Are Mormons Christian? Here's the Simple Answer

65th Annual Tony Awards - Show

This weekend I was sitting in the living room with my daughter, listening to music on my iSomething-or-Other, when a song from the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon came on. The song was "Hello," the musical's perfectly executed opening number (and the one featured at the 2012 Tony Awards, below.)

Maxine was fascinated by the song. She loved all the doorbell-ringing, and the goofy voices, and the part when Elder Grant asks, "Are these your kids?" She must have replayed the song four or five times before moving on to something else. But, all the while, I knew she didn't really "get" any of it.  She'd never seen a Mormon missionary. She'd never even heard of Mormons.

So I gave her a quick run-down. I told her Mormons were part of a religious group, and that Mormons are known for going door-to-door to talk about their religion.

"Oh!" Maxine said. "I thought everyone was coming to their house."

Nope, I said, the other way around. Mormons ring other people's doors to tell them about the Book of Mormon, which is kind of like their Bible. Sometimes, I told her, you'll see them in our neighborhood. You can tell they're Mormon because they usually wear white shirts with black ties.

"And bicycle helmets," my husband added, because he's helpful like that.

We left it there; I've learned not to over-do it when it comes to religious literacy. But ever since then I've been thinking about how, if asked, I would frame the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Would I categorize it as Christian or non-Christian?

mormon_christian_pinback_buttons-r8d2c999466724c59a514028d6bab01bd_x7j3i_8byvr_324That question has been the source of great debate since shortly after the church was founded in the 1820s. Mitt Romney would tell you that LDS is most definitely Christian. My Presbyterian uncle would tell you the opposite. images

Romney, who ran for president in 2012 and had a vested interest in being perceived as part of the majority, would surely emphasize that Mormons believe Jesus is the son of God and their savior, and that the only way to heaven is by following his example. (Pretty Christian-sounding, right?)

Yet LDS has adopted a whole manner of other beliefs that go far beyond what lies in Christian doctrine. The main one, of course, is that a guy from Vermont named Joseph Smith became a prophet of God who, with help from an angel, unearthed the ancient writings of other prophets, which all but instructed him to establish a new church. (Decidedly non-Christian.)

It doesn't matter to me personally whether Mormons are Christian or not. In the eyes of non-believers, most religions operate on the same planes of being anyway. Hindus could call themselves Zoroastrian, and I wouldn't have much of an opinion about it.

But I do want to be able to answer my kid's questions as accurately as I can, so... Are Mormons Christian? After some consideration, here's a simple answer:

Most religions evolve from other religions: Someone longs for something different, or learns something new, and starts spreading a different message than the one that came before. When enough people pay attention to that message, a religion is born. One could argue that Western religions — including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism — all grew out of the same basic principal: There is one God. When you remove all the special customs and "side-beliefs," one might say that Judaism is basically Christianity without the Jesus; Christianity is Islam without the Muhammad; and Mormonism is Christianity with the Joseph Smith.

Is Mormonism its own distinct religion? Definitely. Is it based in Christianity? Definitely. Done and done. Next house— er, question.

What's the Real Nativity Story? Kid, You Don't Want to Know

Giveaway 1Last week, my daughter was looking at a copy of The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids, author Brendan Powell Smith’s LEGO depiction of the Christian nativity (which I'll be giving away as part of a promotion next Monday). The book is fun and funny, and I figured she'd love it. But, when she got to page 11, she slammed it shut.

“I don’t like this book,” she announced.

“You don’t like the story?” I asked.

“No," she said. "I like the story."

“You don’t like LEGOs?” I asked.

"No," she said. "I like LEGOs.”

"Then why don’t you like the book?”

“Because," she said. "It's not right. Mary came to Bethlehem ON A DONKEY.”

I opened up the book. Sure enough, there was Mary and Joseph walking to Bethlehem.

The Christmas Story

“Actually," I explained, "the Bible never says anything about a donkey. That part was added in later by other people.”

“No!" she said, all pissed off. “MARY RODE A DONKEY!"

Then she slammed the book shut again.

Wow, kid, I thought. You’re going to have a hard time when I tell you the rest of it.

•••

Historically speaking, it’s highly — and when I say highly, I mean HIGHLY — unlikely that Jesus was born in a stable, or placed in a manger, or visited by three magi. Because it is highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary made that trek to Bethlehem in the first place — on a donkey or otherwise. According to scholarly research on the subject, Jesus was probably born near his hometown of Nazareth, and it was probably not in December, and the birth was probably pretty unceremonious. After all, historically speaking, Jesus didn't rise to prominence until he grew up and started his traveling ministry.

In fact, there is surprisingly little we know for certain about Jesus. Some would say that nothing is certain, but exhaustive scholarly research suggests otherwise. Most scholars agree on these three facts:

1. Jesus lived. 2. Jesus was baptized by John (the, um, Baptist). 3. Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.

But, dude, that’s it. That’s all we know. Even taking the supernatural stuff out of the equation (that he was the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the dead, that he ascended to heaven), there is still so much open to interpretation, speculation and guesswork.

The most fascinating part to me is that, according to many scholars, numerous details from Jesus' life were invented after his death in order to match him up with the Old Testament version of the Jewish Messiah. Written 500 to 700 years before Jesus' birth, the books of the Old Testament mention a coming Messiah something like 300 times. And let me tell you: They got really specific. So all the New Testament stories about Jesus weren't creative storytelling so much as they were a recounting of these old messianic stories. For example, the Old Testament said the Jewish Messiah would:

 Be born of a virgin: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14. 

• Preach the 'good news': "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners." Isaiah 61:1-2

• Enter Jerusalem on a donkey: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Zechariah 9:9

• Be betrayed by a friend: "Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Psalm 41:9

• Be crucified: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads... He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him." Psalm 22:1,7-8

Now, most Christians would say that the scholars have it all wrong. Jesus' story "matches up" to the Old Testament because Jesus was the Messiah. But some of it is just too convenient. In a historical context, it doesn't fly.

Let’s go back to the nativity, for example.

In the Old Testament, the Messiah is described as being from Bethlehem — the birthplace of Jerusalem, the place where King David established his kingdom, and the city in which the "People of Israel" got their start. It was said that the Messiah would be a descendent of David himself and therefore have a rightful claim to the throne. Consider Micah 5:2, written in 750 BCE: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."

In other words, it was vital that Jesus have a connection to Bethlehem if he were ever going to be passed off as the true Messiah.

The thing is, it makes no sense whatsoever that Joseph and Mary would leave Nazareth and head to Bethlehem to register for a Census when Mary was 9 months pregnant. Not just in the dead of winter — but ever. Jesus' family hadn't lived in Bethlehem in hundreds and hundreds of years; to trace his family back to the city of David, Joseph and Mary would have had to go back 42 generations. (If you've ever tried to map out your own family tree, you know how unlikely that is.) Furthermore, as researchers have pointed out, even if they could trace their family heritage back that far, no emperor would force all his people to return to their ancestral cities to register for the Census. It's not rational. And the emperor at the time, Emperor Augustus, apparently was known as a rational man.

•••

So who was Jesus? A charismatic leader? A philosopher? An activist? A prophet? A man with a mental illness? Anything is possible, I suppose. But one thing is all but certain: The Christmas nativity, as we know it, didn't happen.

Maxine is going to be crushed.

 

The Secularization of Christmas Isn't Just Okay — It's Great

Good Tidings Great JoyStart your engines, folks, the War on Christmas is here again! This time it's Sarah Palin leading the charge with her new book: Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. Released a couple of weeks ago, the book is apparently — brace yourself, this is shocking — really, really awful. The Daily Beast's Candida Moss actually read the damn thing (bless her heart) and came away with a whole lot of nothing.

"Ultimately," Moss wrote in her review, "this is a Christmas of no-bake cookies, half-baked theology, and pre-packaged Christmas stories."

By way of the "half-baked theology," Moss said, the former Vice Presidential candidate at one point talks about about placing a menorah on her Christmas table every year to "acknowledge Christianity's Judeo-Christian roots." That bit made me laugh out loud. God, she's an idiot.

But back to the War on Christmas.

By my read, the War on Christmas has two main tentacles, or assumptions:

1. Christmas is becoming a secular holiday.

2. People are forcing it into secularization by killing off all mention of Christ.

Okay, first of all, Number 1? Flat-out true.

Christmas is becoming a secular holiday. Not for everyone, of course, but for some. Maybe even for many. Definitely for me. I love Christmas — the trees, the lights, the gift giving, all of it — but I took the Christ out of my Christmas a long time ago. Other than telling my daughter about the wonderful little legend of Jesus' birth in a stable in Bethlehem, my version of Christmas is a season of entirely nonreligious traditions and celebrations. Sure, those celebrations are rooted in my Christian heritage, and I wholly acknowledge that. (The same way Palin acknowledges her religion's Jewish roots with a menorah.) But do I attach some deeper personal meaning to Christmas? No, not at all. You could say I am a secular Christian in the same way some of my friends are secular Jews or secular Hindus. They'll probably always celebrate Hanukkah and Diwali, but does that mean they actually believe in God, Brahman, or that dude with the elephant head? Uh, no.

So, yes, Fox News, I'll give you No. 1. But you lose me at No. 2.

Apart from some civic-minded folks trying to make their public spaces more inclusive of other cultures by removing nativity scenes and the like, no one is forcing Christmas into secularization. Yes, mentions of Christ are dropping like flies. But that's not because of injuries sustained in any damn war. It's because more and more Americans — more than 20 percent of us — are nonreligious. Christmas is becoming more secular because we are becoming more secular.

The holiday isn't dying. It's evolving.

And isn't that a good thing? Would Fox News rather we secularists stopped celebrating Christmas altogether? I wonder how Sarah Palin would feel if a quarter of her family and friends stopped showing up to her annual Christmas party? I wonder how all those corporations and business owners and stock brokers would feel if we stopped spending millions of our dollars on colored lights, blow-up Santas and gifts for our loved ones every year?

No, Fox News, I won't be putting the Christ back into my Christmas. Ever. But if my family and friends will let me, I'll continue to lug home pine trees from the local Christmas tree lot and obscure all but the scent of those trees with a heinous number of Christmas ornaments. I'll hang the gorgeous, envy-inducing Christmas stockings my mother knitted for each member of my family. I'll listen to the Christmas carols my grandmother used to play on the piano when I was a child. With my husband, daughter, parents, in-laws, siblings, nieces, nephews and friends always on my mind, I'll wrap Christmas presents and watch Christmas movies and read Christmas books and bake Christmas cookies and attend Christmas parties. I'll do it all.

And in doing so, I will indeed "protect the heart of Christmas." It won't be Palin's exact version of Christmas, of course. But it will be Christmas just the same. And it will be great.

'Golden Rule' — Beautiful, Universal and Very, Very Old

Golden rule cover

It is a common misconception that the Golden Rule began with Jesus. In fact, it's part of the reason some Christians think of their religion as synonymous with morality. After all, to treat others the way you want to be treated is the essence of moral conduct. And it was Luke 6:31 in the New Testament that quotes Jesus as saying: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Matthew 7:1-5 also addresses the topic.)

But Jesus didn't invent the ethic of reciprocity anymore than did Muhammad, who said: "The most righteous of men is the one who is glad that men should have what is pleasing to himself, and who dislikes for them what is for him disagreeable." (circa 570-632 AD)

No, the Golden Rule existed long before Christianity or Islam. In fact, no one is quite sure when the idea was first written, much less conceived — it's that old. All we know is that the general idea is as ubiquitous as it is beautiful — having existed in virtually every culture on Earth for thousands of years.

The Golden Rule

Here's Plato: "I would have no one touch my property, if I can help it, or disturb it in the slightest way without my consent. If I am a man of reason, I must treat other's property the same way." (circa 387 BCE)

Confucius said: "What you do not like if done to yourself, do not do to others." (circa 500 BCE)

The Sutrakritanga, part of the Jain Canons, put it quite succinctly: "One should treat all being as he himself would be treated." (circa the 4th Century BCE)

Even the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic written in Sanskrit, included the passage: "The knowing person is minded to treat all being as himself." (circa 800 BCE)

Then there's the Jewish Torah, written in 1280 BCE: "Take heed to thyself, my child, in all they works, and be discreet in all thy behavior; and what thou thyself hatest, do to no man."

Undated is this charming African Bush proverb: "If your neighbor's jackal escapes into your garden, you should return the animal to its owner; that is how you would want your neighbor to treat you."

This sort of hilarious version is a Nigerian Yoruba proverb: "One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts."

And a Sioux prayer puts it this way: "Great spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

Among the oldest known references appears in the story of The Eloquent Peasant, an ancient Egyptian story that dates back to The Middle Kingdom: 2040–1650 BCE (!): "Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you."

The Golden Rule (so named sometime in the 17th Century, by the way) is arguably the greatest wisdom human beings have ever offered the world. It's universally known, pondered  and accepted. And it's a hallmark of virtually every major religion, philosophy and ethical perspective.

So... why don't we follow it?

"We have committed the golden rule to memory, let us now commit it to life." — Edwin Markham, 1852-1940.

[Most of the information in this post came from Sandra and Harold Darling, who compiled a wonderful ruler-shaped book called The Golden Rule  in 2006. It costs $7 on Amazon.]

On Christians, Gay Marriage & Finding a Middle Ground

My friend David likes to give me a hard time for my blog. Last I saw him — at a party a couple of weeks ago, with drinks in our hands — he leaned over and said: "You're not still writing all that atheist stuff, are you?" (He might not have said "stuff." Who can remember?) David's a Christian. And although he rarely talks about his religion — that is, he's not a proselytizer — he attends church frequently, and he sings (really well, actually) in his choir, and he unabashedly loves his Jesus.

But none of that seems to matter, or even come up between us, with the exception of some good-natured haranguing once in a while. (And believe me, I give it back in spades.) There are so many things I adore about David that I tend to forget "all that churchy stuff." Our roads may fork at belief, but they come together at so many other junctures — we're never too far away from each other.

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Take yesterday:  Supreme Court. Defense of Marriage Act. Prop. 8. You remember.

It was kind of a big deal.

A big deal for all of us, I'd argue, but especially for David, since he's both gay and married. (That's him in the picture, on the left,  with his partner, JP. It was taken on their wedding day.) His Facebook statuses yesterday were the best. Here are some of them, in order of appearance:

Today the government made an honest man out of me. No longer will I lie and check "single" on my federal income tax form.

My husband just woke up and my first words to him were, "Our marriage is federally recognized."

 Time for a federally recognized wedding ceremony. And reception. And GIFTS.

I'm mostly excited because I can now re-gift more of our wedding gifts.

Last night I made dinner for my husband for the first time ever. This morning, we awoke to some good news from SCOTUS. Must. Make. Dinner. More. Often. (Ok--"made dinner" is a bit of stretch--but I did heat up frozen turkey burgers).

In the morning my first words to my husband were, "Our marriage is federally recognized." Before going to bed my last words were, "How are your social security benefits looking?"

It's this type of thing that makes GOP-fundamentalist claims that the Supreme Court violated "God's law" so utterly nut-job. By all means, Michelle Bacchmann, be religious. Believe in whatever God or prophet you like. But know that invoking your religious beliefs in an attempt to discredit gay marriage doesn't turn people against gay marriage. It just turns people against you.

Quick! What the Hell is Easter?

Easter CrossMy favorite anecdote told by Teach Not Preach blogger Jim Morrison appears in one of his first blogs. As you may recall, Morrison is a World Religion teacher at a Minnesota high school, and has been for decades. This particular anecdote involves a junior named Angel — Angel! —  who approached Morrison after class one day in 1997 to ask one, discreet question. "Is Jesus dead?"

Morrison said the girl had waited until they were alone and appeared to be blushing when she asked the question. Morrison played it off warmly, but, inside, he was dumbfounded. "How odd it was that a kid her age, living in Minnesota, would not know if Jesus was alive," he wrote. Still, he was awfully glad she asked. (So many Christians talk about Jesus as though he's alive and well and walking among us, no wonder kids get confused!)

"Obviously, we should not fault Angel for being ignorant," Morrison wrote. "Her parents, friends, and elementary school teachers taught her nothing about religion. The fault lies with the American educational system and its almost total reluctance to teach about religion."

The moral of the story? Yes, Jesus is dead. He died 2,000 years ago. It's why we have Easter. And if our kids don't hear it from us, they might never hear it at all. So let's do this thing, people!

Holiday: Easter

AKA: Resurrection Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Celebrates: The resurrection of Jesus

Date: The first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. In 2013, Easter falls on March 31. In 2014: April 20.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Easter is a 10.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: During his lifetime, Jesus of Nazareth never called himself the Messiah or Christ, at least not publicly. But by the time he and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem for Passover in the year 33 AD (or thereabouts), many people believed he was both. As legend has it: Jesus caused a ruckus at the temple in Jerusalem by overturning the tables of some dishonest merchants there — an event that likely raised the hackles of Roman leaders that may already have felt threatened by Jesus’ growing religious (and political) popularity. After hosting his Last Supper (famously depicted by Leonardo da Vinci), Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples, Judas, and condemned to die. He was crucified on a wooden cross (which is now the symbol of Christianity) beneath a crown of thorns, his last words: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” On the third day after his crucifixion, according to the gospels, Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. Christians believe Jesus' death brought forgiveness of sins and reconciliation between God and humanity.

Associated Literary Passages: There are many in the New Testament: Matthew 27:50-53; Matthew 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-19; Luke 24:1-53; John 11:25-26; John 20:1-22:25; Romans 1:4-5; Romans 6:8-11; Philippians 3:10-12; and 1 Peter 1:3, among others.

Easter is a Week-Long Affair: The week preceding Easter is called Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday (marking the day Jesus arrived in Jerusalem). It also includes Maundy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper with Jesus' disciples (that's today!), Good Friday, honoring the decidedly not good day of Jesus' crucifixion, and Holy Saturday, which focuses on the transition between the crucifixion and resurrection.) Then there's the happiest day of the year: Easter. In a sense, says my Catholic-raised friend, Tim, every Sunday of the year is meant to be a mini-celebration of Easter.

The Food: Some of what Christians eat on Easter harkens back to the Passover Seder: Hard-boiled eggs and lamb, among them. Ham is also an Easter staple, along with chocolate and sweets.

The Fun: In addition to dressing in their “Sunday best” for Easter church services, Christians give to charity, share feasts with family, and give Easter baskets full of chocolates, jelly beans and other goodies to children. Much like the Hindu celebration of Holi, Easter conveniently falls at the beginning of spring — so lots of the activities are symbolic of fertility and new life. Eggs, which also are said to represent the empty tomb of Jesus, are central to Easter, with celebrants hard-boiling them, painting them and hiding them.  The Easter Bunny, although secular, also has become an Easter mainstay — the equivalent of Santa Claus to Christmas.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Ironically, secular parents often have an easier time explaining Easter (without religion) than many Christian parents do (with it). The Passion is just such a damn mystery. Why did Jesus have to suffer? Why didn’t God intervene? How, exactly, did Jesus' death bring about forgiveness of human sins? And if Jesus rose from the dead, why can’t we? Secular parents are lucky they don't have to try to make sense of all this. Still, it's important to let kids know this story is the single most important one in all of Christianity. If your kid knows this one, the rest is icing. I am seriously remiss in not having some recommended Easter children's books for you guys here. Please check back; I promise to correct that. In the meantime, I strongly suggest thumbing through your library's selection of Easter books and staying the heck away from the Bernstein Bears' version. (Click here for tips on how to choose religious picture books appropriate for secular families.) Oh, and Jesus Christ Superstar is a great, G-rated conversation starter for kids, like, 9 and up.

A version of this post originally appeared in March 2012.

Inject Some Religious Literacy into Your Valentine's Day

For the most part, I’m fine with being a nonbeliever. Like Bill Mahr says, "it requires so little of your time.” But every once in a while, I’m struck by how limiting my worldview can be. Take, for instance, the fact that I’ll never be a Whirling Dervish. That's a real bummer. I'd love to be able to spin like that. And even worse? The chances are almost zero that I'll ever be sainted.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wendy! Don’t be so negative! You are a fantastic person, and you help so many others in need." And to that, I say, “Thank you. Really. I’m touched and humbled by your words.” But the truth is, I'm not saint material. First of all, there’s a whole, like, process to being sainted, and despite my obvious assets, Catholics have surprisingly strict requirements: believing in God, performing miracles, being dead, etc.

The whole subject is really interesting, actually, which is why I'm dedicating this installment in the Holiday Cheat Sheet series to a real saint: St. Valentine.

Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Feb. 14

Celebrates: A Christian martyr who lived in ancient Rome.

What it is, really: A day people celebrate romance and love by giving each other flowers, cards and candy hearts.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Valentine’s Day ranks at about .5, religiously speaking. This, according to my sister’s Catholic in-laws, who said it's rarely, if ever, mentioned at Mass. In fact, Valentine’s Day is widely considered a secular holiday. (Although the fact that my nephew's Jewish preschool doesn't celebrate Valentine's Day proves that the connection isn't entirely lost.)

Stars of the Show: St. Valentine

Back Story: No one really knows, but many believe "Valentine" referred to not one saint, but several. Sometimes you’ll hear that St. Valentine was a priest killed for continuing to perform marriages even after Emperor Claudius II outlawed them in 3rd century. Supposedly, according to this story, Claudius thought single men made better soldiers and prohibited marriage for a time. But this is legend, rather than belief.

Associated Literary Passages: There are none.

So what’s a saint?: The word “saint” has different meanings. But usually when we hear the word, we’re talking about a Catholic who has been dead a number of years and who now serves as a sort of liaison between people and God. Catholics often pray directly to certain saints in hope that their prayers are more likely to be heard. And many saints — “patron saints” — have specialties, relating to the places where they lived, the professions they held, or some particular malady or situation they encountered during their lifetimes. Here’s a list of patron saints, broken down by their specialties. I found one, St. Drago, who is the patron saint of unattractive people. Poor guy.

The difference between Christian and Catholic: A Catholic is a Christian whose church is led by the pope. Catholics believe that their church alone was “founded” by Jesus Christ, and that the pope is the sole successor to Simon Peter (St. Peter), who features prominently in the New Testament and was pivotal in the spread of early Christianity. (It's this successorship thing that makes Pope Benedict's resignation so tricky for the church.) I wrote about 12 differences between Protestants and Catholics here.

Becoming a saint: Sainthood used to be rather informal. Christian martyrs  — those who refused to turn against their religion and were killed for it — and other pious people were often “sainted” after they died. In more recent years, however, the Vatican has imposed specific requirements to canonization. In order to be considered a saint, one must perform two miracles after they’re dead. Yes, you heard me right: After.

Conveying meaning to kids: Use the holiday to explain a little bit about Catholicism. You might start off by explaining that although all Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was the son of God, Catholics have other beliefs and special rules they follow. You can tell them that many Catholics believe that God has helpers in heaven, called saints, and that these helpers listen to people’s prayers and ask God to answer them. You might ask your child to pay attention to all the places “saint” appears in their everyday life — from the name of the New Orleans football team, to the names of cities and islands and universities, skin products and watches. You might find out if there’s a saint who shares your child’s name.

That and, of course, you know, candy hearts.

 

A version of this post originally appeared in February 2012

What's Wrong with a Nativity Scene Made out of Dead Cats?

When my mom was in college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, she had a sorority sister who interned for the local newspaper. One day, the intern was rummaging through the morgue (which, in pre-Internet days, is where they kept old  clips) when she found a file labeled "Funny Brides." The file was pretty self-explanatory; it was filled with stories about tasteless weddings and photographs of homely, unseemly or otherwise humorous-to-look-at brides and their grooms. Of course, she wasn't about to keep this find to herself, so she brought the file back to the Sorority House, where the sisters pissed themselves laughing. And, thus, a tradition was born. Today, some 55 years later, my mom and a close circle of her old friends have a Funny Bride Book of their own. It's filled with clippings from newspapers around the country. Sometimes, it's just the photos that are funny. But more often it's details of the ceremonies that prove the most hilarious. One couple, for instance, were married in front of a water fall. During their vows, a rock flew out of the water fall and hit the groom in the groin.

"It was reported," my mom told me, "that the bride and groom were able to consummate the marriage.... Now, isn't that more information than you really want to know?"

It wasn't just Funny Brides that caught her fancy, though. The Des Moines Register used to print "Funny Names" as a regular column. Both my parents have committed a great number of those to memory. Let's see, there's Tackaberry McAdoo, Munsing Underwear Johnson, and my least favorite of all of them, Mary Moist.

The point is that my mother's fascination with goofy newspaper stories is why I have in my possession a 1999 article about a school-sanctioned high school nativity scene in Elizabethton, Tennessee, made completely out of cat cadavers.

The Elizabethton Star, Tennessee

 

I know, I know. Christmas was so last month. And yet, I couldn't help but share this one with you. If you're not able to read it, click here — where I found an online-version of the story. And here, you'll even find a Letter to the Editor about the thing. Apparently PETA eventually awarded its annual Kind Student Award to the boy who was SUSPENDED FROM SCHOOL for daring to take the scene down. And what, you ask, would lead him to vandalize such a holy display?

Well, because it smelled bad, the boy said. And because it was disgusting to look at.

Sacrilegious little shit. They should have expelled him.

Favorite line from the editorial: "That students in Elizabethton placed a formaldehyde-soaked dead cat in a cradle as baby Jesus and inserted sticks into the rectums of cats to make them stand up as Mary, Joseph, and the wise men is shocking..."

Especially when superimposed over this line from the Elizabethton Star:

"The decorating contest 'gave students an opportunity to work as a team with their homeroom teacher with a holiday spirit activity," Alexander (the principal) said in a press release. He said most reaction so the cat cadaver display were positive."