CULTURE DIGEST: Disciples of Christ 1st denomination to elect woman leader; latest Harry Potter book is darkest one yet

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) became the first major U.S. Protestant denomination to have a woman as its leader when it elected Sharon Watkins to serve as president for the next six years.

Watkins, 51, has served as senior minister of Disciples Christian Church in Bartlesville, Okla., for eight years, according to a July 26 release by Disciples News Service.

A graduate of Phillips Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, Watkins received overwhelming support as more than 3,000 delegates stood to register their “yes” votes for her during the denomination’s General Assembly in Portland, Ore. When no one stood to oppose her, the crowd erupted in applause.

“We are a church whose time has come,” Watkins said as she took the podium, later adding that “God is calling us to sing a new song,” in reference to placing women in top leadership roles.

Also at the General Assembly, delegates adopted a resolution “denouncing hate speech and action aimed at gay and lesbian individuals.” The Gay, Lesbian and Affirming Disciples Alliance sponsored a pre-assembly event called “Jesus Calls Us ... OUT,” which was scheduled to be held at First Christian Church in Portland.

Another resolution called upon Israel to tear down the fence it is building to shield itself against terrorist attacks from neighboring Palestinians. It also asked the U.S. government to “engage actively, fully and fairly in a peace process that will lead to the peaceful coexistence of both Israel and a Palestinian state.”

Mark Tooley, a spokesman for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, expressed disappointment in the Disciples of Christ Assembly’s decision to follow the United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church USA in targeting Israel exclusively for condemnation.

“Typically, when mainline church officials address the Mideast, they identify Israel as the source of all problems in the region, with the United States being villain number two,” Tooley said. “... Churches in America, when they address human rights concerns in the Middle East, need to be more even-handed, factual and less swayed by failed theological and political fads in this country.”

HARRY POTTER TALE IS DARKEST YET -- As children and adults worldwide scramble to pick up the latest offering in the Harry Potter book series, many are noticing that as the young wizard matures he is encountering increasing darkness.

Liesl Schillinger, in her assessment of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” for The New York Times Book Review July 31, said the novel is packed with “secrets, deepening bonds, betrayals and brutal lessons, many of them coming from the sinister, Harry-hating Severus Snape, master of the dark arts,” making this book “far darker than those that preceded” it.

“Suffice it to say that this new volume culminates in a finish so scorchingly distressing that the reader closes the book quaking, knowing that out of these ashes, somehow, the phoenix of [author J.K.] Rowling’s fiction will rise again -- but worrying about how on earth Harry will cope until it does,” Schillinger wrote.

In another review of the book carried by The Times, Michiko Kakutani noted that Harry sees the death of another important figure in his life in the latest book, which she calls “the darkest and most unsettling installment yet.” Kakutani said Harry is “all too well aware of loss and death” and feels increasingly isolated.

“The terrible things that Ms. Rowlings describes as being abroad in the green and pleasant land of England read like a grim echo of events in our own post-9/11, post-7/7 world ...,” she wrote July 16.

In related news, the woman who has overseen the library at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay for two years reports that Harry Potter books “are on top of the request list for the camp’s 520 al Qaeda and Taliban suspects, followed by Agatha Christie whodunits,” according to The Washington Times Aug. 8.

The librarian, who asked to be identified only as Lori, also reported the voracious reading of the Koran among the detainees. The prison initially ordered 1,600 Korans in various languages for $23,000 but has since ordered 200 more, The Times said.

“After a period of time, they start to fall apart because they read them constantly,” she said.

PARENTS SEEK TO RECLAIM SUMMER VACATIONS -- Grassroots groups are organizing across the country to stand up against school districts that are opting to start classes weeks earlier than is customary, thereby squeezing out time children would have spent at camp, on family vacations or participating in other beneficial summer activities.

Some schools, such as those in Early County, Ga., started school in July in an effort to add more instructional time to the class calendar. Teachers contend moving start dates to July or August allows for semester exams to be administered before the Christmas break and for more class time in advance of statewide aptitude tests that are used to measure progress and distribute federal dollars, according to The New York Times Aug. 6.

School officials also note that studies show students forget much of what they’ve learned in school when they’re out for an extended break in the summer. Teachers then must spend weeks at the beginning of each school year reviewing information that should have been grasped the previous academic cycle.

But parents say starting school earlier, especially in the heat of summer, forces districts to spend money on air conditioning that could have been spent on teachers or other benefits for students, The Times said.

A study by Market Data Retrieval found that the number of public schools starting the academic year before Sept. 1 in 2004-05 rose 11 percent, to more than 63,000, over those starting before Sept. 1 a decade ago, The Times reported.

And many districts are opting for year-round school years, which call for 9 to 12 weeks of instruction time followed by 3 to 4 weeks of vacation time.

A group called Save Georgia Summers, with about 7,000 members, is an example of parents organizing to start petitions, write letters and contact state representatives in an effort to keep schools from starting earlier.

So far, Iowa, North Carolina, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Texas have passed laws to prevent schools from starting too early, according to NBC News.


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