Lisa Miller

Stories by Lisa Miller

  • BeliefWatch: Fasting

    Now two things devour my life," wrote the poet William Butler Yeats. "The things that most of all I hate:/Fasting and prayers." This week, the world's billion Muslims and 12 million Jews will be fasting and praying in honor of Ramadan and Yom Kippur. Fasting is common to nearly every major religion; mystics fast to induce divine visions, and the rest of us fast to remind ourselves periodically that worldly pleasure is fleeting. Fasting is, in one respect, an exercise in discipline. "It's analogous to taking a vow of celibacy," says the atheist Sam Harris, who is interested in meditation. "It's not so much the direct effect of not having sex that is being sought, necessarily, but the freedom from all the related entanglements, hopes, cravings, etc."Yes, but fasting, unlike celibacy, has immediate physical effects—stomach pangs, lightheadedness, fatigue—and one wonders whether the ancients, in their wisdom, understood the physiological interplay between starvation and feelings of...
  • Namasté

    A decade ago, book publishers discovered a fertile market in the growing number of liberal-minded Jews interested in Buddhist meditation—the publishers called them "JewBus." Rodger Kamenetz started the craze with a book called "The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India," and soon Jewish meditation centers were open all over the West Coast. Meditation, the JewBus argued, did not detract from their Jewishness; rather, their identity was enhanced by the practice, by silent reflection and a mental reaching out toward God.Fast forward. Janine Turner, formerly of the television show "Northern Exposure," has just come out with a DVD called "Christoga: Yoga Filled Body … Christ Filled Soul." The DVD promises that a regular Christian yoga practice will "improve your ability to perform activities of daily living." In Alabama, a woman named Susan Bordenkircher teaches thrice-weekly yoga classes at her Methodist church—classes that are sometimes filled with...
  • Beliefwatch: Memoirs

    Some experiences just inspire people to pick up a pen. Convinced that what they saw, felt or heard was profound and unique, these writers are moved to share. Jury duty is one such experience. Parenthood is another. Religious conversion, or an intense spiritual awakening, is a third. Publishers are increasingly giving those in the last camp a voice, hoping to discover at last the next Anne Lamott or Kathleen Norris—and praying, so to speak, for strong sales. This week three spiritual memoirs top The New York Times nonfiction lists. One is by the wife of a country singer. One is by a divorcée who traveled the world in search of transcendence. One is by a preacher who says he was hit by a truck, saw heaven and came back to life.As a genre, the spiritual memoir has been around since at least 397, when St. Augustine wrote his “Confessions,” the first real autobiography in Western history. In an astonishingly modern way, Augustine describes his early life and his conversion in terms that...
  • Ever After

    No group is more emphatically and publicly opposed to the practice of polygamy than the Latter-day Saints. The topic is, however, irresistible and perennial. While the Mormon Church banned plural marriage more than 100 years ago and promises excommunication to those who practice it, its spokespeople find themselves having to explain polygamy’s legacy over and over to reporters who watch “Big Love” or are curious about Mitt Romney’s ancestry. “I wish to state categorically that this church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy,” said LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley more than a decade ago.Much less clear is the church’s position on polygamy in the eternal hereafter. When a Mormon man and woman are married in the Temple, they are “sealed,” which means they and their children will be bound together forever in heaven—what Mormons call the celestial kingdom. If a Mormon man becomes a widower, or if he is divorced, he can remarry in the Temple—and thus be sealed to...
  • Campus Crusaders

    Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville, Va., is the kind of place that would make most coastal liberals run screaming. A tiny college with about 500 students, its stated goal is to “prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture.” Its dorms are filled mostly with kids who have been home-schooled all their lives by Bible-believing Christian parents and who were taught that homosexuality is an abomination and that Adam and Eve cavorted with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden. They aim for White House internships, Supreme Court clerkships and positions with lobbying groups. The minority of Patrick Henry students who don’t have Washington in their sights dream of directing Christian movies or, in the case of many of the women there, raising (and home-schooling) families of Christian children.The challenge for any responsible journalist approaching this subject, then, is twofold. She must approach with compassion, avoiding the stereotyping that so often...
  • BeliefWatch: Banned?

    Moshe Milstein, a religious Jew who is incarcerated at the federal prison in Otisville, N.Y., wants his Maimonides back. Officials at the Otisville prison recently removed hundreds of books from the chapel library there—including, Milstein charges in court documents, works by the great 12th-century rabbi and physician Maimonides as well as the Zohar, the ancient text upon which the mystical practice of Kabbalah is based. The books were removed, Bureau of Prisons officials explain, to comply with new rules set earlier this year. To reduce the risk that prisoners will find hateful or radicalizing (read: terrorist) materials in chapel libraries, the BOP has developed lists of 150 approved books per religion for 20 religions, including Bahai, Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses. In all of the bureau's 114 prisons, chaplains are in the midst of dramatic reorganizations, removing from shelves any book not on one of the BOP's lists. "It was a huge undertaking," says Traci Billingsley, a BOP...
  • BeliefWatch: Is 'Harry Potter' a Christian Story?

    Have you finished reading? What do you think? Is Harry Potter a Christian story after all? Harry has made news, ever since his arrival on the scene in 1998, for provoking the ire of some right-wing Christians who believe his magical powers and wizardly aspirations—not to mention his boarding school peopled with eccentric friends and demonic villains—promote occultism and Satan worship.These enemies of young Potter arm themselves with this quotation from Deuteronomy: "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead." Conservative Christian leaders continue to make public statements against the book. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, reiterated last week in a statement that he has "spoken out strongly against all of the Harry Potter products," and Chuck Colson,...
  • BeliefWatch: Mormons & Politics

    As a rule, Mormons tend to be white, conservative and Republican—and as obedient to established authority as any group out there—but a close look reveals cracks in that glossy surface. There's Harry Reid, of course, the Mormon convert and vocal leader of the Senate Democrats. And there's Orrin Hatch, conservative, Republican and Mormon to the core—except that he supports embryonic-stem-cell research, an issue upon which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official stance but which President George W. Bush opposes. Finally, there's Rocky Anderson, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City. A lapsed Mormon—he grew up in an LDS family—Anderson has had to walk a fine line. In Salt Lake, the headquarters of the Latter-day Saints, he has had to be moderate enough attract 20 percent of the LDS vote to win and keep his job. Now, it seems, he's had enough of the high-wire act. This spring, Anderson began calling for the impeachment of President Bush, and more recently he...
  • Books: How-To Help for Atheist Parents

    Parenting books are the most useless and irresistible kind of literature. Designed to prey on parents' insecurities, they draw you in with expert claims and then disappoint with their know-it-all tone and their failure to solve even a single one of the profound struggles of family life. Same with atheism books: the authors are supersmart and their arguments engaging, but they don't ultimately resolve doubt and you are left with the feeling of having failed to get with the program. The kids are wide awake at 10 p.m. and you're still not so sure you can rule God out completely.Here, then, is the last word in the useless and irresistible: a parenting book for atheists. "Parenting Beyond Belief," published in April by Amacom, a wing of the American Management Association, aims to help folks who are raising their kids without religion deal with the sticky questions that come up about Santa Claus and heaven, and it raises more serious concerns about how to bring up ethical, confident,...
  • BeliefWatch: Ground Zero's 'Shrine'

    Carole Pizzolante, from Ontario, Canada, is standing in a historic church in New York City, and she is trying not to cry. Before her is a wall, plastered with the faces of people killed on 9/11. "It's all so bloody senseless, I can't get through it," she says with a wave of her hand, and then her composure falters. She pauses and says, through tears, "What could anyone gain from doing something like this?"For years, St. Paul's Chapel was an important but overlooked tourist attraction. What St. Paul's had to offer was its history—it was built in 1766—and a pew, located at the side of the church where George Washington sat and worshiped after his Inaugural in 1789. Almost no one went there, in other words, and those who did were mostly financial-district office workers who liked to eat their lunches under the shade trees in the chapel's ancient cemetery. For years and years, six people, on average, attended Sunday-morning services there, says the Rev. Stuart Hoke, staff chaplain at St...
  • BeliefWatch: An Atheist Uproar

    It may not be fair to call what's happening in the atheist community a backlash, since atheists have always been and continue to be one of the smallest, most derided groups in the country. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, only 3 percent of respondents called themselves atheists and only 30 percent said they'd ever vote for an atheist. No, what's happening in the "atheist, humanist, freethinkers" community is more like what happens to any ideological or political group as it matures: the hard-liners knock heads with the folks who want to just get along, and the cracks are beginning to show.At the center of this controversy is the humanist chaplain of Harvard University, a 30-year-old "secular rabbi" named Greg Epstein. In March, in remarks to the Associated Press, Epstein called the popular writers Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins "atheist fundamentalists." He accused the best-selling authors—he now includes Christopher Hitchens among them—of being more interested in polemics, in tearing...
  • Remembering Ruth Bell Graham

    Mornings were chaos. “Four full-blooded little Grahams,” the young mother wrote in her journal. “ I feel this a.m. it’s gotten quite beyond me. They fight, they yell, they answer back. Breakfast is dreadful ... Now they’ve gone off to school looking nice enough (for once) and with a good breakfast but with the scrappiest of family prayers ... Grumbling, interrupting, slurring one another, impudent to me. So now they’re off, I’m in bed with my Bible thinking it through—or rather, trying to.”Ruth Bell Graham wrote this in 1957 while her husband Billy Graham was off crusading in New York City, a reminder that behind public lives—for no one has lived more publicly than Billy Graham—are extraordinary lives lived in private. The passage also makes the poignant point that with her death on June 14 at age 87, the Graham family has lost its heart. “I am so grateful to the Lord that He gave me Ruth,” Billy Graham said in a statement issued after her death. “Especially for these last few years...
  • BeliefWatch: Budding Buddhists

    The Beliefnet.com post is typical teenage angst, but with a twist. Mother is a zealous new convert to Roman Catholicism. Father is along for the ride. "Silentmist" wants an answer to this question: "How should I go about telling [my mother] about my Buddhism?"We should have seen this coming. The baby boomers experimented with everything; they left their childhood faiths for other faiths or nothing at all; they intermarried and raised their children to be "spiritual but not religious." Now a small but growing number find themselves in the uncomfortable but not necessarily unhappy position of driving their high-school-age kids to Buddhist retreats. Diana Winston, the author of "Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens," has been teaching Buddhism to youth for more than a decade, and she says she's seen it change from a fringe practice to something normal and accepted, especially on the coasts. (In the middle of the country, Winston says, kids sometimes practice Buddhism in secret; they...
  • BeliefWatch: Bible-Based Edutainment

    This summer, tourists who want attractions with a Christian flavor have at least two new options to choose from. The first, opening to the public June 5, is the Billy Graham Library, situated on 63 acres in Charlotte, N.C. For historians, the draw is the archives: the personal papers, drafts of sermons and correspondence of the man who for 60 years has been the most prominent and popular evangelist in the world. For children and families, it may be the cold milk and cookies in the café, or the replica of the dairy farm that was Graham's childhood home and the animatronic (i.e., "talking") cow, which invites them on a scavenger hunt.Far more controversial is the Creation Museum, the brainchild of an Australian evangelist named Ken Ham. Opening this week in northern Kentucky not far from the Cincinnati airport, the museum is devoted to the idea that the creation story in Genesis is literally true and that the Earth is just 6,000 years old. (Scientists put the age of the Earth at 4.5...
  • BeliefWatch: Jehovah's Witnesses

    With a presidential candidate, a recent television special and 13 million adherents worldwide, the Mormons have gotten an extra dose of media attention lately. But there's another indigenous American religion that is now making a bid for the spotlight. Formed in the 19th century, four decades after the Latter-day Saints, it, too, emphasizes a bizarre-seeming afterlife, attracts clean-cut and socially conservative adherents, encourages its members to evangelize and raises the ire of more-mainstream believers suspicious of its claims to Christianity. With "Knocking," a documentary airing this week on PBS, director Joel Engardio draws back the curtain on America's million Jehovah's Witnesses.People know of Witnesses, if they know of them at all, as the folks who refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance. They also don't celebrate birthdays or Christmas, they don't vote, they don't fight in wars and they refuse to accept blood transfusions, even in life-threatening circumstances.They...
  • BeliefWatch: Entombed

    In interviews with NEWSWEEK in the days before the announcement of the "Jesus family tomb" (the suburban Jerusalem cave said to contain the bones of Jesus and his relatives, a claim that later turned out to be overblown), publishers and publicists worried aloud that the public might be suffering from what they called "ossuary fatigue." What they meant was this: how many first-century bone boxes can archeologists boast of finding before people stop caring about first-century bone boxes? (Especially, one might ask in retrospect, when those discoveries often tend to be not so historically important.) The answer is: a lot. It's always cool when someone digs up a relic related to the Biblical past, and last week's alleged discovery of the tomb of King Herod is no different.This time around, it was the archeologist Ehud Netzer, a respected Israeli scholar whose lifelong dream had been to find Herod's grave. He has been excavating Herodium, the palace complex Herod built near Jerusalem,...
  • Pope's Book: A Lifetime of Learning

    Who was Jesus, really? It has become acceptable, even fashionable, lately to speak of the Christian Lord in casual terms, as though he were an acquaintance with a mysterious past. Pope Benedict's trip to Brazil last week revived an old retelling of the Christian story in which Jesus is cast as a social revolutionary determined to overthrow the established order. The massive success of "The Da Vinci Code" reflected the hunger of millions to see Jesus as a regular person—a man with a wife and a child, a popular teacher whose true life story was subverted by the corporate self-interest of the early church. A look at any best-seller list reveals a thriving subcategory of readable scholarly and pseudo-scholarly books about the "real" Jesus: he was, they claim, a sage, a mystic, a rabbi, a boyfriend. He was a father, a pacifist, an ascetic, a prophet. In some parts of the Christian world, the aspects of Jesus' story that most strain credibility—the virgin birth and the physical...
  • BeliefWatch: Drinkers Vs. Drivers

    Who are you for? The cabbies or the airport commission? In Minneapolis, that most open-minded of American cities, the debate has gotten vicious. This week the airport will begin imposing strict sanctions on cabdrivers who refuse to pick up passengers carrying alcohol. After two offenses, a driver can have his license—his livelihood, in other words—revoked for two years.Of the 900 drivers who service the airport at Minneapolis-St. Paul, three quarters are Somali immigrants, and most of these are observant Muslims who believe that carrying, selling or imbibing alcohol is sinful. Several years ago some drivers began turning down passengers who visibly carried alcohol—a bottle from the duty-free shop, for example. According to the airport authority, passengers were refused nearly 5,000 times over the past four years. In those cases, a dispatcher would send the driver to the back of the line and the passenger would get the next available cab.Early this year the whole thing blew up. After...
  • God, War and the Presidency

    During his tour in Vietnam, Angelo Charles Liteky, a Roman Catholic chaplain, often traveled with the forward line because he thought it was important to know what the boys out front were feeling. That way, when they broke down, he would be better able to persuade them to soldier on. On Dec. 6, 1967, Liteky was near the village of Phuoc Lac when his battalion came under heavy fire. Walking upright through raining bullets, Liteky singlehandedly dragged 20 wounded soldiers to a landing strip so they could be evacuated. "It was strictly compassion," he tells NEWSWEEK. "We are supposed to grow in love, and when I saw these guys just getting killed all around me, there was nothing for me to do but go and help them." The next year, President Lyndon Johnson gave Liteky the congressional Medal of Honor.History's battlefields have almost always held a place for men and women of God—someone to inspire and give comfort, give parents and fiancées the bad news, file forms, educate, pray for...
  • BeliefWatch: Circumcision Debate

    Poor "Misha." Caught in a terrible custody war, this 12-year-old boy from Washington state has become a cause célèbre for a diverse group of activists. Here are the facts, in brief: Misha lives with his father, who has sole custody and who recently converted to Judaism. The father wants Misha to convert as well, and so he wants Misha circumcised. The boy's mother, who is Russian Orthodox, is against it. Doctors Opposing Circumcision, an activist group, started circulating Misha's story online, asking for donations for Misha's defense. A lower court affirmed the father's right to circumcise his son but has allowed the mother to exhaust her legal options before he does so; now the mother hopes that her case will be taken up by the Oregon Supreme Court. The boy's own desires remain unclear.Two weeks ago, Richard Dawkins, the Oxford don, noted atheist and author of "The God Delusion," posted Misha's story on his Web site. Dawkins was irate, calling Misha's father's intentions ...
  • BeliefWatch: Strong Reaction to Chocolate Jesus

    Last Monday, as Christians around the globe prepared for Holy Week and Easter, the Italian-American artist Cosimo Cavallaro was leading a car chase through the streets of New York City. With reporters trailing close behind, Cavallaro drove a refrigerated truck through narrow, clogged streets until he finally lost his pursuers and came to rest at an undisclosed—but large, cool and accommodating—location. There, he unloaded his masterpiece: a life-size sculpture of Jesus Christ, totally nude and made entirely of dark chocolate.The week before, plans to display the sculpture at a Manhattan gallery were scrapped when Christian groups protested the upcoming exhibition. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League called it "one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever." Newspapers and blogs from Winnipeg to Romania picked up the story and, as a sign of how tense things have become on both sides of the culture wars, the artist and his wife began receiving death threats on their...
  • BeliefWatch: Islam and Interfaith Marriage

    Unlike Judaism, Islam is passed down through the father. The Qur'an even grants a Muslim man permission to marry a Jewish or Christian woman, so long as she is chaste. "A believing maid is better than an idolatrous woman," the holy text says. Thus it was for centuries: Muslim men married other women of the Book, who were permitted to practice their own religion but were absorbed into their husband's family along with their Muslim children.Fast-forward to modern-day America. An entire generation of American Muslims, whose parents emigrated here in the 1970s, is coming of age. They've been to elite colleges, they're in the professions and they're ready to settle down. And so the cycle of hand-wringing over intermarriage begins again. For assimilated Muslim men, intermarriage doesn't present too big a dilemma because the tradition endorses it. "I'm actually a big proponent of intermarriage," says Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. ...
  • GodTube: What Would Jesus Download?

    What would Jesus download? One of the hottest sites on the Internet is GodTube.com, the Christian answer to YouTube. It's a goofy, fascinating window into the world of Christian youth. There's a clip of Ray Comfort, the popular evangelical preacher, demonstrating the perfection of God's creation with an actual banana. It's hard—OK, impossible—not to see it as an (unintentional?) dirty joke. Another clip sends up the hip-hop anthem "Baby Got Back": This version is called "Baby Got Bible" and contains hilarious lyrics like "Bless me, bless me and teach me about John Wesley."GodTube is the brainchild of Chris Wyatt, an excitable 38-year-old student at the Dallas Theological Seminary and former television producer and Internet entrepreneur. In 1999, he says, he "hit a bump in the road, and my mother told me I had to get to know the Lord." Within six weeks he had found Jesus, and in the years that followed, he tried his hand at various Christian enterprises, including a Christian version...
  • BeliefWatch: Evangelical Split Over Environment

    What has Rich Cizik done to make Jim Dobson so mad? Cizik has, for 26 years, been the Washington-based lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, a job one would hardly call high profile. Over the past year, though, he has become something of a celebrity: the evangelical leader who speaks for the cause of environmentalism.Last week Dobson, the paterfamilias of Focus on the Family and the religious right's standard-bearer and junkyard dog, signed a letter with two dozen others, excoriating Cizik for his environmental activism. Cizik is out of his depth on the issue, the letter argued, and assumes a consensus where there is none. "If [Cizik] cannot be trusted to articulate the views of American evangelicals on environmental issues," said the letter, "then we respectfully suggest that he be encouraged to resign his post." To an outsider, the irate tone of the letter seemed odd. What had Cizik really done? Why would Dobson, arguably the most powerful evangelical in politics,...
  • Are Americans Ignorant About Religion?

    Steve Prothero is the kind of professor who makes you want to go back to college. During an hour lecture of his Boston University course "Death and Immortality," 200 students sat rapt last week as his train of thought led him from the Docetics (early Christians who believed that Jesus was all-God, not flesh), to reincarnation, to Disney World, to Hindu cremation rituals, to Plato's account of Socrates' trial (the day's assigned reading), to "Beauty and the Beast," to a hypothetical suicidal bunny, to a discussion of the merits of exile versus death for a man such as Socrates. To describe Prothero as "quick-witted" or his interests as "interdisciplinary" wouldn't quite do him justice. Prothero is a world-religions scholar with the soul of a late-night television comic.This month, HarperSanFrancisco will publish Prothero's new book "Religious Literacy," a work whose message is far more sober than its author's affect. In spite of the fact that more than 90 percent of Americans say they...
  • BeliefWatch: Refocusing Faith on Service

    On the day of John F. Kennedy's funeral, Robert Kennedy wrote his eldest child, who was 12, a short note: "Dear Kathleen," it said, "you seemed to understand that Jack died and was buried today. As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren—you have a particular responsibility now—a special responsibility to John and Joe. Be kind to others and work for your country. Love, Daddy."Kathleen Kennedy Townsend grew up in that kind of Roman Catholic family, the kind that—in spite of the imperfections of individual members—put country and duty above personal pain, the kind that put the suffering of those with less above the suffering of those with more. In a new book, "Failing America's Faithful," Kennedy Townsend joins former senator Jack Danforth and other "old school" politicians in mourning a world in which being Christian meant caring for others and making sacrifices to solve problems.And so she suggests reforms that she believes will revitalize her beloved Catholic Church and refocus the...
  • BeliefWatch: Reporting on America's Muslims

    In the aftermath of 9/11, when the offices of The Wall Street Journal were temporarily moved from Ground Zero to SoHo, a young journalist sat at his desk and edited one story after another about the Muslim world abroad. Jihad this, fatwah that, Sunni, Shia, how do you spell hijab? "It occurred to me that I was almost entirely ignorant about Muslims in this country," he says, and like any good reporter, he was moved to find out more. So Paul Barrett picked up his laptop and hit the road, hoping to bring his investigative chops to a subject that few had ever approached with care: American Muslims.Happily for us, the result is the book "American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion," out this month from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Through seven profiles, including an inner-city imam, a philosopher and a feminist—Barrett (formerly a Wall Street Journal colleague of mine) paints a picture of Muslims that is, as he put it last week at a talk in Los Angeles, "no less diverse...