Press Column Saturday 17 February 2001

Who said of whom "In Michael I was beginning to be re-sensitised as to how badly adults need to be around children"? Itís easy to guess who said it once you realise that "Michael" is Michael Jackson, whose fondness for children has cost him millions in an out of court settlement. In the whole wide world of spiritual leadership, there is only one man with the chutzpah for a remark like that: Shmuley Boteach has been interviewed again. Marks for effort if you chose their mutual friend Uri Geller. It makes you realise how vast the world must be when you realise it can contain without apparent strain all those three egos.

Emily Bearnís interview with Shmuley had some wonderful touches as well as that quote. I liked his description of Judaism as "the new Buddhism" which is as sharp a piece of brand positioning as you could hope to ask. He has further thoughts on the matter. "Judaism is the only religion which [says] you must feed the poor, but you donít have to feel their plight, which is where Christianity puts the emphasis. People want to be materialistic and to grow spiritually ó thatís why Hollywood people are so interested in Judaism."

I suppose this is no more than the up-market equivalent of "blab it and grab it" pentecostalism, without the need to mingle with horrible sweaty worshippers, or even to pray much. The only observance the Shmuley seems to think compulsory for his followers is that married couples (and everyone should marry) must have sex four times a week, in the missionary position, with the lights out, for twenty minutes to half an hour. This is not an observance that any man would admit is too onerous, but I wonder what Mrs Boteach, with six children by the age of thirty, thinks of this doctrine. Thank goodness she can afford lots of nannies. Shmuley claims to have sold extracts from Kosher Sex to Playboy for $200,000.

I had thought I was privileged to be in possession of the delicious rumour that Cristina Odone was being considered as the head of religious broadcasting at the BBC; I should have known the gig was up when two people swore me to secrecy about it even before Cristina herself had a chance to do so. But the Guardian media page took it seriously enough to mention her in a long piece about how the post was the subject of email prayer chains. I am not sure quite whose prayers and about what Cristina is the answer to but whatever else the BBCís religious output would be like with her in charge it would certainly be talked about and fun to make.

If nothing else, TV programs provide a peg for stories which might never otherwise get printed. There was a long interview in Mondayís Times with James Mawdsley, the Catholic who got himself put in a Burmese jail for fourteeen months by protesting against the regime there. He talked a lot about "rationality" which is interesting in someone whose actions the world would plainly consider irrational. Both his parents, and he himself, had had military training. "Certainly we donít have much time for being soft. Beig gentle is great and thereís nothing wrong with weakness, but I donít think thereís any excuse for being soft when so many people are suffering more."

This is what a lot of real martyrs must have been like. "One time in Australia I wasnít sure if I should carry on and I said to my uncle ĎWhat abot the family?í He said ĎJesus put a sword through his motherís heart.í That really opened my life. Should Jesus not have put a sword through his motherís heart. No. He didnít aim to do it, he just did what he was sent to do. We are told to strive to be like him." The word "martyr" of course means originally "witness" which almost exactly describes his purpose in returning for Burma for his second imprisonment; but checking this etymology, I find the Old Norse term was even more chilling: it translates literally as "torture-witness".

I donít quite know what religious people have to do get into the papers if they are not on television. Some of them, God knows, are trying hard enough. Three short items in the foreign pages suggest stories which might be worth following up: the Iranian Islamic Propaganda Organisation has announced, apparently with no more excitement than I use to pay my annual subscription to Rentokil; Cardinal Ratzinger has denounced rock music, Pop, and twentieth century opera; and there is a bald headline in the Guardian "Bishop charged with murder". But he is a Baptist on Grenada, so a certain lofty indifference may be in order. Still, I would love to know what might drive a man like that to strangle a sixteen-year-old girl; perhaps it would be possible to find some specialist prepared to tear themselves away from the English religious scene for long enough to investigate it as thoroughly as it deserves.

The San Francisco Chronicle is running a fascinating series this week on the second generation of all the new religious movements that sprang up in the Sixties. You can read it on their web site, and Iím looking forward to the one on the Children of God. The reporter has already done Moonies and Scientologists; and in a visit to the Scientologistsí headquarters, he found teenage recruits practising their "counselling" technique with the help of the bogus polygraph they call an E-meter. "Has anything been repressed?" they ask, and "Has anything been invalidated? Do you have a present-time problem? Is there an earlier time when someone said you had a present-time problem and you didn't have one?" Bu the victim of this treatment is a large stuffed teddy bear. The attendant spin doctor explained it was designed to give the trainee counsellors a safe way to practice using the E-meter: "If we did this with real people," he said, "we could get people very spiritually muddled up."

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