When siblings attack

BGEAI don’t want to let the week go without highlighting an amazing article from The Washington Post. Laura Sessions Stepp had truly amazing access to a few members of the Billy Graham family as they tried to work out a major family disagreement.

The piece is just a fascinating, if uncomfortable, look at sibling rivalry. Billy and Ruth Graham are advancing in years. And a battle is brewing over where they should be buried.

Ruth wants to be buried on a piece of property in the North Carolina mountains.

Their son Franklin wants them to buried at a new center designed to honor their memory. And Billy hasn’t made a decision. Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell visited the Grahams to describe what that burial site would be like:

The building, designed in part by consultants who used to work for the Walt Disney Co., is not a library, she says, but a large barn and silo — a reminder of Billy Graham’s early childhood on a dairy farm near Charlotte. Once it’s completed in the spring, visitors will pass through a 40-foot-high glass entry cut in the shape of a cross and be greeted by a mechanical talking cow. They will follow a path of straw through rooms full of multimedia exhibits. At the end of the tour, they will be pointed toward a stone walk, also in the shape of a cross, that leads to a garden where the bodies of Billy and Ruth Graham could lie.

Throughout the tour, there will be several opportunities for people to put their names on a mailing list.

“The whole purpose of this evangelistic experience is fundraising,” Cornwell says to Billy Graham. “I know who you are and you are not that place. It’s a mockery. People are going to laugh. Please don’t be buried there.”

Billy Graham’s eyes never leave Cornwell’s face as she talks. Ruth Graham sighs. A lot.

“It’s a circus,” Ruth says at one point, softly. “A tourist attraction.”

It’s a brutal and unseemly situation that is beautifully rendered by Sessions Stepp. Franklin Graham is the more overt bad guy in the scenario — he wants the talking cow after all. But brother Ned Graham doesn’t come off much better as ringleader of the opposing side — unless inviting The Washington Post into your private family battle is now considered okay.

Anyway, I just wanted to point it out as a fantastic read even if it’s sympathetic to one side of the battle. The Post put this story as its lead front-pager on Wednesday and let the reporter have enough words to lay it all out. I’m sure that something as salacious as controversy in the Graham family is worth a bit more ink.

Homosexuality in Colorado megachurches, take two

take twoThis week The Denver Post‘s Eric Gorski broke a story about a Colorado megachurch pastor resigning amid allegations of homosexual conduct. The congregation in question is, like Ted Haggard’s New Life Church, down the road from where I grew up.

Gorski was permitted to watch the videotaped resignation message that the Rev. Paul Barnes gave to Grace Chapel in Douglas County, just south of Denver. Gorski handled the story well, supplying the facts in a plain and straightforward manner:

[Associate pastor Dave] Palmer said the church got an anonymous call last week from a person concerned for the welfare of Barnes and the church. The caller had overheard a conversation in which someone mentioned “blowing the whistle” on evangelical preachers engaged in homosexuality, including Barnes, Palmer said.

Palmer met with Barnes, who confessed. At an emergency meeting Thursday, a board of elders accepted Barnes’ resignation after he admitted “sexual infidelity,” violating the church’s code of conduct. Church leaders also must affirm annually that they are “living the moral and ethical teachings of Scripture in my public and private life.”

A sidebar summarized the sermon Barnes gave in the aftermath of the Haggard scandal. A follow-up the next day highlights the big issues with an impressive economy of words:

Separated by a confession of sin, the Rev. Paul Barnes and leaders of his former church will reunite this week and plot the road ahead. Meanwhile, others ponder the broader implications of a second consecutive evangelical pastor toppled by a gay-sex scandal.

As soon as my Eric Gorski News Alert crossed my computer screen on Monday morning, I wondered if we’d see a raft of stories about the trend of gay evangelicals. In journalism there’s a joke that it usually takes three loose anecdotes before you can write a trend story. But it being the Year of the Gay in American newsrooms and all, and these two pastors being so geographically close, we saw a few stories already. Thankfully the reporters didn’t bite off more than they could chew.

Neela Banerjee’s gay evangelical piece for The New York Times was nicely written. She introduced various people who consider themselves both evangelical Christian and homosexual, using the Barnes and Haggard stories as a hook:

Gay evangelicals seem to have few paths carved out for them: they can leave religion behind; they can turn to theologically liberal congregations that often differ from the tradition they grew up in; or they can enter programs to try to change their behavior, even their orientation, through prayer and support.

freudlewisBanerjee’s article focuses on individuals who want to embrace both homosexuality and evangelical Christianity. But I want to highlight a point from the excerpted paragraph for other reporters covering these stories. While programs that aim to change homosexual behavior are regularly criticized, do most reporters realize that changing personal behavior is a central component of most Christians’ lives? Yes, I know that our popular culture seems to believe that all sex — including homosexual sex — is good sex, but many Christians disagree. They deal with sexual behavioral modification on a regular basis. When looked at as part of the Christian ideal of sanctification, attempts to modify behavior — even for something as fundamental as sexuality — are par for the course. I think reporters could do a better job of explaining this.

Reporters would also do well to touch on the Christian notion of chastity. In discussing Banerjee’s piece, Rod Dreher linked to a provocative article written by David Morrison, a gay activist who converted to Christianity. He found a church that welcomed him with open arms and spoke quite strongly against his sexuality. Stories like Morrison’s also deserve to be told.

On the topic of how congregations that oppose homosexuality respond to homosexuals, Banerjee had a follow-up that probably needed a bit more room to breathe so that a bunch of quotes weren’t just piled on top of each other. The piece asks whether the Haggard and Barnes situations will lead to greater compassion among evangelicals for homosexuals. One line in particular, quoting preacher and sociologist Tony Campolo, caught my attention:

Dr. Campolo said that many evangelicals, influenced by Christian radio, had come to believe that homosexuality was largely a choice and that homosexuals “choose to be evil.”

Others, he said, subscribe to theories, now discredited by psychologists, that men become gay because they had a domineering mother or were victims of sexual abuse as children.

That last line is just unfair. If you put two academics in a room, you end up with three opinions. Even if magically there is some sort of unanimous groupthink in psychology, pitting evangelicals against seemingly above-the-fray academics — again — is just weaselly. If Banerjee wants to substantiate the “now discredited by psychologists” line, great. Even so, I doubt these unnamed evangelicals disparaged here would agree that they are irrational and hold indefensible views. I think we could probably do a better job characterizing opposing arguments.

The New York Times and the First Amendment, again

Local prisonThe New York Times’ Diana Henriques filed the latest installment for her series examining, as she says, how religious organizations benefit from an increasingly accommodating government. You may recall we took a look at the first four parts in October.

The first story, weighing in at almost 5,000 words, focused on regulatory exemptions for religious organizations that run social services. The second focused on rights of employees at religious organizations. The third installment was about revenue bond financing for religious groups. Part four was about the tax-exemption bounty that awaits members of the clergy.

The latest story is about an evangelical Christian program run at a prison in Iowa. It’s a very interesting and substantial story. She begins with a few evocative paragraphs:

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program — which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time — says on its Web site that it seeks “to ‘cure’ prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems” and showing inmates “how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past.”

The story mentions one inmate — a Roman Catholic — who left the program because he felt it was hostile to his faith. Unfortunately, Henriques is so focused on her government accommodation angle that this is the only prisoner story mentioned.

The program was found unconstitutional and the group is required to repay more than $1.5 million in government funds, although the ruling has been appealed. Let me just say I completely agree with Henriques that government funding of religious programs is unconstitutional. But there’s the rub. Henriques’ stories are a bit heavy on the advocacy. We discussed some of the problems with that approach in the previous set of stories. It’s not so much of a problem in this story, but I think it affects how well she fleshes out the views of people who support taxpayer-funded religious activity:

Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the Iowa decision was unfair to the ministry and reflects an “overreaching” at odds with legal developments that increasingly “show favor to religion in the public square.”

And while he acknowledged the need for vigilance, he said he did not think the constitutional risks outweighed the benefits of inviting “faith-infused” ministries, like the one in Iowa, to provide government-financed services to “people of faith who seek to be served in this ‘full-person’ concept.”

Why not include the story of one of the inmates who felt he benefited from the program? As much as I detest the idea that my hard-earned money goes to inculcate religious views with which I disagree vehemently, I’m sure there are stories out there. And it would provide some much-needed balance.

But somehow I’m being too critical of a fantastic and well-researched story. In many ways, I think this one was the best of the series. She toned down some of the broad, unsubstantiated statements in earlier stories and explained the constitutional problems in a concise but thorough manner:

“The state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates,” Judge Pratt wrote. “There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates.”

And now I’m curious what other stories we’ll see in this series.

Attack of the confident headline writers

bellnhandSomehow we missed this when we discussed coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey. We discussed this Dec. 1 article from the Los Angeles Times’ Tracy Wilkinson.

But check out the headline for Wilkinson’s Dec. 2 story that ran on the front page of the paper:

Pontiff strikes right tone

I’m glad the employees of the Los Angeles Times believe there is no debate on this notion (scroll down to find the item in question).

Nope, the Pope just plainly struck the right tone in his visit. No one in the entire world could disagree with this theological and political opinion, right?

Pardon my French-Canadian

profanity mugI wish all newspapers had foreign correspondents. They’re such a throwback to pre-globalization, when you had to trust the eyes and ears of a lone fellow countryman in a far-off land.

Even though the Web has broken down many of the language, cultural and physical boundaries in the world, we still rely on them for their insightful analysis. And in exchange we get overly broad characterizations of complex societies. But what are you going to do?

Earlier this week Doug Struck, a Washington Post correspondent in Montreal, had a fascinating piece on Quebecois linguistics. Turns out that the terminology of choice when expressing profanity is religious:

English-speaking Canadians use profanities that would be well understood in the United States, many of them scatological or sexual terms. But the Quebecois prefer to turn to religion when they are mad. They adopt commonplace Catholic terms — and often creative permutations of them — for swearing.

In doing so, their oaths speak volumes about the history of this French province.

“When you get mad, you look for words that attack what represses you,” said Louise Lamarre, a Montreal cinematographer who must tread lightly around the language, depending on whether her films are in French or English. “In America, you are so Puritan that the swearing is mostly about sex. Here, since we were repressed so long by the church, people use religious terms.”

The story is fascinating, if you can stomach many quotes from people like Lamarre. One linguistics professor says taboo words relate to Christ, Communion wafers, vestments and elements of the altar. It all ties back to oppression from the Roman Catholic church, the article says.

The Catholic Church was overwhelmingly dominant in Quebec from early in the province’s history — England’s King George III gave the French Catholic clergy enormous power in 1774, in part to counter the growing American insurgency to the south. In the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, Quebecers rebelled. They “just stopped going to church one Sunday,” as Lamarre put it.

It’s a great idea for an article, and nicely written. But for those of us who are ignorant of Quebec’s history, a bit more perspective is in order. Let’s throw in a few more sources as well. I’ve heard of the Quiet Revolution, but I could use a few quick words on what exactly is the nature of the rift between the church and the Quebecois.

To pray or not to pray

hagia sophiaStories filed at the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey highlighted his visit to — and prayer inside — a Muslim mosque. That’s a good thing, since it’s very newsworthy when a leader of the Christian religion worships or prays in a place of worship for non-Christians.

I was going to highlight various stories from the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, and Reuters this weekend, but other events got in the way.

I thought most of the stories did a great job of accurately representing the facts of the pope’s visits to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque across the street. And most of the stories even did a good job of highlighting the significance to Muslims of the prayer inside the mosque, facing Mecca. And the significance to Muslims of his failure to pray inside the Hagia Sophia was fleshed out, as evidenced by this section from the Los Angeles Times‘ Tracy Wilkinson:

The pope avoided potential controversy in a visit to the Hagia Sophia, an imposing structure built in the 6th century as a Byzantine church and converted to a mosque in the 15th century by Ottoman sultans. The rigidly secular forces that formed modern Turkey in the early 20th century turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum, one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist destinations where public displays of worship are banned.

The mere suggestion that the pope might pray there had enraged Turkish nationalists. When the late Pope Paul VI came to Istanbul in 1967, he knelt to pray in the Hagia Sophia, touching off protests by extremists who were convinced that he was trying to reassert Christian jurisdiction over the site.

Benedict visited the vast museum of domes and minarets, an incongruous combination of Muslim and Christian features, in more restrained fashion. He refrained from any overt religious gestures and instead listened to explanations from his host, Istanbul Governor Muammer Guler.

What was lacking, in my view, was a look at the significance of each visit for Christians. Members of the Catholic blogosphere were expressing disappointment or support for the pope’s decisions, but the mainstream media coverage didn’t seem to pick up on it. To that end, I was pleasantly surprised to see a nicely written piece of in-depth analysis from The New York Times’ Ian Fisher. He covered the story all week before providing a lookback on Sunday:

Has the pope gone wobbly?

The question might matter less if he weren’t the man he is — and if the images of his facing Mecca in prayer on his trip to Turkey weren’t fresh. Supporters have long depended on Benedict XVI for brave talk, even and maybe especially if it was unpleasant to hear. But his was never mere blunt confrontation. With his big brain and the heft of Roman Catholic tradition behind him, Benedict has stood for a remarkably clear idea: there is truth, and we won’t retreat from it.

blue mosqueThe piece covers varying views from Catholics and puts it all in the context of what the Turkey visit indicates about what kind of papacy Benedict will have. It’s got more attitude than a typical mainstream media piece, but it balances everything out nicely and is remarkably fair and sympathetic to Benedict’s new tone. While it’s an op-ed, another piece worth checking out ran in today’s Los Angeles Times. Raymond Ibrahim, a research librarian at the Library of Congress, finds more than a few fascinating aspects to the trip:

In the days before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit last Thursday to the Hagia Sophia complex in Istanbul, Muslims and Turks expressed fear, apprehension and rage. “The risk,” according to Turkey’s independent newspaper Vatan, “is that Benedict will send Turkey’s Muslims and much of the Islamic world into paroxysms of fury if there is any perception that the pope is trying to re-appropriate a Christian center that fell to Muslims.” Apparently making the sign of the cross or any other gesture of Christian worship in Hagia Sophia constitutes such a sacrilege.

Built in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia — Greek for “Holy Wisdom” — was Christendom’s greatest and most celebrated church. After parrying centuries of jihadi thrusts from Arabs, Constantinople — now Istanbul — was finally sacked by Turks in 1453, and Hagia Sophia’s crosses were desecrated, its icons defaced. Along with thousands of other churches in the Byzantine Empire, it was immediately converted into a mosque, the tall minarets of Islam surrounding it in triumph. Nearly 500 years later, in 1935, as part of reformer Kemal Ataturk’s drive to modernize Turkey, Hagia Sophia was secularized and transformed into a museum.

The piece, using rather strong language, argues against providing Muslims with special treatment. Whether or not you agree with the argument, it’s worth asking whether reporters implicitly did just that by focusing on the Muslim reaction to Benedict’s trip while largely ignoring the Christian reaction.

Reflecting local religious flavor

crab cake Most people are familiar with two of Christianity’s holiest days — Christmas and Easter. But those are just two of many holy days, or holidays, celebrated by Christians who follow a liturgical calendar. And the calendar has seasons that lead up to the high festivals.

Even people who have sung “The 12 Days Christmas” hundreds of times don’t think of Christmas time as comprising two distinct liturgical periods. Until the 12-day festival of Christmas arrives, the four weeks prior are Advent in the Western Church, which mark a solemn time of prayer and preparation for Christmas. The season begins in mid-November for the Eastern Church and is called Christmas Lent.

I like watching for stories that talk about what it’s like to celebrate the holy days of the season as a liturgical Christian, so I was pleasantly surprised to find this one from Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

But Advent has another purpose that is at even greater odds with the office partying, extreme shopping, egg-nog-sipping customs that the month of December has come to represent. According to the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Advent “has a twofold character: It prepares for the commemoration of the Incarnation … and it looks forward to Christ’s second coming at the end of time.” Pastors say that second message is even harder to push through the wall of commercialism that Christmas in America has become.

The first part of Townsend’s story quotes extensively from St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke’s written column and a previous homily on Advent. He also speaks with a theology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati and pastors at Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Methodist parishes. And that’s wonderful. But it made me realize that I rarely see any Missouri-Synod Lutherans in Townsend’s pieces. In fact, the last time I remember a piece about my brand of Lutherans was when our Synodical President faced an election challenge two and a half years ago. Ths could be an oversight of my newscrawling capabilities, to be sure.

But the reason it’s interesting is not because Missouri Synod Lutherans are one of the largest Protestant church bodies in the United States; it’s that they are headquartered in St. Louis. So I hope Townsend is spending time digging into the stories that are happening in his backyard. But I am completely compromised on this topic.

Let’s look at another example of a local news site and its relationship to the local religious scene. Recently The Washington Post started a religion blog called On Faith. The “conversation on religion,” hosted by Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, is still getting started.

So far, 75 panelists take part in the conversations. By my rough count, you have a dozen Muslim experts or adherents, almost the same number of Jewish scholars, eight Anglicans, eight Roman Catholics, and several Baptists and evangelicals. This is based on my interpretation of their biographies, so I could be wrongly ascribing a religious view to panelists. A Latter-day Saint, Native American spiritualist, Wiccan practitioner, Hindu, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran and Baptist round out the discussion.

Why not include someone from the Seventh-day Adventist church, whose world headquarters are in Silver Spring, Maryland? It sure couldn’t hurt. Leaving them out would be like the Post neglecting to mention crab cakes in a regional food review. Any other suggestions for missing voices on that site?

War on Christmas? Nein!

grinch 01I hope I’m not jinxing anything by asking this, but do you think we may be witnessing less “War on Christmas” media hype this year? It seemed the story was escalating annually, but I think we may have a reprieve this year.

Not that there haven’t been stories. Some genius Chicago officials created the first major entry into the annual rite, as reported by the Chicago Tribune‘s Emma Graves Fitzsimmons:

A Nativity display has a spot at this year’s holiday celebrations in Daley Plaza. So does an Islamic crescent and a Jewish menorah.

But clips from a film celebrating the birth of baby Jesus are too much for the Christkindlmarket, a Christmas festival held at the plaza for more than 10 years.

The story is fairly representative of how most media outlets are handling the issue. (And thanks to all the readers who passed coverage of this story along.) The facts are being reported in a straightforward manner, with analysis provided by various religious and political representatives.

At first city officials said they banned The Nativity Story from sponsorship because it might offend people who aren’t Christian, but then they completely changed their story. The new version is that they objected to the film because it was too commercial. And that apparently conflicted with the, uh, commercial nature of the marketplace. Fitzsimmons did a good job of following up on the city officials’ latest excuse:

Other sponsors include the Hard Rock Hotel, Mercedes-Benz and Lufthansa airline. But while they, too, are commercial enterprises, their presence at the festival is more muted, city officials said.

The film studio was stunned by the news that the festival didn’t want its $12,000.

“We don’t understand why our sponsorship would be rejected for religious reasons, particularly considering the fact that our film details the story that inspired the holiday season that the Christkindlmarket was created to celebrate,” New Line Cinema spokesman Robert Pini said in a statement.

Just a good and interesting story. In the few minutes since I started writing this post, another Christmas War story came across my screen. I think I really might have jinxed this. The Associated Press reports on a situation out of Vienna:

St. Nick, nein! A ban on St. Nicholas at Vienna’s kindergartens is taking some of the ho-ho-ho out of the holidays for tens of thousands of tots this year. And it’s creating a political ruckus, with opposition parties accusing City Hall of kowtowing to a growing Muslim population by showing Europe’s Santa the kindergarten door.

I love all the information packed into the opening graph. And written in such a lively manner. I can only assume the writer’s jaunty prose is an attempt to make what has now become a mundane story a bit more interesting.