You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats dead bodies

You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats dead bodies

You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats dead bodies. Some cultures revere them. One of my favorite films Departures is the story of a young man who returns to his small hometown after a failed career and takes a job as an assistant to a nōkanshi — a traditional Japanese ritual mortician. The respect shown to the departed by the nōkanshi as he prepares them for burial — washing, oiling, dressing, honoring — is truly beautiful. In Jewish societies, burial takes place as quickly as possible after death, with a chevra kadisha (a team of volunteers) preparing the body, by showing it proper respect, ritually cleansing and shrouding it. When their work is done, a shomayr or watcher is appointed to sit with the body so that the deceased should not be left alone or unwatched until burial. We’ve all heard about Norwegian water-borne funeral pyres and South Indian cremation ceremonies and the ancient South Pacific practice of excarnation. The manner of dealing with the dead is rich and varied throughout the world. In America, bodies are embalmed and displayed in open caskets at the funeral home, prior to and during the funeral. I’ve read it owes its popularity to a combination of the effect of the national grief felt at Abraham Lincoln’s death

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Was Christ sexually assaulted?

Was Christ sexually assaulted?

Catholic blogger, Mary Pezzulo stirred up a bit of controversy this Lent when she published, Was Jesus Really Sexually Abused?  I must admit, it was a question that hadn’t even crossed my mind before. Pezzulo’s basis for raising it comes from both a reading of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion as well as historical research into the torturous methods of the Romans. Pezzulo wrote, “The ancient Romans were, as a culture, sadistic. They got off on hurting and humiliating people. And a gang of sadistic Roman soldiers ripped a Man’s clothes off and whipped Him while He was stark naked, then they forcibly dressed Him in a humiliating costume, beat Him up again, ripped the costume off, and threw His own clothes back on Him. That’s sexual abuse.” Some of her readers pushed back on this. They agreed it was abusive behavior, but questioned whether his forced public nakedness constituted sexual abuse. Pezzulo countered with, “Pretend it’s the first time you’ve heard that story.” And when you do try to imagine encountering it for the first time, being forcibly disrobed and mocked certainly has the elements of a sexual assault. But Mary Pezzulo lost a lot of readers when she pushed her argument even further, speculating on what she claimed was standard operating procedure for those brutish Romans. She began

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Follow Me, You Cannot Follow Me

Follow Me, You Cannot Follow Me

In my previous post I mentioned I’m spending Lent meditating on Andrea Mantegna’s astonishing Renaissance painting, The Lamentation of the Christ, also known as The Dead Christ. This week in particular, as I’ve been contemplating it, I find my eyes drawn again and again to Mantegna’s depiction of Jesus’ feet. When you think about it, not many artists concern themselves with the soles of Christ’s feet. We get lots of pictures of his sandaled feet. And plenty of pictures of his feet anchored to the cross with nails as thick as your thumb. But not the soles. Which is odd really. I mean, this is the man who called people to follow him, to walk in his footsteps. You’d think we’d be more familiar with the feet of the one we’re trying to emulate. Alongside my reflections on this painting, I have been re-reading John’s Gospel. This week, I came to the lengthy conversation Jesus has with his disciples while sharing the Passover feast on the eve of his arrest and trial. The feast begins with Jesus performing the scandalous duty of washing his disciples’ feet, a necessary and routine practice, but one never undertaken by a teacher or master to his followers. Peter voices the feelings of all the disciples when he recoils in horror and says, “No, you

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A month with the Dead Christ

A month with the Dead Christ

I’m going to spend 40 days sitting with the dead Christ. I was inspired by one of my teachers telling me he spent every day in Lent contemplating a single image, Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross. Spending forty days sitting with Dali’s God’s eye view of the crucifixion, running his eye down the length of Christ’s cross-anchored body to the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, centered my professor on the sacrifice of Christ and the love of God the father. So I’m trying the same thing this year, but with a different painting, although one that takes a no less unlikely perspective on the Easter story. Andrea Mantegna was a Renaissance master from Padua in northern Italy. Some time in the 1480s he painted The Lamentation of Christ (also known more bluntly as The Dead Christ). It’s an Easter composition unlike any other. Mantegna’s perspective is so rare, it takes us aback. Christ doesn’t writhe in agony on the cross. He’s not wracked with anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. He doesn’t stand blood-soaked and humiliated before us, a crown of thorns gouging his head, a garish robe of red around his stooped shoulders. We are accustomed to all these views. In Mantegna’s vision, Christ is dead. He’s like stone. Like the marble slab upon which

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Is autographing a bible an act of desecration?

Is autographing a bible an act of desecration?

I’m no celebrity – not even close – but I have been asked to autograph someone’s bible before. On a few occasions. In certain church circles it’s actually a thing to get people to sign your bible. I recoiled the first time it happened. It seemed like desecration to add my pathetic signature to the pages of the Holy Bible. And when I demurred, the person looked genuinely hurt. They couldn’t seem to understand why I wouldn’t do it. I guess they figured it was a weird cultural thing that Australians have with not autographing the Good Book. But actually, Australians have their own version of Good Book signing in the so-called Fleet Bible, which was brought to Sydney Cove on the first fleet of colonizers to arrive on our shores in 1788. Rather strangely, it has been signed by every monarch to visit Australia in the past century, including Charles and Diana, Will and Kate, Queen Elizabeth and her uncle, the short-lived Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. I just don’t get it. I really don’t. Why is it considered appropriate to have celebrities scrawl their names on an ancient holy book? I mean, isn’t it kinda, um, desecration? This question was reignited last week when President Donald Trump signed a bunch of bibles at

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How do I vote pro-life, AND pro-planet, pro-poor, pro-peace, pro-refugee?

How do I vote pro-life, AND pro-planet, pro-poor, pro-peace, pro-refugee?

There’s a national election due in Australia soon, and the options for a pro-life, pro-peace, pro-planet, pro-religious freedom, pro-refugee, pro-Aboriginal reconciliation, pro-poor, kind of Christian voter like me are extremely limited. The conservative government has continually disappointed people like me with their draconian approach toward asylum seekers, their rejection of the Uluru Statement, their enthusiastic support for the coal industry, and their consistent cuts to foreign aid. But the Greens continue to alienate a lot of Christians by campaigning to decriminalize abortion and prostitution in all states, to end chaplaincy in public high schools, and to threaten religious freedoms for churches not willing to provide same-sex marriages. Then this week, the Australian Labor Party pledged to build an abortion clinic in Tasmania and to push for the decriminalization of abortion in South Australia and New South Wales. Even if a Christian could live with these pledges, hoping for a world where terminations are “safe, legal and rare”, as the saying goes, the ALP went even further. They enshrined a new policy of requiring public hospitals to provide termination services through commonwealth funding agreements. In other words, no abortions, no commonwealth money. What’s a voter like me to do?   Is it too much to ask for a truly pro-life political party that supports the poor and takes meaningful steps toward

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To the Dones and the Almost Dones, I hear you

To the Dones and the Almost Dones, I hear you

My friends know what’s in store. I won’t be here anymore. I’ve packed my bags I’ve cleaned the floor. Watch me walkin’ Walkin’ out the door.   We’ve become used to the term, “nones” to describe those who have no religious affiliation or faith, but Josh Packard, the author of a University of Northern Colorado study, recently coined the term “dones” to describe former churchgoers who nevertheless maintain their faith in God and their Christian identity. And according to his research, this describes an estimated 30 million Americans. Not only that, Packard says there are another 7 million “almost dones” coming up behind them. In 2007 the Pew Research Center conducted its Religious Landscape Study with a massive survey of 35,000 individuals and found that about 16 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. By 2015, that same study reported the number had climbed to 23 percent. Way back in 1980 only eight percent of those under age 30 were “nones.” The Pew Center says that number has risen to 32 percent. People are leaving the church in droves, especially so-called millennials. But the picture that seems to be emerging isn’t a simple one of wholesale church decline. Part of what is happening is that many committed Christians are continuing to pursue their faith outside institutional church membership. Indeed, Packard’s

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Is your church a lawn or a forest floor?

Is your church a lawn or a forest floor?

Suburban people love lawn. We cut it, fertilize it, trim it, edge it. Some people even color it. No matter how good your own lawn might be, there’s nothing like the twinge of covetousness and admiration you feel when walking past the lawn-keeping skills of a grandmaster. We love it so much we think nothing of the prospect of watering and trimming a sizeable carpet of grass week after week. The perfect length and trim; the alternating mower lines; the absence of weeds — ah, there’s nothing like it. A perfect lawn epitomizes the suburban values of uniformity, symmetry, balance and neatness. American columnist Dave Barry writes, “The average American home owner would rather live next to a pervert, heroin addict or communist pornographer than someone with an unkempt lawn.” In fact, Americans spend $27 billion per year caring for their lawns, which amazingly is ten times more than they spend on school textbooks. But what if I told you that lawn breaks every rule of nature. Actually, lawn is a freak of nature!   Lawn is a monoculture, but every law in the nature handbook tells our planet to strive for biodiversity. Biodiversity is life; monocultures are on the verge of death, which is why lawn can’t survive without an elaborate life-support system of phosphate-based fertilizers, garden pesticides and herbicides. And

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Explaining Billy Graham

Explaining Billy Graham

On May 9, 1979, I attended a Billy Graham Crusade at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney. I had access to the lawn area in front of the blue grandstand. I don’t remember that. It says so on the ticket I kept from that night. I don’t really remember anything from Billy Graham’s talk that night either. But I do recall hundreds of people going forward in response to the appeal to invite Jesus into their life. I went forward too. But not to give my life to Jesus. I just went forward to see what happened to all those who did. I meandered through the crowd, overhearing the respondees repeating the sinner’s prayer after their counselor, phrase after phrase like wedding vows. It must have had a big impact on me because I kept my ticket all these years. The 1979 crusade was Billy Graham’s third in Australia. He first landed on our shores in 1959 and that crusade is considered a watershed event in Australia’s religious history. During the ’59 meetings 130,000 Aussies went forward in response to Graham’s altar call. In Sydney alone it was nearly 57,000. It was the closest thing to a revival the city had ever seen. But the Billy Graham phenomenon had begun only ten years earlier in Los Angeles in September 1949. At just

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Let’s talk about virginity shaming

Let’s talk about virginity shaming

You don’t actually have to be watching the sixth season of Australia’s version of Married At First Sight (MAFS) to know that one of the participants has a very dark secret. His confession has been heavily featured in the show’s endless promos. This week, 29-year-old Matt Bennett was “married” to a woman he’d never previously met, but not before making his embarrassing confession to all the other male contestants at the bucks’ night, and in on-camera interviews with the show’s producers. Even on his wedding night, he was quick to reveal the ugly truth to his new “wife”, Lauren. And it sure was awkward. “For me, honesty is very important. I feel like there’s something I want to tell you and something you should know about me,” Matt stammered, “I’ve sort of been on the fence about whether or not I should tell you because you know it’s been weighing on me a bit, it’s a big thing.” Pause for effect… And then… “I’m actually still a virgin.” Lauren’s response to this news summed up the mood of everyone on the show. “Shit!” she gawped. The idea that a young man could nearly make it to 30 without ever having had sex is a matter of genuine surprise to all. In an earlier episode he revealed his chastity had nothing to

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