Greening South Los Angeles


About eight years ago I went with a group of congregants in a previous church to partner in work for a week with a West Virginia congregation down near Kentucky in the “hollers”. I don’t eat meat, so I was eager to get to a grocery store and buy some lettuce and other vegetables to supplement the carb-heavy fare at the church.

Trolling the supermarket aisle, in which iceberg lettuce was the main vegetable offering, I realized that what many nutritionists tell us is true: part of the reason the poor suffer from so many health-related problems is that they either can’t afford or have to travel way out of their neighborhoods to find healthy foods.

That’s part of the reason why, as I wrote my colleagues, when I read this article about the produce market started by First African Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, I was moved. The other reason, of course, is that it’s an article in which the religious motifs are woven throughout in a way that feels appropriate to the topic.

Teresa Watanabe begins with the story of Dorothy Carson, who is visiting the produce market after a health scare impelled her to change her lifestyle:

So there she was this weekend, scooping up fresh cucumbers, avocados, green beans, grapes and other produce she said she never would have dreamed of eating before. Carson said she now consumes about six daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. Her weight and cholesterol levels are down.

“It’s like an angel brought this to me,” Carson, 58, said of the market. “It has really helped the community. . . . Now we are finally eating well.”

Watanabe doesn’t spell it out in capital letters, but it’s clear that First African Methodist Episcopal Church is very influential in the local area. The fact that its nonprofit arm is launching programs in ten other churches reminds readers of the church’s still central role in the African-American community. I’m curious as to why (lack of men in churches?) the initiatives target women and children.

FAME Assistance Corp. plans to expand healthful-foods education to 10 churches in the surrounding area under a three-year, $500,000 state grant targeting African American women and children, according to the nonprofit’s president, Denise Hunter. Possible initiatives include church forums and workshops, support groups, a cookbook, bulletin boards providing nutritional information and success stories about people who had changed their diets and improved their health.

More than two-thirds of African Americans in California are overweight or obese, more than 40% have cardiovascular diseases, and their high blood pressure rates are among the highest in the world, according to the state Department of Health Services. African Americans are also more likely to have diabetes than whites of similar ages.

The statistics are disturbing. But Watanabe then offers readers these inspiring quotes, suggesting the ways in which faith weaves in and out of this urban narrative:

…So FAME hooked up with Coast Produce Co., a Los Angeles firm that had donated fruits and vegetables to the church’s summer enrichment program for youth.

The firm is setting up a nonprofit arm, Fresh Hope, to take fresh produce to underserved communities and eventually supply local jobs, long a vision of its owner, John Dunn. He said his philanthropic impulses were in part fueled by his Christian faith, adding that finding a partner like FAME seemed divinely ordained.

“For us to find a counterpart with the same passion and belief as us — I do believe there’s a higher power that brought us together,” Dunn said.

Rooted, as many are, in a history in which African-Americans suffered from the weight of prejudice and economic disadvantage, black churches have for centuries tried to look after the spiritual and physical health of their parishioners — perhaps seeing them as one and the same. In recent years, this has meant forming nonprofit organizations to reach the larger community. This story is inspiring because it shows a community uniting around a shared vision — a vision rooted in religious values, but big enough to embrace those who may not subscribe. And you have to love the quote from the Rev. John Hunter near the end. If the church outreach can covert the pastor, who knows what might happen next?

Asparagus stars thanks to Wikimedia Commmons

Cain and Abel, Abel and Cain

I’m saving the best (Got News?) for last. But first, let’s cover culture war news from the Values Voter Summit held in D.C. And right off the bat I wanna say (yeah, that’s how we talk in Philly — you gotta problem with that?) that I’m ambivalent about any journalist who uses that term as a descriptor rather than the title of the Family Research Values conference. The term implies that conservative activists are the only ones with values, or that those on the left are value-free, or that voters who fell into the middle of the spectrum don’t take their values to the voting booth. In general, the reporters below tend to be clear that this is a term of choice, not of reality.

A few tidbits from the Summit: if you are looking to 2012 and the Presidential candidates, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was first choice of the approximately 600 delegates who voted (Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty made a strong showing among the more marquee names). Former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin chose to welcome her son home from Iraq rather than attend (sounds like a good move to me, but somehow this became controversial). Former Miss California Carrie Prejean gave a speech (which got sympathetic treatment in the Los Angeles Times) that had some delegates in tears.

So why does it matter that fewer than 2,000 voters came to a meeting in Washington, D.C.? For a few reasons. Folks who show up at such meetings tend to be highly engaged. Politicians recognize their importance by courting them. And activists, in the hyperdemocratic environment aided by the Internet and the turmoil in the mainstream press, are more adept than ever at getting the message out to the faithful and adulterous alike.

But some in the mainstream press did consider the Summit worth a mention. Among them was New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney.

Some of the issues with Nagourney’s article are highlighted by this high-snark-factor piece from the (we don’t need to know that Nagourney is gay anymore than we need to know that conservative analyst Juan Williams is black — and targeting his “special pleading”? — schoolyard stuff). Conservatives could only be “nearly politically wiped out” if a liberal Great Awakening had occurred last year, sweeping away the right, and it didn’t. Poster John Hinderaker also takes on this statement by Nagourney:

Many Republicans have been arguing that the party’s focus on social issues is a mistake at a time when voters are concerned about the economic downturn and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the emphasis at the summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council, was still decidedly on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. The crowd rose to its feet to applaud Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California who caused a furor by denouncing same-sex marriage at the Miss USA contest, as she declared that “God chose me” to make the case she made

The blogger points out that, at a “Value Voters” meeting, attendants are predictably going to have a high level of interest in social issues, however much other groups are concerned about economic ones. I’m not sure I’d agree with Hinderaker that the focus on social issues in the Republican party is purely Nagourney’s, however — sedate as they might be, Summit attendees have ‘values’ that represent those of a large U.S. minority and in some cases cross party lines — particularly with some of the moderates and independents who voted for Democrats in last year’s election.

The main problems I have with Nagourney’s piece (but he does cover politics, after all) is that an overarching narrative (conservatives!! back from the dead!! (perhaps) ) takes over, mowing down any potential distinctions between attendees. And although one can assume that faith is a driver for many attendees, there’s almost no mention of it.

At ‘the vote blog’ of the website, the writers are also guilty of making sweeping generalizations (i.e., that the “tea parties’ and social conservatives are just two faces of the same group). But they do at least seem to get some of the religious tensions in the social conservative movement.

Many younger evangelicals — the type quite likely to be seen tea-partying or at this weekend’s conservative summit– apparently have a noticeably different set of values than their elders. For example, 44 percent favor a larger government offering more services — nearly twice the percentage of older evangelicals. They’re also more likely — 52 percent to 34 percent — to approve of same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Possibly. How do these guys know that the tea parties are either driven by evangelicals or that the younger ones were protesting last week? Some protesters aren’t religious — and not all the religious ones are evangelicals. But the bloggers link to a Washington Post OnFaith “Guest Voices” commentary that is by far one of the better pieces of analysis of “Value Voters Summit” values that I’ve seen. If you want to read something worthwhile and you don’t have much time, this commentary, written before the fact, by Public Religion Research’s Robert P. Jones is excellent because it reveals some of the internal fault lines, and the theological/doctrinal issues that drive many conservatives. That’s exactly what’s missing from the stories I’ve read.

By far the most revealing piece was columnist David Gibson’s dissection of a survey on religious activists. The beginning sums up the thrust of his theme — that activists on both sides are much more alike than they would ever care to admit.

If you’ve ever stood in a pet shop and watched Siamese fighting fish attack their reflection in a glass tank, then you know what it’s like to read a fascinating new survey of more than 3,000 religious activists on the left and the right.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Activists on both ends of the spectrum have strong theological beliefs. They are generally better-off than most citizens in America, older, better-educated, mostly white. In other words, if the word has much meaning anymore, they are “elite.” If you were splitting hairs, you might argue that conservative activists are a bit more “elite” by virtue of income, but it’s pretty much a wash.

But one thing the conservatives and “progressives” have in common — they are convinced that they are right, and most invested in having you believe it, too.

The next time you are reading a story about these activists, it might help to remember that in many respects they are more alike than different. Kudos to Gibson for highlighting this survey, and a big hole in news coverage in general — much more invested in conflict than in sometimes disturbing similarities.

Blowin’ smoke in Kansas


They sing! They chant! They swing (the thurible)!

For years there’s been a move among some in the emergent and evangelical churches, conservative churches reaching out to the young, and some mainline congregations to adapt and retool (if that’s not too irreverent) ancient liturgical practices in a way that reaches contemporary congregants. (See the late Dr. Robert Webber’s work on this topic.)

And, of course, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and some Anglican congregations have been worshipping according to the liturgical practices of the early church for centuries, if not millenia.

So the idea of services grounded in traditions isn’t news. But what rituals a church adapts, and the doctrinal reasons behind it, could make for a fascinating article. Unfortunately, the topic gets the oh-wow, “When Harry Met Sally” treatment in an article a few weeks ago on the website.

When introducing a new service these days, most churches seem to go the rock ‘n’ roll route — something new to bring in a younger crowd.

To say that Trinity Episcopal Church went in another direction might be a bit of an understatement.

When the church decided to add a new service in fall 2006, instead of looking forward, it looked back.

Way back. As in the fourth century.

The result is a unique celebration of Christianity referred to as the Solemn High Mass. A mystical meeting of old traditions in a setting where blue jeans and T-shirts are appropriate, the Sunday night service features incense, music and what the church, 1011 Vt., refers to as all of the “major propers” including the Kyrie Eleison, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Credo, the Sanctus and Benedictus and the Agnus Dei, which are chanted.

What exactly did the church draw from the fourth century? From the liturgy of St. James? Of the Apostles? Other extant liturgical traditions? From ones used by the Orthodox? Or the Roman Catholic Church? Perhaps I’m being picky. But there’s nothing in this article to indicates what separates this service from any other high church, smells and bells liturgy in other Episcopal Churches.

Read some of the interesting comments here in the Episcopal Cafe. One of the commenters picks up on a mistake in the pictures. The priest isn’t waving lit incense sticks at the congregations — he’s using holy water to asperge (cleanse) them. Does Trinity have a choral or a chorale tradition?

The story closes with a rather quote from interim rector Ronald Pogue in which he comments on an “emerging global cultural shifts” impellling growing interests in ancient/meditative liturgies.

What on earth is he talking about? There’s potential news here — why is this service is drawing crowds among college students? Why did the Episcopal move in this direction? Does this church have a historic relationship with the University? What’s bringing in people from Kansas City? Do the newcomers get involved in church life?

Yes, this is a local article. But residents don’t learn much new — and what they do learn isn’t neccesarily correct. The writer passed up an opportunity to educate her readers about what’s sparking interest in traditional liturgies among the young a victory of “old-style” over substance.

Picture of thurifer from Wikimedia Commons

It only takes a spark

30423808-002_largeSometimes we seems like a society that has a desire to major in the minors. Why spend more than five minutes (OK, 10) discussing whether it was appropriately presidential (in fairness, he thought his words were off the record) for President Barack Obama to call rapper Kanye West a “jackass”? Why focus on some nondenominational pastor’s sexual misbehavior when so many other churches are grappling with issues around mission, doctrine or social justice?

Although I’m as enthralled by scandal as many journalist, I am also, as I’ve said here a lot, a big fan of the bread-and-butter stories about the less spectacular decisions most of us need to make — assuming most of us aren’t Taylor Swift. That’s why I am a little puzzled as to why the announcement of a new NIV translation hasn’t gotten more mainstream attention. Fair to say that the new Bible translation isn’t coming out until 2011. But the storm clouds may gather a lot sooner as church leaders and parishoners remember the last time the NIV, the world’s most popular translation, was revised in a translation that substituted gender-neutral language for many male pronouns. Although the NIVi was only released in the U.K. (the later TNIV was released by publishing house Zondervan) outrage ensued among some conservative Christians.

Kudos to USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman for picking up on the story and for providing some links to previous stories and Faith & Reason blogposts.

The scholars and publishers behind the world’s leading English language evangelical Bible announced Tuesday that they would publish a updated translation in 2011.

“And we’ll make sure we get it right this time,” says Keith Danby, president and chief executive officer of Biblica, once known as the International Bible Society.

Biblica, the Committee on Bible Translation and evangelical publisher Zondervan jointly announced the newest New International Version Bible — and acknowledged they were still singed by the fire and brimstone cast down on earlier update efforts.

One question that I wish had been addressed in both Grossman’s and Associated Baptist Press Bob Allen’s article on the topic is: which pronouns? As far as I know, the NIV Committee is examning male pronouns for human beings, not for God. So then the question becomes what does it mean to “get it right”? It seems as though it doesn’t mean leaving the NIV untouched — and that there may be some gender-neutral changes.

There are some really complex issues here with which reporters must struggle. Obviously, the NIV Committee can’t say what they will do before they do it, no matter how much we might like for them to do that. The Danby quotes suggest that he sees the problem as strategic (the TNIV wasn’t well marketed and defended) as well as cultural and doctrinal. Of course, the whole issue of gender-neutral language is also intensely complex, linked as it is to questions about the role of women in conservative churches — as Allen points out. Changes in language are iconic –symbols of social, political and theological forces impinging on liberal and conservative churches.

Last fall Crossway Books released the ESV Study Bible, reviewed by the conservative Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood as “unapologetically complementarian.” Complementarians believe men and women are created equal, but for different — or complementary — roles in both church and home. Generally, complementarians believe in wifely submission and oppose women serving as pastors or in other important positions of church leadership and governanc.e

Allen clearly reflects the conservative perspective, which sees a wider message in gender-neutral pronouns. Yet as Grossman points out in one of her linked stories, Gallup polls revealed in 2008 that fewer than one in three Americans believe that the Bible is word-for-word God’s word, and one in five believe it’s a collection good advice or a fable. So I’d hope that future stories also reflect the perspective of middle-of-the-road evangelicals and progressives who use the NIV because it is so readable.

The best article/post on this topic that I’ve seen is written by Ted Olsen, and posted on the website. Olsen includes extensive quotes from Douglas Moo, head of the committee that will do most of the work. Olsen’s got some revealing quotes that indicate the gender-neutral issue isn’t black and white — as is the broader one of societal usage in general.

We felt certainly at the time it was the right thing to do, that the language was moving in that direction,” Moo said. “All that is back on the table as we reevaluate things this year. This has been a time over the last 15 to 20 years in which the issue of the way to handle gender in English has been very much in flux, in process, in development. And things are changing quickly and so we are going to look at all of that again as we produce the 2011 NIV.”

I don’t think any member [of CBT] would stand by the NIVi today,” Moo said. “But we feel much more comfortable about the TNIV.” He expects many of the TNIV’s changes to appear in the updated NIV.

That’s almost a guarantee of controversy ahead. Whenever mainstream writers start to focus on this story, let’s hope they interview not solely scholars but a spectrum of those in the pews who have strong opinions and pastors who will preach from the new version. Bread-and-butter — but much more important than who is up or down in, say, a little denomination called the Episcopal Church.

Darwin’s theory of distribution


How come almost no one has picked up on this story?

You may have heard of the new Paul Bettany-Jennifer Connelly movie about the life of Charles Darwin.

But if stories coming out of Britain are to be believed, you aren’t likely to be seeing “Creation” here. “A British film about Charles Darwin has failed to find a US distributor because his theory of evolution is too controversial for American audiences, according to its producer,” reads the headline of a story on the website. Though this story is racing through the blogosphere, it’s getting very little attention from the mainstream on this side of the Atlantic. And where it is covered in Britain, the story is not being covered by religion reporters, though it’s clearly a story about religion as well as about moviemaking and business.

And yet the issues seem important enough to merit coverage, not so much because of the merits of the well-reviewed film itself (though it seems like it would play well in art houses), but because of what it says about the state of play with regard to belief and evolution in America. Not to mention how the movie portrays the really quick complex beliefs of Charles Darwin. In other words, this movie spotlights one of our bread-and-butter religious issues, a hardy perennial.

Here’s the lede from the Telegraph article:

Creation, starring Paul Bettany, details Darwin’s “struggle between faith and reason” as he wrote On The Origin of Species. It depicts him as a man who loses faith in God following the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.

The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.

However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.

There’s something odd going on here. Not only do we create slasher movies and highly sexually explicit films in the United States, but we import them. Are we really expected to believe that evolution is such a cultural taboo that a movie about Charles Darwin would be “too controversial?” Why don’t they find out by talking to a real life American instead of only quoting from blogs? the only person quoted in the Telegraph article is the movie’s producer — and he might have a wee bit of bias.

It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America. There’s still a great belief that He made the world in six days. It’s quite difficult for we in the UK to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.

My goodness, look at the natives and their strange customs. Let me take you to the next room, where we see some shrunken heads.

And yet, in spite of the fact that evolution is taught in American public schools, it faces deep-rooted resistance. Most of us, apparently, just aren’t buying. That’s a fact — and a good context for an article on “Creation.” It’s almost irrelevant that this kind of journalism plays into all sorts of cultural stereotypes about Europeans and Americans. What’s important is seeking out the facts, and getting a range of opinions to illuminate them.

Photo of Annie Darwin’s grave from Wikimedia Commons: “A dear and good child”

Paging Carl Hiassen

It’s a little surreal to be pondering this post on the day after the eighth anniversary of September 11, when two hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center towers, one hit the Pentagon, and some amazingly brave men and women brought down another hijacked plane in western Pennsylvania.

Hijackings don’t always end in tragedy — but they can be terrifying experiences, as this article on a hijacking in Mexico a few days ago shows. That being said, some of the articles were so vague on details and some of the details so peculiar, that the effect was sometimes hilarious.

The AFP (Agence France-Presse) story on the scary plane ride originally started by describing the hijacker as a ” Protestant priest.” AFP caught and corrected that faux pas by in later iterations — kind of.

A Bolivian preacher who hijacked a Mexican plane saying he was on a divine mission used three juice cans to convince crew members he had a bomb, he later told reporters.

Jose Marc Flores Pereira, 44, a Bible-carrying evangelical preacher, singer and former drug addict, surrendered to authorities here Wednesday after hijacking the Aeromexico Boeing 737 on a flight from the tourist resort of Cancun to Mexico City.

All 104 people on board — most of whom had no idea they had been taken hostage — were safely evacuated as security forces swarmed Mexico’s international airport within minutes of the plane landing.

But wait! A few paragraphs later, writer Jennifer Gonzales has this sentence: “The priest, brought out for questioning by the media, told reporters his actions were linked to Wednesday’s date — September 9, 2009 — because the numbers 9/9/9 were the opposite of 6/6/6 the numbers associated with the AntiChrist.”

Looks like the copy editor didn’t get far down enough.

I wonder if there’s a society for “evangelical” clergy hijackers. Do they have their own seminary? I have to admit I’ve never seen the “number of the beast” written out like this.

Even the AP story linked above, while it gets the pastor (not priest) detail right in the actual piece (yes, he apparently preaches in his “evangelical” congregation), described Jose Mar Flores as a priest. While totally its unPC to slot him into a category this way, one can understand why Fox describes Mr. Flores as a “religious fanatic.” You can only imagine the look on the AP journo’s face when he or she wrote these sentences:

Minutes later, after the fake time bomb had counted down to zero, masked police stormed the aircraft with guns drawn and grabbed Flores, along with several others they thought were working with him.

Police later said there was only one hijacker, and the other men were briefly detained because Flores had told a flight attendant he had three accomplices. He later told police his companions were “the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”.

Oy vey.

If you want a more detailed portrayal of Flores and his ministry, read this story. While I’m a little unclear about the use of the word “evangelical” here to describe the preacher because it’s not spelled out, it sure sounds like Flores was evangelizing.

As more details came out, reporters were able to sharpen their articles. But man, this is one weird story. Writers who can’t tell the difference between Protestants and Catholics (not to mention Orthodox, Anglicans and other denominations who have priests) make it even odder — pushing it in the genre Latin Americans do so well, that of “magic realism.”

Now there’s another day to watch out for if you are a believer in omens – September 9.

Who knew?

Waltzing with elephants


As my colleague Mollie recently commented, journalists often write stories that analyze happenings in a particular context: winning and losing. Who is climbing up the greasy pole and who is sliding down? Because some find this aspect of a writer’s art fascinating (the closer they live to D.C. or state capitols or New York City, the stronger the temptation to obsess) they sometimes ignore theologicals or doctrinal perspectives in favor of the current catfight.

But what happens when the opposite is true and journalists don’t analyze the political setting of a religion story? What happens when they ignore the elephant in the room (or the sanctuary)? There’s a big hole in a story that’s been covered on Texas television websites and in large city papers — the new state law that says the Bible must be part of the public curriculum. And while reading an otherwise very thorough article by Jessica Meyers on the website, I’m wondering — what is really going on here?

Meyers starts in a class led by Plano teacher Vanda Terrell, who has been directed by the state to teach about the Bible, but given no guidance on how to do so.

But the law provides no specific guidelines, funding for materials or teacher training. So high schools are left scrambling to figure out what to teach and how to teach it. A handful of North Texas districts are offering an elective class, but most are choosing instead to embed Old and New Testament teachings into current classes.

Veteran teacher Vanda Terrell leads a Bible in Literature class at Plano West High School. She has no curriculum guidelines but is ‘driven by the connections in literature.’ Such broad parameters leave one of the most controversial topics in public schools virtually unregulated, say religious scholars and confused educators. They warn that the nebulous law may have thwarted its purpose — to examine the Bible’s influence in history and literature.

Meyers goes on to detail how the Plano district responded to the 2007 directive. She quotes teachers, curriculum experts, and students. She even quotes Warren Chisum, the legislator who originally sponsored the directive, on some of funding issues. Overall, this is a very good examination of the ways in which an apparently “unfunded mandate” is sowing confusion among educators. But what doesn’t get enough attention here is how controversial the measure was — or what motives prompted the instruction to the schools.

As we’ve discussed here before, schools often avoid teaching about religion for a multitude of reasons. While Meyers does quote one apparent expert in the field, he doesn’t explain why teaching the Bible in public schools is such a “minefield.” Nor does anyone comment on what maverick liberal legal scholar Jonathan Turley terms “an act of sectarian favoritism.” He claims that the original law raises constitutional questions. Whether you agree or not, its a safe bet that reporters could find Texans who feel that way.

Meyers does note that other states have grappled with teaching biblical literacy — that would be Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. Can you imagine such a measure being passed in New Hampshire or Massachusetts?

Probably not. Here’s a comment from one Massachusetts mom, a writer for the Boston Globe.

Meyers makes a very interesting point about which districts have chosen to teach particular courses, and which haven’t. “Many North Texas schools seem to be sidestepping the issue by saying they already teach the Bible when analyzing allusions in Shakespeare or discussing ancient Mesopotamia.” Could there be some regional religious differences playing themselves out here?

Once again we’re back in the complex realm in which religion, politics and education meet. Texans may recall the debates before the law was passed back in 2007. Many readers (though not all) may assume a context in which teaching from the Judeo-Christian heritage is normative. Many parents may not give a hoot — but it sure would have been nice to hear from a few.

The fundamental questions around original intent, the assumptions behind the law as it was actually passed, and how this plays out in the bigger, roiling field of separation of church and state (in which little seems ever settled), ideas which seem integral to any article on the topic, are only addressed in passing.

Again, journalists don’t have time to cover all the angles in one story. Yet when context drives what is a story with both political and religious implications, it seems as though reporters are dancing gingerly around the elephants in the classroom.

Elephant crossing photo is from Wikimedia Commons

How we remember


One of the threads I rarely see covered in our larger American media outlets is what I’d call a “meta-theme” — the way that religion and politics, an oft-incendiary combo, are twinned in our national history. My colleague Mollie is much more of an expert in this arena than I am, but as a historian’s daughter, I am steeped in the tension between American sacred and secular voices, one that goes back to the Puritans and the Quakers.

For that reason I was very happy to see the article by features writer Marylynne Pitz about “collective memory” and the United Flight 93 memorial on the website. While Pitz focuses most of the article on comments by sociologist Alexander T. Riley, the Bucknell University prof makes a useful tour guide to the iconography of grief and hope and folk religion at the temporary memorial in Somesert County, PA. The story works because of the quotes from him.

The art, artifacts and images that make up this spontaneous shrine, along with films and books about the people who sanctified this place, fascinate Alexander T. Riley, a Bucknell sociologist.

Since 2004, the tall, engaging academic has returned often to study this homespun collection on a hillside that offers a distant view of the crash site. He is writing a book about creating the collective memory of Flight 93, noting in particular the sacred and secular symbols that Americans use to make sense of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bingo. It’s hard not to visit places like Gettysburg or other sites where much blood has been spilled without feeling a sense of the holy. And isn’t making sense of our common experiences what American civil religion is all about? ‘In the United States, creating this civil religion entails blending Judeo-Christian narratives with patriotism. The result is powerful, Dr. Riley said, and “people feel more moved.”

We hear a bit about the Christian themes — what are the broader Judeo-Christian ones? Is the iconography changing as America becomes more pluralistic and there is a larger population unnconnected to religion?

I’d like to know more about conflict about what the memorial site in Somerset should look like — and how that might have played out at other national memorials. Readers might want to know more about the status of memorial plans.

The idea that conflict might be focused on the urban and the rural or believers and atheist, frankly seems a little cliched — at the least, it demands an explanation. And I wasn’t nuts about the ending, but mostly for journalistic reasons — I wish that Pitz had returned to the theme of “collective memory.”

But the anecdote of the “sand-colored” brick left by Special Forces troops is a powerful one. Understanding some of the rituals around grief and loss and the way conflicting visions sometimes ignite disputes might actually help create greater understanding between partisans. Next time you are reading a story about a fierce battle about a memorial project, step back, take a deep breath, and ponder what’s really going on.

The picture from the Flight 93 memorial is from Wikimedia Commons