Friday, March 29, 2013
Friday, March 15, 2013
Q. What are you going to tell your audience in Charlotte?
I'm going to talk about my thinking about science and religion. Basically, I think we've conducted a kind of false, contrived debate (between them) in our culture. We've set up a division that is not real or necessary, but it's entrenched, we're used to it and we know how to conduct it. I don't find it to be useful and I have personally found it incredibly exciting to hear the echoes across these two spheres. This is also some of the programming that our listeners can't get enough of.
This week, because of the new pope, I've been thinking about Jesuits (the religious order that produced the pope). One of my favorite interviews of all time was with these two Jesuit astronomers. One of them ran the Vatican Observatory and the other is the director of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. Both of them have asteroids named after them, which is actually a big honor. They live in this rich intersection of being scientists and being people of faith. And finding those things to be mutually enlivening, even joyful, and not at all in contradiction. I just think that's a story that hasn't been told.
Q. You mean the false debate of science vs. religion?
Yes. And the other thing that I am totally fascinated about and am totally following is how in fields like neuroscience and biology and physics even, scientists -- whether they're religious or not -- are making observations about what it means to be human, about the cosmos, and about our place in the cosmos.
They're posing the kind of questions that, up to now in human history, theologians and philosophers posed. You can put aside the old debate about religion and evolution. There are really fruitful, mutually fascinating discussions happening now between neuroscientists who are thinking about the brain and consciousness and religious people who think about consciousness. That is opening up a great deal for all of us -- things about ourselves that we all want to learn more about.
Q. You seem to be the only one pursuing that -- you and maybe Charlie Rose (on PBS). Why are so few journalists mining that?
There's a lot of great coverage of science. There are a lot of people covering what these neuroscientists are doing and what these physicists are doing. But (journalists) are not making the connections between the great human questions that, in fact, these scientists are adding to.
People who are spiritual, who are living in the depths of their (religious) tradition, and scientists who are completely immersed in their passion for science tend not to be the people who throw themselves in front of microphones. It's a lot easier for journalists to find those strident voices who actually make for a good headline
Q. If you could land the new pope for an interview on your show, what do you think you'd ask him?
I don't know enough about him to answer that question. I haven't dug in yet. Maybe I'll say what I am fascinated about are Jesuits, which I do know a little about.
I've never met a Jesuit who wasn't intriguing. And I've met so many people who were educated by Jesuits who really value that and it really formed them, whether they were even religious for the rest of their lives.
(In interviews), I have really experienced Jesuits to be explorers. Throughout history, in the colonial period. at a time when the West was discovering parts of the world, Jesuits were there, literally, being explorers.
And I feel like they're kind of spiritual explorers, too -- searching and thinking beyond the limitations we've maybe boxed ourselves into. They don't seem to be scared of boundaries. That could serve the new pope well.
Q. Are we at a spiritual crossroads? We've seen in polls an increase in "nones" -- people with no religious affiliation. And many young people seem to have questions about organized religion.
On the "nones," I actually take a little bit of a radical view: That some of them may be a crucible of renewing and reforming religion in the coming period.
I tweeted about this a few months ago when some of these polls were out again. I always point out that, if you dig around in those numbers, a very, very small percentage of those growing number of "nones" call themselves atheists.
Q. Exactly. About 2 percent, I think.
Yeah, it's tiny. Anecdotally, I feel that a of of people who (put) themselves in that ("nones") category are pretty vigorous spiritual seekers. And, really importantly, there's a real commitment to service as a core of what they want religion and spirituality to be about. They don't always find (that) in institutions.
I think a lot these days about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany in the mid-20th century. Very, very different circumstances. In his world, the church had been totally co-opted by the (Nazi) government. But he had seen the institution cease to be the carrier of its own heart and soul and its virtues and its theology. And when he was in prison, he started thinking about this notion of a religionless Christianity. His idea was that Christianity brings truths into the world that will survive and be resurrected even as the institutions and the structures and the words fail.
I don't know this for sure, but I do believe there is something in that ("nones") movement that, 50 or 100 years from now, we may look back and say that was a crucible in renewal.
Q. I could imagine that a lot of the people you just described -- the young, spiritual seekers -- are tuning into your show. But I wonder if you're getting many Southern Baptists from Oklahoma -- and yet, that's where you came from.
I have to say that one thing that really pleases me about how the show has evolved is that we do have a great spectrum of listeners. We have really devout Christians, Muslims and Jews, and Buddhists. And then a lot of atheists and agnostics. And we have a good age range: a lot of younger people and also a lot of people at the much older range -- these times when you're asking these big questions in an energetic way.
What I really try to do in the show, whoever I'm interviewing, is honor the depths of faith and traditions and theology. I think that, even as there is a wariness about institutional religion, when you really present people with substance, with the thick of this, with a great theologian, that's an exciting experience. And I like to bring that experience to people.
And I have funny experiences. Like: We have one of our shows, our classic shows, years and years ago, with Jaroslav Pelikan before he died. He was the great historian of doctrine. He did the great work of the 20th century on Christian doctrine. And I cannot tell you how many people, how many Unitarian Universalists (laughs) have said, "That's my favorite show, the show on the creeds."
This is the way interreligious encounter works, when it's profound. It's not a proselytizing thing -- it's not "My religion is more interesting than your religion." When we encounter the religious Other, we learn as much about ourselves as we do about them. I've seen this over and over again. It's a paradox. It's hard to talk about unless people have experienced it.
If people have had this experience, you can become much more deeply and richly planted in your soil at the same time that you have this new appreciation, even awe of this religious Other.
There's no contradiction there. That is a reflection of the reverence for mystery that our traditions call us to at their depth as much as they call us to orthodoxy. I just think it's a creative tension.
Q. You have a divinity degree from Yale. Is your interest in religion these days just scholarly or do you go to church?
It's scholarly and more than scholarly. What I care about with the show is inviting my guests to trace that line between what we know and who we are, the life we lead and the theology and the positions we hold and how they influence each other and change across time.
I walk that line, too. Sometimes people think I wouldn't be able to declare myself, to have a religious life, because I'm a public radio host and a journalist. I think that's kind of a weird bias to hold journalists to when compared to other spheres. You wouldn't trust an economics correspondent who didn't have a bank account. And you wouldn't trust a political correspondent who didn't vote. Now, you still hold people accountable for understanding the boundaries between their personal convictions and professional role. I certainly accept those boundaries.
Christianity is my mother tongue and homeland. And that's just as true now as it was 10 years ago. My life and my spiritual life are so enriched by the people I talk to from many traditions.If I did this work and if I had these conversations I've had and I didn't have a religious life of my own, I don't know what kind of person I would be. I'm in there, I care, right? If someone wants to tell me what they know about leading a worthy life, what they know about God and it's a person of integrity, of course I want to hear that.
I just recently went on a civil rights pilgrimage that was led by (U.S. Rep.) John Lewis, the great civil rights legend. And I sat down with him in Montgomery (Alabama). That show is going to be on Easter. And it was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. One of the things he reminded me of was that the civil rights movement was a religious movement. Faith was absolutely in the forefront. Nonviolence was a spiritual confrontation inside yourself and then with the world outside. It was about love of enemies. We have completely changed this memory collectively. We've turned it into a political movement and (Dr. Martin Luther) King into an activist. Everything there started and ended in churches. Every march. The music was as important as the agenda.
We've whitewashed this out of a lot of our memory about who we are as a culture. But I'm committed to being part of that, that substantive place of these ideas and these virtues in a public life. I'm part of that personally as well as professionally.
Q. Do you identify with any church?
Right now, I'm kind of like a lot of people -- I'm kind of between churches. I grew up Southern Baptist. I became an Episcopalian, or Anglican, when I was living in England. Technically, I'm Episcopalian. But I don't really have a church right now that I feel great about. I will again. I moved a few years ago and haven't found a place.
Q. Your voice seems to match your show's focus on mystery and depth. Is that natural?
It's very strange to me that people talk about my voice. I was really insecure about my voice when I started this because I hadn't done radio before. And I didn't have a radio voice. And if you listen to interviews I did 10 years ago, I sound like the same person. But if you listen to me doing the script and narration introducing the show, I sound really uptight because I was. I found it incredibly nerve-wracking and traumatizing to do that piece of it.
I finally realized that a radio voice is just a real voice. When people talk to me about my voice now -- I can't stand to listen to myself. I can't listen to a show when it's on radio.I think something happens when you hear a voice come out of the radio. It's like an aura illusion -- not an optical illusion, but an aural illusion. Now the ironic thing is that when a person says to me "You have such a great voice for radio, such a great voice for the subject," I just think it's because it's evolved and your hear it and it seems to sound right.
This is a very funny topic for me, because I'm essentially insecure about it.
Funk: 704-358-5703; firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Two Charlotte doctors, healers by trade, recoiled at the sights of Nazis -- including Nazi doctors -- systematically torturing, starving, shooting and gassing men, women and children.
Dr. Larry Fleishman and Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown are among the 40-plus interfaith tourists who have spent the last week visiting sacred sites in Israel.
And Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where members of Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist came Sunday, is among Israel's most sacred, if heart-crushing, sites. It chronicles the murder of 6 million Jews by Hitler's "death factory," as one sign called it.
Fleishman, who is Jewish and attends Temple Beth El, has visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. But he said he found Yad Vashem -- Israel's Holocaust History Museum -- more affecting.
"Maybe it was going through with the group, maybe it was the time of my life," said Fleishman, 56, who is on the tour with his wife Patricia Fleishman. "You could see some of their stories: a child, an accomplished artist -- all slaughtered like we slaughter cattle or chickens . . . It brought it home to me."
Garmon-Brown, who's Christian and a member of Myers Park Baptist, had never before walked through such a place, with images and stories she called "horrific and difficult to understand."
"As I looked at the children, looked at the women, looked at the level of starvation," she said, "it was more than I could bear. And my response was just to weep."
She was hardly alone.
"It's really OK to cry -- especially here," Doron Harel, the group's popular Israeli tour guide from Mabat Platinum Touring Services, told them near the entrance.
Launched in 1953 by an act of the Knesset, Yad Vashem is responsible for preserving the record of the Shoah -- translated as the "Catastrophe."
Many non-Jews kept silent or even collaborated in the mass murder. But there were heroes. On the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, Harel pointed to the tree planted to honor Oskar Schindler, whose story of sheltering Jews during World War II was told in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List."
Inside the crowded, but solemn museum, members of the two local houses of worship listened on earpieces as Harel set the scene at many of the stops.
"You have to leave your home: The enemy is coming and they will kill you," he said as old black-and-white footage showed European Jews enjoying their everyday lives one moment and fleeing with the bare necessities the next. "What will you take? You don't know how long the war will last. People just grabbed whatever they could."
Looking through a glass case at hundreds, perhaps thousands of the victims' once fashionable or sturdy shoes, Harel iinvited the Charlotteans to "find a shoe your size. The person murdered was probably your size."
Six million Jews gone. "Think about how many Albert Einsteins we would have?" Harel spoke into their ears.
Near the end, they moved into the Hall of Faces. Many of the pictured Holocaust victims smiled for the camera in these portraits taken before the war..
"Look at all these people who were murdered," said Harel, who has guided Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups through the museum. "Children and young couples. Orthodox (Jews), secular (Jews)."
But his last word, as they moved to the exit, was an uplifting one. "Now we go out to the light of Israel," Harel said, naming the country where many Holocaust survivors and their offspring found a home. "The future is bright, I promise you."
-- Tim Funk
Saturday, March 9, 2013
Praying, learning, and floating.
That was the agenda Saturday for members of Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist as they neared the end of their interfaith tour of sacred sites in Israel.
The day started with a Shabbat, or Sabbath, service atop Masada, the mountain-high desert fortress of old where Jewish rebels made their last stand against the Romans in the 1st century.
Roman soldiers had already destroyed the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and they were determined to defeat the escaping rebels -- called Zealots -- by somehow breaching the walls amid cliffs more than 1,400 feet high.
"It is beautiful to be on top of the mountain . . . which Zealots escaped to in that moment of crisis to keep Judaism alive in this land," said Temple Beth El Rabbi Judy Schindler, who led the service in Hebrew and English.
Christian ministers in the group stood to offer prayers, a poem, a song, and a story about Jesus from the New Testament. Among them: The Rev. Sam Slack, a retired United Methodist minister who first visited Israel with wife Natalie Slack in 1959. They now attend Myers Park Baptist.
Chanting the Torah in Hebrew was Temple Beth El member John David Kling, who has twice lived in a kibbutz, or Jewish community, in Israel. His passage Saturday, from Exodus, was about how Moses told the Israelites that God commanded them to set aside the Sabbath for solemn rest.
Next stop: Qumran, a long-ago desert refuge for a separatist sect of Jews called the Essenes. It was in a cave here in 1947 that a young Bedouin goat herder found Essene scrolls in earthen jars. They caused a sensation when they turned out to include ancient Biblical texts. Many of these Dead Sea Scrolls are now in the Israel Museum. The famous cave can still be seen from a distance by tourists -- including, on Saturday, the group from Charlotte.
And then, after nearly a week of crossing seas, climbing hills, walking through tunnels and touring every sacred building in sight, it was time for some R&R. Time to follow the example of this loafing beast of burden the Charlotteans saw Thursday after the long hike up the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
So the group headed for the Dead Sea. Its shores are the lowest point of dry land on Earth, at 1,373 feet below sea level. Nine times saltier than the oceans, it can support no fish or other life. And tourists love to float in it -- that's what happens when they lay back -- and to slather mud from the sea floor all over their bodies. The Charlotte pilgrims did both Saturday.
And the Rev. Steve Shoemaker, outgoing pastor at Myers Park Baptist, was among the muddiest.
-- Tim Funk
Friday, March 8, 2013
When Charlotte's interfaith tourists reached Jerusalem on Thursday, the sounds of the holy city were a testament to its religious diversity: Jewish groups banged on drums to celebrate bar mitzvahs; an amplified Arabic speaker chanted the Muslim call to prayer; and Christian churches rang bells to beckon pilgrims to worship.
By Friday, as they walked along the stone alleyways of old Jerusalem, the Charlotteans heard another sound: Explosives.
Israeli police used loud stun grenades to disperse young Muslims who began throwing stones and firebombs on the Temple Mount -- an area sacred to both Jews and Muslims, who call it the Noble Sanctuary.
Members of Charlotte's Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist didn't witness the clash. But they were nearby, preparing to visit the Western Wall -- the most important shrine in Judaism.
But it was clear first thing Friday morning that the Israeli army was on high alert: At nearly every intersection, young soldiers stood at the ready with their M-16 rifles. They were also on guard at the Western Wall.
The morning and afternoon hours on Fridays are especially crowded and tense times in Jerusalem: Muslims gather in great numbers for Friday prayer; Jews get ready for Shabbat, or Sabbath, which starts at sundown; and those Christian pilgrims from Eastern Europe, Africa, the United States and elsewhere solemnly note the day of the week that Jesus was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem.
-- Tim Funk
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Some of the most powerful moments for Charlotte's interfaith tourists in Israel this week have involved water.
The Rev. Sharon Doar, who teaches Bible stories to children at Myers Park Baptist, was "awestruck" -- her word -- during the Wednesday boat ride across the Sea of Galilee. She and the rest of the 40-plus pilgrims were on their way to the places where Jesus is said to have given his Sermon on the Mount and fed a crowd of 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes.
"I'll tell those stories so much livelier from now on. I'll just be flipping out," Doar said, tears in her eyes, as the boat sped along on the same sea that give rise to the Gospel story of Jesus walking on water. "I'll now be able to say, 'Guys, I was right there.' To come and follow him is just something."
Before the return boat ride, there was time to linger at the water's edge. Susan Jacobs, the education director at Temple Beth El, scooped up a few rocks from the sea. They'll return with her to Charlotte and be placed on her grave of her father, Ben Jaffa, who died in 2004.
This longstanding Jewish custom is meant to show "that we are still connected to that person," said Jacobs, who has collected rocks all over Israel, especially in Jerusalem. "It's a sign that they are not forgotten and that you are still visiting, still taking care of them."
On Thursday, the body of water that stirred the imagination and brought tears was the Jordan River.
The tour bus traveled into the Palestinian territories to visit a spot sacred to both Jews and Christians. Just across the border from Jordan, it's a modest grassy -- and muddy -- stream that's believed to be where Joshua brought the Israelites and the Ark of the Covenant into the Promised Land more than 3,000 years ago.
"I pictured all the people walking, coming across, thousands of them," said Nancy Romanoff, a member at Temple Beth El whose daughter, Shoshana Gugenheim, is a scribe living in Israel. "I just had this vision. And I was standing here wondering how they felt. If it were me, I would get down and touch the land."
This stretch of the Jordan River -- or the River Jordan, as it's called in some Christian hymns -- is also where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus just before his public ministry began.
For Peggy Seale, a leader at Myers Park Baptist, it was an opportunity to have her outgoing pastor, the Rev. Steve Shoemaker, baptize her. Born an Episcopalian, she'd been baptized as an infant. But on Thursday, she wanted her Baptist preacher to make the sign of the cross on her forehead with this holy water and tell her that she was God's beloved.
"I just thought: Oh my gosh, what a time to do this. And so I did. And it made me cry," she said. "(The river) wasn't the sight I expected. It was so peaceful . . . so untouched."
-- Tim Funk
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Hailing from a country that's not even 300 years old, Charlotte's interfaith travelers in Israel this week have had a hard time wrapping their heads around just how old parts of the country are.
Israeli tour guide Doron Harel wanted to show how many different empires have seized this one-time "city of chariots" in the heart of Galilee over the years. So he asked the Charlotteans to temporarily donate their hats and then piled them -- like so many layers of civilizations -- atop the head of Mary Rothkopf, a member of Temple Beth El. The Canaanites, Israelites, Syrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine Christians, Persians, Muslims. "That's just for the last 3,000 years," Harel said. "I'm not talking 6,000 years."
Atop the excavated Megiddo fortress, the Jewish-Christian group could also look down on the lush expansive valley destined to be the site of Armageddon -- that Apocalyptic battle between Good and Evil. At least that's how some interpret the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.
The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, the outgoing pastor of Myers Park Baptist, wasn't buying that scenario, telling the group of 46 that the Book of Revelation has been distorted by some who have literalized and militarized it. Still, he had to admit that he could see why "the ancient imagination saw this as a site for great battle...On this great plain, you can imagine all the great armies of the ancient world sooner or later battled here."
One last highlight from the stop in Megiddo: A Muslim teacher's shout-out to the Tar Heel State. As the Charlotte group explored the ancient stones, they suddenly heard, amid a rush of shouted Arabic, the words "North Carolina!"
Turns out the teacher, lecturing nearby to his 8th grade students -- from the village of Hura in the Negev Desert -- wanted to acknowledge the Charlotte group by reminding his class that he had taught them about the Wright Brothers, whose historic ascent in Kitty Hawk made N.C. first in flight.
According to a later report from one Charlotte pilgrim, a Muslim student seconded the hat-tip to North Carolina by pretending to shoot a basketball Michael Jordan-style.
-- Tim Funk
Monday, March 4, 2013
Etta James was on the intercom, belting out "At Last," when the spiritual tourists boarded the plane at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport late Sunday afternoon.
(Jaffa is also where this group photo was taken, with St. Peter's Catholic Church and the Mediterranean Sea in the background).
(Gupton, who likes to study different religions, has also read "a couple of different versions" of the Bible.)
A hint of the tensions
But there were reminders on the way to Israel about just how tense a place it can be amid the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As the group boarded the Tel Aviv-bound plane in Philadelphia, a U.S. agent stopped Garmon-Brown's 29-year-old nephew, Oliver Thomas, for some questioning.
Thomas is assistant director of admissions and recruitment at Wake Forest University's divinity school and an ordained minister like his aunt. And on that flight to Tel Aviv, he read Homer's "Odyssey."
But as an African American with olive-colored skin -- one of his great-grandfathers was white -- "he looks Middle Eastern," said Garmon-Brown, whose "heart started jumping" when somebody mentioned that her nephew had been stopped on the way to boarding.
The agent let others pass, but asked to see Thomas' passport and quizzed him on everything from how much currency he had on him to whether it was his first time in Israel -- it is -- and whether he was going with a group.
"My first thought was: 'Why does he want to see my passport?'" Thomas said. "Then I thought: 'Oh, I know what this is. He's profiling.'"
Tuesday's itinerary includes Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and Canna, where the Bible said he performed his first miracle, as well as Zippori, where Rabbi Yehuda "Nassi" compiled the Mishna.
-- Tim Funk
Friday, March 1, 2013