A little religion goes a long way

Cardinal Mahony Celebrates The Mass Of The Lord's Supper

I knew the kerfuffle over Arizona’s tough new immigration law had to be choc-o-bloc full of religious ghosts, and I kept waiting for this angle to work its way into the coverage of the topic. Well, Cardinal Mahony of the Los Angeles diocese decided to kick start things a bit, as you can probably tell from this Associated Press headline:

LA cardinal: Nazism in Arizona immigration bill

Well, alrighty then. Mahony is not a fan of the legislation and had some choice words for it on his blog:

“I can’t imagine Arizonans now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation,” the cardinal said. “Are children supposed to call 911 because one parent does not have proper papers? Are family members and neighbors now supposed to spy on one another, create total distrust across neighborhoods and communities, and report people because of suspicions based upon appearance?”

This is some pretty strong stuff. The AP dutifully reports Mahony’s comments along with the broad outlines of the new immigration bill and the ensuing controversy. But aside from pointing out that Mahony’s diocese is overwhelmingly Hispanic, it doesn’t really provide any religious context. I’m sure not all Catholics or Catholic leaders are necessarily opposed to the new law. How exactly does Mahony derive the moral authority to criticize this law in such harsh terms? The Associated Press doesn’t delve into the issue. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Times does a much better job with this. Here’s how Times reporter Teresa Watanabe handled it:

In Arizona, leaders from the Roman Catholic Church and other faith communities also criticized the legislation and planned to ask Brewer to veto the bill. In a letter, the faith leaders called on Brewer to show “great political courage” and veto the measure, which they said could hurt the economy by driving down business and reduce public safety by diverting police resources and dissuading illegal immigrants from reporting crime.

Tucson Diocese Bishop Gerald Kicanas, who helped spearhead the letter, said parishes in his diocese have participated in “immigration academies” to learn about the issue and how Scripture and church teachings apply to it. In Leviticus, for instance, God instructs Moses not to mistreat aliens and to welcome them as if they were native-born.

“It’s pretty clear that all of our religious traditions speak of welcoming the stranger and assisting people in need,” Kicanas said. “I believe this is a drastic, punitive measure that will not benefit the states.”

It would be nice if the Times could have gotten some insight on this from Mahony himself, but the fact they weren’t able to get Mahony to comment further might not be for lack of trying. In any event, the two stories are a useful comparison. Both stories do a good job of reporting the basic details of the story, but AP story was 11 paragraphs long and the Times story was 14 paragraphs long. Those three extra paragraphs on religion at the end of the Times story really do introduce a whole new dimension of understanding to the story. It’s much appreciated.

South Park goes too far or just full circle?

Hey, guess what! South Park offended someone! I know, I know — is it Thursday already?

In all seriousness, this time Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s pathological need to be irreverent earned them what looks like an honest-to-goodness death threat, despite protestations saying otherwise from the person issuing the threat. The 20th episode of the venerable cartoon featured not one but two depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Or rather, they were jokes about how they can’t depict Muhammad — so one time the Islamic prophet was shown behind a black “censored” bar. Another time, he was said to be inside a bear suit.*

In any event, as a result of their alleged blasphemy, this happened:

The website RevolutionMuslim.com has since been taken down, but a cached version shows the message to “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The article’s author, Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, said the men “outright insulted” the religious leader.

The posting showed a gruesome picture of Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who was shot and stabbed to death in an Amsterdam street in 2004 by a fanatic angered by his film about Muslim women. The film was written by a Muslim woman who rejected the Prophet Muhammad as a guide for today’s morality.

“We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show,” Al-Amrikee wrote. “This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”

The posting listed the addresses of Comedy Central’s New York office and Parker and Stone’s California production office. It also linked to a Huffington Post article that described a Colorado retreat owned by the two men.

Yikes. But I have to give the Associated Press credit. They actually tracked down Al-Amrikee and spoke with him. Suffice to say, he was quite weaselly in his defense of his posting, claiming it was only done to “raise awareness.” However, he later said “they should feel threatened by what they did.” He also added that couldn’t legally say whether he supported jihad, but did have some words of praise for Bin Laden. So yeah, good guy.

Of course, this is hardly the first time South Park has taken on the subject of religion. AP noted this is not the first time there’s been controversy over the cartoon’s attempts at depicting Muhammad:

In 2006, Comedy Central banned the men from showing an image of Muhammad on their show. They had intended to comment on the controversy created by a Danish newspaper’s publishing of caricatures of the Islamic leader. Muslims consider any physical representation of their prophet to be blasphemous.

Instead, “South Park” showed an image of Jesus Christ defecating on President Bush and the American flag.

That last little tableaux occurred to me when I saw the headline on this CNN story:

Has ‘South Park’ gone too far this time?

So Jesus Christ defecating on an American flag, yawn. Muhammad in a bear suit — they’ve gone too far! (NB: I don’t normally hold writers accountable for their headlines, but in this case the fourth graf is “But have they gone too far this time with a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in a bear suit?”) In any event, the CNN article tries to put the program’s religious irreverence in context:

In the beginning, it wasn’t so much the religion that bothered observers but the language used by the series’ pint-sized cast, [Dallas Morning News TV critic Ed Bark] said.

“The most shocking thing back then was, you had little kids exercising a vocabulary that you hadn’t heard before [from children],” he said. “I go back to the days when [the sitcom] ‘Uncle Buck’s’ ‘You suck’ was a major point of contention on a CBS sitcom and everybody went crazy about ‘how can they have an 8-year-old kid saying this?’ And then ‘South Park’ ratcheted that way up.”

Of course, maybe a TV critic isn’t the best judge of how offensive the show is with regard to religion. The CNN article does quote one Muslim who writes for Beliefnet, but doesn’t otherwise talk to one Christian, Jewish, Scientologist or any other authority affiliated with one of the show’s many religious targets over the years. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are about to do a satirical Broadway musical based on the Book of Mormon. The CNN story mentions this, but doesn’t talk to any Mormons as a point of comparison for what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this kind of irreverent satire.

It’s also worth bringing in religious perspectives from non-Muslims because the show’s religious themes have in fact been very controversial — for instance, the show was banned in Russia on the grounds of “religious extremism.” Some context would be in order here. The contrast to how different Muslims and different religions react to the show’s satirical intentions would be instructive. I understand the death threats from Muslim extremists are the newshook here, but it doesn’t need to drown out other relevant religious perspectives to inform the story.

But the CNN piece did get one thing very right. GR’s own Brad Greenberg, who’s something of a South Parkologist, informs me that there’s one ginormous elephant in the room here that’s gone unmentioned in the vast majority of reporting of the latest South Park controversy.

In season 5 of South Park, in an episode that aired two months before 911, the show actually did depict Muhammad. And not in an oblique or fleeting sort of way. Check it out. The CNN story is the one story I’ve seen that mentioned this:

It wasn’t the first time Mohammed was featured on the show. In the July 2001 episode “Super Best Friends,” he appears as “the Muslim prophet with the powers of flame,” along with other religious figures — Buddha, Moses and Mormon founder Joseph Smith among them — who help the other “South Park” kids rescue Kyle from a cult devoted to magician David Blaine

But that, said Stone and Parker, was before September 11, the van Gogh murder and the 2005 Muslim protests over the Danish cartoons that appeared in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

“Now, that’s the new normal. Like we lost. Something that was OK is now not OK,” Stone said.

I give CNN big props for catching this, but they give it pretty short shrift considering what a sea change this represents. (And again, the headline — how can South Park go to far when they crossed this boundary nearly a decade ago without incident?)

So here’s decree from my imaginary assignment desk: I’d really like to see some enterprising Godbeat reporter ask Matt and Trey about how they got away with their previous depiction of Muhammad and what has changed since — in detail. You just know they give good quote and are awfully thoughtful for guys who write poop jokes for a living. Any takers?

UPDATE: Looks like Comedy Central caved in the face of the threat, and is now censoring a good bit of the episode. Read Brad Greenberg’s take here. He makes a good point:

Which leaves me wondering: If “South Park” doesn’t have the license to satirize the hypersensitive, who does?

*It’s something of a non-sequitur, but here’s one of the many reasons why Christopher Walken is the best Saturday Night Live host ever.

Hey, good question!

WBC Protests SAG Awards

For better or for worse, the Westboro Baptist church does make headlines and there is no end in sight. Thus, it’s incumbent upon folks in the press to ask some questions about how this congregation operates. (We’ve been doing that a lot more of than usual this week.)

And William Levesque at the St. Petersburg Times asks a good one: “How does hate group fund national protests?”

The group, composed largely of Phelps-Roper’s extended family, claims to have participated in 43,000 protests in the last 19 years without accepting any outside donations.

Church members say they pay the costs themselves. As Phelps-Roper, a church leader, notes: “Who the hell is going to give us anything?”

Public records, interviews and past news coverage reveal a tax-exempt church that appears to have no significant income other than the donations of its 85 members, and the occasional cash generated by the litigation their protests spawn.

The group, which espouses a fire-and-brimstone Calvinist theology embracing a vengeful God, said it spends about $200,000 annually on protests. The Hillsborough trip, Phelps-Roper said, will cost $2,000.

“It’s difficult to figure out how Shirley can raise 10 or 11 children and simultaneously travel the country a great part of the year,” said attorney Sean Summers, who has battled Westboro in court. “It seems nearly impossible.”

The article has some lengthy analysis about whether or not the church makes a substantial amount from it’s legal settlements. The father of a fallen Marine was recently ordered to pay the church $16,510 in legal fees after he sued the church for protesting his son’s funeral. (Bobby looked at the coverage of that story for GR earlier this week.) Most of the church’s family members are related and it turns out there’s a family law firm that does much of the church’s legal work:

The U.S. Northern Command, monitoring protests at military bases, issued an advisory about Westboro in 2005 saying church funding came from litigation.

“This group does employ passive-aggressive techniques intended to provoke a hostile response or offensive reaction from others,” Northern Command wrote. “This group will then file a civil action in an effort to reach a settlement in order to fund future activities.”

On the other hand, the article notes that even church critics have a hard time believing that the church makes too much money through legal settlements. However, here is one more interesting detail about the church that might help explain where the money comes from:

The church now requires members to pay it 30 percent of income, rather than the traditional 10 percent tithe, he said.

An attorney who has sued the family says this is a scam — members of the church give their money to the church tax-free and the church returns it to them. In any event, that’s an interesting detail. One way to judge the validity of that claim would be to look at the church’s theological, biblical justification for this very unusual 30 percent “tithe.”

Alas, the reporter did not ask that question and I wish he would have. But overall it’s an interesting story even if it proves hard to get definitive answers about this, ahem, unique religious institution. The reporter makes a pretty good effort.

Exit question: The article describes the church as having a “a fire-and-brimstone Calvinist theology.” The church itself says it subscribes to Calvinist and Primitive Baptist principles, though other Primitive Baptists are quick to disown the church and I doubt Calvinists are thrilled to be mentioned in the same sentence.

This past Monday, tmatt discussed how far outside the Baptist mainstream the church is, and I’m wondering if it’s fair to describe the church in a drive-by reference as Calvinist without more qualification. What do you think?

Secretive or standard operating procedure?

Having a personal history with the Mormon church, I think I’m more aware than most that the church is controversial. There are certainly elements of the church’s theology and history that feed that perception, but the fact remains that much of the news coverage of the church has a whiff of sensationalism.

Unfortunately, this Vancouver Sun piece, “B.C. Mormons open temple to counter ‘secretive’ image,” was a bit over the top. It didn’t help that this information was right under the headline:

Filed under: polygamy, prophet, Mormon fundamentalists, Mormons, L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, Glenn Beck, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, secrets, conversion

Yikes. That’s a lot to wrap into a story. (Though I have no idea why L. Ron Hubbard is listed — neither he nor Scientology are even mentioned in the story.) It doesn’t waste time getting to the juicy details. Here’s the lede:

In a province in which a breakaway sect of Mormon fundamentalist polygamists in the Kootenays draws continuing controversy, the main line Mormon Church realizes it has to work hard to show its wholesome face to the world.

That’s one reason patriarchs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) are this month inviting the public to have a rare look inside the luxurious interior of their new temple in Langley.

Well, that may be one reason the church is opening the temple. But the main reason why the LDS church is opening the temple is that they always open temples to the public for tours before they are consecrated. It’s standard operating procedure when they build a new temple, and no where does this article make that clear. The insinuation that the church is taking some extraordinary action here to combat the negative image of some breakaway sect that the church isn’t responsible for is a bit over the top. And that doesn’t even count that I think the title “patriarch” is misused here. Each stake — which is comprised of a handful of wards — has a patriarch that administers patriarchal blessings. But I don’t think that’s what the reporter is referring to.

The article repeatedly emphasizes that church leaders are at pains to dispel the image of the church being secretive — which is why they’re giving journalists tours of the B.C. temple. But if you’re curious about what goes on in the temple and reading this article, you’re out of luck:

Walker showed a handful of journalists on Wednesday the extravagant indoor pool, built on the top of 12 sculpted oxen, on which living Mormons are baptized on behalf of deceased loved ones, so the dead can have eternal life.

Walker also guided journalists to a small, 25-seat room reserved for “eternal weddings,” in which women and men are believed joined together in matrimony forever, including in an afterlife.

That’s all the information the reader is given about the rites that will be performed in the temple. Surely many readers would like to know more about the doctrines and theology involved. But again the writer of this article seems more interested in sensationalist topics:

Most Mormons and most Christians continue to see the two traditions as different religions, [John] Stackhouse [professor of theology at Vancouver's evangelical Regent College] said. “They use similar words — like ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘salvation,’ but mean very different things by every one of them.”

This long-standing religious competition came to a head last month when one of the most famous Mormons in North America, popular Fox TV political commentator Glenn Beck (left), told Christians to leave their churches if their clergy ever use the term “social justice.”

Despite the outcry from Catholics and Protestants, Walker said Wednesday that Mormon elders are not attempting to rein in Beck. “He certainly doesn’t speak for the church,” Walker said. “Some Mormons would agree with him, and some wouldn’t.”

The term “social justice” is fairly controversial even within mainstream Christianity. I’m not sure a conservative cable news host known for dramatic antics inveighing against a term that is frequently a shibboleth for a church’s liberal political agenda (but not always, of course) really creates a that much of a rift between Mormons and mainstream Christianity — particularly since the latter isn’t exactly a monoculture.

I suspect Beck’s opinion about the term “social justice” would garner from support from Christians, as well as enmity in roughly equal measure. But the suggestion that this created such a rift or that the church is so desperate to be accepted by mainstream Christianity that they would rein him in over his comments is, again, a bit over the top. (Sarah Pulliam Bailey discussed these issues well last month.)

It’s also wandering very far afield from an article that’s ostensibly about a local temple opening. The article does have some good information, but more hard facts about the church and the temple and a lot less courting controversy would have been a big improvement.

Happy Easter, if you buy into that stuff

Every Holy Week, GetReligion must examine the slew of sensationalist religion stories that crop up. I don’t know why everyone in the fourth estate thinks this is the ideal time to uncork that story they think is going to finally blow the lid off this Christianity fad, but that’s the way it is.

Still, even as a long-time GetReligion reader, I have the unenviable task of presenting a particularly bad example of the genre. If there’s one positive thing I can say about the following story, at least with the headline “Discrepancies don’t shake Christians’ faith in the Bible,” you know what you’re in for:

Vanderbilt University student Katherine Precht knows what skeptical scholars say about the Bible: It’s full of errors, contradictions and a murky historical record.

Still, none of that has shaken her Christian faith.

That’s because Precht embraces a big-picture view of biblical truth. For her, it means the Bible speaks truth on ultimate things, such as Creation and salvation.

“Sure, there may be contradictions, [but] God was working through the scribes who put it together,” said Precht, a United Methodist from Montgomery, Ala. “Even though [the Scripture] is 2,000 years old, I see it alive and living . . . in friends, in Christians, in the world.”

As Christians prepare to mark Easter, the culmination of the holiest week of the year, many are mindful of hard-to-ignore critiques that would deem creeds and Scripture, at best, untrustworthy and at worst, downright false. Many have heard “Jesus Wars” author Philip Jenkins insist their beliefs are merely the result of ancient politicking. Still, they trust what the Gospels say about Jesus’s last days, despite the doubts of biblical scholars like Bart D. Ehrman, whose public questioning has made him a best-selling author.

You get the idea.

So despite the fact that Christian apologetics might arguably be the most studied subject in human history, what we have here is an article that plumbs the depths of alleged biblical contradictions in a mere 537 words. It makes no clear distinctions between different Christian perspectives on biblical literalism, and at one point includes the spit-take inducing paragraph transition, “Some writers, however, have cast doubt on Christian doctrines” before dropping this science on us:

“The view on the religious right, about the Bible being some kind of inerrant revelation or an infallible revelation from God. . . simply isn’t tenable anymore,” said Ehrman, a fundamentalist-turned-agnostic who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Yet, by and large, Christians seem to be holding fast to their beliefs and sometimes reconciling them with scholarly challenges.

Crazy, huh? Some Christians are still holding fast to their beliefs despite “some writers” who don’t believe in Biblical inerrancy. There isn’t a single argument in this piece — for or even against faith in the Bible — that’s fleshed out enough to even discuss intelligently. Notice, please, the complete lack of material from scholars on the other side of these issues, scholars who hail from completely mainstream campuses in a wide range of denominational settings, from Baptists to evangelical Anglicans.

However, this does not stop Religion News Service from putting it out and the Washington Post picking it up the day before Easter. I’d like to believe the goal here isn’t to insult Christian readers, but given the timing and complete lack of a newsworthy premise, I have to wonder. Was this article radically cut somewhere in the publishing process?

A Press Release for Pullman

When I stumbled across this story, I’ll admit my first thought was — “Just in time for Holy Week!”:

Pullman Risks Christian Anger With Jesus Novel

Now I’ll admit that despite the annoying trend of “contrarian” Christian stories around the time of Holy Week, I’m not entirely sure that’s what is going on here. The Pullman in question is Philip Pullman, author of the controversial His Dark Materials series of children’s books. Despite the controversy over the books’ anti-Christian themes, they sold lots and lots of copies. So if Pullman has a new book coming out, it’s news. Also, perhaps Pullman himself is launching the book near Holy Week to generate maximum controversy. In any event, it sounds like this book will also be controversial:

Bestselling British author Philip Pullman risks offending Christians with his latest book, a fictional account of the “good man Jesus” and the “scoundrel Christ.”

The 63-year-old, an outspoken atheist, angered some members of the Catholic Church with a thinly veiled attack on organized religion in his hugely successful “His Dark Materials” trilogy, the first of which was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster.

But “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” is a far more direct exploration of the foundations of Christianity and the church as well as an examination of the fascination and power of storytelling.

In the novel, Jesus has a twin brother called Christ who secretly records and embellishes his brother’s teachings.

Speaking about the book to an audience in Oxford on Sunday, Pullman acknowledged that it was likely to cause offence.

I have to say in an era of Dawkins, Harris, et al., this sort of thing doesn’t make me outraged so much as tempted to yawn, though I can see where this might be catnip to journalists. However, the supposition that Pullman “risks Christian anger” and “risks offending Christians” in the headline and the lede is, well, an awfully leading thing thing to hang the article on. Pullman doesn’t risk offense — he’s aiming for it. Or at least that’s what he says:

When one man said Christians would be upset to hear Christ referred to as a “scoundrel,” Pullman replied:

“I knew it was a shocking thing to say, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. Nobody has to read this book … and no one has the right to stop me writing this book.”

In fairness, the article does report this:

Pullman, who has received angry letters from people accusing him of blasphemy even before the short novel hits the shelves, was accompanied by security guards to the Oxford event to publicize his book.

It isn’t exactly surprising that Pullman would receive angry letters or that they’d accuse him of impiety or irreverence. But it’s also an undocumented assertion from Pullman and a far cry from a Rushdie-esque fatwa. It’s a bit much to be putting this all on supposedly angry Christians without producing any of them or explaining the need for security. Or, for that matter, balancing the story by talking to some Christian leaders or scholars and asking them what they think about Pullman’s work. In fact, the only outside perspective in the entire article is the “one man [in the Oxford audience that] said Christians would be upset to hear Christ referred to as a ‘scoundrel.’”

Without any outside perspective and the loaded language about allegedly offended and angry Christians, the article simply reads far too much like a “just in time for Holy Week” press release.

Asked and Answered

Tiger Woods Practices Near His Home In Orlando

There may be hundreds of millions of Buddhists in the world, but pick up an American newspaper and you’re much more likely to read about Uma Thurman than her father.

A few months ago there was the minor controversy over Brit Hume’s statement that Tiger Woods should turn to Christianity to help recover from his adultery, and the result was a flurry of stories about how Buddhism deals with the big theological questions. But how members of the Buddhist faith live and practice their still isn’t something that gets a lot of coverage. So that’s why I found this Reuters report, “Woods promises to wear Buddhist bracelet forever,” so frustrating:

Although dressed in typically conservative fashion, Woods also wore a thin Buddhist bracelet, which he showed to Golf Channel viewers and said he would be wearing when he returned to golf at the U.S. Masters on April 8. “It’s Buddhist, it’s for protection and strength and I certainly need that,” he said, adding that he began wearing the bracelet before he went into rehabilitation and that he intends to wear it forever.

The article makes more general observations about Tiger’s recommittment to his faith, such as regret over how he had stopped meditating. However, I was not aware of any connection between Buddhism and bracelets, and the article says very no more about Woods’ newfound public display of faith. Apparently, Buddhist bracelets are very common — or at least you can buy scores of them at Amazon. I wanted to know more, and fortunately a quick Google search turned up this terrific little article by the Associated Press:

Woods explained that he had been wearing the bracelet since before he went into treatment, and that he would wear it during the Masters. Beyond that, he didn’t further discuss its significance or origin. However, it is common for Buddhists to wear such items as a reminder of their faith, said Jimmy Yu, professor of Buddhist and Chinese Studies at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “Sometimes Buddhists, when they receive some kind of initiation into a certain practice, especially in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, they would be given a red thread, (to) go around the wrist,” said Yu. “It sounds like this is what he was wearing.” Wearing bracelets, necklaces or other reminders of their faith are fairly common for practitioners of Buddhism, Yu said.

The article has more interesting details, such as the Dalai Lama’s practice of handing out bracelets:

Dalai Lama Holds Press Conference During Washington Visit

What Woods was wearing, experts say, was a “protection cord” that was likely blessed by a Buddhist monk or lama. Sometimes Buddhists receive one if they have made a donation to a monastery, or if they have participated in a ceremony.

The Dalai Lama, the world’s best-known Buddhist, sometimes gives red protection cords to people who attend his talks and teachings.

“The protection cords are pretty pan-Buddhist,” said Sara Blumenthal, director of student service and public information for the Portland, Ore.-based Maitripa College, a Buddhist school. “They are particularly popular in Thailand. Even many Thais who may not particularly identify as Buddhist, many may also wear protection cords. Culturally, they have power.”

Blumenthal explained that the cords are usually worn until they fall off, which could explain why the strings around Woods’ wrist were a faded pink hue.

Big kudos to Tamara Lush at the AP for recognizing that there was more going on here. In an era of Livestrong bracelets and whatnot, I think a lot of people may have just viewed such a bracelet as a generic token of dedication. I was really happy to see somebody answer some basic questions about the deeper religious significance.

Context ex nihilo

There’s an Associated Press story today that is equal parts interesting and frustrating. The set-up for “Texas church bans child’s photograph of Passion,” is certainly intriguing:

Some find Jackson Potts II’s photograph of a nightstick-wielding policeman beating a fallen, bleeding child violent and offensive, conjuring images of police brutality and child abuse.

But to Jackson, a talented 10-year-old Houston photographer, and a cadre of art lovers, the disturbing image has religious symbolism.

Jackson shot the photograph for an exhibit depicting the Stations of the Cross, but the show’s organizers rejected it, sparking a controversy some say is overshadowing remembrance of Jesus’ final hours during the season of Lent.

Ok, I’m hooked –tell me more. One of the first things I wondered after reading the first three paragraphs here was — what exhibit is this? For that we have to jump ahead to paragraph nine:

Although Jackson has gone on more than a 100 photo shoots in recent years, mainly working as an apprentice for his father, a professional photographer, the show at Xnihilo (NY’-low) Gallery was to be his first public exhibition.

So the exhibition is at the Xnihilo gallery, got it. But where’s the church that’s mentioned in the headline? At this point, I’d guessed that Xnihilo is clearly a play on the latin phrase ex nihilo, meaning “out of nothing,” and frequently referenced in theological contexts. By this point, I had a hunch this gallery is connected to a church somehow. Knowing more about this church is pretty vital to understanding the context of this story. Ok, now skip ahead to paragraph 14 of the 27 paragraph story, which is found on the second page of the story if you’re reading it on the Washington Post link online:

The fine arts gallery also serves as the sanctuary for the 1,100-member Ecclesia Church, and “a church should be a place where people can feel safe,” Brubaker said.

That’s the only characterization of the church involved. Knowing a little bit about the theology and culture of the church involved in the story would provide some necessary illumination, don’t you think? Statements on the church’s website aren’t of much help. But surely the reporter could find some way to explain the church so the reader can get some idea of where this church is located on the landscape of American Christianity — and by extension, how their beliefs affect how they approach a controversy such as this. In fairness to the reporter, these are often not easy questions to answer. However, a little effort goes a long way.

Now the website for the gallery notes that Xnihilo is part of the “Ecclesia Arts Center” which also houses “a coffee shop, a bookstore, a concert venue, a recording studio, [and] an organic food co-op.” This doesn’t strike me as the kind of button-down church that would shy away from a a little religious controversy. Here’s how a representative of the church explained their decision to ban the photograph:

“Certainly we don’t want to be censoring art or anything like that,” said Jeremy Wells, a gallery board member, church elder and artist. “Artwork being provocative in nature can be beneficial to the church if it’s provocative in the right way.

“We felt it was provocative in the wrong way,” Wells said. “The image, being as graphic as it is, did not draw people closer to the risen Christ.”

That’s interesting but without more context about the church it doesn’t explain much. Especially in light of these details supplied late in the story:

Two of the gallery’s seven board members resigned in protest.

One of them, Jessica Martin-Weber, said she felt Jackson’s photograph was appropriate for the exhibit and parents should decide whether their children could see it. A three-dimensional piece that hung in the show last year, a mannequin “corpse” draped in a blood-soaked cloth, was just as shocking, she said.

At this point, this article raises more questions than it answers. My spidey sense tells me that this tossed of sentence might have much more relevance to the church’s decision than the article suggests:

Elders said they also wanted to be sensitive to a congregation member whose mentally impaired son was fatally shot by police around this time a year ago.

But I’m just taking a stab in the dark here. I don’t know whether it was was the reporting, writing, editing or some combination thereof, but this article could use more clarity and context before we can understand the religious dimension to this controversy.


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