Religion News Roundup: “I’m perfect, You’re Doomed,” Elves, the Shroud of Turin, and cult killer art

RNB Religion Shorts: a compendium of blurbs and links to, for the most part, religion-related stories you may have missed.

Don’t forget: follow the links before they’re gone…

Roch Theriault

Prison officials bring down gavel on murderer’s art auction

Killer art sale cancelled…

The prison artwork of a Canadian killer up for auction on an American website is going, going, gone.

Federal officials have stopped Roch Theriault‘s art from leaving Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick, drying up the supply to, which specializes in so-called murderabilia.

Correctional Service of Canada has imposed “restrictions on the dissemination and distribution of artwork and hobbycraft items as well as written materials such as memoirs, bibliographies and-or public communications,” says an internal document.

“The restrictions are to reduce public notoriety primarily to prevent negative consequences for victims and their families as well as to decrease risk to personal security in the institution and to facilitate eventual reintegration.”

At least seven pieces had been available for online auction a year ago, most of them believed to have been taken out of Dorchester by a Moncton, N.B.-area woman described as Theriault’s current wife.

Theriault is serving a life sentence for a brutal murder committed while he led a bizarre cult at Burnt River, Ont., between 1977 and 1989. He killed his wife through disembowelling, and chopped off the hand of a concubine.

– Source: Canadian Press via The Guardian, Canada, April 4, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Therioalt’s story has been retold in a movie.

Transcendental Meditation

Just Say ‘Om’: The Fab Two Give a Little Help to a Cause

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, the two surviving Beatles, held their first concert in seven years last week.

What cause could marshal that much of a Beatles reunion? War and peace, poverty, human rights, the environment? No. The concert was a benefit for the David Lynch Foundation, which seeks to teach Transcendental Meditation to a million students worldwide. “Every child should have one class period a day to dive within himself,” reads the manifesto at “This is the way to save the coming generation.” […]

As at most benefit concerts, music was interspersed with proselytizing: testimonials and video clips about the benefits of meditation. There was an undeclared contest over who had been meditating longest: 37 years for the comedian Jerry Seinfeld (who did bits about movie theaters, public toilets, taxis and marriage), 38 years for the radio personality Howard Stern, 41 for the two Beatles and — the winner — 43 years for the flutist Paul Horn, who also made the 1968 visit to Rishikesh. That trip ended in acrimony, but the surviving Beatles held on to the mantras the Maharishi gave them and said they continued to use them.

Mr. McCartney introduced “Cosmically Conscious” (which was a hidden track on his 1993 album “Off the Ground”) as a song written around two of the Maharishi’s favorite phrases, “cosmically conscious” and “It’s such a joy.” It turned into a full-harmony chorale with the assembled singers.

– Source: New York Times, Apri. 5, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Research resources on Transcendental Meditation


More than 200 Mecca mosques ‘face wrong direction’

Muslim worshippers at about 200 old mosques in Mecca have been praying in the wrong direction for decades because the mosques were not built correctly, a Saudi newspaper has reported.

The mosques were not built precisely based on the qibla, the official alignment with the holy Kaaba shrine at the centre of Mecca’s Al-Haram mosque, according to the report in Arab News. […]

Hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world are bound to orient their daily prayers toward the ancient Kaaba, and mosques everywhere are built to face the black-shrouded cubic building, or have indicators of its direction. […]

According to the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper, Islamic affairs ministry deputy secretary, Tawfik al-Sudairy, downplayed the problem.
“There are no major errors, but corrections have been made for some old mosques, thanks to modern techniques. In any case, it does not affect the prayers,” the newspaper quoted Sudairy as saying in its Saturday edition. […]

– Source: Telegraph, UK, April 6, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Most in Poll Back Outreach to Muslims

Most Americans think President Obama’s pledge to “seek a new way forward” with the Muslim world is an important goal, even as nearly half hold negative views about Islam and a sizable number say that even mainstream adherents to the religion encourage violence against non-Muslims, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

There is still a broad lack of familiarity with the world’s second-largest religion — 55 percent of those polled said they are without a basic understanding of the teachings and beliefs of Islam, and most said they do not know anyone who is Muslim. While awareness has increased in recent years, underlying views have not improved.

About half, 48 percent, said they have an unfavorable view of Islam, the highest in polls since late 2001. Nearly three in 10, or 29 percent, said they see mainstream Islam as advocating violence against non-Muslims; although more, 58 percent, said it is a peaceful religion.

Muslims make up about 1 percent of all U.S. adults.

Majorities of Americans with sympathetic and unsympathetic views about Islam said it is important for the president to try to improve U.S. relations with Muslim nations, with those holding more positive views much more likely to call those moves “very important.” […]

– Source: Washington Post, April 6, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

You can view the poll results here.

Religious scholars denounce whipping of girl by Taliban

Here’s the kind of thing you’re up against when trying to seek a new way forward with the Muslim world. That world includes lots of peaceful people, but also lots of brutal savages whose extremist version of Islam is seen by many as a distortion of that religion.

Religious scholars and clerics across the country on Friday denounced the public whipping of a 17-year-old girl by the Taliban in Swat, a private TV channel reported.

The Taliban said the girl had been punished for her alleged illicit relations and for leaving her house with her father-in-law, instead of her husband.

Taliban said the girl’s father-in-law was a na-mehram (stranger) for her and she should not have left home with him.

Talking to the channel, renowned religious scholar Muneebur Rehman said a father-in-law was not a na-mehram for a girl and she could move around with him, adding that no woman could be lashed for moving around with a na-mehram.

The scholar said sharia could not be implemented by any group of individuals and only an authorised court could find a woman guilty over allegations of illicit relations. Dr Aamir Liaqat Hussain said the incident was completely against Islamic teachings. Denouncing the incident, he said those involved the incident must be punished.

– Source: Daily Times, Pakistan, April 4, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Meanwhile some Muslims think the US government is a little too forward…

Muslims fear FBI is spying in mosques

A coalition of Muslim-American groups claims the FBI has been planting counterterrorism spies in mosques in some U. S. cities.

Last month, 10 Muslim-American organizations threatened to stop working with the FBI on outreach efforts in the Muslim-American community.

Dr. Khalid J. Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, said he is concerned about the situation and hopes the FBI provides some answers soon. […]

The controversy has been growing among Muslim-Americans since February, when an Irvine, Calif., fitness instructor named Craig Monteilh told reporters that the FBI paid him to infiltrate mosques in several communities in Southern California during an investigation conducted in 2006-07. […]

Monteilh, a former convict, told the Associated Press that FBI agents had picked him up every morning for two weeks and took him to a building in Los Angeles where he learned some Arabic and learned about Islam. After that, he said, he infiltrated several mosques as an FBI informer. […]

– Source: Buffalo News, April 6, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Note, however, that those noisy folks at CAIR are involved.

Some Muslims Support FBI’s Stand Against CAIR

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has an office in Anaheim, has been in the news (and on this blog) a lot lately following official confirmation that the FBI has been spying on the Islamic Society of Irvine mosque.

CAIR and the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County were among several Muslim advocacy groups that signed on to a statement saying they are considering breaking ties with the feds over such snooping and the FBI’s previous breaking of ties with CAIR. But not every Muslim group supports that stand. A different coalition of American Muslim groups has issued a statement of its own commending the FBI.

– Source: Orange County Weekly, April 2, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

View the statement and its signees. once wrote: “reporters are learning it’s not easy to find leaders who can authentically speak for Muslim Americans, who represent a wide variety of ethnicities and languages, sects and political views ranging from completely secular to Islamic fundamentalist. CAIR and AMC in particular would not be chosen as representatives by many Muslims. In fact, there are those in American Muslim communities as well as law enforcement who consider CAIR and the AMC to be part of the problem, because both have been seen as tacitly — if not explicitly — supportive of extremist groups guilty of terrorism. “

Hate Groups

German neo-Nazi NPD party faces collapse after being fined

Germany’s main neo-Nazi party faces financial collapse after it was fined almost £2.3 million for accounting irregularities today.

The National Democratic Party (NPD), which is struggling to cope with bitter in-fighting and an embezzlement scandal, was ordered by the national parliament to pay ‚¬2.5 million ( £2.3 million) by May 1.

A lawyer for the party warned that the fine, which comes four months after its former treasurer was jailed for stealing ‚¬741,000 ( £677,000) from NPD coffers, threatens its existence.

The NPD is a legal political party and although it has no seats in the federal parliament it is represented in two of Germany’s 16 state legislatures. It is eligible for state funding which in 2007 amounted to more than ?1 million, despite being described by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution as racist, anti-Semitic and revisionist. NPD officials have, for example, praised Iran’s President Ahmadinejad for arguing that Israel should be wiped off the map and the party’s leader, Udo Voigt, has said that Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess should have won the Nobel Peace Prize. […]

– Source: The Times, UK, Apr. 2, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Accused Nazi guard faces deportation to Germany

Berlin – John Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker living in Cleveland, faces deportation to Germany Wednesday to answer to war crimes charges that as a guard at a World War II Nazi extermination camp he had a hand in the deaths of nearly 30,000 Jews and gypsies. […]

The fate of Mr. Demjanjuk edged closer to a German trial Monday when US Immigration Judge Wayne Iskra reversed his own ruling from three days before that had stayed Demjanjuk’s deportation on grounds of poor health.

Due to his illnesses, Demjanjuk’s family maintains a forced trip to Germany and subsequent trial would amount to inhumane torture, something the Justice Department denies.

Demjanjuk, a native of Ukraine, moved to the US in 1952 and gained citizenship in 1958. He has maintained his innocence, and his family vowed to appeal his deportation on health and humanitarian grounds Tuesday.

German authorities say they have extensive evidence — the most damning being a Schutzstaffel (SS) identification card — that implicates him and proves he was a guard at the Sobibor death camp in southern Poland who personally walked thousands of people to their demise in gas chambers.

– Source: Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Catholic Church

Knights Templar hid the Shroud of Turin, says Vatican

Medieval knights hid and secretly venerated The Holy Shroud of Turin for more than 100 years after the Crusades, the Vatican said yesterday in an announcement that appeared to solve the mystery of the relic’s missing years.

The Knights Templar, an order which was suppressed and disbanded for alleged heresy, took care of the linen cloth, which bears the image of a man with a beard, long hair and the wounds of crucifixion, according to Vatican researchers.

The Shroud, which is kept in the royal chapel of Turin Cathedral, has long been revered as the shroud in which Jesus was buried, although the image only appeared clearly in 1898 when a photographer developed a negative.

Barbara Frale, a researcher in the Vatican Secret Archives, said the Shroud had disappeared in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, and did not surface again until the middle of the fourteenth century. Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Dr Frale said its fate in those years had always puzzled historians.

However her study of the trial of the Knights Templar had brought to light a document in which Arnaut Sabbatier, a young Frenchman who entered the order in 1287, testified that as part of his initiation he was taken to “a secret place to which only the brothers of the Temple had access”. There he was shown “a long linen cloth on which was impressed the figure of a man” and instructed to venerate the image by kissing its feet three times.

Dr Frale said that among other alleged offences such as sodomy, the Knights Templar had been accused of worshipping idols, in particular a “bearded figure”. In reality however the object they had secretly venerated was the Shroud.

– Source: The Times, UK, April. 6, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog


On divisive issue of gay clergy, two churches weigh softer stance

Lutherans and Presbyterians may allow local congregations to choose people in same-sex relationships as pastors.

Two mainline Protestant denominations, after decades of wrestling over the place of homosexuality in the church, are considering allowing local congregations to select pastors who are in long-term, monogamous, same-gender relationships.

The church council of the largest Lutheran body in the US, the 5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), decided this week to send such a recommendation to its national assembly. The proposal would take effect if supported by majority vote at the assembly’s biennial meeting in August.

The 2.3-million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) approved the idea at its national assembly last summer, but a majority of the church’s 173 district bodies, called presbyteries, must vote in favor by June for it to become church policy.

While it’s not clear that either denomination will embrace the change, their actions reflect the shifting views on homosexuality in society, as well as an acknowledgement that the old consensus in the churches has broken down and a new one is not likely to arise soon. The churches are seeking to accommodate differing views and avoid a denominational split.

– Source: Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 31, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

How various religions view homosexuality

The Church Around The Corner

Mind the Elves

Vanity Fair, in an article about Iceland’s financial meltdown, mentions a unique business problem:

Alcoa, the biggest aluminum company in the country, encountered two problems peculiar to Iceland when, in 2004, it set about erecting its giant smelting plant. The first was the so-called “hidden people” — or, to put it more plainly, elves — in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe. Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it. It was a delicate corporate situation, an Alcoa spokesman told me, because they had to pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free but, as he put it, “we couldn’t as a company be in a position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people.”

– Source: Wall Street on the Tundra, Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair, Apr. 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog


Gambia frees witch-hunt detainees

BANJUL (AFP) — More than 300 people held in a government-backed witchhunt in Gambia have been released without charge after several detainees fell seriously ill, a senior police source said Monday. […]

Amnesty International and anonymous police sources said as many as 1,000 people have been snatched by “witch hunters” backed by armed men carrying out orders from the Gambian authorities.

They are forced to drink hallucinogen concoctions which caused some detainees to develop intestinal and kidney problems. Police sources say at least two people have died after drinking the potions. […]

Their release came after five victims were admitted at various health facilities in Gambia suffering from kidney and stomach problems.

“Five out of those abducted are currently in hospital while others are seriously ill, and this prompted the authorities to release the remaining abductees before the situation worsens”, the police source said. […]

– Source: AFP via, April 6, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Twelve Tribes

Peacemaker ship crewed by religious sect seeking to live simple lives

While touring the massive sailing ship The Peacemaker in recent weeks, visitors might notice the crew perusing channel maps, cleaning the ship or dangling 100 feet up working on the rigging.

The young men on the ship wear their long hair tied back at the base of their neck. The older men on the ship wear full beards. The women and girls wear full-length skirts or loose pants with their long hair pulled into ponytails.

Their appearance is a hallmark of their religious beliefs as part of The Twelve Tribes of the Commonwealth of Israel, a Messianic sect that believes in communal living, working, eating, schooling and worshipping. They model their beliefs, modest appearance and lives after the early church in the Bible, striving to “restore the way the first church was when it was called The Way,” said Lee Philips, one of three captains on the ship. “You share everything with one another and take care of one another. We want our life here on the ship to be the same as life on land.”

The Peacemaker’s crew hopes to use the tall ship as an extension of the hospitality of Yahshua, their name for Jesus, at each port it visits.

– Source: Star-News, April 2, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

The story does mention some past controversies, including violating child labor laws or allegations of child abuse, but ignores countless reports about the cultic nature of the Twelve Tribes. Theologically, the group is a cult of Christianity. Sociologically it has some cult-like aspects as well.



Dave Cullen, who reported the 1999 school massacre from day one, spent nine years researching what really happened.

Columbine: Dave Cullen

Forget everything you thought you knew. The girl who professed her faith in God before being gunned down in the library. The Trenchcoat Mafia and the feud between the goths and jocks. The idea that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — the two Columbine High School seniors who, on April 20, 1999, killed 12 of their fellow students and one teacher in what was, at the time, the worst school shooting in the history of the United States — were disaffected, unpopular, motivated by resentment or revenge. Even the fact that the killings took place on Adolf Hitler’s birthday was a coincidence: The boys had planned to do it a day earlier but hadn’t been able to get the ammunition in time.

All of this, Dave Cullen notes in “Columbine,” his comprehensive account of the tragedy and its aftermath, is the story we’ve been given, the mythic version, the one that (if anything can) aspires to make a kind of sense. It’s a rendering in which the pieces fit together and the terror of the day is mitigated by small moments of redemption, whispers of epiphany and grace.

The problem, however, is that none of it happened — or more accurately, none of it happened exactly like that. […]

“Columbine” is an attempt to re-create, methodically, what happened, to re-sort the data and come to conclusions that are correct. It’s a book that hits you like a crime scene photo, a reminder of what journalism at its best is all about. Cullen knows his material from the inside; he covered Columbine, for Salon and Slate primarily, “beginning around noon on the day of the attack.” But if this gives him a certain purchase on the story, his perspective is what resonates.

– Source: Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog “Dave Cullen is a journalist and author who has contributed to Slate, Salon, and the New York Times. He is considered the nation’s foremost authority on the Columbine killers, and has also written extensively on Evangelical Christians, gays in the military, politics, and pop culture. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Boulder, Cullen has won several writing awards, including a GLAAD Media Award, Society of Professional Journalism awards, and several Best of Salon citations.”

“In this remarkable account of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting, journalist Cullen not only dispels several of the prevailing myths about the event but tackles the hardest question of all: why did it happen? Drawing on extensive interviews, police reports and his own reporting, Cullen meticulously pieces together what happened when 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold killed 13 people before turning their guns on themselves…. Cullen expertly balances the psychological analysis-enhanced by several of the nation’s leading experts on psychopathology-with an examination of the shooting’s effects on survivors, victims’ families and the Columbine community. Readers will come away from Cullen’s unflinching account with a deeper understanding of what drove these boys to kill, even if the answers aren’t easy to stomach.” (Publishers Weekly, Starred Reivew

– Source: Publishers Weekly, Starred Review, as posted at

“Dave Cullen is the Dante of this high school hell. I came away from it thinking of Jack Nicholson hollering ‘You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!’ Read this quietly powerful account of Columbine and find out if you can.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Playful approach lightens account of growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness

What Kyria Abrahams says is serious, but how she says it is funny: I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed.

The new memoir, published by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, looks back at the author’s life growing up in Pawtucket, which gets a bit of razzing. But the bulk of the book is about being a Jehovah’s Witness.

“People don’t know anything about it,” said Abrahams in an interview. “And what they know is wrong: ‘So, you can’t drink tea, right?’ No, that’s Mormon. People didn’t have information.”

Abrahams, 35, now living in New York, decided to provide that information through a personal account, and a personal catharsis.

“The catharsis is in the book you don’t see. When I started writing essays, they were vehement and angry. I got that out of my system. Then I could sit down and write the story in a way that people could actually enjoy reading.”

The story is playfully and satirically told. It moves chronologically from when Abrahams is 8 and receiving religious instruction, which she notes sometimes involved “more people directing me than a NASA shuttle launch.”

The story ends when she’s 19, having left home, school and church, becoming an apostate — an anti-Jehovah’s Witness whom Jehovah’s Witnesses, by church tenet, are to avoid.

Abrahams says she wrote her book for two reasons: “To redeem myself for the things I had done. I wanted to explain to the world why”; and to help other Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“If people are thinking about leaving but are afraid to leave, thinking their life would be hell €¦ yes, it would be hell for a little while. But I’m alive and standing and enjoying my life now.”

– Source: The Providence Journal, April 7, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace

In their book Holy Mavericks, Shayne Lee, assistant professor of sociology and historian Phillip Sinitiere examine the success of five pastors who are among the most influential contemporary leaders in American Protestantism: TD Jakes, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Paula White and Brian McLaren.

Instead of addressing their wonky theology, the authors looked at these religious personalities from an economic perspective.

“We feel that you could make a case that any of these five could replace Billy Graham as America’s next preacher,” says Lee.

The five also exhibit a kind of entrepreneurial spirit that Lee and Sinitiere argue is at the heart of their success. Each possesses, says Lee, “the ability to understand American culture, to be on the cutting edge of using psychotherapy and aspects in the language and taste of contemporary Americans in order to draw them to their congregations.”

Through this approach to understanding religion as a competitive spiritual marketplace, Lee hopes to put to rest what he says is the misguided “strict-church thesis” employed by sociologists in the past. That thesis essentially explains the success of conservative denominations in the 20th century by suggesting that the constituencies of these faiths, which have more restrictive practices, tend to comprise more dedicated, zealous followers and thus produce more vibrant churches.

“It has nothing to do with strictness,” Lee contends. “None of these five ministries promote strict religion. It has more to do with the evangelical’s ability to address existential needs and the cultural taste of a broad range of contemporary people.”

– Source: Tulane University, April 3, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

In other words, the path to popularity and financial success is this: Find out what people want. Then give it to them. That’s marketing 101.

It’s an approach that differs quite a bit from the instructions the Apostle Paul gave to Timothy:

1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:
2 Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

– Source: 2 Timothy 4:1-5

Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe

Speaking of ‘itching ears,’ here’s a book of interest to Christians who wish to innoculate themselves against centuries-old false teachings and their modern-day versions:

Here, ten top theologians, all practising Christians, tackle ten ancient heresies and show why the contemporary Church still needs to know about them. Christians need to remember what these great early heresies were and why they were ruled out, or else risk falling prey to their modern-day manifestations.

The contributors show how present debates in the Church are often re-enactments of battles which the Church thought it had won against heresies many centuries ago.

The book contains key scriptural passages relevant to each heresy, a glossary of terms, and summaries of historical Church documents in which these heresies were defined and outlawed.

• Adoptionism — did Jesus become the Son of God at his baptism?
• Docetism — was Jesus really human or did he just appear to be so?
• Nestorianism — was Christ one Person or a hybrid with a divine dimension and a human dimension?
• Arianism — was Christ divine and eternal or was there a time when he did not exist?
• Marcionism — is the God of the New Testament the same as the God of the Old?
• Theopaschitism — is it possible for God to suffer in His divine nature?
• Destroying the Trinity — does God have a simple or a complex nature?
• Pelagianism — can people save themselves by their own efforts?
• `The Free Spirit’ — are there two kinds of Church membership, one for the elite and one for the rest?
• Donatism — do Christian ministers need to be faultless for their ministrations to be effective?

Also Noted

The world’s youngest terrorist – aged 11 – arrested for being a potential suicide bomber

• A nightclub leaflet showing the late Pope John Paul II holding a bottle of beer and dancing with a blonde woman has been banned by Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority.

Focus employee accused of trying to lure a minor for sex

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday April 7, 2009.
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