African simony assertions from Religion News Service

As a good Protestant (in an Anglican context, of course), I reject the doctrine of purgatory — that intermediate state after death where those destined for paradise “undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

I am not as courageous, however, as the author of a recent piece in The Federalist. Denoucing the cult of saints as un-Scriptural and un-Christian on the day before Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII were celebrated as saints by the Vatican was a turn worthy of Ian Paisley in his prime. But I digress.

I am, nevertheless, tempted by the doctrine of purgatory for I have just spent 24 hours at the Atlanta airport — the intermediate state for all travelers destined for the paradise of Florida.

Sanity was preserved, however, through application to my writing coupled with meditations on the devotional book I had packed for the journey: P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith (1924). Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby joined the Earl of Emsworth, Psmith and the dastardly Rupert Baxter as companions on my journey.

The close of Leave it to Psmith — a summary of its plot can be found here, but plots matter little in a Wodehouse piece — finds Psmith unmasked as an impostor by the efficient Baxter. He is not the modern poet Ralston McTodd whom Lord Emsworth was sent to fetch from London. Yet Psmith can explain. When the peer mistook him for the poet at the Senior Conservative Club in London, Psmith decided to step into the breach and save him from the “inconvenience of having to return here without a McTodd of any description.”

His lordship digested this explanation in silence. Then he seized on a magnificent point. “Are you a member of the Senior Conservative Club?”

“Most certainly.”

“Why, then, dash it,” cried his lordship, paying to that august stronghold of respectability as striking a tribute as it had ever received, “if you’re a member of the Senior Conservative, you can’t be a criminal. Baxter’s an ass!”

“Exactly.”

We may laugh with Wodehouse and applaud his verbal dexterity — but we should not laugh at the logic of the Earl of Emsworth. Whether it is called class, tribe or our crowd, most reporters face the temptation to write for a particular audience with whom they have shared assumptions, experiences and prejudices.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Modern newspaper readers — and it is worse on the Internet — are unlikely to stay with a story after the first few sentences unless it strikes their fancy. (I expect I have lost a good chunk of those who have clicked through to this article already.) To keep the reader’s interest a good reporter needs to find a hook that keeps them coming for more.

The trick for a reporter is not to let the hook overcome the story. A recent story released by the Religion News Service makes this error — basing its reporting on assumptions rather than taking on the journalistic task of accurately reporting voices on both sides of a very hot topic.

The article entitled “Conservative Anglican leaders back Uganda anti-gay law” recounts a meeting last week in London of leaders of the conservative or traditional wing of the Anglican Communion. Eleven archbishops whose churches account for roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of the active members of the worldwide Anglican Communion released a statement at the close of their gathering.

The London-based Daily Mail interpreted the statement as a challenge to the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Church of England to clarify its stance on gay marriage. The lede of its article “Church of England split fear as African bishops speak out over clergy flouting a ban on same-sex weddings” stated:

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was last night facing mounting pressure to crack down on clergy who marry their gay partners — as the threat of a split in the Anglican Church grew.

A powerful group of conservative African Archbishops said they were ‘deeply troubled’ by liberal Western attitudes towards homosexuality and that Church of England clerics were flouting a ban on same-sex weddings.

From the statement, which enumerated local concerns held by the various archbishops, the Daily Mail highlighted the closing two paragraphs, which focused on the traditionalists’ displeasure with Archbishop Welby for waffling on gay marriage.  The church press in England and the United States also read the statement in this way. (That is how these Anglican documents are written, by the way, their hook comes just before the close.)

This RNS piece took a radically different approach to the story. It said nothing about the threat to the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but opened as follows:

WASHINGTON (RNS) Leaders of the conservative wing of the worldwide Anglican Communion equate the experiences of Ugandans who support a new anti-gay law with those of victims of an earthquake or a terror attack.

The Global Anglican Future Conference — made up chiefly of Anglican archbishops in Africa, Asia and Latin America — concluded a two-day meeting in London on Saturday (April 26) with a statement that expressed concern for violence in South Sudan and Northern Nigeria. It then said:

“We are equally concerned for the affected communities in Chile from the recent earthquake, terrorist attacks in Kenya, and the backlash from the international community in Uganda from their new legislation.”

In an odd interpretation of the document, RNS then moved to the recent contretemps over Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws, even bringing on board President Barack Obama’s views on that legislation. The RNS piece then took a giant editorial leap.

But despite the GAFCON statement’s equation with catastrophes, the archbishops’ response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Ugandan law. The “backlash” line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million in financial aid and project support from the World Bank, the U.S. and other countries. According to IRIN, which covers humanitarian issues, this included $6.4 million intended for the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, which backed the legislation.

Yes, you read that right. The key word was “seems.”

This is a curious interpretation of the document at best. The phrase the “response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Uganda law” is speculation — period. The two may seem to be connected in the mind of RNS and if this was a news analysis piece or an opinion article there is nothing untoward about RNS proffering this argument. Yet this article is billed as a news story.

Let me digress (again). I have a degree of knowledge about the individuals and institutions under discussion after covering the overseas Anglican world since 1998. I have interviewed the last three archbishops of Uganda and discussed the issues facing the church in private chats as well as in formal interviews. In my opinion the opinion expressed by RNS about the connection is specious nonsense.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, as George and Jerry tell us. But to make their argument RNS should have done some reporting with real Ugandans.

Rather than ask the Church of Uganda, whose press office is quick to respond to queries from overseas reporters, RNS makes a further assumption that is not supported by facts linked to sources. The key statement — the “ ‘backlash’ line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million” — could easily have been checked. Or RNS could have read the myriad reports in the church press as well as in the Ugandan press about the anger felt by Ugandans over what they see as the racist and patronizing attitude of the West.

In other words, there are multiple points of view on these complex issues. Find them. Quote them.

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Easter season, check … Chip away at basic beliefs, check

You know all of those news articles you see published every year at Ramadan that ask if Muhammad really heard from the archangel Gabriel?

No? Well, how about all the stories each Divali that cast doubt on the goddess Lakshmi’s ability to bless her worshipers?

No? Then how about those articles for Eastertime questioning whether Jesus really did rise from the dead?

Ding Ding Ding Ding Ding!

Yep, those come out every year.

Case in point: a feature in the Washington Post on how divisive is this central tenet of the holiest day of Christianity.

The story, actually from the Religion News Service, sets up the resurrection almost as a straw man. First it briefly states the doctrine; then the next four paragraphs try to chip away at it.

It’s “the source of some of the deepest rifts in Christianity,” the story says — “and a stumbling block for some Christians, and more than a few skeptics.” Then it questions whether the doctrine is really that important:

Did Jesus literally come back from the dead in a bodily resurrection, as many traditionalist and conservative Christians believe? Or was his rising a symbolic one — a restoration of his spirit of love and compassion to the world, as members of some more liberal brands of Christianity hold?

As Easter approaches, many Christians struggle with how to understand the Resurrection. How literally must one take the Gospel story of Jesus’ triumph to be called a Christian? Can one understand the Resurrection as a metaphor — perhaps not even believe it happened at all — and still claim to be a follower of Christ?

When a story poses rhetorical questions favoring one side, you get a strong feeling that the tracks have already been laid for this train.

The article tries to argue that the doctrine of a physical resurrection keeps some people from celebrating Easter:

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Nice but, at times, confusing news on Virginia Anglican wars

Inspiring, uplifting stories have been hard to find in recent decades in the world of Episcopal vs. Anglican infighting, especially when it comes to in-the-trenches doctrinal warfare at the local and regional levels.

However, the religion-beat team at The New York Times thought it had one the other day. The headline: “Two Ministers Forge Friendship Across a Church Divide.”

This news feature worked, kind of, on the macro level. However, many of the micro details were out of focus and Anglican-fluent readers were left, methinks, wondering what was really going on.

This is the story of the unlikely friendship between the Rev. Tory Baucum, a doctrinal conservative, and the Rev. Shannon Johnston, a doctrinal progressive who, among other things, strongly supports same-sex marriage.

This is how the story identified each man — “the Rev.” The problem is that the liberal priest is, in fact, Bishop Shannon Johnston. Don’t get me wrong: Johnston is quickly identified as a bishop, but I still wondered who he was not granted that title when he was first mentioned. Strange. Another key point of confusion slips in print in this key fact paragraph:

Mr. Johnston is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia — the most populous Episcopal diocese in the United States — and a supporter of same-sex marriage who has blessed same-sex couples. Mr. Baucum is the rector of an unusually vibrant parish, Truro Church in Fairfax, which left the Episcopal Church over the election of the gay bishop, Gene Robinson, the final straw in a long-running dispute over theological orthodoxy. By the time the two men arrived in Virginia, in 2007, their flocks were suing each other over who owned the Truro property, worshipers had been forced to choose sides, and sharp-fingered bloggers were trading medieval-sounding epithets like “heretic” and “schismatic.”

The story notes that this parish “left the Episcopal Church” but, for some strange reason, never calls this congregation by its new name — Truro Anglican Church.

This is picky stuff, but there are crucial facts related to that name that readers need to know to grasp some of the subject material covered in this story. Truro is now part of the conservative Anglican Church in North America and is located in the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic.

To cut to the chase: Baucum serves under the authority of another bishop.

It’s nice to know that the priest gets together from time to time for a beer and fellowship with the liberal Episcopal bishop, but it’s especially important for readers to know that these two men are, literally, not in Communion with one another at the level of shared views of Sacraments, ordination vows and ministries. They cannot share the same altar and, I am sure, Baucum’s own bishop would have wished that these facts were clearly presented in the story.

So who is Baucum’s actual bishop? At the very end of the story, readers are finally told the following, concerning the atmosphere surrounding this right-left friendship:

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Here we go again: So was Jesus married or what?

JANET ASKS:

What is your opinion on the historicity of the ancient text mentioning Jesus’ wife? What are the implications for the Christian faith?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

To decide what to make of this text, which has one word that apparently says Jesus was married, it’s all-important to know when it was written. So the wits at www.christianitytoday.com take the prize for funniest religious pun of the month, if not the year, with their headline:

“How to Date Jesus’ Wife”

The quick journalistic summary for Janet is that experts think the text is either a modern fraud, even possibly a joke, or if genuine gives a glimpse of some unknown cult 6 centuries or more after the fact. So it gives us no reliable information about the actual Jesus. But the hubbub reveals both modern scholars’ revisionist itch and the hunger of many people to learn more about history’s single most intriguing personality. If solid proof that Jesus took a wife were ever to turn up someday, yes, that would presumably scramble concepts of his divinity, especially if we also learn that the Son of God had a son or a daughter. However, such finds seem unlikely in the extreme.

The background in more detail:

In 2003, the goofy “Da Vinci Code” novel toyed with the old tales about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene. The Mrs. Jesus chatter seemed to shift from fiction to fact in 2012 when Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School told a confab at the Vatican about this scrap of papyrus, a bit smaller than a credit card, with writing in Egypt’s Coptic language. King figured it came from a lost document she grandly titled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ (or “GJW”), much to the distress of scholars like Larry Hurtado at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. King originally thought the fragment was “ancient,” probably from the 4th Century A.D., and carried on a belief she said could reach back to the 2d Century.

The 33 words that survived included this partial line: “… Jesus said to them, my wife …”

King properly cautioned that this didn’t mean the real 1st Century Jesus of Nazareth was married, just that centuries later some group thought he was. As the furor died down, 10 experts went to work studying GJW. Their conclusions are reported in the current Harvard Theological Review. Skipping technicalities, here are the basics:

Date: Radioactive carbon dating puts the papyrus between A.D. 659 and 859, with a mean date of 741, far beyond King’s original hunch. It is not “ancient,” which generally signifies times before the fall of Rome in A.D. 476. (Since GJW mentions Jesus, it’s amusing that the first radiocarbon test dated it “Before Christ,” apparently because the sample studied was too small for accuracy.) Experts who maintain that this is all a hoax (see below) propose that a modern forger simply obtained an old piece of blank papyrus to write on.

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Two forgiveness stories that are worth your time

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Forgiveness has been making a lot of headlines lately, at least it seems to me.

Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the evil committed by priests who molested children (for more insight, see George Conger’s post Wednesday). A Louisiana congressman who campaigned on a Christian family values platform requested forgiveness for an extramarital affair.

In Texas, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist found “one of the most moving accounts of forgiveness” ever involving a severely wounded victim of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage. In California, the Contra Costa Times reported on the “power of forgiveness” by a burned Oakland teen’s mother.

But I wanted to call special attention to two recent stories on forgiveness.

The first appeared in The Tennessean newspaper and reported on a “lesson in forgiveness” taught by former hostage Terry Waite:

Chained to a basement wall for five years, his only measure of time a mosque’s blaring calls to prayer, Terry Waite didn’t feel particularly close to God.

He’d been kidnapped in 1987, an Anglican envoy and hostage negotiator now himself in need of aid after associates of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah snatched him. His disappearance made daily international news for weeks, then occasionally for years, the irresistible story of a father, peacemaker and man of God whose life was shattered trying to save others.

Every day, as Waite’s muscles deteriorated and his skin grew whiter, he took a piece of bread he’d saved from scant meals, dipped it water and experienced a true communion, mentally traveling to his home country of England, or to Africa, uniting with the worldwide fellowship he’d known. And he said a prayer from his youth that had exceptional meaning now: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord …”

He’s not a “happy-clappy” Christian, he told a crowd of local pastors and students at a Lipscomb University question-and-answer session this month. And being starved and beaten in that basement, he felt isolated and alone. But faith isn’t dependent on how one is feeling, and Waite never lost it.

Perhaps he’s not happy-clappy, but Waite’s story of forgiveness and his dry wit — he chuckles recounting how he once mistook a Ugandan carjacker for a parking attendant — is resonating with a generation of students who’d never heard of him before.

Read on, and there’s this compelling anecdote:

That Waite could forgive his captors and return to Beirut is incredible, said Kevin Sanders, a Lipscomb student and soldier who fought in the Middle East. Sanders stood up during that Q-and-A with Waite, his voice shaking ever so slightly. “The people in the Middle East — to go back and look them in the eye and forgive them for what they did to you, I wanted to let you know that inspires me,” he told Waite.

In my view, The Tennessean story — at roughly 800 words — was much too short. I found myself at the end much sooner than I would have liked. Still, the piece presented a poignant portrait of Waite and the concept of forgiveness.

On the other hand, the second story I’d like to highlight did not suffer from a space limitation, running close to 2,000 words. In fact, the in-depth report by the CNN Belief Blog is truly exceptional. Given the byline — Tim Townsend, the former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Godbeat pro — that’s probably no surprise.

“Forgiving the unforgivable in Rwanda” is the title of Townsend’s piece.

Forgive me for feeling compelled to copy and paste such a big chunk of the opening:

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WPost: Confessions of a (liberal) Christian film critic

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The following observations have little to do with the normal work that we do here at GetReligion, since our goal is to dissect the mainstream press coverage of religion news, seeking the good, the bad and the ugly.

Nevertheless, I think faithful readers of this blog will be interested in a new essay by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, which ran under this provocative headline: “Confessions of a Christian film critic.”

Right. And this very interesting essay opens with the following passage, which is long — but essential.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

It may come as something of a surprise for Washington Post readers to learn that these are the words I silently invoke every time I sit down to write.

It would surely shock the gentleman who recently e-mailed to castigate me for the “evil” review I wrote of the film “Son of God,” the screen adaptation of the “Bible” TV miniseries. “You will have much to account for the day you meet God,” the e-mailer wrote. “It is now evident you cannot write a review without your personal biases surfacing. That is not professional.”

My correspondent’s words stung — not only because something I had written had caused such obvious distress. In just a few short sentences, he summed up the tensions, contradictions and fleeting moments of grace I have experienced as a film critic who also happens to be a practicing Christian.

The truth is, my angry e-mailer had good reason to assume I’m not religious. I don’t make a habit of professing my faith in my writing — a reticence I chalk up to denomination and profession. A cradle Episcopalian, I grew up within a tradition that’s notoriously chary of proselytizing; as practitioners of that most mainline of mainline Protestant denominations, we tend to prefer evangelizing through our lives and actions rather than showier protestations.

Yes, that sound you are hearing is members of some other flocks — you know, the people in all those shallow flocks that are into that whole “showier protestations” and proselytizing thing — snickering just a bit.

In other words, try to imagine a film critic drawing a paycheck at the Post who is a cradle, oh, member of the Assemblies of God or a Catholic who is active in Opus Dei writing a similar essay and feeling free to express sentiments that are exactly the opposite of this.

Then imagine them feeling free to write this next passage in the same essay:

I don’t hide the fact that I attend church regularly — in fact, I’ve been fairly active in my Baltimore parish for the past dozen years, as a member of our pastoral care committee, as a Eucharistic visitor and as a Sunday School teacher (a fact that will surely strike terror into the hearts of those readers who weren’t so crazy about my “Noah” review, either). …

But my resistance to invoking God, Jesus Christ and matters of the spirit in my writing also has to do with something the “Son of God” e-mailer correctly identified: the journalistic habit of not allowing my personal biases to surface, thereby inappropriately using my work as a religious platform and alienating those readers who don’t share my faith or have no faith at all. Those individuals have every right to read a movie review or essay without feeling sermonized, excluded or disrespected.

Wait, there is more:

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Baby boomers and (some) traditions for ‘green’ funerals

The other day I wrote a post noting that, in addition to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the so-called “Woodstock Generation” also had a taste for spiritual adventure that has helped shape American life and culture ever since. Basically, without the Age of Aquarius, you don’t end up with a parade of scholars and gurus teaching Oprah how to raise her hands up to the heavens while praying to the Universe, with a big “U.”

Some GetReligion readers were a bit miffed that I seemed to think that all Baby Boomers (me too, I guess) could fit under the same Woodstock banner.

That wasn’t my point, of course. I was simply saying that the alternative approaches to life explored in the late 1960s and early ’70s have had a major impact on shaping how all Americans think and live. Part of that cultural wave was captured in the sexual revolution, part was popular culture that soaked into the soul and part was an openness to alternative forms of spirituality (some of it serious, some of it fleeting), often from the Far East.

Truth be told, some Baby Boomers have also turned into strong believers in traditional forms of faith. Ask any megachurch pastor about that. There are also Baby Boomers who have switched brands and churches, looking for alternatives to the faiths in which they were raised. Some of them (ask your local Orthodox rabbi) ended up digging back into ancient forms of faith. Some have explored traditional forms of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc.

Once people start searching their paths can go all over the place.

This leads me to that New York Times feature that traced some of these trends right to the final acts of seekers’ lives. The headline was:

The Rise of Back-to-the-Basics Funerals

Baby Boomers Are Drawn to Green and Eco-Friendly Funerals

The New York City opening — in trendy Park Slope, of course — sets the tone. Spot all the key elements, one at a time:

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So how many gay bishops are there in England?

Spinning a news story is not as easy as it seems. Too light a touch and an author fails to convince his audience of the merits of his cause. Too much can spin the ball out of the author’s control — touching upon so many issues and arguments that readers may become enamored with the “wrong” issue.

Take Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Aesthetically a beautiful film (and evil too), it fails as propaganda for any but the true believer because of its heavy hand.

(As an aside: Riefenstahl created the cinema-graphic technique of the long entrance. Hitler’s entrance to the rally builds and builds, tension and anticipation mount. The shots follow him through the bowels of the stadium and culminate in his entrance to the stage. Should you take delight in upsetting your political friends, compare the shots Riefenstahl used in Triumph of the Will to the staging of recent Democrat and Republican conventions — Bill Clinton followed Riefenstahl’s playbook almost scene by scene inside the convention halls.)

The key to good advocacy journalism, as it is in all things, is moderation. The best propaganda is subtle propaganda. Too many claims, too much hyperbole and you cheapen your story.

A line in a  piece published in the Daily Beast on gay clergy weddings for the Church of England illustrates the merits of moderation. Let me say at the outset that the story in the Daily Beast is an advocacy piece, published on an openly liberal website. As such, this is not normal GetReligion material. However, this is an opinion article cloaked in the mantle of a news story.

The tone, focus and editorial voice of the recent story “Meet the Gay Priest Getting Married” lauds the subject of the profile, a Church of England priest who has vowed to marry his gay partner despite being told such an act violated church rules.

But the plea for sympathy and support for the priest in his battle with a harsh and oppressive bureaucracy, was overshadowed by the article’s crucial claim that almost a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay. The tabloids as well as the gay specialty press picked up this statement and the issue de jour became hypocrisy on high — not the little guy fighting the good fight.

The Daily Beast reported:

The Church of England, which broke from the Vatican in 1534 so that Henry VIII could take a second wife, has often been celebrated for its accepting and open attitude. In fact, Cain estimated that a third of the clergy in London are gay. A clergyman, who did not wish to be named, claimed that at least 13 of the church’s 42 bishops were also gay, although they have not publicly acknowledged it. “Gay people have very often a heightened sensitivity to things of beauty and spirituality,” Cain suggested. “There are an awful lot of gay people in the church.”

Before I start on the gay bishop claim, let me say a word or two about the canard that England got a new church because Henry wanted a new wife. It didn’t quite work that way. Also, the Church of England does not see itself as having been founded in the 16th century. It is the same church that existed in those isles from the time of St Augustine of Canterbury (circa 6th century). But like the Orthodox some 400 years earlier, during the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I the Church of England declined to accept the universal authority of the Bishop of Rome in England.

And, the indigenous reform movement within the Church of England predated Henry’s divorce and remarriage to Ann Boleyn. Henry’s anger at the pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment (a refusal made on political grounds not theological) was the wedge political issue the English reformers were able to use to break free from the theological dictates of Rome. The English reformers were willing to disagree amongst themselves and with Rome over the theology of Eucharistic presence but were prepared to go to the stake over the issues of justification by faith, the Bible in the vernacular, the uniqueness of the death of Jesus and for the right to disagree over second order issues — the principle of adiaphora.

Once again, the frisson this article created, however, has not been over same-sex marriage and the clergy or even Henry VIII, it is the claim that a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay.

Granted this appeared in the Daily Beast and the standards of attribution expected of traditional journalism is not the same as found in a mainstream newspaper. The expectations one would have of rigorous professionalism are not pertinent. But should it have printed this claim without further substantiation or explanation? Does not placing the claim into the mouth of an anonymous priest add to the impression that this is gossip?

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