Spring cleaning at the religion desk

The advertisement featured a photo of Stonehenge, with dawn's rays summoning worshippers to embrace old mysteries.

Who was invited? "Reformed Druids, Born-again Celts, Pentecostal Pagans, Recovering Christians, Christians seeking comfort from the storms of church bureaucracies and politics, lapsed Christians, committed Christians whose commitment is beginning to wane, Spiritual Desperados, folks looking for solace, seekers, rebels, rakes, the luckless, the abandoned, the forsaken, the vague and the clueless. Dress comfortably...." It wasn't an off-the-rack church ad, admitted the Rev. Canon Christopher Platt of St. Augustine's Episcopal Chapel at the University of Kentucky. But it didn't jolt people as much as one noting that if they didn't feel like going to Mass, they could always send money.

"We try to be an equal-opportunity offender," he said.

It's time once again for spring cleaning at the religion desk, when I pick through my extraneous e-mail and snail mail. I don't make this stuff up.

* Ads are getting spiritually stranger. The creators of the new VW Beetle note: "If you sold your soul in the 80s, here's your chance to buy it back." This echoes recent ads claiming that Volvos "can save your soul." No offense intended, a Volvo spokesman told the Washington Times. "We're using the term soul in the metaphysical sense, in the secular sense, before the religious meaning, before the Christian meaning."

* Someone sent me a junk e-mail ad for holy water. Price: $25 for a 1.4-ounce jar, with delivery in four to six weeks. The big question: Where did these entrepreneurs get it?

* "The squeal of electric guitars calls the faithful to prayer," began a Los Angeles Times feature. "The ballplayer- turned-pastor hugs people streaming off shuttle buses. ... As a microphone-waving singer at the altar ... sways to a tune titled 'My Life in You, Lord,' collection plates fill with checks." It's Sunday at the Yorba Linda Friends Meeting House -- the Quakers.

* Bill Gates III's Catholic wife has offered him a deal. If he returns to church, he can take their daughter to the pew of his choice. Gates told Time he would prefer one with "less theology and all," such as the United Church of Christ. But, "in terms of the allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning."

* Try to picture this odd couple. The scene is a protest rally near the White House, during Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit. Religious Right strategist Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council taps actor Richard Gere on the shoulder. The veteran Tibet activist turns around and, according to Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, exclaims: "Gary! My main man!"

* Here's a candid quote from pundit Andrew Sullivan on why he opposes Catholic teachings on homosexuality: "I know I'm telling the truth about who I am. I know that the people around me are telling the truth. If we're telling the truth, then the church's position has to be wrong." Meanwhile, Episcopal Church spokesman Jim Solheim offered this explanation for why traditionalists are so upset: ``What really bothers them is relativism in sexuality, the ordination of gays and lesbians and the blessing of gay unions. They are convinced that biblical standards of morality must be enforced." Yes, that would explain a lot.

* Here is this year's best ecclesiastical light-bulb joke. "How many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? This statement was issued: 'We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb (or light source, or non-dark resource), and present it next month at our annual light-bulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life, and tinted -- all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.' "

* A British bookseller has struggled with clergy stealing his wares. Thus, he posted this prayer: "For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change into a serpent into his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no surcease to his Agony till he sink in Dissolution. Let Bookworms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye."

So there.

* Thus spake Homer Simpson: "The answer's to life's problems aren't found at the bottom of a bottle, they're found on TV."