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Faith, Fashion, and Freedom: Religion Authors Discuss The Spiritual Marketplace of Ideas

This year, Book Expo America offered its first ever Religion Day. As an author of a book on ethics, I attended one of the sessions. Lynn Garrett, Religion editor at Publisher's Weekly, opened the session. She noted that sales in the category started rising in the late 1980s—and dramatically so since 911. "Pilgrims and pioneers need maps. Spiritual travelers need guidebooks."

Father Andrew Greeley

A priest for 50 years, Greeley is releasing three new books this year.

He started by telling a joke: There was some discussion in the Vatican about ordaining a woman priest—in Ireland, b/c they've been running things for 3000 years anyway. They sent her to the edge of County Mayo—so far out that the next parish was in Long Island. She bonded with all the womenfolk, but for the men, it was a bit of a strain. So one comes out and says, would ya like to come out in the fishin' boat tomorrow. It was a glorious day—they have them occasionally in Ireland. She got into the boat and the lads, in they forgot the boat, so she walks on water to get it and says, now get on with your fishin'. And he turns to his friend and says, they send a woman priest out to a fishing parish and she can't even swim.

Somehow or the other, within a few years after Vatican II, all the good things tuned sour. In my book, The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council, I developed a theory: what really happened was a revolution: a destabilization of the structures of 19th-century Catholicism. Even the bishops had no idea what was going on. 19th century Catholicism was developed to resist all the bad things that happened: Reformation, enlightenment, and especially the French Revolution. It became a long list of rules and sins. You drink water before communion, you're going to Hell. There could be no change—but anyone who knew the history knew change was the history of Catholicism. Vatican II established the principles of change, and ever since, they've been coping with that revolution. Now you could miss Mass on Sunday, and practice birth control, and God wasn't going to send you to hell. The lower clergy and laity took control and began to legislate for the church. The Vatican doesn't like that, but it has been decreed that the Vatican can no longer control the sexual lives of married couples.

So they reacted—repression—but people weren't listening anymore. Within 2 or 3 years after the Mass went to English, all sorts of innovations came in. The Archbishop of Atlanta said the American bishops should set up centers to research innovation, to give it some control. The Vatican said no. But people weren't listening to the nos.

Most of us are not freaks, we're happy—happiest men in the country, happier than doctors, lawyers, and married protestant ministers.

The novel, The Priestly Kiss, is about a priest caught up in the pedophile scandal. He's locked in a mental institution, and how the power and glory of the priesthood transforms us priests.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of After the Apple: Women in the Bible: Timeless Stories of Love, Lust, and Longing

In my secular school in Haifa, Israel, we were encouraged from first grade, starting with Genesis and then into the Prophets. We were told to get at least 70 interpretations of every part. There were heated arguments even in recess. I fell in love with the women of the Bible in first grade, and I knew it would be my window to the world. My dad was tactless, so I knew I could ask him if he believed in God. But he said "I don't know"; he left me to find it for myself. My mother's hobby was analyzing the human condition. I used to tell her stories about the women in the Bible, and she would respond, what wisdom!

We were surrounded by European Jews that had escaped form WWII, many of them had tattooed numbers. We would try to catch the neighbors' eyes to be invited for chocolate cake. And we always got into the same stories: How did you survive, how did you get out?

It feeds into the theme of the Bible: terrible losses—and redemption, survival, hope. The book covers 16 of them, but each is a metaphor for any minority that is trying to struggle and have its voice heard. In a patriarchal society, for them to rise to a crisis, they would do whatever is necessary. There were no options to go to Harvard Business School. There was the sexual option and food, both going back to Eve.

What I found fascinating is that the Biblical writers describe seduction or deceit, and they're never punished, it's always sympathetic. Naomi gives Ruth a list of instructions that any woman could use today, to get Boaz. The most timeless, charming, human, humorous. And she should wait til Boaz has eaten and then he will be open to her seductiveness. Clementine, Churchill's lover, does the same thing 3000 years later.

Not only is she not punished, their offspring become the House of David, and in Christian tradition, Jesus comes out of that relationship.

The other down-and-out widow, Tamar, is supposed to marry the third brother, after two have died. It's so unconventional that you can't believe it's in the Bible. She's desperate, there's no way for her to gain respectability or security. She also devises a plan. It's all proactive and risk-taking and brave, for a purpose. She finds out everything, even what time of the month she's most liable to become pregnant. She covers herself up so she can't be recognized. In direct un-Puritan language, he says can I go in unto you. And a child is born of that contact. She appears in front of the elders with the token he had given her, and he rises to it and gets in front of the whole village and says she is more righteous than I am. And the children of this union also become progenitors of the House of David.

In rereading, with men, with women, I found these women are a metaphor for those who struggle to have their voices heard. Sexuality is accepted it can be used for love strengthening intimacy, love, safety, creating a new life—or it can be about rape, abuse of power. It's a gift from God if it's used correctly. It's about decisions and the responsibility that you carry, and the consequences.

God was not punishing Eve for the act, but for the cover-up. It was the consequences of lying. If you're an Einstein in Princeton, or an illiterate fisherman in the Pacific, we all go through puberty—and from one moment of irresponsibility, you produce a child with whom you have a lifelong bond of love and responsibility.

These women are neither saints nor sinners. Men and women are held to the same litmus test. It's up to you, the readers, to read these ancient stories and come up with your own interpretations.

Jonathan Kirsch, intellecutal property lawyer and author, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism and The Harlot by the Side of the Road

I started writing on religion during the early childhood of my son Adam. When he was 3 or 4, I decided to acquaint him with the Bible as a work of western literature. I took the Bible that had been handed to me on my Bar Mitzvah, and began to read Genesis as a bedtime story.

It started pretty safely, but then I read ahead to the part after the Flood, when Noah is naked and drunk. I didn't see how I was going to read that to my four year old. Spontaneously, I did what rabbis and ministers and priests have done for centuries, I censored the Bible. And just by the manner of my telling, my son realized, and he asked, Daddy, what are you leaving out?

In a profound way, all five of the books I've written on the subject come from that night.

The Harlot is the Tamar story and about how the Bible was censored by those responsible for our religious upbringing.

Ruth uncovering Boaz's legs—it was a euphemism, it wasn't his feet. Those stories made their way into Harlot and that path carried me through the lives of David, Moses. They've also been cleaned up to make them morally 'safe.'

The excesses and abuses to which Scriptures are put are not a joke anymore. 911 was three days after the wedding of that same young man (Adam Kirsch). We saw on 911 what happens when people read their Bible or Koran too literally. There are passages that are not morally elevated that instruct us unambiguously to commit genocide to destroy those who think and believe differently than we do. We've been told religious violence in the name of God is an Islamic problem. That's not true. It's in the Hebrew Bible, in Christian history, it's part of the cultural baggage that we've inherited. This is the subject of my current book, God Against the Gods. It's profoundly counterintuitive. At the core of ethical monotheism is not only to protect the stranger but to love the stranger. Jesus taught that you should love those who hate you. That's the morally elevating message that we prefer to embrace. But there is another idea—that the one true God calls upon true believers not only to punish error, but to eradicate it, to treat it as a capital crime

Moses, the symbol of freedom, of ethics, is also shown to carry out a genocidal war against the Mideonites. It is Moses who says, why have you saved the women alive? He commands that everyone except the virgin girls be put to death for the crime of believing in the wrong God.

The high water mark of Roman times, classical paganism, was phenomenal religious diversity. Today, we would call it New Age. To worship one God or many Gods or no Gods was commonplace. There was a core value of religious liberty. When we today embrace the beautiful sublime idea that Catholics and Protestants and Jews can gather civilly at one table, we are embracing a core value not of monotheism but of paganism. There are many places in the world where that could not take place. There are Jews of fundamentalist belief who would not share a table with me, a fellow Jew. And that is the ethic of monotheism.

Constantine, a pagan, embraced the Christian God, out of many choices vying for the hearts. Julian, the apostate, his nephew, tried to undo his uncle's favor of Christianity and return to an open marketplace of religions. Julian audaciously came up with the idea of rebuilding the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, so Jews could practice the religion f animal sacrifice described in the Bible. He reigned less than two years, died just above 30, in battle, on the very soil of what is today Baghdad, where American soldiers are dying for religious true belief. Was there a possibility that the core value of paganism, the open marketplace, might have come 2200 years ago and spared us Inquisition, Crusade, Holocaust, countless martyrdoms and holy wars, right down to what we see in our headliens today.

I hope I can invite people to look at their conventional beliefs in a new light and perhaps see another way.

Orion Mountain Dreamer, author, Opening the Invitation

She began by reading the poem, "The Invitation", which became a best seller.

I wrote the poem in May of 1994, after I came home from a party. I'm not good at parties, but I had lectured myself not every moment has to be spiritual. I was discontent that night. It was the one-year anniversary of when a dear friend had a brain aneurism burst in my house, while I was sharing the shaman teachings I'd been given, on how do we live with what's hard. I'd been doing this whole weekend. She came out of the coma after five weeks.

I realized I had a secret belief that if I worked hard enough, if I demonstrated my faith, I could protect myself and those I love from real tragedy—what incredible innocence—and arrogance.

I have enormous faith in the hand moving across the page unconcerned by thoughts of what would sell. Writing is a way of praying, for me, a way of saying help me, of saying thanks.

The next morning I was sending a newsletter to 600 people who had come to workshops. I didn't edit it, I just sent it out. And those people shared it. By the time I got on the Internet two years later, there were over 100,000 sites that had the poem.

A man in Chicago put "Indian Elder" after my name. He assumed I was native, male, and dead. That name was given by elders. It wasn't a name I walked around saying. (I still find people with those kinds of names flaky, which is pretty ironic).

I began to write, unfolding the poem. My faith is cultivated by the writing I do. I don't know where the writing will take me. My faith in our longing was truly cultivated. It became evident that our basic longing for meaning, for intimacy, is very common. But after I wrote the Invitation, I wanted to know how to find that longing I knew how I wanted to live—so why was I so infrequently doing this? I see these old women, in dreams, who I call The Grandmothers. I wrote seven chapters and then one of the grandmothers says, wrong question: why do we so infrequently believe in the person we are? I shifted from the need to change, to unfold, to be who we were. But I was still failing more than succeeding at loving who I am. I could take powerful pharmaceuticals and be a happy carrot. But my faith—I needed the why. The why is to live from the center of knowing. What I am alleviates suffering in the world and makes room for joy. It cultivated the faith in stillness, in getting out of my own way. And the wisdom for right action will find us every time. It will speak to us, maybe not in words. And when we do, it goes full circle, back to the poem, which is about the longing.

She finished with a Neruda poem, "Now I will Count to 12, and You will be Silent."

Because of a meeting, I had to leave before the last speaker, Jerry B. Jenkins.

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