Jews and Jesus: A ‘Spiritual Incursion’ in St. Louis

The breaking news — only 2,000 years old — that Christians and Jews have vastly different views of Jesus made the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over the weekend (and was picked up nationally by Religion News Service this week).

To be more specific, the Post-Dispatch featured a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation that seeks to convert Jews.

The newspaper’s main headline immediately cast the effort in a negative light:

SPIRITUAL INCURSION

Now, according to my online dictionary, incursion implies “a hostile entrance into or invasion of a place or territory.” Perhaps the headline is a major reason that the story upset so many folks in the LCMS. That, and the fact that the piece used phrases such as “targeted for conversion” to describe evangelism efforts by the Lutheran congregation.

The subhead was equally tilted:

Lutheran outreach draws criticism from Jewish groups

Contrast that with RNS’ much more down-the-middle headline, which perhaps sets a different tone:

Lutheran ministry seeks to convert Jews 

Now, at major newspapers such as the Post-Dispatch, copy editors — not the person with the byline on the story — typically write the headline. I thought the story itself, written by a Godbeat pro, was actually pretty good. Of course, given my role as a media critic, I do have a few quibbles with the piece. Call it an occupational hazard.

Let’s start at the top:

In a small storefront in Dogtown, a St. Louis neighborhood known for its celebration of the Christian missionary St. Patrick, sits a congregation dedicated to converting Jews.

Congregation Chai v’ Shalom is tiny by most standards, with weekly attendance averaging somewhere between 30 and 40 members. But it has the backing of the 2-million member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

And its mission fits squarely into the Synod’s controversial effort to preach the message that Jesus was the Messiah to Jews, in hope that they will become Christian and gain salvation.

On a recent Sunday morning, a couple dozen gathered at Congregation Chai v’ Shalom, a makeshift space where stars of David, one with a cross placed in the middle, hang prominently on the walls, alongside what looks like a random collection of paintings.

The vast majority of those who attend Chai v’ Shalom are not Jewish, but they are interested in reaching out to Jews. The service itself even caters to Jews, where the Shema, a central Jewish prayer, is recited and much of the lively singing is in Hebrew.

That’s a nice lede, filled with important detail and colorful description.

My quibble is a single word that has become cliche: “controversial.” Would the lede be any less effective without that adjective? Would the writing be any more precise? To me, inserting that term there adds an unnecessary level of editorializing — even without the headline and subhead.

Instead, why not present the facts and let the readers decide if this approach is, in fact, controversial? 

Let’s read some more:

To Rev. Kevin Parviz, of Chai v’ Shalom, the contrasts aren’t strange but intentional.

“I wanted to identify what was Lutheran about the service and express that in Jewish ways,” said Parviz, 57, who was reared in an observant Jewish family but who converted to Christianity about 1991 after marrying a Lutheran.

Who said the contrasts were strange? The RNS’ version of that lead-in to Parviz’s quote:

To the Rev. Kevin Parviz, of Chai v’ Shalom, the contrasts are intentional.

Bingo. Perhaps that edit was for space. But more likely, the original terminology threw up a red flag for someone at RNS.

Then we get to the criticism. From the Post-Dispatch:

Some in the Jewish community find this kind of worship service offensive.

Among them is Ruth Guggenheim, executive director of Jews for Judaism, an organization dedicated to preserving Jewish identity. She says melding Jewish and Christian practices can be misleading and confusing to those targeted for conversion.

“It’s offensive to have spiritual predators out to get our people,” she said.

Now, Lutherans reading the story might not like being called “spiritual predators.” But that’s journalism, folks. Journalism gives all stakeholders — as Poynter describes them — an equal opportunity to state their case.

And kudos, too, for the Post-Dispatch allowing Parviz to respond to the criticism:

That kind of criticism doesn’t dampen Parviz’s enthusiasm.

“The most anti-semitic thing we can do is withhold the love of Jesus to our Jewish people,” Parviz said. “The bottom line for me is if I truly believe what the Scriptures teach, and I do, then the worst thing I could do for my Jewish parents, my Jewish friends, my Jewish people is say ‘Oh just go to hell, and I’ll be quiet.’”

The wording of “Some in the Jewish community find this kind of worship service offensive” does make me wonder: Are there Jews who don’t find this offensive? If so, I think it would have been interesting to include their voice in this story, too.

At the end, the Post-Dispatch attempts to cover an awful lot of historical background in just four paragraphs. I’m not certain this is really enough space to plow the amount of ground attempted:

But to many in the Jewish community, such as Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder of Jews for Judaism, the problem isn’t conversion but the methods used to reach that end.

They’re “really trying to redefine what Judaism is and that’s an insult to Judaism,” said Kravitz, who maintains Judaism cannot be separated from its theology.

Kravitz also argues that those evangelizing to Jews are missing a major historical development: Only a small number of Jews accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Christianity spread in earnest during the Roman Empire, mainly among Gentiles. Jews expected the Messiah would be a king, not divine.

Philip A. Cunningham of The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, which is dedicated to enhancing mutual understanding between Jews and Christians, adds that most mainline churches understand that the ultimate destiny of Jews is not in the hands of Christians, but God.

By all means, read the whole story yourself and weigh in on the journalism and the approach taken. Feel free to disagree with my quibbles. All comments are good comments in the blogging world, right?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

    As a fan of GetReligion, I find this post to miss the mark. Usually, GetReligion posts want to get media to cover religious issues more objectively, but this post seems to be mainly concerned with whether the story it comments on got the Lutheran perspective right, and not with its treatment of the Jewish perspective.

    It expresses concern twice for how Lutherans might feel about the piece; 0 for how Jews might feel about it. The only time it suggests adding more Jewish perspective would be to add those that…agree with the Lutheran perspective.

    Some further points:

    - Judaism has a self-understanding as a covenantal, national and ethnic religion, so that active proselytism efforts are very much more likely to be seen as an “incursion” in a way that might feel alien to a Christian. As a Christian who’s often on the receiving end of media weasel words, the word “incursion” in the headline didn’t shock me in this case. As a Catholic, when Evangelicals (or Muslims) evangelize Catholics, I’m not offended, because it’s “fair play.” We do it to them, they do it to us. Judaism does not proselytize, and so Jews are much less likely to see it that way when members of other faiths proselytize them, even leaving aside the painful history of forced conversions and other persecutions (which cannot be left aside). Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean the original reporter should have used the word, but she might have been motivated by something else than the relativistic-secularist notion that all evangelism everywhere is wrong.

    - There are theological issues at play, here. Is the LCMS supersessionist? Jews typically find supersessionism quite offensive, and Christian evangelization efforts aimed at Jews are often motivated by supersessionism. This seems to be what is alluded to by the quote that Lutherans have to proselytize to Jews because otherwise they’ll go to Hell or, conversely, the line that “most mainline churches understand that the ultimate destiny of Jews is not in the hands of Christians, but God,” but if so both the original story and the critique seem unaware of the issues at play. (Does the LCMS count as “mainline”? I genuinely ask.)

    - There are also historical issues at play. The history of Lutheranism and Judaism did not start in St Louis, to say the least. Luther wrote virulently anti-Semitic texts which many historians see as being a significant source of German anti-Semitism, and the German Lutheran Church did not exactly cover itself in glory during the Holocaust. As a Catholic, I *know* (and I don’t think any GetReligionite could deny) that any story whatsoever about Catholicism and the Jews would mention the Spanish Inquisition and other topics. The story doesn’t touch on the historical anti-Semitism in Lutheranism; one gets the sense that if it had, the GetReligion writer would have seen it as another thing for Lutherans to get upset about rather than appropriate background material.

    - Another interesting issue: a frequent topic for worry in contemporary American Judaism is the historically high rates of intermarriage and the idea that this weakens Jewish identity and American Judaism. Given this background, a Jewish reader might raise an eyebrow upon reading that the founder of this congregation joined Lutheranism by marriage.

    - As one with an interest in liturgy, I’m somewhat curious about what’s actually inside the mixed Jewish/Lutheran services that this congregation offers. The Shema Israel, ok. What else? Some readings are in Hebrew, like what? The Bible? Hymns? How did they decide what to take from the Jewish rituals, what to keep from the Christian rituals, and how to put those two together? As a Catholic, I wonder: are Lutherans allowed to just mess around with their liturgy like that because they feel like it?

    Anyway, off the top of my head, those are some of the comments/lines of inquiry that I think could have been pursued here, in the original story and/or in its critique here, and that I think have been missed.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thank you for the comment and the respectful tone.

      Usually, GetReligion posts want to get media to cover religious issues more objectively, but this post seems to be mainly concerned with whether the story it comments on got the Lutheran perspective right, and not with its treatment of the Jewish perspective.

      Personally, I don’t know that journalistic objectivity is possible. However, that’s a deeper discussion for a different day. :-) But yes, GetReligion wants the media to cover religious issues fairly and accurately.

      In this case, the post focuses on the Lutheran questions because the headline and subhead seem tilted toward the Jewish perspective, as does certainly terminology in the piece.

      The only time it suggests adding more Jewish perspective would be to add those that…agree with the Lutheran perspective.

      Again, the point here is not to pick sides but to reflect all relevant points of views. On Twitter, one person said, “I’m Jewish in StL and don’t find this so much offensive as laughable.” That’s interesting to me.

      As for your more detailed observations, thank you. I appreciate your insight.

      • Amiablejak

        i thought that asking if there were Jewish people who were not offended took the Jewish perspective into account.

  • brianbrianbrian1

    I would second Pascal’s points about the feeling of threat or “Incursion” and the historical background that is very relevant for understanding this story. As for using the word, “controversial,” I would say many people would find the actions of this group to be inappropriate. Others would not. The word for that is “controversial.”

  • Jettboy

    Pascal, you are missing the point of this post. This isn’t an argument about if one side is shown equally or not; as it concedes that point. The main question is, if you read the first paragraph, is this news at all?

  • PalaceGuard

    “She says melding Jewish and Christian practices can be misleading and confusing to those targeted for conversion.” My understanding is that, up to the celebration of the Eucharist, the structure of the services in the liturgical churches is fairly faithfully based on the liturgical practices of Judaism at the time of Christ (the first Christians having been Jewish, no surprise). It would have been good had the reporter known this and commented on it in the article. How further “melded” are the practices in this Lutheran congregation vis-a-vis the historic practices in the major liturgical churches? How aware is Kravitz of traditional Christian practices?

  • wlinden

    ” Are there Jews who don’t find this offensive?”
    Define “Jews”. DON’T get me started again.

    If they WERE cited, would the first set complain that they were not “really” Jews?

    And, Pascal, don’t get me started on “proselytize” as an othering label either.

  • MainlineP

    Having read the piece, I thought it was decently written for today’s secular press, and seemed to fairly represent the facts and sensitivities of those involved. Your objections seemed, with due Christian charity, to indeed be quibbles or nit-picking. A Jewish person would have every reason to be offended, given the awful history between our two religions, particularly from the fall of the western Roman Empire. Jews were often forcibly converted, forced into ghettos, or forced to attend Catholic sermons. For the record, I’m Protestant, though not Lutheran. Thank you for bringing this article to our attention.
    John

  • Amiablejak

    What this reporter chose to leave out of her story makes me even more certain i won’t be buying this paper any more. Several congregation members and the pastor spoke to her about teaching the church, celebrating holidays and more.

  • John Pack Lambert

    It is time for the Jews to stop pleading for special rights. This is a free country where all people have the right to advance their religion, and Jewish special rights and downright denial of religious freedom in Israel is a major outrage.


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