pressure and diabetes. Because of the medicines and food brought by his wife Waty, aged 36, and a local church, he manages well. Visits from his wife are difficult though because the only way she can visit him is by making a long and costly overnight bus journey.

The evangelist says he is battling discouragement and fear. When Open Doors visited him, it was said that it took a while before he recognised us and agreed to meet with us because he has received several unwanted ‘visitors’ who have been allowed to beat him.

"I have been abused many times. I have lost six teeth because of that," Abraham explained. Amongst those who abused him were Muslim 'visitors' attempting to reconvert Abraham to his former Islamic beliefs.

In a prison of almost 400 inmates, Abraham shares a cell with four others. However, he finds no difficulty in having personal quiet time and worship sessions, tell Open Doors.

“Everyday, I wake up at 3:00am to pray and sing praises. I stop at 4:00am to give my cellmates a turn to pray,” he explained.

He is free to fellowship with four other Christian prisoners on Sundays. Although he can give a sermon, he is prohibited from mentioning ‘Jesus Christ’. “I have to say ‘God’ instead,” he reports.

Other prisoners can hear the worship songs and seem to enjoy the melody, Abraham said, although they do not really understand what the songs are about.

Abraham testified, “[This is] nothing compared to what Paul and Jesus Christ went through.”

With this heart he has been able to reveal forgiveness to the ones who are persecuting him despite challenges in adjusting to life behind bars.

Following Abraham’s confession to the charges at his second hearing, the judges found him guilty and sentenced him as charged.

“But I am not guilty as charged. I was forced to confess under great pressure,” he said. “Up to now, I can’t stop thinking about what I have done. Other Christians must think I deserve to be jailed.”

The day before the hearing, several Muslim fanatics visited him in the prison. They interrogated him, saying, “Tell me, what have you gained by becoming a Christian?” Abraham replied, “Jesus Christ has been blessing me abundantly.”

A blow landed on Abraham’s head. When asked to recite the shahada (the Islamic faith declaration), Abraham refused. He received another blow, report Open Doors.

Meanwhile, Open Doors has been assisting Abraham’s family by paying the rent on their house in Central Java.

Eddie Lyle, CEO of Open Doors UK and Ireland commented, “It is so inspiring to hear of believers like Abraham who stay strong in their faith despite severe abuse and mistreatment. However, Abraham and his family still desperately need our support, letters and prayer. We urge Christians to participate in our prayer and letter-writing campaign for him and to also remember, if possible, many other imprisoned Christians and their families.”


Bob Dylan's Gospel Years

You might be a rock 'n' roll addict prancing on the stage,
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage;
You may be a business man or some high degree thief;
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed;
You're gonna have to serve somebody;
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord;
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Bob Dylan

World Magazine previews a documentary on Bob Dylan's gospel years called Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years in Like A Rolling Stone.

When asked in 1997 to explain the enduring popularity of his songs, Bob Dylan said, "What makes them different is that there's a foundation to them. . . . They're standing on a strong foundation, and subliminally that's what people are hearing." On Aug. 29 Columbia Records will release Dylan's 32nd studio album, Modern Times, and judging from song titles such as "Thunder on the Mountain," "Spirit on the Water," and "Beyond the Horizon," the specific foundation to which he was referring—old folk, country, blues, and gospel songs—still serves as the bedrock of his composition. Another title, "The Levee's Gonna Break," eerily underscores the fact that the album's release date coincides with the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Dylan recordings and catastrophes have coincided before. In 1997 he was hospitalized with a near-fatal heart infection after completing Time Out of Mind, and in 2001 his Love and Theft was released on Sept. 11. But his history with hurricanes goes all the way back to 1976, when he hit the top 40 with "Hurricane," his lengthy musical recounting of the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of the boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.

The hit marked the beginning of a renewed period of creativity in Dylan's life. The song, the album on which it was included (Desire), and the tour Dylan undertook in its wake (the Rolling Thunder Review) serve as the starting point for Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years (Highway 61 Entertainment), the latest in a series of investigatory documentaries by Joel Gilbert, the leader of the "world's only Bob Dylan tribute band," Highway 61 Revisited.

What makes Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years unique, however, is that it is the only project of its kind to explore the years during which Dylan was scandalizing the pop-culture world with recordings and performances that proclaimed Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation.

"A lot of Dylan fans are not understanding or tolerant of Dylan's gospel period or the music," Gilbert told WORLD. "But they really should love that period. That's why I was happy to delve into the subject and help give an honest appraisal."

By interviewing members of Dylan's ever-shifting inner circles and acute observers on its periphery, Gilbert provides a wealth of insight into both the singer-songwriter (recently dubbed No. 1 of 100 best living songwriters by Paste magazine) and the effect of evangelism on contemporary society as a whole.

Christians will find Gilbert's interviews with those directly involved in Dylan's gospel music particularly interesting. Veteran producer Jerry Wexler, for instance, describes the often humorous challenges faced in recording Slow Train Coming with a largely religiously indifferent ensemble. "I had no idea what the content was going to be," says Wexler, now 89, "that it was going to be wall-to-wall Jesus. But I couldn't have cared less, and I don't care now. It could be the Yellow Pages. It's Bob, you know?"

Wexler also recalls Dylan's attempt to evangelize him: "I said, 'Bob, it ain't no use. You're talking to a 62-year-old, card-carrying Jewish atheist.' . . . He didn't try to work on me anymore."

Elsewhere, keyboardist Spooner Oldham and background singer Regina McCrary give firsthand accounts of performing Dylan's all-gospel sets to often hostile crowds. Providing equally revealing context are Joel Selvin (the San Francisco Chronicle critic whose panning of Dylan's new show both captured and helped set the tone for its hostile reception), Al Kasha (the award-winning songwriter and Messianic Jew at whose home Dylan composed portions of Slow Train Coming), and Mitch Glaser (the Jews for Jesus leader responsible for providing, at Dylan's request, on-the-spot evangelism and tract distribution at the San Francisco shows).

Gilbert's real coup, however, was coaxing Pastor Bill Dwyer, the teacher of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Bible class that Dylan attended for several months, to speak on the record for the first time. "I first spoke to [Pastors] Ken Gulliksen and Larry Myers," says Gilbert, referring to the other Vineyard clergymen usually mentioned in connection with Dylan's conversion, "and they're the nicest people in the world to phone, but they're very hesitant to speak publicly. They were still in 'keep Bob's story private' mode. Even 27 years later, I had to go through quite a bit to convince them to take a different approach." Five months of "long conversations" on the phone and mailing material, he said, preceded a breakthrough.

The persistence paid off. Besides sharing entertaining anecdotes—Dylan's reciting from memory the beatitudes in the King James Version as a condition for passing the course, for instance—Dwyer also explains in uninterrupted detail what it means to be "born again," as does Dylan himself at one point, albeit in more elliptical terms.

Although copyright restrictions forbade Gilbert's inclusion of Dylan's music (a situation remedied in part by Gilbert's Dylan-simulating soundtrack), no such restrictions applied to his use of a brief, seldom-seen post-performance interview that Dylan gave to Pittsburgh's KDKA TV in 1980. "I can understand why they're rebellious about it," says Dylan, referring to the poor response of his gospel-tour audiences to his new music. "Up until the time the Lord came into my life, I didn't know nothing about this. I was just as rebellious and didn't think much about it either way."

Perhaps audiences were baffled because between the Rolling Thunder tour and the gospel albums, was Dylan's short-lived "Las Vegas" phase, his 1978 world tour with flashy onstage outfits and versions of his songs that were radically rearranged for his 11-member, i.e., "big," band. And even on this brief, seldom-examined period of Dylan's career, Gilbert unearths insightful information.

In an interview with Rob Stoner, for instance, Gilbert gets the former Dylan bassist and bandleader to reveal that he came up with that tour's notorious arrangements and did so to keep the then-37-year-old Dylan from being bored with performing songs that he had composed in his 20s ('60s hits like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "Like a Rolling Stone").

Gilbert admits that casual viewers might lack the background necessary for appreciating his latest DVD's almost obsessive attention to detail, but it's not, he says, the casual viewer that he's targeting. "This is for a Dylan fan that has some knowledge, has seen some of these performances, has heard the music. It's not intended as an A&E [production], where you show everything from the beginning. You only have time to go to a certain point. It starts at a midway point and takes you all the way to the end. Otherwise it would be an eight-hour DVD."

Gilbert, a conservative Jew reared in Oak Ridge, Tenn., brings an unusually varied perspective to his subject. "There were churches on every corner, and the people were very serious Christians," he says of Oak Ridge. "I grew up with respect and appreciation for who they were, and they respected my being part of a small Jewish minority in the Bible Belt. So I think I have a lot of sensitivity, appreciation, and respect for different religions."

As an adult Gilbert studied economics, Islam, and Arabic in London, working as a boxing promoter in Israel and managing alternative-rock bands in Los Angeles. It was while a student in London in the mid-'80s that the seeds of his career as a Bob Dylan impersonator were planted. "I saw Don't Look Back [D.A. Pennebaker's film of Dylan's 1965 British tour] on the BBC," he recalls. "And what struck me was that when Dylan was just speaking, he sounded like I did when I listened to myself speaking on tape. So I thought, 'Gee, if I can talk like him, maybe I could sing like him.' But I didn't take it seriously as a tribute for quite some time. It was more like something fun to do."

In carrying out the study necessary for him to perfect his act, Gilbert became aware of gaps in common Dylan lore, gaps that his DVDs seek to bridge. His first project, Bob Dylan World Tour 1966: The Home Movies (2002), consisted largely of amateur footage shot by the oft-overlooked drummer Mickey Jones, who temporarily filled in for Levon Helm when the group that would eventually become known as the Band was helping Dylan "go electric." Bob Dylan World Tours 1966-1975 (2005) combined a Gilbert-narrated visit to Dylan's late-'60s Woodstock home with the unveiling of dozens of previously unpublished photos by Dylan's erstwhile official tour photographer, Barry Feinstein.

With increased complexity has come increased viewing time, and casual viewers may complain that at four hours Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years runs too long. Not that anyone who has sat through Martin Scorsese's three-and-a-half hour No Direction Home, Dylan's own sprawling four-hour Renaldo and Clara, or such misbegotten, too-long-at-any-length celluloid Hollywood Dylan vehicles as Hearts of Fire or Masked and Anonymous is likely to suffer impatience where Dylan films are concerned.

Sadly, Dylan seldom performs his gospel material these days. Despite occasionally revisiting "Saving Grace" several years ago, only "Every Grain of Sand" made the cut on his two most recent tours. So whether or how much such songs reflect his beliefs or affect his life is anyone's guess. Speculation will rise once again with the release of Modern Times and a month-long tour beginning this month playing 20 minor league ballparks with guitar legend Junior Brown. One thing that Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years makes clear, however, is that those songs permanently affected, and continue to affect, the lives of countless others.