Leafy green sacrament

ganjaFrequently we discuss the troubles that mainstream media have with covering traditional religious thought. But religious outliers, while gathering senationalist news coverage, also suffer from poor media coverage. That’s why I was glad to see Arizona Daily Star reporter Stephanie Innes’ look at the Church of Cognizance, a group that advocates the use of marijuana. Reader Charlie Lehardy sent the story along.

It would be easy to fill such a news piece with Cheech and Chong references or, on the other hand, take an approach that ignores the weirdness of such a group. Innes strikes a good balance:

The Church of Cognizance, which has quietly operated here since 1991, has an unusual tenet — its worshippers deify and use marijuana as part of their faith.

Until federal authorities charged them with possessing 172 pounds of their leafy green sacrament earlier this year, church founders Dan and Mary Quaintance say they smoked, ate or drank marijuana daily as a way of becoming more spiritually enlightened.

But now, with added conspiracy charges, the Quaintances face up to 40 years each in prison in a case they call religious persecution.

The piece looks at the argument of federal prosecutors who say that religious freedom does not permit the use of illegal drugs. She also looks at the Quaintances’ belief that a recent Supreme Court decision allowing a religious group to use a banned hallucinogenic tea protects them. In that case, she notes, groups such as the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Union for Reform Judaism filed briefs in support of the religious group. Innes looks at the crux of the debate:

“Marijuana is the averter of death,” [Dan Quaintance] said. “The energy and spirit that is in marijuana is God. You consume the plant and you consume God. You are sacrificing your body to the deity.” . . .

“Religion is basically putting your faith in what you rely on,” he said. “Jesus started his church because of what he believed and learned.”

He filed a “declaration of religious sentiment” on behalf of the Church of Cognizance with the Graham County Recorder’s Office in 1994, though Dan, his family and other members say the church dates to 1991. . . .

Still, Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Virginia-based First Amendment Center, says any group seeking an exemption to the nation’s drug laws, even for religious purposes, has a “hill to climb.”

One never knows how these cases will turn out. But, should a case like this proceed through the court system, it would have ramifications on other religious groups. That’s why such disparate groups worked to help out the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (or UDV), which advocated drinking hallucinogenic tea.

Innes’ piece is full of direct quotes from knowledgeable or interested parties. With complex religion stories, it’s better to quote the players themselves than to convey their views inaccurately. I also like how she took the time to explain more about how the courts determine religious sincerity:

The U.S. Constitution contains no legally recognizable definition of religion, but courts still can apply a test of sincerity, said Jeremy Gunn, director of the Freedom of Religion and Belief program for the American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the UDV church.

If, for example, a group of prisoners calling themselves the Church of Cabernet and Filet Mignon argued religious belief as a reason to be served wine and better food, the government would have a right to question the sincerity of their theological belief, he said.

Mmm. Cabernet.

Photo via Viceroy321 on Flickr.

As Canterbury Turns: The center cannot hold

AkinolaAs Terry has noted, the Archibishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently proposed a two-tier system of church membership in the Anglican Communion — the idea being that full and partial membership could save the Communion from schism. Anglican bishops in Nigeria responded this week. The Church of Nigeria is Africa’s largest Anglican church, with an estimated 17.5 million members, according to the BBC:

In their statement, posted on two websites, the Nigerian bishops commend Dr Williams’ idea as “brilliant as the heartbeat of a leader who wants to preserve the unity of the Church by accommodating every shred of opinion no matter how unbiblical”.

But they dispute whether the challenge is really to “fashion out a novel establishment that is elastic enough to accommodate all the extremes of the referred modes of expression of the same faith”.

“A cancerous lump in the body should be excised if it has defied every known cure,” they say.

“To attempt to condition the whole body to accommodate it will lead to the avoidable death of the patient.”

Instead Dr Williams should persuade churches that chose to “walk apart” to “return to the path”, say the bishops.

Here’s the entire response of the Nigerian bishops. It’s actually humorous to compare the words of the Episcopal Church’s leadership with those of the Nigerians. When you listen to Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s “mother Jesus” sermon and compare it to the Nigerian defense of orthodox doctrine, you find significantly different religious views.

But to the point of this blog, here’s what I’m wondering: The BBC did a great job of writing up this story about the Nigerian response. It provided background and a bit of forecasting, as British papers tend to do.

The Nigerians go for the postmodern jugular of the Episcopal Church (the Anglican Communion’s American branch). And yet that BBC story is the only one I found. The Nigerians call the Episcopal Church a cancer. That’s juicy enough for coverage, isn’t it? Seriously, what better hook are you going to get?

We’ll tell you what to think about female ordination

Lutheran ordinationThe latest issue of Newsweek has a story on the ordination of females. Writers Holly Rossi and Lilit Marcus, who I believe are bloggers at the excellent Beliefnet, wrote the story for the mainstream publication. They ask what the election of Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the head of the Episcopal Church means for women seeking a similar path. If they were blogging, the bias of the piece would be just fine. But I’m not sure if they quite have the impartiality necessary for a mainstream news magazine. Let’s see what we think about their tone:

Women make up 61 percent of all Americans who attend religious congregations, but they still struggle for their place in some denominations. A national study led by researchers at Hartford Seminary found that only 12 percent of the clergy in the 15 largest Protestant denominations are women. And some 112 million Americans belong to denominations that don’t ordain women at all, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Southern Baptists, Mormons, Muslims and Orthodox Jews.

Emphasis mine. Now maybe it’s because I’m Lutheran and we follow the historic Christian practice of ordaining only select men after rigorous education and training, but, um, I don’t think there’s any question how the writers want us to feel. We have the words that direct the reader — but, only, at all!

The story also has a chart on various religious groups’ policies on the ordination of women. But the chart, at least in my synod’s case, is wrong. It says we permit females to preach in the church. Actually, we don’t. We believe that preaching is a function of the Office of Holy Ministry, which is not open to females. Sure, our bureaucratic leader may have expressed a desire to the contrary, but we haven’t gone down that road yet.

Anyway, back to the bias in this Newsweek piece:

But there are indications that times are changing. . . .

But according to Adair Lummis, coauthor of the recent Hartford Seminary study, it might be easier in 20 years for women to earn top positions like Jefferts Schori’s than to increase their presence as senior clergy in many local congregations, where congregants’ attitudes might still favor male pastors. The stained-glass ceiling “has certainly been punctured,” said Lummis. But it’s yet to completely shatter.

I mean, the writers didn’t even really try to be fair to the ancient, orthodox view. They didn’t even lightly explore the biblical or traditional basis for why the vast majority of Christians ordain men. Heck, they didn’t even explore the attitudinal sexism they credit to congregations who desire male priests and pastors. Sigh. The reason why some churches ordain women and others don’t is because there’s a doctrinal division. Maybe mainstream media should look into that.

Photo via Flickr.

What is today Istanbul

1142553 Map of Constantinople IstanbulA 74-year-old Catholic priest was attacked this week in Turkey. A man, who was described as mentally ill, was arrested in the knifing of Father Pierre Brunissen. The previous two were linked to Islamic opposition to Christian clergy. This, however, may be a personal case. Here’s what the BBC wrote:

The man had allegedly made complaints about Fr Brunissen trying to convert people to his faith.

Reports said he was attacked in a busy street about 1km from his church.

“I hope this has nothing to with Islamic fundamentalism,” Monsignor Luigi Padovese, the apostolic vicar for Anatolia, told the Associated Press news agency .

“The climate has changed… it is the Catholic priests that are being targeted.”

Anonymously-sourced alleged complaints notwithstanding, this story really could have nothing to do with religious intolerance. But the secular situation in Turkey is very tenuous and worthy of deeper coverage. When I came across this article, I was also pointed to a months-old Washington Post story that looked at the situation in Turkey with a bit more depth. It showed how Muslims believe Roman Catholic missionaries are paying young Muslims to convert to Christianity. It also had this very amazing line:

The tension dates at least to the 13th century, when Christian Crusaders sacked what is today Istanbul.

Really? That’s where the Muslim — Christian tension in Istanbul comes from? From before it was a Muslim city? Interesting.

See, I thought that the great and ancient Christian city of Constantinople (or, as the Post says, “what is today Istanbul”) withstood dozens of attacks from Muslims before finally falling to Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. I mean, yes, soldiers in the Fourth Crusade took over Constantinople — from the Byzantine Christians. I don’t think that’s where Muslim-Christian conflict came from. And the Western-Eastern divide was centuries older, besides. However, I seem to recall there was a particularly brutal final 54-day siege and capture of the city.

A Mormon for president?

RomneySo the Los Angeles Times has a great idea for a poll, and interviews 1,321 adults about whether religious views would affect their votes in the presidential election. And this is very interesting right now because Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and making a bid for the presidency. So what did the Times find?

Thirty-seven percent of those questioned said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, and 54% said no to the prospect of a Muslim in the White House.

In addition, 21% said they could not vote for an evangelical Christian.

Fifteen percent said they would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, and 10% were unwilling to cast ballots favoring a Catholic chief executive.

While this poll result may not be terribly surprising — American voters have expressed their uneasiness about voting for Mormons previously — that 37 percent is a huge number. It would be great to break that number down and learn a bit more about why so many voters are disinclined toward anonymous Mormons. Is it Mormons’ belief in a multiple godhead? Is it their history with polygamy? Is it Orrin Hatch’s music? But the report takes rather a view from 50,000 feet, interviewing political consultants, academics and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Here are the nut graphs dealing with religious beliefs:

A great-grandfather had five wives, but the church now opposes polygamy, as does Romney. The Mormon Church has about 12.5 million members worldwide, according to the church website; a little under half are in the U.S.

Romney is reticent about his religion, citing privacy and contending that candidates should not be judged on their “brand of faith.” But he regularly describes himself as a Christian, saying, “Jesus Christ is my savior.”

Some branches of Christianity do not embrace the Mormon Church. On its website, the Southern Baptist Convention includes Mormonism in a section called “cults, sects and new religious movements.” Kenyn Cureton, a vice president of the Baptist convention, says his church does not regard Mormons as Christians.

“They are not orthodox in their beliefs,” Cureton said. “They have additional books that they add to the Bible, which evangelical Christians believe is God’s word. They believe that there are many, many gods and that you too can become a god in your own world. It sounds good, but unfortunately it is not based on sound teaching.”

Cureton praised Mormons as “very moral, very family-oriented people.” Southern Baptists, he said, “would appreciate that angle. But as far as our beliefs, we would have disagreements.”

Those paragraphs are a bit inadequate. The poll did not specifically measure whether Christian voters would only vote for fellow Christians. However, if the sample size represents the American electorate, which is three-quarters Christian, it’s obvious from the poll that some Christians would vote for a non-Christian Jew but would not vote for a Mormon. So pointing out that most Christians (or “some branches” as our reporter puts it) don’t recognize Mormon beliefs as Christian (or “embrace the Mormon Church,” as she puts it) doesn’t in any way illuminate the poll. It is conceivable, for instance, that some Southern Baptists would believe that Mormons are not Christian and at the same time vote for Romney. There is no inherent conflict there.

Again, what is it about Mormons or voters that yields this poll result? Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t ask and this report fails to answer the question.

If God is mother, who is Mary?

three  s companyWe had an entertaining discussion a few weeks ago about the decision by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to accept alternative names for the Trinity. Most readers offered their own names for the PCUSA to consider (Ears, Nose, Throat; Jack, Chrissy, Janet, with a further discussion of who Mr. Roper and Larry represented. I say the Regal Beagle represents heaven).

A few readers brought up how one of the more controversial name suggestions — Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb — denigrates Mary and deviates from Jesus’ own words. Father Joseph Honeycutt wrote:

FWIW, Jesus refered to his Father in heaven because . . . His Father WAS (is) in heaven! He would never have said “Our Mother in heaven” . . . because, well, she was right down the street!

K. Connie Kang, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times had a great article a few days ago that looked at the decision to accept additional names for the Trinity as well as what fallout the convention’s decision was having. She didn’t just do a “he-said, she-said.” Kang sought out multiple perspectives from folks on either side and explained a bit more about their opinions. For instance, she cites from the report that makes the recommendations for changes but also lets those unhappy with the view have their say:

Written by a diverse panel of working pastors and theologians, the report noted that the traditional language of the Trinity portrays God as male and implies men are superior to women.

“For this and other distortions of Trinitarian doctrine we repent,” the report said. . . .

“They’re attempting to be politically correct, and unnecessarily so,” said Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute in Charlotte, N.C.

“Jesus Christ comes into a culture in which women are considered to be on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder . . . and makes women his disciples,” he said.

“Women are the first to bear witness to the empty tomb, which is central in Christianity. The Bible says in Christ there is neither male nor female. We are one in Christ.”

Kang’s story also explains the bureaucracy behind the report’s acceptance, when the new terminology may and may not be used, the trouble the PCUSA is having in retaining members, and even a criticism that the changes equate the name of God with metaphors for God, which our reader R. Boyd hinted at a few weeks ago in his satirical campaign against the use of the cross:

Clearly the time has arrived to select and embrace a new, life-affirming symbol of our sophisticated and superior post-modern faith in absolutely anything we feel good about. Something that celebrates the bounty of creation, rather than sin, suffering, and death.

I suggest a golden calf.

I hope more local reporters look at how this national decision affects Presbyterians on the local level. Let us know if you see any reports.

Pope demands end to crappy church music

filled with your gloryOkay, I stole that headline. Mea culpa. Anyway, Pope Benedict XVI has harshed on guitars in Mass, according to various media reports. I don’t see why you need the Pope to tell you that if you walk into a sanctuary and see a drum riser where the altar should be that you may want to get the heck out of dodge, but I guess some of us do need a bit of guidance.

Not that I have any opinions on the worship wars.

I was really curious what the Pope actually said about guitars and contemporary styling in Mass. Turns out that what he said and what was reported were about as similar as the police blotter in your local fishwrapper and an episode of The Sopranos. Related, but not quite the same thing. Here’s a typical media report. UPI devoted five paragraphs to the issue:

Pope Benedict XVI is calling for an end to guitars and a return to traditional choirs in the Catholic Church. . . .

The Pope’s supporters say that the music played during mass is a vital part of the communion between worshippers and God, and that medieval church music creates the correct ambience for perceiving God’s mystery, the newspaper said.

But Cardinal Carlo Furno, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, said it was “better to have guitars on the altar and rock and roll masses than empty churches.”

Because, as we all know, bad guitar playing brings the masses into the Masses. Anyway, Catholic News Service quotes Benedict saying that he supports new liturgical music. He just thinks it should be connected to the democracy of the dead, as they say:

“The latest musical compositions of the 89-year-old former director of the Sistine Chapel Choir demonstrate how new liturgical music can be created without ignoring the centuries of church music that came before it, Pope Benedict XVI said. . .

Pope Benedict said, “An authentic updating of sacred music cannot take place except in the wake of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.”

The pope said that in music, as in art and architecture, the church promotes and supports “new expressive means without denying the past — the history of the human spirit — which is also the story of its dialogue with God.”

I mean, I wish he would have used one of his fancy edicts to ban the guitar in Mass, but what he said was much more moderate. In general I’ve noticed that Benedict’s statements thus far tend to focus on the rationale behind big ideas rather than condemnations or pronouncements from on high. Yes, this makes headline and story writing more difficult and less dramatic, but it’s something that reporters should probably get used to.

Having said that, worship wars — as Terry notes — contain ginormously contentious isues. So rather than flighty stories about the Pope banning the guitar, a reporter could use the Pope’s comments as a hook to discuss local church issues.

Photo via Flickr.

Kicking the bucket through those great goal posts in the sky

casketI’m a huge baseball fan. If I could have dinner with anyone living or dead, it would be Albert Pujols. If I were ever to launch a political campaign, it would be to abolish the designated hitter rule. And I frequently begin statements with the phrase, “When I become baseball commissioner . . .”

So I had more than a few friends pass along this Reuters story about a deal signed with Major Leage Baseball that allows the Eternal Image company to reproduce the names and logos of all 30 league teams on a new line of caskets and urns:

“Fans incorporate baseball in nearly every aspect of life,” Eternal Image Chief Executive Clint Mytych said, adding that the caskets could appeal to “a market that is just waiting for a way to make team loyalty a final statement of a great passion in their lives.”

The urns and caskets will go on sale next year at prices from about $600 to $3,500, Mytych said.

“Our clubs receive these requests with some frequency. We have really passionate fans,” Major League Baseball spokeswoman Susan Goodenow said, adding that the deal gives the sport’s governing body control of the tastefulness of the product.

The Reuters story was all of a few hundred words and little more than a glorified press release.

Why are so many stories about sports and religion so shallow? The fact is that sports have superseded religion in most areas as the dominant means for communal interaction. Athletes are much more popular than saints or religious figures. Team colors are donned much more fervently than liturgical colors. Sports arenas are viewed by many as places for worship and devotion — and, sometimes, as sanctuaries — more than cathedrals are. Fans may spend more time tracking their fantasy stats than they do studying religious texts. And there’s little question that religious feast days are being displaced by more important days (Superbowl Sunday comes to mind).

These are all aspects of an interesting sociological phenomenon. So when Major League Baseball contracts with a company to use team logos on urns and caskets, I wonder if Reuters’ reporter might get a comment or two from folks who could provide perspective.

Photo via Flickr.