Life after "Firm Believer" videos

WWDEat.jpgOK, OK, this story is a few days old, but I just had to pass it along because of the oh so sweet headline: “Christian Diets: Fewer Loaves, Lots of Fishes.”

Maybe I am just sensitive to this right now, having just finished the traditional Eastern Orthodox Lent (no meat, no dairy), which makes it nigh unto impossible to avoid carbs. As Frederica “grandmother of this blog” Mathewes-Green likes to quip, during Lent “we don’t eat. We graze.”

Actually, this is a great example of what I like to call the “photocopy the culture” option among Christian entrepreneurs (like the whole Contemporary Christian Music industry). When in doubt, the Christian marketplace just sells a copy of whatever is hot in the real marketplace, only adding a few Scripture quotations.

Here are, literally, the money paragraphs from reporter John Leland’s feature in The New York Times:

Lose It for Life is among the many Christian weight-loss programs hoping to combine the success of “The South Beach Diet” with the Christian self-help pull of Rick Warren’s “Purpose-Driven Life,” a best seller at 22 million copies. “Look, it’s no secret that some of the most popular songs, books and movies now are faith-based,” said Jordan S. Rubin, author of “The Maker’s Diet,” which has sold more than a million copies. “Look at ‘Purpose-Driven Life’ and ‘Left Behind’ in books, ‘Passion of the Christ’ at the movies and musical artists like Switchfoot, who sell in the millions. In the pop secular marketplace people are embracing faith as mainstream.”

And the marketplace is returning the embrace. If you have ever wondered “What Would Jesus Eat?” you need only turn to the best seller by the same name written by a Florida physician named Don Colbert. (Answer: lots of fish, grains and vegetables.) And if that fails, you can try “Body by God,” “The Hallelujah Diet” and dozens of others.

Well, the Passion wasn’t exactly a photocopy of anything, was it?

But, hey, readers: What are your favorite “photocopy the culture” products from the past year or so?

Say what? A Polish spy in the Vatican?

pope stamp.jpgI was flipping through the back pages of the news section of my local newspaper this weekend and this Associated Press story stopped me in my tracks.

It didn’t surprise me that Polish authorities had worked overtime to try to stop the newly enthroned Pope John Paul II from making an early return to his beloved homeland. It would have shocked me if they had cooperated.

But then I hit this element of the story, based on a report from Leon Kieres, head of Poland’s National Remembrance Institute:

On Wednesday, Kieres identified a Polish priest working at the Vatican, the Rev. Konrad Stanislaw Hejmo, who he said had collaborated with communist-era secret police during John Paul’s papacy. Hejmo has said he never knowingly informed on the church.

Kieres denied in the La Repubblica interview that his claim of alleged informers within the Roman Catholic Church was politically motivated. Kieres also told the paper that hundreds of clergymen collaborated with the communist regime in Poland as part of a network of informers in operation for several decades.

Once again, it isn’t all that surprising that there were undercover informers in Poland. Still, that is a major story. What rocked me was the news of the informer inside the Vatican.

Heading to Google News, I found that international newspapers have been all over this story, while American papers have either ignored it or downplayed it big time. The experts say Americans don’t care about global news, and I assume that is true. But I think this is a story people would have wanted to read.

Nice headline (yes, all in caps) in the Agenzia Giornalistica Italia: “HEJMO: NAIVE AND STUPID, BUT I’M NOT A SPY.”

A simple story: God, Zo and a kidney

Mourning2.jpegAccording to the seminars offered by our friends at, one of the quickest ways to improve religion news coverage in the MSM is for journalists simply to stop removing the faith elements of stories in which they are already present.

This is the opposite of trying to find religion news.

The goal is to stop ignoring it or, worse, editing it out of the lives of oridinary people all around us. Click here for a fine essay on this by Poynter fellow Aly Colon.

Well, Alonzo Mourning of the NBA’s Miami Heat is not an ordinary person — he is one of those stunning towers of mind, heart, talent and muscle that achieves riches and fame in media and sports. Down here in South Florida, he has been a major force in community life, and his life-and-death struggle with kidney disease is more than a sports story. It has been an epic human drama.

And this is precisely how The Miami Herald‘s NBA-beat reporter Israel Gutierrez (is that a South Florida byline or what?) handles a little-known part of the Zo comeback in a sports-page feature about the relationship between the superstar and the cousin, Jason Cooper, who donated the kidney that saved his life.

There is a faith element to the story and Gutierrez does not play it up, but he also does not ignore it. He just lets the people tell their story, and that is enough.

This was, apparently, one of those private, personal stories in which chance events took place that the people involved later decided were not chance at all. It was, they said, a God thing. Here is the key passage. You need to read the whole story to understand the part about the television set.

Cooper offered to take the necessary tests to see if he could donate one of his kidneys to Mourning. It was an eerie coincidence that Cooper decided to make the trip to visit his grandmother on that particular day, and that the news came across the TV screen at that particular time. Some would say it’s more than a coincidence. Whatever the explanation, that moment put in motion an act of selflessness and kindness that would reinvigorate an NBA star, and created an unbreakable bond between two cousins who didn’t figure they would ever be this close again.

“Jason, man — he’s a lifesaver,” Mourning said. “It’s just God sent how it all worked out. Things don’t happen like that just because it happens. People just say, ‘Oh, it’s a coincidence.’ No it’s not. There’s a reason why Jason went to that hospital to see his aunt on her deathbed and I just so happened to come up on the television. I mean, come on, that’s not a coincidence. That’s somebody higher than us planning all that out.”

It’s a simple story, the kind that people tell all the time. It’s nice to see it in the sports pages of a major newspaper, where fans are more likely to read about steroids and sucker punches than faith and the family ties that bind.

Galloping Air Force Academy fundamentalism

Air Force chapel.jpgNo doubt about it — David Kelly at the Los Angeles Times has found a good story out in the red-zone wilds of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Here’s the headline update from a few days ago: “Loosening Religious Grip at Air Academy: The school launches a sensitivity course in response to complaints about evangelical Christians infringing on other faiths.” This is a follow-up story to “Non-Christian Air Force Cadets Cite Harassment: The academy, which has received more than 50 complaints, says it is requiring students to attend a class on religious tolerance.”

Let me start by stressing that it is pretty clear some outrageous stuff has gone on at the academy, in terms of evangelicals making life uncomfortable for some of the nonbelievers. No doubt about that. Here is a sample of Kelly’s coverage, picking one sample out of waves of similar material:

Lt. Col. Edie Disler, an English professor who helps run RSVP programs, said some Christians questioned the value of the classes. “They have said: We are in the majority, why do we have to do this?”

Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate and lawyer in Albuquerque, has a son who is a sophomore at the school. The cadet has been called a “filthy Jew,” among other things, Weinstein said.

“This is not a Jew-Christian thing, it’s an evangelical versus everyone else thing,” he said. “I am calling for congressional oversight and for the academy to stop trivializing the problem by calling it nonsystemic. If they can’t fix it and Congress won’t fix it, the next thing to do is go to the federal court and file a lawsuit alleging a violation of the Constitution and civil rights.”

By the way, that RSVP reference is to the new “Respecting the Spiritual Values of all People” classes that cadets and employees must attend. No sign, at this point, of “Respecting the First Amendment Rights of all People” sessions on the calendar.

This is the problem, you see. It is clear from Kelly’s reporting that the evangelical air in Colorado “Wheaton of the West” Springs is pretty thick with spiritual jargon and symbolism. But these reports are so one-sided, in terms of source material, that it seems like they were dictated by someone at Unitarian-Universalist national headquarters. No, I take that back. The U-Us I know are much more comfortable with opposing points of views.

What we need here is some attempt to verify basic facts and accusations from both sides of the story. Who finally gets to speak for the evangelical world? Is it someone from the academy? Nope. It’s the totally predictable source — a Focus on the Family spokesman.

Once again, this is a free-speech story. This cuts both ways, in terms of the freedom of people to voice strong opinions and for others to oppose them. It’s clear that some people have crossed the line and pushed their theological agendas in a military forum fueled with tax dollars. But does this mean the academy needs some kind of viewpoint discrimination that is enforced by the state?

Do all student groups lose the right to post news about events? To send emails? To debate issues at the heart of their worldviews? Does this apply to Islam? Orthodox Judaism? NPR listeners? Grateful Dead fans?

Here is another glimpse into that RSVP classroom:

. . . Capt. Paula Grant, a law professor, told participants they must balance their right to exercise their religion with the right of others not to be intimidated or harassed.

“We are not trying to stamp out religion,” Grant said. “It’s a matter of how you go about it. You cannot use your uniform to further your personal agenda, whether it’s religion or sports or anything.” . . .

As the class ended, one participant, Lt. Col. Marcia Meeks-Eure, paused before leaving. “I think this sort of thing is very good because it underscores what we are supposed to be doing,” she said. “I am Baptist but I won’t talk about my faith unless someone asks.”

That is chilling, if you know anything about Baptists and their historic defense of free speech. You see, Meeks-Eure has a right to talk to people about her faith in a wide variety of settings. And other people have every right to ask her to stop. That may be a bit tense, but that’s what free speech is all about.

Here we go: Darth Vader and "The Fall"

anakin_darth_vader.jpgIn the book Boiling Point: Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century, the evangelical pollster George Barna and writer Mark Hatch make the following observation about the awesome power of mass media:

The world of entertainment and mass communications — through television, radio, contemporary music, movies, magazines, art, video games and pop literature — is indisputably the most extensive and influential theological training system in the world. From commercials to sitcoms, from biographies to hit songs, from computer simulation games to talk shows, God’s principles are challenged every moment of every day, in very entertaining, palatable and discreet ways. Few Christians currently have the intellectual and spiritual tools to identify and reject the garbage.

The second half of that statement leans hard toward the cultural right, but the basic premise is one that anyone who can read poll data ought to affirm. This is the same basic point that political liberals would make if they were talking about, oh, the impact of materialistic American media in fragile Third World cultures.

The bottom line: Ordinary Americans are much more likely to be exposed to new theological ideas at the mall than at a mainstream church. Oprah has more power than Billy Graham, when it comes to preaching outside the usual pews.

And George Lucas? We are, of course, only a few weeks away from the latest outbreak of Jedi evangelism and the usual attempts to probe the theological implications of The Force and yada yada. Hey, it’s hard not to yield to the PR side and go with the flow.

Plus, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith marks — we think — the end of the official Star Wars holy canon. The faithful are supposed to get answers to all kinds of Big Questions and see how the pieces fit, as Anakin Skywalker takes the plunge (a baptism of fire clearly looms ahead) and becomes Darth Vader.

Over at USA Today, reporter Mike Snider has written a very interesting opening salvo on some of these issues, in a piece titled “Star Wars’ universe revolves around Vader.” And that’s the point. These movies really do revolve around the fall and redemption (Lucas says that) of a character who is a symbol of absolute evil. This implies that there must be some kind of absolute good. Or does it?

Snider touches many bases to note the obvious influences:

Lucas drew on mythology, religion, psychology and cultural images, popular and past. Just as Lucas relied on Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces as the mythical underpinning for his saga, his villain had multiple purposes, too. . . .

Vader seeps into the subconscious because he embodies psychologist Carl Jung’s “shadow archetype,” a representation of the dark half of one’s personality. Mythologist Campbell pointed out that Star Wars, like classic myths before it, makes use of Jung’s archetypes — others include wise old man (Obi-Wan) and hero (Luke Skywalker) — as building blocks. . . .

In addition to the Zen-like Force that “surrounds us and penetrates us . . . (and) binds the galaxy together,” as Obi-Wan tells Luke, another Eastern religious element can be found in Vader’s resemblance to demons that, in the Buddhist tradition, were at one time human and, through the actions of Buddha or his followers, are freed from their demonic state.

So what does the word “redemption” mean in this context? If Vader is some kind of fallen angel, this implies some concept of sin and even, in biblical terms, “The Fall.” Does that work in the pseudo Yin-Yang world of Lucas and The Force?

I hope journalists seek out all kinds of voices on this, not just the usual folks who think the whole Lucas cycle is evil or those who think Star Wars theology is the perfect blend of Buddhism and postmodernity. One of my favorite writers on this topic is Roberto “friend of this blog” Rivera y Carlo. Click here for his classic “Elves, Wookies and Fanboys: Star Wars And Our Need For Stories” and here for his “Love, Sacrifice & Free Will in Star Wars.”

May the sources be with you.

Hey Hillary, is this legislation pro-life?

Democrats for Life.gifNow here is an interesting media-relations question. What does it mean when a group of Democrats gets together to announce a package of legislation and the press conference merits a wave of coverage from the Christian Communication Network, the Conservative Voice and, but the event receives no coverage at all — zero, zip, nada — in the MSM?

Well, I would guess that might happen if the group holding the press conference is Democrats For Life.

Still, there is no question that the topic is newsworthy. I mean, even Hillary Clinton has talked about this subject and people like Andrew Sullivan have noticed this. If this is a real story, then it should end up affecting legislation. Right?

So here is a clip from the report by Steven Ertelt:

Democrats for Life of America joined Reps. Tim Ryan (Ohio), Bart Stupak (Michigan) and Lincoln Davis (Tennessee) at a press conference Friday to announce the “95-10 Initiative” — a plan to reduce abortions 95 percent in the next 10 years.

Kristen Day, director of DFLA, said the plan was “a legitimate policy initiative that will actually reduce the number of abortions.” She said it “has been met favorably by both pro-life and pro-choice advocates and elected officials.”

The initiative outlines 17 different policy programs designed to empower and promote women as well as protect unborn children. Some of those include a national toll-free number for pregnancy support, studying why women have abortions, funding daycare on college campuses, increasing funding for domestic violence programs, and making adoption tax credits permanent.

And so forth and so on. Obviously, there are critics of such an effort on the right as well as on the left. It’s a hot topic and compromise will be hard. After all, this effort would require proposing laws that involve tax dollars, adoption, birth control, daycare and a host of other sensitive moral, religious and political subjects. It would mean finding middle ground.

To me, that sounds like an interesting story. It looks like you will have to go to a niche news site to read about it.

Digging deeper on the Orthodox story

Palm Sunday 2.jpgI hope everyone had a blessed Palm Sunday. Now it’s time for Holy Week.

Which is another way of saying that the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Pascha and the Western church’s date for Easter are about as far apart this year as they can possibly get, once again underlining the ancient clashes between the Julian and modern (yes, the 16th century is modern for the Orthodox) Gregorian calendars. This is a very complicated subject and, frankly, I still get confused about some of the lunar angles. But if you want to know more, click here.

In the days ahead, you can expect to see more than a few news reports linked to the novelty of “Orthodox Easter” and the chance to photograph the outdoor processions that are one of the most beautiful parts of the Eastern liturgies for this week. News photographers just love gold robes, incense, candles, flowers and men with long beards. If you try hard enough, you can even get the photos framed just right and capture the stunned faces of ordinary people driving past as the singing faithful head down the sidewalks of city or suburban neighborhoods.

This is also a favorite time of the year for journalists to write about the steady growth of Eastern Orthodoxy in North America, due, in large part, to a stream of coverts from evangelicalism, oldline Protestantism and even a few from Rome. The evangelicals are the sexy angle to the story, of course. There is a kind of exotic National Geographic quality to writing about scores of people from Campus Crusade for Christ, Oral Roberts University, Baylor, Wheaton, the Moody Bible Institute and lots of other strange places ending up in domed churches chanting the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

The Dallas Morning News ventured into this territory this past weekend with religion-page feature that covered most of the familiar bases, including a sidebar on the “trophy convert” Frank Schaeffer, the outspoken son of the famous evangelical theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer. The mainbar offers lots of good information, starting with this opening statement of the Dallas “trend” behind this story:

The Eastern Orthodox Church, as far removed from a nondenominational or evangelical congregation as you can get, is nevertheless attracting a growing number of converts who are drawn by the tug of an ancient faith.

Converts are trading in their PowerPoint sermons and praise bands for the ancient rhythms of a liturgy that hasn’t changed in thousands of years –­ a pendulum swing from the casual, seeker-friendly services that have dominated contemporary evangelicalism.

Their numbers are still small compared to megachurch growth patterns, with 1.2 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in America and an estimated 10,000 in the Dallas area. But adherents say there’s been a surge in people drawn to the faith.

It’s also had to knock a story that includes quotations from the unofficial grandmother of this blog, Frederica Mathewes-Green of Beliefnet, NPR and lots of other places. Take this, for example:

Frederica Mathewes-Green, a former Episcopalian and author of Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, said the experience of Orthodoxy was “startlingly different” from anything she’d known in Western churches. But it clicked when she saw it was directed toward God rather than her own emotional needs.

“It called us to fall on our faces before God in worship and to be filled with awe at his glory. I could never go back. I now find Western worship tedious and sentimental. To me, the contrast is jolting.”

The feature story, written by News “special contributor” Robin Galiano Russell, is very, very positive about this whole trend, so positive that one would expect the Orthodox to print up copies and hand them out on street corners. However, I would like — as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid turned Orthodox convert — to pause for a moment and argue that this newspaper story is way too positive.

The main thrust of the story is that some evangelical Protestants, apparently smart ones who like beautiful worship, are fleeing all of those giant suburban megachurches and hiding out from the modern world in Orthodox sanctuaries.

I cannot deny that some of that is true. That being the case, it would have been good to have included some quotes from evangelicals who think this is a bad thing. In other words, there are evangelicals who are, as we like to say, “Romeaphobic” and see the “evangelical Orthodox” trend as a bad thing, a drift into dead ritual. If would have added balance, and a zing of tension, to have talked to some of them. There are a few large evangelical Protestant churches in Dallas, even if they do not receive large amounts of coverage in the News. Trust me on this.

Meanwhile, I would also assume that there are leaders in the progressive oldline Protestant churches in Dallas who are — it’s a pretty conservative city, after all — seeing some of their more orthodox members convert to Orthodoxy. Some progressive Protestants like to hang out at Southern Methodist University. It would have been interesting to hear from them. Even the Roman Catholic heirarchy in Dallas has a bit of a progressive streak on liturgy and other issues. It would have been edgy to have called the archdiocesan spokesman for a reaction.

In other words, there are two or more sides to this story. Orthodoxy has its own internal struggles in North America, as its ethnic era fades and the emphasis moves to blending the converts into a larger, more complex body. There is more to this than bookish people escaping all those evil megachurches. I hope the News revisits the story.

Pre-modern pope faces post-whatever Europe

20050419_elezione.jpgThe noted American Catholic theologian Maureen Dowd has already served up the official talking points for the first wave of coverage of Pope Benedict XVI. This pretty much covers the terrain, which the MSM is covering with various degrees of depth and balance. Ready?

The white smoke . . . signaled that the Vatican thinks what it needs to bring it into modernity is the oldest pope since the 18th century: Joseph Ratzinger, a 78-year-old hidebound archconservative who ran the office that used to be called the Inquisition and who once belonged to Hitler Youth. For American Catholics — especially women and Democratic pro-choice Catholic pols — the cafeteria is officially closed. After all, Cardinal Ratzinger, nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler” and “the Enforcer,” helped deny Communion rights to John Kerry and other Catholic politicians in the 2004 election.

Has the Roman Catholic Church actually established a civil right to receive Communion? I thought that was linked, somehow, with going to confession and being in union with the Church’s teachings. In other words, I think bishops and cardinals and folks like that do have a historic role to play in deciding who is OK and who is not OK.

But I digress. The key theme in much of the early coverage has been the new pope’s status as an anti-modern thinker, which would make him a pre-modern thinker.

The irony, of course, is that this man comes out of the heart of liberal Catholic academia in the spiritually chilly confines of modern Europe. The man knows modernity inside out and probably speaks pretty fluent postmodernism, to boot. In other words, he is a traitor to his class.

The smoking-gun document in all of these discussions is the remarkable sermon — a true statement, even if you hated it — that then-Cardinal Ratzinger preached immediately before the start of the conclave. Here is the money quote:

How many winds of teaching we have known in these last decades, how many ideologies, how many ways of thinking. . . . The little vessel of thought of many Christians has often been rocked by these waves — hurled from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, to the point of libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. New sects are born every day and we see what Saint Paul says in terms of human trickery and cunning that tends to lead to error (cf Eph 4:14). To have a clear faith, according to the Creed of the Church, is often labelled as fundamentalism. While relativism, i.e. letting oneself be “swept along by any wind of doctrine”, seems to be the only up-to-date way to behave. A dictatorship of relativism is taking shape which recognizes nothing as definite and for the ultimate measure is simply one’s own self and its desires.

We, instead, have another measure: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism.

This is one of those documents that you really need to read for yourself, so click here. I promise you that Andrew Sullivan is saving a copy.

If you are looking for sympathetic commentary on the new pope, his beliefs and where those beliefs came from, you might want to check out this essay by Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel, posted at the Ethics & Public Policy Center’s homepage. Here is his take on the whole pre-modern issue, which notes what I predict is the main theme in the next, more serious, wave of coverage — this pope and his take on the spiritual crisis of modern Europe and, thus, the future of North America:

Benedict XVI has long been concerned that the West risks the possibility of a new Dark Age. What he described in a sermon on the day before his election as a new “dictatorship of relativism” is one dimension of the problem. If there is only “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing that we understand as “the truth,” then on what principled basis is the West to defend its greatest accomplishments: equality before the law, tolerance and civility, religious freedom and the rights of conscience, democratic self-governance? If the only measure of us is us, isn’t the horizon of our aspiration greatly foreshortened? (And if you want to see what that kind of metaphysical and spiritual boredom can do to a once-great civilization, look around Western Europe, where self-absorption and a stubborn resistance to saying that anything is “true” has led a continent to the brink of demographic suicide.)

Weigel notes one event for the media to carve on the calendar as a must — World Youth Day, in Pope Benedict’s homeland. That is 117 days away, according to the event’s press-friendly homepage.

The other must-cover scene has not been put on the calendar yet, but I think it is safe to assume it will come relatively soon. If it does not, then that is a huge story.

Think about it: What will this pope say when he addresses a gathering of European Union leaders? This is the mind behind the Vatican’s harsh critique of the EU’s entire approach to faith, secularism and the post-Christian reality of Europe. Watch for that tense media dance to begin — pronto.

We thought this conclave would center on the Third World. It may end up sending shock waves — if modern Catholicism still has the power to trigger shock waves — through postmodern or pre-Muslim Europe.