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Colonial Jamestown reliquary: Secret Catholics or Protestants 'venerating' bones of saints?

28 min 6 sec ago

I love a good mystery hidden in the mists of history and it goes without saying that is doubly true of a mystery with a strong religion hook. So the Washington Post team had my my full attention when it pushed out an online promotion for a fascinating feature story about some of the latest finds in the Jamestown Rediscovery project.

The key: Researchers found a small silver box containing what appear to be human bones, with what they believe is the letter "M" inscribed on the cover. Hold that thought. Here is how the story opens:

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- When his friends buried Capt. Gabriel Archer here about 1609, they dug his grave inside a church, lowered his coffin into the ground and placed a sealed silver box on the lid. ...The tiny, hexagonal box, etched with the letter “M,” contained seven bone fragments and a small lead vial, and probably was an object of veneration, cherished as disaster closed in on the colony.On Tuesday, more than 400 years after the mysterious box was buried, Jamestown Rediscovery and the Smithsonian Institution announced that archaeologists have found it, as well as the graves of Archer and three other VIPs.“It’s the most remarkable archaeology discovery of recent years,” said James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, which made the find. “It’s a huge deal.”

OK, but what was this small silver box? The story says it was probably an "object of veneration," but are we talking about some form of link to ancestors? The Post team, interviewing the experts, immediately locks into a crucial religious element of this mystery -- but misses some key questions and historical details.

The bottom line: We are supposed to be dealing with a Protestant colony. But is that a certainty for each and every member of this community? The story also notes that Archer's mother's name was Mary, with a large M, and that he came from a town outside of London called Mountnessing, with a large M.

Let's read on, as the religious questions come into focus, somewhat.

Horn said in an interview before the announcement that the box is a reliquary, a container for holy relics, such as the bones of a saint. “It’s a sacred object of great significance,” he said.Such containers have a long tradition in the Catholic Church, and predate the Protestant Reformation. So the appearance of one in post-Reformation Jamestown is mystifying.Did it belong to Archer, whose Catholic parents had been “outlawed” for their faith back in England? Or to the fledgling Anglican Church, as a holdover from Catholicism?

Well, first things first. The relics of saints play a significant role in the ancient Christian churches in the East and the West -- period.

Thus, a reliquary is not just a "Catholic thing," although links to Catholicism are much, much more likely in this case than to the Orthodox churches of the East. Also, it would have been good -- in my opinion -- to note that the altars of ancient churches all over England would soon be stripped of their holy relics during waves of "reforms" by Protestants.

So the Post article is raising some very interesting questions, if, as it is claimed, this silver box truly has religious significance. If this box was the object of religious "veneration," in the ancient Christian sense of that word, then the most crucial question is this: What is the name of the saint whose bones were saved in this manner? Where did these relics come from and how were they used in prayers with the saints?

Now, the suggestion that we are dealing with the saving of relics by some group INSIDE Anglicanism in that era is truly fascinating, since that might imply some early, early form of Anglo-Catholicism. Anglican readers -- high- and low-church -- help me out here. Is this even an option that should be discussed when dealing with artifacts from this colonial era?

Now, if the bones are not those of a saint, or a martyr, then we are not talking about religious "veneration," unless the researchers quoted by the Post are talking about some kind of ancestor worship. The box may be a romantic keepsake, as a link to an ancestor, but calling this a major "religious" discovery may be a bit much.

So again: Saint or no saint? That is the question.

You can see that issue hovering in the background latter in the story. There are many details in this long passage, so read carefully:

Horn said he believed it was a sacred, public reliquary, as opposed to a private item, because it contained so many pieces of bone.“A private reliquary would be like a locket, or a small crucifix, with a tiny fragment of bone,” he said. This probably was for public display and devotion.Reliquaries usually are associated with Catholics, he said, adding, “What’s that mean for Gabriel Archer?” Archer was not known to be Catholic. But his parents in England had been “recusants,” Catholics who refused to attend the Protestant Anglican Church, as required by law after the Reformation.Horn wondered: Was Archer a leader of a secret Catholic cell? In 1607, a member of the settlement’s governing council, George Kendall, was executed as a Catholic spy, according to Jamestown Rediscovery, and Horn said Tuesday: “I’m beginning to lean more to the Catholic conspiracy.”But another theory is that the reliquary belonged to Jamestown’s fledgling Anglican Church. Even though reliquaries were “relics of the old religion,” Horn said, some were retained for use in the early English Protestant Church.If that’s the case, the reliquary was the “heart and soul” of the English church in the new world. 

Once again, there is that statement of fact, that some were saving relics "for use in the early English Protestant Church." Really now? Relics of the saints used in Reformation Protestant worship? Now there is a mystery worth investigating. Follow-up story, please!

By the way, here is an early note from former GetReligionista Father George Conger, an Anglican scribe: "The dead man could have been a Recusant. Secret Roman Catholic. The relics collected by secret Catholics at this time were usually the bones, clothing, blood etc of martyred RC clergy. He could have been a member of the Church of England. Article 22 the adoration of relics. But the relics of saints were not removed systematically from Cathedrals until Cromwell's time -- 50 years later. One could reverence relics, not worship them.")

Categories: Main

Mormons to the rescue: How to write about sex trafficking but leave out a few details

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A few weeks ago, while scanning a few articles in a print copy of Foreign Policy, my go-to magazine for all things outside U.S. borders, I chanced upon a piece about human trafficking.

I began to read about how a group of Americans in Acapulco posing as sex tourists are really part of something called Operation Underground Railroad (OUR). The piece traces how they’ve invited some pimps and their girls over for an afternoon of fun when suddenly the local police rush in and arrest all the bad guys.

It’s gripping narrative and fun to read. Then the author spins us some background, how “strange bedfellows -- feminists who opposed sex work, politicians from both political parties, and right-wing Christians -- allied behind the cause of defeating modern-day slavery.” A few paragraphs later, it introduces Tim Ballard, the founder of OUR and how he got into the sex trafficking busting business. Then:

Ballard’s Mormon faith also heavily influences his work. “The other option was to face my maker one day and tell him why I didn’t do it,” he says of his decision to start combating crimes against children. Ballard insists that religious belief isn’t a requirement to join OUR but notes that the staff members often pray together. If someone isn’t “comfortable praying,” he says, “they’re not going to be comfortable working with us.” (In a February interview with LDS Living magazine, Ballard was more candid about his faith: He said he launched OUR after being instructed by God to “find the lost children.”)Responding to the call for a moral crusade, a handful of private organizations have adopted what is now widely known as a raid-and-rescue strategy: identify where people are being sold for sex, send in police to haul them out, and arrest traffickers.Today, OUR has a full-time staff of 12 people and a stable of trained volunteers, most of them Mormon. They include former military and intelligence officers, nurses and Army medics, cops and martial arts instructors. From small offices in Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Anaheim, California, OUR has coordinated more than a dozen raids in Latin America and the Caribbean. It claims to have saved at least 250 trafficking victims, including 123 -- 55 of whom were children -- in three stings coordinated across Colombia last October.

Screech of brakes. What did the article say? Mormons?

Sure enough, activists from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be newbies on the stop-the-trafficking front, but they’ve already made quite an impact and they’re good at bring in the funds as we see here:

Simultaneously, OUR is making a public splash by amplifying the drama of its tactics and the ways people can support the group’s cause without ever busting into a brothel. A documentary movie, called The Abolitionists, has been screened privately in select U.S. theaters, and a proposed TV series about OUR is currently being filmed. The organization’s “give a Lincoln, save a slave” campaign, which like the term “underground railroad” conjures noble notions of 1800s anti-slavery efforts, asks people to become “abolitionists” by giving $5 a month. Supporters can sign up to receive text-message alerts “when children are saved.” If they’re big funders, they can get front-row seats: The tech executive watching the Acapulco operation gave more than $40,000.

I called up the March/April issue of the LDS magazine referred to in the article and found many more comments about how Ballard’s faith inspired him -- and other Mormons -- to go into exposing trafficking and doing dangerous undercover work that precedes  a successful sting operation. The piece is loaded with references to prayer, God’s direction and even the Mormon prophet Moroni.

So, why couldn’t the Foreign Policy reporter get even half that amount of quotes? Was his source wary of talking about faith with a secular magazine? Or did the reporter not know which questions to ask?

The reporter -- Foreign Policy embedded an assistant editor along with OUR to report on their doings -- does point out more LDS connections including Mormon actors and actresses who’ve come on board plus its merger with the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, named after the then-14-year-old Mormon teenager who was kidnapped in 2002 and held for nine months.

The story details the good and the bad about organizations that specialize in dramatic rescues and whether they work long-term in saving young people from the streets. But I wanted to hear more about the Mormons. In a way, OUR’s work is the antithesis of an LDS mission. Instead of sending teams in to save the natives, these are Mormons who are insuring that a lot of the natives will end up in jail. The kids are referred to social service agencies run by the governments of the host country.

But why, one wonders, is OUR doing its own thing instead of combining forces with International Justice Mission, a Virginia-based anti-sex trafficking group that conducts raids similar to OUR. Is OUR able to milk money out of Mormon donors that IJM and other agencies like it can’t get to? And are LDS contacts overseas tipping OUR as to children they personally know are trafficked? What kind of Mormon network is operating here? Are a lot of staff and volunteers at OUR people who ran into children being sold for sex when they were on the mission field?

Come to think of it, this piece has more religion ghosts than a haunted house.

I’m also curious why the OUR folks are allowing the magazine to run photos of the major players. Don’t they think that traffickers will see the piece online and blow their cover sooner or later? And are they aware of the spiritual and yes, sexual dangers in this occupation, as outlined in the book God in a Brothel?

Please understand: I’m glad the article ran. Foreign Policy needs more pieces like this that bring in the God element. I just would have liked to have known more of the spiritual back story and the relationship -- or lack thereof -- between this group and other faith-based groups in this tragic line of work.

Categories: Main

Boy Scouts, church-based troops and the threat of lawsuits — about that big vote on gay leaders

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Could the Boy Scouts of America's decision to accept gay leaders hasten the exodus of troops sponsored by conservative religious groups?

Could traditional believers who maintain ties with the Boy Scouts face lawsuits if they limit scoutmaster roles to heterosexuals?

Those questions gain prominence in the aftermath of Monday's big vote:

The national executive board of the Boy Scouts of America voted to end ban on gay adult leaders:

— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) July 28, 2015

Boy Scouts lift blanket ban on gay leaders, will allow exceptions

— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) July 28, 2015

Boy Scouts of America votes to end its nationwide ban on openly gay adult leaders

— The New York Times (@nytimes) July 28, 2015

The New York Times' latest lede is simple and to the point:

The Boy Scouts of America on Monday ended its ban on openly gay adult leaders.But the new policy allows church-sponsored units to choose local unit leaders who share their precepts, even if that means restricting such positions to heterosexual men.Despite this compromise, the Mormon Church said it might leave the organization anyway. Its stance surprised many and raised questions about whether other conservative sponsors, including the Roman Catholic Church, might follow suit.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote,” said a statement issued by the church moments after the Scouts announced the new policy. “When the leadership of the church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with scouting will need to be examined.”

But in what seems to be a trend lately, the Times had to run a correction on its original story (click here to see the previous versions):

Correction: July 27, 2015 An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the Mormon church’s view of a new Boy Scouts policy on gay adult leaders. The church said it was “deeply troubled” by the policy; there is no evidence that it had privately agreed to the change.

Even before the vote was officially announced, Religion News Service's Adelle Banks was all over the potential legal implications:

Could Boy Scouts of America vote on adult gay leaders put church-based troops in court?

— Religion NewsService (@RNS) July 27, 2015

As Banks' stories always do, this one reflects voices on all sides:

Prior to the vote, BSA officials predicted it would be “unlikely” that troops based at churches would end up in court if they ban gay Scoutmasters.“We live in a litigious society, and frivolous lawsuits are threatened and filed every day,” reads the 14-page memo from the Boys Scouts’ law firm, Hughes Hubbard & Reed. “However, any lawsuit challenging the religious requirements in a Scouting unit chartered by a religious organization would be unlikely to succeed or even make much progress.”R. Chip Turner, national chairman of the BSA Religious Relationships Committee, said he hopes the memo will calm concerns that leaders of religious chartered Scout units may have.“There’s always the fear of the unknown,” he said.But opponents of a BSA policy change say church-based troops that reject gay adult leaders could face legal risks, especially after the recent Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage is legal nationwide.“What they’re not taking into account is the new frontier that we’re on, where judges are being social change agents,” said John Stemberger, chairman of Trail Life USA, which bills itself as a Christian alternative to the Boy Scouts.Trail Life issued its own eight-page legal memo, written by a former BSA lawyer who is now Trail Life’s general counsel.“The church-chartered troop will likely be sued the moment it tries to revoke the membership of the homosexual member who wears his uniform to the Gay Pride Parade, revokes or denies membership to an adult who publicly gets married to someone of the same sex, or denies membership to the girl who believes she is actually a male,” the Trail Life memo reads.

A story by Godbeat pro Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post also delves into the legal arena:

Boy Scouts vote to end ban on gay leaders, but individual troops get to decide whether to discriminate

— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) July 27, 2015

The Post quotes Douglas Laycock, a religious liberty scholar at the University of Virginia:

Laycock said it’s not clear what will happen over the long-term in court. No states, he said, have bans on discriminating against gay people for volunteers. And about half the states do not have employment discrimination bans.It’s also unclear how these changes will play out in the years to come, as some conservative leaders say like-minded troops are moving away from the Scouts. Roger Oldham, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, said traditional groups are braced for the possibility that soon, even church-based groups will be required to fully accept gay leaders.“The next step, which may be a year or two down the road, seems obvious to us,” Oldham wrote. Traditional groups “are being put into a situation where they have to either compromise their conviction or choose to leave. And for those for whom Biblical sexual morality is a conviction they have no alternative,” he said.

At the Times, go-to Baptist quotester Russell D. Moore weighs in:

More departures by religious conservatives are likely, said Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Mr. Moore expressed skepticism about the Scouts’ promise to let church-sponsored units exclude gay leaders on religious grounds.”After the Scouts’ shift on membership, they told religious groups this wouldn’t affect leadership,” he said. “Now churches are told that these changes will not affect faith-based groups. Churches know that this is the final word only until the next evolution.”

Monday's vote was, of course, just the latest development in a long-running story. But it's a big one.

Watch the dominoes, journalists.

Categories: Main

From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

At the time of 9/11, I was living in South Florida and attending an Eastern Orthodox parish in which the majority of the members were, by heritage, either Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time hearing the details of their family stories -- about life in the old country and the forces that pushed them to America.

The key detail: It was never easy living in the Middle East during the Ottoman Empire era, even when times were relatively peaceful. While it was easy to focus on the horrible details of the times of intense persecution, it was important to realize that Christians and those in other religious minorities had learned to accept a second-class status in which they were safe, most of the time, but not truly free.

In other words, the Good Old Days were difficult, but not as difficult as the times of fierce persecution, suffering and death.

Clearly, the rise of the Islamic State has created a new crisis, one that is truly historic in scope -- especially in the Nineveh Plain. The drive to eliminate Christian populations in a region that has been their home since the apostolic era raises all kinds of questions about religious freedom, as well as questions for the USA and other Western states to which these new martyrs will appeal for help.

In recent years, human-rights activists have asked when this phenomenon would receive major attention in elite American newsrooms. The coverage has, in recent years, been on the rise. That said, a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine feature on this topic must be seen as a landmark.
The epic double-decker headline proclaimed:

Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight.

There is much that I want to praise in this piece. It's a must-read piece for everyone who cares about religion news in the mainstream press.

However, I want to start with the passage that I know would make many Christians from the Middle East flinch with pain, a passage about those "good old days" before the most recent times of persecution. This is long, so read carefully:

When the first Islamic armies arrived from the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century, the Assyrian Church of the East was sending missionaries to China, India and Mongolia. The shift from Christianity to Islam happened gradually. Much as the worship of Eastern cults largely gave way to Christianity, Christianity gave way to Islam. Under Islamic rule, Eastern Christians lived as protected people, dhimmi: They were subservient and had to pay the jizya, but were often allowed to observe practices forbidden by Islam, including eating pork and drinking alcohol. Muslim rulers tended to be more tolerant of minorities than their Christian counterparts, and for 1,500 years, different religions thrived side by side.One hundred years ago, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I ushered in the greatest period of violence against Christians in the region. The genocide waged by the Young Turks in the name of nationalism, not religion, left at least two million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks dead. Nearly all were Christian. Among those who survived, many of the better educated left for the West. Others settled in Iraq and Syria, where they were protected by the military dictators who courted these often economically powerful minorities.From 1910 to 2010, the number of Christians in the Middle East -- in countries like Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan -- continued to decline; once 14 percent of the population, Christians now make up roughly 4 percent. (In Iran and Turkey, they’re all but gone.) ...For more than a decade, extremists have targeted Christians and other minorities, who often serve as stand-ins for the West. This was especially true in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, which caused hundreds of thousands to flee.

Thrived? Relatively speaking, this is accurate. Things did get much worse in the early 20th Century and they certainly have gotten worse in the past decade, in the wake of the wars in Iraq. But there is no way -- my Arab Christian friends would note -- to put a positive spin on the word "dhimmi." The same is true for "jizya." These are both terms now used, backed with the edge of a knife, by the Islamic State.

Let me put it this way: How would Muslims in America feel of they paid a tax to Christians in order to survive, while facing limits on outreach, efforts to build facilities and programs for their children? When mosques are burned or defaced in America, this is tragic news. Under dhimmitude, this may not have been the norm, but it was never unusual.

This only makes the reality of the Islamic State even more terrifying and the same is try for rising threats against Christians and other minorities in Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere. The article stresses -- as it should -- that minority and moderate forms of Islam have been treated brutally, as well.

So what is the United States doing about this? The article is frank and bipartisan. The sources will ring true for all who have followed this story closely over the past two decades:

It has been nearly impossible for two U.S. presidents -- Bush, a conservative evangelical; and Obama, a progressive liberal -- to address the plight of Christians explicitly for fear of appearing to play into the crusader and ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ narratives the West is accused of embracing. In 2007, when Al Qaeda was kidnapping and killing priests in Mosul, Nina Shea, who was then a U.S. commissioner for religious freedom, says she approached the secretary of state at the time, Condoleezza Rice, who told her the United States didn’t intervene in ‘‘sectarian’’ issues. Rice now says that protecting religious freedom in Iraq was a priority both for her and for the Bush administration. But the targeted violence and mass Christian exodus remained unaddressed. ‘‘One of the blind spots of the Bush administration was the inability to grapple with this as a direct byproduct of the invasion,’’ says Timothy Shah, the associate director of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project.More recently, the White House has been criticized for eschewing the term ‘‘Christian’’ altogether. The issue of Christian persecution is politically charged; the Christian right has long used the idea that Christianity is imperiled to rally its base. When ISIS massacred Egyptian Copts in Libya this winter, the State Department came under fire for referring to the victims merely as ‘‘Egyptian citizens.’’ Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, says, ‘‘When ISIS is no longer said to have religious motivations nor the minorities it attacks to have religious identities, the Obama administration’s caution about religion becomes excessive.’’

What about the painful fact that Christians, in Syria for example, have had to turn to dictators for protection? The article includes key facts about that, but does not overplay them. The simple reality, as an American Orthodox bishop once put it, is that all of the major armies in this region are led by monsters. At some point, people on the ground have had to ask which monster wants to kill them, right now.

So what are the options for the future? There are zero easy answers, especially if the goal is to preserve the historic Christian presence in what remains the Holy Land. What lands can accept them? What lands are willing to even discuss this option? What if ISIS becomes a semi-permanent player in the region?

This passage surprised me:

Even if ISIS is defeated, the fate of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq remains bleak. Unless minorities are given some measure of security, those who can leave are likely to do so. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, a conservative policy center, says that the situation has grown so dire that Iraqi Christians must either be allowed full residency in Kurdistan, including the right to work, or helped to leave. Others argue that it is essential that minorities have their own autonomous region. Exile is a death knell for these communities, activists say. ‘‘We’ve been here as an ethnicity for 6,000 years and as Christians for 1,700 years,’’ says Dr. Srood Maqdasy, a member of the Kurdish Parliament. ‘‘We have our own culture, language and tradition. If we live within other communities, all of this will be dissolved within two generations.’’The practical solution, according to many Assyrian Christians, is to establish a safe haven on the Nineveh Plain. ‘‘If the West could take in so many refugees and the U.N.H.C.R. handle an operation like that, then we wouldn’t ask for a permanent solution,’’ says Nuri Kino, of A Demand for Action. ‘‘But the most realistic option is returning home.’’‘‘We don’t have time to wait for solutions,’’ said the Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, the head of Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq. ‘‘For the first time in 2,000 years, there are no church services in Mosul. The West comes up with one solution by granting visas to a few hundred people. What about a few hundred thousand?’’ If Iraq devolves into three regions -- Sunnis, Shia and Kurds -- there could be a fourth for minorities. ‘‘Iraq is a forced marriage between Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Christians, and it failed,’’ Youkhana said. ‘‘Even I, as a priest, favor divorce.’’

It will be painful, but read it all. Right now.

Categories: Main

Mustachioed villain attacks brave theologian -- at least in St. Louis Dispatch story

Monday, July 27, 2015

Remember the classic old-timey movie villain, twirling his mustache while laughing "Nyah-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaa"? Did you know he's Lutheran?

Well, no, he's not, as far as I know. That's just kinda the way Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, comes off in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Right in the first two paragraphs, we get this:

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod recently carried out what various members consider the equivalent of a modern-day heresy trial.The Kirkwood-based church has 2.3 million members. The case pits two-term synod President Matthew Harrison — who is known for his bushy mustache and conservative views — against Matthew Becker, an outspoken pastor.

Hmmm. Maybe a little Grand Inquisitor there, too, judging by the "heresy trial" phrase.

Becker is a theology professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, a Lutheran school that isn't affiliated with LCMS. He has criticized the synod's teachings about creationism and women's ordination. In the latter, he even compared male-only ordination to slavery and racism, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Harrison also scolded another Lutheran pastor for his part in an interfaith vigil after the student shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a violation of the LCMS constitution, the newspaper adds.

But there's more. In a Facebook post -- which is linked in the newspaper story -- Harrison also accuses Becker of advocating homosexuality, the errancy of the Bible and communion with members of other faiths. Several panels investigated, then cleared Becker, the article says.

Finally, a district president in Montana "filed a charge against him for failing to maintain that Genesis represents a historical record. Soon after, Paul Linnemann, a district president in the northwest, asked Becker to resign," the Post-Dispatch says.

Let's pause to note a few things. First, despite Harrison's round criticism, the newspaper doesn't have him calling for Becker's excommunication, not even on the linked Facebook post. He does say in that post "that if my Synod does not change its inability to call such a person to repentance, and remove such a teacher where there is not repentance, then we are liars, and our confession is meaningless."

But the mechanics of the ouster fall short of a heresy trial, if Aaron D. Wolf is right. Wolf, associate editor of the Rockford Institute’s monthly journal Chronicles, says that Linnemann, as Becker's own district president, filed his own charges against Becker. Rather than appeal, Becker sought membership in the more diverse Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

And if Harrison prodded Linnemann to oust Becker, the Post-Dispatch doesn't establish that. Nor, for that matter, does any quoted source in the 1,000-word article use the terms "heresy" or "trial." Only the reporter, or one of her editors.

The paper adds some background on the LCMS schism of the 1970s, in which "more moderate" members -- i.e., liberals -- left and formed their own group, which eventually merged with ELCA. Yet the Post-Dispatch says Harrison's 2010 election "represented a conservative shift for the denomination." Which is it? Did LCMS go conservative a generation ago, or in 2010? Or was there something like "liberal creep" over the decades? No indication in this story.

There's more background further down: a rundown on Harrison's age, hometown, education, churches he pastored, and his work in disaster relief. It's brief, but it further makes the article look like an attempt to scrutinize Harrison rather than just tell the story of Becker's ouster.

Becker is not described physically in the article, as Harrison is; but he does get quoted, sounding like some prophet/martyr. "I happen to be right now the most infamous person in the synod," he says in one place.  "I feel like many people who are my opponents are making an idol out of the LCMS," he says in another.

The paper also cites an open letter from LCMS pastors and other members, who say they're "extremely offended by the actions of President Harrison."

Harrison wasn't interviewed for this article, but that's his fault -- the Post-Dispatch says he "could not be reached for comment." Always a bad move, in my view; it makes you look stuffy and your opponents engaging. But the newspaper could have given Linnemann a call. There's no indication that it tried.

Addendum: The writer says she called Linnemann twice to try for quotes. That’s good, and it should have been mentioned in the article, as was her effort to reach Harrison.

We do hear from a supporter of Becker's ouster, at the very end of the article. "It really doesn’t make sense for him to continue in our synod at this point," says Eric Andersen, associate editor of what the newspaper carefully pegs as a conservative Lutheran blog. "He doesn’t believe what we believe, so it’s best not to pretend."

Actually, no, that's not the end of the article. Following it comes yet another comment from Becker, that the church "is not defined by Harrison and his narrow party views."

You know, narrow views, as in conservative ones. Spouted by villains with mustaches.

CORRECTION: I erroneaously said that Matthew Harrison scolded Becker for his part in an interfaith vigil. Lilly A. Fowler, the writer of the article, tweeted that the scoldee was not Becker but another pastor who wasn't named in the story. I rechecked, and she's right. I've fixed the text, above.


Picture: "Villianc" by J.J. - Transferred from the English Wikipedia. Original file was licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Categories: Main

B-I-B-L-E with a lowercase 'b': Hey Wall Street Journal, what's up with that?

Monday, July 27, 2015

#NewYork #News New York Churches Receive Tearful Farewells: The final Sunday services for th... #NewYorkCity #NYC

— New York News (@NewYork__News) July 27, 2015

Pop quiz for GetReligion readers: Without checking your handy-dandy Associated Press Stylebook, pick the proper journalistic style for the following terms:

1. Is it Scripture or scripture when referring to religious writings of the Bible?

2. Is it Bible or bible when referring to the aforementioned writings?

3. Is it Mass or mass when referring to the Catholic religious observance?

I'll provide the answers soon, but all three questions figure in a Wall Street Journal report today on tearful farewells at Roman Catholic churches in New York:

Parishioners of the Roman Catholic Church of All Saints in Harlem openly wept at Mass on Sunday as the sounds of the choir lifted up to the soaring ceilings.Rosalind Maybank, president of the usher board, broke into tears as she thanked congregants for spending one last Sunday “with your family.”“It’s very hard, but the love that we share among each other will always be with us no matter where we go, whatever church we go to,” said Ms. Maybank, 68 years old, as sunlight poured in through the stained-glass windows. “Family is always together, forever.”The final Sunday services for thousands of area parishioners marked another step in the broad, controversial reorganization of the Archdiocese of New York parishes. Across a region stretching from Staten Island to the Catskills, 368 parishes are set to merge into 294, effective Aug. 1.

The WSJ story prompted this very GetReligion-esque note from a friend:

It's an interesting piece in several different ways. But I have to admit that one thing that really stuck out to me was the description of a parishioner who had taught "bible classes" for years. Later, the article refers to "Scripture." It seems like the new rule is that when "bible" is an adjective, it's spelled with the lower-case "b." Is that a thing now? If so, when did that happen?

Here's the relevant section of the story:

At a packed Mass for Spanish-speakers at Holy Rosary Church in East Harlem, parishioners described the church as a home away from home, where generations of baptisms and first communions took place.Dominick Dicerto, 83, started attending Mass at Holy Rosary in 1957, taught bible classes for three decades and produced the church’s weekly newsletter. He and many other parishioners plan to move to Our Lady of Mount Carmel three blocks away, rather than their new appointed parish, St. Paul, which is farther away.He was saddened by the move but cited Scripture for inspiration.“If the Israelites traveled 40 years in the desert, how can we complain about walking to 116th Street?” Mr. Dicerto said. “It’s not about the building. It’s about the faith.”

You'll note that the Journal got two out of three questions right: Mass and Scripture are both proper AP style.

But the AP Stylebook — known as the journalist's bible — calls for uppercasing Bible in this case. The specific stylebook entry:

BibleCapitalize, without quotation marks, when referring to the Scriptures in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Capitalize also related terms such as the Gospels, Gospel of St. Mark, the Scriptures, the Holy Scriptures.Lowercase biblical in all uses.Lowercase bible as a nonreligious term: My dictionary is my bible.Do not abbreviate individual books of the Bible.Old Testament is a Christian designation; Hebrew Bible or Jewish Bible is the appropriate term for stories dealing with Judaism alone.The standard names and order of Old Testament books as they appear in Protestant Bibles are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.Jewish Bibles contain the same 39 books, in different order. Roman Catholic Bibles follow a different order, usually use some different names and include the seven Deuterocanonical books (called the Apocrypha by Protestants): Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch.The books of the New Testament, in order: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation.Citation listing the number of chapter and verse(s) use this form: Matthew 3:16, Luke 21:1-13, 1 Peter 2:1.

So what happened in this case? Why did the WSJ refer to "bible classes" instead of the proper "Bible classes?" 

In some cases, newspapers — particularly large ones such as the WSJ — adopt their own, different style rules. I suppose that's a possibility in this case. However, a quick Google search finds that the WSJ consistently used "Bible study group" in reporting on the Charleston, S.C., church shooting.

So my guess is that this lowercase "bible" simply slipped by an editor on deadline. Perhaps the reporter or editor — or both — confused the different rules on "Bible" and "biblical" as adjectives.

Of course, this isn't the first time this same question has come up at GetReligion. Even more often, we're seeing references to lowercase "god" (this was the case in that stunning Gawker piece that tmatt wrote about last week).

"Is that a thing now?" my friend asked, concerning the lowercase "b" in Bible.

At this point, I don't think so.

Then again, you might ask me again next week and see if my answer has changed.

Categories: Main

Life after the DUI bishop: Deseret News listens to Episcopal voices talk alcohol

Monday, July 27, 2015

I imagine that faithful GetReligion readers noticed that in the past I have paid very close attention to the story of the DUI Episcopal Bishop in Maryland -- now simply Heather Elizabeth Cook, after she was defrocked.

It was, after all, a local story since I was living in Maryland at the time. This was also a story with the potential to have a strong impact on regional and national leaders in the Episcopal Church, even if Baltimore Sun editors didn't seem all that interested in that side of things.

With the trial ahead, it is also clear that this story is not over. Several Maryland Episcopalians and former Episcopalians kept raising an interesting question: If it is true that Cook was drunk AND texting, might she have been doing church business on a work cellphone when she struck and killed that cyclist? If so, what are the implications for the shrinking Maryland diocese?

Then there is the issue of the Episcopal Church and its love/hate relationship with alcohol. This is the stuff of cheap humor (insert joke about four Episcopalians here), but it is also a serious topic linked to substance abuse and people in power looking the other way.

So during the recent Episcopal General Convention in Salt Lake City, the Cook case made it impossible for church leaders not to talk about alcohol. To their credit, it appears that they took this issue fairly seriously. With gay-marriage rites in the news, however, the coverage of the topic was light.

Thus, I want to point readers toward a major feature story on this topic that ran in The Deseret News. It is somewhat awkward to do this because it was written by former GetReligionista Mark Kellner, who now works on that newspaper's national religion desk. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Besides, how can you pass up a story with an anecdotal, on-the-record lede as devastating as this one?

When the Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler fielded calls about the Episcopal Church's General Convention in Salt Lake City this summer, she wanted to tell visitors about "the beautiful mountains or our wonderful people."Instead, the conversations often turned to booze. Can you buy alcohol in Salt Lake City? Is it OK to have a cocktail in your hotel room? Could you drive into Utah with alcohol from another state?"Our whole diocese found it curious that so many questions came in" relating to alcohol consumption, the Rev. Canon Nestler, executive officer of the Episcopal Church's Diocese of Utah, said. Part of it she credited to Utah's reputation of having complex liquor laws, but the questions also "said something about our (Episcopal) church" and the leadership's comfort level with alcohol.

Yes, you sense a summary paragraph of facts coming. Here it is:

That same church leadership took action at the end of June to address alcohol consumption among members and clergy. Specifically, delegates representing the 1.8 million member denomination enacted resolutions on how and when alcohol is to be served at church functions and that the church "confront and repent of (its) complicity in a culture of alcohol, denial, and enabling."A third measure called for those evaluating candidates for ordination to ask prospective clergy whether they have issues with substance abuse.

Cook is mentioned, but not spotlighted, in this story. I think that is a crucial point, since her case made headlines -- but it is not typical of the more chronic cases behind the scenes. The multiple-DUI bishop, the daughter of a famous priest who also struggled with alcoholism, was simply the painful case that made the elephant in the sanctuary impossible to ignore.

This was pain inside the family and everyone knew it. Period. Let's end with this crucial section:

The strain of the Cook case was apparent during legislative discussion of the matter, the Associated Press reported. A member of the church's committee on alcohol and other drug abuse, Brenda Hamilton of the Maine diocese, told the news agency, "People call us the 'whiskapalians.' Those jokes aren’t funny anymore."The Rt. Rev. G. Porter Taylor, who heads the Western North Carolina diocese, said "the Heather Cook incident was a call for us to examine where we are and where God was calling us to be."Ironically, the story behind Cook's replacement in the Baltimore diocese underscores the issues involved. The Rt. Rev. Chilton Knudsen, appointed assistant bishop after Cook's departure, is herself a recovering alcoholic who told NPR a "social drinking culture" exacerbated her problem."Social drinking is a part of the culture we live in," the Rt. Rev. Knudsen said. "And for some of us, circumstances lead us to do a little more social drinking and a little more social drinking and a little more social drinking until the active alcoholism is triggered. … I was working as a parish priest with lots of people who had alcoholism, and I began to see myself in the beginning pieces of their stories."

There is much more here to discuss. Here is my main question for religion-beat professionals: Do you need to localize this story? I think the answer to that is rather obvious.

Categories: Main

Is it the job of the media to advocate for fired gay employees? RNS says yes

Sunday, July 26, 2015

2 mons since fired from Seton Hall. Still no assign/income. I believe good will come of this but Church firing good lgbt people has to stop.

— Warren Hall (@Warrmeister) July 19, 2015

When should an organization take a stand as to the morals and character of its leaders?

This question has been the stuff of lawsuits taken all the way to the US Supreme Court and debates in churches as to whether their clergy should be divorced, gay or have been convicted of drunk driving. It’s been the informal chatter  for years that a good percentage of Catholic clergy are gay, but as long as they didn’t broadcast the fact it was a live-and-let-live situation between the priest and his bishop.

Now things are changing because the legal climate is changing. The U.S. Justice Department is stressing that religious liberties -- think the Health and Human Services mandate wars -- are linked to strong denominational ties linked to clear statements of doctrines. In Christian schools and non-profit groups, that means clear doctrinal covenants and, thus, bishops are starting to let dissenters go.

In reaction, one RNS news story openly bemoans this fact. A July 20 piece starts thus:

(RNS) In May, the Rev. Warren Hall was abruptly dismissed from his position as the popular campus chaplain at Seton Hall University in New Jersey because the Catholic archbishop of Newark said his advocacy against anti-gay bullying, and his identity as a gay man, undermined church teaching.Now Hall has written to Pope Francis asking that when the pontiff visits the U.S. in September, he speak out against such actions because they are “alienating” gay Catholics and the many others who support them.In the letter, which was dated July 14, Hall asked Francis to “find time to listen to the challenges faced by LGBT people, especially those who are Catholic and wish to remain a part of the Church they have grown up in, which they love, and yet which it seems is alienating them more and more.”

There has been plenty of press before this about Hall’s firing so only news is the priest’s letter to Francis which –- let’s be honest –- is a publicity stunt. Hall’s letter has almost no chance of actually reaching the pontiff, so what’s the point of this story? Is it just an update on what’s been going on since Hall’s firing?

Hall noted in his letter to Francis — which he posted on Facebook — that he has been given no other assignment by the archdiocese, and in a follow-up telephone interview he said his salary ceased on July 1. He has been living largely on savings and help from friends.The priest said he had never intended to make his sexual orientation an issue or to advocate for gay Catholics. But he said he has decided to welcome the opportunity that the crisis presented him.“I am not a theologian. I am not a politician. But I am gay. So I think I have something to say at this moment in time,” Hall said.Many Catholic gays and lesbians who are school teachers and parish ministers have been fired in the wake of state, and now federal, rulings allowing them to wed their same-sex partners in a civil ceremony.

I am curious about the “many” gay Catholics we are told are being let go. As I searched around the Internet to get some kind of list, I saw elsewhere the implication that hordes of people are being fired because they’re gay but when it comes down to actual names, there’s a handful.

So, if we’re going to allege mass firings, we need to cite more than two or three people. In this case, it also would help to know if Hall is popular with traditional Catholics, as well as progressives.

Now, the part about Hall’s bishop cutting off his salary is indeed despicable; sadly it is not unheard of. In 2004, I reported on a priest in the Diocese of Arlington who was taking the opposite stance as Hall: to expose gay priests in the church. Well, his bishop put him on ice and cut off his salary. And Father James Haley didn’t have near the defenders that Hall has.

The article also says:

Yet many Catholics see such firings as a sharp contrast with the more nonjudgmental approach to gays and lesbians espoused by Francis.

However, the following paragraphs do not quote any Catholics, but revert back to quotes by Hall. It's at this point that the article has become an editorial and not a news story. There is not one quote here by someone who feels Hall was over the top or that the Archdiocese of Newark could have been right in firing him. What’s also missing, again, are quotes by conservative or traditional Catholics at Seton Hall –- assuming they exist –- as to what they thought of this priest.

If you click on Hall's Twitter account, you see someone who's not going to be agreeing, much less submitting, to his archbishop any time soon. Is it possible the archdiocese might have a reason for not wanting to re-employ Hall? Most of us know that if we're unfairly let go from a job and decide to appeal, mounting a social-media campaign against said employer isn't going to get you reinstalled any time soon.

I understand reporters may have strong feelings about the fairness or unfairness of what those in the Catholic hierarchy choose to do, but it's still our job to accurately present the views of strong, articulate voices on both sides. Think journalism. 

Categories: Main

So that beach guy doing a Facebook selfie? Add a beard and he's an ISIS warrior

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Earlier this week, I pled with readers to pay attention to a Washington Post feature about the problems -- that seems like such a weak word in this case -- the Islamic State is causing for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and other companies in the freewheeling world of social media.

What's at stake? Well, obviously, there are thousands and thousands of lives at stake. The future of ancient Christian communions are at stake, along with other minority religious groups in the Nineveh Plain and elsewhere in the region.

Oh, right, and the First Amendment is at risk, too. That's all.

I'm happy to report that readers responded and, apparently, passed the URL for that post (here it is again) around online, because it was one of our most highly read articles so far this month. Thank you. It will not surprise you that this topic also served as the hook for this week's "Crossroads" podcast, as well. Click here to tune in on that discussion.

Now, several times during the discussion, host Todd Wilken asked me what I think social-media professionals should do in this situation. What should First Amendment supporters do, as ISIS keeps managing to stay one or two steps ahead of attempts to control their use of technology to spread both their images of violence and, in some ways even worse, their emotionally manipulative and even poetic messages that target the emotions and faith of potential recruits to their cause?

The bottom line: I have no idea. This is one of those times when free speech liberals, such as myself, face the negative side of the global freedoms that digital networks have unleashed in the marketplace of ideas. How do you ban twisted forms if Islam, when other forms of this world faith use the same terms and images in different ways? How can a search engine detect motives and metaphors?

And what about the ability of individual ISIS members to use social media, while acting as individuals? I mean, look at this amazing, horrifying case as reported in The Daily Mail!

An ISIS jihadi poses for a chilling photo next to holidaymakers on the beach at a resort in Turkey.Raising fears that that terror group is planning another Tunisia-style beach massacre, jihadist Pasaliasi Isde stood next to unsuspecting holidaymakers at the Black Sea resort of Amasra.The new photos were posted on Facebook yesterday. Isde also used Facebook to 'check in' to a number of beach resorts along the coast in the last fortnight.  One million British holidaymakers visit Turkey every year, the Association of British Travel Agents said today. 

Look at the images. This is just another muscle-beach guy with tattoos, right? He wouldn't attract a second look from people looking for long beards and ISIS flags.

But he is, obviously, living a double life in cyberspace:

Clean-shaven and wearing Western-style clothing, the photographs are in stark contrast to Isde's activities over the border in Syria in recent months -- where he happily posed alongside mutilated corpses and severed heads while fighting under the sinister black banner of the Islamic State. His Facebook page, which has now been deleted, showed how he promotes extremist propaganda lauding the activities of the Islamic State and urging friends to behead Westerners.Posing alongside well known jihadis in war torn areas of Syria, a bearded Isde is seen dressed in military fatigues and holding assault rifles alongside the terror group's chilling black banner. Images that appear to have been taken on a mobile phone show a row of severed heads of three Syrian regime soldiers, suggesting Isde witnessed or possibly even participated in their murders.Elsewhere Isde urged his Facebook friends to 'cut of the heads of the Kuffar [non-believers]' and issued the stark threat: 'You are either with us or against us'. He also celebrated ISIS' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a series of photographs, leaving viewers with no doubt where his allegiances lie.

So Facebook leaders caught this guy, as part of their attempts to be more careful with ISIS related materials? American security officials caught him, right? Some experts holed up in a secret lab at the Pentagon? How about Turkish experts?

In a chilling twist, Isde's Facebook page was not discovered by Turkish security officials but by Macer Gifford -- a British national who gave up a top job in the City last December to fight alongside the brave Kurdish forces battling ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

So what can be done? Technology shapes content, yes. But so do people and, like it or note, at this point people are more creative than the computers that try to filter out the demons that stalk the innocent, and not so innocent, online.

Enjoy the podcast. Well, is "enjoy" really the right word to use this week?

Categories: Main

Quran manuscripts found! Divine message thrills mainstream media!

Friday, July 24, 2015

If you ever needed a reminder to use more than one news source, this week's announcement about two old pages of the Quran furnish ample reason. The news reports vary widely in scope and caution -- or lack of it.

The basics: The University of Birmingham in England announced that two pages from the Muslim scripture have been dated by radiocarbon to somewhere 568 and 645 A.D. Since the Prophet Muhammad -- who said he got the text as message from Allah -- is generally thought to have lived between 570 and 632 A.D., the parchment pages date back to the earliest years of Islam, the university says.

The release adds that the pages, from surahs (chapters) 18-20, read much like modern editions of the Quran. If so, it supports Muslims who insist the version they have is pretty much the one their forebears recited.

Pretty startling claims, and they deserve a good, hard look. But unless we get follow-up reports, we may not get a lot of that. Most mainstream media thus far are simply echoing what the university and its supporters said. No, worse than that. More like cheerleading.

They freely cite the release, including quotes by David Thomas, Susan Worrall and Alba Fedeli of the university -- plus an approving remark from a Persian scholar at the British Library. CNN even uses footage released by the university, including views of the quranic pages.

The reports also repeat and amplify the university's hype. BBC gives free rein to gushing reactions by Muslim scholars. It's "news to rejoice Muslim hearts," one says. "When I saw these pages I was very moved," says another. "There were tears of joy and emotion in my eyes."

And BBC isn't alone.

* "Stunning discovery," says the BigNewsNetwork.

* The announcement "thrilled Muslim scholars," the Associated Press says. It adds that Fedeli "said the development was just as wonderful as the rest of her work."

* "We are thrilled," NPR has Worrall saying.

* "Holy text" and "divine message," the New York Times calls the Quran. "The discovery also offered a joyful moment for a faith that has struggled with internal divisions and external pressures."

The Times article was the most irritating to David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic: "If a researcher discovered an ancient Christian Gospel, wd the NYT describe the contents as 'the divine message'?"

Part of the Times' problem, I think, is overly enthusiastic copying and pasting. Here is the offending paragraph in full:

During the time of Muhammad, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today, Professor Thomas said. Rather, the words believed to be from God as told to Muhammad were preserved in the “memories of men” and recited. Parts were written on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels, he said.

Now the university release:

According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the revelations that form the Qur’an, the scripture of Islam, between the years AD 610 and 632, the year of his death. At this time, the divine message was not compiled into the book form in which it appears today. Instead, the revelations were preserved in “the memories of men”. Parts of it had also been written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels. Caliph Abu Bakr, the first leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad, ordered the collection of all Qur’anic material in the form of a book. The final, authoritative written form was completed and fixed under the direction of the third leader, Caliph Uthman, in about AD 650.

At least it explains the one paragraph. Why the Times also called it a "holy text" is an open question.

Even Dubai-based al-Arabiya Network didn't give the quranic pages a hard sell. The most it did was to quote Birmingham's David Thomas that it was "quite possible that the person who had written them would have been alive at the time of the Prophet Muhammad."

But let's be fair. The Times wrote 1,200+ words, the longest of the eight reports I checked. It also sought the most outside reactions, including Omid Safi of Duke, the author of a book on Islamic origins, even two specialists in radiocarbon dating. One of the latter notes that the radiocarbon test dated the parchment, not the ink.

A Saudi scholar adds a valuable caveat for the Times story:

Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written. Manuscript skins were sometimes washed clean and reused later, he said.

And this may be a touch cynical, but more than one news outlet notes that Birmingham has a large Muslim community -- 20 percent of the population -- which will likely take pride in having an old quranic text. "The planned display for the manuscript in October could prove a boon to the local economy, with adherents already expressing an interest in traveling to the city to see a piece of history," AP says.

But religious "ghosts" lurk in most of the news articles. The quranic portion is in the Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts. That would be Alphonse Mingana, a Chaldean priest born in Mosul; he collected the 3,000 manuscripts in the 1920s. CNN and the BBC have that fact; it's not in the other reports listed here.

Another ghost: The Mingana Collection is part of the university’s Cadbury Research Library. Cadbury who? Edward Cadbury, of the chocolate company, according to the Times, the BBC and BigNewsNetwork. No one mentions that he was also a Quaker philanthropist, as the university release does.

But if you're still left wondering -- as I was -- "How are we sure these guys are right?", have a read through BBC's 750-word backgrounder on  origins of the Quran.  Written by a religion professor at Stanford, the piece has some fascinating lore on the variety of manuscripts that competed for the honor of being "the" Quran -- and who broke the deadlock.

"Early Koranic manuscripts present one of the resources that can add new insights and nuance to our knowledge of the text's history," the author writes. Let's hope for more of that nuance in mainstream media reports.


Categories: Main

Abe Foxman and dependence on 'quote machines' in the journalistic process

Friday, July 24, 2015

Is there a working religion journalist in America who's ever done a story concerning anti-Semitism who did not seek a quick quote from Abraham H. Foxman, the newly retired national director of the Anti-Defamation League?

If so, please contact me. You're unique.

After almost three decades as the ADL's main man and a half-century with the organization itself, Foxman -- a veritable quote machine who, for many journalists, functioned as the unofficial voice of mainstream, organized American Jewry -- has finally, at 75, handed in his badge. Characteristically, he did not go quietly.

"Today is the last day of my long tenure as national director of the Anti-Defamation League," he began an oped distributed July 20 by JTA, the international Jewish wire service. 

"So why am I choosing to write an article on my last day? It is the same imperative that has motivated me all these years: If I see something troubling to the Jewish people, I cannot be still.

"And I am deeply troubled at this time by the agreement between the P5+1 nations and Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear program."

His outgoing issue may be a nuclear Iran, but a look at the vast library of  background information on the ADL website is testimony to the many concerns that Foxman -- who as a child was baptized Roman Catholic by his Polish nanny with whom his parents hid him during the Holocaust -- has been involved in during his tenure.

Note that some of them go beyond narrowly parochial Jewish concerns, such as anti-Semitism and Israel, to include same-sex marriage (with which ADL is onboard) and support for racial and ethnic minority voting rights. Note also that Foxman's replacement is Jonathan Greenblatt, a 43-year-old former Obama White House assistant for social innovation -- defined as  steering private-public partnerships, innovative finance, and such to devise creative policy options.

The above paragraph is my way of saying that the ADL, under Foxman and now going forward, sits squarely in the middle of liberal American Jewry's political sweet spot. (ADL is not a religious organization per se; it's a self-described defense group that strives to support all Jews as a people and culture without aligning with a particular Jewish religious movement.)

Naturally, Jewish critics to his political left often criticized him as too conservative on Israel and a scaremonger who saw anti-Semitism lurking where ever he looked. Much worse criticism came, predictably enough, from Arab American and American Muslim quarters, where Foxman's considerable influence with politicians and in interfaith circles was regularly denounced as harmful to what his critics perceived as U.S. Middle East interests.

Not that this dampened Foxman's appeal or slowed the 102-year-old ADL's growth. The organization has a $60-million annual budget, a staff of 300, and 27 offices across the United States and another in Jerusalem. Perhaps, as I believe, that in today's hyper-argumentative media world, critics only serve to elevate the brand they rail against (witness the Trump political circus).

But it takes more than vocal opponents to become a go-to spokesman.

As with other sought-after quote machines working the religion journalism landscape -- say Martin Marty on Protestant America (an old formula for an A1 religion story: You need three local anecdotes, a poll and a quote from Martin Marty), Tony Perkins and Al Mohler for evangelical concerns, Father Tom Reese or George Weigel on Catholic concerns -- it takes virtually instant availability via phone, Twitter or Facebook and, perhaps most importantly, the trust of top journalists who feel you're not leading them astray, to achieve go-to, round up the "usual suspects," status.

Foxman has excelled at this.

Here's what Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publish of the Jewish Week of New York (who I worked under at the Baltimore Jewish Times more than 20 years ago) and one of this nation's top journalists concentrating on Jewish themes, recently wrote about Foxman:

Praised by presidents, a hero to countless Jews and a lightning rod for critics, Abe Foxman has forged his reputation as one of the most influential Jews in the world. He is often the first call for journalists looking for a Jewish response to the crisis of the moment because he is frank, outspoken, accessible, and speaks from his kishkes (Yiddish for "guts").Contrary to the corporate model of some Jewish organizations, he is passionate, emotional and he wears his deep commitment to Judaism on his sleeve, often sprinkling his remarks with Yiddishisms.

In a New York Times piece on Foxman's retirement, Joseph Berger (a former religion beat reporter) noted that the ADL leader has often been called upon when someone who crossed the Jewish community in some manner sought to make amends.

Berger wrote in part:

When a public figure feels unjustly criticized for a position on Israel or Jews, Mr. Foxman may be asked to step in, as he did when Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser, was attacked in a newspaper advertisement for a “pattern of callous disregard for genocide.” Mr. Foxman called the ad “incendiary” and “reckless.” Ms. Rice thanked him publicly at a retirement tribute on June 17 at the Waldorf Astoria.Sometimes he is asked to provide virtual absolution, what he wryly called a kosher certification, guiding a celebrity who stereotyped Jews through a process that includes a public apology and some study of Jewish history. Such a ritualistic cleansing was sought by John Galliano, former chief designer for Christian Dior, Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor, and Rick Sanchez, the former CNN anchor.“Some of my most satisfying moments as director of A.D.L. were in witnessing people who did bad things and said vile things turn around and become better people,’ Mr. Foxman said in his remarks at the Waldorf.

I personally interacted with Foxman countless times when I was a full-time religion reporter. I cannot recall a time when he did not help my story of the moment, offering context quickly and concisely, on or off the record, directing me to another source who could be more helpful, or simply providing the quote I needed to construct my story.

Foxman was not a source who slipped me major scoops. Rather, he was the kind of dependable and well-informed source without which reporters cannot easily function. He personified the critical relationship between journalists and the experts (and communications/pr officials) upon whom we rely for critical and timely information, like it or not.

One last thing. Count on Foxman to remain a vital source. Quote machines do not go quietly into the night upon their so-called retirement. So if you have his personal cell number, don't discard it just yet.

Categories: Main

'Modest' bathing suits featured on Wall Street Journal's front page — what's religion got to do with it?

Friday, July 24, 2015

‘Modest’ bathing suits make a splash: leggings, sleeves, ‘skorts’

— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) July 24, 2015

Today's Wall Street Journal features a front-page trend story on "modest" bathing suits.

I read the lede and immediately felt my GetReligion Spidey sense tingle:

WEST ORANGE, N.J. — When Deborah Nixon heads to her local pool in her swimsuit — a pair of long black leggings and a matching short-sleeved top like surfers wear — she gets compliments and admiring glances, at least from other women.“It is the New Sexy,” says Ms. Nixon. The 58-year-old, who has abandoned her conventional one-piece bathing suit in favor of the more elaborate get-up, is convinced she looks and feels better with less of her showing.A whole lot less.Ms. Nixon, a former nurse and retired captain in the U.S. Public Health Service, is a fan of so-called modest swimsuits. This increasingly popular style of beachwear is a far cry — and for some women a welcome relief — from the skimpy bikinis and bare-all Brazilian bottoms that have dominated beach fashions.

A little personal background: Growing up in Churches of Christ in the South, we didn't believe in "mixed bathing," which referred to boys and girls swimming together. My family did watch "The Love Boat" on Saturday nights, which always confused me. Not that I complained.

(My friend Roger B. Woods spent his early childhood in Hawaii and California, where the church culture was different. So he was surprised when he moved to Virginia at age 14 and heard a sermon against mixed bathing. "On the ride home," Roger recalls, "I asked my parents: 'Why'd he preach about boys and girls taking baths together.'")

Of course, positions on mixed swimming — and on some other issues, such as dancing — have softened among some, maybe many, in my church fellowship over the years. At the same time, a major gathering called Polishing the Pulpit meets at a Tennessee hotel with a waterpark but shuts down that facility during its gathering. The organizers explain: "All the directors and overseeing elders strongly oppose mixed swimming because of the Bible’s teaching on modesty (1 Timothy 2:9), our responsibility to avoid being a stumbling block to others (Romans 14:13), and our need to avoid putting ourselves in the path of temptation (Matthew 5:28; 6:13)."

My personal experience helps explain why I wondered if the modest swimsuits might have a religious motivation — and if the Journal story would reflect the faith angle.

So I kept reading.

Almost immediately, the Journal eased any concern about a potential holy ghost haunting the piece. No ghostbusting needed here:

She purchased her suit from HydroChic, one of several online purveyors of modest swimwear that have sprung up in recent years in a competitive cottage industry. Like several others in the business, HydroChic, based in New Rochelle, N.Y., was started by Orthodox Jewish women looking for suitable beachwear in a community where women follow strict dress codes.Orthodox women typically cover their arms and legs, presenting a conundrum for a trip to the beach. Sara Wolf, HydroChic’s co-founder, said she got the idea for the swim line at the Jersey Shore, where she spotted Orthodox women walking in the sand in ankle-length jean skirts. She found herself thinking about how her own friends wore oversize T-shirts and baggy men’s shorts to the beach.

Later, the story quotes Danta Bolin, who loves the swimwear because it covers up — as she describes them — her not-so-pretty thighs:

Ms. Bolin said she still remembers admiring comments from lifeguards who loved her surfer look: “They thought I was the coolest.” She has never looked back.Now transplanted to upstate New York, Ms. Bolin has a new set of fans: devout Christian women living nearby, who regularly ask her where she found her swim gear. She says her preferred get-up has nothing to do with religion: “It doesn’t expose parts of me that don’t need to be exposed.”

Ordinarily, we at GetReligion would say to the Journal: Define "devout Christian women." But in this case — and in the context of quoting Bolin describing the women she has encountered — I'm not going to grumble.

Leave it to our own tmatt to point out that this isn't the first religion-and-swimwear post we've done at GetReligion. Way back in 2006, Mollie Hemingway critiqued a Washington Post feature on bikinis and modesty. And in 2011, tmatt himself wrote a post titled "The Sun cheers for modest swimming."

Apparently, there really is nothing new under the sun. Even if there is something new to wear in the sun. And at the beach.

The Journal story is interesting, entertaining and, in my case, stirred up boyhood nostalgia. Plus, it gets religion. 

Now, if you'll please excuse me, I need to figure out if they make these full-body bathing suits for men ...

Categories: Main

Did The Tennessean mean to capture a key nuance in the post-Obergefell debates?

Friday, July 24, 2015

If you set out to pick a state that was the opposite of my old state of Maryland, in terms of politics and culture, it would have to be Tennessee, where I live now.

Maryland is a historically Catholic state that has evolved -- other than in some rural corners and in most African-American church life -- into an archetypal Blue State.

Meanwhile, the political history of Tennessee has been rooted in a populist and often culturally conservative brand of Democratic Party politics, until the rise of the modern Republican Party. I mean, as a U.S. senator, Al Gore had an 84 percent National Right to Life approval rating. East Tennessee has always been heavily Republican, dating back to the Civil War in some parts of the mountains. But these are not, as a rule, Republicans who automatically hate the government. Can you say Tennessee Valley Authority?

This brings me to an interesting story that ran the other day in The Tennessean, the historically liberal Gannett newspaper in Nashville, the state capital. Whether the editors knew it or not, this story contains material that describes one of the key religious liberty debates taking place -- but rarely covered by journalists -- after the 5-4 Obergefell ruling backing same-sex marriage.

As you would expect, there are Republicans in Tennessee who pretty much want to blow up the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, the story notes early on:

Many Tennessee Republicans aren’t hiding their anger over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage across the country.They're adamant they need to respond, either in a way they feel will champion states' rights or religious liberties. Some lawmakers want the state to consider allowing employees who object to same-sex marriage to refuse to serve same-sex couples.

There is that big idea yet again, that citizens who oppose same-sex marriage want the right to -- vaguely defined -- "refuse to serve same-sex couples." Hold that thought.

Now, there are Republicans who are talking about impeaching Gov. Bill Haslam because he refuses to ignore the Obergefell ruling. One outspoken GOP lawmaker is Rick Womick, who readers are told wants state "officials to stop 'intimidating' county clerks into issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples."

However, later in the story another Republican puts a different, more nuanced, spin on this issue. In effect, he has argued that some officials be able to handle same-sex marriage cases in a way consistent with conflict-of-interest laws.

Please read this long passage carefully:

... Sen. Rusty Crowe suggested the state should consider allowing employees who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds to simply hand off any work that may require them to interact with gay married couples to employees who don't share their qualms.Crowe, R-Johnson City, referenced an email he said he received from a state employee who was purportedly nervous about being fired for refusing to serve same-sex married couples."And in this case, the gentleman stated in the email that … he was very comfortable in his job helping people with food stamps and all kinds of things that he dealt with, even the gay individuals that he had to deal with. But he simply could not deal with those situations that required him to deal with those individuals that were marrying based on this new ruling from the Supreme Court, and thus he thought he was going to be fired," Crowe said."I don’t know that you all have seen those sorts of situations yet, but I would be very disappointed and angry if the state were to take the position of letting people go that feel they can’t perform because of their religious beliefs."

Yes, the word "even" grates at me, too, in the phrase "even the gay individuals that he had to deal with." But this is a direct quote from a real political debate.

Here is what interests me about this story. The reporter covered the debate, but didn't seem to recognize that there are legislators on the conservative side of the religious-liberty issue that are taking different approaches to this matter. It's the same problem that we saw in the simplistic and often inaccurate news coverage of fights over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana and elsewhere.

Once again, RFRA does not guarantee that a religious believer automatically wins a case. It simply means that they are allowed to use a religious-liberty argument in court. It is crucial that their defense be rooted in a historic doctrine or tradition consistently followed in their faith (think drug cases involving Native American rites vs. a brand new pro-weed religious sect with a reality-TV show). It is also important that they are seeking a clearly defined and a very narrow, specific right to apply their faith (the right to use a drug in a specific, ancient religious rite, as opposed to using that drug while watching rock concerts on cable television).

So what did Crowe argue, in terms of the rights of clerks facing duties linked to same-sex marriage? Did he say that they had a right to refuse to deal with gays and lesbians, period? Did he even say that they had a right to refuse to deal with same-sex couples, period? Or did he say -- again, think conflict of interest laws -- that they had a right to say that they could not in good conscience take part in work directly linked to a gay-marriage ceremony? Then, these officials would be required to quickly refer that work to someone without a similar doctrinal issue. There would be no attempt to deny service to the gay couple. A key question: Is there a county in this state without a clerk willing to fill this role?

Once again, the goal is not for journalists to agree with what Crowe is arguing. The goal is to understand that nuance in his argument and to accurately present it to readers, so they can understand the actual debate that is taking place.

Like I said, this Tennessean article got this nuance into print, even if the reporter and the newspaper's editors didn't realize that was what they were doing. Bravo?

Categories: Main

Yes, we saw that rather stunning Gawker quote about God and the mainstream press

Thursday, July 23, 2015

For years, I have heard religious leaders -- yes, most of them conservative types -- ask reporters whether or not they go to church. It's not a nice question and, I would argue, it's not the right question to ask if the goal is to understand why the mainstream press struggles to cover religion news.

The goal of this question, essentially, is to show that an unusually high percentage of the scribes and editors in newsrooms are godless heathens who hate religious people. Now, I have met a few of those heathens in newsrooms, but not as many as you would think. I've met my share of "spiritual, but not religious" journalists and quite a few religious progressives. I once heard a colleague quip that the only place that the Episcopal Church's "Decade of Evangelism," in the 1990s, was a success was in newsrooms.

As I have said before on this blog, there are plenty of non-believers who do a fine job covering religion news. Then again, I have met believers who could not report their way out of a paper bag.

No, the question religious folks should be asking journalists -- when reporters are sent to cover religion events -- is this: How long have you covered religion news and what did you do,  professionally and/or academically, to prepare for this work? In other words, stop asking journalists religious questions and start asking them journalism questions.

If you want to see a "Do you go to church?" train wreck, then check out the following commentary (and then some) from Hamilton Nolan at Gawker that has been making the rounds. Let me stress that this is not a news piece, so no one should expect balance, fairness and other journalistic virtues. The headline: "Donald Trump Gay Marries Jesus: At the Family Leadership Summit."

Frank Luntz asks press in Ames: How many go to church regularly? "A smattering of reporters raised their hands."

— Romenesko (@romenesko) July 19, 2015

Here's the overture:

AMES, IOWA -- Abortion. Abominable gays. And god’s abiding dislike of the current Democratic administration. Hey 90s kids: remember 1996? Remember the Culture Wars? They’re back.On Saturday morning, under the sweltering Iowa sun, all four corners of the street outside of Iowa State University’s auditorium were held by ideological armies. On one corner were the Iowa atheists; on the next, people protesting the prison-industrial complex; on the next, people calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood; and on the next, the pro-life crowd. Men waved signs urging god out of public schools just yards away from an anti-abortion group’s mobile health clinic.Inside, thousands of Iowans and hundreds of members of the press corps had come out to see rumpled Republican language whisperer Frank Luntz, sporting garish red and white sneakers with his suit, quiz ten of the major Republican presidential candidates. He quizzed them not just on policy, but on something more meaty: their faith. “Have you ever asked god for forgiveness?” he asked Donald Trump. “Is there ever a time you cursed god?” he asked Rick Santorum. “How many of you think the collapse of the family and culture is the most important issue?” he asked the audience. There was opportunity for much solemn head-nodding.

And now the "Do you go to church?" disaster:

The only group who might have felt less welcome at the Family Leadership Summit than black people or abortionists was the media. We were given the first three rows in the auditorium, the best seats of the house. This was less a gesture of magnanimity from the organizers than a move to ensure that the press was conveniently placed for insults from the stage.At one point, Frank Luntz stopped the proceedings to ask the press corps how many of us went to church regularly. For reasons I cannot fathom, a smattering of reporters raised their hands. “That’s nine out of what, sixty or seventy there?” Luntz said, in a tone of sadness. The crowd was appropriately disgusted. “Wow.” “Jeez.” A few hisses even rained down. Later, the single biggest standing ovation of the entire day -- bigger than any ovation for Jesus himself—came when Luntz pointed to press row and asked Bobby Jindal, “What are you critical of?”“They don’t hold this president to the same standards they do the rest of us,” Jindal said. At this, the crowd rose en masse and thundered on clapping for a solid half minute. I could only thank my lucky stars that America has successfully fought off Sharia law thus far, or we surely would have all been stoned to death.For a non-churchgoer, it is rather disconcerting to hear powerful public officials campaigning for such an important job plainly lay out their belief that a magic man in the sky will be the key to all of their efforts. Ted Cruz, who looks like a crooked mortician in cowboy boots, voiced the opinion that the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage “will awaken the body of Christ and lift us up to say: we will take our country back for our values.” I don’t know what awakening the body of Christ entails exactly, but it sounds terrifying for non-Christians. (Cruz went on to criticize Iran for being “theocratic.”)

Does anyone out there have a JOURNALISTIC comment about this? Come on, give it a try.

Categories: Main

Trinity and the atomic bomb: In New Mexico where the religion ghosts dwell

Thursday, July 23, 2015

July 16 was the 70th anniversary of a world-changing event; the testing of the world’s first atomic bomb in a New Mexico desert. It would be less than a month before two such bombs would be released in the skies over Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

If any event had grave moral consequences, it was this one. But the silence of any kind of faith-based element to this anniversary in the media is profound.

There are, of course, some bizarre God-connections to this event. The site of  the test was called “Trinity” supposedly after a John Donne sonnet, although no one really knows the origin of the name. It seems odd that a core Christian doctrine about the nature of God is attached to something connected with mass death.

Hinduism gets a role here too. When the main bombs went off in Japan, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the California physicist known as the “father of the atomic bomb” for his work on the Manhattan Project, spouted Vishnu’s famous quote from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Yet, in the coverage I scanned that ran on the day of the anniversary, there was more about "atomic tourists" noting the anniversary than anything about religion. There were pieces on the “downwinders;” people who lived in small towns in south central New Mexico that were down wind from the atomic blast at the White Sands Missile Range. These were people who, this story from Al Jazeera English points out, were lied to by the government as to the nature of the blast. Naturally, they took no precautions and during the past 70 years, hundreds of people have died from bizarre cancers. Their claims are finally getting a needed hearing seven decades after the fact.

One Catholic website noted that many the unseen victims of the Trinity bomb were mainly Catholics.

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., July 16, 2015 ( -- Seventy years after a nuclear bomb was detonated in Los Alamos, New Mexico, residents in the nearby Hispanic, largely Catholic town of Tularosa are seeking compensation for what they suffered.The bomb, detonated in the Jornada del Muerto desert at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945 -- a major Marian feast day on the Catholic liturgical calendar honoring Our Lady of Mt. Carmel -- was part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, the research team tasked with creating the atomic bombs that were eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.Many of the 30,000 residents of Tularosa, who didn't find out about the test site until well after the fact, are said to have developed rare forms of cancer following the blast, and are now seeking compensation as well as an acknowledgment from the federal government of the harms they suffered.

One major misstep there! In the lead, she confuses Los Alamos, the northern New Mexico city where the bomb was designed with the desert towns in another part of the state -- 160 miles to the south -- near where it was released.

Here's another religion angle: The bomb that hit Nagasaki fell into a heavily Catholic district. As for the targets of the bombs, Nagasaki had been the center of Catholicism in Japan since the 16th century. Nagasaki was a last-minute choice; the original target, Kokura, was obscured by clouds.

I'd like to hear more about what went on in the minds of the bomb's makers during this event and whether the passage of 70 years has made nuclear warfare more or less morally permissible. For example, tmatt and I have a friend -- a retired Episcopal bishop -- who as a young priest used to hear the confessions of scientists in the hydrogen-bomb era in Los Alamos. Priests cannot discuss the details of confessions, of course, but they can talk about the issues that ere involved. Are there retired priests left from the '50s, at least?

During the 70th anniversary of the bombings next month, the focus -- as it should be -- will be more on the victims in Japan than the bomb's makers in New Mexico. Will faith be mentioned at all in the commemorations? Or, like the spirits of some 200,000 people who died from these blasts, the religion ghosts may remain a mysterious element in this major story.

Categories: Main

A trend worth reporting: Philadelphia Inquirer explores multisite churches

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ten years ago, I wrote a trend story for Religion News Service on the rise of megachurches with satellite locations:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Most weekends, Pastor Craig Groeschel preaches at 23 services in five church locations across Oklahoma.His schedule isn’t quite as busy as it sounds, though. The founder of, a nontraditional church, Groeschel delivers only five of the messages in person. Technology takes care of the rest.Welcome to the electronic church, live via satellite.In the reality TV age, perhaps it’s no surprise that fast-growth churches increasingly use cameras to put their pastors in two places — or three or four or more — at the same time.

A decade later, multisite churches remain a fertile topic for Godbeat attention.

So this headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer this week caught my attention:


— Philly Inquirer (@PhillyInquirer) July 20, 2015

The Inquirer's lede:

On Sundays, the members of Keystone Fellowship church attend services together and apart, in one building and in several, hearing the same message, but differently.Keystone is a multisite congregation: one church with a centralized leadership but a congregation that meets in more than one location. It hosts services in three Montgomery County towns - Montgomeryville, Fort Washington, and Skippack - with a fourth in the works."Instead of being one megasite of 2,000, we'd rather be four churches with 500 - and be active in those communities," Pastor John Cope said.More than 5,000 multisite congregations have opened their doors in the United States since the 1980s, when fewer than 100 existed, according to the Leadership Network, a Dallas-based church-growth think tank. One of the nation's largest multisite churches - LifeChurch in Oklahoma - boasts 24 sites in seven states.Most of the growth occurred in the last decade.

I feel for the reporter who wrote the story. The piece ran about 930 words — not a bad length for a typical newspaper feature, granted, but still not a lot of space to delve into the intricacies of the subject matter.

Thus, there's a lot of generalization:

Multisite brethren might meet in schools or movie theaters, and listen to sermons from big screens through live-stream or from in-person pastors working from an outline followed by all church clergy. They may worship to the same music played that day in other branches, but performed by a site-based band."The multisite church is totally transforming how we do and think of church," said the Rev. Jim Tomberlin, who helped pioneer the church-growth strategy as a pastor in Colorado and who now works as a church consultant.It's not"a fix-it strategy" for a struggling congregation, Tomberlin said, but, rather, a vehicle to accommodate a growing church.Typically, multisite churches have more than 1,000 members who pack the pews (and the aisles) each Sunday. Many also offer charismatic leaders, contemporary worship, small-group weekday meetings, and a service-oriented church culture that appeals to millennials, studies show.

Given more space, I would love to have seen more specific details on:

• Whether the trend involves mainly non-denominational, independent-type churches vs. denominational congregations. 

• How the experience of watching a satellite pastor differs from the approach of using a common outline by in-person pastors at multisite locations.

• What church growth experts say about whether the multisite approach works better than, say, starting new, totally autonomous congregations. 

But overall, this is a neat little feature on an ongoing trend.

Undoubtedly, many Inquirer readers enjoyed reading it and learned something new.


Categories: Main

With Irish friars, New York Times finds yearning for tradition, community and even faith?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Here we go again, yet another positive GetReligion post about an elite newsroom's coverage of a religious issue on foreign soil. I hope that readers won't hold all of these positive vibes against me, especially since, in this case, we're talking about The New York Times.

But first, do you remember the semi-shock felt by many traditional Catholics when National Public Radio did that glowing report on the Dominican sisters in Nashville? That was the report that opened like this:

For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits. But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.The average of new entrants here is 23. And overall, the average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36 -- four decades younger than the average nun nationwide.Unlike many older sisters in previous generations, who wear street clothes and live alone, the Nashville Dominicans wear traditional habits and adhere to a strict life of prayer, teaching and silence.

Now the Times has gone to Cork, Ireland, and discovered a very similar story focusing on a house of Dominican friars. The narrator, in the beginning, is recruiter Father Gerard Dunne and the topic is the medieval habit and rosary that, in a significant way, symbolize this order's approach to the faith.

Spot any themes that are similar to the earlier NPR piece?

Other religious orders largely stopped wearing their traditional garb in recent years, as they tried to attract new followers in secularizing societies. But the friars deliberately went on wearing the robes and promoting the spiritual benefits of shared prayer and a communal lifestyle -- with a little help, too, from a chatty blog.“We made a conscious decision a few years ago to wear the habit because we had no vocations and we were in a bad way,” said Father Dunne, 46, who estimates that he has traveled nearly a half-million miles along Ireland’s country lanes and highways in search of recruits. “If we didn’t present ourselves in an authentic manner, who would join us? And that meant going back to the fundamentals.”Those fundamentals -- which include the signature white tunic and black capuce of the Dominican friars, fashioned almost 800 years ago -- have helped lead to an improbable revival of the Dominican order of preachers. Even as other orders close houses and parish priests in Ireland are vanishing at a time of clerical sexual abuse scandals, the Dominican order is growing, and not just in Ireland.

There is, of course, a slightly misleading reference to Pope Francis -- a Jesuit -- and his choice to live in a small community of priests and bishops near the Vatican. However, the story then plunges right back into the interesting details of what make these friars different and how their combination of community service and private, communal life is striking a note of authenticity for a growing number of young men.

Yes, the story talks about the clerical abuse scandals. In fact, you could argue that, especially in the context of Ireland, the story doesn't throw enough digital ink that way. But the story here unfolds on two levels: (1) The remarkable growth of the order and (2) the fine details of the life these men lead. Come and see.

“People see the habit in a much more positive light then clerical clothing, the black shirt, white collar and suit,” said Martin Ganeri, who is a Dominican vocations promoter for England, where five people entered the order this year. “The habit doesn’t have the negative image of the clergy, the child abuse issue.”In fact the Dominicans have faced child abuse accusations in Ireland. But perhaps because of a garb that harks back to the more austere and disciplined traditions of the church, the Dominican friars have managed to flourish even in the Irish Republic, where surveys show Catholics are deserting the church pews faster than in almost any other country.In tough economic times, the stability of community may also be appealing, and the resurgence for the Dominicans has coincided with Ireland’s economic crisis. But Father Dunne and others said most potential candidates were already prospering in existing jobs in professional fields, and came to the order because of a yearning for greater spirituality.

I know, I know. "Greater spirituality" is the kind of language that newspapers use to avoid actual professions of faith and all of that holy language that priests often use. But keep reading,

I kept wondering if the actual theology in this order is different than the norm at the level of Irish dioceses. The Times team notes that a mere 12 men, a record low, started the educational process to the priesthood last year in all 26 of Ireland's dioceses, combined.

In contrast, in January a Dominican vocations retreat in Cork was oversubscribed at St. Mary’s Priory and two more were added in March and April. The early events drew a total of 20 men to whom the idea of a simple lifestyle and a clear identity appealed at a time of uncertainty in the lives of many.In the fall, the Dublin-based order enrolled five men, joining 20 other Dominican theology students. They will become part of a community of 175 priests in 18 priories or communal houses across Ireland.

In the second half of the story, the key is that new friars are simply allowed to talk. There are also enough details about communal life to catch the flavor of the order's life, or at least the social-media-friendly elements.

Maurice Colgan, 41, a former social worker for drug addicts who was ordained as a Dominican priest in 2011, said he was still adapting to his lifestyle.“My hat goes off to diocesan priests, but I don’t know how they do it without community life,” he said. “Today, you need the support of your brothers. Now, of course they may annoy you and you annoy them, but that’s natural in a community.”At one recent retreat, prospective recruits were invited to imagine themselves as black friars, as the Dominicans are nicknamed, gathering for evening prayer at the 19th-century St. Mary’s Church in Cork, where the order first arrived in 1229.The guests included a university student, a government lawyer and a schoolteacher drawn by the order’s Web site, which is stocked with videos, among them one of a friar snowball fight set to the song “Eye of the Tiger.” Later, the group crowded at a long wooden table for a traditional Irish fry dinner of potatoes and sausages.

What is missing? Well, many readers will want to know if any of this sacrifice -- including the sacrifice of marriage and family -- has anything to do with God and discerning a call to share the Christian faith with other people. You know, all that Jesus stuff.

Frankly, the NPR piece on the sisters in Nashville did a better job of capturing that side of this remarkable story. Was it easier to talk about beautiful voices, sacraments and adoration when dealing with young women than with a circle of young men?

Still, this is a remarkably non-snarky piece that touches on some important issues, in this crisis age for vocations in many corners of the Catholic world. Here is hoping that the Times editors are brave enough to keep researching the links between doctrine, tradition and new priests.

My suggestion? Send a reporter to this American campus in a few weeks as a new school year begins. Hey, there is a link to Francis, as in the saint.

Categories: Main

Liberty University and all those Pell Grants: Is this a topic for news or opinion?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Over the years, your GetReligionistas have developed some logos to signal to readers that there are certain types of stories that we critique over and over and over. No, we haven't created a Kellerism logo yet, but who knows?

The "Got news?" logo us used when we see a really interesting news story in alternative media and, as veteran reporters, we think to ourselves, "Why the heck isn't anyone in the mainstream press covering that interesting (and in some cases major) story?"

Then there is the logo out front on this post, which says, "What is this?" If you read news online, you know that we are in an age in which the lines between hard news and commentary are getting thinner and thinner. Frequently, I see pieces marked "analysis" that contain far more clear attributions and sources than in "hard news" stories elsewhere. We regularly see "news" features that, a decade ago, would have been featured on op-ed pages.

Then there is the whole issue of hard-news reporters writing "objective" stories and then turning around and firing away on Twitter with edgy comments that would make an editorial-page editor blush. The goal, for many reporters, is to build an online "brand" and one way you do that is by telling readers what you really think.

Then there is that other nasty equation looming in the background during these financially troubled times in the journalism. You know the one: Opinion is cheep; information is expensive.

This brings me to a really interesting "Acts of Faith" piece at The Washington Post that ran under this headline: "Liberty University, a hub of conservative politics, owes rapid growth to federal student loans." The key is that Liberty University -- founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell -- now has the largest student body of any private nonprofit university in America, with 70,000 students (counting online students).

Now that's a really interesting story, in fact it's several interesting stories. There's the growth of this conservative school, period. There's the question of whether online schools mesh well with traditional analog education. And then there is a perfectly valid angle that is, well, especially interesting in the wake of that 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

No, not the issue of same-sex partners on the Liberty faculty or on campus. We're talking about the question of Liberty's tax status.

That's a hot topic and, as I read this piece, I kept waiting for voices representing the university and/or Christian higher education, in general. They never showed up. In part, because the essay never openly plays the Obergefell card. But read this chunk of material and see if you think that topic is on the mind of at least one Post editor:

The irony: The exponential growth of Liberty University has been fueled by billions in federal student aid made possible by President Obama and congressional Democrats.Fifteen years ago, Liberty had 5,939 undergraduate students and 735 graduate students. Last fall, the university enrolled 49,744 undergraduates and 31,715 graduate students.Most of the university’s dramatic growth has come through distance education, and its online students now make up most of Liberty’s student body. Three-quarters of undergraduates and 97 percent of graduate students at Liberty study exclusively through distance education, according the American Federation of Teachers.But more astounding than the growth in students is the growth in federal aid. Data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia shows that federal aid has grown five times faster than enrollment. In the late 1990s, Liberty students received less than $20 million in aid. Students now receive over $800 million dollars a year in federal aid.

Let me stress that this is a completely valid hook for a news story. But is that what this piece actually is? The further I read into it, the more confused I became. What is this?

Then I looked again at the byline and realized that, while this is a topic worthy of a hard-news story built on input from experts and insiders on both sides of this issue, this essay was actually an example of what some people call "reported blogging." The story looked like news, but it wasn't "news."

In other words, this was an opinion or analysis piece that happened to contain some reported information, from sources on one side of the topic. The author is not a reporter, but a highly qualified professor and scribe from a state university (in other words, from a branch of higher education in which many leaders view religious schools such as Liberty as second-rate competition).

My question is the same as always: This is a great topic. Why not write a solid, balanced news piece about it? Why not allow Liberty leaders to offer their point of view? Or, if the goal is op-ed writing, why not clearly label this piece as opinion or analysis. Just asking.

Anyone want to propose a theory or two? In mean, other than this one: Opinion is cheep; information is expensive.

Categories: Main

AP poll: Downtick on support for same-sex marriage. Mainstream media: (shrug)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

To the surprise of few, the American public hasn't flocked to the gay marriage side just because the Supreme Court made it the law of the land. It may surprise some that public approval of same-sex marriage has actually dropped a bit, according to a new Associated Press poll.

A bigger surprise to me: Mainstream media show little curiosity about it.

Sure, they're reposting and reprinting the report, in varying lengths. But are they localizing reactions? Seeking explanations? Not as of this writing.

The poll results are attention-getting enough:

The Supreme Court’s ruling last month legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide has left Americans sharply divided, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll that suggests support for gay unions may be down slightly from earlier this year.The poll also found a near-even split over whether local officials with religious objections should be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, with 47 percent saying that should be the case and 49 percent say they should be exempt.Overall, if there’s a conflict, a majority of those questioned think religious liberties should win out over gay rights, according to the poll. While 39 percent said it’s more important for the government to protect gay rights, 56 percent said protection of religious liberties should take precedence.

We'll note in passing the "frame game" wording, as tmatt calls it: religious "liberties" versus gay "rights." But in this story, the numbers are more interesting:

According to the poll, 42 percent support same-sex marriage and 40 percent oppose it. The percentage saying they favor legal same-sex marriage in their state was down slightly from the 48 percent who said so in an April poll. In January, 44 percent were in favor.Asked specifically about the Supreme Court ruling, 39 percent said they approve and 41 percent said they disapprove.

Respondents were also divided over business exemptions; 51 percent said businesses should not be allowed to deny service to gay couples, but 59 percent said yes for "wedding-related businesses with religious objections." That later number compares with 52 percent in April.

The poll reveals some contradictions in attitudes, but thus far, many mainstream media aren't following up. Huffington Post, which has long been open about its gay-biased coverage, simply reran the AP story. So did WAFF, a TV station out of Huntsville, Ala.

ABC News condenses the findings, deleting nearly everything except the numbers. ABC didn't even include a video with the story. The main refinement was four subheads.

Why would approval of same-sex marriage fall in the wake of a historic Supreme Court decision? After all, previous polls have shown a steady rise in public views on same-sex marriage since 2009. Was it some civic equivalent of buyer's remorse? Or is it just one of those temporary downturns, like those in 2005 and 2008? I'll bet someone has a handle on that.

Nor do I see media seeking local reaction to the AP poll, although the report was posted on Monday. AP itself collected a few individual comments: one from Tennessee, one from Washington state, two from Michigan. Why couldn't other media do the same for their readerships and broadcast areas?

They could also have asked local psychologists, sociologists and political scientists. Religious leaders -- conservative, moderate, liberal -- would have been a good choice, too (one that AP didn't consult either, BTW).

Into the vacuum of analysis, partisan media naturally flow. Baptist Press, part of the Southern Baptist Convention, turned out a reaction piece more than 300 words longer than the AP story itself.

BP's story surveys reactions of mainline denominations toward the Supreme Court ruling, noting the longtime embrace of gay rights by the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Church of Christ. The story also stresses that the leaders are more liberal than laity in the pews.

Predictably, the story is biased toward conservative sources, mirroring the liberal bias of many mainstream media. BP approvingly quotes Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, that the mainliners were "compromising their sexual standards before the country itself compromised its laws on marriage."  

BP also gets live quotes from a representative of the American Baptist Churches. All other sources, including those of the United Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- are quoted from e-mails or press releases. It's evident which side BP favors.

One surprise: accepting the frame game. The article says that "gay affirming denominations are more progressive regarding marriage than the culture." I would not have expected a conservative news agency like BP to use the opposition's labels, like "gay affirming" and "progressive."

The conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee does get a lot of ink, though -- 212 words worth. Interesting perspective, though. The group's president, Carmen Fowler LaBerge, says local mainline churches may get hit with discrimination lawsuits if they decline to host gay marriages.

"None of them will be able to appeal, if challenged, to the 'sincerely held religious belief' of their higher governing body," LaBerge says. She adds that it will be even harder for churches that have hosted weddings of "non-believers and members of other faith traditions."

The more liberal NewNowNext, on the other hand, seeds a negative word or two in nearly every paragraph. It's an "upsetting new poll." It's "disappointing." And it's a "real shocker" (written sarcastically) that Republicans prefer religious "liberties" to gay "rights" (quote marks mine to emphasize the framing), but Democrats prefer the opposite.

Understand, I am not declaring, "Comment! Opinionate! Full speed ahead!" Anyone who has read me in GR knows what I think of newswriters using their stories as editorial space. What I am saying is that they can find informed observers: scholars, activists, civic figures. And Baptist Press demonstrated the range of religious views on gay marriage. Quote some of them.

You don’t have to judge. You also don’t have to parrot the wires. Just work your beat. Show some curiosity.

Categories: Main

Paranoia and outrage over a proposed Muslim cemetery in Texas: What are the facts?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Dallas Morning News columnist offered this take on the furor caused by a proposed Muslim cemetery in rural Texas:

Floyd: Muslim cemetery near Farmersville scares the wits out of some

— Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews) July 21, 2015

Watch the above video from a Dallas television station, and it's hard to argue with that assessment.

But here at GetReligion, we focus on news coverage, not opinion articles. Blah. Blah. Blah.

So how'd the Morning News do covering this controversy as a news story?

Not bad, actually:

Plans for Muslim cemetery stir apprehension among Farmersville residents

— Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews) July 18, 2015

The lede:

FARMERSVILLE — There’s a Buddhist meditation center on the outskirts of town, and a Mormon church recently opened along Audie Murphy Parkway.But it’s the prospect of an Islamic cemetery that has upset some residents in this Collin County city with a population of fewer than 4,000. In shops along the brick-lined streets of the quaint downtown area, many wonder, “Why Farmersville?”“The concern for us is the radical element of Islam,” David J. Meeks, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, said of the Islamic Association of Collin County’s plan to build a cemetery west of the city.While a cemetery seems benign enough, the pastor is convinced that it will be the start of a Muslim enclave in the heart of this rural community.“They will expand,” Meeks said firmly. “How can we stop a mosque or madrassa training center from going in there?”

Keep reading, and the story delves into concerns about Muslim burial practices, quoting Khalil Abdur-Rashid, a spokesman for the Islamic association:

He said he wants people to have an accurate understanding of the project and is willing to meet with residents to discuss their concerns.“There will be no type of religious services at the cemetery. We’re forbidden from saying prayers on a grave or a cemetery,” he said. “We must comply with all state and local regulations.”Muslims do not embalm their dead. Instead, he said, bodies are washed in warm water at the funeral home.Embalming is not required by state law, according to the Texas Funeral Service Commission.Abdur-Rashid, who teaches Islam at Southern Methodist University, said shrouded bodies are placed in coffins, which are entombed in concrete vaults and placed 6 to 7 feet underground.“That is our burial practice, and that’s what we’ll follow in Farmersville,” he said.

I wish the Morning News had provided more details on the theology behind Abdur-Rashid's statement that saying prayers on a grave or cemetery is forbidden.

But in general, the Dallas newspaper does a nice job of reflecting the various voices in Farmersville and giving the Islamic association spokesman an opportunity to address concerns raised by residents.

I found myself wondering what people in that small town think of the concept of religious freedom: Do they support it for everybody? Or just for folks who believe what they do? This news story doesn't address such questions.

While relying mainly on quotes from other news organizations — including the Morning News — an Associated Press story on Farmersville does touch on religious freedom:

Texas residents fight plan to open Muslim cemetery; mayor calls their worries unfounded:

— The Associated Press (@AP) July 19, 2015

From the AP story:

"There's just a basic concern or distrust about the cemetery coming into town," said Mayor Joe Helmberger, who calls the townspeople's worries unwarranted.He said the cemetery would be approved as long as the town's development standards are met, pointing out that the U.S. was founded on religious freedom and that the association is simply trying to secure a burial site.

The mayor seems to have a solid grasp of the First Amendment.

The rest of the community? I'm not so sure. Stay tuned.

Categories: Main
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