Blair converted. Whoa. But why?

popeDM 468x336When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair formally entered the Roman Catholic Church, reporters told us almost — almost — everything readers would want to know about Blair’s conversion. John F. Burns of The New York Times wrote a particularly insightful story:

Mr. Blair’s convent-educated wife, Cherie, and four children are Catholics, and Mr. Blair had for many years made a practice of attending Mass with them, saying he did so to keep his family together on Sundays.

Aides have said he delayed his formal conversion until after leaving office to avoid making his religious beliefs a political issue, and because of the risk of stirring controversy over his role, as prime minister, in appointing Anglican bishops.

Mr. Blair also faced concerns within the Catholic hierarchy in London and Rome, centering on policies adopted by his government during his 10 years in power that drew fierce criticism from the conservative hierarchy of the church. Among these were the Blair government’s support for [embryonic] stem cell research, gay adoptions and the legalization of gay civil unions, as well as its resistance to toughening Britain’s abortion laws.

In 1996, the year before Mr. Blair became prime minister, Cardinal Basil Hume, then the head of the Catholic Church in Britain, wrote to Mr. Blair asking him to stop taking communion at a Catholic church in the London district of Islington, near his home.

Mr. Blair accepted the decision, but wrote back to the cardinal, according to the account given by his aides later, saying, “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it.”

Burns packed a ton of information in those five paragraphs — Blair’s wife was educated in a convent; Blair sought to keep the family together on Sundays; the conflict or at least awkwardness of having the Prime Minister, a Catholic, appoint Anglican bishops; his conflict with the Church hierarchy over hot-button cultural issues; and his private musing or defiance about being chastised for taking Holy Communion while an Anglican.

My only real beef with Burns’ story, and it is the same beef I had with those of London’s The Times and The Associated Press, is that it fails to mention why exactly Blair converted. Blair presumably had familial reasons to convert, but were there others? Why would a politician whose positions on cultural issues were anathema to Church teaching seek its embrace?

If Blair was unavailable for comment or declined to give a reason for his conversion, reporters should have said so. I mean, really: A powerful former world leader sought the waiting arms of the Catholic Church.

Readers deserve to know his reasons for doing so, if he is willing to discuss them. Reporters will need to ask.

Meanwhile, that London Times story featured the one of the strangest passages in the coverage so far. It’s one thing to ask Blair probing questions. It something else to try to go where no one has a right to go. Check this out:

Before the profession of faith and reception the candidate makes a confession of sins. … There has been public speculation about whether Mr Blair’s confession would include any reference to the war in Iraq, or to Parliamentary policy on “life” issues during his time as Prime Minister.

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Timing is everything

ArchbishopWilliams2I’ll say this for Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury: He communicates directly and accessibly when speaking with broadcast journalists. Indeed, people who care deeply about the conflicts of the Anglican Communion might wish that Williams would grant a monthly one-hour interview to BBC Radio 5′s Simon Mayo.

British papers had some fun with Williams’ observations, during an interview with Mayo on Wednesday, on just what the Gospel of Matthew says about the Nativity, and what about Jesus’ birth narrative is central (see The Daily Telegraph and The Times). Hijinks ensued, especially on the Web, to the point that some blogs reacted as though Williams was dispensing with the whole of the Incarnation.

The Telegraph offered an edited transcript of the interview. BBC 5 offered this audio of the interview. prepared this surprisingly thorough roundup of how some American Christian leaders responded to the the archbishop’s remarks.

The British papers reported the archbishop’s remarks with technical accuracy, but they were hobbled by lurid headlines: “It’s all a Christmas tall story” in The Times, “Archbishop says nativity ‘a legend’” in The Daily Telegraph. This was enough to set visions of a Welsh Jack Spong dancing in people’s heads. (Williams, while still bishop of Monmouth, Wales, wrote a withering critique of Spong in the U.K.’s Church Times just before the Lambeth Conference in 1998.)

As the archbishop says early in the interview with Mayo, he loves discussion with some of Christianity’s fiercer critics, including Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman. Indeed, he has engaged in a public dialogue with Pullman already. Here’s hoping they don’t do an Easter tour together. I don’t worry about what the archbishop would say, but about how breathless headlines would distort it.

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Yes, Virginia, there is a St. Nicholas

grk icon3 wmasterThis isn’t really a breaking news story, but it shows up in newspapers from time to time. This is how I started a Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic several years ago:

We see the headlines every two or three years during the holidays. A pastor preaches on the true meaning of Christmas, warning about sins of selfishness and materialism. Then, in a moment of candor, disaster strikes.

This time the dateline was Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Local newspapers, followed by national wire services, reported that Father Ruben Rocha of St. Pius X Catholic School did something shocking during a Mass for students in kindergarten through third grade. He told the children that there is no Santa Claus. The church hierarchy sprang into action.

“There’s a time and place for everything, and this was not the time or the place or the age group to be talking about the true meaning of Christmas, at least in terms that young children cannot understand,” Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the media.

Father Rocha apologized in writing to parents. Few details of his sermon are known beyond reports that, in response to a child’s question, he said that parents eat the milk and cookies left for Santa.

The Santa question is hard to avoid, this time of year.

Thus, a year ago, Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher decided to have a Dallas Morning News showdown between the pro- and antii-Santa worldviews, with me taking the anti-Santa side of things (but pro-St. Nicholas of Myra) and the Catholic writer Erin Manning voting in favor of telling children all about the big man in the red suit. Rod’s a pro-Santa guy, too, the heretic.

Anyway, Rod decided to start a new online thread on the same topic the other day. Here’s a sample of what I had to say:

Here is the key question: Does saying “yes” to St. Nicholas automatically mean saying “no” to Santa Claus? Even before we converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, my wife and I had made the decision that — in our house — the answer would be affirmative. The reason was simple: We didn’t want to say things to our children that we do not believe are true.

In other words, we believe that the whole season of Nativity Lent and Christmas belong, first and foremost, to the church. That’s an issue — as the Orthodox would say — of Christian Tradition with a “big T.”

coke santa360While Erin responded, in part, by arguing:

Are we lying to our children, with our ancient stories and cherished poems of a kindly saint who loves all children and hears their whispered wishes and dreams? Not at all — we are telling them the truth. It’s just that some truths can’t be found in scholarly lectures or discovered in dry books of facts.

When we teach our wide-eyed little ones the legend of St. Nicholas, we are teaching them essential lessons about faith, hope and unconditional love. When we sit by glowing embers to share with them our December stories, we instruct them in such virtues as generosity, patience and the sort of kindness that expects no reward. And they are able to learn these things from us because for a few short weeks every year, we find it possible to enter the world of make-believe.

So, what do you think, gentle GetReligion readers?

The key, for me, is whether Christmas is a holy season or not. This is one of those cases in which it really is hard to see the forest for the trees. Viewed from an historical perspective, there really is a giant news story out there right now in the public square.

The story can be stated in a question: When is Christmas? I put it this way, in a Christmas-season column the other day for Scripps. Except, it really wasn’t a Christmas-season column. That was the whole point.

Here’s the bottom line. For centuries, Christmas was a 12-day season that began on Dec. 25th and ended on Jan. 6th with the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. Thus, the season of Christmas followed Christmas Day, with most people preparing for the holy day in a festive blitz during the final days or even hours, with many stores staying open until midnight on Christmas Eve.

Today, everything has been flipped around, with the Christmas or Holiday season preceding Dec. 25.

So is Christmas about to begin or is it about to end? What’s happening (a) in your local media (click for the classic) and (b) in, for those of you who are Christians, your churches?

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Toll, don’t peal, the bells

RussianBellsThe Washington Post Foreign Service has an interesting story today about the revival of church bells and bilos in the Russian Orthodox church. The other day we looked at the New York Times foreign desk’s treatment of the rise of piety in Islamic Egypt. That story used the prevalence of a mark of piety to explore larger cultural trends but also focused on the religious meaning.

The church bell story by Peter Finn was more straightforward observation than analysis. Reporting from Moscow, he explained how students are taught to perform rhythmically perfect ringing:

[Margarita] Krupka, a 25-year-old psychologist, stood before a head-high wooden frame from which nine bells and a bilo, a piece of flat metal, were hung. She held short ropes connected to the bell tongues and began to pull. First came one lonely bell, and then, as she deftly worked the ropes and a foot pedal, others joined to achieve a peak of controlled percussive sound.

Eyes shut, she gently rocked with the chimes. And as quietly as she had begun, she eased out of the short movement.

“I have a feeling my soul is singing,” said Krupka, who lives in a small town near Moscow.

And indeed Krupka’s chimes are not just a call to service but a binding link between the church and Heaven, according to Orthodox belief.

That last line — along with the headline claiming bell ringing was sacramental — weren’t explained in any way. There must be a theology about the chimes but it wasn’t explained in the piece. Instead the article focuses on how 800 students a year graduate from three month courses on the theory and practice of bell-ringing. The rhythmic tones have been missing from services because of a severe shortage of skilled ringers:

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, thousands of Orthodox churches have been built or refurbished, but only a small percentage have ringers, according to Viktor Sharikov, head of the Moscow Bell Center, which turns out about 800 graduates a year.

During communist times, he said, “we lost many things, and our task is to revive our traditions.”

Students such as Krupka must be Orthodox faithful and regular churchgoers, and they are selected by their local clergy to attend class. The three-month course involves two hours of theory and three hours of practice each week.

Bells were run during the Soviet period but only at famous monasteries. The most interesting part of the story was the comparison between Western and Eastern bells. In the West, chimes follow musical notes while for the Orthodox bell-ringing is purely rhythmic, according to the story:

Western bells swing as they ring; Orthodox bells remain stationary and their tongues, connected by short ropes to the hands of the ringer, do all the work. Unlike in the West, where a bell-ringer often stands at the bottom of a long rope that reaches into a belfry, a Russian bell-ringer usually stands right in front of the bells.

“For us the most important thing is the sense of rhythm,” Sharikov said. “If your ear is tuned, great, but it is not the most important thing. Our bell-ringer is not ringing music. He is ringing a rhythm, and sometimes it’s very difficult to catch any melody in it. This is our tradition.

“For Catholics, for instance, how well the bell corresponds with a note is very important,” he continued. “But what is most valuable for us is how rich the timbre is and how long the sound lasts.”

Again, I’m intrigued but left with many questions. Why are notes important to Catholics but not Orthodox? What is the symbolism of the Orthodox chimes?

This article, found on the site of an Orthodox bell seller, explains some of the theology and history behind the bells. That site also claims that when America’s first Russian Orthodox bishop — St. Innocent Veniaminov — came to Alaska, he brought with him a priest, a deacon, a subdeacon, a reader and a bell ringer.

I’ve long complained that political angles get more coverage by religion reporters than sacramental angles. Here we have a great story idea about the life of the church but it’s not explained enough.

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Blood and ouzo in Baghdad

GreekOuzoA one-question test: When you hear the word “ouzo,” what leaps to mind?

Right. Dancing Greeks who are celebrating something, or simply life in general.

So I was a bit concerned when I read the top of that New York Times story from Baghdad that ran with the headline “Iraq Bomber Aimed at Alcohol Sellers.”

Blood and ouzo mingled on the sidewalk outside a shattered Baghdad liquor store on Thursday after three people were killed in a car bombing directed at alcohol sellers in one of Baghdad’s most heavily protected areas.

The alcohol sellers, who have expanded their business as security in Baghdad has improved in recent months, were among the few merchants plying their trade during the Muslim holiday celebrating Id al-Adha, the end of the hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

I assumed that there was going to be a major ghost in this story. Actually, there were several potential ghosts in the story and, frankly, I assumed that reporter Stephen Farrell would miss them.

The first, of course, is that one of the lines between “moderate” Muslims and traditional Muslims in a land like Iraq is the consumption of alcohol. We have talked about this here at GetReligion before. In a way, this ghost was the actual subject of the story.

But the bombers were almost certainly focusing on another kind of target. And that is the ghost I was afraid the Times would miss.

But I was wrong. Near the end of the piece we read:

Most of these businesses, residents say, are run by enterprising Yazidis, members of a Kurdish-speaking sect. Iraq’s Yazidis live mainly in the northwest, and their faith combines elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and includes a Peacock Angel.

Residents say the Yazidis capitalized on the past few months of relative stability to take over the liquor stores in this area. Christians once dominated the trade locally but fled to escape death threats and kidnappings by religious militants.

Mustafa Hassan, 19, a grocery stall owner, said the blast walls and checkpoints installed in the neighborhood to protect American contractors and the nearby Palestine Hotel had fostered the mushrooming alcohol sector. He said that over the past year the number of liquor stores had increased to 30 from 5.

That covers it all, although with few specifics to make the scope of the tragedy clear. In other words, the ouzo is a sign of several Western values — not all of them good, mind you — that remain under attack. Actually, it’s hard to call the Greeks and the other Eastern churches “Western,” but I think you get my point.

Farrell saw the ghosts. A tragic story, well told.

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Round one (so far) goes to Narnia

prince caspian poster largeOh my. Here is a quick, and really mean, little update on the state of The Golden Compass at the box office.

As I mentioned in my first post on this, a crucial part of Philip Pullman’s appeal to his most devoted fans is his willingness to attack traditional forms of Christian faith.

Based in Oxford, Pullman has gone out of his way to make sure that people know all about his intense hatred for the beliefs and the work of the famous Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. Click here for a report on that and then click here for a Gregg Easterbrook defense of Lewis at And here is a link to a copy of the original Pullman piece about Lewis.

Here is the bottom line for Pullman:

… There is no doubt in the public mind that what matters is the Narnia cycle, and that is where the puzzle comes, because there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.

Them’s fighting words for millions of readers around the world.

Thus, the editors of Baptist Press have put together a nice little roundup on The Golden Compass and its box-office fortunes here in America, contrasting the movie with — well, you can guess which movie.

The controversial movie finished in first place on opening weekend with $25.7 million — short of the hoped-for $30-$40 million — and over the subsequent weekend fell to third place with $8.8 million, a relatively large 66 percent drop from its first weekend. To date the film, made on a hefty $180 million budget, has made just over $40 million domestically.

By comparison, Disney’s first “Chronicles of Narnia” film also cost $180 million to make but brought in $65.5 million its first weekend and $31.8 million its second weekend, a 51.4 percent drop. Domestically, it grossed $291.7 million.

To its credit, Baptist Press also noted that Compass has been much more successful overseas.

This story has legs for one obvious reason: Here comes Prince Caspian. And, hey, there’s news out of New Zealand, as well. Pullman also hates the mythology of Catholic scribe J.R.R. Tolkien.

UPDATED: Speaking of Christmas movies, I received a note from Bruce Tomaso of The Dallas Morning News asking for some input from loyal GetReligion readers. He writes: “FYI, I’ve asked our readers to name their favorite Christmas movie — not counting It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. They’re too easy. Would love to hear what your readers think as well, if you’d care to post a link.”

So here is that link. Deadline is Monday. Here’s a handy list of Christmas movies if you need to prime the pump. You know, I think the Dallas gang should have banned that other movie, too.

I’m sorry, but Frank Capra is still the Christmas movie man, as far as I am concerned. I mean, I own my own copy of the wonderful The It’s a Wonderful Life Book and the whole ball of wax. Sue me.

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Compass pointed toward good Catholics

04 simonmcburney lgIt’s kind of hard to kick a major movie when it’s down, but I still find the whole story of The Golden Compass quite fascinating.

But first, here is the hard news — after the openings of Will Smith and Alvin — from the always cheery Entertainment Weekly:

The success of the two new arrivals undermined New Line’s The Golden Compass in its second weekend, causing the PG-rated fantasy film to drop a steep 65 percent. The film, which cost more than $200 million to make, has grossed slightly less than $41 million in the U.S. since it bowed ten days ago. Enjoy this one, kids, ’cause at this rate there’s no way New Line is going to get behind a sequel.

In other words, Compass failed to find that Holidays sweet spot somewhere in between atheistic evangelism and the family market in middle America.

There is no way around the fact that the creators of the film edited out as much of Philip Pullman’s anti-Christian orthodoxy worldview as they could, which led to justified yowls on the religious and cultural left. But Pullman is what he believes that he is — the anti-C.S. Lewis. He’s brilliant at what he does and the movie tried to dumb him down.

So what was the most important religion story in the semi-flop of this very expensive attempt to create an anti-Christian movie franchise? After all, I have always thought that very expensive failures tell you more about their makers than the success stories.

So here is,0,5178851.story">my nomination for the most interesting religion-beat story linked to this movie, care of The Baltimore Sun:

Days after its publication, a largely positive review of The Golden Compass that appeared in Catholic newspapers across the country was retracted this week by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops, who could not be reached for comment, offered no explanation for the decision. But Catholic groups, including the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, have urged moviegoers to boycott the film, saying the film and the book on which it is based are anti-Catholic.

The pulled review in question — click here for a discussion of some of its contents — was written by Harry Forbes and John Mulderig, the director and staff reviewer of the bishops’ office on film. They gave the film an A-II, appropriate for adults and adolescents. The Sun noted:

In their review, Forbes and Mulderig praised the film as “lavish, well-acted and fast-paced,” and noted that the book’s anti-Catholic tone had been considerably watered down. “The good news is that the first book’s explicit references to this church have been completely excised with only the term Magisterium remaining.”

They also suggested the film could prompt some worthwhile discussions in Catholic households. “Rather than banning the movie or books,” they wrote, “parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.”

GoldencompassThus, the bishops conference staff was, initially, more positive about the movie than the vast majority — Rotten Tomatoes here — of the nation’s mainstream critics. That is really interesting. Perhaps it was more important to send a message to Catholic traditionalists than to Hollywood.

The key is that Compass turned into another fault line between, to use James Davison Hunter language, the progressives and the orthodox. The movie, you see, was not an attack on Catholics. It was an attack on bad Catholics. It was not an anti-Christian movie, it was a pro-good Christianity movie. It was an attack on traditional Christianity, not the faith itself. Got that?

Early on, this was stated quite clearly in an excellent Washington Post interview with Chris Weitz, the film’s director — a self-proclaimed “lapsed Catholic crypto-Buddhist.”

… Weitz always knew that bringing “The Golden Compass” to theaters … would take extraordinary finesse. The book, published in 1995, is a parable that attacks the concept of organized religion — more specifically, any religion that rules by fiat and claims an exclusive pipeline to the truth. The book describes a world ruled by a pious, punitive outfit called the Magisterium. It doesn’t just dress its leaders in ominous frocks — it tries to repress knowledge in the name of protecting humanity. It also tortures children by trying to rob them of their daemons, the soul-mate pets that every human in this alternate universe needs in order to think and live. The point, it seems, is to crush curiosity and freethinking and tighten the Magisterium’s grip on power.

Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, had to convey Pullman’s cosmology while slaloming between two very different and very important interest groups: the book’s fans, who would feel cheated if the movie didn’t stay true to its anticlerical spirit, and the movie’s backers, who would feel cheated if they infuriated religious people and the movie bombed. The grumbling has already started. On fan sites, such as, you’ll read a few complaints that Weitz soft-pedaled Pullman’s critique of religious dogma.

I am left with one question: What is the name of this acceptable version of Christian faith? Hollywood Buddhism? Unitarianism? New Oxford Anglicanism?

That’s a great story. But we can expect total silence from the U.S. Catholic bishops on that.

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Lex orandi, lex credendi

lex orandiU.S. News & World Report‘s Jay Tolson has an interesting piece that looks at a return to traditionalism amongst Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews and Muslims. Because the article attempts to cover so much important ground, it ends up being necessarily shallow. I think journalists and editors think they are being more respectful of major religions by including so many in stories such as this one, but they end up doing every religion a disservice through superficial treatment.

Still, this is a very important topic that could and should get a lot more coverage. Not the least of which is because there are different types of tradition, as Tolson uncovers. After discussing a Washington church’s offering of Tridentine Mass, he looks at a non-denominational church in Texas that offers Holy Communion weekly:

Something curious is happening in the wide world of faith, something that defies easy explanation or quantification. More substantial than a trend but less organized than a movement, it has to do more with how people practice their religion than with what they believe, though people caught up in this change often find that their beliefs are influenced, if not subtly altered, by the changes in their practice.

Put simply, the development is a return to tradition and orthodoxy, to past practices, observances, and customary ways of worshiping. But it is not simply a return to the past — at least not in all cases. Even while drawing on deep traditional resources, many participants are creating something new within the old forms. They are engaging in what Penn State sociologist of religion Roger Finke calls “innovative returns to tradition.”

That bit about how this movement has more to do with how people practice their religion than what they believe struck me. The ancient Christian precept lex orandi, lex credendi refers to the notion that how you worship is how you believe. There is no separation between worship and belief.

Anyway, the reporter then goes on to describe the emergent church trend, writing that its practitioners pick up various liturgical practices such as communion but use a bagel for the host or recite a creed in a worship service that may include skits. Tolson also mentions that the movement toward traditionalism in Islam is harder to decipher. Are men growing beards and women covering themselves in a move to tradition or in a move toward Wahhabism?:

In all faiths, the return to tradition has different meanings for different people. To some, it is a return to reassuring authority and absolutes; it is a buttress to conservative theological, social, and even political commitments. To others, it is a means of moving beyond fundamentalist literalism, troubling authority figures, and highly politicized religious positions (say on gay marriage and contraception or abortion) while retaining a hold on spiritual truths. In short, the new traditionalism is anything but straightforward.

ClownMassI’m sure all of these things are true. But as someone who worships liturgically and grew up worshiping liturgically, it seems to me that a lot of this “movement” isn’t so much about returning as staying put. Confessional Lutherans will keep worshiping the way we do even when this “return to tradition” fad gets passed to wherever the leftover WWJD bracelets are being hidden. It’s funny to me that those of us who don’t change with the times every few years only get coverage because apparently a fad is guiding people in our direction.

But by putting such a postmodern spin on the motivations of those who worship traditionally, the reporter also manages to give a rather soulless characterization of traditional worship. He gives the impression that its adherents are into the smells and bells and whistles but unwilling to accept the whole banana. He quotes an analyst at Georgetown who wonders whether those who worship traditionally accept church doctrine on such matters as papal infallibility, contraception, or exclusively male and celibate clergy.

The quote is left unchecked, leaving the impression that the query is rhetorical.

But what if the folks worshiping traditionally also accept the church’s teaching on the other issues? The reporter also quotes, of course, the omnipresent Father Thomas Reese saying that the church should focus on preaching, music and a welcoming community (and getting in a dig about women’s ordination) rather than the Latin Mass. Why quote these folks instead of the actual parishioners and congregants who are filling the traditionalist pews? When Tolson does interview the non-experts, the story comes alive, as in this solitary case:

When Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, once an assistant rabbi at Riverdale, took over Ohev Sholom almost four years ago, the northwest Washington, D.C., synagogue had dwindled to about 15 families. Today, with some 300 families (and bearing the additional name “the National Synagogue”), it buzzes with energy and enthusiastic congregants. “Most come from nonspecific affiliations,” says Herzfeld. “They find authentic spiritual life and tradition. Some make the full, radical transformation into the Orthodox life. Some even sell their homes and move so they can walk to shul on the Sabbath.” Jill Sacks and her husband, Tom, formerly members of a Conservative synagogue who lived in Bethesda, Md., for 26 years, are one couple who moved to be closer to Ohev Sholom. They were drawn by Herzfeld’s self-deflecting but charismatic leadership, the traditionalism, the vibrant community, and the commitment to social outreach. Sacks’s former synagogue was a very egalitarian one, she says, and she read the Torah and the haftarah there. “I had that option,” Sacks says, “but I am very happy with this synagogue.”

It’s always more interesting to get the perspective of ordinary people. It might also be more useful to the reader in this case than the admitted speculation about what ordinary people think about trends toward traditionalism. Why not go straight to the source?

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