Theology breaks out

virginia tech war memorialThe tragic shootings Monday at Virginia Tech tell a story about life and death, and whenever those subjects are discussed religion will no doubt become involved. Tmatt wrote on Tuesday that the “religion shoe” would soon drop. And as predicted, religion did drop throughout the day’s memorial service.

The memorial service Tuesday for the Virginia Tech community has been largely buried by most of the news outlets covering this tragedy. It is difficult to fault the reporters and editors for the coverage of this horrific event so far, primarily because there is so much that we still do not know and cannot know about the events. As the details of the shooter and the murders come out, that will rightly receive most of the coverage.

But I want to take a moment to reflect on the memorial service and consider the significance of the words said. Coverage of the memorial service has been sparse so far, but there was deep theological meaning carried in the speeches by everyone from President Bush to a leader in Blacksburg’s Muslim community. News stories on forgiveness and determination are going to come along with, sadly, stories about attempts at retribution. Both responses are affected by a community’s religious tradition and practice (or lack thereof).

Starting with The Washington Post‘s front-page article by Michelle Boorstein, reporters are picking up on the bits and pieces of the religious language used by nearly all the speakers:

Citing the biblical Job and his struggle to understand suffering, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) told the crowd that violence-weary people around the world are watching Blacksburg.

“As you wrestle with despair, do not lose hold of that spirit of community you have,” he said, asking mourners to help the victims’ families and react in a way that will benefit people watching. “The world needs you to.”

Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News asked in response to tmatt’s post if there was a “more logically consistent” story to use in a situation like this than the one found in biblical story of Job. “As a matter of journalism, I’ve swung at the theodicy pitch several times over the years. The stories are pretty much interchangeable, but for the details at the top about the tragedy of the moment,” Weiss says.

It’s a great question, and similar questions could be asked of the other memorial-service speakers. Reporters could also ask the reasons they were chosen to help the community grieve publicly. The answers would say a lot about the Virginia Tech community.

More from Kaine in this transcript of the service:

A second reaction that is a natural reaction is anger, anger at the gunman, anger at the circumstance, what could have been done different? Could something have happened? That’s natural as well, one of the most powerful stories in the human history of stories is that great story central to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the story of Job from the Old Testament, afflicted with all kinds of tragedies in his family and health, and he was angry. He was angry at his circumstances. He was angry at his creator. He argued with God, he didn’t lose his faith, but it’s OK to argue, it’s OK to be angry. Those emotions are natural as well.

And finally, the emotions of the family members most affected, beyond grief, losing a son, losing a daughter, a brother, a sister, losing a close friend, it can go beyond grief to isolation and feeling despair. Those haunting words that were uttered on a hill on Calvary, my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Despair is a natural emotion at a time like this.

Bush’s statement amplified the problem of evil, and made me think that Michael Gerson freelanced a speech for the White House for this occasion.

Virginia Tech is located in the relatively small town of Blacksburg, where I lived in for a summer while working at The Roanoke Times. From my experience, the place is not exactly a town with a church on every corner. But based on my experience there, there is a solid undercurrent of belief. A dominant theme I noticed, and this is probably similar in other college towns, was the strong emphasis on interfaith worship and fellowship. This was represented in the memorial service’s other speakers: Saki Riyadh, a leader in the local Muslim community; Julie Still from Living Buddhism of Virginia Tech; Sue Kurtz, director of Hillel of Virginia Tech; and the Rev. Bill King, director of Lutheran Campus Ministries.

For the purpose of highlighting a religion ghost in the memorial service, I want to compare some of the words spoken by of Bush and Julie Still of Living Buddhism. First, here is Bush:

People who have never met you are praying for you. They’re praying for your friends who have fallen and who are injured. There’s a power in these prayers, real power. In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God. As the Scriptures tells us, don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

And here is Still:

In the words of [Daisaku Ikeda], a well-known Buddhist leader, “when great evil occurs, great good follows, but great good does not come about on its own. Courage is always required to accomplish great good.” Now is the time for us to demonstrate the courage of non-violence, the courage to engage in dialogue, the courage to listen to what we don’t want to hear, and the courage to control our desire for revenge and follow reason.

I am convinced that we are born into this world with an inherit good nature, and together we must restore our faith in humanity. I believe that from this tragedy, courage is the greatest and most endearing honor that we can give in the memory of our loved ones.

Bush and Still speak of overcoming evil with good and Still says that humans are born into this world with an inherently good nature. As words of comfort, what these words say about the individual’s worldview and perspective on life and death, good and evil, is a story worth following. And as Weiss says, “doing journalism about this stuff ain’t easy.”

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Waiting for the ‘why’ shoe to drop

hands in prayerYou’re waiting.

You’ve been out there clicking from site to site, because you know that the 24/7 cable-news channels are trapped in old-video-loop hell. You’re looking for new information, but you are also waiting.

You’re waiting for the shoe to drop. You know which shoe I am talking about — the religion shoe.

If you’re a journalist or an expert news consumer, you know that many on the left are going to preach about guns, while looking for television lights. You know that many on the right are going to defend current gun laws and call for stricter enforcement, while urgently trying to avoid television lights.

You know that, here inside the Beltway, there are people who are so into politics that they are sitting, remote controls in their hands, waiting to grade the candidates. Will Hillary Clinton look chilly? Will Barack Obama get the tone just right, with the right mixture of Scripture and concern? Will some Republican manage to look both pastoral and presidential? Will speechwriter Michael Gerson to come out of retirement?

You’ve seen the photos of mourners in church pews, believers offering comfort and seeking solace. You know that people will pray and pray and that journalists will aim cameras at them, because, you that’s what people in the Bible Belt do. They pray. People down in the southwest Virginia put Scriptures on big signs next to their highways and build huge crosses next to the Interstate. It’s a good photo, but it’s just prayer. Right?

You know the pope will say something and that — no matter what he says about the mysteries of life and death — it will show up in the news as a rather naive cry for world peace and for an end to violence. What was the name of that rabbi who wrote that old book, you know, When Bad Things Happen to Good People? Is he still alive? Can we get him on the air?

No, you’re waiting for the real religion angle to surface, the sexy one linked to violence and craziness. Religion seems to show up in every other major story these days.

Isn’t Jerry Falwell somewhere up the valley off Interstate 81? Maybe he’ll come to the campus and talk about jealousy, broken hearts and the sexual revolution. But probably not. He knows too much about campus life.

Or maybe Pat Robertson will say — something. Who knows what he’ll say.

Perhaps the atheist version of Robertson will call a press conference somewhere and say that this tragedy is more evidence that life is random and without purpose. Reporters need an atheist version of Robertson.

You’re waiting to find out what video game the shooter played, all hours of the day and night. Did he go to see 300 one too many times? Was he driven crazy by Satan or too many “Left Behind” novels? People on both sides of the Culture Wars want to know.

You’re waiting to see if he killed more women than men. You want to know if the big massacre started in the classroom of an evangelical professor who once witnessed to the shooter and made him mad.

You heard reporters say the shooter was Asian and you immediately thought: Asia? What part of Asia?

04a prayer candles 01You’re waiting for something that points toward the source of this evil. You want to know a source, don’t you? And if you covered the Columbine High School massacre, you may be thinking of that column that Peggy Noonan bashed out in the hours just after that hellish day, while the cable television channels were in old-video-loop hell. She wrote:

Think of it this way. Your child is an intelligent little fish. He swims in deep water. Waves of sound and sight, of thought and fact, come invisibly through that water, like radar; they go through him again and again, from this direction and that. The sound from the television is a wave, and the sound from the radio; the headlines on the newsstand, on the magazines, on the ad on the bus as it whizzes by–all are waves. The fish — your child — is bombarded and barely knows it. But the waves contain words like this, which I’ll limit to only one source, the news:

. . . was found strangled and is believed to have been sexually molested . . . had her breast implants removed . . . took the stand to say the killer was smiling the day the show aired . . . said the procedure is, in fact, legal infanticide . . . is thought to be connected to earlier sexual activity among teens . . . court battle over who owns the frozen sperm . . . contains songs that call for dominating and even imprisoning women . . . died of lethal injection . . . had threatened to kill her children . . . said that he turned and said, “You better put some ice on that” . . . had asked Kevorkian for help in killing himself . . . protested the game, which they said has gone beyond violence to sadism . . . showed no remorse . . . which is about a wager over whether he could sleep with another student . . . which is about her attempts to balance three lovers and a watchful fiance . . .

This is the ocean in which our children swim. This is the sound of our culture. It comes from all parts of our culture and reaches all parts of our culture, and all the people in it, which is everybody…

You’re waiting. You want to know the “why” in “who, what, when, where, why and how.”

I know that I do.

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Equality Rides with (Washington Post) Style

cbc 021You may wonder, in a few seconds, where this post is going and why it features photographs from recent Soulforce Equality Ride events. Hang in there with me. I have my reasons.

But first I want to start with a very honest private letter from a GetReligion reader named Tim J. It touches several bases and deserves to be read. Please note that I have added some of my own links in his text, as a way of starting the dialogue:

Reading your recent “guilt” entry, I was reminded again of how you struggle to remind people that this blog is about media reporting on religion, while so many of your readers (including myself) are more interested in the religion stories themselves. I think I know the reason: Conservatives of my generation tend to take it as axiomatic that not only is the media liberal, it is irredeemably so. I read Shaw’s abortion bias series from 1990 and look at the situation two decades later and don’t see any progress. Between that and Linda Greenhouse, I would actually rather (and in fact do) read Daily Kos than CBS, if only because it doesn’t insult me by pretending to be objective.

I don’t even view this as any sort of great liberal conspiracy. I just think that media men are so surrounded by people of like opinions that they’re not even aware that these views are not necessarily normative. More damningly, though, I don’t think they’re even interested in expanding their horizons enough to understand where conservatives are coming from. I think that I’m not the only who feels that the only way we’ll get a fair shake is when the traditional media is discredited enough that people don’t listen to it anymore.

I think it’s pretty plain that you are not of that opinion, and you want to fix the system instead of tossing it out for a new one. So here is an entry I would very much like to see you write: what are your reasons for hoping that things will change? What positive steps have you seen media outlets taking to correct their ingrained liberal culture? What’s the good news?

So, Tim, if you chase even half of those links you’ll know a lot more about where I am coming from. You should also read a book chapter that I wrote on this subject, the original title of which was “Journalism strategies in a hostile marketplace.”

I would love to write a book on this topic someday (Proposed title: Why God Loves Journalists: And Why Too Many Christians Do Not). I think the key is that people keep tossing the “objectivity” bomb back and forth at one another. Many conservatives — secular and religious — are much too quick to throw in the intellectual towel and flee into the safe niches of European-style publications of news and opinion that preach to their various choirs. Meanwhile, there are voices on the left that are beginning to say that, yes indeed, there are in fact issues in which the debate is over and there is no need to quote voices on the opposite side of some of America’s hottest cultural debates.

But let’s not talk about the left, right now. There are plenty of people working in our best newspapers and magazines who are still committed to the basic values of what history books often call the “American model of the press.” The key is not whether individual people — left or right — can unplug their brains and somehow be “objective.” The issue here is whether we will have newsrooms that contain enough intellectural and cultural diversity to be fair and accurate when it comes time to cover stories rooted in hot, divisive questions about religion, morality and culture. Thus, that book chapter ends with this challenge for conservatives who, at the moment, are just as in love with “European” journalism as, well, Greenhouse seems to be.

You know things are messed up when conservatives start playing the “Golly, things are better in Europe” card.

Here’s the bottom line: I am convinced that the critics of mainstream journalism are doing little or nothing to improve mainstream journalism.

Will business leaders, politicos, philanthropists, religious leaders, educators, think-tank directors, denominational bureaucrats and others who shape opinions and life in moral and culturally conservative circles make attempts to interact with and critique the mainstream press, rather than merely blasting away in bitter shouting matches? Will they realize that the power of the press is built into the very foundations of America’s public life and, thus, is worthy of respect, if not admiration?

You see, how we answer these questions depends on the ultimate goal. It depends on whether the goal is to compete in the marketplace of American journalism or to avoid it, to take part in its debates or to flee to safer ground. How we answer these questions also depends on whether or not we believe that the craft of journalism truly matters.

No one needs to deny that there are major problems in the marketplace of American journalism. Journalistic standards of fairness, balance and even accuracy are under attack — from the left and from the right. But I, for one, am not willing to say that the journalistic canons are no longer relevant. I am not willing to say that it is time to give up on the American model of journalism. And it is impossible to accuse the news media elites of journalistic heresies if we, too, are journalistic heretics.

So why be optimistic, in an age in which digital technologies and the Web make it easier and easier for the advocates of advocacy journalism to put their views in print?

dordt2For starters, this digital revolution is not bad. All kinds of people, coming from a wide variety of worldviews, are getting to serve as unofficial “reader’s representatives” these days. Amen. I think this is forcing editors and publishers to listen — whether they want to or not — to a wider spectrum of their customers and/or critics. GetReligion, obviously, is one such weblog, with our own traditional-faith yet pro-journalism perspective. No one here is opposed to The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, World, Salon or publications of their ilk. The question is what happens to the mainstream.

And right now, the mainstream is nervous.

Cable news is slicing and dicing the broadcast audience. Local newspaper circulation numbers are declining to the point that some people are talking about readers — as in people who read news at all — becoming a “niche” in the general public. Comedy Central is a news channel, all of a sudden. Katie Couric is the face of CBS Evening News. Is that where we want to go with public discourse in this nation? Do we want the journalistic mainstream to embrace the European model in city after city and in our national news outlets? Or do we want to make an economic and intellectual case, one rooted in respect — not hatred — for the press and basic journalism?

I know it is frustrating to pick up great newspapers and see great examples of classic, accurate, balanced American journalism printed on the same page as one-sided works of European, advocacy journalism. These are confusing times.

If you don’t believe me, consider two very different stories in The Washington Post, one printed in the news pages and the other in the rather New Journalism, European environment of the Style section. I don’t want to get into too many details here, because the organization at which I teach — the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities — is deeply involved in the entire Equality Ride story. This is why the only Scripps Howard column I have written on this topic was a narrowly focused piece on the Rev. Mel White of Soulforce (I have known him since his ghostwriter days) and his articulate views on free speech.

First read the original news piece from last year, when the Soulforce leaders met with the CCCU. Note the headline: “A Drive for Understanding — Gays, Colleges Hope Tour Helps Dispel Mutual Stereotypes.”

Now read the Style piece from last week, when the Equality Riders came to Patrick Henry College (which is not a member of the CCCU) in Northern Virginia. Note the headline: “Young, Gay Christians, On a Bumpy Bus Ride — At Evangelical College, Protesters Target Culture That Excludes Them.”

Read the two stories then ask yourself a basic question: Would the people covered in both of these stories recognize their own words, their own beliefs in these texts? Would they say that their points of view were shown respect? Would people on both sides say that these stories were complete, that articulate voices on both sides were allowed to share information? Do the facts ring true? Would people on both sides say that both stories were balanced and accurate?

Read these two stories, taken from the same newspaper.

So which form of journalism do you want to advocate in the mainstream, in the dominate providers of news and information in our culture? Which model do you want to praise? To support? To encourage mainstream journalists to use as best they can?

Photos from Equality Ride 2007.

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He heard the music of the spheres

EinsteinWhile interviewing Walter Isaacson on Wednesday’s Fresh Air, guest host Dave Davies raised the point that Albert Einstein has become an icon of unattainable genius. True, but he’s arguably the one scientist who most strongly attracted the affection of Americans. Whether because of his wonderfully untamed hair, his doleful eyes or that photo in which he sticks out his tongue, Einstein also became an icon of the scientist as approachable, and maybe even humble, human being. What other acclaimed scientist could have inspired Walter Matthau’s oddball role in the film I.Q.?

Time‘s excerpt from Isaacson’s new biography reinforce the notion of Einstein as a humble scientist, especially in his relation to God and faith.

Early on there is a glimpse of spiritual precociousness, even as the family maid called him “the dopey one”:

Consequently, when Albert turned 6 and had to go to school, his parents did not care that there was no Jewish one near their home. Instead he went to the large Catholic school in their neighborhood. As the only Jew among the 70 students in his class, he took the standard course in Catholic religion and ended up enjoying it immensely.

Despite his parents’ secularism, or perhaps because of it, Einstein rather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism. “He was so fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious strictures in every detail,” his sister recalled. He ate no pork, kept kosher and obeyed the strictures of the Sabbath. He even composed his own hymns, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school.

Later came disenchantment:

“Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of free thinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression.”

But later still came his connection with the God of Spinoza. Isaacson offers a pithy summary of an interview Einstein granted to George Sylvester Viereck, a son of Germany who eventually showed a troubling enthusiasm for Nazism:

Viereck began by asking Einstein whether he considered himself a German or a Jew. “It’s possible to be both,” replied Einstein. “Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind.”

Should Jews try to assimilate? “We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform.”

To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

You accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

… Do you believe in immortality? “No. And one life is enough for me.”

Most striking is Einstein’s attitude toward atheists:

“There are people who say there is no God,” he told a friend. “But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos,” he explained.

In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. “The fanatical atheists,” he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ — cannot hear the music of the spheres.”

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Generic fundamentalists attack church-state wall!

left behind carnageBack in the early 1990s, I wrote a column about the “Scopes II” conflict in east Tennessee between public educators and conservative Christians.

Thus, I talked with Stephen Bates, author of an amazingly balanced book on the topic titled Battleground (attention “Religious Left”: Note the book’s endorsement from Bill Moyers), about ways for public-school educators to avoid these kinds of classroom wars.

By the end of the conversation, we had concluded that this is what school leaders should do: When faced with conservative or even fundamentalist parents who have concerns about class activities, textbooks or other issues in which their faith clashes with their children’s school work, public educators should do everything in their power to pretend that the parents making the requests are not Christians, but Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Native Americans or members of some other minority group.

I thought about this when readers started sending me links to columns about the recent events at Burlington Township (N.J.) High School, where police staged an emergency drill that simulated a Columbine-style attack on students, only this time by an armed “right-wing fundamentalist group.”

Yes, yes, I have read Michelle Malkin’s column on the event, the one she begins by noting:

Three years ago, I wrote about a mock terrorism drill at a public school district in Muskegon County, Mich. Instead of Islamic terrorists, educators substituted Christian homeschoolers. Yes, Christian homeschoolers. Here was the description of the school drill plan:

“The exercise will simulate an attack by a fictitious radical group called Wackos Against Schools and Education who believe everyone should be homeschooled. Under the scenario, a bomb is placed on the bus and is detonated while the bus is traveling on Durham, causing the bus to land on its side and fill with smoke.”

I mention this column merely because people keep bringing it up. Stop, please.

As always, I am more interested in the actual news coverage, which has been small in the mainstream press and massive in alternative conservative media. However, a Burlington County Times report by David Levinsky provided this much-quoted information:

The drill scenario was created by the Burlington Township Police Department and was written in an information packet describing the objectives of the drill. It specified that two armed men invade the high school through the front entrance, shoot several students in the hallways, then barricade themselves in the media center with 10 student hostages.

The written scenario used by police during the drill described the intruders as “members of a right-wing fundamentalist group called the ‘New Crusaders’ who do not believe in the separation of church and state. They also have a strong commitment in their right to bear arms.”

The scenario also indicated the mock gunmen went to the school seeking justice because the daughter of one of the men was given detention and eventually expelled for praying before the beginning of class.

tsteam3That seems rather straightforward to me. However, check out this statement in the same newspaper report:

Although police and township officials said the scenario was generic and did not specify any religion, many inferred it described the school invaders as conservative Christians.

Wow, I have no idea why local ministers and churchgoers would “infer” that public officials planning this tax-payer funded drill were suggesting that the “right-wing fundamentalists” in the “New Crusaders” who oppose the “separation of church and state” and were angry about a “school prayer” issue were Christians of some sort. No way. Get out of here.

Thus, the newspaper notes:

During the drill, the detectives portraying the hostage takers did not mention God or any religious figure, police officials said. A joint statement issued yesterday by Burlington Township municipal government and the school district said officials “regret any insensitivity that might have been inferred” by the scenario.

And that’s that. Newspapers always accept what public officials say, you know.

At this point, I am curious about the actual details of the drill. I would enjoy reading more factual material — you know, journalism — about what happened. How about some follow-up stories? Will students be allowed to talk to the press? What were the fake terrorists wearing? Is it true that they said nothing to their hostages?

If the drill was totally religion-free, as carried out, then how did this story break? How did the words on the pages of the written scenario leak out to all of the religious fanatics in homes and churches who like to “infer” bad things in order to attack public schools?

I realize that all of this is going to end up on a Focus on the Family broadcast, but I would really prefer to see real journalists try to answer some of these real questions. I like journalism. How about you?

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, N.J., managed to say the obvious, while stating that these kinds of drills are appropriate and needed:

Hindsight is always 20/20. However, in this case, the school district and township police should have foreseen that something like this could happen. Had they made the fictional terrorists from an Islamic extremist group, Muslim groups might have taken issue. Had they made the fictional terrorists Jewish, Jewish groups probably would have been upset. The same goes for any faith.

By making the fictional terrorists extremist Christians, not surprisingly, some Christians are upset.

And all the people (not just conservatives, hopefully) said, “Amen.”

The images are from the Left Behind video game. I couldn’t find any online images of Christian terrorists attacking public schools.

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Thoroughly modern United Methodists

YarmulkeThis is the time of year when religion-beat specialists scramble to try to cover a liturgical parade of events in both Judaism and in all forms of Christianity. In the past few decades, one of the standard stories around this time of year has focused on the historical links between Passover and Holy Week, between the Passover meal and Holy Communion.

The Baltimore Sun found a story this year that took this kind of interfaith communication one step further. In some cases, educational Seders for Christian groups make some Jews nervous. But it appears that United Methodist officials in this region have taken this kind of work to a whole new level. Reporter Liz F. Kay’s story begins:

When Methodist clergy and congregations around Baltimore have questions about Jesus’ Jewish heritage, they can turn to their conference rabbi.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church appointed Rabbi Joshua Martin Siegel last year to help put the Jewish roots of the Protestant faith in context through Bible study and demonstration. …

(To) have a local Methodist organization put a rabbi on staff is an uncommon approach, said the Rev. Larry Pickens of the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

“It’s a unique way of approaching spirituality, and I think it also helps Christians understand the relationship we have with the Jewish faith,” Pickens said.

The rabbi leads a weekly study session on Bible readings. He also acts as a spiritual adviser for conference employees and writes a column for UM Connection, the conference’s newspaper.

methodist symbolThe story raises all kinds of questions and answers most of them. I have also, during my years on the religion beat, heard of all kinds of Christian groups — evangelical, mainline and Catholic — working with rabbis and Jewish scholars on issues of this kind. It’s an interesting trend.

However, I don’t think I’ve ever read a story that addressed this kind of work that mentioned a rabbi actually assuming a role of spiritual leadership in a Christian organization.

This makes me what to ask: What is this rabbi’s opinion of basic Christian doctrines linked to the identity of Jesus, to the role of the Christian Messiah in salvation? While she was at it, the reporter could have asked the same questions to the United Methodist leaders themselves.

I realize that there is a wide spectrum of belief and practice in the United Methodist Church on these issues. There are United Methodist evangelicals and there are United Methodist “Universalists,” when it comes to salvation (and lots of United Methodists are parked at doctrinal points in between). I also realize that there is no way a progressive Christian body such as this one would be working with a “Messianic Jew” or “Hebrew Christian” who believes that Jesus is the Messiah. That would be even more controversial.

I know all of that. I simply find it interesting that these topics never came up in this story.

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Missing the Obama-Jesus story

obama as jesusDid you hear that Barack Obama looks a lot like Jesus in a sculpture at the The Art Institute of Chicago? Oh wait, he is supposed to be Jesus in the sculpture. Quick, someone inform Slate’s Timothy Noah, who has been dutifully chronicling the “Obama Messiah Watch.”

In all seriousness, the first news report I saw on this item was frightfully poor. A.J. Sterling of Fox News Chicago states glibly that “some may be offended by the suggestion that Christ is black, or that the United States could have a black president, but they don’t seem to be at the exhibit this night.” I guess the Grand Kleagle of the closest Klan had a previous engagement.

Where does Sterling come from? Sure, some don’t realize that Jesus probably looked a lot like your average Palestinian and are surprised when they see their blond-haired and blue-eyed image of Jesus shattered. But why is it necessary to suggest that this might offend some people? And why is the absence of the imagined offended people part of the news story?

Nathaniel Hernandez, an Associated Press writer, had a much more balanced and thorough report Tuesday that has a response from the Obama camp:

“While we respect First Amendment rights and don’t think the artist was trying to be offensive, Senator Obama, as a rule, isn’t a fan of art that offends religious sensibilities,” said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Cordero said the school had fielded plenty of calls about his work, “some of them from angry people.” He also said he had heard from a few potential buyers.

Bruce Jenkins, dean of the art school’s undergraduate program, said response to the piece — part of a student exhibition — has been mostly positive. He said people should take a close look at the sculpture and the context it was created in before judging it.

“When you see it, when you spend time with it, you understand that it’s not a provocative work at all,” Jenkins said. “It opens a set of questions.”

I’d like to see someone try to gather exactly what “religious sensibilities” are being offended in this piece of art. What are the “angry people” saying? Who are the potential buyers?

I’m no expert art critic, but looking at the questions that this piece of art raises — is Obama perceived as a savior (by the media)? — seems to be a great way of covering the story rather than focusing on the fact that a handful of people may be upset over a depiction of a black Jesus.

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Text education

BibleAndRibbonIn a mostly winsome cover story for this week’s Time, David Van Biema quotes the important players in the humble but growing movement to teach the Bible in public schools — not as a tool for proselytism but as a topic of cultural literacy. This is his key paragraph:

Simply put, the Bible is the most influential book ever written. Not only is the Bible the best-selling book of all time, it is the best-selling book of the year every year. In a 1992 survey of English teachers to determine the top-10 required “book-length works” in high school English classes, plays by Shakespeare occupied three spots and the Bible none. And yet, let’s compare the two: Beauty of language: Shakespeare, by a nose. Depth of subject matter: toss-up. Breadth of subject matter: the Bible. Numbers published, translated etc: Bible. Number of people martyred for: Bible. Number of wars attributed to: Bible. Solace and hope provided to billions: you guessed it. And Shakespeare would almost surely have agreed. According to one estimate, he alludes to Scripture some 1,300 times. As for the rest of literature, when your seventh-grader reads The Old Man and the Sea, a teacher could tick off the references to Christ’s Passion — the bleeding of the old man’s palms, his stumbles while carrying his mast over his shoulder, his hat cutting his head — but wouldn’t the thrill of recognition have been more satisfying on their own?

Van Biema checks in with those who are skeptical of such a curriculum — author Wendy Kaminer, plus Joe Conn and Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — and that’s as it should be. Somehow the world would seem off-kilter if they believed otherwise, and they may help point out any abuses.

Van Biema’s essay is the least engaging when it turns prescriptive, which is consistent with the new design and tone of Time. He states flatly that any elective course on the Bible “should be twinned mandatorily with a world religions course, even if that would mean just a semester of each.” On its own, the sentence sounds like something one would hear from the humorless facilitator of a multi-day sensitivity training course required of people who have done nothing wrong. Those of us who have reported on religion know that it’s a rich topic, whatever the culture and whatever the faith. Still, curiosity about all religions is more an acquired taste than a matter of character.

The closing paragraph also is a bit strange:

And, oh yes, there should be one faith test. Faith in our country. Sure, there will be bumps along the way. But in the end, what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone.

Hey, if Joe Conn and Rob Boston get to insist that such courses teach the dark side of the Bible’s history, let’s also give a hearing to minority religious voices — Jehovah’s Witnesses are an immediate example — who argue that patriotism (as a form of nationalism) is idolatry. The beauty of the approach Van Biema covers through most of his article is its elegant simplicity: teaching the Bible in a way that minimizes the chance of violating the Constitution. If people begin attaching outcome-based requirements, courses could well promulgate a faith — even if it’s a bland civic religion.

People who have spent time reading the Bible know that it’s far too complicated a document to lead readers to uniform conclusions. A good third or more of the posts on GetReligion are testimony to how differently people interpret the Bible.

In short, I hope school administrators simply will trust the text, in all its complexity and mystery.

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