Mourning Columbine, yet again

columbineThere are very few news stories that have affected me as deeply as the massacre at Columbine High School. Obviously, Sept. 11 hit the whole country. It still stands as an event that I cannot even comprehend. But for me as someone who lived on that side of Denver for a decade, Columbine remains a kind of small-scale, very personal, horror that stands alone.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that many people tried to tone down the religion element of this complex story. This story was more than the story of one or two or three young people who were gunned down after they confessed their faith. There was more to this than debates about what is and what is not martyrdom.

In that video made before their rampage, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold talked about starting a “religious war” and mocked an outspoken Christian girl named Rachel. In audio tapes aired on CNN, and transcripts released by parents, Klebold said: “Stuck-up little b---- , you f------ little Christianity, godly little w----.”

Harris: “Yeah, ‘I love Jesus, I love Jesus.’ … Shut the f--- up.”

Klebold: “What would Jesus do? What would I do? (Makes shotgun sound at camera)”

“Rachel,” of course, must have been Rachel Joy Scott, who wrote in her personal journal — precisely one year before the tragedy — these words: “I have no more personal friends at school. But you know what? I am not going to apologize for speaking the name of Jesus, I am not going to justify my faith to them, and I am not going to hide the light that God has put into me. If I have to sacrifice everything I will. I will take it.”

There’s so, so, so much more to this story, of course. But all of that came back the other day as I read Stephanie Simon’s news feature in the Los Angeles Times about the dedication of the new memorial near the high school. It has all the small details that you would expect:

Cut into the hillside, the memorial features two curving walls of rough red sandstone. The outer wall is engraved with remarks from the community about that day. The inner wall supports 13 granite slabs, each inscribed with a victim’s name and a message from the family.

It’s a beautiful place. Wind rustles golden trees. Laughter drifts from a nearby playground. …

Cassie Bernall longed to know heaven. Lauren Townsend wrote in her diary: “I am not afraid of death for it is only a transition.” John Tomlin lost his faith for some time, then reconnected, with great joy. Rachel Scott’s killers asked if she believed in God. Her final words: “You know I do!” …

The victims of Columbine were regular kids, and that’s how they are honored here. They asked annoying questions, failed to make the soccer team, were obsessed with Chevy trucks — and the Packers. They struggled with depression. They liked ice cream.

The GetReligionistas love Simon’s work, as a rule. But this story is almost too nice.

You really wouldn’t know, unless you followed the coverage through the year, how hard it was to cross the tricky church-state territory surrounding that killing field. There were debates about memorial services. There were debates about civic prayers. There were debates about religious expressions in memorial tiles inside the school. Could you use crosses in a civic memorial? The debates were painful, but that was to be expected.

Simon says that there were complex issues linked to the memorial, but keeps things gentle.

Talk of a memorial began soon after the last funeral. But families of the victims wanted to focus first on rebuilding the school library, where Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris targeted several classmates, then turned their guns fatally on themselves.

It would be nearly four years before parents, teachers and civic leaders agreed on a memorial design. It took another four years to come up with $1.5 million for construction.

This is part of the story and a very beautiful part. But, sadly, we live in a day and age when it is even hard to mourn without battles over freedom of religion. I have no idea how you cover this story now, without focusing on the divisions as well as the unity.

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Those parish school puzzles

catholic schoolsAre African Americans converting to Catholicism anymore? As Nicholas Lemann writes in The Promised Land, the old saying in Chicago was that when water was sprinkled on the forehead of a black baby, he or she was baptized essentially into three interlocking institutions: the Catholic Church, the Democratic Party, and the local buildings-trade union. Now one wonders what a future historian would write about the situation today.

This question should have come up in Carla Rivera’s otherwise fine story about the “grim economic reality” facing the nation’s Catholic schools. Ms. Rivera presented eye-popping statistics — there were 850 fewer Catholic schools in 2005 than 1990, and enrollment has dropped to a low of 2.3 million. She attributes this decline to fewer priests and nuns, a population shift from cities to suburbs, rising tuition costs. I don’t buy it.

Although no one familiar with Catholic schools would dispute those explanations, they tell only part of the story.

Suburbanization can’t be the main factor; Catholic schools have been overwhelmingly suburban since at least the 1970s. A declining share of priests and nuns can’t be the main factor, either; those figures plummeted in the 1970s and ’80s, yet the big drop-off did not occur until the 1990s. And rising tuition costs can’t be the top reason; as Ms. Rivera’s story implies, plenty of Hispanic kids are attending Catholic schools.

So there must be another reason or three in this what-dunit. One suspect clearly is the church-sex abuse scandal. Another is the reduced size of Catholic families, largely because of widespread use of birth control. Yet perhaps the most overlooked suspect is the failure of Catholics, black and white, to convert their black Protestant brethren or resistance by black Protestants to Catholic evangelization.

This explanation certainly resonates with me. My youngest sister, Sarah, teaches first grade at St. Elizabeth’s in west Oakland. When I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, St. Elizabeth’s student population was all black (Protestant). Now the school is virtually all Hispanic (Catholic).

My sister’s school is not alone. As The Washington Post noted recently, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington endured vituperation after he proposed secularizing numerous Catholic schools:

(S)ome parents and parishioners reacted angrily, saying Wuerl’s proposal would gut high-quality education for black children. The majority of the students in the schools that would be affected are black and not Catholic. The archdiocese subsidizes a large portion of their tuition.

According to Post reporters Theola Labbe and Jacqueline Salmon, Catholic officials blamed the introduction of Charter schools in the late 1990s:

Soon after he arrived in the District in June 2006, Wuerl said he heard from Catholic education officials that the inner-city schools were no longer financially viable. Part of the reason was that many poor families were choosing charter schools, which are free.

But the end of the Post story shows that charter schools can’t be the main reason. After all, Hispanics continue to attend Catholic schools in the diocese of Arlington, Va.:

There, school enrollment has swelled 25 percent. The diocese has opened eight elementary schools because of rapid growth in the area’s outer suburbs and rising numbers of Hispanic Catholic immigrants in the closer-in suburbs.

For whatever reason, black Protestants today are not following in the footsteps of their forebears in such black Catholic enclaves as Chicago and New Orleans. Granted, a reporter who nailed this story would deserve the Pulitzer. But he or she could explain why Catholic schools are diverse but, well, increasingly parochial.

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Parsing pagans properly

pagan holidayTom Breen is an extraordinarily good newsman in the Associated Press’ Charleston, West Virginia, bureau. He manages to write compelling national stories by focusing on local trends and events. I’ve been reading his coverage of the sad case of a 20-year-old black woman who was raped and tortured. Six white individuals have been charged in the crime. Terry highlighted his story this past summer about small-town churches struggling to keep their doors open. His thoughtful comments have enlightened many discussions here at GetReligion, too.

I was happy to see the way he covered the news coming out of Marshall University. Here’s how he gets us into the story:

When George Fain visits a grave to mark a pagan holiday, she won’t have to worry about the work she’s missing in her classes at Marshall University.

That’s because her absence Thursday on the Samhain holiday has been approved by the Huntington school, which for the first time is recognizing pagan students’ desire to be excused from class for religious holidays and festivals.

The university with an enrollment of about 14,000 may be the only school in the country to formally protect pagan students from being penalized for missing work that falls on religious holidays, although others have catchall policies they say protect students of every religious faith.

The story has been getting a lot of play, so I’m thankful for how thorough and illuminating his story was. Breen took it beyond West Virginia to find out how other universities handle pagan holidays and to look at broader developments with pagan religious recognition, such as the Pentagon’s recent decision to allow pagans a five-pointed star on veteran gravestones.

Breen took the time to interview reliable authorities on paganism, including Ronald Hutton and Helen Berger. He also interviewed our very own Jason Pitzl-Waters. And by “our,” I mean someone who is a valuable member of our commenting community. Pitzl-Waters’ Wild Hunt blog is a must-read for those interested in news and events dealing with the modern Pagan and Heathen communities — and religion coverage in general.

With the general lack of information about pagans, and the diverse group of people who fit under its umbrella, Breen’s story clarified what the term means:

The term “pagan” encompasses a diverse array of faiths that can include Celtic, Druid, Native American and various earth-centered and nature-based beliefs.

“What binds us together isn’t our theology, necessarily,” Pitzl-Waters said. “What binds us together is a sense of communal practice and togetherness.”

I asked Jason about the story and he said it was an important step in journalistic coverage to address modern paganism as a diverse movement of unique religious faiths, rather than as, say, a generic term for Wicca. Pagans have a broad diversity of thought within their religious culture, in the same way that monotheists do. One thing I find interesting is that The Associated Press Stylebook calls for a lower-case p when referring to pagans. And yet most pagan resources one finds in print use a capital p. Which do you think it should be?

Anyway, a shout-out to Tom Breen, for another well-researched and reported story. And to Jason Pitzl-Waters for his helpful quotes in same.

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Mouw underlines a non-negotiable point

stairway to heavenThe other day, I raised a question or two — as I tend to do — about a Los Angeles Times story on an interfaith gathering of scholars to address scriptures that appear to “assert the superiority of one belief system over others.”

If you read the Times story, it would seem that all of the Christians, Jews and Muslims in this forum were pretty much on the same page, with few if any sparks of disagreement. It was, frankly, one of those “Can’t we all just get along?” stories that suggested a bright future for Unitarian-Universalist evangelists. However, I also noted:

Late, late, late in the story we learn that one of the other speakers at the forum was the Rev. Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. If I am not mistaken, Fuller is an evangelical Protestant seminary with Reformed theological roots. Did Mouw agree with the other scholars who were quoted by the Times? Was Mouw so out of line that he could not be quoted? If he was in step with the others, that would be a big story in and of itself.

As it turns out, Mouw has responded to my questions in a comment on that post, and I think it’s important to pull it out to the front page and let more GetReligion readers see it. We do that from time to time when people directly involved in stories and posts write us. So here is what the Fuller Seminary president has to say, in full:

I will try to clarify, as much as I can in some brief comments, my take on the important questions you raise.

It was an interesting conference. Each group was asked to talk about texts within their own tradition with which they have struggled. We were not all expected to deal with overtly inter-religious questions. I dealt with Romans 13, since it is a classic locus for evangelical discussions of political authority. But my Fuller colleague Love Sechrest, a young New Testament scholar dealt with some key texts in Galatians on Christ abolishing the law — what she said would have been approved of in any evangelical gathering.

For the record, I was interviewed by the LA Times reporter afterward, and she asked me what I thought of dialogues like this. I said — and she chose not to quote me in the story — that I believe that we need to be in dialogue, and to come with a willingness genuinely to learn from others. But, I quickly added, we do believe that Christ alone can save. My own view on this has been set forth publicly on many occasions. Dialogue with other religions has to aim at three goals: one is learning from others; another is working together for the “shalom of the City” (Jer. 29); but in all of this we must always be ready to point to the Jesus as the only One who is mighty to save. I am willing to allow some mystery in how Jesus actually gets ahold of people — but he alone is the Way.

I also had a fine conversation with a young woman rabbi who certainly did not think me wishy-washy on these matters. “Are you saying that your religious perspective is right and mine is wrong?” she asked. I responded: “I am saying that what is non-negotiable for me is that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah. That is simply something that we disagree about. You think I am wrong in saying that, and I think you are wrong in denying it. This is a fundamental disagreement.”

There are doctrinal points here that form a kind of spectrum of beliefs about the nature and identity of Jesus Christ and how one does or does not end up in heaven or hell.

In this case, the key is how readers have read Mouw’s statement that he is willing to “allow some mystery in how Jesus actually gets ahold of people.” Do people have to walk an aisle in a particular church? Are the good works and the honest faith expressed in other world religions enough to make someone what many Catholic theologians would call an “anonymous Christian,” a person who is saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, even if they do not believe in Jesus Christ. What about people who explicitly reject Jesus? What about the afterlife? Is the human soul still free to change (think C.S. Lewis and his book The Great Divorce) after death, or does free will end at the grave?

There are many, many variations and I urge you please, please, please not to get started arguing about them in the comments pages.

The key here is whether the Times report on the conference was seriously weakened by the omission of Mouw’s words of dissent or disagreement. I would argue that some kind of balance was needed and, as it turned out, there were voices in the room that tried to provide balance or, at the very least, more nuance.

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Too few words for America’s many faiths

BenjaminFranklinIn celebrating its 150th anniversary, The Atlantic invited writers and artists to discuss the future of the American idea. The results, while not entirely disheartening, leave the impression of a people largely ill at ease with their nation’s future and, in a few cases, openly contemptuous of the country’s elected leaders (or, in the words of Greil Marcus, “those who presume to rule the nation”).

The Atlantic asked writers to limit themselves to 300 words, and it ended up with exercises in tourism-bureau boosterism (Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona), self-promotion (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California), platitudes worthy of a high-school commencement address (the Rev. T.D. Jakes) and mau-mauing about America’s “niggerization” of the world (Cornel West, naturally).

When religion is mentioned at all, it is usually as a divisive force that must be controlled, as in this sentence by Napolitano: “This modern frontier also encompasses a sense of endless personal possibility, unconstrained by color, background, religion, caste, or any of the myriad labels we humans use to dehumanize each other.”

The most direct confrontation on religion occurs on page 44, in which Sam Harris delivers his astounding claim that four-fifths of Americans “believe that Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his magic powers” and Tim LaHaye quickly shifts from the nation’s founding by God-fearing forefathers to the near-destruction of American ideals by — wait for it — godless public schools. The essays by Harris and LaHaye are equally facile in blaming a blob called they, shaped more by the authors’ ideological presumptions than by reality.

Some authors (Joyce Carol Oates, Edward O. Wilson, John Hope Franklin, Robert Pinksy) were so tiresome in their ax-grinding that by page 49 I was tempted to abandon the symposium in favor of an ad — “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” — that recently sent The Nation‘s Barbara Ehrenreich into a tizzy.

Eventually, though, two voices delivered rewarding words. One selection came from an online-only essay by Michael Novak, who struck the right balance on religion’s place in American history:

Ben Franklin proposed as the national motto “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” The Virginians defined liberty of conscience as a natural right. They based “the first secular nation” on Judeo-Christian premises about God and conscience — that is, acknowledging not the right of Americans alone, nor of Christians and Jews alone, but of all human beings, including “Mahometans, Hindoos,” and atheists.

The other came from Tom Wolfe, who defied the editors’ 300-word limit, but whose 2,100-word essay appeared anyway:

America remains, as it has been from the very beginning, the freest, most open country in the world, encouraging one and all to compete pell-mell for any great goal that exists and to try every sort of innovation, no matter how far-fetched it may seem, in order to achieve it. It is largely this open invitation to ambition that accounts for America’s military and economic supremacy and absolute dominance in science, medicine, technology, and every other intellectual pursuit that can be measured objectively. And it is absolute.

Yet from our college faculties and “public intellectuals” come the grimmest of warnings. The government has assumed Big Brother powers on the pretext of protecting us from Terror, and the dark night of fascism is descending upon America. As Orwell might have put it, only an idiot or an intellectual could actually believe that.

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Lutherans in our midst

LutherandKatieI was quite surprised to see the story Terry sent me from yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. Written by religion reporter K. Connie Kang, the story is about the holy day being celebrated today by millions of Lutherans, as well as Christians of various Protestant denominations: Reformation Sunday.

The last time I wrote about a Kang story was her excellent piece on Epiphany. It’s so nice to see a reporter delve into the liturgical calendar for story ideas:

This liturgical festival, marking Martin Luther’s 16th century challenge to papal authority by nailing 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, inspired the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of Western civilization.

Luther’s theses, challenging certain practices and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, ultimately led to the division of Europe into two camps and triggered religious wars that lasted decades.

“The Reformation was about the centrality of Christ in the life of the individual and centrality of the word of God in worship,” said the Rev. Nathan P. Feldmeth, an expert on medieval and Reformation history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

At the heart of the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith — meaning people are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by good deeds, Feldmeth said.

Luther said works are important, but they are a natural outgrowth of salvation — not crucial to earning it.

I think Luther may have been a tad bit stronger about precisely how much our works accomplish toward our salvation, but I’m not quibbling because I’m so darn happy to see a story about Reformation Sunday in a major paper. My church is holding a special service today following the order of Luther’s Deutsche Messe (except in English, just as Martin “Vernacular” Luther would have liked), with a special Bible Class explaining the history and meaning of the service. I’m sure, lest there be a riot, that we will heartily sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” True aside, here: I have sung that hymn in a Roman Catholic church in Maryland. I still don’t understand how the battle hymn of the Reformation gets sung during a Catholic service. Anyway, later I’m gathering with friends for a party (complete with German beverages and food).

Kang gets a bit of local color in her story, explaining that one area congregation is celebrating the 400th birthday of Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt and a presentation by theologian Madeleine Forell Marshall, a professor of religion and literature at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, who has translated Luther and Gerhardt’s hymns into contemporary English:

The cozy sanctuary, with its dark wood ceilings and exquisite stained-glass windows, will be decked out in red — red altar cloths, red banners and red hangings, called paraments, from the altar, pulpit and lectern.

The Rev. John Rollefson, pastor of the church, donning a red chasuble, will deliver a sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

As the Gospel of Luke tells the story, the Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But, the tax collector, overcome with his sinfulness, beat his chest and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It was the tax collector, Jesus said, not the Pharisee who went home justified before God. Quoting Jesus, Luke wrote: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The parable is a “great text” for Reformation Sunday, Rollefson said, because so many religious people are self-righteous.

“Christians, particularly Christians in the American setting, tend to be quite self-congratulatory about their piety,” he said. “Jesus’ punch line is that he came to save sinners — those who know their need of God, rather than those who think they’re doing God a favor.”

LutherRose350Again, so nice to have a reporter actually include details like what text a local pastor will preach on. Later Kang explains the significance of red (the color of the Holy Spirit as well as martyrdom) as well as the significance of the Reformation in the way Christians worship, study the Bible and pray:

The sermon has become much more important and a longer part of the service since the Reformation, Feldmeth said, because it was used to expound upon biblical passages. Luther also introduced the idea of congregational singing.

The story is long, giving the reporter time to explain what Luther was protesting (the use of indulgences, among other things) and his subsequent excommunication from the Catholic Church. She doesn’t sugarcoat Luther but neither does she make his intolerance a major part of the story. She includes nice words from the unlikely source of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. For that matter, she includes criticism from an unlikely source, too: Luther’s wife Katie Van Bora. (That’s Lucas Cranach the Elder’s depiction of Katie and Martin above.)

The Fayetteville Observer also had a Reformation Sunday story (all based on one source). Let us know if you see any local coverage that’s worthwhile.

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5Q+1 as David Crumm shifts into overdrive

David Crumm Column PhotoGetReligion’s friend David Crumm sent email this week with the news that he will take a months-long leave of absence from the Detroit Free Press to develop a project called Read the Spirit. To call Read the Spirit a blog focused on religion news would be an understatement.

Here’s how David described it:

In August, we hosted a national conference in Ann Arbor for a network of writers, editors, artists, web gurus, scholars, clergy who’ll be working with us over the next year or two on a whole new approach to religion in media.

The tip of our iceberg is up online already — the “daily voice” of our new project. Over the coming year, we’ve got online projects lined up, some innovative publishing projects, etc. Even a new documentary film unit that’s formed.

. . . This week, we’re running a 5-part multimedia series on A Pilgrimage to Iona, based on reporting I’ve just done with a photographer and videographer.

To gain a further sense of what David and his many friends have in store, read their Ten 21st-Century Principles of Religious Publishing.

I’ll miss David’s sharp insights in the Free Press, but with that loss comes the gift of an important new voice on the Web.

Terry took the opportunity to invite David’s participation in our 5Q+1 feature, and David jumped right in.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I listen to National Public Radio, BBC especially, because they’ve got the biggest global reporting network these days. I read Atlantic, New Yorker, New York Times every day, Vanity Fair, Weavings, National Catholic Reporter, PC Gamer. Most importantly, I walk through the magazine, book, music and DVD aisles of Target stores once a week. I walk through Borders’ religion-spirituality sections at least once a week plus their DVD and magazine sections. I cruise comic book racks, graphic novel shelves — and I try to walk through mystery novels sections at least a couple of times a month. If you check New York Times Book Review sections weekly, you’ll find that Americans read more murder mysteries than any other single category of books — so discerning themes that show up in mystery novels says a lot about Americans’ spiritual imagination.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

There are many. But the Goliath story that we don’t get — and that will affect all of us — is understanding the aging process. Just admitting that we are aging — and that this is not a disease — is a huge transformation that’s starting. We’re just on the leading edge of this story — and those voices who explore aging in terms of its spiritual gifts — not merely its diseases to be cured — will be the beloved prophets in media who we’ll look back to as pioneers in the years to come.

I’m working on that right now myself — and welcome others.

Think of how Dr. Spock saw the Goliath of child care after World War II.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I’ve already said that I’ll be watching the aging story. Also, I’ll be watching closely the way that American media covers what we seem to call Third World peoples. Not just big-picture stories in which a reporter parachutes into some corner of the world or analysis pieces by scholars — but I want to see how the voices of real people emerge from these communities in our media. Can we even see or hear them over here in the States? This, to me, is an enormous challenge in an era when much of American media is going through a historic transformation — and we’re pulling back many of our outpost reporting bureaus.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Religions — and, more broadly, spiritual aspirations — are key components in the fuel that drives individuals, communities, nations.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

I’m amazed by all of the stories of “change” — folks like Anthony Flew and Frank Schaeffer who’ve made changes in their spiritual lives — and this seems to be an occasion for milestone media coverage — when the irony is that most of us do change over time, don’t we? I think it’s ironic that news of someone changing their spiritual stance is considered something momentous.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

The Good News for those who cover religion is that, while media forms and firms are transforming themselves and some types of media may be imploding in this new age — accurate, balanced and insightful coverage of religion and spirituality remains profoundly important — and the World Values Survey data examining countries around the world with objective, scientific measuring tools says that Americans remain overwhelmingly interested in these themes.

There’s a very bright future for us out there in media that focuses on religion and spirituality.

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Revenge of the tmatt trio (again)

Christ PantocratorJust what I needed — more GetReligion guilt.

Last weekend, I was out in Southern California (just as the winds started to pick up) and had a chance to read the Los Angeles Times every day on dead tree pulp, rather than trying to find my way through the digital version online. That means you have a chance to pick through all of the pages of the physical newspaper and look for ghosts. Sure enough, there are lots of them. Feel those guilt pangs?

This time, there was a story back in the local news section that offered a perfect example of the dreaded tmatt trio. Let’s see if you can spot the “trio” issue that shows up.

The story by reporter K. Connie Kang focused on a meeting in Los Angeles in which a collection of scholars and clergy — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — met to wrestle with the “dark side” of their traditions, those “problematic” scripture passages that appear to teach that some things are true and other things are not true.

Wait, that isn’t how the story puts it. It says the discussion focused on scriptures that appear to “assert the superiority of one belief system over others.”

Like what, you ask?

… (The) Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, ecumenical and interreligous official of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, quoted from the Gospel of Mark: “Go into the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, director of the Institute for the Study of Jewish-Muslim Interrelations at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, mentioned a series of texts, including a verse from Deuteronomy: “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples of the earth the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people.”

And Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh (Islamic Law) Council of North America, quoted from the Koran: “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies: they are allies only to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them — God does not guide such wrongdoers.”

Mohammed s 01Now, rest assured that none of these scriptures actually mean what they appear to mean, according to the scholars. And rest assured that the Los Angeles Times does not quote anyone who disagrees with the scholars on this particular panel, which I would assume is composed of “moderates.”

The whole story left me with some questions:

• When quoting strong statements of religious doctrine, journalists usually soften these statements by noting that this is the viewpoint of the person speaking.

For example, a person may be quoted as saying that he — singular — believes the Bible teaches that sex outside of marriage is sin when what the person was saying is that the Catholic or Orthodox churches have taught that doctrine for 2,000 years. There are very few of these cushy statements in this article. These scholars are allowed to speak in absolutes. Why?

• Does the Roman Catholic Church officially teach that salvation is possible outside of the grace of Jesus Christ? That would appear to be the case, based on this article. Is something missing here?

• Late, late, late in the story we learn that one of the other speakers at the forum was the Rev. Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. If I am not mistaken, Fuller is an evangelical Protestant seminary with Reformed theological roots. Did Mouw agree with the other scholars who were quoted by the Times? Was Mouw so out of line that he could not be quoted? If he was in step with the others, that would be a big story in and of itself.

Now, check your scorecard. And here are the three questions in the tmatt trio once again. These are, of course, the questions that I have found — as a journalist — highly useful in finding out where Christian leaders fit into a spectrum of belief between left and right. These questions always yield interesting information.

1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

26733However, at this event it was a rabbi who was allowed to make the final statement that summed up the day and, thus, the unchallenged big idea of the Times report.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which co-sponsored the event with Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., said all people of faith need to “take ownership of their most difficult texts, wrestle with them — not run away from them — but confront them, where appropriate, set them in their proper historical context. …

In some instances, he continued, people of faith need to say to themselves, “This is part of my sacred tradition, but I reject it. I find this text offensive. It goes against my own morality, and it goes against what I believe God expects of me in the world today.”

Many people would say “amen.” Many would not. Does the Los Angeles Times realize that?

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