Whew, that was a close(r) one!

JxDrwyz5It seems that some GetReligion readers are sensitive about the burning issue of whether God cares which teams win and which teams lose athletic contests and whether the prayers of the sports warriors play any role in determining the outcome of contests.

So I have been watching this issue carefully.

So on the train this morning, my jet-lagged brain spotted what I thought was an interesting piece of Godtalk in a Washington Times story by Mark Zuckerman about the final Washington Nationals game played in creaky old RFK Stadium.

For a moment, I was worried — since this was, it seemed, mentioned in a press conference — that we had a reference to public prayer inside a sports stadium the District of Columbia. Here is the top of the story:

Chad Cordero stared in for the sign from Brian Schneider. At the plate stood Jayson Werth, hoping to complete a last-ditch rally by driving in the tying runners perched on first and second bases.

The Washington Nationals led the Philadelphia Phillies 5-3 with two outs in the ninth, and RFK Stadium was bouncing and swaying one last time.

Inside a crowded home dugout, Manny Acta noticed team owner Ted Lerner nervously waiting for the final out to be recorded so he could take part in postgame ceremonies. Acta started to worry.

“Ted is just standing there waiting for the game to be over,” the manager said. “And I’m like, ‘Come on, Chief. You know the guy’s 81 years old. He doesn’t need to be put through this.’”

OK, was the reference to “Chief” — with a large C — kind of a vague reference to, you know, the Big Chief upstairs who hears managers’ prayers? Was this a Latino culture thing? It should be observed that this was a request, not so much for victory, but for the team owner not to drop dead of a heart attack. That’s a good reason to pray, yes?

However, I am relieved to let readers know that this is not a church-baseball separation issue.

It appears that closer Chad Cordero’s was college nickname was “Chief” and, under Associated Press style, that would be a Big C reference. I think.

Note to the reporter: I follow the Nationals somewhat closely and I had not caught the “Chief” reference. That would have been a good thing to mention, so that sensitive politicos did not have to worry. There are tense times.

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Confession and absolution

confession 02I wasn’t keeping tally before last year, but it seems there has been a noticeable uptick in mainstream media coverage of confession in Christian churches. The New York Times‘ Neela Banerjee got the ball rolling a year ago with her coverage of evangelicals launching online confessional booths for virtual confessions. The Miami Herald‘s Jennifer Lebovich had a very interesting article on the same — taking a local angle on the Florida megachurches that run some of the sites.

When the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington launched a campaign this past Lent to get parishioners to return to the confessional, The Washington Post and National Public Radio covered it.

The latest entrant to the confession storyline is Alexandra Alter’s piece in The Wall Street Journal headlined “Confession Makes a Comeback”:

Sin never goes out of style, but confession is undergoing a revival.

This February at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI instructed priests to make confession a top priority. U.S. bishops have begun promoting it in diocesan newspapers, mass mailings and even billboard ads. And in a dramatic turnaround, some Protestant churches are following suit. This summer, the second-largest North American branch of the Lutheran Church passed a resolution supporting the rite, which it had all but ignored for more than 100 years.

Alter reports that several factors are feeding the resurgence, from marketing confession as self-improvement to using technology to broad acceptance of psychotherapy. She reports that the return to confession is also reflective of a return to churches as moral enforcers. I thought this bit was rather interesting:

Confession has been in steep decline for several decades. In 2005, just 26% of American Catholics said they went to confession at least once a year, down from 74% in the early 1980s, according to researchers at two Catholic universities. After the Vatican softened some of its doctrine on sin in the 1960s, the rite “went into a tailspin,” says Prof. William D’Antonio, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

That’s quite the dramatic downturn. The article attempts to accomplish quite a bit — a concise explanation of 2,000 years of Christian history — and the overview ends up bundling a bit too much under the Protestant umbrella. I’ve written before about how reporters tend to equate all confession practices and in so doing end up missing out on much of the story. While the naming of sins may seem like the exciting part, these stories tend to avoid discussing what happens afterward. In the case of the Lutheran understanding, sinners receive absolution for their sins — with no strings attached. That aspect is missing from this vignette about a pastor I happen to be friends with and with whom I served on a board:

Protestant theologians are also rethinking the rite. This past summer, the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, a 2.5 million-member branch whose members are spread across North America, voted to revive private confession with a priest. Some theologians have pointed to the writings of Martin Luther and argued that the Protestant reformer, while criticizing the way the rite was administered, never advocated abolishing it. “Some of us were saying, ‘Why in the world did we let that die out?’” says the Rev. Bruce Keseman, a Lutheran pastor in Freeburg, Ill.

The Rev. Keseman has sought to revive confession in his congregation by bringing it into pastoral counseling, giving demonstrations to youth groups and preaching about its benefits. Leslie Sramek, 48, a lifelong Lutheran and financial manager who lives near St. Louis, says she never heard about private confession and absolution in church when she was growing up. But two years ago, when the Rev. Keseman announced he would be taking confession privately, she decided to give it a try. At these sessions, the pastor wears vestments and stands near the altar while she kneels and recounts her sins. “I won’t say that looking at my sins is pleasant, but they have to be dealt with,” says Mrs. Sramek.

Everything written there is accurate and it’s great to see my church body get some press. It’s also nice to see a story on confession that includes more than the Catholic and online evangelical methods. It would just be nice if reporters would discuss in more detail what is alluded to in the second paragraph — the benefits of absolution. In this case, I know that the Lutheran sources did emphasize the importance of absolution but their comments were not included. I understand that reporting on the various churches’ response to confession, be it absolution, reconciliation or self-help suggestions, would be difficult. But this story about online confession is getting a bit stale and it’s time for reporters to move the ball forward a bit.

To that end, I must mention this late August story from the inestimable Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times. She mentions the attempts at resurgence of the ancient rite as well as the online confessional sites. After noting some of the more salacious online confessions, she includes this line that I wish I’d thought of in my previous writings:

It quickly becomes clear that there’s no such thing as an original sin.

I thought she did a nice job of contrasting different confessional approaches. Here’s a snippet:

Scott Thumma, who studies the sociology of religion, sees sites like MySecret as marketing tools very much in keeping with modern mega-church philosophy.

Such churches often host spectacular performances (a Cirque du Soleil-style Easter play) and edgy websites (MyLameSexLife.org) to attract “unbelievers who otherwise would never darken the door of a church,” Thumma said.

“Their strategy is not to go out, convert and bring [only] saved people into the sanctuary. The idea is to bring in the masses,” said Thumma, coauthor of the new book “Beyond Megachurch Myths.”

To keep the masses coming back, these pastors often turn sermons into self-help pep talks: How to build a good marriage; how to manage a hectic schedule; how to live debt-free. The brisk practicality of the online confession fits right into that culture.

The Catholic sacrament of confession, by contrast, is not about personal growth. It’s about healing a ruptured relationship with God.

While I’m elated that so many reporters are looking at an issue of vital importance to the life of the Christian (heck, I’m elated that reporters are covering any nonpolitical religious issue), I think churches’ various responses to the penitent — be it reconciliation, absolution or accountability — are interesting and worthy of coverage as well.

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Labels, labels and more Lebanon labels

lebroses01My first reaction, when I read the bold Washington Post headline, was negative. I am not fond of religious labels, but this looked like a futile attempt to avoid one. It said: “Anti-Syrian Lawmaker Killed in Beirut Blast.”

The deck followed up with the obvious context: “Six Others Dead In Christian Area.”

Using “anti-Syrian” seemed to play down the role of religion in the conflict. Yet what happens when you swing the other way?

Does it make you flinch to read a story about bombs, blood and terror and see the word “Christian” as an adjective? Do you still shudder when you read about “Muslim bombers” hitting another target, instead of a more specific label such as “Islamist” or a name, if possible, such as Al-Qaida?

As a rule, general labels are dangerous things when it comes to religion. Amen.

Yet Lebanon is one of those places where journalists have to use some kind of identifying labels. This particular report by Alia Ibrahim and Nora Boustany is an example of using them with care. I don’t know how they could have been more careful in this minefield. I mean, try to follow all of the religious threads in these fact paragraphs:

Antoine Ghanem, 64, a member of the Christian Phalange party, was the eighth anti-Syrian figure killed in Lebanon in the past three years. Fifty-six people were injured in the blast, police said, which shook a Christian neighborhood during the evening rush hour.

… Lebanon’s government has been all but paralyzed by a months-long standoff between its U.S.-backed government and opposition forces including the Shiite movement Hezbollah, which enjoys Syrian and Iranian support. Many Lebanese are on edge in anticipation of further conflict during the run-up to the presidential contest.

Ghanem’s death brought the number of seats held by the anti-Syrian governing coalition down to 68 in a unicameral legislature of 128. The president, traditionally a Christian Maronite under Lebanon’s power-sharing formula, is elected by an absolute majority of members of parliament, but a debate is underway over what constitutes the necessary quorum.

The assassination revived fears in Lebanon about more killings in coming weeks that would further erode the coalition’s slim majority. “There’s going to be more blood,” said Wael Abou Faour, a member of parliament.

This is hard stuff. There is more to this than religious faith, of course, but it is impossible to cover the conflict while wishing away the religious history and the words that the participants use to explain their actions.

In the end, this was a story that made me shudder, in large part because I was glad that I did not have to write it. All reporters need to be this careful.

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Define ‘evangelical,’ again and again

weyrich 704633I made it to Prague just fine, with no help from the construction war zone that is called Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. You don’t want to know about it. OK, let’s just say that airport terminals designed to be linked by trains do not work well when there are no trains.

So I am exhausted, but I still was awake enough to get ticked off reading a short political story in the new issue of Newsweek. It’s about Fred Thompson and his much celebrated gaffes coming out of the White House gate late in the game.

As you would imagine, this involves whether he has or has not bonded with a key GOP voter group. It’s right there in Holly Bailey’s lede:

For months, social conservatives have viewed Fred Thompson as a Reaganesque savior in a dreary field of GOP presidential hopefuls. But the former Tennessee senator’s early days on the campaign trail have left some prominent evangelicals underwhelmed. “I’m personally not that impressed,” says Paul Weyrich, a veteran strategist who cofounded the Moral Majority.

One sticking point: Thompson’s stance on a same-sex marriage ban. On the trail, he has declined to endorse a constitutional amendment blocking gay marriage, instead backing a broader amendment that would bar states from imposing their laws on other states. “The [marriage ban] approach has been tried in Congress, but can’t even get a majority,” Thompson told the Christian Broadcasting Network.

That’s not good enough for some on the right, and it has cost Thompson, at least for now, endorsements from members of the Arlington Group, an influential coalition of the nation’s top conservative leaders. “It’s a deal breaker,” Weyrich told Newsweek.

See the problem in this little story? Yes, it is an old problem that we have talked about here before, which is the evolution of the word “evangelical” into a strictly political term with almost no religious content whatsoever.

Now, it’s true that Weyrich was the cofounder of the Moral Majority. But does this automatically mean that he is an evangelical Protestant?

So here is your one question mini-test. OK, GetReligion class: Paul Weyrich is an ordained clergyperson in what church?

(a) The Nation of Islam

(b) The United Church of Christ

(c) The Catholic Church (Eastern Rite)

(d) The Anglican Church of Nigeria

(e) The Southern Baptist Convention

And the answer is …

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We have a ‘trio’ alert at Georgetown

1025 5264aIt isn’t very shocking to pick up the newspaper and learn that there has been (a) another clash between Rome and a progressive Catholic theologian and that (b) this scholar teaches at Georgetown University.

However, it is rather strange to read the coverage of the controversy and not really know what is going on, in terms of the Vatican’s criticism of the priest involved. Here is the top of the Washington Post story about the case:

The Vatican and U.S. Catholic bishops are reviewing the work of a Georgetown University theology professor who writes about religious pluralism and are talking with him about whether his writings conform with Catholic teachings.

The inquiries into the Rev. Peter Phan, former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, reportedly focus on his views of Jesus as savior of the world and the value of non-Christian religions, among other things.

“Pluralism,” of course, can mean many things, and the Post connects this with the recent Vatican document about the Roman church’s claim to be, well, the Catholic Church for all of planet earth. This resulted in saying that other religious bodies do not have as full a revelation of the truth as does Catholicism. This is pretty standard stuff.

However, this clash seems — it’s hard to tell — to be centering on a larger conflict. Could it be that Rome is trying to clarify its own teachings on the status of world religions other than Christianity? If so, we might be dealing with an issue linked to ancient doctrines about salvation and the actual nature of Jesus Christ.

If that is the case, then we are faced with a conflict rooted in one of those pushy questions in the infamous “tmatt trio.” For newcovers, this is a set of questions that I have found almost always yields interesting information when used during interviews about conflicts inside Christian bodies:

1) Are 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 marriage a sin?

However, I must admit that it is hard to tell, at this point, precisely what is going on.

For Georgetown officials, this is automatically a case of academic freedom as defined on a secular university campus. For the Vatican, this is an issue of who is a Roman Catholic theologian and who is not, and Rome thinks it should play a role in that decision. Phan is declining comment, which is the normal Georgetown response.

At the end of the story, we learn:

Phan wrote about the challenges and goals of religious pluralism in a January essay for Commonweal, a journal run by lay Catholics. He wrote: “It is only by means of a patient and painstaking investigation of particular texts, doctrines, liturgical practices, and moral precepts that both differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions may emerge. Only in this way can there be a mutual understanding, full of challenge, correction, and enrichment, for both Christians and non-Christians.

“For even if Christ embodies the fullness of God’s self-revelation, the church’s understanding of this revelation remains imperfect, and its practice of it remains partial, at times even sinful.”

st peters basilica in the vatican rome iNow, I do not believe the Catholic Church argues that it is exempt from sin and The Fall. The Church can make mistakes, as it attempts to teach and live out doctrines that it believes are absolutely true. Am I wrong about that?

But note the references to “differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions.” That’s a completely different set of issues.

Over at the Associated Press, Eric Gorski notes:

The issues underpinning Phan’s case are causing great debate among Catholic theologians grappling with how Catholicism relates to other faiths outside a European context, said Terrence Tilley, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University and president-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

“To come to judgment as the Vatican seems to be doing so quickly, before theologians have had time to work out and critique the positions … it’s just premature,” Tilley said. “It’s in a sense cutting off debate before the debate’s started.”

I have no idea what this phrase means — “grappling with how Catholicism relates to other faiths outside a European context.” European context? The irony there is that Catholics in other parts of the world are often more clear on the basic issues of Christology and salvation than the folks in Europe.

So, at this point, let’s just say that I am confused and I want to know more. What are the key issues here anyway?

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Spain’s mighty wind of Love

dc 2330 galleryThere just has to be a ghost in here somewhere, seeing as how this story is about the soul of the nation of Spain — which has to be some of the most religion-haunted soil on earth.

Here is the top of the story by Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times, to set the stage:

OROEL, SPAIN – When Spanish schoolchildren sing their national anthem, they particularly love the line about Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his “white rear end.”

OK, so those aren’t the real lyrics. Because there aren’t any.

Spain is one of the few countries that have a wordless national anthem. Popular culture, including the bawdy ballad that children famously sing to the anthem’s melody, has tried to fill the void.

As you would imagine, this puts Spanish athletes in an awkward position during awards ceremonies at the Olypics and elsewhere. How do they sing along?

OK, so the goal is to write appropriate lyrics for the Spanish national anthem, but this is taking place in the context of modern or postmodern, European Union Spain. What can you mention? What words can you use and what words are forbidden? In other words, what is the “civil religion” of Spain, in a land that is so Catholic in terms of history, yet now is so very secular or post-religion? And what about the history with Islam and Judaism?

So we return to the action, with the hammer falling near the end of the story:

… Telecinco, the television station, conducted an online poll and came up with its winning entry, by the poet and journalist Enrique Hernandez-Luike. It’s a piece of “simple metaphors and accessible musicality,” Telecinco said.

It opens with a paean to “Mother Homeland, arms entwined in a sign of peace,” and invokes the flag, freedom, the constitution, “an ensemble of cultures” and “the hand of Europe.”

One thing it does not mention: Spain.

The hand of Europe? As a creator? As a metaphor for Spain’s geography?

Thank goodness, the Times offers a sidebar with an English translation of the lyrics. As it turns out, the lyrics are not strictly secular, but offer a kind of Oprah-esque, foggy spirituality. You will need to sit down, if you like linear thought. Now read on:

Mother homeland, arms linked
in a sign of peace, our voices raised.

All your children at the foot of the flag
and in freedom, with the Constitution.

Art and strength, combination of cultures
firm pedestal of a triumphant people.

Hand of Europe outstretched to the whole world,
bow in the sea to the wind of Love.

The wind of Love? That’s with A. Big. L. Really?

Now there’s an interesting angle that should have been included in this nice feature story.

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All hail, Bill Gates the Great

BILL GATES bsodI meant to post this flashback last night, but was caught up in that server crash that shut GetReligion down for several hours.

So here goes.

Several days before control of Hong Kong was handed back to the regime that runs China, I took part in a small conference in that mega-city focusing on journalism and religious liberty. During that meeting, I ended up at a dinner table — containing one really, really large fish — talking with a powerful local publisher.

As you would imagine, we were talking about the subject of the day — the handover. At one point, he made a statement that went something like this (it was not a setting in which one pulled out a notepad and took notes): “There are, you know, only two men in the world that the leaders of China truly fear.”

Everyone at the table gestured for him to tell us more and he replied, “They are Bill Gates and Pope John Paul II.”

We all gestured again: Why those two?

The first of the two men, he noted, wanted to designate how a country carried out almost any kind of transaction in business, educational, politics or culture. All of those activities, in this day and age, involve computers in one way or another, and Gates wanted to set the standards and write the rules for all of that. You could either work with him or you had to oppose what he was trying to do, and that would be very hard.

And then there was Pope John Paul II, a man who was very difficult to control because his followers were committed to honoring an authority far higher than the state.

One man wanted to control this life (or most of its public expressions), while the other’s authority was rooted in the life to come. For a totalitarian state, these were two very different threats.

I thought of this while working through one of the lists that the editors at USA Today have started posting as part of the celebration of the newspaper’s 25th birthday. They started with a bang:

They are the 25 most influential people of the past 25 years — those who changed our world, transformed technology, mapped the human body and affected the way we relate to one another.

And who was No. 1? Ask the Chinese authorities:

1. Bill Gates, software entrepreneur

His Microsoft software shaped the way millions use the technology that has transformed communications and commerce — making him the world’s richest man and, now, a leading philanthropist.

As you would imagine, this immediately made me want to know where Pope John Paul II finished in this race. So I looked down the list. And down the list. Here is what that looks like, in terms of the rest of the Top 10.

2. Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. president

Elected in 1980 and re-elected in 1984, he put the United States on a more conservative course, restored buoyancy and confidence in the presidency and forged a partnership with a reformist Soviet leader that helped end the Cold War.

3. Oprah Winfrey, talk show host

As a talk-show host, first at WLS-TV’s AM Chicago in 1984, she pioneered a form of intimate public discourse that brought taboo subjects into the open and sparked a confessional, self-help culture.

4&5. Francis Collins & J. Craig Venter, mappers of the human genome

The Human Genome Project headed by Collins and a parallel private effort by Celera Genomics under Venter jointly announced the mapping of the human genome in 2000, opening the door to breakthroughs in identifying, treating and preventing the world’s most feared diseases.

6. Osama bin Laden, terrorist

For most Americans, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by the al-Qaeda network he leads marked the beginning of a global battle against radical Islamists 12 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War.

7. Stephen Hawking, physicist

In the tradition of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, he explored the nature of the universe. He popularized science, wrote the best-selling A Brief History of Time in 1988 and remains a puckish personality despite being severely disabled by Lou Gehrig’s disease.

8. Lance Armstrong, cyclist and cancer activist

He won a record-breaking seven consecutive Tour de France races, cycling’s most prestigious event, after battling testicular cancer. Sales of his iconic “Livestrong” wristbands have raised millions of dollars to help fight cancer.

9. Pope John Paul II, pontiff

Polish-born Karol Jozef Wojtyla helped propel a peaceful revolution in Poland in 1989 that ended Soviet domination and reverberated through Eastern Europe. In a 26-year papacy, he defined the Roman Catholic Church’s role in modern times.

10. Bono, rock musician and activist for Africa

Born Paul Hewson, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2 has shrewdly pressed world leaders to forgive third-world debt and address the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

oprah secretNow what is amazing to me about this ranking for this pope — behind Lance Armstrong? — is that the editors linked John Paul the Great to Poland and the fall of the Soviet empire and still put him at No. 9. Did we live through the same quarter century?

This lists are made to cause arguments. The key to me is the various forms of religion and faith that are found in the list of 25. You should strive to do a LeBlancian analysis of the list, so to speak.

Go through the list yourself. Count the people who you consider to be “religious leaders” in one form or another. Yes, Oprah has to be in there. Ditto for Bono. We live in the mass media age, for better or for worse. And it is even hard to remove the Bible Belt trappings from the career of Sam “Wal-Mart” Walton and the causes he backed.

More questions: Is coffee a sacrament? And is Homer Simpson a real person?

Well, there you go. That offers a few clues as to my thinking. What think ye?

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NYT: Library moral equivalency?

book chainsMaybe it’s appropriate to write about this on the morning of Sept. 11. How different would things be today if the terrorist attacks of six years ago had never happened?

On Monday Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times gave us a hugely important story about new policies that are limiting the religion books inmates in federal prisons can freely access from their facilities’ libraries. According to Traci Billingsley, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman, the agency is responding to a Justice Department Inspector General’s report that recommended actions in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to keep prisons from becoming recruiting grounds for Islamic militants. And other groups:

But prison chaplains, and groups that minister to prisoners, say that an administration that put stock in religion-based approaches to social problems has effectively blocked prisoners’ access to religious and spiritual materials — all in the name of preventing terrorism.

“It’s swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” said Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian group. “There’s no need to get rid of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are fine simply because you have a problem with an isolated book or piece of literature that presents extremism.”

Good for the Times in quoting Earley, but was the organization’s founder, Chuck Colson, unavailable for comment? With his close ties to the Bush administration, it would be interesting to know his thoughts. Obviously this is issue is several steps removed from the White House, but if I’m not mistaken each agency has a White House-designated official who reviews and approves all new agency regulations.

Instead of weeding out books that could be placed into this category, the prison agency talked to a bunch of unnamed people and put together a list of 300 books and multimedia resources comprising 20 religions or religious categories. The Times received a copy of the list from a source who doesn’t like the project. The problem raised by a project like this is, of course, some books won’t be on that list:

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.

The identities of the bureau’s experts have not been made public, Ms. Billingsley said, but they include chaplains and scholars in seminaries and at the American Academy of Religion. Academy staff members said their organization had met with prison chaplains in the past but was not consulted on this effort, though it is possible that scholars who are academy members were involved.

The bureau has not provided additional money to prisons to buy the books on the lists, so in some prisons, after the shelves were cleared of books not on the lists, few remained.

What’s almost as interesting as the list are the book examples provided by the Times. I’ve complained about this before, by why in this era of the Internets can we not just publish the whole list on the Times site and provide a link? All we are given is a list of “http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2007/09/10/us/20070910_PRISON_CHART.html/”>Some Excluded Works.” It’s a good thing the Times qualified that with “some,” since there is no way to compile the list of all the excluded titles. It would be easier if the Times had just given us the list of approved books.

Nevertheless, the legal justification behind this policy sounds like something the government would try to put forward. The coming legal battle could end up being a defining case in determining the federal government’s relationship with religion.

The Times quotes David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group:

Mr. Zwiebel asked, “Since when does the government, even with the assistance of chaplains, decide which are the most basic books in terms of religious study and practice?”

The lawsuit raises serious First Amendment concerns, said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, but he added that it was not a slam-dunk case.

“Government does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons,” Mr. Laycock said. “But once they say, ‘We’re going to pick 150 good books for your religion, and that’s all you get,’ the criteria has become more than just inciting violence. They’re picking out what is accessible religious teaching for prisoners, and the government can’t do that without a compelling justification. Here the justification is, the government is too busy to look at all the books, so they’re going to make their own preferred list to save a little time, a little money.”

Since this is a story about book lists — a genuine news story about lists! — we’re given a few opinions on the thoroughness of the list, which is great. But wouldn’t it be greater for us all to be able to chime in with what we think should be on the list? I’m sure a few of us would have an opinion or two:

Timothy Larsen, who holds the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, an evangelical school, looked over lists for “Other Christian” and “General Spirituality.”

“There are some well-chosen things in here,” Professor Larsen said. “I’m particularly glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. If I was in prison I would want to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” But he continued, “There’s a lot about it that’s weird.” The lists “show a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism,” he said, and lacked materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations.

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame (who edited “The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism,” which did make the list), said the Catholic list had some glaring omissions, few spiritual classics and many authors he had never heard of.

“I would be completely sympathetic with Catholic chaplains in federal prisons if they’re complaining that this list is inhibiting,” he said, “because I know they have useful books that are not on this list.”

The next step for the journalist is to determine who was on the committee that put this list together. I certainly hope a Freedom of Information Act request has been filed.

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