What’s really the matter with Kansas?

WizardAndCurtainThere may be no news whatsoever from this bizarre tip. But can you afford to take that chance?

Are you editors demanding a new, creative religion angle on the Sixth Coming of Harry Potter? Are you tired of chasing evangelicals who are still worried about the occult and elitists who have tired of this family friendly, populist entertainment fad?

What if the real story of the moral decline in Western Civilization could be found elsewhere?

Yes, Catholic uber-blogger Amy Welborn at Open Book is on the case. The shattering question on her mind: “Can we talk about The Wizard of Oz?” Pay no attention to that not-so-powerful man behind the curtain.

I’m sure you’ve thought about this too — no all-powerful Wizard, just a little man behind the curtain, tricking everyone. No need to really have anything real within — just believe that you have a brain, a heart and courage, and take on the external signs, and you’re there, baby.

Does Focus on the Family know about this?

CT: Is Gonzales pro-life? Says who?

ag gonzales mediumOur goal here at GetReligion is, of course, to focus on MSM coverage of religion news. But we also want to point journalists toward helpful online materials at sites such as Poynter, Beliefnet, ReligionLink and elsewhere.

In that vein, let me point toward a very interesting essay that just hit the Christianity Today weblog, written by the omnipresent Ted Olsen. Clearly, evangelicals are at the heart of the behind-the-scenes wars over the Supreme Court and, thus, it matters what they think of the leading candidates. Thus, Olsen’s headline: “Is Gonzales Pro-Life? Does it Matter?” In addition to source-material links, there’s a ton of reporting in this essay. Here is a key section:

Religious conservatives have to be very careful, too. Opposing Gonzales merely because his views on abortion are unknown could seem capricious or hypocritical, especially if you’ve been critical of “judicial activists” making decisions on personal bias. (The judicial campaign of Family Research Council, which opposes a Gonzales nomination, is so far centered on making sure a Supreme Court nominee doesn’t have to declare his or her views on abortion.)

But National Review‘s Edward Whelan suggests another reason Gonzales would be bad for conservatives — he would have to recuse himself from several cases, probably including the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Act. (A Gonzales recusal in that case would almost certainly ensure an invalidation of the ban, Whelan notes.) He may even have to recuse himself “from virtually all the cases of greatest importance to the administration.” That would include the Patriot Act, too, something Bush probably cares more about than the Partial-Birth Abortion Act. (And something on which Christians are quite divided, by the way.)

This gives pro-lifers an opening without compromising their commitments. They don’t have to fight Bush on Gonzales on the abortion front; they can claim to protect Bush from Gonzales, or at least from the legal implications of appointing any attorney general to the bench. Such a shift from ideology to strategy would shift the nomination debate significantly.

P.S. By the way, amid the usual 1,000 or so links in this edition of the CT weblog, music fans will want to check out the little blurb about Liam Gallagher of Oasis being ticked off at Bono because the U2 singer won’t quit trying to covert him to traditional Christianity. Some versions of this story floating around contain another reference to Bono being a Roman Catholic.

Visiting the ghosts of Srebrenica

mitrovicav2When is a Serb a Serb and when is a Serb an Orthodox Christian? When is a Serb a practicing Orthodox Christian?

When is a Bosnian a Bosnian and when is a Bosnian a Bosnian Muslim? When is a Bosnian Muslim a practicing Bosnian Muslim or even an Islamist Bosnian Muslim?

These are the kinds of issues that journalists faced when covering the horrors of Bosnia-Herzegovina and, quite frankly, few reporters were up to the challenge. Los Angeles Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin — marking the 10-year anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre — ventured back into this journalistic minefield in a new report that bravely attempts to remind readers just how complex this region was and is.

As an Orthodox Christian, I can be accused of reading the story with an agenda. So be it. I am very aware that journalists during the fighting there had a tendency to say that all Serbians were Orthodox. Meanwhile, on the ground, leaders of the Serbian Orthdox Church were often attacked by the same Serbian government thugs loyal to Slobodan Milosevic — neo-Communist criminals who hated believers of all stripes — who proudly massacred Muslims and Catholics. Here is a Scripps Howard column I wrote back in 1999 trying to sort some of that out. It’s complex stuff.

And so is the territory that Rubin is trying to map. Clearly, this region is still haunted and almost all of the ghosts are religious, to one degree or another. The various religious groups live in a tense standoff, living their own lives in a divided land. The divisions are increasing with the passage of time, not healing.

Of course, “healing” is defined in this article as religious people compromising and erasing the lines between their faiths. “Progress” equals a loss of religious tradition. But this does not seem to be happening. Strong forms of faith tend to stay strong and gain strength.

Here is a sample, describing life among Bosnian Muslims:

Although Muslims, Serbs and Croats sometimes live side by side in the big cities or in neighboring hamlets in the countryside, they say they live in different worlds. The inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriages that were commonplace in the big cities before the war have almost entirely disappeared.

Muslims have developed “a consciousness of their identity as a nation and an awareness of their religion,” said liberal columnist Gojko Beric, a Bosnian Serb who lives in a mixed neighborhood of Sarajevo, the Muslim-majority capital. Before the war, most Bosnian Muslims, especially those in Sarajevo, rarely attended prayers except for the most holy days of the year and had friends from different groups. Few women wore head scarves.

Today, the Muslim call to prayer sounds from mosque loudspeakers five times a day — a reminder that the largest group in the country follows a different religion from that of the minority Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians, and Croats, who are Catholic.

Let me make one other comment. For Orthodox Christians, the bloody land of Kosovo has been described as the “Jerusalem of Serbia,” with 1,300 churches, monasteries and holy sites. Many of those are now in ruins, and the destruction goes on and on. There is no hint of that.

Again, I know that I am biased. I also know that Rubin could not deal with all of the wounds, all of the horrors. I also know — because I have tried to cover some of these stories — that the radical Muslims often burn the shrines of the believing Christians, just as the secular Serbs once massacred the families of Muslim believers. It is hard to keep the players straight in this kind of deadly game.

UPDATE: Well now. It appears that it is also possible to cover this story and pretty much ignore the religious complexity altogether. Check out this shallow New York Times report. Maybe the copy desk simply gutted the reporter’s work and this is what we were left with.

The Times and the Whitehall dossier

The Times has a sobering story about the number of potential Al-Qaeda sympathisers that might be found among British Muslims or other Muslims who now live permanently in Great Britain. This ties into our discussions of “moderate” Islam, radical forms of Islam and the double-edged sword of assimilation in the West.

Here is the challenge to the press. One one side, journalists can demonize Muslims as some kind of unified threat. On the other side, journalists can made a leap of faith and assume that the “moderate” or even “reform” elements within Islam now represent the majority point of view. This approach leads to waves of stories quoting Islamic leaders repeating the “religion of peace” mantra and very little coverage of the complex, and often disturbing, points of view found elsewhere.

Time after time, I have heard journalists say — accurately — that Islam is not a monolith. The problem is that they then turn around and argue that it will only fan flames of prejudice if American newsrooms dare to do in-depth coverage of radical Islamic influences within local communities. Islam is complex and contains a multitude of voices, but we can only cover one set of voices? That is progress?

In this context, the Times report by Robert Winnett and David Leppard can be seen as somewhat brave. Some will, surely, call it “conservative,” whatever that means in this context. Here is the lead:

Al-Qaeda is secretly recruiting affluent, middle-class Muslims in British universities and colleges to carry out terrorist attacks in this country, leaked Whitehall documents reveal. A network of “extremist recruiters” is circulating on campuses targeting people with “technical and professional qualifications”, particularly engineering and IT degrees.

The key in this Whitehall document — the ghost even — is contained in its description of the environments that are yielding radical Islamists who might be willing to take part in terror campaigns.

The bottom line: This is not a matter of finding angry young men on the bad, or even oppressed, side of town.

So how big is this dangerous minority within British Islam? The document

. . . (Paints) a chilling picture of the scale of the task in tackling terrorism. Drawing on information from MI5, it concludes: “Intelligence indicates that the number of British Muslims actively engaged in terrorist activity, whether at home or abroad or supporting such activity, is extremely small and estimated at less than 1%.” This equates to fewer than 16,000 potential terrorists and supporters out of a Muslim population of almost 1.6m.

The dossier also estimates that 10,000 have attended extremist conferences. The security services believe that the number who are prepared to commit terrorist attacks may run into hundreds. Most of the Al-Qaeda recruits tend to be loners “attracted to university clubs based on ethnicity or religion” because of “disillusionment with their current existence”. British-based terrorists are made up of different ethnic groups, according to the documents.

“They range from foreign nationals now naturalised and resident in the UK, arriving mainly from north Africa and the Middle East, to second and third generation British citizens whose forebears mainly originate from Pakistan or Kashmir. In addition . . . a significant number come from liberal, non-religious Muslim backgrounds or (are) only converted to Islam in adulthood. These converts include white British nationals and those of West Indian extraction.”

Are similar recruiting patterns forming in the United States? What is happening out it, let’s say, Dallas, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Orlando and elsewhere? If reporters argued in favor of investigating these issues in the American heartland, would they be accused of bias? Of promoting hate and prejudice?

The goal is to find and accurately quote a wide variety of Muslim voices, trying to find out (a) who represents the majority point of view and (b) who is quietly recruiting Muslims to a more radical point of view. Is this journalistic task possible?

We need to watch the Times for follow-up stories.

“The Way We Were”

thelasthole largeSometimes you just have to let art wash over you.

I don’t know what to add to this Associated Press story (hat tip to Rod FOTB Dreher), except to say that we Baby Boomers are not going to go into middle age and beyond quietly. Is this a Godbeat story? Trends in Baby Boomer entertainment rituals? The liturgy of the media?

So here we go. This is the whole report.

PITTSBURGH (AP) — James Henry Smith was a zealous Pittsburgh Steelers fan in life, and even death could not keep him from his favorite spot: in a recliner, in front of a TV showing his beloved team in action. Smith, 55, of Pittsburgh, died of prostate cancer Thursday. Because his death wasn’t unexpected, his family was able to plan for an unusual viewing Tuesday night.

The Samuel E. Coston Funeral Home erected a small stage in a viewing room, and arranged furniture on it much as it was in Smith’s home on game day Sundays. Smith’s body was on the recliner, his feet crossed and a remote in his hand. He wore black and gold silk pajamas, slippers and a robe. A pack of cigarettes and a beer were at his side, while a high-definition TV played a continuous loop of Steelers highlights.

“I couldn’t stop crying after looking at the Steeler blanket in his lap,” said his sister, MaryAnn Nails, 58. “He loved football and nobody did (anything) until the game went off. It was just like he was at home.”

Longtime friend Mary Jones called the viewing “a celebration.”

“I saw it and I couldn’t even cry,” she said. “People will see him the way he was.”

Smith’s burial plans were more traditional — he’ll be laid to rest in a casket.

Ah, a casket you say? But what kind of casket?

There might be a story there as well, as I discovered a few years ago at one of the stranger events I have ever tried to sneak into religion pages from coast to coast. Enjoy!

Anyone strolling through last year’s National Funeral Directors Association convention could catch glimpses of Baby Boomer heaven.

The Baltimore exhibits included “fairway to heaven” caskets for those especially devout golfers and NASCAR models for true fans that have seen their last race, at least in this life. The goal, said a convention spokesman, is to offer dying consumers the same kinds of choices that they demanded in life.

Progress via a Muslim Spong?

Driving back from the North Carolina mountains tonight, I heard an amazing commentary on NPR that fits into our discussion of the MSM’s heated search for a “moderate” version of Islam that it can hold up as some kind of majority viewpoint. This is part of the whole template that there are “fundamentalists” in all faiths who are equally dangerous in their often violent quest for the illusion of certainty and moral absolutes and then there are “moderates” who, if they all had their way, would all get along as they search for the Eternal Other.

Here is the NPR link for those who want to hear the commentary and the brief summary:

July 8, 2005 — Commentator Irshad Manji, who is a practicing Muslim, would like Muslims around the world to publicly reject some of the violent messages that she says are inherent in the Koran.

There’s a lot of valid content in this piece, and let me stress that I am not suggesting, for a moment, that moderate Islamic voices are unimportant or that they should be marginalized. No way. I am saying that the press, at the moment, needs to be covering the who, what, when, where, why and how of how most Muslims are responding to the events in London.

Manji is, in a way, calling for the same thing. In particular she urges mainstream Muslims to take a tough look at the actual contents of the Koran and, in particular, how it is being parsed and preached by those who approve of violence against Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, etc.

So far, so good. Then she suggests it is time for all religious leaders to be equally honest in dealing with their own scriptures and histories. So far, so good. Then she holds up, as the model for these exchanges, the work of retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark. This is where the train comes off the tracks.

The last thing in the world we need right now is for Western leaders — religious or political — to find and promote the views of some Islamic version of Spong, someone who is no longer even a theist. You want a clash of civilizations? Let the mainstream Muslim world see America praising the work of those who do to Islam what Spong does to Christian faith. Heaven forbid. Here, for example, is a link to Spong’s 12 Theses for the new reformation of Christianity. Here’s the first half of the list.

1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

Come to think of it, mainstream Muslims have a higher view of Christianity than Spong.

I realize this was a commentary, not an NPR news piece. But I still think its contents reflect the worldview of many in the MSM. Check it out.

An attack by Islam on Islam?

I understand the tension caused by young Master Jeremy’s hell wish. Christian believers should, of course, pray for evangelism, debate, repentance, conversion and dangerous stuff like that. Free speech, even.

But all of that’s out of line these days. It probably is safer to simply say “to hell with it.”

My initial reaction, hearing about the news this a.m. in the remote mountains of North Carolina, was a moment of relief that the attack was so conventional. The worst technology used was cell telephones. No nerve gas. No small but terrifying amount of radioactive material.

It’s been a long time since the Tube in London had conventional garbage cans. London is not a city that will be shut down long by a few bombs. London has seen its share of bombs, with all kinds of labels on them.

I do wonder how this will affect the European Union talks and, of course, the larger issue of Islam and European culture. That is, of course, what the debate will be about. Why? Because the people most at risk in Europe (other than Jews, of course) are moderate Muslims who have shown evidence that they want to live in a society where you can rally around concepts such as, well, religious liberty and the Bill of Rights.

This is a battle inside of Islam, and journalists have to make sure that they do not automatically assume that all of our friendly sources — those moderate Islamic voices linked to academia in Great Britain, the United States and elsewhere — represent the majority of the Islamic world. The reality is more complex than that. It is time to find the truly dangerous Muslim voices in the West and put them on the record, in part as a way of contrasting them with the endangered world of moderate Islam.

Andrew Sullivan has a link up to the site of British writer Johann Hari, best known for his work in the Independent and the major gay publication called Attitude. Here is the crunch of his concerns, which includes some interesting inside London information about the bombings themselves:

In the scarred miles between each explosion — walking from Moorgate to Liverpool Street down to King’s Cross — you could see several fights taking shape yesterday that will grip us for years. The fight against Islamic fundamentalism became clearer. Anybody who tells you these bombers are fighting for the rights of Muslims in Iraq, occupied Palestine or Chechnya should look at the places they chose to bomb. Aldgate? The poorest and most Muslim part of the country. Edgware Road? The centre of Muslim and Arab life in London and, arguably, Europe.

Does anybody need greater evidence that these Islamic fundamentalists despise Muslims who choose to live in free societies, and they would enslave Muslims everywhere if they were given the opportunity? Nor is this tit-for-tat revenge for deaths in Iraq: very similar jihadist plots have been foiled in France and Germany, countries that opposed the invasion. Anybody who doubted that the fight against Islamic fundamentalism — a murderous totalitarian ideology — was always our fight should know better now.

But another fight began yesterday: to defend our civil liberties — and especially those of the decent, democratic Muslim majority — in an age of terror. I headed for the East London Mosque — a few minutes’ walk away from the bomb in Aldgate — to watch afternoon prayers. Chairman Mohammed Bari said, “Only yesterday, we celebrated getting the Olympics for our city and our country. But a terrible thing happened in our country this morning . . . Whoever has done this is a friend of no-one and certainly not a friend of Muslims. The whole world will be watching us now. We must give a message of peace.” Everybody in attendance agreed; many headed off to the Royal London Hospital to give blood. But they were afraid the message would not get out: several people were expecting attacks on the mosque tonight.

We can expect to read waves of such quotes tomorrow. That is good. We also need to know who is celebrating in London tonight. Who, what, when, where, why and how. We need that information on both sides of that terrible divide in Islam.

Reaching tmatt (but not today)

high elevation blue ridgeA personal note from the DotCom Cafe in beautiful Burnsville, N.C. I had to come in this a.m. to ship the column to Scripps Howard News Service.

Next stop — Mitford. Anyone get the reference?

From time to time, people write to ask how to send us stuff (while promising not to be cyber stalkers) for personal reactions. In my case, it just became a lot easier to tell people how to reach me. All you have to do is look up the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, where I am moving next week to start work on a semester-length journalism program. This is growing out of the 11-year-old Summer Institute of Journalism project.

All you have to do to reach me now is consult the contact us information at cccu.org and that’s that. Thanks! Now back to the mountains.