I received a handwritten letter from Emmy Award winning actor Leslie Jordan

Last year I received a handwritten letter from Emmy Award winning actor Leslie Jordan. Jordan, an openly gay actor and very short (4’11”), won an Emmy in 2006 for his role in Will and Grace. In the series he played Beverley Leslie, Karen’s nemesis and “frenemy.” (see below). I love this guy!

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Jordan responded to a survey question I sent out to hundreds of different people from all different walks of life. Each person was asked the same question: “What(if anything) should public schools teach children about religion?” My mailing list included prominent gay and lesbian figures in America, among others. What is interesting is every gay or lesbian person who responded to my survey question supports the teaching about religion in public schools, and many made it very clear in their letters that children need to understand how religion has been used and misused to inflict harm on people. Not surprising! Religion, and specifically the Bible, has certainly been used to justify hate and condemnation of homosexuals for hundreds of years. Consequently, what Jordan wrote did not overly surprise me. Excerpts from his letter can be seen below.

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Personally, I greatly admire Jordan’s statement about “the religion of kindness.” Perhaps it is time to create a religion entirely focused on kindness and nothing else. No theology, no hell or heaven, no miracle stories, just kindness. Hmmm… maybe we could call Kindnessism or Kindnessianity? Just a thought. Any takers? Seriously, with a face like Jordan’s, how could you not trust this man to be a credible founder of a new religion of kindness? I would be his first follower!

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An 8th grade boy at RWHS (my school) committed suicide yesterday

Yesterday an eight grade boy at Red Wing High School took his own life. I do not know all the details. We have been told that it was related to bullying. I am speechless. And the fact that there are still large and well-established churches around the world and here in Red Wing that teach that victims of suicide go straight to hell sickens me to no end. It sickens me! Someone on facebook made the below image in memory of Damon. I need to share it.

Three thought-provoking videos I use in class that are controversial to some people.

Most social studies teachers use videos in the classroom, and I am no exception. Three videos I use are Religulous, Kumare, and For the Bible Tells Me So. My intention is to push my students to critically think about religion, and these three videos are at the top of my list.

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Religulous, a word combining religion and ridiculous, is a video that many people of faith find offensive. Bill Maher does not hold back. His treatment of religion is comically brutal and certainly borders on disrespect (in my opinion). Yet, he clearly raises valid questions about the role of religion, questions my students appreciate and find relevant. I like this video because it epitomizes the growing tension and animosity between secular humanists and traditional religion. The video underscores the present day “culture war” in our society, a war I want my students to understand. But, more importantly, I want them to be able to intelligently rather than cynically participate in the discussion. In other words, I don’t want my kids to leave high school aspiring to bash religion anymore than I want to see them go out into the world eager to join a cult – I want them to understand the issues clearly and objectively!

The second video is Kumare. I used this video this year for the first time, and my students found it fascinating. The video is about how a young man from New Jersey dressed up as an Indian guru and convinced and tricked many educated adults into becoming his disciples. I use this video as a springboard for a discussion about how and why it is so easy for people to be attracted to religion and spiritual ideas and leaders, and the dangers it can pose.

The third video is For the Bible Tells Me So. This video critically looks at the Bible and the issue of homosexuality. I use this video to engage my students in discussions about historical context and culture. More specifically, I use it to teach my students about the inherent problems of biblical literacy, and how the Bible – and religion in general – has been used to justify hatred and personal prejudice. Yes, the Bible does say that when a “man lies with another man” it is an abomination. However, the Bible also says that eating shrimp is an abomination. SHRIMP1 Yet, for reasons unclear to my students, there are never any protests outside of Bubba Gump’s by the Westboro church. What would that even look like? I can only imagine (see photo)! The question I pose to my students is as follows: If the Bible calls both homosexuality and eating shrimp an abomination, why are shrimp eating people ignored by religious zealots? What is going on!? Needless to say, a great discussion then follows, and my student start to realize how problematic it is to argue that the Bible is the absolute word of God that must be followed word for word!

On the topic of “Biblical truth,” I also use the widely circulated (and fictitious) letter to Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Schlessinger is a popular American talk show radio host known for her conservative religious views. Several years ago she made it very clear to her audience and followers that homosexuals should be condemned because the Bible says so. For my students, the following letter to her is a great eye-opener about “God’s law.” Once again, my intention is not to belittle the Bible. No! Far from it! My intention is to help students understand the Bible. However, my critics do not see it that way. I’ll let you be the judge.

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My students are completely surprised to learn about Lilith, Adam’s first wife(?)

When I start my unit on Judaism I bring into the classroom my framed print of John Collier’s, Lilith. My students have no idea who she is, but many are familiar with Lilith Fair. When I tell them that Lilith (according to legend) was Adam’s first wife, their jaws drop. And none of them know that Lilith Fair, a celebration of female music and recording artists, is named after this mythical figure. Below are two of my students holding my print of her. Needless to say, my students immediately want to know more about Lilith, and they want to know why her story is not in the Bible.

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When I tell them the story about how Lilith left Adam and the Garden of Eden after being denied equality, and how God was then forced to make another woman (Eve), their jaws drop a little further. The story of Lilith is an amazing and enduring legend, and my students quickly realize that it is no coincidence that Lilith is also the name of a popular feminist Jewish magazine (see below).

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According to legend, Lilith later disguised herself as a serpent and returned to the Garden of Eden to tempt (help?) Eve gain knowledge of good and evil. Although this story is not in the Bible, the legend of Lilith was so popular in Medieval times that her image was worked into both the Sistine Chapel and Notre Dame Cathedral (see below).

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The story of Lilith demanding equality is well known. But the story does not stop there. Over time Lilith became demonized in legend, and she is considered by many to be the first demoness in history. During the Medieval era the death of a child was thought to be a result of Lilith, and a sword was often put under the bed of a child for protection. The “sword of protection” can still be found on Judeo-Christian apparel (see below).

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Hmmm… is it possible that Lilith was demonized by the early patriarchal leaders (men!) of both Christianity and Judaism in order to demonize the idea of gender equality and to keep women submissive to men? And why is Lilith’s story not in the Bible? Was it left out for political reasons? And what other stories were left out of the Bible?

As you can imagine, these questions are great springboards for discussion in my class. And my students become even more surprised, later during the Christianity unit, when they learn about the gnostic gospels, stories about Jesus that were excluded from the New Testament. However, in this case, typically, many of of students are aware that some gospel stories were excluded from the Bible. Why? They have seen The Da Vinci Code.

Another letter of support (this time from one of the “Four Horsemen”).

One day after receiving a wonderful letter of support from Bob Thurman (see my previous post) I received another letter from Daniel Dennett. Needless to say, April 17th and 18th were uplifting days for me. I’m feeling inspired!

Dan Dennett is the New York Times bestselling author of Breaking the Spell of Religion – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2007). He is also the author of the critically acclaimed book and documentary, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). He was also a member of the “Four Horsemen,” a round-table discussion video series produced by Richard Dawkins (2007). The four discussants (see below) were Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011). Mr. Dennett’s latest book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools For Thinking, comes out on May 6, 2013. In short, Dennett is a giant in his field, and I am one of his biggest fans. Why? Read on.

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As an instructor in a public school teaching about religion, I tell my students repeatedly that they need to be extremely careful when subscribing to any set of religious beliefs. I push them to understand what religion is all about, what needs it can fill, and what harm it can do. Consequently – and this should come as no surprise to my former students – I completely and wholeheartedly agree with the below quote by Mr. Dennett.

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I think I can safely say that with men such as Bob Thurman and Daniel Dennett with me, who can be against me? Oh, wait, I forgot – the fans of Glen Beck. But, then, perhaps I should forget it! Below is Daniel’s letter of support that I received on April 18th, 2013.

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P.S. If you are not aware of the negative comments directed at me and my class by the fans of Glen Beck’s online news network, TheBlaze, the link to the site is below. Enjoy.

http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/04/15/meet-the-teacher-whos-bringing-god-back-into-public-schools-but-who-says-hes-a-big-threat-to-religious-conservatives/