Born again, and again, and again ...

reincarnationOne of my guilty pleasures is reading the little BeliefWatch column that runs each week near the front of Newsweek. I say guilty pleasure because (a) I'm glad religion news has a place in the magazine, but this isn't exactly the old days when religion was a true stand-alone section equal to other major topics and (b) the stories selected do tend to be a bit on the strange side. At the same time, I would be the first to admit that the writing is punchy and the topics are, uh, unique.

Take this week's column. The hook for the story is that China has -- laugh to keep from crying, folks -- decided to try to establish government control over reincarnation.

Why would officials do that? Because of the battle to control the hearts and minds of people in Tibet, of course. Here is the lede from Matthew Philips:

In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." But beyond the irony lies China's true motive: to cut off the influence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual and political leader, and to quell the region's Buddhist religious establishment more than 50 years after China invaded the small Himalayan country.

To make a short story even shorter, Buddhists may end up -- echoes of Roman Catholic bishop wars in China -- with two Dalai Lamas. There is a chance that one of them could be a Tibetan exile living in the United States. Take that.

But that is where this little story hit me with the plot twist that made my week. Hang on, because this gets interesting. There is a much larger story buried in here, a real glimpse into the soul of Oprah America.

If the new Dalai Lama is from America:

... (He'll) likely be welcomed into a culture that has increasingly embraced reincarnation over the years. According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 20 percent of all U.S. adults believe in reincarnation. Recent surveys by the Barna Group, a Christian research nonprofit, have found that a quarter of U.S. Christians, including 10 percent of all born-again Christians, embrace it as their favored end-of-life view.

You see, there are open-minded evangelicals out there in the pews. This may also be evidence of a new niche among evangelical Episcopalians (cue rimashot).

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