Why should the devil have all the best press?

Satan sells newspapers.

Where would newspapers or television be without devil stories? Satanic ritual abuse, exorcisms, secret cults and rituals, demon possession — all are beloved by editors, and as Dan Brown knows well are snapped up by readers. I would make my fortune if I could write a story whose key words include Satan, an albino member of Opus Dei, Miley Cyrus and the Episcopal Church.

The Satan angle has propelled the news of what would otherwise be an unremarkable conference being held this week at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum into the eye of the European press.

Coincidentally, a student club at Harvard has caught the attention of the Catholic Church and, through one of the heroines of the Catholic blogosphere, the American media after they announced plans to hold a Black Mass. The reaction to the Harvard story leads me to ask whether the press has sensationalized this incident. No one seems to have asked the question: What sort of Harvard Satanists are we discussing? Atheistic Satanists in the tradition of Anton LaVey, devil worshipers or silly students?

Which also prompts me to ask, who gets to define what a Satanist is?

The European wire service ANSA reports:

Catholic prelates from 33 countries are in Italy for the ninth annual conference on exorcism. ‘Exorcism and Prayer for Liberation’ is on through May 10 and is expected to draw 200 participants from countries as far afield as Australia and South Korea. Events are spread between Rome and Bologna. “It’s devoted mostly to priests who are the first to learn the ministry of exorcism, but not only to them,” said Father Cesare Truqui, an exorcist from the Legionaries of Christ, which is organizing the conference together with Catholic organization GRIS. “A priest is usually side by side with a group of laypeople who help,” he told Vatican Radio.

The story provides colorful comments from Father Truqui, who:

… noted that Pope Francis in his April 11 homily admonished the faithful to “learn to fight the devil … who exists even in the 21st century”. “The pope reminds us,” added the exorcist, “that speaking of demons doesn’t mean creating a new theology outside the Gospels, but rather staying within Jesus Christ’s teachings”.

It was after having read these Italian press accounts of the annual exorcism conference in Rome that I came across stories in Boston Magazine and the Boston Herald about Satanism at Harvard. (The Boston Globe has since filed their report.) The story has piqued the imagination of the Catholic press and spawned (spawn of Satan?) a great deal of chatter on the Internet. Is the noise justified from a press perspective, though?

The Herald approaches the story through a statement released by the Archdiocese of Boston calling upon the school to “disassociate” itself from a Black Mass planned for Monday.

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A flood of reactions to Hollywood’s ‘Noah’

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DAVID SAYS:

(Regarding the feature film “Noah”) I would love to read your personal reaction.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Personally? The Guy is no fan of science fiction or slam-bang special effects. Those hulking stone monsters with flashing light bulbs for eyes didn’t thrill and otherwise Hollywood’s puzzling ark-aeology seemed, so to speak, all wet.

But who cares about The Guy’s taste in movies? “Noah” is a conversation-starter so let’s survey the conversation.

Preliminaries: There are well-known literary parallels between the Bible’s famous Genesis chapters 6-9 and other flood narratives from the ancient Mideast. Skeptics use that to debunk the Bible while traditionalists say that only undergirds Scripture’s authenticity. The movie’s phantasmagoric visuals present the story as fiction without even a kernel of primordial fact. Whether viewed as total myth, literal history or some mixture, both Noah and “Noah” raise deep questions about the Bible and, more, about the Bible’s God.

Given past scorn and ridiculous mistakes, believers are understandably apprehensive when showbiz folks get their hands on religion. The director of this biblical blockbuster, Darren Aronofsky, is a self-described atheist apt to drop F-bombs.

The wary National Religious Broadcasters got Paramount Pictures to state in publicity that “while artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.” That disclaimer seemed like an implicit endorsement from conservatives.

Others bestowed outright hallelujahs. Blogger Billy Kangas, a doctoral candidate at Catholic University of America, thinks the film takes “every single word of the text in Genesis seriously.” President Robert Barron of the Catholic Mundelein Seminary says “God, creation, providence, sin, obedience, salvation: Not bad for a major Hollywood movie!” He sees the God of “Noah” as “personal, active, provident, and intimately involved in the affairs of the world that he has made.”

President Jim Daly of the evangelical Focus on the Family says much the same.

The Bible’s account says God raised the flood to destroy much of what he created due to unbearable human sin and violence. One of the most perplexing sentences in Scripture is Genesis 6:6: “The LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (RSV). Seeking to comprehend this, Kenneth Mathews of Beeson Divinity School writes that “the making of ‘man’ is no error; it is what ‘man’ has made of himself.”

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Al Jazeera offers its own take (literally) on SBC sex summit

A week or so ago I mentioned, in a meeting that included both traditional and progressive evangelicals, that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention was going to hold a three-day “sex summit” in Nashville and lots of people laughed. They obviously had not looked at some of the rather interesting sessions on the docket, which included newsworthy real-life topics (at least to me) such as pastors who are wrestling with their own porn addictions, advice for those counseling people caught up in a variety of kinds of sexual sins, a major session on sex trafficking and another built on new sociological data on how religious beliefs influence people’s views on sex.

Oh, right, and there was a panel discussion — as opposed to a keynote address — on “The Gospel and Homosexuality.”

This conference drew quite a bit of coverage and, at times, lit up the Twitter-verse. There really is no way to do justice to all of the coverage — some of it quite good. However, I did find a wrap-up piece from Al Jazeera America that kind of summed up the negative side of things, the attitude among some mainstream reporters that they knew what the conference was really about, even if that wasn’t what the conference was really about.

I want to take a rather different approach on this one. We are going to walk through this news feature passage by passage, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, looking for news and information that is actually drawn from this content-rich event. Yes, this news report has a Nashville dateline so the implication is that the Al Jazeera America scribe was actually present at the event.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Prominent evangelical Christian leaders met here this week to discuss a topic that’s typically taboo in Sunday church: sexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was hosting its first “leadership summit,” which its new leader said he hoped would provoke a “frank conversation” on sexual ethics. Speakers tackled topics including pornography, “hookup culture,” premarital sex, the decline of marriage, sexual abuse, divorce and, arguably the most contentious, homosexuality.

Younger attendees at the event, a meeting of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, sported beards, stylish plaid and the occasional NPR tote bag. Everyone spent the week tweeting — the summit attracted much attention from the Christian blogosphere — and one speaker jokingly asked people to “turn on their Bibles,” a nod to the popularity of e-books and Bible apps.

There are a few nice details in there. However, I thought that these churches were obsessed with sex and talked about sex and sexual sins all the time. I guess I was wrong on that. There do appear to be two short quotes from sessions, although not about newsworthy topics.

The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Most Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of “reparative therapy” for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”

OK, we have another pair of tiny quotes, but it’s hard to tell what they are about. However, it appears that this conference — from the viewpoint of this writer — was primarily about homosexuality. Let’s continue:

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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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Is this Bible legislation legal? Quick, call and ask my pastor!

No fooling, the following lede comes not from the satire publication The Onion but from a real newspaper — the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Legislation that would make the Holy Bible the official state book of Louisiana cleared the House Committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs with a vote of 8-5 Thursday afternoon. It will now head to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, originally filed a bill to declare a specific copy of the Bible, found in the Louisiana State Museum system, the official state book. But by the time he presented the proposal to the committee, he changed language  in his legislation to make the generic King James version of the Bible, a text used worldwide, the official state book.

Um, the generic King James version? Is there a non-generic King James version?

But peel back the layers, and this story just keeps getting more Onion-y:

Carmody said his intention was not to mingle religion with government functions. “This is not about establishing an official religion,” he said.

Still, Legislators became concerned that the proposal wasn’t broad enough and did not reflect the breadth of Bibles used by religious communities. In particular, some lawmakers worried that singling out the King James version of the Bible would not properly reflect the culture of Louisiana. The Catholic Church, for example, does not use the King James text.

“Let’s make this more inclusive of other Christian faiths, more than just the ones that use the King James version,” said Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro.

Read on, and see if the quote below makes your jaw drop like it did mine:

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The latest Bible ruckus: Oh those camels!

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KENNETH ASKS:

With new research questioning the Bible’s report that domesticated camels existed as early as Genesis, the efforts to knock this down appear defensive rather than empirical. But Rebekah was certainly watering something. Thoughts?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Some breathless online news headlines from recent weeks:

“Camel Bones Suggest Error in Bible” (Fox News)

“Camels Don’t Belong in Old Testament” (Forbes magazine)

“Camels Had No Business in Genesis” (The New York Times)

“The Mystery of the Bible’s Phantom Camels” (Time magazine)

“Will Camel Discovery Break the Bible’s Back?” (CNN).

“Archaeology Find: Camels in ‘Bible’ Are Literary Anachronisms” (National Public Radio).

Even weather.com joined the fray: “Error in Bible? Archaeologists Think So.”

It all started with an academic article (.pdf here) last October in the journal of the Institute of Archaeology at Israel’s Tel Aviv University. Archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen applied radiocarbon and other dating methods to an ancient copper smelting site where camel bones were present, located in the Aravah Valley south of the Dead Sea. From this and the dearth of camel evidence elsewhere they concluded that camels were not used as beasts of burden in the region till “the last third of the 10th Century” B.C. (the era of the Bible’s King Solomon, famed for Temple-building and legendary mines).

Few paid attention till a February press release declared this research is “challenging the Bible’s historicity” and provides “direct proof” that biblical narratives about the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis were “compiled well after the events.” Like all ancient matters that’s open to debate, and caution is advisable since archaeological evidence is spotty by nature. A maxim in this field reminds us that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

As those headlines demonstrate, the latest Bible ruckus involves more than how many camels can dance on the head of a copper mine. That’s because Genesis says people owned camels as far back as 1700 to 2000 B.C., including the patriarchs Abraham (earliest reference is Genesis 12) and Jacob (Genesis 30-32). The most familiar mention (yes, Kenneth) comes in Genesis 24, where Rebekah kindly offers water to Abraham’s servant and his camels, whereupon he chooses her as Isaac’s wife.

If the Tel Aviv scenario proves valid across the Mideast then the Old Testament contains a mistake.

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Part II of America’s church slide: What to do?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of “Why the slide in the influence of America’s churches?”

GENE ASKS:

What one factor more than any other would draw more people into the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

In the previous Religion Q and A, Gene asked: “What one factor accounts for the indifference so many Americans harbor toward the church?” The Guy nominated “fading cultural respect,” scanned what observers think about causes, and covered mostly hard church trends, not soft “spiritual but not religious” sentiments.

A timely aside on religious identity: To coincide with the winter Olympics, Pew Research noted that Russians who call themselves Orthodox Christians have jumped from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population since the 1991 collapse of the atheistic Soviet regime. During the same years, believers in God increased from 38 percent to 56 percent. Do more Russians believe in Orthodoxy than in God? Yet a paltry 7 percent of Russians say they attend worship at least once a month, a small increase from 2 percent in 1991. Call that posthumous victory for Lenin and Stalin.

Back to how American churches can rebuild cultural stature. In addition to the statistics in our previous item, many Americans are spiritually and morally confused, grumpy about leaders and future prospects, and hostile toward those they disagree with. Social media, self-absorption and secular diversions supplant face-to-face fellowship that was traditionally a major reason why church involvement fostered well-being. The success of individual congregations helps stem the tide, but no wonder church strategists’ brows are furrowed and pastors feel on the defensive.
The Guy’s answer to Gene is tentative, speculative, and may even sound like preaching, but these are journalistic hunches based on news reports and social research across many years.

Gallup’s longtime polling on what Americans think about various professionals is especially significant.

As recently as 2001, 64 percent of Americans rated the clergy (all faiths) either “high” or “very high” in “honesty and ethical standards.” But a dozen years later less than half (47 percent) express such moral esteem. The good news? The clergy fare better than auto mechanics, bankers, lawyers, members of Congress — and fellow news reporters.

Perhaps that dismal 47 percent reflects the accumulating impact of three decades of incessant sexual molestation scandals involving Catholic priests and hapless bishops. Protestant personalities have also been mired in scandal and folly, and non-religious groups likewise contribute to the sour mood about the cultural establishment. But no doubt those errant Catholics did incalculable damage to the reputation of their huge church and its clergy (even though nominal membership is still growing). It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis can manage a turnaround.

A spillover effect very likely reduced regard also for non-Catholic churches and clergy. In the same way, one Muslim faction’s terrorism and murder of innocents in the name of God has very likely harmed their faith’s long-term moral credibility and also fosters suspicions toward devout religion of any type.

U.S. Protestantism is weakened by perennial acrimony within and between churches, mostly over the sprawling topic of Bible interpretation. In particular, the argument over homosexual marriages and partners evidently harms both sides. Why?

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Women and men and the Bible and the church

PARK ASKS:

What are the major scriptural passages [and interpretations] relative to a complementarian and egalitarian approach to gender roles in the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

This is a big one.

First, about that lingo:

“Egalitarians” say the Bible teaches across-the-board equality without regard to gender. Period. Nevertheless, this supposedly “liberal” view is held by many people who are commonly called “conservatives.”

“Complementarians” — note that it’s “complement,” not “compliment” — say the Bible establishes different roles for men and women in the church and, most add, in the home. For instance, no female pastors. Obviously not a politically-correct stance but in conscience they believe the Bible is clear about this.

These two terms are used almost exclusively in the ongoing debate among U.S. Evangelical Protestants. Though some Evangelical denominations have ordained women since the 19th Century, influential theologians like the Rev. J.I. Packer, an Anglican, say the Bible rules out female clergy. Meanwhile, there’s no dispute in U.S. “Mainline” Protestant churches that began ordaining women in the 1950s through the 1970s. Of course, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have always barred women from the priesthood (with parallels among non-Christian faiths).

While other Christians rely more upon church tradition and hierarchical decrees, Protestants follow “scripture alone” in setting policy. Both of the Evangelical camps maintain they’re being faithful to the Bible and agree on the spiritual equality of both sexes as taught in Genesis 1:27 (“in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”) and Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”). Egalitarians say those verses require full equality; complementarians say they don’t rule out a division of labor and gifts based on gender.

America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention with 46,000 local congregations, has officially gone complementarian. The SBC rewrote its doctrinal platform, the Baptist Faith and Message, to specify that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” and that “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” (Local Baptist congregations are, of course, free to disagree.)

Per Park’s question, The Guy will look only at the church aspect, sidestepping the intriguing relationship between husbands and wives in the home.

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