The Culture Beat

October 29, 2009

The White House’s War on Fox News–by the numbers

Filed under: Miscellaneous — Alex @ 12:44 pm

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This blog rarely discusses politics–it’s about culture after all and political topics can quickly blow up into heated conflicts. But I do want to observe one point about the recent attacks by high-level White House officials against the cable news channel. Having singled Fox News out as “not a news outlet,” or “a wing of the Republican party,” the White House has generated attention from other news outlets and when Fox was told it couldn’t participate in the pool coverage of a Treasury official, the other news channels refused to participate without Fox, putting free press principles above whatever feelings they may have about Fox News.

I doubt the White House would be so heavy handed if Fox’s ratings weren’t so big. Look at these viewer rankings and be amazed. Based on which grouping you look at, total viewers, individual shows, audience demographics, Fox News rates two to three times as large as the competition. Other news channels are small by comparison (but of course, most news audience size is small in comparison with entertainment audiences).

Would the Obama administration be so acrimonious if Fox News got CNN’s or others’ lower than half a million viewers? It would seem pettier than it already looks for the executive branch to be complaining about a news outlet that regularly questions its policies and actions. Of course, given that survey’s show that sizable portions of Fox’s audience is made up of independent and Democratic voters, perhaps President Obama should put on his Happy Warrior face and confidently and boldly engage that audience, trying to persuade them–after all, he’d be reaching a lot more people more quickly than at the other news channels.

September 21, 2008

There’s a new mosque in town

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,Miscellaneous — Culture Beat @ 9:37 pm

Johnson City, Tenn., quietly crossed a threshold in July when the city’s first purpose-built Islamic center opened its doors, a 9,600-square-foot home for the small but growing Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.

A mosque – or to use the preferred Arabic term, a masjid (mahs-JEED’) – might have once seemed out of place in a medium-sized town in the old Bible Belt, but no more. With national trends and regional growth comes greater diversity, particularly with magnets such as the medical and health industries and East Tennessee State University. We’re all neighbors now.

The new building is located on Antioch Road, bordering Willow Springs Park on about three acres of land that the Muslim community bought 10 years ago. Construction started last year, after the members had saved enough money to pay for the half-million-dollar building outright. A loan was out of the question, since Islamic law forbids dealing with loan interest. (Strictly speaking, Jewish law and early Christian practice carried the same prohibition.)

A masjid is essentially a simple structure with simple purposes: It is a gathering place for worship, prayers and community events. Muslims do not “consecrate” or bless their buildings, although the members are considering a “grand opening” to invite the wider community.

“We believe all the world is a place for prayer,” explained MCNET leader Taneem Aziz.

The structure looks ordinary – the tan siding and deck could belong to any house or building – except for the large green dome on the roof.

The main prayer room, a carpeted rectangle about 30 feet by 75 feet (pictured here, before carpeting), is precisely aligned to face east, toward Mecca, as dictated by Muslim custom. The worship leader sits in a small alcove on the east wall, underneath a handcrafted panel with decorative Arabic script that calls people to prayer. No pews or chairs are here, since people normally stand, kneel and bow to the ground in Muslim services.

About 300 people can worship in that room – that is, about 300 men, since Muslim services are segregated by gender. The women’s area is separated by a wall with six large windows fitted with one-way glass, a clever feature that allows women to view the main room but, for the sake of modesty, prevents men from looking in.

The building also includes a kitchen and classrooms, and bathrooms truly meant for bathing, with areas for ritual washing of feet — short, tiled pillars as seats that face low shower heads over a draining area. The mirrors are bordered with intricate tile patterns.

The basement waits for the funds to be finished. Aziz said it will be used for gatherings, meals, recreation and other social events.

That would be called a fellowship hall in a lot of churches, I told him.

“A fellowship hall,” he repeated softly. “I like that. That’s a good term.”

It’s a long way from the first meetings of the Muslim Student Association at ETSU almost two decades ago, which gathered in the basement of a member’s home. The group grew large enough to buy and renovate a house on Division Street in 1994, which served as the community center until now. About 70 households are actively involved now, Aziz said.

Since the masjid opened, several people have become active members, including those who have come and gone in the past and local Muslims who never appeared until now. The modest growth is encouraging, and the members hope to call a full-time imam to lead worship and guide the community. No one knows when that might happen.

For now, they plan to steadily increase their activities – such as scheduling prayer gatherings five times a day, according to Muslim custom – confident that having the close proximity to the university and the medical center will permit many of their members to attend during the day.

Aziz said they also plan to organize public talks and other gatherings – both social and educational – and invite non-Muslims to visit.

“This is not only for our community, but also to let people know about Islam,” Aziz said. “The facility will give us the chance to invite other people for fellowship.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 20 Sept. 2008.

July 20, 2008

There’s no need to fear … Dave Ramsey is here!

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,Miscellaneous — Culture Beat @ 3:50 pm

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With oil prices hitting record highs and food prices not far behind, a headline-grabbing credit crisis, a weak dollar, bank failures and cascading home mortgage defaults and foreclosures, here’s the word from Dave Ramsey: Don’t panic.

Ramsey is an East Tennessee native (born in Maryville) who’s gone national with his plain-spoken and self-described “biblically based” financial advice, dispensed through seminars, books, video series and radio shows. Many people and institutions are in serious trouble, Ramsey says, but the sky isn’t falling. If people keep their wits and their discipline, they should be OK.

“There are pockets of the country that are really, really bad,” said Beth Tallent, a spokesperson for the Lampo Group, Ramsey’s Nashville-based organization. “But the situation isn’t as dramatic as the media make it out to be. Not everybody’s bank is going to fail.”

Ramsey’s advice for coping with high fuel prices comes down to “just good money management,” Tallent said this week. “You’ve got to do your budget so you know where your money goes. You will need to cut back on things you want so you can cover the things you need.”

A lot of Americans will take his words to heart. Ramsey, 47, oversees a multi-faceted and fast-growing financial advice service he started in 1988. That includes “The Dave Ramsey Show,” a daily three-hour call-in radio program on more than 350 stations, drawing about 3.5 million listeners a week.

Books with titles like “Your Total Money Makeover” and “Financial Peace” have climbed best-seller lists, and he takes his financial advice on the road throughout the country.

One of his cornerstone programs is Financial Peace University, a 13-week video workshop that has walked 650,000 people through his “baby steps” to financial security.

The secrets of his success: Get out of debt. Cut up the credit cards. Save for a rainy day and for big purchases. Pay cash. Embrace budgeting.

He knows this advice isn’t new. He’s just figured out how to package old wisdom in an era of high expectations for stuff and low thresholds for credit.

“The advice I give is God’s and Grandma’s ways of handling money,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It’s what I learned when I hit bottom and started working my way back.”

The bottom he hit was personal bankruptcy in the 1980s: He made millions in real estate, but lost it when hundreds of thousands of dollars in consumer debt caught up with him and his family. Forced into strict financial discipline, he worked in real estate to pay off debts, and then decided to offer people the tools that worked for him.

“The number one mistake people make is that they wander through life like Gomer Pyle on Valium,” Ramsey said, “and they wake up at retirement and wonder where all their money is. You have to be proactive. Tell your money what to do instead of wondering where it went. That means doing the dreaded B word – a budget.”

This is a spiritual matter for Ramsey. He presents his material in a way that any atheist could use, but he’s not afraid to talk about his faith.

“There are more than 800 scriptures in the Bible that relate to money,” he wrote. “Obviously God thought it was an important topic to talk about.”

Even his critics applaud his emphasis on getting out of debt and living within a budget, but some say his advice is too simplistic or that he emphasizes wealth too much for someone who follows Jesus. Ramsey rejects that charge.

“Money is not the root of all evil,” he replied. “The love of money is. Having money and making money is not a sin.”

To be fair, Ramsey frequently talks about good stewardship and generosity. The goal, he preaches, is be wise and generous with the money “that belongs to God anyway.”

The recent financial turmoil hasn’t increased the number of calls coming to Ramsey’s organization, but the questions are changing, according to Tallent.

“We’re getting more questions about foreclosures and adjustable mortgages,” she said. “We’ve been asked a lot about banks, whether to invest in gold or other options.”

Tallent isn’t sure if callers ask more about spiritual issues in these difficult times.

“That’s something to ponder,” she said. “But the current economy is getting people to wake up, and that’s a good thing.”

First pubished in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 July 2008.

June 14, 2008

AA and God (as we understand him)

Filed under: Faith Issues,Miscellaneous,The Church — Culture Beat @ 4:26 pm

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A dozen men were sitting around a plain room one night this week in Johnson City, Tenn., and one of them – call him Freddie – wanted to talk about forgiveness. He had caused some trouble for his girlfriend, lied about it and then got caught. When he called her a few days later, she said she forgave him.

But Freddie was worried. Did she mean it? How can a person know he’s forgiven?

The other men murmured encouragement and then in turn talked about their own experiences and ideas about forgiveness. This was an important topic.

Each one introduced himself the same way: “I’m ____, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Welcome to Alcoholics Anonymous.

After everyone spoke, the chairman aimed some tough love in Freddie’s direction.

“Well, the first thing you need to do is to cut that s— out and not do it again,” he said with a laugh that softened the blow. “If you do that again, you’re just done.”

Then he cited Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer: “She needs to forgive, if she wants to be forgiven. And so do you. We’re all in this together. None of us is clean. We’re all sinners.”

Alcoholics Anonymous and its members avoid the spotlight for obvious reasons, so it was easy to miss this week’s anniversary: On June 10, 1935, a stockbroker and a surgeon formed the first “AA” group in Akron, Ohio, with a simple idea: They would actively support each other’s desires to stop drinking.

That modest start has mushroomed into a worldwide network with more than two million members. Its legendary “12 steps” to sobriety is now part of the cultural vocabulary, applied to all sorts of compulsive behavior, from taking narcotics to shopping.

On any given day, at least a dozen AA groups meet in the Tri-Cities area. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.

AA is determinedly not a religious group, as the chairman quickly explained when I introduced myself before the meeting. But it is spiritual, right? He nodded yes.

The “12 Steps” and other AA literature repeatedly refer to God or spiritual life in some form. (Step 2: “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Step 3: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”) Members say it’s impossible to understand AA without that component.

That’s not to say spirituality is absolutely necessary for recovering alcoholics to get sober, according to Jon Webb, a psychology professor at East Tennessee State University who has studied both addiction and spirituality. Other effective forms of therapy don’t call on any “higher power.”

But AA is different: it presumes that recovering alcoholics need resources they can’t supply themselves.

“Part of the bottom line is the person’s own sense of spirituality, not something that’s imposed,” Webb said. “It has to fit for the person. AA is trying to help people find their own source of spirituality, their own source of power outside themselves. It works, we know, but we’re not sure why. Research is still being done. One paper indicates that as spirituality increases over time, drinking decreases over time.”

Being in a group is also an essential element of AA, to the extent that discussions about “spirituality” and “community” almost completely overlap.

AA groups meet five nights a week at Watauga Avenue Presbyterian Church, involving about 100 people, and Pastor George Rolling sees an interlocking relationship between AA’s spiritual dimension and its group life.

“In theory, community can be bereft of spiritual aspects, but not in real terms,” he said. “It takes a community for someone to acknowledge there’s a problem and to get help, as opposed to taking on the problem alone. A lone individual is working against tremendous odds. There’s no substitute for a community of faith or active belief. People need community to steer them in truthful directions.”
Rolling also thinks that Christians can learn some lessons from AA.

“They are totally nonjudgmental,” he said. “They will never call out a fellow member. They are supporters – encouraging, praying. One for all, all for one. They share a common need.”

He paused a moment.

“Don’t we all?”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 14 June 2008.

January 19, 2008

Network (not the movie)

Filed under: Miscellaneous,The Church — Culture Beat @ 10:27 am

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This is a story about networking.

After Steven Jones was appointed as a general session and juvenile court judge in Sullivan County, Tennessee, in 1984, he quickly realized that many of the problems in his courtroom could never be solved by prison terms or fines. Their roots ran too deep.

Most troubling to him, many teenagers in his court were trapped in a dead-end life without help from home, school or any agency. There was no full-time juvenile court system, much less any other support for kids headed for danger.

“We had a monster of a problem with no resources,” he recalls. That situation, he decided, needed to change.

So, for his entire 23-year career on the bench and since his retirement last year, Jones has voluntarily poured himself into raising awareness – and money – for programs to help at-risk children. He traveled nights and weekends around the country, building connections to launch and sustain programs helping children get out of trouble or, better yet, avoid it in the first place.

As the years passed and juvenile case numbers dropped, Jones learned to negotiate the maze of public funding, discovered sources of grant money and gained grant-application skills that would prove valuable.

He also noticed the work of many faith-based organizations – their aid to poor and homeless people, children’s camps and after-school programs, counseling services and more. But their efforts were restricted by lack of money.

“They provide vital functions to the community, irrespective of their religious affiliation,” he said. “But it’s getting difficult, because many times they’re competing for the same dollar.”

Jones, a Christian, felt frustrated because faith-based groups not only missed out on funding that could serve the community, but they usually worked in isolation from each other.

Meanwhile, in 1994 Chris Martin, a Knoxville minister with a track record of coordinating inner-city development, “began catching a new vision,” he said, one for the entire city.

He formed the Knoxville Leadership Foundation, starting with a $40,000 budget to help local organizations coordinate programs for needy people in the five counties around Knoxville.

“It made more sense to work behind the scenes, to let others on the front line,” Martin said this week. “We wanted to help the city and help grow up indigenous leadership.”

Today, the foundation works with more than 200 organizations, reaches into 16 counties, and handles a $9 million budget. It operates some of its own programs but specializes in connecting people, organizations and their resources to address community needs.

The Knoxville foundation is part of the Leadership Foundations of America, a network of more than 30 similar organizations in the U.S. and abroad, with more to come. While these foundations are faith-based – Christian, to be specific – they bring together any community leaders and organizations to tackle problems facing poor people.

“It’s not rocket science, what we’re doing,” Martin said. “What we’ve offered is to be a friend in as many sectors (of the community) as possible, and through those relationships, recognize needs and then ask what we can do. That’s the important role of the Leadership Foundation: it ties the community together around the needs of the city.”

For his part, Jones’ work in the juvenile system led to his 2004 appointment to the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a select body organized through the U.S. Justice Department that coordinates federal programs aiming to prevent or reduce juvenile delinquency. The council works with numerous organizations.

That’s how Jones met Reid Carpenter, president of the Leadership Foundations of America, who, in turn, introduced Jones to Chris Martin. With a common cause, Jones and Martin began discussing the Tri-Cities area.

“Whether we do this now or later, we’ll have to look at having an organization that can link needs to the resources,” Jones explained. “We are a growing area, and Knoxville has already faced this battle. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

So these two Tennesseans have organized an open meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 23, for area congregations and faith-based organizations to explore how they might collaborate to address the needs of this region, including the search for funding.

It’s networking.

“What I’m trying to do is put together the people,” Jones said. “All I’m doing is trying to plant some seeds.”

The Jan. 23 meeting begins at 10:30 a.m., at the Quality Inn Conference Center in Kingsport, followed by a noontime lunch. To attend, phone 245-3141 or 349-0600.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 Jan 2008.

December 29, 2007

Top 10 religion stories of 2007 … Says who?

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,Miscellaneous,Politics — Culture Beat @ 11:38 pm

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It was bound to happen. Former Southern Baptist pastor and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, running second in polls for the GOP presidential nomination, is being snubbed by more than a few Southern Baptist leaders because, in part, they don’t think he was vocal enough during the denomination’s “conservative resurgence” during the last two decades.

So we have come to the point where a serious candidate for the Oval Office is being vetted by his track record in a denominational fight. If they were alive to see this, the framers of the Constitution would be chewing on their powdered wigs.

For his part, Huckabee is bemoaning the “chilling effect” of being abandoned by “my own,” perhaps assuming too much loyalty based on church ties.

Then there’s the question of Mitt Romney’s religion, which led him to give a speech two weeks ago to assure voters he would not turn the White House into a Mormon extension office, much as John F. Kennedy aimed to defuse worries about his Roman Catholicism in 1960.

And Democratic candidates – notably Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards – now are expected to talk freely about their faith, their prayer lives, their church involvement.

It’s no wonder that the role of religion in the presidential campaign has been named one of the top religion stories of 2007. Impressive, considering that 2008 hasn’t even begun and the first votes haven’t been cast.

Each December, the Religion Newswriters Association polls its active members on the top 10 religion news stories of the year, and this year politics took the top two slots: the dilemma facing evangelical voters about possible Republican presidential candidates, followed by the efforts of leading Democratic candidates to woo faith-based voters.

RNA is only one list, however. (Creating year-end lists is a popular hobby, like college football rankings.) Christianity Today, a leading monthly magazine for evangelical Christians, produces one, and this year so did Time magazine.

In addition to the religion-and-presidential-race story, all three also included, in different order, the disputes over gays and lesbians that threaten to split the worldwide Anglican Communion, with the argument centered on the United States’ Episcopal Church; the passing of several American church leaders, particularly Jerry Falwell; and the growth of environmental concerns, particularly global warming, among religious groups.

None of the lists agreed on the year’s top story, however. At the top of Time’s list was the August publication, a decade after her death, of Mother Teresa’s private letters and papers, including the revelation that she did not feel the presence of God for most of the last half of her life.

Resurgent Taliban forces in Afghanistan kidnapped 23 South Korean missionaries and murdered two of them before negotiations could be concluded: this was the year’s top religion story, according to Christianity Today.

Here are the rest of RNA’s top religion stories for 2007:

3. The role of gays and lesbians in clergy continues as a deeply dividing issue.

4. Global warming rises in importance among religious groups.

5. Illegal immigration is debated by religious leaders and groups on both sides of the issue.

6. Thousands of Buddhist monks lead pro-democracy protest in Myanmar, which is brutally crushed after a week.

7. Some conservative U.S. Episcopalians realign with Anglican bishops in Africa and elsewhere in the global South, initiating legal disputes about church property ownership.

8. The Supreme Court, by 5-4 votes, rules on the conservative side in three major cases with religious implications: upholding a ban on partial-birth abortions, allowing schools to establish some limits on students’ free speech, and denying a challenge to the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

9. Death takes evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell, Rex Humbard, D. James Kennedy, as well as Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, and Jim Bakker’s ex-wife, Tammy Faye Messner. Other deaths include Gilbert Patterson, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, and Bible scholar Bruce Metzger.

10. The cost of priestly sex-abuse to the Roman Catholic Church in the United States surpasses $2.1 billion, with a record $660 million settlement involving the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 29 Dec 2007.

November 26, 2007

Tennessee Baptists and 11 million thank-you notes

Filed under: Miscellaneous,The Church — Culture Beat @ 11:15 am

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Church gatherings are routinely described as harmonious, but no one should take that for granted. Consider this year’s Tennessee Baptist Convention, which met in Kingsport last week. The two-day meeting of 1,502 messengers, or delegates, dealt with several thorny and potentially divisive issues, and peace often comes with a steep price.

The most important piece of business, according to several church leaders, came as the meeting began, when convention officials announced the TBC had settled a dispute with Belmont University in Nashville after years of discussion and dickering over a change in their relationship.

Belmont has been affiliated with the convention since 1951, when it was a small, struggling women’s college. Today, Belmont is a co-educational university with almost 4,000 students and a growing national reputation, enhanced last week when it was named as one of three sites for next year’s presidential debates.

For 54 years, school trustees were required to be Southern Baptists and vetted by the TBC. Then in 2005, the trustees, including those representing the convention, amended the charter to allow up to 40 percent of the trustees to be Christians from non-Baptist denominations.

The reason, according to Jason Rogers, university vice president of administration and legal counsel, was that as the school’s student population, support and reputation expanded beyond Southern Baptist circles, university leaders wanted to reflect that shift.

“We had many discussions starting in 2004, and the convention executive board and committee on education had voted for the change,” he said. “It was all set to be approved by the convention in 2005, when the process was derailed.”

That was when a 1951 repayment agreement surfaced, stipulating that Belmont pay back all contributions from the convention if the school ever ceased drawing all its trustees from among Southern Baptists.

While Belmont had the right to change its charter and remains a Christian college, some church members balked. In September 2006, the convention filed a formal complaint, claiming Belmont owed about $57 million.

Belmont argued that as the relationship had evolved over five decades, the repayment agreement had, in effect, been left behind – a “historical artifact” rather than a binding contract. Tennessee Southern Baptists were headed to court.

The New Testament forbids Christians from suing fellow believers, and few people welcomed the prospect of the TBC and Belmont going toe to toe in a civil suit. Still, negotiations stalled for most of the past year, and a trial date was set for May 2008.

“There were a lot of conversations, we went through formal mediation, trying to come to a solution,” said the Rev. Clay Austin of Blountville, who chaired the TBC negotiating committee. “The convention filed a lawsuit because often lawsuits are filed to clarify the issues.”

Belmont considered the action a real threat, however, not just a way to clarify issues, according to Rogers. Both sides were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

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Then, just weeks before the Kingsport convention, two pastors – one a TBC representative and one a Belmont trustee – began private conversations in a last-ditch effort to break the legal logjam.

Authorized to carry on by both sides, the two pastors, along with single representatives from each organization – and no lawyers – hammered out an agreement in about a week.

It called for Belmont to give $1 million to the TBC in January 2008, and then follow with payments of $250,000 per year for the next 40 years, totaling $11 million. These “gifts” will go into an endowment to support Tennessee Baptist missions and ministries. (The settlement, Rogers pointed out, is similar to an early offer from Belmont.)

The settlement was delivered moments before last week’s convention began.

“I signed the agreement five minutes before it was announced,” said TBC Executive Director James Porch. “It was received well. The messengers wanted to get back to the main work, to evangelism and mission. We feel sadness that Belmont has left, but relieved that (the dispute) is over.”

Belmont considers the money “an expression of gratitude to Tennessee Baptists for the financial and spiritual support that they have provided to the University over the past five decades,” wrote Belmont trustees chairman Marty Dickens on the university Web site.

The settlement is “a win-win for everyone,” Rogers said. “It not only concluded a lawsuit. It saved everyone from the ongoing costs, and it expresses our gratitude to the Tennessee Baptist Convention.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 24 Nov. 2007.
Top image: Belmont University Student Center.

October 20, 2007

Living On

Filed under: Faith Issues,Miscellaneous,Politics — Culture Beat @ 10:58 am

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Fred Jarvis remembers too much, or so he says. He can speak in detail about his own experiences in Nazi concentration camps, but ask him to recall specific scenes and his descriptions grow guarded.

“It was a constant issue of survival, hour to hour, looking for something to eat. But there was nothing to eat,” said Jarvis, 72. “I remember the horror, the hunger, the desperation.”

Jarvis, who has lived in Bristol for 15 years, is one of 64 Tennesseans (and the only one from the state’s northeast corner) whose Holocaust memories make up an exhibit currently at the Reece Museum at East Tennessee State University.

Living On: Portraits of Tennessee Survivors and Liberators,” a project of the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, features portraits and stories of individuals who lived through the Holocaust or, as U.S. soldiers, helped liberate the camps. Since opening last month, attendance has been “packed,” according to Museum Director Theresa Burchett. This is the exhibit’s last stop on a two-year statewide tour, ending Nov. 29.

The project, featuring photos by Robert Heller and interviews by journalist Dawn Weiss Smith, was created to help people remember or learn about the Holocaust, as the generation that lived through it passes away. That purpose appealed to Jarvis, who started talking about his experiences only in the last few years.

Jarvis

“I’m a survivor,” he said, “and I’m obligated to be a witness.”

Jarvis was 5 years old in 1940 when he and his parents were sent to labor camps in Nazi-controlled Vichy France. They escaped and hid for almost a year but were recaptured. When Jarvis was 7, his parents were transported to Auschwitz and killed. He escaped that same fate because a 17-year-old girl, a complete stranger, came to the camp the day before they were taken away.

“She told my mother that where they were going was not good. ‘Give me your child,’ she said,” Jarvis recalled. “Mother handed me over. Imagine what that must have been like, but my mother saved both her children.” (His brother had been sent to England for refuge in 1939.)

The girl worked with OSE – Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, or the Society for the Rescue of Children. This humanitarian organization saved some 5,000 Jewish children during World War II by caring for them in orphanages and hiding them with sympathizers in rural French homes. Future Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel was among those children. So was Jarvis, who was living with an elderly woman near Lyon, posing as her nephew, when American troops arrived in late 1944.

“The GIs gave us everything we never had – chocolate, peanut butter, chewing gum,” he remembered. “And to be free was the greatest day in my life. Here was a child who never had a childhood; all I knew was war. Suddenly I was free. It was indescribable, exhilarating.”

After the war, OSE gathered the orphans and, as Jarvis put it, “tried to bring us back to normalcy as much as possible,” providing medical care and education. The intensive lessons included Scripture and Hebrew.

“That was the beginning of my religion,” he said. “OSE instilled Judaism in me.”

Throughout the war, Jarvis never had a chance to learn much about his religion.

“I just knew that I was being hunted because I was Jewish,” he said. “I knew only what was happening to me, and that it was evil.”

After the war, Jarvis came to live with an aunt in New York City, where he lived for more than 40 years. There he eventually met his wife of 23 years, Mary, who is from Bristol, and family ties brought them to this area. Today he works as a commercial photographer and is a leader in the B’nai Sholom synagogue.

“I know there are Holocaust survivors who don’t believe in God,” he said, “but I’m not one of them. Most of those I know have a strong faith in God.”

After the horrors they witnessed, how can that be?

“How can it not be?” he replied. He quoted Wiesel, who visited Bristol in 2004 as part of B’nai Sholom’s centennial, which Jarvis organized. “We all should have been animals, but we were brought back to being human beings.”

Originally published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 20 October 2007.
Top photo: Children at Rivesalte concentration camp, one of two camps where Jarvis and his family were held. The other camp was nearby Gurs.
Bottom photo: Jarvis’ portrait in “Living On,” by Robert Heller (University of Tennessee-Knoxville).

October 8, 2007

Boycotting Television

Filed under: Miscellaneous,Television — Culture Beat @ 7:34 pm

Damien Thorn in the original OmenSo, what’s wrong with kids today? Ask that and you tend to get a thousand different answers. In regards to pop culture, you get these kinds of answers: too much fill-in-the-alarmist-blank on television and in movies. Granted, tv is so sexualized, I’m embarrassed to watch some commercials. Granted, there’s so much violence, I’m completely desensitized (and, yes, during chick flicks, I will wonder outloud when someone’s getting her head cut off, because it will definitely make it more entertaining). We talk about kids being spoiled, the latest technology sprouting out of their ears in the form of iPods, cellphones, and now the brilliant merger of those, the iPhone. We talk about kids being over-scheduled and certain circles worry about preschools and whether little Johnny is good enough.

And all of it may be true.

But I found another culprit last night that might explain what’s wrong with kids. Their parents. No big surprise, right? But the evidence I discovered as I watched television last night is so innocuous, so basically all-American, that to blame it for anything seems absurd.

What is it? America’s Funniest Videos, now in its 18th season. Now, I like slapstick — maybe even more than most people. I find people falling off trampolines/skateboards/bikes/pogo sticks endlessly entertaining. I’m one of those people who will try unsuccessfully to not laugh while asking you if you’re okay — especially if my question will be followed by the words, “What were you thinking?”

AFV and its host Tom BergeronHowever, the winners of the big prize are not in the slapstick category. Nor are they in the cute-and-clever animal category. They are in the bratty kid category (e.g., kid spitting on birthday candles). Again last night — as I’ve seen in the past — the big winner was a three year old arguing with his grandmother after she took away his airplane when he hit her in the head twice with it. And people not only ooh and aah over this little Damien incarnation but vote to give him the big prize.

It’s not Damien’s fault. He’s just doing what kids do. Or used to do until Dad came in and threatened violence if we kept talking to Mom that way, let alone Grandma. But now we have Dad holding the camera while Mom eggs on the tantrum, all for the lure of ten thousand dollars. It’s bizarro world when we realize that a parental figure is actually filming all this and doing nothing.

So in addition to boycotting (or at least not watching) sex and violence, let’s also boycott the rewarding of tantrumic children and their camcorder-wielding parents. Please. It’s for the children.

August 25, 2007

Fearless

Filed under: Faith Issues,Miscellaneous — Culture Beat @ 12:37 pm

WataugaLake PondMtn

I thought about Rodney Oakes as I got ready to jump off the top of a 32-foot pole on Monday.

I was at Doe River Gorge Christian Camp in Hampton, Tenn., during a day out for new Milligan College students, trussed up in climbing gear for the so-called Leap of Faith. The idea: climb to the top of a utility pole and then jump for a trapeze bar suspended up and away about 10 feet.

The goal is to help people overcome their fears, and several possibilities came to mind. Fear of heights, for starters. Fear of falling (even the best equipment can fail). Fear of failure. Fear of failure with everyone on the ground watching.

As it happened, I did it about 95 percent right: climbed, balanced, jumped. But I missed the bar by about an inch. That last five percent is a killer.

But as I was gently lowered to the ground, I thought Rodney would be pleased.

He died last week, four days after his houseboat exploded on Lake Watauga, burning more than half his body. The death of this vibrant man, a Carter County native who acted two decades younger than his 72 years, sent a shock not only through his large extended family but also through the church family we shared at Hopwood Christian Church and beyond. It didn’t seem possible.

Wisely, the family knew a small church building couldn’t contain the memorial service, so they got permission to use Seeger Chapel at nearby Milligan College. I first thought the crowd would be swallowed up in that giant space, but I needn’t have worried: almost 600 people from all over the country attended last Saturday’s service.

And for what? Rodney wasn’t famous, wasn’t powerful in the way most people measure power, wasn’t a celebrity. He won no great awards. His career swung from insurance sales to youth ministry to truck driving.

The answer became obvious as children and grandchildren and cousins and friends and colleagues stood to tell stories about a man with a rare capacity for generosity and friendship for just about anyone he knew – and more than a few people he didn’t know.

His open-handed ways easily mixed with a deep love of the outdoors, and he cheerfully took groups of teens and college students on boat rides, camping retreats and work trips.

And the man was fearless. Our pastor said his introduction to Rodney Oakes came during one of Rodney’s legendary winter camping trips. Hiking in, he watched – first in alarm and then in amazement – as Rodney inched across a snow-covered beam on the remains of an old railroad bridge. One slip and he’d be gone. But he didn’t slip. What’s more, our pastor said he found himself following the man.

There was hardly anything, it seems, Rodney wouldn’t try.

We could learn from a man like that, especially in these fear-filled times. Everything from tissue paper to foreign policy is packaged with fear. Dr. Phil’s TV ratings depend on it. The most common commandment in the Bible may be “Fear not,” but you’d never know it in this supposedly Judeo-Christian society of ours. We’re well schooled in anxiety.

Rodney was a one-man antidote for that. Some people would say it was just his nature, but he would credit his faith in Jesus. Whatever the explanation, Rodney pitched himself headlong into most everything he did.

A person who’s not worried about gaining or losing stuff isn’t afraid to share it. Someone who isn’t afraid to make mistakes – and to hear his family and friends, he made his share of them – is free to turn them into adventures. I think Rodney honestly believed there was no mistake too big or no error too serious that it couldn’t be fixed or forgiven.

His Christian faith taught him not to fear even death, and that trust released him to live as full a life as anyone I’ve known. Here was a man who didn’t let his fears ground him.

My safely tethered jump from a 32-foot pole was nothing. Still, I took it as a reminder to live a little more fearlessly, a little more like Rodney in that way.

We could use more people like him.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 25 August 2007.
Image: Watauga Lake and Pond Mountain, Tennessee. Photo by Johnny Molloy.

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