Inclusivity is the new black

GrahamWe all agreed to take a look at Jon Meacham’s lengthy mash note to the sainted Billy Graham. I alternately enjoyed the Newsweek piece and felt it went a bit over the top in luscious praise. But I’m pretty sure I would have hated it if I hadn’t read Meacham’s earlier pieces on the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

By that I mean that it took me awhile to get used to Meacham’s style, in which he denigrates biblical literalism, shares his own opinion by quoting other people, and writes in a breezy, nonjournalistic style. He’s basically the ultimate Episcopalian. He understands Christian doctrine but just wants everyone to get along already. So he pushes Christianity’s inclusivity over its exclusivity. But the man can sure write in a lively manner, which helps when you’re reading a gazillion-word piece on someone who never really interested you that much.*

Anyway, there were so many fascinating portions that I hope others highlight, namely the Watergate/anti-Semitism and Two Kingdoms areas. But I thought I would highlight this passage from the piece:

Graham spends hours now with his Bible, at once savoring and reconsidering old stories and old lessons. While he believes Scripture is the inspired, authoritative word of God, he does not read the Bible as though it were a collection of Associated Press bulletins straightforwardly reporting on events in the ancient Middle East. “I’m not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle is from the Lord,” Graham says. “This is a little difference in my thinking through the years.” He has, then, moved from seeing every word of Scripture as literally accurate to believing that parts of the Bible are figurative — a journey that began in 1949, when a friend challenged his belief in inerrancy during a conference in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains. Troubled, Graham wandered into the woods one night, put his Bible on a stump and said, “Lord, I don’t understand all that is in this book, I can’t explain it all, but I accept it by faith as your divine word.”

Now, more than half a century later, he is far from questioning the fundamentals of the faith. He is not saying Jesus is just another lifestyle choice, nor is he backtracking on essentials such as the Incarnation or the Atonement. But he is arguing that the Bible is open to interpretation, and fair-minded Christians may disagree or come to different conclusions about specific points. Like Saint Paul, he believes human beings on this side of paradise can grasp only so much. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror,” Paul wrote, “then we shall see face to face.” Then believers shall see: not now, but then.

I think this is trademark Meacham. I mean, I really (really) doubt that Graham used the AP or mainstream media to make his point about how he views the inerrancy, inspiration or authoritative nature of the Word of God. I would not be surprised if Meacham does when describing his beliefs to his friends. So he kind of gets to use Graham to make the point that he has been trying to make in all the pieces I’ve linked. It also manages to downplay exclusivity and literalism in one fell swoop. Finally, Meacham also shows his knowledge of Christianity by mentioning the St. Paul passage.

Like I say, I enjoy Meacham. When I read him, I see the dominance of his personal style and views. I actually think the pieces are better for it. But man if that doesn’t prove tmatt’s point about the need for newsroom diversity.

We tend to look at bias or impartiality when it comes to individual stories. But my experience in the newsroom is that the bias is hidden much more deeply. It’s all about choosing which stories to write and how the story is reported. Think about how a writer like Meacham — who frequently writes against literalism — responds to Graham’s statements. Think about how a reporter who doesn’t believe in God might respond to the statements. Think about how a reporter who believes the Bible is the literal, nonfigurative Word of God might respond. I think most reporters would ask different sets of follow-up questions based on their given biases, education and perspective.

This is why newsrooms today are in such danger. They are filled with people with narrow fields of experience and education. And it shows in the paucity and weakness of coverage in many fields, religion being prime among them.

Photo via ChadChadBinks on Flickr.

*I have to share that my mom “got saved” by Billy Graham when she was a teenager. Sure, she had actually been baptized as an infant at her Evangelical and Reformed church. But she went with a neighbor to a crusade and feared they wouldn’t drive her home if she didn’t walk down at the altar call. I don’t know why I love that story so much, but I do.

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Aging Billy finally achieves humility, says Jon

Franklin Billy 1As noted in the past, Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meacham really doesn’t do ordinary journalism anymore.

Instead, he writes cover stories that are doctrinal essays that seek to guide Americans toward a more mature, nuanced, educated, intelligent approach to religious faith. This would bring us closer to Meacham’s approach, of course.

This week’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” feature — yet another report about Billy Graham as a lion in winter — is an instant classic and a perfect example of why Meacham is must reading for anyone striving to understand what is happening on the left side of American Evangelicalism. Meacham is the voice crying in the wilderness, “Repent! Repent of your doctrinal absolutes! Repent and embrace mystery and humility! Like me!”

So let me start with a personal note of my own. Regular GetReligion readers may remember my list of the three doctrinal issues that, in this era, tend to separate Christian liberals from Christian conservatives? As journalistic questions, I think they are relevant to Meacham’s epistle. As a refresher, they are:

(1) Are the 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 the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Meacham leaves the Resurrection alone, but addresses the other two. The key is that the elderly Graham is, we are told, maturing into a more nuanced, mysterious view of Christianity. Thus, this new Billy can be held up as a moderate prophet whose example should be heeded by his less mature, more judgmental brethren. That means you, Franklin.

Here is the key passage:

A unifying theme of Graham’s new thinking is humility. He is sure and certain of his faith in Jesus as the way to salvation. When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, though, Graham says: “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.” Such an ecumenical spirit may upset some Christian hard-liners, but in Graham’s view, only God knows who is going to be saved: “As an evangelist for more than six decades, Mr. Graham has faithfully proclaimed the Bible’s Gospel message that Jesus is the only way to Heaven,” says Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross. “However, salvation is the work of Almighty God, and only he knows what is in each human heart.”

Surely Meacham knows that Graham has been giving these very same answers to basic questions for decades, at the very least since the hard lessons of the Watergate era. There is a reason that Christian fundamentalists have, since the 1950s or thereabouts, called Graham a dangerous man who has sold out to modernity. You can look it up.

What we needed here were a few specific questions and then some solid direct-quote answers from Graham himself. Other than strident voices on the far right, no orthodox Christian would claim to be able to see into the human heart and pass judgment. Graham has been saying that for decades. At the same time, he will also affirm that Jesus did not call himself “a” way, “a” truth and “a” way to eternal life.

In other words, I think Meacham needed to take a more journalistic approach. Ask the man specific questions. Print the answers. Read the man statements that he has made in the past and ask him to respond. Print the statements in the past and contrast them with his current words.

Then again, I am more interested in what Graham has to say about Graham than what Meacham has to say about Graham. Silly me. The GetReligion non-Borg will now weigh in.

(Photo from Baptist Press.)

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Anglican right split on gay rites?

schoriLet me jump in here after Doug’s post with a quick sequel on a related issue of Anglicans in the media. By the way, you can click here for a recent LeBlancian CT article on TEC news.

I love question-and-answer features and I hope, in the explosion of online journalism, that mainstream newsrooms do more of them. I hope that readers will, from time to time, be able to go online to read transcripts of major interviews that form the backbone of major reports in print or video. As I keep saying, you cannot give readers too much information if it is linked to a story that they care deeply about.

Thus, I read with interest a Los Angeles Times feature the other day by Stephen Clark that ran under the headline “Anglican/Episcopal Rift Prompts Restructuring Talk.”

The opening was rather low-key:

Tensions continue to simmer between the worldwide Anglican Communion and its American wing, the Episcopal Church, over the church’s embrace of gay clergy and other policies that critics view as overly liberal.

The tensions, already brewing in recent years, began to rise again in June when the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman elected to preside over the entire Episcopal Church, offending some conservatives who do not approve of women as priests or bishops. The head of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, has since proposed restructuring the organization to prevent a complete break between the U.S. church and the rest of the communion.

At this point, Clark begins a series of logical questions, paired with often debatable answers (as answers often are in heated doctrinal disputes). After I read the first answer, I quickly said, “What a minute! Who is he interviewing? Whose point of view am I reading?”

Here is the start of that first piece of the Q&A:

Question: Why is the consecration of gay or female bishops a major issue?

Answer: Some conservatives believe Christian orthodoxy prohibits such practices. The issue has deeply divided the communion, the world’s third-largest body of churches, ever since V. Gene Robinson was elected bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire in 2003. Jefferts Schori supported his election.

Now this is a strange answer on several levels.

First of all, as best as I can tell, Clark is interviewing himself. Please, go read the feature for yourself. Am I missing something? For me, the logical approach here would have been to have interviewed two people, one each from the two warring camps — Anglican vs. Episcopalian, so to speak. But even there, you really need — in the California context, especially — to be familiar with three different brands of conservatism, especially on the issue of ordaining women. An Anglo-Catholic is not a charismatic and neither is a low-church Reformed Evangelical, in this case.

But note that sentence, “Some conservatives believe Christian orthodoxy prohibits such practices.”

“Such practices” is plural. Now, this implies that some conservatives are divided on the topic of gay bishops or the even more important topic of same-sex rites for the Sacrament of Marriage. Is this true? Are there conservative Anglicans out there who have swung to the left on those issues?

ba bishop29wedClark has combined (sorry to keep using this image all the time) doctrinal apples and oranges, putting the gay ordination issue next to the question of ordaining women. Then in the very next sentence he says, “The issue has deeply divided the communion, the world’s third-largest body of churches, ever since V. Gene Robinson was elected bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire in 2003.” Note, “the issue” is singular — clearly referring to the Robinson consecration.

Truth be told, there are Anglican conservatives, especially charismatics, who have no problem with ordaining women. There are conservative Anglicans — especially in the Third World — who continue to oppose the ordination of women.

Anglicans on the traditional side of the aisle often disagree on that issue. But they are united in opposing the ordination of women whose basic approach to creedal and moral issues is clearly liberal or even postmodern, as would be the case with Jefferts Schori. It appears that some conservatives even voted for her in the presiding bishop race, simply to bring clarity to the war. They wanted to deal with an open, honest liberal.

But where are Clark’s Anglican conservatives who believe that sex outside of marriage is not a sin? Where are the conservatives who are divided on the issue of same-sex unions and the ordination of sexually active lesbians, gays and bisexuals to holy orders? Can he name some names?

In the rest of the Q&A, Clark does quote some Episcopal and Anglican leaders, which helps readers understand the source of some of this information. But this Clark-interviews-Clark format left me very uncomfortable — especially since the first answer is a mess.

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Come home, Roman Catholics, all is forgiven

NightVaticanSusan Wood, filing for the [Carson City] Nevada Appeal News Service, detects an irony that has, to date, escaped the attention of church historians. Writing about a visit of Katharine Jefferts Schori, who will become the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church on Nov. 4, Wood offers this stunning collection of direct quotes and sloppy paraphrases:

[Jefferts] Schori has a new set of challenges to confront with a church in a state of crossroads — including the clergy’s attitude about global warming, which [Jefferts] Schori believes is a real crisis. Old ideals about divorce, contraception and same-sex marriage have given way to a new way of dealing with the modern world.

The latter issue provided the Episcopal [Church] with much discourse during a recent convention when it appeared to relax its rules on alternative lifestyles.

“We did say as a church that it’s appropriate or acceptable for individual congregations to bless couples as a matter of pastoral practice,” she said.

Then, there are other changing signs.

“We’re changing attitudes about divorce,” she said. The church finds it appropriate to encourage divorce for the safety of the people involved.

“We’re more flexible than the Catholic church,” she said.

The irony is, Catholicism was part of the Episcopal Church before a split in the 1500s.

At last the truth is out! Perhaps this irony makes the Episcopal Church (which held its first General Convention in 1785) the honorary largest Christian communion in all the world. Oh, if only those schismatics in the Roman Catholic Church had not separated from the Episcopal Church before it existed.

On a note only a bit less prone to cause spit takes, Tina Kelley of The New York Times reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury has proposed forcing the Episcopal Church to change its mind on sexuality:

At the end of June, the Diocese of Newark named the openly gay priest as one of its candidates for bishop, defying a plea for restraint by a vote of the bishops and delegates at the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention. The selection came only a day after the archbishop of Canterbury, the nominal leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, proposed a plan that could force the Episcopal Church to renounce gay bishops and the blessings of same-sex unions or lose full membership in the communion.

For an ever so slightly more nuanced perspective on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s plan, let us turn to, oh, the Archbishop of Canterbury, describing responses to his public reflections in “The Challenge and Hope of Being Anglican Today“:

In spite of some interesting reporting and some slightly intemperate reaction, this [reflection] contained no directives (I do not have authority to dictate policy to the provinces of the Communion) and no foreclosing of the character and content of such a covenant. Were any such arrangement to be proposed, it would of course have to be owned by the constitutional bodies governing Provinces. The proposal has already been dismissed in some quarters as a capitulation to fundamentalism and in others as a cunning plan to entrench total doctrinal indifferentism.

Both characterisations are nonsense.

Photo by Gianluca Casponi via Flickr.

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I am a baller and life will be phat

jeangreaI attended my beautiful cousin’s wedding a few weeks ago where the pastor joked that he was going to do something unorthodox and not to report him to anyone. (Yes, I groaned at that point.) Anyway, he proceeded to rewrite King David’s 23rd Psalm from first person singular to first person plural! Isn’t that so cute and meaningful? Wow, the psalm just sat there and did nothing before this Denver pastor rewrote it.

Anyway, apparently there is something about that passage from Scripture that just invites people to mutilate it. Lilit Marcus and Patton Dodd write about new hip-hop masses for Newsweek. They show how the Rev. Timothy “Poppa T.” Holder rewrote the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is all that, I need for nothing. / He allows me to chill. /He keeps me from being heated /and allows me to breathe easy. /He guides my life so that I can /represent and give shout outs in His name. / And even though I walk through the hood of death, /I don’t back down, for You have my back. / The fact that He has me /covered allows me to chill. / He provides me with back-up/In front of player-haters, / and I know that I am a baller and life will be phat. / I fall back in the Lord’s crib for the rest of my life.

So true. I AM a baller! Anyway, even with a generous reading of the Psalm, I’m struggling to see where that “represent” portion makes an effective hip-hop translation of the great psalm.

I am reading a lot of this Beliefwatch portion of Newsweek, and I commend a mainstream publication for trying to amp up its religious coverage. I do wish that they would permit their writers a bit more space to flesh out their stories.

For instance, this story takes the angle that hip-hop services attract youth, but does not cite anything objective to support it.

My own work with youth makes me highly doubtful that a hip-hop service would be more attractive to youth than a hip-hop concert. I love rap and hip-hop and I’m absolutely certain that I would not trust some priest to rock the mic better than Jean Grae. I would, however, trust a priest to rock the liturgy better than Jean Grae.

Jean Grae pic from Ms. Mo on Flickr.

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The devil isn’t the only one wearing Prada

joanna jepsonThe British papers have been having fun with the recent move of the Rev. Joanna Jepson to the London College of Fashion, where she’ll serve as chaplain. And before you ask, yes it does happen to be Fashion Week here at GetReligion. Anyway, here is some sample copy: Is God the new black? How could a benevolent God permit the latest Roberto Cavalli collection? Heavenly bodies and unholy tantrums get God. Curate fashions a catwalk pulpit, etc. etc.

But the papers quickly moved from the puns and cliches to more substantial analysis. Here’s the Telegraph‘s take:

As someone who has long taken an interest in fashion, Miss Jepson, 30, feels that the Church should have a presence in the business. “The fashion industry has a huge impact and influence on vast numbers in our society,” she said. “It has a particularly powerful role in shaping the self-image and views of young people, and it’s important for the Church to be involved with this type of community. It’s amazing that it hasn’t had this link before.”

The curate, who has previously criticised society’s preoccupation with image, said that she was switching from full-time parish ministry to the fashion world because she could make more of an impact there. Miss Jepson, the curate of St Michael’s Church, Chester, earns a stipend of around £16,000. She will be paid a similar amount by the college.

Miss Jepson, who will take up her post in September, believes that the Church needs to rethink how it tries to relate to popular culture. “We cannot merely remain in holy huddles in parish churches. It is imperative that there are more of these kinds of chaplaincies that reach into cultural networks and communities, which would otherwise be untouched by the Church.”

Miss Jepson, whose publicity photo for the new job was quite fetching, is an interesting choice for this position. She is mostly known for her work fighting a move toward aborting unborn children with minor physical defects:

Miss Jepson was born with a congenital jaw defect and first hit the headlines in 2004 when she took her local police force to court while campaigning against two doctors who assisted in the abortion of a 28-week-old baby diagnosed with a cleft palate.

The papers had fun with the story, but they also took the religious angle seriously. Perhaps The Washington Post‘s Style section should take note.

Photo via Labantall on Flickr.

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Tapping a Godbeat site down under

stephen crittendenIt’s hard for an American to come away from a meeting with international journalists without feeling a bit, well, guilty.

I try to keep up with the news, but I know that my grasp of international affairs is still weak. Spending a few days in Oxford discussing news trends with people from Nigeria, Kenya, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Peru, Norway and a few other nations is a sobering experience.

I also feel guilty, from time to time, about the lack of international news content here at GetReligion. However, I have to admit that international items seem to draw less feedback from readers. One glance at a Google chart that shows the location of our readers also shows the obvious — most of our 2,000 to 3,000 readers a day are in North America.

This probably is a chicken-and-egg, Catch-22 situation. Which comes first? More international coverage or more international readers?

Anyway, all of this is a setup to introduce you to a site that I bumped into the other day — offering transcripts and links to The Religion Report‘s broadcasts on ABC Radio National in Australia. The host is Stephen Crittenden (pictured) and he has been at this for almost a decade.

As you would expect, there is a heavy emphasis on global affairs — from the ecological views of the Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul, to a topic that we discussed quite a bit during my visit to Oxford, “Freedom of Religion in Malaysia?” Australia is also a major player in Anglican affairs, which affects quite a few shows. Here is a sample of a recent interview transcript, in which Crittenden talks with veteran British journalist Andrew Brown about the efforts to find a compromise between liberal Episcopalians and conservative African Anglicans.

The host starts with the obvious question: How’s Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams doing, during the current crisis (cue: swirl of cathedral pipe organ)?

Andrew Brown: Well I don’t think it’s a dispute that anyone could have handled well. I mean to handle it well you’d have to have people on both sides, or even on one side who were interested in compromise, or who seriously thought they might be wrong. That isn’t the case.

Stephen Crittenden: Nonetheless, wasn’t it always going to be a pretty tall order to think that the Episcopalians would repent? They never had any intention of repenting, did they, of electing a gay bishop?

Andrew Brown: No, of course they’re not going to repent, because to repent implies you think you’ve done something wrong, and they don’t think they have, or most of them don’t think they have. Similarly it’s a bit of a stretch however often it’s put in the documents to expect the conservatives to listen to gay or lesbian people because they have no intention of doing so.

Well, that is certainly opinionated stuff, shooting in both directions. However, the reports at this site also include quite a few links to other sites, documents, etc. Check it out. And let us know other global Godbeat sites that you find helpful.

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X marks the spot for today’s England

Saint George IconOn one level, this post is a shout out to my teenaged son, Frye, whose patron saint is St. George.

So it is no surprise that he was a bit miffed when he heard the news — I believe the Daily Mail broke the story — that the modern Church of England is considering dropping St. George (the soldier lancing the dragon in all of those Eastern icons) as England’s patron saint. As reporter Steve Doughty wrote:

His dragon-slaying heroics have kept his legend alive through the centuries. But the Church of England is considering rejecting England’s patron saint St George on the grounds that his image is too warlike and may offend Muslims. Clergy have started a campaign to replace George with St Alban, a Christian martyr in Roman Britain.

The scheme, to be considered by the Church’s parliament, the General Synod, has met a cautious but sympathetic response from senior bishops. But it clashes with the increasing popularity of the saint and his flag in England.

I was in Oxford when this story broke in the British press and, of course, the tabloid’s timing was fantastic because the flag of St. George was flying everywhere during the World Cup.

I had a chance to talk with several friends of mine about the proposed swap, including a trained Anglican theologian or two. They all agreed, interestingly enough, that the change made sense and that St. Alban, as the nation’s first Christian martyr, would actually be a more appropriate choice. Several people said something like this: “I’ve never understood what the deal was with St. George in the first place.”

The link is a bit strange and there are, meanwhile, historians who claim that St. George never actually existed. Here is how the original Daily Mail story handled that background material, including a nod to the fact that the flag with the huge red cross has become identified with some nasty elements of English life.

The image of St George was used to foster patriotism in 1940, when King George VI inaugurated the George Cross for civilian acts of the greatest bravery. The medal bears a depiction of the saint slaying the dragon. However, George has become unfashionable among politicians and bureaucrats. His saint’s day, April 23, has no official celebration in England, and councils have banned the St George flag from their buildings and vehicles. …

The saint became an English hero during the crusades against the Muslim armies that captured Jerusalem in the 11th century. An apparition of George is said to have appeared to the crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. His dragon-slaying legend is thought to have begun as an allegory of Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.

englandstgeorgeHowever, my friends from various locations in the old British empire made one other point that I have yet to see underlined in the tabloid press. Is it safe to say that this change is all about getting the blood-red symbol of the cross off the flag in an era — especially after the cartoon crisis and its flag-burning riots — in which people are a bit tense?

In the St. Alban’s flag, a diagonal yellow cross is placed on a blue background. In other words, it looks more like a large X than the symbol of the Christian faith. For many, this would be a step in the right direction. The Evening Telegraph in Coventry noted:

Motasem Ali, of the Bangladesh Islamic Society, said: “St George is a concern in our community, especially with the present crisis in the world and the UK.

“All religions should be the same, teaching us how to maintain peace and harmony. The Christian authorities should think about it. The image of St George can create more problems in our community. If he was dropped, that would be one step forward.”

But what will happen when someone tries to step forward and claim the credit, or take the blame, for this change?

My British friends — who all thought the change was logical — thought there was no way it would pass. St. Alban may get bumped up a few notches in the public eye, they said, but there was no way the flag of St. George was going to be lowered for good. That would simply create too much heat among the masses.

What kind of heat? Here is a sample, a rather tongue-in-cheek blast from our friend Rod Dreher over at the Crunchy Con blog:

Lord have mercy. These people. … Look, why don’t these sherry-sniffing buttercups just surrender now and spare their enemies the indignity and tedium of having to beat up a bunch of sniveling jellyfish? I swear, you could arm the choirs of the ten Bible churches closest to where I sit deep in the heart of Texas with pool noodles and bullhorns, and they could run half the marmalade-spined clerics of the Church of England over the White Cliffs of Dover like a herd of shrieking Gadarene schoolgirls.

I am sure that stronger language would be used in pews and pubs.

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