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So, Catholic GetReligion readers, is the Pope Francis glass half full today or half empty?
Well, some might say, that depends on whether the person answering is a liberal Catholic or from the conservative side of the church aisle. Is it really that simple? I don't think so.
Consider the stunning news out of Chicago, with the announcement that Pope Francis has selected a bishop admired by the left (which in media reports makes him a "moderate") to take the place of Cardinal Francis George, a hero of the doctrinal right. Is Catholic conservative Thomas Peters right when he claims, while discussing the moral theology of Bishop Blase Cupich:Pope Francis’ choice of Bishop Cupich should actually pour cold water on liberal hopes of a leftward turn in the American episcopacy.Yes, Bishop Cupich talks in a way that makes liberals feel comfortable, but the substance of what he says is almost always sound and orthodox. He told the New York Times “Pope Francis doesn’t want cultural warriors, he doesn’t want ideologues”, but do liberals ever stop and realize that cuts both ways?
Peters goes on to note that Cupich has, while speaking with a consistently progressive tone, has acted (with the exception of his decision to discourage priests from praying outside Planned Parenthood facilities) in ways consistent with Catholic teachings -- even when defending marriage. And religious liberty? Yes.
And speaking of the Catholic left, Religious News Service columnist David Gibson has perfectly stated the opinions of those who are dancing with joy after the news from Chicago. Here are the talking points on the other side, right down to the editorial blast claiming that efforts to defend church doctrines on sexuality consistently clash with efforts to promote teachings on social justice.It is the pontiff’s most important U.S. appointment to date and one that could upend decades of conservative dominance of the American hierarchy.Cupich, 65, will succeed Cardinal Francis George, a doctrinal and cultural conservative who has headed one of the American church’s pre-eminent dioceses since 1997. In that time he became a vocal leader among the bishops and earned a reputation as a feisty culture warrior in line with the Vatican of the late St. John Paul II and retired Pope Benedict XVI.That track record won him fans on the Catholic right, but George was seen as out of step with Francis’ desire for more pastoral bishops who are less focused on picking fights over sex and more involved in promoting the church’s social justice teachings and sticking close to the poor.Cupich, who will now be in line to get a cardinal’s red hat, would seem to fit that bill.
So what does this have to do with this week's "Crossroads" podcast? (Click here to tune in.)
After all, the Chicago bombshell is breaking news, while host Todd Wilken and I took time earlier this week to dissect, once again, the mainstream media coverage of the Vatican rites in which the pope married 20 couples, a few of which may or may not have been cohabiting at the time of the ceremony.
As our own Dawn Eden noted, few media reports dug into the symbolism of when the pope held this rite, in terms of the liturgical calendar, and what he actually said in his sermon.
Talking with Wilken, I stressed that -- in the eyes of Christian tradition -- it really doesn't matter whether any of the couples had cohabited in the past. The question that mattered was (a) were they cohabiting during the marriage preparation process, up to the day of the wedding and (b) had these Catholics gone to confession before the rite? I talked with one Catholic priest who said he would be stunned -- in light of how much this pope talks about sin, repentance, mercy and forgiveness -- if Francis left confession out of this equation.
What's the connection to the developing Chicago story? Journalists on both sides of this story, left and right, are going to have to try hard to focus on the totality of what someone like Bishop Cupich is saying.
Why? It is impossible to fit the ancient Catholic faith under one tidy political umbrella. It is possible to defend church teachings on marriage and sex while also saying that it is a sin to harass gays and lesbians. Catholic teachings on social justice spring from the same doctrinal roots as ancient Christian teachings on the sanctity of life, from conception to natural death.
Will journalists do that? The track record with Pope Francis has not been encouraging.
It's not a news piece, but there is a lot of chatter out in mainstream media right now about that Joshua Rothman essay in The New Yorker that ran under the headline "The Church of U2."
I'll be honest. I have no idea what that piece is trying to say, just in terms of the on-the-record facts about the band's history. It's like the last three or four decades of debate about what is, and what is not, "Christian" music never happened. It's like Johnny Cash, Bruce Cockburn, T-Bone Burnett, Mark Heard, Charlie Peacock, etc., etc., never happened.
Here are the opening paragraphs, including the buzz term that everyone is discussing -- "secretly Christian."A few years ago, I was caught up in a big research project about contemporary hymns (or “hymnody,” as they say in the trade). I listened to hundreds of hymns on Spotify; I interviewed a bunch of hymn experts. What, I asked them, was the most successful contemporary hymn -- the modern successor to “Morning Has Broken” or “Amazing Grace”? Some cited recently written traditional church hymns; others mentioned songs by popular Christian musicians. But one scholar pointed in a different direction: “If you’re willing to construe the term ‘hymn’ liberally, then the most heard, most successful hymn of the last few decades could be ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ by U2.”
Click pause for a moment. I love "Still Haven't Found," and it's crucial to discussions of the band's offerings on faith, but U2 has released songs like "Magnificent" that only make sense -- as coherent statements -- when viewed as hymns. More on this later. Moving on to the key paragraph.Most people think of U2 as a wildly popular rock band. Actually, they’re a wildly popular, semi-secretly Christian rock band. In some ways, this seems obvious: a song on one recent album was called “Yahweh,” and where else would the streets have no name? But even critics and fans who say that they know about U2’s Christianity often underestimate how important it is to the band’s music, and to the U2 phenomenon. The result has been a divide that’s unusual in pop culture. While secular listeners tend to think of U2’s religiosity as preachy window dressing, religious listeners see faith as central to the band’s identity. To some people, Bono’s lyrics are treacly platitudes, verging on nonsense; to others, they’re thoughtful, searching, and profound meditations on faith.
So is this a piece about Bono and crew being confused about what they do or do not believe, or is it about the fact that some people on the secular side of the cultural aisle are -- after three-plus decades -- still struggling with their grief because one of the planet's most popular and important bands is, well, meaningfully Christian?
On the other side, of course, there are plenty of Christians arguing about whether U2 is, as a band, "Christian" enough. I understand that argument, because it's linked to the tragic art vs. evangelism divide in modern Protestantism. (Over to you, Charlie Peacock, in 1999.)
I also understand (in fact, I wrote my Universal syndicate column on this topic this week) that some people simply like to argue about U2 lyrics -- period.
But "secretly Christian"? Say what? It's like that Huffington Post take on the "surprising" friendship between Bono and Billy Graham.
People, there are facts here that can be discussed, on the record statements in interviews and in books that can be cited.
The best take on this? Go straight to Religion News Service for the Jonathan Merritt "Faith & Culture" column on this dust-up. If you are into facts, you really should read it online so that you can follow all of his hyperlinks (especially this one) to crucial facts, quotes and info. Here is a major chunk of that:If you carefully attune your ears to U2’s lyrics, you’ll find there are 50 or more references to Bible verses in their songs. In “Bullet the Blue Sky,” for example, they sing about Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord (Genesis 32) and there is a reference to speaking with “the tongues of angels” (1 Corinthians 13) in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Bono even belts “see the thorn twist in your side” -- an obvious reference to the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:7—in the song “With or Without You.”Lead singer Bono is so comfortable talking about his Christian faith that he even agreed to be interviewed by “Focus on the Family.” In it, he spoke to Focus’ president Jim Daly about how much he liked King David and said he believes that “Jesus was, you know, the Son of God.”In another interview, Bono wasn’t waffling when he articulated a view of the atonement of Jesus: “The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death.”
Veteran GetReligion readers will know that, for me, it is especially ironic that this debate just rolls on and on. After all, it's been nearly 32 years since the interviews I did with Bono and Edge on these issues (including the whole "Christian" music industry debate) for The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. I tried to land a story based on those interviews at Rolling Stone, but the editors, well, seemed to think I had made the quotes up.
Two years ago, I wrote a column that hit the key point in this debate, from my perspective. The 20-year-old Bono was already saying the same kinds of things he told Focus on the Family and plenty of other unconventional media outlets, if you're talking about platforms for rock music news and commentary. Here's the second half of that "On Religion" column:Thirty years down the road, what is striking about that interview is the fact that the issues that drove Bono then still dominate his life today. For example, he stressed that U2 had no interest in being stereotyped as a "Christian band" or in allowing "Christian" to become a sad marketing term for its work."The band is anxious not to be categorized," he said. "You know, if, for instance, people are talking about U2 in a spiritual sense ... that becomes a pigeonhole for people to put us in. That worries us."Also, from the point of view of coming from where we come from, Ireland is a place that's been cut in two by religion. I have no real time for religion and, therefore, avoid those kinds of stereotypes. I would hate for people to think of me as religious, though I want people to realize that I am a Christian."Decades later, tensions remain between believers who work in the so-called "contemporary Christian music" and believers who work in the mainstream music industry. The latter often cite U2's work as a prime example of how religious imagery and themes can be woven into successful popular music.The goal, Bono stressed, is to avoid making preachy music that settles for easy answers while hiding the struggles that real people experience in real life. When writing a song about sin, such as "I Fall Down," he stressed, "I always include myself in the 'we.' You know, 'we' have fallen. I include myself. ... I'm not telling everybody that I have the answers. I'm trying to get across the difficulty I have being what I am."At the same time, he expressed disappointment that so many people – artists in particular – attempt to avoid the ultimate questions that haunt life. The doubts, fears, joys and grace of religious faith are a part of life that "we like to sweep under the carpet," he concluded."Deep down, everyone is aware. You know, when somebody dies, when somebody in their family dies. ... Things that happen around us, they shock people into a realization of what is going down," he told me."I mean, when you look at the starvation, when you think that a third of the population of this earth is starving, is crying out in hunger, I don't think that you can sort of smile and say, 'Well, I know. We're the jolly human race, you know. We're all very nice, REALLY.' I mean, we're not, are we?"
I'm sorry. What part of "secretly" am I failing to grasp?
In the media's rush to draw conclusions from the mass wedding at the Vatican last Sunday, where some of the couples being wed had been cohabiting, one point seems to have been overlooked by nearly everyone: Pope Francis's choice of date for the nuptials.
On the Catholic calendar, the church is currently in the midst of what is called ordinary time. During all of this July, August, and September, there is only one Sunday in which a feast takes precedence over the normal Sunday liturgy.
Pope Francis had his pick of Sundays to preside over the mass wedding, and he chose that very Sunday. It would seem, then, that he wished that the couples would, from then on, remember that feast every year as the one upon which they were married. There is something about the nature of that feast that Pope Francis wanted the couples to associate with their vows.
What feast was it? The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
I believe the pope's choice of date is significant. Currently the media is abuzz with speculation concerning the upcoming Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, particularly with regard to a push among certain cardinals to permit Holy Communion for civilly divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Much of the debate concerns the question of how much the Church should expect members of the faithful to sacrifice. This was also an issue at the time of the contraception debate during the 1960s. At that time, those favoring relaxation of doctrine argued that it was simply too difficult for Catholic couples to follow the Church's ban on artificial methods of birth control. Pope Paul VI responded with Humanae Vitae, in which he quoted Jesus' words in Matthew 7:14: "the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life."
Perhaps Francis is indicating a similar attitude to that of Paul VI by officiating at the mass wedding on the feast marking Jesus' self-sacrificial outpouring, and by making the Cross the center of his homily.
Those reporting on the nuptials almost completely ignored the pope's homily. The Washington Post included only a small mention of it near the end of its story, and then only in relation to the synod:Bishops from all over the world are scheduled to come to the Vatican next month for a major meeting on the family, which the Jesuit pope referred to in the homily to Sunday’s Mass as the “bricks” on which society is built.
The Associated Press did likewise, though they put the quote farther up:Francis in his homily likened families to the "bricks that build society."
It is as though the media simply took the most innocuous quote they could find and stuck it into the story. What Francis actually did was talk about the reality of sin in spouses' lives, and the need for God's mercy. An excerpt (click here to read the entire homily):[Out] of love the Father “has given” his only begotten Son so that men and women might have eternal life (cf. Jn 3:13-17). Such immense love of the Father spurs the Son to become man, to become a servant and to die for us upon a cross. Out of such love, the Father raises up his son, giving him dominion over the entire universe. This is expressed by Saint Paul in his hymn in the Letter to the Philippians (cf. 2:6-11). Whoever entrusts himself to Jesus crucified receives the mercy of God and finds healing from the deadly poison of sin.The cure which God offers the people applies also, in a particular way, to spouses who “have become impatient on the way” [Num 21:4] and who succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment … To them too, God the Father gives his Son Jesus, not to condemn them, but to save them: if they entrust themselves to him, he will bring them healing by the merciful love which pours forth from the Cross, with the strength of his grace that renews and sets married couples and families once again on the right path.
Yes, I realize Francis is speaking about mercy and healing, the very kinds of things the media's "inclusive" pope would speak about. But he is also speaking about sin, sacrifice and the interior co-crucifixion with Christ that Catholic faith recognizes as a requirement for redemption (see Gal 2:20).
Someone in the mainstream press should have noticed that. No one did.
Do nuns' habits have coattails? To read a New York Times story out of Des Moines, Iowa, the vice president is trying hard to hold onto them.
His latest effort, on Wednesday, was with the 2014 "Nuns on the Bus" tour -- not coincidentally, at a prime stop also for presidential campaigning. It was a natural for him to link arms with nuns who have promoted liberal causes like Obamacare.
Biden's reported attitude toward their boss, though, was another matter:DES MOINES — At a Vatican meeting a few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly asked Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for some advice. “You are being entirely too hard on the American nuns,” Mr. Biden offered. “Lighten up.”Last year, Mr. Biden seized on an audience with Pope Francis as another opportunity to praise the sisters who remained the target of a Vatican crackdown for their activism on issues like poverty and health care.And on a visit to Iowa on Wednesday, Mr. Biden literally, as he might put it, got on board with the nuns.“You’re looking at a kid who had 12 years of Catholic education,” Mr. Biden, wearing a white shirt and a red tie, said before a backdrop of the gold-domed Iowa statehouse and a “Nuns on the Bus” coach bus. “I woke up probably every morning saying: ‘Yes, Sister; no, Sister; yes, Sister; no, Sister.’ I just made it clear, I’m still obedient.”
In what ways he's been obedient after lecturing two popes isn't made clear. The story does note that obedience is the issue also with Network, the nuns' group on the tour. They're a subset of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which, as the Times reports, is under a Vatican crackdown.
The newspaper tries to set the story as a conflict of values for Biden. It says that the outing also "put the nation’s first Roman Catholic vice president in the middle of a protracted political fight between the pope he admires and the American nuns he reveres."
But the article doesn't read so much like that. More like Biden trying to appeal to voters by sucking up to the nuns. He praises their "sense of justice and passion" and adds, "guess what, they are more popular than everybody else."
The Times story appears to take sides with a light but discernable sprinkle of codewords. Liberal Catholics are "progressive," a clever li'l hint at the direction the Church should be moving. (The story even links Obama with that wing of the Church, saying he began as a community organizer in Chicago "under the guidance of progressive priests.")
The opposition, of course, is "traditionalist," and its advocates are "powerful." Progressives are seldom called powerful, unless -- as in this article -- someone like Biden lends "star power" to an event.
Combining the labels can make for turgid sentences. An example from the Times story: "Many Catholic progressives have looked to Francis, who has stripped some of the American church’s most powerful traditionalists of their power in Rome."
Not that Times writer Jason Horowitz ignores the mood swings and verbal gaffes that make up the vice president's reputation as "Uncle Joe," the crazy relative who never self-edits. Horowitz picks up on Biden saying the nuns "fought like the devil for health care." And there's more:After praising the nuns in hushed tones, Mr. Biden abruptly switched to a shouting campaign mode on the bright afternoon, calling for respect for immigrants, protection of voting rights and restoring the middle class before a crowd of about 250 people.“What happened? Things are out of whack!” he yelled to applause. (He also quoted Thomas Pynchon and, hours after apologizing for his use of the word “Shylocks” to portray craven bankers, described a Chinese leader as hailing from “the Orient.”)
But the Times wasn't as sharp in quoting Sister Simone Campbell, head of Network. For one, it let stand her assertion that "the president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, a Catholic whose brother is a priest, 'is like totally into' the nuns’ approach to the faith." Was that right, Uncle Joe? (shrug) Either Horowitz didn't ask, or some editor cut the answer.
It would also be worth the newspaper mentioning that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious doesn't represent all nuns. As tmatt pointed out earlier this month, there's also the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious of the United States, made of the top directors of the orders. And they're more comfortable with Vatican leadership than those who ride tour buses or get attention from Biden.
And remember the lede, about those conversations Biden had with popes Benedict and Francis? Well, six paragraphs later, the Times owns up: It was Sister Campbell who "described Mr. Biden's papal conversations." This after reporting them as fact, without attribution. How did the sister know? Was she in the room? Did Biden tell her? Did the newspaper ask her or Biden?
You may have guessed the final missing piece: lack of response from those powerful traditionalists. All we get is, "The Holy See’s press office declined a request for comment. Privately, Vatican officials’ responses to Mr. Biden’s appearance ranged from indifference to annoyance."
So, those are the only Catholic leaders who ever talk? How about someone with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops? Even better, how about calling Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, where the story was datelined? C'mon, it's easy. Here's his info, with phone number 'n' everything.
Reporting, you know, is more than taking notes. By all means, catalog Uncle Joe's affinity with nuns. But go on to ask some follow-up questions. To do less is to slip into, well, a bad habit.
Photo: Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in August 2011 following a trip through Asia.
Bringing world's largest Bible museum to DC has required Hobby Lobby's Steve Green to be evangelist and salesman http://t.co/OzwBUzzyLV— Michelle Boorstein (@mboorstein) September 17, 2014
I have a confession to make: I'm typing this in a hurry.
So I'm going to make this post short and sweet. Real sweet.
A big chunk of the 3,000-word story's opening:Steve Green is standing in the basement of the eight-story Bible museum he’s building in Washington. Plans for the $800 million project are coming together nicely: the ballroom modeled after Versailles, the Disney-quality holograms, the soaring digital entryway with religious images projected on the ceiling, the restaurant serving biblically-themed meals.But one detail is bothering Green, and there’s nothing he can do about it. The building, he says, is not quite close enough to the National Mall. It’s just two blocks away, and from the roof it feels as though you can take a running leap onto the U.S. Capitol. Still, if it could just be a little closer. Green knows how much location matters.“One thing I learned in our real estate office is, sometimes being a block down the street can mean a lot in terms of sales,” he says. “The Mall is where there are a lot of visitors. It’s not as visible to the Mall as we’d like, but it’s close.”Green knows plenty about sales. He is president of Hobby Lobby, the multibillion-dollar craft store chain his father founded. But he’s just now learning the power of holding Washington’s attention. Earlier this year, Hobby Lobby became a household name for non-scrapbooking reasons when the company took on the White House in a controversial Supreme Court case over whether employers had to include no-cost coverage of contraception to employees. The Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor in June, and among religious conservatives, in particular, the Pentecostal Greens were hailed as heroes.As the dust from that court victory settles, Green is focusing on a new mission in Washington. Construction begins next month on the as-yet-unnamed Bible museum, and when it opens in 2017, it will be one of the largest museums in the city, about the same size as the nearby Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
Boorstein delves into the motivations behind the planned museum as well as the project's potential scholarly significance and related questions — pro and con.
It's a terrific read. Kudos to Boorstein and the Post. Now, I've got to pack a bag and prepare to catch a plane ...
There are people out there in cyberspace (and in our comments pages from time to time) who think that, here at GetReligion, "balance" on stories about moral and cultural issues is all about finding the right number of voices on the right to say nasty things about the views of people on the left side of things.
Well, I would prefer to say it this way: When journalists cover controversial moral, cultural and religious issues, the journalistic thing to do is to talk to informed, representative voices on both sides of these hot-button debates. Of course, this journalistic approach assumes that journalists are willing to concede that there are two sides in these debates worth covering with respect.
This brings us once again to the term "Kellerism," a GetReligionista nod to those famous remarks by former New York Times editor Bill Keller. The Times ran a story the other day -- "Social Worker Spreads a Message of Acceptance to Mormons With Gay Children" -- in which it was crucial for readers to understand the moral doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as the view of those who disagree with them.
A GetReligion reader offered this critique:This was fairly good as far as avoiding the "Mormons as zoo creatures" pitfall that so many reporters outside the rural west fall into. I did notice that several terms were used that have different meanings to Mormons and Catholics, like "saint" and "sister." Since the story deals with both religions, there's a bit of a semantic gap there.
Notice how low the journalistic bar has been set, in this case. Clearly, the reader thinks there is little or no chance that the Times team will deal with Mormon beliefs with any degree of sensitivity.
As you would expect, the story largely focused on the work of social worker Caitlin Ryan, a lesbian activist who is reaching out the Mormon families (those willing to work with her, of course) who are trying to relate to their gay children. Her voice and worldview are at the heart of the story, as they should be.
However, what about LDS leaders? The story does quote a Mormon or two who hopes the church receives a "revelation" and modernizes its teachings. No surprise there. Then there is this:If such change does come -- and there are intriguing signs in that direction -- then some part of the credit will surely belong to Dr. Ryan. ...While Mormon doctrine continues to view “homosexual behavior” as contrary to “God’s law,” the institutional church has been striving for a more moderate tone. It introduced the website mormonsandgays.org two years ago. “There is no change in the church’s position of what is morally right,” a statement on the site reads. “But what is changing -- and what needs to change -- is to help church members respond sensitively and thoughtfully when they encounter same-sex attraction in their own families, among other church members, or elsewhere.” (Asked about Dr. Ryan’s project, a church spokesman made a similar point.)
And that's that.
There is that quote from a website and the strange non-quote from a Mormon public-affairs official. That's the extent of the Times attempt to wrestle with what Mormons believe and why they believe it on these crucial issues. That's the other side of the debate.
Really? Can you imagine the Times publishing a similar story in reverse, with paragraph after paragraph defending Mormon doctrines on these issues, balanced only by a quote from a gay-rights website and a shadowy quote from a spokesperson?
I wrote in this space on Tuesday that the New York Times' coverage of the Archbishop Sheen body battle was missing information on why relics are important to Catholics. By contrast, a recent article by Anne-Gerard Flynn at MassLive.com, although light on theology, captures the sense of the faithful who see in relics a living connection to saints.
Flynn seeks to capture the atmosphere of devotion among those venerating a relic of St. Anthony of Padua on loan to a local parish. She begins with an adept verbal snapshot of one woman paying her respects to the 13th-century Franciscan friar:Springfield resident Brenda Madison was among the first area residents to venerate the relic of St. Anthony of Padua, and the physical experience of putting her lips to the glass reliquary containing the bone fragment of the saint, born in Portugual in 1195, left her in an emotional state."I teared up. I was just so happy. All of these years I have prayed to Anthony, and now I got that close to a part of the saint," said Madison, who attended a brief prayer service, Sept. 6, marking the reception of the relic into the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, at St. Michael's Cathedral.
Flynn's line about how "the physical experience of putting her lips to the glass reliquary ... left [Madison] in an emotional state" is subtle and powerful. Instead of asking an expert in Catholic theology about what it means to venerate a saint, she is trying to capture in words what such veneration means to the believer: physical contact with a person who, although dead to this present world, is alive in heaven.
Although there are some brief comments from the diocesan bishop, Flynn's main theological expert is Madison, perhaps because she gave better quotes:The Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, diocesan bishop, presided at the service, saying the relic "reminds us of our ties with each other, but also our ties with the saints.""The saints still look out for us who are on our earthly journey," Rozanski told the several dozen people in attendance.
The words could have been directly spoken to Madison, who grew up in the Central American country of Belize, where her family have been Catholics for generation. A mother of five, she continues the tradition of praying to saints with her own children.
"It's more than one saint. As a Catholic you need all the saints," Madison said. But, she added, Anthony was the saint that her mother made a novena, or prayer to, every Tuesday.
"I have been praying to St. Anthony for 35 years, and, through his intercession, all my intentions for my family and children have been answered," Madison said.
"As a Catholic you need all the saints." I don't think Thomas Aquinas could have said it better.
One quibble: It would be nice to have some explanation of why Catholics say they "pray to" saints, so that it is clear that, while saints are considered heavenly intercessors, they are not themselves objects of worship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says their prayers "fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness" through "an exchange of spiritual goods." But even on that account, Flynn compensates somewhat by quoting Madison on where her devotion to St. Anthony ultimately leads her:Madison said she prays to Anthony "for strength.""I am a caregiver, and I ask him to help me to have compassion and empathy and to be present to the goodness and greatness of God."
That is the purpose of Catholic devotion to saints in a nutshell: to bring the believer closer to the Lord. GetReligion kudos to Anne-Gerard Flynn.
Godbeat pros will convene in Atlanta this week for the Religion Newswriters Association's 65th annual conference.
In advance of the national meeting of religion journalists, RNA President Bob Smietana did a 5Q+1 interview (that's five questions plus a bonus question) with GetReligion. I'll sprinkle a few #RNA2014 tweets between Bob's responses.
Q: For our readers unfamiliar with you, tell us a little about your journalism career and your background in religion writing. And catch us up on how your beloved Red Sox are doing after winning a third World Series title in 10 years last season.
A: I’ve had a pretty fun career. I wrote a weekly religion column in college then decided to go out and save the world by working at nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity. Turns out I was terrible at saving the world.
So, in my mid-30s, I became a writer instead. I started small — my first freelance religion story paid $35 — and then landed a job writing for a small religious magazine in Chicago called the Covenant Companion, where I stayed for eight years. One of my big breaks came in 2001, when I got the chance to spend a summer at Medill, studying religion writing with Roy Larson.
Eventually I became religion writer at The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, which I loved. Spent six great years there. Now I write about research and church trends for Facts and Trends magazine here in Nashville.
As far as the Red Sox go — well, last I checked they are still the defending World Series champs. It’s been a tough year, but I can’t complain. Three World Series championships in 10 years is pretty cool. Just wish my grandfather had been around to see them.September 17, 2014
Q: As religion writers gather in Atlanta for the RNA's annual conference, how would you describe the state of the Godbeat? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the present and the future?
A: I’m pretty optimistic. There’s a lot to be hopeful about, especially on the national level. Religion News Service (full disclosure — I’ve written for them since 2001) is stronger than ever. There are great religion writers at the New York Times and Washington Post, at CNN and other major outlets. Plus there are new publications like Crux — run by the Boston Globe — and the Deseret News national edition, which has a lot of religion stories. Then there are some really sharp magazine writers and bloggers and book authors who cover religion in depth.
On the other hand, I do worry about local and regional religions. There are lots of cities, like Nashville or Seattle, where there are no full-time religion writers at the local paper. So the local religion coverage suffers and a lot of stories get missed.
Still, I’m pretty hopeful. I wish sometimes I was 25 years old and just starting – because there are so many great religion stories happening on the local level and no one’s covering them. It would be fabulous.September 17, 2014
Q: What role does RNA play in promoting and improving religion reporting? Give us an idea of how many members you have and their various backgrounds and expertise.
A: The Religion Newswriters Association has more than 400 members, from a variety of backgrounds — newspaper and magazine reporters, television journalists, book authors, documentary filmmakers, freelancers — you name it. We run an annual conference, which meets this year in Atlanta. It’s a great place to meet fellow religion writers and hone our skills.
We also run a foundation that publishes ReligionLink, sources guides to covering the Godbeat, and does journalism training.
I just landed in Atlanta for #RNA2014 and am looking forward to seeing fellow Religion Newswriters Association members.— Holly Meyer (@HollyAMeyer) September 17, 2014
Q: What will be the big religion stories or themes over the next year?
A: Among our panels at the conference this year will be sessions on immigration, human trafficking, and God and guns — which will remain big topics. The Pope is still big, as are the culture wars and the troubles in the Middle East.
The meltdown at Mars Hill Church in Seattle is big for evangelical Christians. We’ve had this huge buildup of multi-site churches, including some like Mars Hill, that have spread out across several states. This is the first one to run into a major crisis.
The changing demographics in America are a huge religion story that’s still largely uncovered. Consider this: 70 percent of Americans over 65 are white Christians, according the Public Religion Research Institute. They were the dominant religious/social group in the country by far.
That's no longer true. Only about 1 in four younger Americans (those 18-29) is a white Christian. There are more Nones – those with no religion — than white Christians in that age group. And Christians of color make up about a third of that younger population. That’s going to change everything.September 16, 2014
Q: You've been willing to engage the GetReligionistas from time to time, which is a nice way of saying you don't always agree with our analysis (of course, we don't always agree with each other). What do you like about GetReligion? And what could we improve?
A: I’ve been reading GetReligion ever since Terry Mattingly and Doug LeBlanc started it in back in 2004. And I probably started disagreeing with Terry on day one. But that’s OK — part of why the site exists, IMHO, is to get people talking about religion reporting. And disagreements make for lively conversation.
I like that I can always find something new here. You guys keep a pretty close eye on the Godbeat, and you’ll often find stories that I missed the first time around. Like the story about women imams in China. Or Lebanese Christians taking up arms and preparing to fight ISIS. Or the furor over the “Naughty Girls Donut Shop.”
As for what GetReligion could do better, bring in a non-Christian writer for starters. They’d probably spot some different religion ghosts than most of the other GetReligion writers. And perhaps be a bit less grumpy. Sometimes I get the impression that GetReligion writers assume the worst about the reporter they write about — as if those reporters are intentionally hostile to more traditional forms of religion. I find that’s rarely the case.
LOVE the #rna2014 app. Who ever said the God beat wasn't hip with technology?!— Caitlin Kerfin (@ckerfin) September 15, 2014
Bonus Q: You have the microphone. What else would you like to say?
A: Just a reminder that in the end, nobody really gets religion. Religion — both institutional faith and personal practice — is always changing and adapting to new circumstances. That’s good for reporters, as there’s never a dull moment on the Godbeat.
But it means that religion reporting will always be messy and there will always be, as tmatt likes to say, an abundance of religion ghosts.
#RNA2014 is this week in Atlanta and it will be fabulous. Can't wait to see the God-beat clan together again.— Bob Smietana (@bobsmietana) September 16, 2014
Truth be told, I have been sitting out the "black mass" media storms. I have no doubt that, for the ancient churches, we are dealing with sacrilege of the highest order. At the same time, I am very close to being a First Amendment absolutist and oppose blasphemy laws.
So why write about the following ABC News report (as run at Yahoo!) about the new brouhaha in Bible belt Oklahoma?
When you read the story, try to forget the whole black mass thing. Instead, focus on the facts in the story's material about the Catholic Mass itself. Just to keep things straight in some of these quotations, a key voice in this story is the leader of the devil-worshiping group, one Adam Daniels of Dakhma of Angra Mainyu.
The first strange reference is actually pretty mundate.The upcoming event has generated controversy because black masses mock Christianity and the rituals that make up their services but organizers see it as an integral part of their religion.
Yes, ignore that "Christianity" is singular and, thus, clashes with the plural reference -- "their services" -- a few words later.
Obviously, a black mass is offensive to all Christians, but that's almost beside the point. The dark rite mocks the belief of Catholics, and other ancient Christians, that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass. The whole point is to desecrate what has been consecrated. Reader can see this later in the story:Anthony Briggman, an assistant professor of theology at Emory University in Atlanta, explained that the general motivating principles behind satanic groups -- including Dakhma of Angra Mainyu -- is to “parody” Roman Catholic liturgy by “demonstrating their opposition to orthodox Christian beliefs and practices.”
“The line between parody and mockery is a fuzzy one and it is unclear to me on which side of the line they usually fall,” he said of satanic groups in general.
“The goal seems to be to acquire some of the spiritual power [and] magic that they associate with the Roman Catholic ritual of transubstantiation, the transformation of the Eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ,” Briggman said.
That's helpful and right on target. However, those quotes only make some other references in this story all the more bizarre. For example:The culmination of the event comes when the Dakhma of Angra Mainyu deacons and priest stomp on the, in this case, unconsecrated host and spit on it. Daniels said organizers will wear profane costumes, use explicit language and desecrate the fake host, which Catholics believe is a form of the resurrected Christ.
What, pray tell, does it mean to say that the bread and wine are consecrated and become a "form of the resurrected Christ"?
I have never encountered that wording before. Catholic readers: Any idea what happened here, other than that the ABC News team allowed the leader of the black mass team to describe the meaning of a Catholic sacrament (without clearly stating that this was HIS understanding of the doctrine)?
Next up, there is this:Additional controversy has surrounded this particular event because the Oklahoma City Archdiocese filed a lawsuit against Daniels' group after media reports that he was in possession of a consecrated host, a wafer that some Catholics believe is literally the body of Christ.
Uh, "some" Catholics believe in the truth claim at the heart of the Mass? Isn't that like saying that some Jews believe that Jesus of Nazareth is not the Messiah? That some Muslims believe "there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah"?
This is not, let me stress, a matter of journalists believing what the Catholic church teaches. The journalistic issue here is whether journalists can accurately summarize, in public media, these crucial and ancient Catholic beliefs.
Come on, people.
Cat Stevens soothed ears and gained fans with his boyish grin, light humor and lyrical songs like Moonshadow, Wild World and Peace Train. At least until 1977, when he converted, renamed himself Yusuf Islam and dropped out of popular music.
But over the last decade, he's eased back into performance and has just announced a new musical tour, "Peace Train ... Late Again," in North America and Europe. The coverage thus far is not quite a train wreck, but it does miss a chance to examine the freight: the intolerance that once prodded him to recommend Salman Rushdie's death.
Most news media have seemed to rely on the Associated Press story, which deals mostly with Stevens' "unhurried music career." They note his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this spring, as well as his upcoming blues album, his first studio album in five years.
They tend to sidetrack Cat's Islam-carnation, preferring to play up his witty, cheery ballads. The BBC notes that he even popularized a "Christian hymn," Morning Has Broken.
Among the few stories that even hint at controversy is the Washington Post's version of the AP story:
Despite the political climate, with the U.S. fighting Islamic State militants in the Middle East, Stevens said he didn’t expect his faith to be an issue when he goes on the road in this country.
“I’m afraid that a lot of things that people believe about Islam are totally different from the religion that most of us recognize,” he said. “I was really fortunate that I got to know Islam before it became a headline.”
But what about the headlines he made himself? Remember that flap over Salman Rushdie? Some readers do. On reading the Post, one, who called herself "Gloria2," posted a link to a 1989 article in the New York Times:
The musician known as Cat Stevens said in a British television program to be broadcast next week that rather than go to a demonstration to burn an effigy of the author Salman Rushdie, ''I would have hoped that it'd be the real thing.''
The singer, who adopted the name Yusuf Islam when he converted to Islam, made the remark during a panel discussion of British reactions to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's call for Mr. Rushdie to be killed for allegedly blaspheming Islam in his best-selling novel ''The Satanic Verses.'' He also said that if Mr. Rushdie turned up at his doorstep looking for help, ''I might ring somebody who might do more damage to him than he would like.''
''I'd try to phone the Ayatollah Khomeini and tell him exactly where this man is,'' said Mr. Islam, who watched a preview of the program today and said in an interview that he stood by his comments.
One would think the AP and other outlets would have at least the same access to news archives that "Gloria2" has. And they certainly didn't downplay the issue for lack of space. Not when the ArtsBeat blog of the New York Times gave it one of the five paragraphs in its story on the new "Peace Train" tour.
Several times over the years, Yusuf has tried to deny endorsing Khomeini's fatwa. “We were just poles apart,” he said of Rushdie in a 2006 interview. “We disagreed. But I never said such a thing.” Apparently he thought no one would see the video clip linked in the 1989 Times post.
The Times quotes Stevens backpedaling: "He later distanced himself from those comments, saying that he was merely answering questions about Islamic law." Well, that's not evident in the clip, and even if so, it doesn't clarify. If that's how he understands Islamic law -- and submission is the translation of the word "Islam" -- does that mean he advocates violence against a perceived apostate or heretic?
As the AP and Washington Post indicate, reporters are already asking such things, however hesitantly. After all, people in the Middle East -- Christians, Yazidis, even Shiite Muslims -- are getting shot or beheaded for disagreeing with prevailing orthodoxy.
OK, Cat has already indicated that he wouldn't personally do such things. But if he learned of another deviant from the faith, how would he react? And as a public Muslim, so to speak, what would he recommend to his brothers in the ummah?
"It mattered then and it matters now," Michael Gordon-Smith wrote in 2010 for The Drum TV in Australia. "Yusuf supported killing a man because someone took offence at what he had written."
For me, it remains the most important thing he ever did. Unless he revisits the issue and finds room for difference, in my mind he’s forever defined by the choice he made in those weeks in 1989. The only message I hear from him is the echo of Khomeini’s threat not just to Salman Rushdie but to every free thinker in the world: If you speak your mind we may kill you.
Now, Cat/Yusuf has a full right to change his mind. He may have had second thoughts about Rushdie and others like him. He may have learned a more tolerant, positive form of the faith.
He does confess a desire to benefit Muslims with his musical gift. “The Muslim world now is artless,” he said in the 2006 interview. “I wanted to show that there is creativity. It’s not grim.”
It's a wonderful aspiration. But just as freight cars follow the rest of a train, Cat's public statements will follow his "Peace Train" tour. Eventually, he'll either have to own that freight or offload it. And he'll have plenty of chances to do one or the other. I doubt I'm the only journalist who wants to know.
When covering major events that are directly linked to the liturgical work and authority of the pope, it never hurts to spend some time reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In this case, let's look at the material found at this reference point: Paragraph 2391 -- IV. Offenses Against the Dignity of Marriage.Some today claim a “right to a trial marriage” where there is an intention of getting married later. However firm the purpose of those who engage in premature sexual relations may be, “the fact is that such liaisons can scarcely ensure mutual sincerity and fidelity in a relationship between a man and a woman, nor, especially, can they protect it from inconstancy of desires or whim.” 184 Carnal union is morally legitimate only when a definitive community of life between a man and woman has been established. Human love does not tolerate “trial marriages.” It demands a total and definitive gift of persons to one another. 185 (2364)
Now, with that in mind, let's look at some important -- yes, rather picky -- issues of verb tense in the mainstream news coverage of that remarkable wedding rite that took place at the Vatican. We will start with a report in Australia built on Reuters and Agence France-Presse material:Pope Francis has presided over the marriage of 20 couples, in the first papal wedding ceremony at the Vatican in 14 years. Among the couples were several who were cohabiting and one couple who had children.The Vatican views sex outside marriage as sin, but Pope Francis has stressed that the Church should be a forgiving one.
This story has it all, including the obligatory slam at Pope Benedict XVI and out of context references to statements by Pope Francis, hinting that he is leading attacks on Catholic moral theology. But simply note the reference to couples who "were cohabiting." In other words, the "carnal union" question is in the past tense.
The crucial question, then, is what had been happening in the present tense during the preparations for this marriage. Were these Catholics still living together or had they separated and gone to confession? News stories constantly quote Pope Francis talking about how God is merciful and willing to forgive, yet never note that Catholicism has a sacramental process for that -- confession. They are hinting that this pope is breaking the rules. Correct?
OK, how about this report in The Washington Post. Let us attend:VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis presided over the wedding of 20 couples on Sunday, some of whom had lived together and had children, in the latest sign that the Argentine pontiff wants the Catholic Church to be more open and inclusive.In the first wedding ceremony of his 18-month-old papacy, Francis took each couple through their vows in turn -- including Gabriella and Guido, who have children and thought such a marriage would be impossible, the official broadcasting service Vatican Radio said.
This time around, the tense is more precise, stating that these couples "had lived together." That is not the same as "were living together."
Hold that thought, because here is what the Associated Press published, which means the following was almost certainly the language seen by most newspaper and news website readers around the world:VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Forty "I do's" -- or "Si" in Italian -- were pronounced in St. Peter's Basilica Sunday as Pope Francis married 20 couples, with one bride already a mother. Francis in his homily likened families to the "bricks that build society."Among the couples, all from the Rome area, is one in which the groom's first marriage was annulled by the church and the bride has a daughter from an earlier relationship. Some of the other couples already were living together.The Vatican views sex outside marriage as sin, but Francis stresses the church should be a forgiving one.
So we have come full circle. We are back to a vague past tense, with the statement that some of couples "already were living together."
Right. But were they living together in the time leading up to the marriage rites?
Additional questions for journalists who care about facts: Did these couples separate for a time and cease sexual relations -- fornication is still a mortal sin, in the eyes of most Catechism experts -- during preparations for marriage?
The church can and should be forgiving. Yes, but was there any repentance? Did the participants go to confession as part of their preparations for the sacrament of marriage? The pope consistently used language of mercy and forgiveness. The implication is that people were leaving sins behind. How? How was that acted out in the sacraments?
In other words -- no matter what you think of the moral issues at stake in these stories -- we have very imprecise reporting here. To me, this vague language seems intentional. Yes, it's possible that the canonical and doctrinal fog was present in Vatican statements. However, aren't journalists supposed to ask questions and then clarify the basic facts?
The New York Times took its time getting around to the news that broke Sept. 3 concerning the dispute over the remains of saint-in-the-making Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, but Sharon Otterman's story that went online yesterday is worth the wait.
Otterman, the Times' Metro religion reporter begins with a soft lead before getting to the, ahem, body of the story:
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Ill., has already constructed a museum in honor of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, a native son whose Emmy-winning television show during the 1950s brought Catholicism to the American living room. It has documented several potential miracles by him and compiled a dossier on his good works for the Vatican.
It has drawn up blueprints for an elaborate shrine in its main cathedral to house his tomb and sketched out an entire devotional campus it hopes to complete when its campaign to have him declared the first American-born male saint succeeds.
There has been just one snag in the diocese’s carefully laid veneration plans: the matter of Archbishop Sheen’s body.
We are then given some straight-up details: Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky recently announced that the effort to canonize Sheen -- who was nearing beatification -- is being stalled because Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, refused to permit his body to be released from its crypt at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Such news likely sounds exceedingly strange to those not familiar with the canonization process. Otterman provides helpful background:To be sure, disputes over remains of saints are nothing new in the Roman Catholic Church, and in the past the resolution has sometimes been to divide the body. St. Catherine of Siena is enshrined in Rome, but her head is revered in a basilica in Siena, Italy. St. Francis Xavier, the 16th-century missionary, is entombed in Goa, India, but his right arm is in Rome, in a reliquary at the Church of the Gesu.That type of compromise does not seem to be a possibility this time. Cardinal Dolan’s latest offer to Bishop Jenky was that he could have bone fragments and other relics from Archbishop Sheen’s coffin, but not the body itself. And certainly no limbs.
That last line has just the right note of wry humor, while remaining respectful.
There is an odd transition when Otterman says "many Catholics" have been shocked by the dispute, and then goes straight into a quote from Sheen's niece:The very public tug-of-war over the body of Archbishop Sheen, has shocked many Catholics, in part because it seems like something that belongs in another era.“We should have moved out of the 14th century by now,” said Joan Sheen Cunningham of Yonkers, a niece of the archbishop and, at 87, his oldest living relative. “I would have thought so.” She wants the body to remain where it is.
Cunningham is a great source, to be sure, but I wouldn't say she is an impartial stand-in for "many Catholics." I would also like to have seen Otterman contact relatives of Sheen who would like to see the archbishop's body moved to Peoria, as Jenky claims several of them have contacted him expressing that desire.
Those criticisms, however, are minor. Overall, I am impressed with how well Otterman manages to achieve balance despite having used Cunningham as her main original source. She goes to considerable effort to condense 12 years of dialogue and debate between Peoria and New York into a small space, with a minimum of editorializing:In 2002, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, then the archbishop of New York, declined to sponsor Archbishop Sheen’s cause for sainthood, an expensive and time-consuming process. So the Peoria diocese, in which Archbishop Sheen was ordained, stepped up. Over the past dozen years, it has spent countless hours on the cause, collecting 15,000 pages of testimony about Archbishop Sheen’s virtues, seeking out miracles and, yes, designing a tomb.According to Peoria diocesan officials, Cardinal Egan twice assured the diocese, in 2002 and 2004, that the archbishop’s remains would be transferred at the appropriate time. Back then, they said, even Mrs. Cunningham was supportive, and his memorial foundation furnished a copy of a 2005 letter she wrote to the Vatican as proof. But in 2009, Cardinal Dolan, who was then an archbishop, became the head of the New York diocese, and things appeared to change.“Bishop Jenky would never have begun this if he weren’t personally assured that the tomb of Fulton Sheen would come home to Peoria,” Msgr. Stanley Deptula, vice chancellor of the Peoria diocese, said.
Finally, I like how, save for the "not a limb" line noted above, Otterman leaves the humor to Sheen's niece:New York had been on the verge of offering a compromise. Mrs. Cunningham said she met with Cardinal Dolan on Sept. 2 and agreed to permit her uncle’s body to be exhumed and relics collected for the shrine in Peoria.“I think the cardinal was worried that maybe Bishop Jenky would cut off a hand or an arm or something,” Mrs. Cunningham said.
All in all, this is a great example of how to do a respectful and informative Godbeat story on an aspect of religious tradition that may seem strange or even macabre to outsiders.
The one substantial thing missing from Otterman's piece is an explanation of why relics of saints are important to Catholics. Watch this space on Thursday for a story about an excellent recent article on a mainstream news website that does just that.
This is the headline atop the latest Satanist feature in the Detroit Free Press:
It's Satanist vs. Satanist in Detroit's newest political tug-of-war http://t.co/dn1a8CyTQN— Atheism News (@AtheismReddit) September 16, 2014
I don't know about you, but I'm clicking that link.
But after doing so, here's my question for the Free Press headline writer: Is this really a political story? As much we might like to condemn all politicians to hell (kidding, mostly), isn't this actually a religion story — or given the subject of the debate, a non-religion story?
Let's start at the top:A new Satanic religious group that debuted in Detroit this month already has encountered outspoken opposition: other Satanists.The Rev. Tom Erik Raspotnik, 49, of Oxford decries the Satanic Temple’s atheism and progressive ideals. He said his Temples of Satan honors the deity of Satan, and he and others with him are pro-life and believe in animal sacrifices.“I would be like a tea party Satanist,” Raspotnik said, adding that he has participated in tea party events, but that people at the events might not have known he worships Satan.
Later, a Norwegian expert on Satanism quoted by the Free Press suggests that the Satanic Temple folks underplay the Satan aspect and focus on atheism and free speech/religion issues.
On the other hand:The Temples of Satan, however, worships Satan: They exchange blood in marriage rituals, practice magic and even sacrifice goats, Raspotnik said, adding that he’s taken part and eaten the goat afterward.“I’ve also just killed a goat and buried it,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s that phenomenal to eat.”
It's a fascinating story, albeit one that seems tilted toward the Temples of Satan point of view — that is, until you consider that it's actually a follow-up to an earlier Free Press feature this month:
Detroit Satanists say they won't sacrifice animals, people http://t.co/HlxhK5e8Oo— Detroit Free Press (@freep) September 6, 2014
The first story painted a glowing portrait of the non-animal-sacrificing Satanists:A new religious group aims to bring the devil to Detroit.The Satanic Temple today marks the launch of its first chapter outside New York. But leaders say they don’t worship Satan. They don’t practice cannibalism, or sacrifice people or animals.“It’s peaceful,” said Jex Blackmore, 32, local leader and part of the temple’s executive ministry. “The idea of sacrifice specifically is to appease some demon or some god, and that’s a supernatural belief that we don’t subscribe to.”The group’s tenets include free will, compassion toward all creatures, respect of others’ freedom — including freedom to offend — and beliefs supported by scientific understanding: “We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs,” according to the Satanic Temple’s website.
Presumably, the other Satanists choked on their coffee — and goat meat — when they read that original report and complained to the newspaper. Thus, the follow-up.
The religion beat certainly ain't boring. Can I get an "Amen!" from everyone headed to the Religion Newswriters Association annual meeting in Atlanta this week (#RNA2014)?September 15, 2014
Businesses like Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A overtly follow Christian principles and thus promote Christianity. Is it profitable for them to have this ‘brand,’ or do you think the CEOs have some deeper evangelical goal?
THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:
These two remarkable corporations are the largest in the U.S. that operate on an explicitly “Christian” basis, and both have been in the news lately.
The Hobby Lobby craft store chain won U.S. Supreme Court approval June 30 of the religious right to avoid the new federal mandate to fund certain birth control methods the owners consider tantamount to abortion.
Sept. 8 brought the death of S. Truett Cathy, billionaire founder of the Chick-fil-A fast-food empire. His New York Times obituary said that to some he was “a symbol of intolerance” and “hate.” Such journalistic labeling stemmed from Cathy’s son and successor Dan criticizing same-sex marriage on biblical grounds in 2012. Afterward, the firm cut donations to groups that back traditional marriage. No-one claimed Chick-fil-A discriminates against gays in hiring or customer service.
With both companies, Christian commitment is accompanied by prosperity, and the question suggests their religious image may be calculated for “profitable” advantage.
But The Guy concludes that the companies’ unique cultures result only from evangelical Protestant convictions. Both firms surrender huge revenues by closing all stores on Sundays, and give away sizable profits to charity. As privately-held family operations they’re free to do such things with no need to appease public stockholders. No question the self-conscious Christian stance gives these firms a special responsibility to uphold ethical business practices and by most accounts they do so.
S. Truett Cathy, a devout Georgia Baptist who taught 8th grade Sunday School for 52 years, was named for George W. Truett, a venerable pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. Cathy opened a small restaurant following U.S. Army service in World War Two. He launched his first chicken outlet in 1967 and the company has posted sales gains each year since. It counted 500 restaurants by 1983 and 1,000 by 2001. In 2012 Chick-fil-A bypassed KFC to become America’s top chicken chain in sales.
Cathy always practiced Sunday closing, a somewhat common practice when he instituted it in 1946 but rare today. The company explains that all its employees “should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so. … It’s part of our recipe for success.”
Continue reading "How much should Christianity mix with commerce?"
At first glance, there would seem to be little connection between the two items that I want to spotlight in this post. The connecting thread is that, every now and then, people in the public square (including journalists) need to be more careful when assigning labels to some of the key players.
So what happened in the Breitbart headline pictured above -- since taken down -- linked to the speech by Sen. Ted Cruz at the recent "In Defense of Christians" conference, an event focusing, in particular, on the brutally oppressed ancient churches of the Holy Land. Surf a few links in this online search to catch up on this media storm on the political and cultural right.
It's a complicated news story, one that hits home for me because of the years I spent in a majority-Arab Eastern Orthodox parish. Trust me when I say that I understand that some Arab Christians are anti-Israel and I have met some who sometimes veer all the way into anti-Semitism. I understand that some focus their anger on Israel, since it's hopeless to curse the radical forms of Islam that have, over decades and centuries, have inflicted so much pain on their families and communities. I understand that some of the Christians who heard Cruz praise Israel, in the bluntest possible terms, were offended. Read the details and make up your own mind.
Now look at that headline.
Whatever you think of those boos, was it necessary to scare-quote these Arab Christian leaders into pseudo-Christian status, even as the Islamic State and other monstrous forms of jihadist hatred burn their churches and unleash unholy hell on their families? Let's just say that I want to embrace these stark words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ("The Middle East's Friendless Christians"). Journalists, think about the journalistic implications of what he is saying. Please.
Then there was that Times story that ran the other day under the headline, "Arabs Give Tepid Support to U.S. Fight Against ISIS."
Ah, there is that tricky word "Arab," again. What was the Times team actually trying to say in that headline and in the following information, at the top of this story?BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Many Arab governments grumbled quietly in 2011 as the United States left Iraq, fearful it might fall deeper into chaos or Iranian influence. Now, the United States is back and getting a less than enthusiastic welcome, with leading allies like Egypt, Jordan and Turkey all finding ways on Thursday to avoid specific commitments to President Obama’s expanded military campaign against Sunni extremists.As the prospect of the first American strikes inside Syria crackled through the region, the mixed reactions underscored the challenges of a new military intervention in the Middle East, where 13 years of chaos, from Sept. 11 through the Arab Spring revolts, have deepened political and sectarian divisions and increased mistrust of the United States on all sides.
If I learned one thing during the two trips I have made to Turkey, it was this: It infuriates many, if not most, Turks when outsiders call them "Arabs." Now, you can get a lively debate going about the degree to which -- at the level of DNA -- the Greeks and the Turks are closely related, and not just on the battlefields of history. But Turks and Arabs?
Note that the dateline of this story is Lebanon, another culture in which issues of ethnicity and race are complicated. At the very least, the Christians of Lebanon -- not an insignificant segment of the population -- often call themselves Phoenicians, not Arabs. Once again, this is a place where simple labels should be avoided.
What about Egypt? Are the vast majority of people in that complicated land Arabs or Africans? That's another point that experts have long been debating. Throw in the large and very significant Coptic population -- the ancient Egyptians, in the eyes of some -- and you have another lively topic for debate.
I'm not trying to pick a side here, I am simply saying that these debates are complex and important.
So what are the experts at the Times actually trying to say here? What is the most important uniting characteristic in the governments being courted by the Obama White House? Is "Arab" the most accurate label to assign, when pondering the common structures and influences in cultures such as Turkey and Egypt (as well as Lebanon)? What unites them?
The bottom line: Journalists must be careful when using the term "Arab." Often that word does not mean what journalists seem to think that it means.
Thumbnail art care of Dreamstime.
Screen capture by @JoshGreenman
In a new feature, The New York Times inspects the specter of Ebola in Liberia. Unfortunately, the religious ghosts stay fairly well concealed.
The 1,700+ article does have its positives, including a lucid narrative of the virus spreading throughout Monrovia, the Liberian capital of 1.5 million. Here's the lede:The girl in the pink shirt lay motionless on a sidewalk, flat on her stomach, an orange drink next to her, unfinished. People gathered on the other side of the street, careful to keep their distance.Dr. Mosoka Fallah waded in. Details about the girl spilled out of the crowd in a dizzying torrent, gaining urgency with the siren of an approaching ambulance. The girl’s mother had died, almost certainly of Ebola. So had three other relatives. The girl herself was sick. The girl’s aunt, unable to get help, had left her on the sidewalk in despair. Other family members may have been infected. Still others had fled across this city.Dr. Fallah, 44, calmly instructed leaders of the neighborhood — known as Capitol Hill, previously untouched by Ebola — how to deal with the family and protect their community. He promised to return later that day, and send more help in the morning. His words quelled the crowd, for the moment.“This is a horrific case,” he said as he walked away. “It could be the start of a big one right here. It’s a ticking time bomb.”
Fallah is the main character in this piece. He is presented variously as a medical troubleshooter, an adviser to community leaders, an ambassador for an incompetent national government, a spiritual seeker calling on his inner resources. You'll never guess which gets the least attention in this story.
The Times follows his efforts to deal with the outbreak: dividing the city into zones, mobilizing local residents, trying to trace who has been exposed. In the process, he has to cope with street gangs, swamped hospitals, and people's distrust of the government.
Now, the shortage of basic services can itself be seen as a social gospel value. The Times covers that with passages like this:The government’s failure to provide basic services keeps undermining the trust he is trying to build. Burial teams take days to pick up the dead; ambulances — there are only about a half-dozen in the capital — respond to only a fraction of emergency calls. Those lucky enough to be transported to a treatment center are often turned back, taken home because of a shortage of beds, or left pleading at the gate for admission.“The government has to keep its part of the bargain,” Dr. Fallah said, adding, “The community can do one thing for us. They can limit the spread. But they must see that their labor is leading to some fruit.”
An accompanying video illustrates the point. It shows a young man lying in the dirt outside the rusty sheet metal door of the John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia, uncertain if he can even get in. His father complains that the government just tells people to "wait, wait, wait."
So the social angle is prominent in this article. But this is Liberia, an overwhelmingly religious nation where more than 85 percent of the people are avowedly Christian and another 12 percent are Muslim. Downplaying the role of religion in Liberia is rather like downplaying the role of Cuban-Americans in Miami.
And how about asking for a quote from the president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf? In August, she called for three days of prayer and fasting. Prayer topics were to include "the elimination of Ebola and other pestilence from the country; prayer for comfort and strength for hurting families who have lost loved ones; prayer for healing and restoration of quarantined individuals in the land; prayer for the protection of health workers and other volunteers in harm’s way as they fight the deadly Ebola virus." Those would seem to be apropos for the Times story.
Church people do come up -- about 60 percent into the story -- but not favorably:On the Sunday after the quarantine was lifted, churchgoers celebrated what many saw as West Point’s deliverance from Ebola. Inside the Dominion Life Church, next to an Ebola holding center, the faithful danced and — disregarding awareness campaigns to avoid touching and risk exchanging body fluids — shook hands and grasped one another’s arms with fervor.“No, no, no, no,” the Rev. William Morlu, the church’s senior pastor, said when asked whether Ebola was present in West Point.
The Times also quotes someone at another church, who notes that Fallah himself once lived in a Monrovia slum. The quote appears to be mainly a transition for a little bio material.
We get four paragraphs on Fallah's rise from squalor through higher education to degrees at Harvard and the University of Kentucky. He returns to Liberia to open a maternal car clinic, then turns his skills to fighting Ebola.
We learn about volunteers who educate neighbors on the virus, including a group of youths who gather to hear Fallah at a church. So the house of God is shown at least once as a place for more than denials.
That's nice, but the story still leaves that religio-spiritual ghost flickering in the corners. What do the pastors say about the Ebola outbreak in general? Can they find words to encourage or inspire or otherwise help their congregations?
And what about the age-old question of why God allows people to suffer from plagues like Ebola? That issue, known as theodicy, is the central question that religions try to answer, according to some thinkers. One of them, Rabbi Harold Kushner, wrote a popular book on it -- When Bad Things Happen to Good People -- after his own son died of an incurable disease.
This is not an ivory-tower topic. Dr. Fallah himself raises it:“I’m not saying I know the answer,” Dr. Fallah said later. “I’m struggling like any other person to find the answer — just have a lot of spirit and God. But one thing I’ve realized is that the people in the community, some of them have the answers.”
That would have been a prime opening to ask more about Fallah's own faith. Does he attend church? Which one and how often? Does it shape his work in other ways? And what does he mean by having a lot of spirit and God?
We don't know. That's the last paragraph in the article.
Likewise, the video interviews a coordinator with of Doctors Without Borders confessing his helplessness amid the wave of new Ebola cases. "At the moment, we are down on our knees," he says. "So who else is there?"
Who indeed. The questions lie motionless, just like the Ebola victim on the sidewalk. And like the bystanders, the Times is careful to keep its distance.
Photo: Young man with Ebola lies outside John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. From New York Times video, Dying of Ebola at the Hospital Door.
Timing is everything. The maxim is as true in acting as it is in writing.
What set Jack Benny (pictured) or Groucho Marx apart from their peers was not the quality of their material, but their delivery. Great comedians, as well as actors, singers, writers and other performers are masters of rhythm and tempo – delivering their lines at the right moment, with the right emphasis that conveys the external and internal meaning of their lines.
Timing is also important in journalism. One of the marks of superior journalism is its auricular qualities: It sounds as good as it reads. And there is also the timing of sources and material in constructing a story. This gratification of eye and ear is what sets the great above the commonplace reporters.
What set Ilya Ehrenburg apart from his peers, making him one of the greatest journalists of the Twentieth Century, was this skill/gift. In his novel “Dark Star” author Alan Furst put these words in the mouth of his hero Andre Szara to describe the real life Russian journalist. What made Ehrenburg’s writing so good was:
A recent piece published by the Religion News Service entitled “‘Anglican’ or ‘Episcopalian’? The answer depends on the value of tradition” illustrates the importance of selecting the right facts, of getting the timing or tempo or your story just right.
The article examines the distinction between self-identified Anglicans and Episcopalians in the United States. After introducing a straw man argument -- Episcopalians left, Anglicans right -- the author knocks it down by writing:
Continue reading George Conger's piece: Timing is everything ...
Anyone who has worked in journalism for any time at all knows that some of the biggest, the most important news stories are the ones that are hardest to see -- because they unfold very slowly in the background, like shifting tectonic plates.
This is really, really true when it comes to changes in religion and culture.
Thus, if you care about religion news in postmodern America, then you need to read the short think piece (if that is not a contradiction in terms) that Tobin Grant posted the other day at the Corner of Church and State blog over at Religion News Service.
There is no way to briefly summarize the info in this short story, but there is a good reason for that. Reality is complex. Here is the start of the essay, which -- from a Baptist perspective -- offers the bad news. But hang on, things are going to get complicated really quick.Baptists are on the decline in America. New research finds that Baptists have lost a quarter of their market-share, and this is likely going to continue (or even accelerate).Darren Sherkat’s new book Changing Faith gives a detailed examination of why Americans switch religions. Tucked into Sherkat’s book is one of the most important changes in American religion of the past forty years: the decline of Baptists.Sherkat uses the General Social Surveys to examine the patterns of switching religions in the USA. He finds that since the 1970s, Baptists in the U.S. have declined by a quarter, from 21 percent of Americans to only 16 percent.
Thus, we have one of the most-covered stories on the religion beat, which is the slow decline in the membership totals of the massive Southern Baptist Convention. This has been a happy story for many on the doctrinal left, where leaders have been chanting: "Yes, we have lost about a third of our members (or more), but, look, even the Southern Baptists are shrinking now -- so traditional Christian theology isn't a quick fix." Or words to that effect.
However, Grant notes that seven out of 10 people raised Baptist (a term that must include the giant African-American conventions, as well as the small American Baptist Convention) are still Baptists when they are adults. That's a loss of 30 percent, but the rate for Christians in "similar" Christian bodies is 60 percent or worse.
Oh, and the loyalty rate for Christians in bodies that are radically different from the Baptists is what? I'd love to know.
Meanwhile, here is the huge shift in this report -- the earthquake. Who is rounding up the ex-Baptists? As it turns out, the evidence is that they are headed to Protestant bodies that are even more "free church," even more congregational, even more generic evangelical, than the brand-name Baptists.
Think your way through the following:The major problem for Baptists is simple: the 30 percent who leave are not being replaced. Overall, Sherkat estimates that Baptists have had a net loss of 13% due to people leaving and not being replaced. Similar churches, however, have seen double-digit gains. Sectarian Protestants (e.g., pentecostals and smaller evangelical denominations) have had a 19% increase from switching. Nondenominational and similar churches have done even better, with a 77% gain from switching.Baptists, like all religions, are losing members who are leaving religion altogether. But this isn’t the major source of Baptist losses. Among those who have left a Baptist church, only one-in-five are no longer religious. The other 80 percent of former Baptists have simply moved to similar Christian churches.
Read it all, folks. For religion-beat specialists, there are story hooks in almost every paragraph.
So the ultimate "enemy" for Baptists might be a kind of postmodern, evolving, generic evangelicalism?
Some might argue that the war in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge ( צוּק אֵיתָן), was the major news story out of Israel this summer. The seven week military operation launched by the IDF against Hamas certainly was the focus of the majority of news stories. The quantity of stories on a topic, however, is not a reliable gauge as to the importance of an issue.
In 2008 I was part of the Jerusalem Post’s team covering the Second Lebanon War (albeit in my case as their London correspondent reporting on the European and British responses). That war between Israel and Hezbollah generated a great deal of ink, but that conflict has quickly disappeared from current memories. It was another in an unending series of conflicts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and their surrogates. The sharp rise in public displays of anti-Semitism in Europe in the wake of Operation Protective Edge may give this latest war “legs”, but the issues, actors and outcomes have not changed all that much.
Were I to add, only partially tongue in cheek, another candidate for the “big” story out of Israel this summer, I would nominate this item in Newsweek. The August 28 article entitled, “Israel has officially banned the fluoridation of its drinking water”, reports:
The Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel have detailed accounts in English of the move by Health Minister Yael German, discussing the politics behind the decision. A long-time public opponent of fluoridation of drinking water, German argued that mandatory fluoridation of tap water infringed personal liberties and was of dubious medical efficacy.
The Israeli ministers decision has been hotly contested by the medical/dental community in Israel, and came in the same week that report by a Royal Commission in New Zealand found there was no adverse health risk to the practice.
But Fluoridation is a topic, like Freemasons or Zionism, that is immune to factual analysis for some. For most Americans fluoride in their drinking water is a non-issue and has been so for several generations. It has long been a cultural motif -- a short-hand to show that someone who is preoccupied with fluoridation is a kook.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film "Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb" memorably used the motif of fluoridation to show in the exchange between General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden) and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) that the general was a loonie.
Continue reading George Conger's article "God, man, fluoride, Israel, Kosher laws and Dr. Strangelove."
In the northwestern corner of Virginia — about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C. — the Naughty Girls Donut Shop is making headlines with accusations of harassment by conservative religious types.
Among other media outlets, Fox News 5 in the nation's capital picked up the tantalizing story:September 11, 2014
Likewise, the Northern Virginia Daily ate up the story like a tasty pastry:FRONT ROYAL -- Tiana Ramos, 17, said she opened Naughty Girls Donut Shop to give all outsiders a place to go. But not everyone is happy with her message.Tiana and her mother, Natalie Ramos, have dealt with backlash from some members of the community claiming the business promotes promiscuous behavior.Natalie Ramos issued a news release Tuesday in which she referred to Front Royal as "the Footloose town." The release stated "a strong Conservative Alliance group" in the community was protesting Naughty Girls' name, calling the shop a "bikini barista.""I wanted the chance for Tiana to be able to defend herself," Natalie Ramos said Wednesday. "It's becoming too much. It's time for her to say, 'listen, this is what I'm doing, this is what I stand for, these are who we stand for, and we want your support."Natalie Ramos said the harassment has been an ongoing issue.
The Pew Research Center — in its extremely helpful daily religion headlines email — linked to the story today and gave it this headline:Va. teen's Naughty Girls Donut Shop criticized by local Christians
But here's the problem with the breathless news coverage on this story so far: It's full of (doughnut) holes.
As best I can tell, no media outlet has found, much less quoted, an actual Christian critic. (If I'm wrong, by all means, share the link.)
In the news release cited by the Northern Virginia Daily, the doughnut shop complained of a "manufactured controversy." Alas, the "controversy" certainly seems to be generating plenty of free publicity for Naughty Girls and bad press for unidentified alleged conservative critics. It's not doing much, though, to promote responsible journalism.
More from the newspaper story:Recently, Natalie Ramos also received a letter that was sent to several area businesses.The letter states a group, identifying itself as "Local Catholics of Front Royal," would boycott the shop if it does not stop advertising with an area newspaper. A representative with St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church said the parish did not send the letter.That was not the first time Natalie Ramos said she was told about a boycott -- she has a friend who was also asked to participate. As was the mother of an employee, who said she was asked to boycott because the logo features a devil's tail."I never even noticed the devil's tail," Natalie Ramos said. "I thought it was just a curve."
And so on and so on.
The doughnut shop owner and her mother enjoy carte blanche freedom to make accusations, and the newspaper never attempts to verify or debunk them. The unnamed Catholic representative is the only church source (almost) quoted.
On a different note, where is the logic in the idea that "Local Catholics of Front Royal" are going to boycott Naughty Girls if the shop doesn't stop advertising? Does that mean that they'll keep partaking of Naughty Girls pastries if the advertising stops? I'm confused.
If the goal is quality journalism and if this sticky situation is indeed newsworthy, here are three ways to improve the story:
- In light of the "bikini barista" claim, some details on what the employees actually wear would be helpful. (According to the news release, both male and female staff members "are dressed in modest rockabilly-style outfits.")
- If conservative religious types in town are going to be painted with a broad, negative brush, the newspaper needs to give a few of them an opportunity to weigh in. Who knows, but perhaps some church leader would be willing to explain why he or she both (1) doesn't approve of idiots (allegedly) throwing garbage at business owners and (2) believes there are more wholesome names for teen-owned doughnut shops than "Naughty Girls." (A quick Google search of nearby churches finds New Hope Bible Church, First Baptist Church and Rockland Community Church, among others. The phone numbers are listed.)
- For journalists, a healthy dose of skepticism goes well with a box of glazed doughnuts. But to this point, the reporting on this story has been all sugar and no spice.