Mennonite mania grips cycling fans

landisI spent last week with my brother, a huge Tour de France fan. He kept me updated on Floyd Landis, his favorite cyclist, who ended up winning the race a few days ago.

So Landis was winning heading into the 16th stage. But then he did very poorly in the Alps, losing his lead. During the 17th stage, he pulled way, way, way ahead of the peloton and almost regained the lead. Or something. I’m going based on my brother’s excited updates and my poor memory. Anyway, he ended up winning.

Well, where’s the religion angle, you ask? It’s everywhere. Every single story of Landis mentions his upbringing as a Mennonite. Here’s The New York Times yesterday:

Landis said he believed that aspects of his upbringing, in a strict Mennonite family in eastern Pennsylvania, with no television and many expectations about what constituted proper behavior, contributed to his rise to the top of his sport.

“I don’t pretend to know a lot about what’s going on in life most of the time,” he said. “But I had good parents who taught me that hard work and patience were some of the most important things in getting what you wanted. It took me a long time in my life to learn patience. But that and persistence, I think, is the lesson that even I learned from this race.”

Or check out this AP story:

FARMERSVILLE, Pa. — As Floyd Landis crossed the Tour de France finish line yesterday, his devout Mennonite parents were riding their own bicycles home from church.

Paul and Arlene Landis were so confident their son would win the cycling’s greatest race they didn’t have to choose between going to church and watching it on TV at a neighbour’s house.

“I’m glad we didn’t have to make that choice. Church is very important to us,” Arlene Landis said.

A reader sent along a few more substantive articles, if you’re interested. No matter what the article, it’s interesting to see what an endless source of fascination Landis’ Mennonite ties are to the media.

Photo via Guano on Flickr.

Burn, baby, burn!

scrippsfuneral servicesWhat a wonderful feature in The New York Times a few days ago. Reporter John Leland, whose work has been critiqued in these pixels before, writes that baby boomers are planning their own funerals or those of their parents, with less God, more consumer.

“Baby boomers are all about being in control,” said [Mark] Duffey, who started his company after running a chain of funeral homes. “This generation wants to control everything, from the food to the words to the order of the service. And this is one area where consumers feel out of control.”

What they want, he said, are services that reflect their lives and tastes. One family asked for a memorial service on the 18th green of their father’s favorite golf course, “because that’s where dad was instead of church on Sunday mornings, so why are we going to church,” Mr. Duffey said. “Line up his buddies, and hit balls.” Another wanted his friends to ride Harleys down his favorite road, scattering his ashes.

For something that happens to everyone — eventually — there sure is a shortage of coverage for regular, old-fashioned death and dying. I mean, I read the obituaries as devoutly as anyone, but features like Leland’s are what newspapers need. And Leland does a great job of just sharing the facts in a very interesting and picturesque but straightforward manner. I love that. I love how it allows a reader like me — who does not think death is the best moment to highlight our obsession with consumerism — to cringe with each detail while also allowing scores of baby boomers to jot down tips for their funerals. This next paragraph in particular caught my eye:

The biggest change, Mr. Duffey said, is that as more families choose cremation — close to 70 percent in some parts of the West — services have become less somber because there is not a dead body present. “The body’s a downer, especially for boomers,” Mr. Duffey said. “If the body doesn’t have to be there, it frees us up to do what we want. They may want to have it in a country club or bar or their favorite restaurant. That’s where consumers want to go.”

Wow! Yeah, that whole mind-body dualism we seem to have embraced . . . what to say? When you think of the religious origins of cremation and how the practice was rejected by Christians for nearly two millennia, and when you think about how the practice was brought back in the West 150 or so years ago by atheists and freethinkers, and when you think about how a huge chunk of the people being cremated these days are Christians, it does kind of boggle the mind.

Christians used to agree that cemeteries were sleeping places where people awaited their bodily resurrection. But now that many in the Christian tradition no longer believe that and see the body as an unimportant vessel, they are free to toast it.

The prevalence of the practice of cremation means different things in Hindu communities than Christian communities, not to mention other religions. I hope that reporters start digging into how the practice of cremation in America has doctrinal implications.

The upside to Hezbollah

raptureI know Harper’s is on a mission to destroy Christianity or something, but remember what a great and interesting magazine it used to be, before it began its bizarre jihad?

Anyway, some of the articles Harper’s has published during its campaign have been insightful and involved real reporting. And I rather enjoyed a simple bit of blog reporting that Ken Silverstein did for the magazine’s Washington Babylon blog:

It turns out there’s an upside to the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah — if you’re waiting for the second coming of Christ. Here’s a selection of excited messages spotted over the last few days on the Rapture Ready/End Times Chat online bulletin board.

Praise God! We are chosen to be in these times and also watch and spread the word. Something inside me is exploding to get out, and I don’t know what it is. Its kind of like I want to do cartwheels around the neighborhood.

* * *

In another thread, someone brought up the fact that the kidnapping of the first Israeli soldier that started this whole thing was on June 25th and if you count from that day to August 3rd … it is *EXACTLY 40 days!!!!!*

I find that to be a HUGE coincidence.

* * *

Whoa! I can sure feel the glory bumps after reading this thread!

My favorite comment is the second one. Anyway, I know that Harper’s is covering this so as to mock these rapture-ready, rapture-excited Christians but I think it would be great for mainstream reporters to talk to these folks. You can find stuff here and there. But most of it is laughably bad coverage.

I’d like to see more, particularly of those Christians who may not be getting ready for August 3 but are having their views of foreign policy shaped by their doctrinal views.

Photo via Marcn on Flickr.

The devil isn’t the only one wearing Prada

joanna jepsonThe British papers have been having fun with the recent move of the Rev. Joanna Jepson to the London College of Fashion, where she’ll serve as chaplain. And before you ask, yes it does happen to be Fashion Week here at GetReligion. Anyway, here is some sample copy: Is God the new black? How could a benevolent God permit the latest Roberto Cavalli collection? Heavenly bodies and unholy tantrums get God. Curate fashions a catwalk pulpit, etc. etc.

But the papers quickly moved from the puns and cliches to more substantial analysis. Here’s the Telegraph‘s take:

As someone who has long taken an interest in fashion, Miss Jepson, 30, feels that the Church should have a presence in the business. “The fashion industry has a huge impact and influence on vast numbers in our society,” she said. “It has a particularly powerful role in shaping the self-image and views of young people, and it’s important for the Church to be involved with this type of community. It’s amazing that it hasn’t had this link before.”

The curate, who has previously criticised society’s preoccupation with image, said that she was switching from full-time parish ministry to the fashion world because she could make more of an impact there. Miss Jepson, the curate of St Michael’s Church, Chester, earns a stipend of around £16,000. She will be paid a similar amount by the college.

Miss Jepson, who will take up her post in September, believes that the Church needs to rethink how it tries to relate to popular culture. “We cannot merely remain in holy huddles in parish churches. It is imperative that there are more of these kinds of chaplaincies that reach into cultural networks and communities, which would otherwise be untouched by the Church.”

Miss Jepson, whose publicity photo for the new job was quite fetching, is an interesting choice for this position. She is mostly known for her work fighting a move toward aborting unborn children with minor physical defects:

Miss Jepson was born with a congenital jaw defect and first hit the headlines in 2004 when she took her local police force to court while campaigning against two doctors who assisted in the abortion of a 28-week-old baby diagnosed with a cleft palate.

The papers had fun with the story, but they also took the religious angle seriously. Perhaps The Washington Post‘s Style section should take note.

Photo via Labantall on Flickr.

This should be good for another Pulitzer

bathingsuitI’ve been on a few beaches this summer. I plan to be on a few more. And, with my unhealthy obsession with fashion, I have analyzed and overanalyzed the latest swimsuit trends. So while I’m glad that The Washington Post‘s Pulitzer prize-winning fashion reporter Robin Givhan turned her critical eye to swimwear, I can’t say I’m sure she’s hit on something sweeping the nation’s sandy areas. I can’t say the nation’s beaches are beset by overly modest women.

In her story on bikinis and modesty, she takes a long look at WholesomeWear, a company that makes full-coverage swimsuits. Wetsuits topped with nylon dresses, essentially. The article is not bad. It’s interesting. It’s worth writing about. What is funny is how desperately she tries to tie the production and marketing of the swimsuits to some religious motivation but fails to do a good job of analyzing any religious underpinnings she finds:

The collection is not aimed at practitioners of any specific religion. There is no obvious mention of spirituality, God, Allah or Joseph Smith on the company’s Web site. . . .

The company may not be preaching to a specific denomination, but it is nonetheless preaching. [Joan] Ferguson describes her family as “Christian people who love the Lord.” And the swimsuits are “a ministry.”

Well that was sure illuminating. Thanks, Ms. Givhan. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have a better opportunity to share with you one of my favorite sites (with the longest URL I can recall seeing). Trust me, it’s worth it. And if you like that, some Amazon user has come up with a list of modest swimsuits. Just don’t tell Andrew Sullivan.

tapemeasuringpoliceMuch of the piece is spent in Givhan’s trademark style: writing unsubstantiated declarative sentences in the least kind way possible. I completely agree with her view that these modesty suits are bad for women. I just wish she would have interviewed more than one person for the story. She speaks with a woman at WholesomeWear. She speaks with no one else. She doesn’t find out anything about the particular religious mindset that thinks such full-coverage suits are more holy than other ones. She doesn’t consider the religious basis for views in support of modesty. I know she’s not a full-time religion reporter, but maybe she could have scoured some previous coverage for tips about correctly nailing the religious issues:

It’s understandable that some men and women may feel frustrated and scandalized in a culture that accommodates micro-miniskirts, cropped halter tops and visible thongs. They want someone to stand up and say, “Put some clothes on, darn it!” But surely, in the search for modesty, wouldn’t one stumble across something decent and virtuous before getting all the way to a nylon shroud? Wouldn’t a demure tankini do? Or a one-piece with a matching skirt?

I love that paragraph. Which, given my distaste for Givhan, is saying something.

But in looking at all that camouflaging fabric, at the layers aimed at obscuring the physique, one wonders how a swimsuit “ministry” can save anyone’s soul when such ungainly suits have so little appreciation for beauty.

See, I’m right with Givhan’s making a blanket fashion pronouncement about the value of the swimsuit ministry. But I really wish that she would have interviewed actual experts about this very doctrinal issue rather than rely on herself. The story really could have used a bit more depth.

Photo via Seaside Rose Garden on Flickr.

Sin and shame in Amish country

amishvillageNormally we try to analyze recent mainstream media coverage of religious issues. The magazine article in this post is from January of 2005; it’s a bit dated. But reader Daniel Grover passed it along yesterday and it was too interesting to keep from others.

Not to engage in stereotyping, but who knew that Legal Affairs — “the magazine at the intersection of law and life” — would have such thorough coverage of religion? Senior editor Nadia Labi looked at claims of pedophilia, incest and other abuse among several Amish females. The subject matter was horrifying enough that she avoided adding any excess moral condemnation. She was wise enough to get out of the way and let the story — which was plenty compelling and interesting enough on its own — tell itself.

But she patiently and clearly explained Amish beliefs and how they played into the story. Here she discusses the tolerance the government has for the religious community:

The license the Amish have been granted rests on the trust that the community will police itself, with Amish bishops and ministers acting in lieu of law enforcement. Yet keeping order comes hard to church leaders. “The Amish see the force of law as contrary to the Christian spirit,” said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and an expert on the group. As a result, the Amish shy away from sending people to prison and the system of punishment of “the English,” as the Amish call other Americans. Once a sinner has confessed, and his repentance has been deemed genuine, every member of the Amish community must forgive him. . . .

But can a community govern itself by Jesus’s teaching of mercy alone? It is sinful for the Amish to withhold forgiveness — so sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner. “That’s a big thing in the Amish community,” Mary said. “You have to forgive and forgive.”

In the case of the women interviewed by Labi, their perpetrators faced punishment ranging from parental admonition to shunning for a few weeks. Labi explains the origins of the Amish, and how their refusal to baptize infants led to persecution in Europe. But this explanation of why they shun the secular world is really interesting:

As Donald Kraybill explains in his book The Amish and the State, there are two kingdoms in Amish theology: the kingdom of Christ, inhabited by the Amish, and the one in which everyone else lives. To maintain the boundary between the two worlds, the Amish hold themselves apart from the secular state as much as they can. In the mid-1900s, dozens of Amish fathers went to prison rather than agree to send their kids to public schools with non-Amish children. The community opened its own one-room schoolhouses, where the curricula ignored subjects like science and sex education. A woman who now lives near the Amish in Ohio’s Guernsey County reports that many of her neighbors weren’t taught that the earth was round. “A lot of Amish will tell you they don’t want their kids to be educated,” she said. “The more they know, the more apt they are to leave.”

This approach to the two kingdoms is fascinating to me. I’ve shared previously my prediliction for a Lutheran Two Kingdoms approach, which teaches that the church administers God’s means of grace while the earthly kingdom operates through natural laws and human vocations. In the Lutheran view, Christians are citizens of both kingdoms at the same time. So in our church you can be forgiven for a grievous sin at the same time you’re being carted off to prison. While Lutherans and Amish may be at opposite ends of the Two Kingdoms spectrum, many contentious stories at the intersection of religion and politics are debates about how far to move in one direction or the other. Of course, in American Protestantism of many stripes, the issue is whether to even have two spheres, as debates about school prayer, Ten Commandments monuments and Jesus’ policy views on intercontinental missiles indicate.

Oh how I wish reporters would familiarize themselves better with the different views about church and state. Their reporting would surely improve if they understood the doctrinal assumptions underlying our debates.

But back to Labi. Her feature is more reportage than analysis, but it does raise interesting points. Most notable for me was the idea that the sinfulness of the non-Amish kingdom is a threat while the sinfulness of the people within the Amish kingdom is not. Labi interviewed women from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. She researched the legal records for each of the abuse claims. She interviewed — or attempted to interview — the accused and convicted perpetrators. And she thoughtfully analyzed how Amish doctrine plays into the situation. Which is probably why she was nominated for a National Magazine Award and a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism this year.

Photo from fulphillyment via Flickr.

Seventh-inning sermon

baseballAs far as All-Star games go, this year’s was pretty exciting. The National League was leading for most of the game until some American League player (sorry, I don’t follow that league enough to know names) batted a couple of runners home in the top of the 9th with a triple. I believe Bud Selig showed what a bad commissioner he is when he made homefield advantage for the World Series dependent not on the merits of the teams who got there but, rather, on the outcome of this game. How long, Lord, will we be under his reign? How long?

Anyway, I don’t want to be one of those people who goes overboard in defense of her favorite game, but like many folks, I find similarities between baseball and religion. The liturgy of the games; the smells, bells and whistles; the deliberate pace; the standing and sitting. So I was inclined to appreciate John Dickerson’s piece in Slate.

Dickerson is the chief political correspondent for the online magazine owned by the Washington Post. He wrote a first-person account of his visit to Camden Yards Sunday to hear Billy Graham preach. Even though it’s written informally, it’s newsy. He paints a vivid picture of the experience, from the sinfully-priced sodas to the lusty Christian band that got things going. His artful style is engaging and sassy without being terribly judgmental. Cal Thomas — a friend of Dickerson’s mother — takes him to meet Franklin Graham:

He spoke with perfect diction and a whiff of a Southern accent. He is not a man in doubt. His positions on abortion, condoms, and immorality are just what you’d expect, but his weightless charm isn’t. There was no smiling at the wrong time or obsequious fawning or theatrical whispering. He’s selling salvation to be sure, and he is less diplomatic than his father, but he has such an even keel that for a moment you forget that he’s just condemned to eternal damnation all those who don’t enter into heaven through Christ.

But enough about Franklin. Like the crowds at Camden, we’re waiting for the main event. Here’s his description of Rev. Billy Graham’s sermon and altar call:

Then he said we’re all going to hell. It was very literal. There was no windup or the verbal padding I’m used to from Catholic Church, where the priest talks in parables and inference that usually obscure the starker messages of sin and redemption. “You are going to die,” he said. “I’m going to die. And after that, there will be a judgment. ‘Every idle word that man shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the Day of Judgment,’ the scripture says. When you break a law, you pay the price. You’ve broken God’s law. We’ve broken the Ten commandments. If you’ve broken one of the commandments, you’ve broken them all. And we’re all sinners. And we’re all under the threat of judgment.” It was spare and simple. He did not raise his voice. It was as if after all that rock, Woody Guthrie had hooked up his battered
acoustic to the sound system. “Are you ready to die? You’d better decide for Christ here and now.”

But Dickerson doesn’t just give the one side of Graham’s well-known work. It’s not all Law:

This was where the incongruity of the venue worked so powerfully. Graham’s message wasn’t just for Sunday or weddings or funerals. What he was offering was the promise of grace at any moment, including in left field under an Esskay hot-dog sign. Too frail to walk, the old man left the stage as he arrived, driven across the field on a golf cart. It’s the same way they bring relief pitchers from the bullpen. He was departing after one more save.

Some might say that last line is a bit much but I thought it worked well. And it kind of makes me wish Dickerson were writing more about religion.

As Canterbury Turns: The mission of the church

mission of churchTime‘s Jeff Chu asked the Presiding Bishop-elect of The Episcopal Church ten questions about her view of the church’s mission, the relationship between religion and science and the exclusivity of Christianity. While the quality of her answers will be the subject of debate, I think he used a great — and simple — technique for getting information out of Katharine Jefferts Schori. And her answers are fascinating, I think. For instance, she says this about what the focus of the church should be:

Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus.

Jefferts Schori is more direct about her theological views than her predecessor, which may turn out to be a blessing or a curse. But it’s so nice that Chu just asks the questions and gives us her answers. That way we can compare her words with those of Nigerian bishop Peter Akinola in a letter from April 2005:

I am also thankful that while we are all engaged in many different expressions of practical concern for the poor and the oppressed at home and abroad we share a common commitment to the primary mission of the Church, which is to proclaim redemption from sin and the promise of life eternal through faith in Jesus Christ.

You see that? While so many reporters take the easy route and frame the debate in the Anglican Communion as centering on gay sex and female ordination, the issues are much deeper. The bigger questions are what the very mission of the church is. Is it to care for the temporal needs of humanity or the eternal? The physical or the spiritual? Is it, again, to proclaim Christ?

Jefferts Schori answers a Chu question about whether Jesus is the only way to heaven by saying that believing that way would “put God in an awfully small box.” Those are some pretty serious doctrinal divides that cross the Atlantic. Not that Jefferts Schori wants to talk doctrine. In one of her answers to Chu’s questions, she pooh-poohed doctrinal discussions, deriding them as bickering.

Other reporters might want to press Jefferts Schori on that last point, asking her which, if any, doctrinal points are worth debating and why. And whatever else can be said, I’m sure she would answer in a straightforward manner.