An annual Easter story

davincicodeA few days ago I noted that we’ve seen relatively few examples of that mainstream media Holy Week tradition of showcasing stories designed to question the work of Christ. But a reader passed along a story that’s the opposite. Associated Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll highlighted the practice:

It’s a predictable part of the Easter season: The period of reflection on the Crucifixion and Resurrection has become a popular time for marketers to roll out works — from the scholarly to the sensational — that challenge Christianity’s core beliefs.

In the last several years, churchgoers have been hit with a steady stream of claims that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, that he had a wife and kids, and that the Bible is a fraud.

Zoll speaks with Christians who are angered by the trend. They don’t oppose questioning but the timing and the lack of context, she finds. She mentions James Cameron’s Lost Tomb of Jesus and allegations about Jesus being married and having a son. Zoll properly says the documentary was unveiled during Lent. She also goes to great lengths to explain Lent, Holy Week and Easter. That’s why I wonder if it wasn’t an editing change on the first line of the piece that says the Easter season is the period of reflection on the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.

Anyway, Zoll points out that the annual claims about Christ never seem to stick but that they are still accepted by the general culture. She also explains why filmmakers and publishers hawk their wares during the Lenten season.

New Testament scholars and archeologists say that, the more outlandish the claims, the bigger the sales — which increases demand for ideas from the fringe. They are being presented to a public with little knowledge of early Christianity reading unfiltered information on the Internet, experts say. . . .

“We live in a Jesus-haunted culture that’s biblically illiterate,” [Ben] Witherington [, a New Testament expert at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of What Have They Done With Jesus?] said. “Everybody knows who Jesus is. But the actual knowledge about early Christian history and the Bible is very low in the culture and even large segments of the church. In that situation, anything can pass for knowledge about the historical Jesus, even wildly improbable theories.”

Even if we did have a relatively light year for such stories, Zoll’s analysis of the annual practice is a welcome deviation during this part of the year.

The importance of three days

cranachaltarpieceI was thinking I might note how we’ve seen relatively few examples of that mainstream media Holy Week tradition of showcasing stories designed to question the work of Christ. But it’s only Thursday.

Instead let’s look at this story from MSNBC about Iran releasing British hostages:

LONDON — Iran on Wednesday freed the 15 detained British sailors and marines in what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called an Easter gift to the British people. Prime Minister Tony Blair said he bore “no ill will” toward the Iranian people.

An Easter gift! I wonder if Ahmadinejad knows that Britons aren’t religious anymore. (I kid.) Let’s look at precisely what Ahmadinejad said, also in the story:

Ahmadinejad said he had pardoned the sailors as a gift to the British people and to mark the birthday of Islam’s Prophet Muhammed and Easter.

“On the occasion of the birthday of the great prophet (Muhammad) … and for the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people — with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial — forgave those 15,” he said, referring to the Muslim prophet’s birthday last Saturday and Easter, next Sunday.

Okay, MSNBC, Easter is Sunday. That is true. In both East and West this year, no less. But the passing of Christ? That’s not what Easter commemorates. Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ. The passing of Christ? We mark that on Good Friday.

Rosie O’Donnell may trust Ahmadinejad more than the British or U.S. governments. And that’s scary. But what does it say that we have to trust Ahmadinejad more than mainstream media to get the liturgical calendar right?

Also, because this is one of my favorite pieces of art (along with this one, oddly enough), I’ll mention that the crucifixion altarpiece pictured was done by Lucas Cranach the Elder and completed by his son Lucas in 1555. Christ is pictured both trampling on death and Satan, and crucified with blood flowing directly from his wounds to John the Baptist, Cranach himself and Martin Luther.

Being of one substance with the Father

Daredevil Redemption MormonPeggy Fletcher Stack, The Salt Lake Tribune‘s wonderful and longtime religion reporter, has had a rather busy week.

The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints held its 177th Annual General Conference. These meetings are held for instruction of all members, to conduct special church business and respond to special needs. She wrote great stories about the all-male priesthood session and the rededication of the impressive Tabernacle, which had been closed for upgrades. The Tribune has a multimedia gallery for people who are interested in seeing more.

My wonderful Mormon in-laws were in Salt Lake last week and followed and enjoyed the goings-on. I try to keep abreast of what’s going on with the LDS church, and Fletcher Stack’s coverage is the best way to do that. She covers other religions and denominations in Utah well, too.

Her story wrapping up the conference was the most interesting:

Mormon beliefs about God and Jesus Christ make them Christians, no matter what critics say.

This was the message repeated by several speakers on Sunday at the 177th annual LDS General Conference, held in the 21,000-seat Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City and beamed via satellite to Mormon chapels across the globe.

Finally! A story that gets into doctrinal questions illuminating the debate over whether Mormons are Christian! It is my personal and professional experience that this question — whether or not Mormons are Christian — is one of the most important for Mormons. My in-laws and most other Mormon friends I have get very upset at the notion that they might not be considered Christian.

Much of the story deals with speeches about how to live better lives and more closely follow Mormon ordinances — a key factor in the Mormon understanding of salvation. But here we get back to the lede:

Among the day’s sermons, the “we are Christians, too” mantra stood out. It may have been prompted, in part, by the recent distribution of an anti-Mormon DVD produced by evangelical Christians or by some of the harsh statements about LDS theology made in the context of Mitt Romney’s campaign for president.

During the morning session, Hinckley said he found the Nicene Creed, a statement from 325 A.D. about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ that most Christians accept, to be “confusing.”

The LDS Church relies instead on the personal experience of founder Joseph Smith, who claimed to have a vision of God and Jesus in 1820.

“He knelt in their presence; he heard their voices; and he responded,” [President Gordon B.] Hinckley said. “Each was a distinct personality.”

God is a “being, real and individual. He is the great governor of the universe, yet, he is our father, and we are his children. . . . Jesus is the living Christ. He is the Jehovah of the Old Testament and the Messiah of the New.”

Apostle M. Russell Ballard added that he believes the Book of Mormon does not contradict the Bible in any way. As a piece of reporting, the story is great and provides a nice summary for those who could not watch or attend the conference.

But while the story mentions critics of Mormon doctrine in the first sentence, it doesn’t engage any critics or address specific criticisms to help the reader compare views or understand what the debate is over. I was so excited to read a story about Mormon response to criticisms that they are not Christian, but I was left disappointed. Again, this was spot reportage requiring a quick turnaround for a story, so I don’t mean to be too critical. But I’m just really looking forward to a story with more context.

To wit, very few Christian churches — none that I know of — accept Mormon baptisms as valid. Usually the Christian churches say they don’t consider Mormons Christian or accept their baptisms because of a different understanding of the Triune God.

A core doctrine of the historical Christian faith is the Trinity — that there is one God in three persons. This is articulated in the “confusing” Nicene Creed mentioned by Hinckley, drafted in 325. It describes God in three persons. The subject line for this post is taken from what we say in my church in the Jesus portion of the creed.

Mormons believe in a Godhead of three separate beings who are united in purpose. They also use the word Trinity to describe this. Here’s how the BBC characterizes Mormon doctrine about the nature of God:

Mormons believe that:

  • God is an exalted, perfected man
  • God has a physical body
  • There is more than one God
  • Human beings have the potential to become like God . . .
    Mormons believe that:

  • Jesus Christ is the first-born spirit child of God
  • Jesus Christ assisted God the Father at the Creation
  • He was known as Jehovah to the people of the Old Testament
  • He was the literal, biological Son of God, and of Mary . . .

I think clarification on only one of the items listed by the BBC is in order. Mormon Jeff Lindsay defends the belief in more than one God — both in the Mormon understanding of the Trinity as well as with regard to other deities — as solidly Christian on his site here.

So often stories that mention the debate over whether Mormons are Christian seem to view the topic in the most non-religious terms possible. They view the issue as one of self-determination (people and groups should be able to identify themselves using their own understanding) or think of the descriptor “Christian” as a kind word that polite people should use with each other. I love that Fletcher Stack identifies the debate as a doctrinal one. That’s a good step.

Anyway, both Mormons and non-Mormons in the Christian faith agree that they have very different understandings of the nature of God. And while I concede that it’s a difficult story to cover on account of both groups using the same words to describe concepts that are different, I hope Fletcher Stack — or some other reporter who really gets Mormonism as well as she does — will write a story explaining this divide with more context.

NOTE: This is not a forum to debate doctrine but, rather, a forum to discuss media treatment of religious issues. Should you wish to debate doctrine, please find another venue. I will delete all comments that stray from the purpose of the site.

He who is without sin

ejectbuttonIt seems to me that the only crime for which there is no forgiveness in our society is child molestation. It is certainly horrible to assault a helpless child, and I’m glad that the practice is shunned. The desire to protect children from any and all harm is understandable and hard to disagree with (though this op-ed in Newsweek shows how the desire to protect children from harm can be overdone).

But when I consider the shunning from the perspective of the child molester, I wonder how they’re able to even try to get better. Their picture, name and address are publicly available for all people to investigate. They have limitations on where they can live. They live in a society that tends to think improvement in this area is impossible, or only possible through castration and complete abstention from all contact with children.

So I’ve been fascinated by a recent spate of stories about how churches should receive or treat child molesters in their midst. Presumably child molesters have always been members of congregations — but members may not have realized it.

The most prominent story — and the one with the best coverage — has been in a San Diego United Church of Christ congregation. Many of the stories I’ve read have covered the internal strife caused by the revelation that a sex offender wants to join a congregation. But few have really analyzed the religious perspectives of the various sides in the conflict.

Here’s how Sandi Dolbee of The San Diego Union-Tribune began her March 14 story:

On a Sunday morning in late January, the Rev. Madison Shockley reminded his congregation at Pilgrim United Church of Christ of the New Testament story in which Jesus stops a crowd from stoning an adulterer.

Whoever is without sin should throw the next stone, Jesus tells the people, and the crowd disperses.

Then Shockley introduced Mark Pliska, who had been attending the Carlsbad church for a few weeks. Pliska told the crowd his story, that he was a convicted child molester.

Dolbee goes on to explain that the revelation produced a debate about safety and inclusiveness. Many of the members had, sadly, been abused as children. Pliska was disinvited from the congregation until they could figure out how to handle the issue over the long term. A non-member associated with the church’s preschool launched a vigorous campaign against Pliska’s participation in the congregation.

Dolbee provides great insight, speaking with a few experts on the topic of sex offenders and congregational life. Both provide very helpful information on what a congregation must know when dealing with known sex offenders. I only wish that the theological views of people who disagree with the pastor had been included. I’m very curious to know what their theological reasoning is, and none of the stories I’ve read have really fleshed that out. I’m not confused by their instinctual reaction or desire to protect their children — I just want to know more about how their Christianity factors into their decision to oppose membership for a sex offender.

Dolbee followed up the story with another big piece on March 25. She speaks with two members who were abused as children and finds they have very different attitudes about how to treat the sex offender. A 44-year-old mother of a young child doesn’t even want Pliska looking at pictures of families that are posted in the hallway. But a member who was abused by a priest is on a team of people working with the sex offender while the congregation spends months deciding whether he may attend.

In this and the previous story, the reporter speaks with other congregations’ leaders about how they would handle the situation. She also interviews local clergy to get their take. I found their thoughts illuminating:

Bishop George McKinney of St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ in San Diego’s Valencia Park neighborhood, said he has had sex offenders in his congregation in the past, though he doesn’t know whether he has any now.

“We simply believe that the church is a hospital,” McKinney said.

Others are hesitant.

“You would hope that everything would all just work out fine and dandy,” said the Rev. Art Lyons, a longtime leader in jail ministry and a pastor at Canyon Community Church in Chula Vista. “But I think, realistically, it’s really a hard thing for people to get their emotions around, to have a convicted child molester or pedophile in a congregation where their children are around.”

It also would be a troubling request for Rabbi Scott Meltzer of Ohr Shalom Synagogue near Balboa Park.

“It is one of those crimes where the numbers and the issues around rehabilitation are really abysmal and disturbing,” Meltzer said.

“With a heavy heart, I don’t think I would be comfortable with a registered sex offender being able to participate actively within our congregation.”

UCCadvertisement 02She actually speaks with a bunch of Christian pastors, though I didn’t excerpt all of them. The Christians cover a certain range of views on the matter, but it’s interesting that she speaks with a rabbi, too. It makes the lack of theological explanation even more problematic since Jews and Christians presumably would have different theological approaches to the matter.

Dolbee also shares a story about a pastor who was told about a sex offender in the congregation. He gave the offender rules about contact with children — rules the molester repeatedly flouted. The pastor says he bets there are molesters in every congregation.

I guess that’s why I find this story so interesting. I assume that my fellow congregants are like me: we all have a lot of very dark and secret sins that we’re glad are not out in the open. I assume that each person has their own struggle but that the struggle is serious and profound. Maybe that’s why I wish some of these stories — though the ones I highlighted were far and away the best — had a bit more perspective on the general theological approach to sin.

Another note about the stories — all the reporters keep pointing out that Pilgrim United Church of Christ is a liberal and progressive congregation that is surprised to be dealing with an exclusionary debate. I follow this church body quite a bit because my mother was baptized and confirmed at UCC churches. Nearly her entire family has since left in the last four decades, but I still think fondly on what the church meant to my family and keep track of the various goings on therein.

But isn’t the point of the United Church of Christ’s stance on various issues that its theological progressivism means it doesn’t consider certain things sin? Remember its “pew ejector” ad campaigns that criticized other churches for condemning certain behaviors as sinful? It implied that other churches were racist and networks refused to run it on the grounds it engaged in advocacy — as opposed to other advertisements?

Anyway, when the UCC proclaims that it welcomes homosexuals, that’s not because it considers homosexuality sinful but want homosexuals to feel welcome in UCC congregations. On the contrary, the UCC doesn’t consider homosexuality sinful at all.

So this story about sex molesters is different. The sex molesters are not only considered sinful by some congregants — but perpetually and possibly irretrievably so. That’s a completely different enchilada. So I’m not sure if reporters are properly juxtaposing this against the UCC’s progressivism. Rather it might be interesting to highlight, again, the UCC’s stance on what qualifies as sinful behavior and how congregations should treat such sinfulness.

They’ll know we are Christians by Dobson’s love

dobsonU.S. News & World Report senior editor Dan Gilgoff received an interesting phone call yesterday. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson called him to chat about prospective presidential candidates, including former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson:

“Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for,” Dobson said of Thompson. “[But] I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least that’s my impression,” Dobson added, saying that such an impression would make it difficult for Thompson to connect with the Republican Party’s conservative Christian base and win the GOP nomination.

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Thompson, took issue with Dobson’s characterization of the former Tennessee senator. “Thompson is indeed a Christian,” he said. “He was baptized into the Church of Christ.”

In a follow-up phone conversation, Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger stood by Dobson’s claim. He said that, while Dobson didn’t believe Thompson to be a member of a non-Christian faith, Dobson nevertheless “has never known Thompson to be a committed Christian — someone who talks openly about his faith.”

“We use that word — Christian — to refer to people who are evangelical Christians,” Schneeberger added. “Dr. Dobson wasn’t expressing a personal opinion about his reaction to a Thompson candidacy; he was trying to ‘read the tea leaves’ about such a possibility.”

The follow-up conversation helps illuminate Dobson’s statement. I also think it’s worth highlighting that what we’re seeing here are classic distinctions in how various Protestants define Christian.

Whether they admit it or not, many Americans adopt a view similar to that held by Dobson: Christianity is mainly about behavior and feelings. Christians of all stripes — as well as folks who don’t define themselves as religious — tend to judge Christians’ fidelity to their faith (and adherents of other religions) by their actions. Many of them incorporate personal testimonies into the equation as a means of speaking to behavioral change or a change of feelings. I bet that many readers are nodding their head and saying, “And what’s the big deal about this?”

Well, this view is extremely different from that held by other believers, myself included. In my church body we don’t really speak of personal behaviors or statements — as Dobson seems to have done — to determine someone’s religious status. Instead we point to whether they’ve been baptized.

Now I’m aware that this is a very contentious issue and ours is not the place to debate which view is correct. And I’m fully aware I’m giving short shrift to the theological issues. I just think it’s interesting to see the two views so succinctly highlighted in a mainstream media article.

Look again. Dobson says he doesn’t get the “impression” that Thompson is Christian and that he hasn’t known him to be “committed” or talk “openly about his faith.” Thompson’s response? His spokesman points to his baptism. I think Gilgoff has written enough about evangelicals and other religious folks to see the difference and it’s good for other reporters to note the distinction as well.

I commend Gilgoff for calling back for clarification about the matter. I’m thinking we may get further clarification about whether Dobson and his kind think only evangelicals are Christian but it’s clear that Gilgoff knew he needed to get a better picture than the one unveiled in the first phone call.

And Gilgoff worked hard to point out that Dobson was talking about earthly prospects more than heavenly ones. Gilgoff says Dobson was referring to whether Thomspon’s religious views would help him in securing a nomination. I think it would have been easy for Gilgoff to turn this into a religious referendum. While he certainly led the story with the juicy parts, he provided good context, I think.

Here’s how he described the circumstances of the interview with Dobson:

Dobson’s phone call to U.S. News senior editor Dan Gilgoff Tuesday was unsolicited. It marked Gilgoff’s first discussion with Dobson in over two years, since the magazine’s political writer began work on The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War, published this month by St. Martin’s Press. Dobson had agreed to answer only written questions for the book.

I’m not more interested in how this interview between reporter and source came about than I am about other interviews. I mean, I would love it if reporters routinely explained how they came across each person to interview in a story. “I called Jerry Falwell because I wanted spice up a boring story,” or “Rather than find out the views of actual proponents of initiative X, I went with people I already knew who I felt confident would return my phone call within a half hour,” or “I only interviewed people present at the press conference,” etc. Heck, I’m thinking such a rule should be required for all stories featuring Marshall Wittman, Larry Sabato and Norm Ornstein.

But why is Gilgoff writing about himself in the third person? It’s so Bob Dole! The disclosure is obviously necessary, but was this the only way to handle it? I also think it could have been a bit more clear. He calls himself both the senior editor and political writer for the magazine, for instance. But way to pitch your own book in your own story! I kid. Gilgoff is a talented reporter and writer, so I’m looking forward to hearing more about the book.

Video helps the radio star

this american lifeMy husband and I watched This American Life on the television the other night. I had mixed feelings since I believe with all my heart that the radio show can’t be topped. That, and I love radio in general and am extremely resistant to change. I still listen to music on the record player while my husband stores all his music on his hard drive.

I came across a fantastic interview of Ira Glass, the show’s host, in Forward. The profile, by Beth Schwartzapfel, is very well written. Here’s how she describes the radio show:

For one hour each week, “This American Life” tells true stories about everyday Americans; the show’s Web site describes them as “movies for radio.” The stories are organized loosely around a theme — recent ones have included “Quiz Show” and “Houses of Ill Repute” — and manage to locate drama, humor, joy and sorrow in such unlikely places that listeners can’t help but fall in love with the elderly Brooklyn man whose house has become a haven for homeless prostitutes, or with the building superintendent who was part of a Brazilian death squad.

So true! The interview focuses on the benefits of radio over television, and Glass says radio’s invisibility of radio is part of what gives it numinous power. Schwartzapfel asked interesting questions. One of the first stories on the television series is about an atheist who poses as Jesus for a series of paintings. She asks if Jesus stories lend themselves well to television because of the iconography. She goes on to ask about Jewish stories:

Christians are actually, to me, anyway, as a Jew, much more interesting in America. And weirdly, much more misunderstood. Evangelical Christians are the most incompetently portrayed group in America, in TV, in fiction, in the news. When Christians say that the media gets them wrong, Christians are absolutely right. Christian life in this country is really horribly documented, and way more interesting than is done. Generally, in the media, very religious Christians are portrayed as hardheaded doctrinaire knuckleheads. But in fact, from my experience, the most religious Christians I know tend to be incredibly thoughtful, complicated, generous to a fault, very principled and not knuckleheads. Actually, they’re sort of weirdly the opposite of the stereotype, and that includes people from the hardcore fundamentalist faiths.

I am so thankful to have interviewers such as Ira Glass. I only wish that there were more people with his listening aesthetic in the journalism field. It’s so easy for reporers to rely on stereotypes and portray people in a negative light. It’s honestly just easier when you’re working on tight deadlines and with difficult stories. But for years Glass has shown the benefit of working hard, moving beyond stereotypes, and showing the complicated nature of people.

This is why the altar guild gets paid the big bucks

scissor sisters2The Episcopal Church sure generates a lot of news stories. The latest came after the vestry of Colorado’s largest Episcopal parish voted to leave and join the Church of Nigeria’s North American mission. Associated Press reporter Colleen Slevin had a straightforward story about the move, which didn’t make the Colorado bishop very happy:

Bishop Robert O’Neill rejected the church’s move, dismissing the local leaders and saying the Colorado Springs parish would remain part of the Episcopal Church.

”The fact is people may leave the Episcopal Church but parishes cannot,” O’Neill said in a statement.

The church’s longtime rector, the Rev. Donald Armstrong III, who was suspended late last year, said O’Neill no longer has jurisdiction over the parish.

”He doesn’t have an army. The courts will not interfere in an internal church dispute and the congregation is solidly behind us,” Armstrong said.

Drama! Armstrong’s suspension was a major story in itself. Paul Asay of the Colorado Springs Gazette had a great story a few weeks ago about some parishioners being so angry over the suspension that they had stopped tithing. I wish we could highlight more of Asay’s stories. He mentions that the details of the bishop’s investigation weren’t shared with the congregation. What’s more, a laptop with the giving records of all the parishioners was stolen from the diocese’s accountant. This reminds me of the time my brother was treasurer of his congregation and had a computer glitch that caused annual giving statements to be delayed. I can honestly say I’ve never seen nice Lutherans angrier than the week they found out; the way they looked at my brother you’d think they were bookies and he was a degenerate who couldn’t cover the vig.

The lack of trust in the Colorado story probably stems from Armstrong’s being not just an average rector. He’s been an outspoken opponent of the Episcopal Church and is executive director and a collegial theologian of the Anglican Communion Institute. That group has been critical of Presiding Bishops Katharine Jefferts Schori and Frank Griswold. After the last General Convention, Armstrong backed a parish statement saying the convention had acted in a way to “further strain, and perhaps dissolve, the bonds of affection among the provinces of the Anglican Communion.” Prescient, that. Anyway, parishioners wonder if it was statements and views such as these that led the diocese to suspend the priest. Diocesan backers strongly disagree. But back to the matter at hand.

Senior warden Jon Wroblewski said the parish had fought for a return to orthodoxy within the denomination but has lost hope in reform.

”It’s clear that The Episcopal Church no longer believes in the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers. It’s also clear that purported Episcopal values of ‘inclusion’ do not apply to orthodox believers,” Wroblewski said in the statement.

You can go over to the Bible Belt Blogger to get parishioners’ perspective on why they left. Slevin even mentioned that these debates on salvation, truth and sexuality have been raging for decades.

st  john the divineThat leads me to mention a story from earlier in the week passed on by a few GetReligion readers. The mainstream media view of the Episcopal split has been focused on sex, as we’ve noted before. When the northern Virginian parishes left The Episcopal Church, many mainstream reporters focused on the views African primates have toward homosexuality. It was interesting to see the importance placed on that one topic at the expense of all the other views held by African primates or all of the other concerns of the renegade parishes.

So if it’s all about gay sex all the time, some readers wondered why the mainstream media wasn’t paying any attention at all to a particularly odd entry in the Episcopal sex wars.

It seems that Elton John celebrated his 60th birthday on Saturday night inside of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. This would be the same Elton John who just four months ago said he despised religion:

“I would ban religion completely,” he reportedly said, adding, “Organized religion doesn’t seem to work. It turns people into hateful lemmings, and it’s not really compassionate.”

Now maybe threats of religion-banning are not a big deal to some Episcopal churchgoers, but them are fighting words to others. I would love for a reporter to ask the folks who run St. John the Divine just what in the world they were thinking by having Sir Elton John rent the place out for a party. Maybe they could be asked what kind of message it sends to take money from someone who speaks out against you.

I didn’t see any mainstream papers covering it. The New York Post did, which included this tidbit about what took place on the altar during the bash:

The altar was set up as a stage for the performers, which included the trendy rock group Scissor Sisters, Sting and Paul McCartney.

Altar-performers Scissor Sisters are named — of course — for tribadism, a sex position between lesbians. The lead singer is pictured above. And for what it’s worth, to do a Google Images search for the band is to venture into a part of the Internet where it’s best not to roll down the window. Northern Virginia parishes are asked about every statement made by Peter Akinola in Nigeria. Maybe we could get a simple statement from the cathedral’s dean about whether he thinks there’s any problem with selling out the cathedral for altar performances and bacchanalias.

An open secret

PlygamynislamA few weeks ago we looked at some particularly good religious coverage of a polygamous Muslim family in the Bronx that suffered unimaginable loss in a housefire.

The polygamous nature of the family raised many questions that were inappropriate to address during the grieving period. But New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein issued a great follow-up last week with her story about widespread polygamy practiced by African Muslim immigrants to New York. How’s this for a beginning?:

She worked at the Red Lobster in Times Square and lived with her husband near Yankee Stadium. Yet one night, returning home from her job, Odine D. discovered that African custom, not American law, held sway over her marriage.

A strange woman was sitting in the living room, and Ms. D.’s husband, a security guard born in Ghana, introduced her as his other wife.

Devastated, Ms. D., a Guinean immigrant who insisted that her last name be withheld, said she protested: “I can’t live with the woman in my house — we have only two bedrooms.” Her husband cited Islamic precepts allowing a man to have up to four wives, and told her to get used to it. And she tried to obey.

The story is full of anecdotes of similarly anguished women, immigrants to America, who feel powerless to fight polygamy even though it’s outlawed in every state in the union. The author points out that polygamy is usually associated with splinter Mormon groups rather than immigrant families. Bernstein talks about how the law doesn’t deal with the practice, even social service agencies. Only one marriage is legal while the others are sealed in religious ceremonies overseas.

The story pushes the point that this is not about Islam so much as cultural mores. Both certainly play a role but it is interesting to note, above, how the woman credits Islamic precepts for her polygamous life while the reporter credits African custom. Here Bernstein comes right out with her take:

Islam is often cited as the authority that allows polygamy. But in Africa, the practice is a cultural tradition that crosses religious lines, while some Muslim lands elsewhere sharply restrict it. The Koran says a man should not take more than one wife if he cannot treat them all equally — a very high bar, many Muslims say.

There is no question that polygamous practice varies in Muslim lands. And yet there’s also no question that the Koran permits taking up to four wives. How that is interpreted is up to debate but the people interviewed for the story — such as Odine D. above — point to religion. Here’s another interviewee who also sees Islam as being integral to the practice:

“It’s difficult, but one accepts it because it’s our religion,” said Doussou Traore, 52, president of an association of Malian women in New York, who married an older man with two other wives who remain in Mali. “Our mothers accepted it. Our grandmothers accepted it. Why not us?”

The story shows the challenges of accepting polygamy in New York when it is part of such a misogynous way of life. In addition to genital mutiliation, the women profiled are kept in check through beatings and threats of divorce, according to Bernstein. Divorce would lead to them being shunned or losing their immigration status. Despite her seeming pooh-poohing of the religious facet of the practice, it’s worthwhile read with tons of first-hand information on a secretive practice.