NYTimes: ‘On Religion’ columnist commits … journalism!

Yes, that headline is written with tongue somewhat in cheek: The New York Times‘ “On Religion” column, authored in alternate weeks by Samuel G. Freedman and Mark Oppenheimer, both academics, is at turns fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating when it finds, as will be discussed here, good, solid faith-based stories. Frustrating — to this more traditional believer, at least — when the column appears to delight (in column fashion) at those sticking a finger (or a fist) in the eye of, well, traditional believers.

Just when I’m about to lament this or that fawning column about someone rather far removed from the religious mainstream — let alone evangelicalism — “On Religion” comes along and reminds me that they can get this right. In fact, there are columns that are more news-focused than some New York Times news stories that approach religious matters.

Witness Freedman’s Nov. 29 spiritual profile of the late Oscar Hijuelos (shown here in a 1993 photo) the famed Cuban-American novelist who died in October at age 62 following a sudden collapse on a tennis court:

Nearly 20 years ago, when he was three books into an acclaimed literary career, Oscar Hijuelos delivered the manuscript of his new novel to his editor. It was a Christmas tale filled with the joy Mr. Hijuelos had always taken in with the trappings of yuletide, from manger scenes to oratorios to evergreens strung with lights.

From a lesser writer, perhaps, the new novel would have been perfectly fine. From one who had already won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” who had received fellowships and honorary doctorates and a dinner invitation to the White House, it felt lacking.

At least it did to Mr. Hijuelos’s editor at HarperCollins, Robert S. Jones. He rejected the book, telling its author something cryptically critical along the lines of, “This is not what I had in mind for you to write.”

The evening after receiving the verdict, Mr. Hijuelos and his girlfriend at the time, Lori Carlson, sat together in their living room in Upper Manhattan, depression suffusing the air. Finally, Mr. Hijuelos told Ms. Carlson, “O.K., I’m really going to the heart of Christmas then.”

That exploration, Freedman noted, wasn’t a walk in the park, yielding the now-classic “Mr. Ives’ Christmas”:

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NYTimes on Ukraine ‘ghost’: Great minds like a think?

Cause-and-effect is difficult to prove sometimes, but it is curious how things follow in a sequence of events. The recent round of protests in the Ukraine, particularly in the capital city of Kiev, have upended the country (not to mention a statue of Vladimir Lenin).

A point of curiosity around these parts: Did this Dec. 3 GetReligion post about the dearth of examination of faith-related elements of the protests move one of the world’s top newspapers to cover that point?

While the protests, which began in November, have captured the attention of the world’s media, analysis of the religious dimensions of the protest had not been much of a priority in the secular press, a point ably made by GetReligionista George Conger.

Now that’s changed: The New York Times ran a substantial piece on Dec. 4, one day after the GetReligion item, telling readers a good deal of what they’d need to know about this interesting, historically deep, backstory:

KIEV, Ukraine – After riot police officers stormed Independence Square here early Saturday, spraying tear gas, throwing stun grenades and swinging truncheons, dozens of young protesters ran, terrified, scattering up the streets. It was after 4:30 a.m., the air cold, the sky black. As they got their bearings, the half-lit bell tower of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery beckoned.

Inside, the fleeing demonstrators found more than warmth and safety. They had arrived in a bastion of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate, where they were welcomed not only on a humanitarian basis but because the church, driven by its own historical tensions with Moscow, is actively supporting their uprising. It strongly favors European integration to enable Ukraine to break free from Russia’s grip, and has joined the calls to oust the Ukrainian government.

From the conversion of Princess Olga, the regent of Kievan Rus, in the 10th century to the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Orthodox Church has generally flourished by acting in close concert with political powers. Its efforts to confront the authorities have tended to go badly, as when Philip II, the metropolitan of Moscow, protested political massacres in 1568 by refusing to bless Ivan the Terrible. He was jailed, chained around the neck and strangled.

But in recent days, the Kyivan Patriarchate, which controls St. Michael’s, has emerged as a powerful ally of the thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich and the revival of the far-reaching political and trade accords with the European Union that he has refused to sign. Some priests have even led prayer sessions in Independence Square, which protesters have occupied.

After discussing and clearly identifying the major religious players in the Ukraine, and noting that the Kyivan Patriarchate is not as influential as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Moscow Patriarchate, the Times clearly shows the impact of the Kyivan Patriarchate’s moves on the people:

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That mainstream press anti-Catholic ‘Philomena’ pileup

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In the “now I’ve seen everything” category, let’s welcome self-described atheist film critic Kyle Smith of the New York Post, now excoriated for defending the Roman Catholic Church, specifically its Irish branch, against “Philomena,” an apparently smarmy new film that applies 21st century scruples to 1952 Ireland.

More than a sentence or two of background is necessary before the media criticism. And, yes, I know that GetReligion rarely if ever digs into the contents of reviews. Trust me, this one is worth it.

The “biopic,” as Hollywood’s press likes to call these things, stars Dame Judi Dench, portraying Philomena Lee, a now-senior citizen from Ireland who, some 60 odd years ago, was pregnant “out of wedlock” as the old saying goes. In Ireland, in the 1950s, being “in a family way” without being married was an express pass to ostracism for both mother and child. Think Hester Prynne on steroids.

Lee finds shelter at the Sean Ross Abbey, run by the Sacred Heart Sisters. As the story goes, Lee signs away the rights to her child, who is plucked from her at age three and packed off to America, long after firm mother-and-child bonds are formed.

Decades later, Lee enlists the help of a real journalist, Martin Sixsmith, apparently down on his professional luck. Together, they trace what happened to the baby she gave up, only to find the son, now named Michael Hess, passed away a few years earlier, a closeted gay man who rose high in Republican U.S. administrations, becoming chief legal counsel to President George H.W. Bush, before tragically dying of AIDS. Ironically, Hess donated money to the Sean Ross Abbey so he could be buried there, in case his estranged birth mother ever sought him.

Smith’s original review doesn’t divulge his own faith background (raised Catholic, he ditched the Church for atheism), but the critic comes out swinging:

The film doesn’t mention that in 1952 Ireland, both mother and child’s life would have been utterly ruined by an out-of-wedlock birth and that the nuns are actually giving both a chance at a fresh start that both indeed, in real life, enjoyed. No, this is a diabolical-Catholics film, straight up.

Such criticism apparently didn’t sit well with Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, whose firm is the U.S. distributor for the film. Here’s Smith’s take:

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WSJ gets the tone right on Holocaust survivor story

There’s so much bad reporting about religion and religion-related stories these days — the continual surprise evidenced by The New York Times that the leaders of Roman Catholic institutions may choose to act, well, in a Catholic manner, for example — that it’s not a bad thing, I believe to highlight instances where a given reporter (and publication) get it right.

Such a refreshing, if deeply sobering, example comes from reporter Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal. A Congressional correspondent for the paper, he ventured somewhat far afield to extensively report on “A Race to Preserve the Voices of Holocaust’s Last Survivors.” The opening sets the tone, of course:

JEMEPPE-SUR-SAMBRE, Belgium – Simon Gronowski, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, mesmerized schoolchildren in this small town recently with a detailed account of jumping off a train to Auschwitz and hiding from the Nazis for three years.

The students lobbed close to 50 questions at him, ranging from the unsophisticated — “Did you meet Hitler?” — to the sensitive, like his feelings about losing the mother and sister who stayed on the train.

But the talk exhausted Mr. Gronowski. His knees bother him, he doesn’t hear that well, and it isn’t clear how much longer he can deliver such talks, though he has no plans to stop. “My children and my grandchildren will talk about it,” he said. “I can’t do any more than I’m doing.”

Although there are believed to be 160,000 survivors of the Shoah, or “destruction,” as Jews often refer to the Holocaust, still alive, their numbers are dwindling. As each one passes, a voice, a recollection and even the physical evidence of having survived — the numbered tattoo on a forearm — is lost:

A survivor who was 20 when Auschwitz was liberated would be 88 today, and already few are left who were adults during the war. “Nothing has as much impact as seeing the person in real life,” said Regina Sluszny, 74, who was hidden from the Nazis as a child. “But we have no choice. We can’t live forever.”

The need for living witness, ironically, grows as generations are more and more removed from the actual events of World War II.

I was born during Eisenhower’s second presidential term, and as a child and teen there were plenty of documentaries, interviews, films and mini-series focusing on the National Socialists and their reign of terror. Now, such documentaries are fewer and farther between, it seems, even if some notable ones are still appearing.

Examined in closer detail, the numbers are even more dire:

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NYTimes: Catholics acting Catholic, equals ACLU suit

In a startling development, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (headquarters in photo) is being sued for — you’ll never believe this! — enforcing Roman Catholic teaching in Roman Catholic institutions.

Friends, The New York Times is ON IT, to borrow from a certain Twitter meme. Here are the startling details:

The American Civil Liberties Union announced on Monday that it had filed a lawsuit against the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, arguing that their anti-abortion directives to Catholic hospitals hamper proper care of pregnant women in medical distress, leading to medical negligence.

The suit was filed in federal court in Michigan on Friday on behalf of a woman who says she did not receive accurate information or care at a Catholic hospital there, exposing her to dangerous infections after her water broke at 18 weeks of pregnancy.

In an unusual step, she is not suing the hospital, Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, but rather the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Its ethical and religious directives, the suit alleges, require Catholic hospitals to avoid abortion or referrals, “even when doing so places a woman’s health or life at risk.”

The suit opens a new front in the clash over religious rights and medical care. The Catholic Church has fought against requiring all health plans to include coverage of contraception and is likely to call the new lawsuit an attack on its core religious principles.

The USCCB, of course, having “refused to comment,” that last supposition by the Times is, well, just that. This means there really isn’t any supporting evidence cited in the story for that “likely” thing, unless you count the negative comment of an ACLU attorney as evidence:

“This isn’t about religious freedom, it’s about medical care,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the civil liberties union, in a telephone news conference on Monday.

Non-Catholics and those who support the limited use of abortion to save a mother’s life might find some compelling arguments in the plaintiff’s story:

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AP’s not-too-religious airport chaplain story

The entire long Thanksgiving weekend, it’s widely reported, is the busiest air-travel season in the United States. So, it’s not too difficult to imagine human interest stories about life in and around major airports, which The Associated Press rightly declares are “mini-cities” with a life and culture all their own, right down to a local church or, in most cases, an interfaith chapel.

Said chapels are staffed by either volunteer or paid chaplains, and that’s where the AP comes in with an interesting discovery: they may be called “Reverend,” but from the AP’s telling, these folks aren’t all that, well, religious.

Here’s the top of the report:

ATLANTA – The Rev. Frank Colladay Jr. stood at the end of the gate waiting. On the arriving plane was a passenger whose husband had just died of a heart attack on another flight. Her name was Linda Gilbert. The two had never met before.

Colladay’s parish happens to be the world’s busiest airport. His flock consists of people passing through who might need comfort, spiritual advice, or someone to pray with.

On this day, a traumatized Gilbert needed even more. Colladay guided her through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, drove her in his silver Ford Fusion to the medical examiner to see her husband’s body and arranged for a flight home for both of them.

“He didn’t say a whole lot. But just his presence being there, it just felt comforting and reassuring,” Gilbert says. “I didn’t know that airports have chaplains.”

Although some headlines on this widely published story almost hinted at an almost Kevorkian-esque tone — “Airport chaplains help fliers reach heaven,” the Redwood Times of Garberville, Calif., topped it — that’s about the only mention of heaven, or anything else religious here, albeit with some contradictions:

They aren’t at airports to proselytize and — surprisingly — very few passengers confess to a fear of flying. Often, they just roam terminals offering a friendly face and occasional directions. Some walk up to seven miles a day.

“When I came into the job, my predecessor said you have to buy good shoes,” says the Rev. Jean-Pierre Dassonville, a Protestant who just retired after 12 years at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.

Chaplains need outgoing personalities. They have to recognize the signs that something is wrong and know how to approach strangers.

The Rev. Wina Hordijk, a Protestant minister at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, recently saw a teenage girl sitting by herself, crying. The girl was supposed to travel throughout Europe with her boyfriend, but he dumped her at the start of the trip.

“I always have a lot of handkerchiefs in my bag,” Hordijk says.

A “Protestant.” That’s pretty vague. On the other hand:

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Reuters skips a key detail in Israel’s wedding wars — divorce

Everybody loves a wedding, or so culture would have us believe. However, according to a report from the Reuters news agency, not every Israeli likes the wedding options available in that country:

For most Israelis in the Jewish state, there is one legal way to get married — God’s way.

Israeli law empowers only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at Jewish weddings, but popular opposition is growing to this restriction and to what some Israelis see as an Orthodox stranglehold on the most precious moments of their lives.

Some of Israel’s most popular TV stars and models have come out this week in an advertisement supporting a new bill allowing civil marriage. A political storm is likely when it eventually comes up for a vote in parliament.

The Rabbinate, the Orthodox religious authority that issues marriage licenses in Israel, says it is charged with a task vital for the survival of the Jewish people, and a recent poll showed more Israelis oppose civil unions than support them. Nevertheless, many Israelis want either a secular wedding or a religious marriage conducted by a non-Orthodox rabbi. Facebook pages have been popping up, with defiant couples calling on others to boycott the Rabbinate.

I can’t say, for certain, how long this has been going on. However, I seem to recall that over the past decade, at least, I’ve heard stories from Israelis about booking a flight to Turkey or elsewhere to have a civil wedding, so as not to be under the thumb of the Orthodox hierarchy.

The reasons for avoiding this range from the couple themselves being secular (many, if not most, Israelis are) to not wanting the burden of “proving” their Jewishness to the rabbis’ satisfaction to, well, let’s return to the third potential reason in a moment.

Here’s some more explanation from the Reuters account:

In a twist in the law, the ministry will register as married any Israeli couple that weds abroad — even in a non-religious ceremony — outside the purview of the Israeli rabbinate.

Some couples hop on the short flight to Cyprus to marry. The Czech Republic is another popular destination for Israelis wanting a civil wedding.

[Secular Pilates instructor Stav] Sharon and her husband decided against that option. “Marrying abroad means giving in. We wanted to marry in our own country,” she said.

No formal records are kept on the officially invalid alternative ceremonies held in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 39,000 Jewish couples married via the Rabbinate in 2011. About 9,000 couples registered that year as having married overseas.

And, Reuters notes, there are entire other communities in Israel for whom an Orthodox-sanctioned marriage is just not possible:

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NYTimes: Mouseketeer-turned-Pagan-turned-Christian trip

One of the staples of evangelical Christianity — at least so far as I can remember — is the story of the spectacular sinner who found redemption, preferably on the “sawdust trail” of a tent revivalist’s “canvass cathedral.”

One of the more dramatic examples is the 1949 conversion of songwriter/actor Stuart Hamblen under the ministry of a then-very-young Billy Graham; Hamblen went on to write a gospel music staple, “It Is No Secret,” about that experience.

It is equally true — for those of us with a bit of experience in the evangelical realm — that sometimes these testimonies should be viewed with skepticism. Evangelicals, myself included, were entertained and impressed by “Christian comedian” Mike Warnke in the late 1970s and 1980, He regaled audiences with tales of his being a “high Satanist priest” and having later come to the light of faith in Jesus. Sadly, Warnke’s testimony was later challenged and shown to be suspect, at the very least, which is why we don’t see him much on TBN these days, although he still professes Christian belief, and has an independent ministry.

Both of these elements popped into my mind as The New York Times featured a former member of the “Mouseketeers of “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” which ran from 1989 to 1996 on the Disney Channel,” a cable outlet. Born and raised as Matt Morris, the onetime-Episcopalian embraced Paganism, with a capital “P,” and, “under a red moon” one night pledged fealty “to the unseen forces that guide my life.”

“Beliefs” columnist Mark Oppenheimer sets the ex-Mouseketeer tone here:

They’re an august alumni association. … Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake top the charts. Keri Russell was Felicity. Christina Aguilera stars with CeeLo Green on “The Voice.” Ryan Gosling starred with his own abs in “Crazy Stupid Love.”

But Teo Bishop, while keeping up a career in pop music, accomplished something less predictable and altogether curiouser. Beginning about three years ago, he began a rise to prominence in the Pagan community. Then, last month, he shocked the Pagan community by re-embracing Christianity.

“I’m overwhelmed with thoughts of Jesus,” Mr. Bishop wrote on Oct. 13, on his blog, Bishop in the Grove. “Jesus and God and Christianity and the Lord’s Prayer and compassion and forgiveness and hope. … I don’t know what to do with all of this.”

For American Pagans, Mr. Bishop’s defecting to a big, bad mainstream religion is bigger news than winning a Grammy, bigger than shooting a Vanity Fair cover. If you’re a Druid, a Wiccan or any of the nature-religion followers grouped under the label Pagan, you’re not talking about Britney, JT or Xtina. You’re talking Teo Bishop.

Bishop — he legally changed his name from Morris — found great success with the “Bishop in the Grove” blog, earning plaudits in the pagan (or is it still Pagan here?) community:

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