Emergent synagogues, timid networks and …

Southbeach7_1Another day, another airport and another newspaper. In this case, I had some time to kill with the Miami Herald in the tiny airport in Key West. There were at least three items in this one issue of the newspaper that could merit GetReligion attention, in my opinion. So I will combine them into one post, starting with the best.

* It is so, so, so hard to have good stories about the standard holidays, but reporter Alexandra Alter pulled it off with a feature for the opening night of Hanukkah. The headline was a snooze: "Synagogue Faithful Pick a Way to Pray." But the story offered an insightful journey into what David "Bobos In Paradise" Brooks has called "flexidoxy" — an attempt to blend religious experience with the radical individualism of the American marketplace. Here’s the opening of the story:

As 150 congregants gathered for prayer on a recent Friday evening in the sanctuary of Temple Beth Am, Rabbi Terry Bookman settled onto a yoga mat in another room. Angling his head toward the two votive candles, he moved gracefully from the downward facing dog position to the child’s pose.

Clad in loose white pants and a long Indian shirt, Bookman wasn’t ditching Shabbat service for yoga class. He was leading an alternative service, one of five happening simultaneously at Beth Am’s Pinecrest campus.

The dizzying array of activity is part of Synaplex, the Jewish version of the multiplex theater — where congregants can sing, stretch, pray, create art or just sit in silence. Developed by a Minneapolis-based organization to rejuvenate synagogue life, Synaplex was inspired in part by megachurches that tailor worship services to suit congregants of different ages.

Bingo. No, they didn’t offer bingo. I mean Alter has hit the nail on the head. You just knew that, at some point, religious groups in the middle and the left of the American marketplace were going to start trying to follow the lead of the birds-of-a-feather evangelical Protestant franchises. What better time of year to run a few ads and fish for seekers?

What’s next, an "emergent" synagogue movement, where hip meets ancient and everyone gets to make up his or her own tradition? You bet. Read the whole story. The details all fit. Oprah goes Shabbat.

* Over on the editorial page, Eileen McNamara took a stab at the ongoing debate about that UCC vs. the Normal Churches advertisement (click here for the LeBlanc-ian take on this). Once again, we have the same doctrinaire take on the controversy — arguing that Bush-friendly forces in the shadows had zapped the ads because of the gay-rights thrust.

The latest act of fealty to the conservatism now in vogue in Washington is the refusal of CBS and NBC to run an ad from a mainstream Christian denomination on the grounds that its message could generate controversy and be perceived as “advocacy advertising.” (ABC does not accept any religious advertising.) The networks say that they refuse such ads as a matter of policy, although they certainly showed no reluctance to run advocacy political ads this fall that were both inflammatory and false.

The radical notion promoted by the 30-second commercial from the United Church of Christ is inclusiveness, an idea deemed controversial because it encompasses gay people, the pariahs of the conservative-values crowd in the ascendancy this post-election season. Never mind that the disputed ad could not be more innocuous.

Here at GetReligion, we want to see the ads in prime time immediately. We are pro-free speech on these things. Run these ads in tandem with spots by Exodus International and other religious groups that cause nightmares for cautious media executives.

However, the gay angle misses the point. McNamara is right that there is nothing blatant in the ad’s imagery that pushes homosexuality. It is very low-key. What the ads do proclaim is that the UCC is not racist, which clearly says that other churches are racist. She is right that the networks are too timid. But she misses the point. The hottest button in the ad was race, not sexual orientation.

* And finally, I mention another story simply because I was morally outraged by it. The Tropical Life section of the paper had, on its cover, what has to be the DEFINITIVE South Florida-South Beach trend story. You could say there was a ghost in it, since the story totally avoids asking any moral questions about an issue that raises all kinds of moral questions. You could say the same thing about feminist questions, by the way.

What is the issue? Should parents give their teen-aged daughters breast implants as high-school graduation gifts? Yes, the story has lots of art and people quoted on the record. Check it out. Where is Focus on the Family or Ms. magazine? Am I out of line on this one?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Richard

    Breast implants as graduation gifts? HELLO? That kind of indulgence makes me wonder what the parents of my generation, who engage in this sort of stuff, are thinking about. Nothing in this culture surprise me any more, it’s sort scary to think that these people are the ones running local school boards, etc. Too many acid trips in the early years for these people?

  • http://www.rsgblog.blogspot.com Bec

    When you couple this (breast implants for gifts) with the news coming out of the Netherlands last week infanticide, it just is a bit too much of a brave, new world for me.

    They are things we need to look at…though I confess it’s not something I’ve found ways to write about here in ol’ rural Indiana. I’ll keep looking, though.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    On the other hand, a quality set of implants is a whole lot cheaper than Harvard, and way more important to moving up the ladder of corporate success and hooking a husband. Clearly, it works in Hollywood — why not south Florida?

  • Richard


    You’re probably on to something but it makes one wonder where we are headed with the permissiveness in this society. Suppose that’s one reason the conservatives are having such a fit over it all. I’m pretty liberal on a lot of things but a lot of what I see that passes for good taste these days is frightening.

  • tmatt

    Charlie and Richard:

    Wait a minute! You missed my point on the implants story. What makes being outraged about this issue “conservative”? Isn’t this just as easily a feminist thing? A “refusing to objectify women” theme that opposes women being subjected to outrageous male standards of “beauty”?

    Why is it “liberal” for 17-year-olds to take health risks for them and their future nursing infants so that they will look great in clothes that appeal to Maxim men? My question is sincere.

    It’s kind of like wanting to know why it’s “conservative” to oppose the murder of free-speaking, liberal, human rights artists in the Netherlands.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    I confess, I was speaking with tongue in cheek. I’m saddened by the fact that women still find their sense of value so strongly tied to their appearance, but given that this is precisely the message coming from popular media and other men and women, I wonder how to counter it?

    The women’s movement has itself objectified women by insisting that they can and should have the same sexual freedom that men have always enjoyed, unfettered by family and marriage. The pursuit of sexual fulfillment and the freedom to be promiscuous is what high schoolers (and most of their parents) perceive adulthood to be about. In that sort of world, sexual attractiveness is a must.

    As if that isn’t bad enough, young women getting implants are dooming themselves to a life of surgery and other health complications. It’s tragic, but it is yet one more consequence of the sexual revolution of the sixties and the self-esteem spirituality of the nineties.

  • http://lesserweevils.blogspot.com Talmida

    Bad enough that the girls want it, how could any parent allow it, let alone pay for it? I have to say that I find cosmetic surgery that is not of corrective or medically recommended (by a doctor other than a plastic surgeon) to be immoral. What kind of society is it that cuts up healthy women for some unrealistic image of beauty? Sick, sick, sick…But I’ll save the rant for elsewhere. :)

  • tmatt


    Bring it on. And mail it to the Miami Herald.

    This is a voice that should have been IN THE STORY.

  • http://religion-society.blogspot.com Shawn Landres


    Nice catch! I’m writing my doctoral dissertation (UCSB Religious Studies) on this very issue — the parallels between trends in evangelical and Jewish worship. As my research has developed I have a great case study of a mega-”seeker”-synagogue and an “emergent” spiritual community….