The upside to Hezbollah

raptureI know Harper’s is on a mission to destroy Christianity or something, but remember what a great and interesting magazine it used to be, before it began its bizarre jihad?

Anyway, some of the articles Harper’s has published during its campaign have been insightful and involved real reporting. And I rather enjoyed a simple bit of blog reporting that Ken Silverstein did for the magazine’s Washington Babylon blog:

It turns out there’s an upside to the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah — if you’re waiting for the second coming of Christ. Here’s a selection of excited messages spotted over the last few days on the Rapture Ready/End Times Chat online bulletin board.

Praise God! We are chosen to be in these times and also watch and spread the word. Something inside me is exploding to get out, and I don’t know what it is. Its kind of like I want to do cartwheels around the neighborhood.

* * *

In another thread, someone brought up the fact that the kidnapping of the first Israeli soldier that started this whole thing was on June 25th and if you count from that day to August 3rd … it is *EXACTLY 40 days!!!!!*

I find that to be a HUGE coincidence.

* * *

Whoa! I can sure feel the glory bumps after reading this thread!

My favorite comment is the second one. Anyway, I know that Harper’s is covering this so as to mock these rapture-ready, rapture-excited Christians but I think it would be great for mainstream reporters to talk to these folks. You can find stuff here and there. But most of it is laughably bad coverage.

I’d like to see more, particularly of those Christians who may not be getting ready for August 3 but are having their views of foreign policy shaped by their doctrinal views.

Photo via Marcn on Flickr.

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This should be good for another Pulitzer

bathingsuitI’ve been on a few beaches this summer. I plan to be on a few more. And, with my unhealthy obsession with fashion, I have analyzed and overanalyzed the latest swimsuit trends. So while I’m glad that The Washington Post‘s Pulitzer prize-winning fashion reporter Robin Givhan turned her critical eye to swimwear, I can’t say I’m sure she’s hit on something sweeping the nation’s sandy areas. I can’t say the nation’s beaches are beset by overly modest women.

In her story on bikinis and modesty, she takes a long look at WholesomeWear, a company that makes full-coverage swimsuits. Wetsuits topped with nylon dresses, essentially. The article is not bad. It’s interesting. It’s worth writing about. What is funny is how desperately she tries to tie the production and marketing of the swimsuits to some religious motivation but fails to do a good job of analyzing any religious underpinnings she finds:

The collection is not aimed at practitioners of any specific religion. There is no obvious mention of spirituality, God, Allah or Joseph Smith on the company’s Web site. . . .

The company may not be preaching to a specific denomination, but it is nonetheless preaching. [Joan] Ferguson describes her family as “Christian people who love the Lord.” And the swimsuits are “a ministry.”

Well that was sure illuminating. Thanks, Ms. Givhan. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have a better opportunity to share with you one of my favorite sites (with the longest URL I can recall seeing). Trust me, it’s worth it. And if you like that, some Amazon user has come up with a list of modest swimsuits. Just don’t tell Andrew Sullivan.

tapemeasuringpoliceMuch of the piece is spent in Givhan’s trademark style: writing unsubstantiated declarative sentences in the least kind way possible. I completely agree with her view that these modesty suits are bad for women. I just wish she would have interviewed more than one person for the story. She speaks with a woman at WholesomeWear. She speaks with no one else. She doesn’t find out anything about the particular religious mindset that thinks such full-coverage suits are more holy than other ones. She doesn’t consider the religious basis for views in support of modesty. I know she’s not a full-time religion reporter, but maybe she could have scoured some previous coverage for tips about correctly nailing the religious issues:

It’s understandable that some men and women may feel frustrated and scandalized in a culture that accommodates micro-miniskirts, cropped halter tops and visible thongs. They want someone to stand up and say, “Put some clothes on, darn it!” But surely, in the search for modesty, wouldn’t one stumble across something decent and virtuous before getting all the way to a nylon shroud? Wouldn’t a demure tankini do? Or a one-piece with a matching skirt?

I love that paragraph. Which, given my distaste for Givhan, is saying something.

But in looking at all that camouflaging fabric, at the layers aimed at obscuring the physique, one wonders how a swimsuit “ministry” can save anyone’s soul when such ungainly suits have so little appreciation for beauty.

See, I’m right with Givhan’s making a blanket fashion pronouncement about the value of the swimsuit ministry. But I really wish that she would have interviewed actual experts about this very doctrinal issue rather than rely on herself. The story really could have used a bit more depth.

Photo via Seaside Rose Garden on Flickr.

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Muddled millennial musings

millennialismThis is a few days late, but we need to look at that Los Angeles TimesEnd Times” story. I’m not sure if the problem with the story is that it is disorganized or that the reporter just doesn’t get the topic about which he is writing.

Speaking of not knowing about the topic, I’m Lutheran and we think Left Behind is where you get a penicillin shot. Still, I think I’d put any catechumen from my church up against the Times‘ Louis Sahagun. His breathless piece is about how an unspecified number of religious groups of unspecified population — some of which don’t even share the same religion – are using technology to hasten the end times and/or apocalypse and/or the arrival of a Jewish, Christian or Muslim messiah.

I mean, is it me, or is this kind of a big umbrella for one story? Compounding the problem is that some of his examples don’t have anything to do with technology. Maybe it’s a new Times exercise in free-association stories. But since this is GetReligion and not GetOrganized, how about I move on . . .

Sahagun fails to prove his point. If you’re going to claim that people are wacky, it’s important to be specific and substantiate claims with evidence the reader can check:

With that goal in mind, mega-church pastors recently met in Inglewood to polish strategies for using global communications and aircraft to transport missionaries to fulfill the Great Commission: to make every person on Earth aware of Jesus’ message. Doing so, they believe, will bring about the end, perhaps within two decades.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a far different vision. As mayor of Tehran in 2004, he spent millions on improvements to make the city more welcoming for the return of a Muslim messiah known as the Mahdi, according to a recent report by the American Foreign Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Maybe these unquantified megachurch pastors were trying to bring about Armageddon. Or maybe they were doing what Christians have done since, well, Day 1: evangelism. And mayors improving the infrastructure of their city? Well, that is crazy, isn’t it? Put another way, how hard does a reporter have to work to make Ahmadinejad seem like a sensible bureaucrat? This is the man who spins the Holocaust, for crying out loud. I kid you not when I say Sahagun also acts like it’s news that Jews want to rebuild “a temple on a site now occupied by one of Islam’s holiest shrines.” A temple? You don’t say . . .

Sahagun glosses over different Christian beliefs about Revelation:

Though there are myriad interpretations of how it will play out, the basic Christian apocalyptic countdown — as described by the Book of Revelation in the New Testament — is as follows:

Jews return to Israel after 2,000 years, the Holy Temple is rebuilt, billions of people perish during seven years of natural disasters and plagues, the antichrist arises and rules the world, the battle of Armageddon erupts in the vicinity of Israel, Jesus returns to defeat Satan’s armies and preside over Judgment Day.

Generations of Christians have hoped for the Second Coming of Jesus, said UCLA historian Eugen Weber, author of the 1999 book “Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages.”

“And it’s always been an ultimately bloody hope, a slaughterhouse hope,” he added with a sigh.

armageddon 01Oh, so that’s the “basic Christian apocalyptic countdown”? And we Christians have always had a “slaughterhouse hope” in the end times? That’s good to know. I wonder why my pastor and every other Lutheran pastor and, for that matter, most of Christendom is keeping this from me. I mean, Lutherans, for instance, reject all forms of millennialism. (Happy birthday, Augsburg!) And even among folks who do believe in millennialism, you have your Historical Premillennialists, your Dispensational Premillennialists, Pre-Tribulation Rapture folks, Post-Tribs, Mid-Tribs and Pre-Wrath Rapturites and Partial Rapture folks — all of whom have disparate eschatological views.

Sahagun confuses evangelism with Armageddon (maybe this explains other problems in the newsroom). There are many examples but here’s one:

Apocalyptic movements are nothing new; even Christopher Columbus hoped to assist in the Great Commission by evangelizing New World inhabitants.

Sahagun is unaware that not all Christians are millennialists, part 246:

For Christians, the future of Israel is the key to any end-times scenario, and various groups are reaching out to Jews — or proselytizing among them — to advance the Second Coming.

No. No, no, no. Israel is not the key to any end-times scenario for Christians. There are billions of Christians in the world, all of whom believe in the world to come, as we say. And religious support of Israe? That’s certainly of concern to some Baptists and Pentecostals, for instance. But not everybody.

Complete lack of context. Reporters should use specific words. Avoid the word “some” as much as possible. Sahagun used the word eight times. The article gave the impression that statistical outliers — a farmer in Mississippi trying to breed a herd of red heifers — represent average Christians. And Christian thought is fleshed out much more in the story than Muslim or Jewish thought.

I know I’m not the Times‘ only reader who wants to learn more about millennialism and religious support of Israel. It’s a shame we’re still waiting.

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Daaaaaaaaa-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum. (continue)

PassionLastSupperWell folks, I really don’t know what to say about this news except: Cue the theme from Jaws. Let’s go straight to the Hollywood Reporter story by Paul Bond, which I am amazed has not inspired more coverage. Where is Frank Rich?

The bottom line — literally — is that Sony Pictures is attempting to appeal to the evangelical slice of the mainstream audience that flocked to The Passion of the Christ by making a sequel about the events after the resurrection.

Who are the key players? Wait for it:

Using the Bible for its source material, “Resurrection” will tell the story of Jesus Christ beginning the day he died on the cross and ending about 40 days later with his ascension into heaven. According to insiders, Sony’s mid-budget Screen Gems division commissioned a script several months ago from Lionel Chetwynd, the veteran screenwriter, producer and director whose credits include the feature “The Hanoi Hilton” and the Emmy-nominated TV movie “Ike: Countdown to D-Day.”

Set to produce is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series of books. A popular minister and frequent TV news pundit, “Resurrection” will mark LaHaye’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking.

Now, we know that the words “Mel Gibson” freaked out a lot of folks on the left coast. However, his name also thrilled a lot of people who were excited that a heavyweight, A-list talent was going to make a serious film about Holy Week. Gibson is a love-him or hate-him kind of man, but no one doubted his talent and his commitment to quality. He had that Braveheart thing going for him, after all.

But Tim “Left Behind” LaHaye? His involvement will excite many on the Christian right, but it will also — needless to say — raise questions about artistic merits of the project. I mean, is this a direct-to-video project?

It is possible that this movie will not cause controversy. It is also possible that it will. Bond’s short report noted:

The film will focus on these dramatic encounters and their implications for the Roman garrison in Judea and the broader Roman Empire, insiders said.

“This is not a fanciful rendering. It’s a serious attempt to understand the Roman world in which Christ moved and the Christian era was born,” a person familiar with the project said.

Does “the broader Roman Empire” include the complex and divided world of the Jewish authorities of that day? It goes without saying that LaHaye’s beliefs may also raise concerns among Jewish groups, especially on the cultural left.

Meanwhile, it is clear that The Passion raised issues in Hollywood that are not going away anytime soon.

After all, the crew at Entertainment Weeklywhich is known (cough, cough) for its mainstream views on religion — has just named Gibson’s bloody epic as the single most controversial film of all time.

That’s right, hotter than The Message by Moustapha Akkad, which offered a take on the origins of Islam that lead to riots and terrorism. Hotter than the epic racism of The Birth of a Nation. Hotter than JFK, Deep Throat, Fahrenheit 9/11, A Clockwork Orange and, of course, The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. And EW thought that Gibson’s film was way, way more controversial than that historic film Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl that helped build the legend of a secular messianic figure of some importance — Adolf Hitler.

It’s safe to say that anything hailed as Passion 2 will cause a bit of heat among the powers that be in the world of entertainment.

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A sermon on journalism: Let us attend

cpulpit4Please hang in there with me as I continue to do some post-Key West forum housekeeping.

GetReligion readers who are interested in debates about Associated Press style, the history of American religion and the future of newspapers may want to click here and head over to my latest column for the ethics and diversity team at that online newsroom water cooler operated by the Poynter Institute.

I admit that the style of this one is a bit strange and even preachy. Thus, the headline that they provided: “Literal Evangelism: A Sermon on Language, Usage and Religion in the News.”

Here’s how I started things off:

The readings for today’s sermon are from Billy Graham, Bill Keller and The Associated Press Stylebook.

Let us attend.

If you go to the Poynter.org site, you’ll find quite a few URLs in this column and themes that will sound familiar to frequent GetReligion readers.

Please remember that this column is written to an audience of professional journalists and I am trying to make a case for some fundamental values in the craft of newswriting. This is, to use Jay Rosen’s way of talking, an example of a journalist (that would be me) trying to preach the old-time religion to the journalism choir. I freely admit that, inside the modern tent, there are strong debates going on about some of these old doctrines. But it is still acceptable to preach about the basics.

I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here’s a summary statement that gives you a good idea of what I’m up to.

Words have great power in the world of religion. However, there is a problem: Many religious leaders do not agree on what many of the powerful words mean. As Graham noted, it may be impossible — in clear, historical terms — to define words that are used all the time in religious and mainstream media.

What does the word “church” mean to a Southern Baptist? What does the word “Church” mean to a Roman Catholic? A “bishop” in the United Methodist Church is not the same thing as an Episcopal bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop, or an AME Zion bishop, or a Catholic bishop, or a Pentecostal Holiness bishop or, come to think of it, a Mormon bishop.

I could go on and on. Define “marriage.” Define “sin.” Give three examples.

This is complicated stuff. … Many religious believers are convinced that journalists do not have well-developed vocabularies, when it comes to the rites and the wrongs of religious doctrines, rituals, history and traditions. It’s hard to do a good job, journalistically speaking, when you are not getting many of the words right.

Journalists also like to use certain words to describe people they respect, or with whom they agree. This works the other way around, too. One person’s “evangelical” is another person’s “fundamentalist.” One person’s “moderate” is another’s “liberal.” The public is convinced that our labels are clues to our biases.

We cannot avoid labels, in hard-news reporting. Thus, I suggest that we strive not to attempt to read people’s minds. We must strive to let people describe their own beliefs and do our best to report their words as accurately as possible. We must try to let people label themselves.

The goal is to report unto others as we would like them to report unto us.

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Harpo America

baby namesForgive my snarkiness, but stories about baby names are just dumb. I have particular disdain for stories on those unusual names that suddenly become popular. First, it ruins the offbeat quality of those names, and second, who cares? Anybody with an Internet connection can look up the popularity of a name.

So the cynical writers here at GetReligion were especially appalled to see The New York Times write about the historic boom in the number of babies named “Nevaeh,” which is, for those clever enough to figure it out, Heaven spelled backward. Whoop-de-do (the story’s headline is, well, lame, despite my own use of the technique):

The spectacular rise of Nevaeh (commonly pronounced nah-VAY-uh) has little precedent, name experts say. They watched it break into the top 1,000 of girls’ names in 2001 at No. 266, the third-highest debut ever. Four years later it cracked the top 100 with 4,457 newborn Nevaehs, having made the fastest climb among all names in more than a century, the entire period for which the Social Security Administration has such records.

Nevaeh is not in the Bible or any religious text. It is not from a foreign language. It is not the name of a celebrity, real or fictional.

Nevaeh is Heaven spelled backward.

The name has hit a cultural nerve with its religious overtones, creative twist and fashionable final “ah” sound. It has risen most quickly among blacks but is also popular with evangelical Christians, who have helped propel other religious names like Grace (ranked 14th) up the charts, experts say. By contrast, the name Heaven is ranked 245th.

Spectacular indeed is how the Jennifer 8. Lee got this puff piece in the pages of the Gray Lady. Stories on baby names are much more appropriate for things like magazines. This simply isn’t news.

Much to my amazement, as the gossip blog Gawker pointed out, not only is a piece on an “insignificant trend” in the Times, it was also on the front page. I kid you not. Perhaps it is Miss Jennifer 8.’s interesting middle name that makes this story front-page material? Go figure.

One can only imagine our disgust when the article dipped into the realm of the religious. We blame this on Oprah. It’s all her fault. Anything can be religious these days. Even generic religious words spelled backwards. Welcome to Oprah America.

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The alleged rise of the religious left

MichaelLernerGood political reporters do their best to cover both ends of the political spectrum. With American politics nicely divided into “liberal” and “conservative” camps — at least on the surface — this is easy. So with the “sudden” emergence of the powerful “religious right” in the 2004 presidential election, articles on the “religious left” in American politics have been on the to-do list for political and religion reporters.

I won’t take the time here to fully challenge the idea that the “religious right” suddenly became influential or even the myth that it is as influential as it is made out to be. To make it brief, the political influence of religious conservatives did not appear overnight, and reporters routinely overestimate their influence on national politics.

With that introduction, I have a few comments on Saturday’s front-page Washington Post piece by Caryle Murphy and Alan Cooperman on the arrival of the religious left, whatever that means, in politics:

Some groups on the religious left are clearly seeking to help the Democratic Party. But the relationship is delicate on both sides. “If I were the Democrats, the last thing I would do is really try to mobilize these folks as a political force . . . because I think some of this is a real unhappiness with the whole business of politicizing religion,” said Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The Rev. Joseph W. Daniels Jr., senior pastor of Emory United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, said a key question for him is whether the religious left will become “the polar opposite to . . . the religious right” or be “a voice in the middle.”

“What this country needs is strong spiritual leadership that is willing to build bridges. We don’t need leaders who are lightning bolts for division and dissension,” he said.

Nonetheless, some observers doubt that the revitalization of the religious left will lessen the divisions over religion in politics. “I do think,” said Hertzke, “that, if in fact this progressive initiative takes off, we will see an even more polarized electoral environment than we did in 2004.”

Religious Left3With that, religion in American just got that much more political.

A few issues with the article. I know Washington is a political town and the Post is a newspaper that thrives covering politics, but how about a little religion in a piece about religious groups? I got all excited when the article suggested that it would explain what “religious liberals” believed, but nada, other than references to abortion, and the cozy categories of mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics. There is no mention of the authority of the Bible, not to mention key theological issues that are at the root of the differences between liberal and conservative denominations.

This is an interesting reversal of roles. The mainline denominations are outside the sphere of influence looking in while conservative, traditional denominations supposedly hold all of the influence and power in Washington.

There was little direct mention of the doctrine of separation of church and state in the article. It does not really fit with the story line, but are there those in the liberal religious left who are concerned about violating that constitutional concept?

While the Post‘s version of the current status of religious liberalism in America is all rosy, the New York Times offered a starker picture a day earlier:

WASHINGTON, May 18 — They had come to All Souls Unitarian Church, 1,200 of them from 39 states, to wrest the mantle of moral authority from conservative Christians, and they were finally planning how to take their message to those in power.

After rousing speeches on Wednesday by liberal religious leaders like Rabbi Michael Lerner (pictured) of the magazine Tikkun and Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, participants in the new Network of Spiritual Progressives split into small groups to prepare for meetings with members of Congress on Thursday.

Yet at a session on ethical behavior, including sexual behavior, the 50 or so activists talked little about what to tell Congress about abortion or same-sex marriage. Instead, the Rev. Ama Zenya of First Congregational Church in Oakland, Calif., urged them to talk to one another about their spiritual values and “to practice fully our authentic being.”

It is essentially the same story, but the contrast in outlook is amazing. I’ve complained about this before, but I wish NYTimes.com would tell us what page the story was published the way washingtonpost.com does, because I’m curious what kind of play this received.

I know the Post has long practiced the tradition of getting beat by the NYT on stories and then playing it up a day or two later on the front page with a different angle, but I wonder whether this was actually the case in this instance.

Religious LeftLastly, revealing more of the “religious left” movement than the Post or the Times combined, Julia Duin of the Washington Times was also able to scoop both papers in publishing a preview to the event on which both the NYT and the Post stories were centered:

[The conference's spiritual covenant] supports a national health plan, suggests members of Congress “spend part of one day a week feeding hungry people at a shelter or other … hands-on service activity,” the public funding of all state and national elections and many other innovations.

“Have you ever heard a Democrat talk like that?” the rabbi asked. “They have down one dimension of the problem, and we’re behind that. But we’re trying to add a spiritual dimension.”

The guest list for the conference, posted at www.tikkun.org, includes anti-war activists such as Cindy Sheehan, who will help lead a “pray-in for peace” outside the White House on Thursday afternoon. A range of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu speakers are also slated.

There you have it, folks. The political influence of the religious right in America is being met by a coalition of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindus. All you ever wanted to know about the booming religious movement that will rock the nation come November. I have my doubts.

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Tensions around the black megachurch

ebenezerbcI spent most of the day on the move from Wheaton, Ill., to downtown Chicago and then on to Grand Rapids, Mich. Thus, I am only now — late at night — getting to some of the major stories of the day.

Thus, I want to call attention to some interesting tensions in the Washington Post story by reporter Darryl Fears (with input from Hamil Harris) about the church that hosted the funeral of Coretta Scott King. The service was held in a 10,000-seat suburban megachurch called New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb County. It was not held at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church (pictured) that has been so closely connected with the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family.

The story focuses, as it should, on the contrasts between the urban poor and the new suburban world of the black middle and upper classes. But there are other themes and, sadly, they are so predictable.

… (The) decision by the King children — Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter and Bernice — to hold their mother’s funeral service outside Atlanta rankled a few members of the civil rights establishment for several reasons. Coretta King recently spoke out for gay rights, at the very time that the pastor of New Birth, Bishop Eddie L. Long, was marching against same-sex marriage and benefits to gay partners.

It was easy to see that theme coming and it leads immediately to the next tension in the world of black faith and politics — the pew gap. The megachurch is where the growth is, it is where the numbers are when it comes time to count the numbers in the pews. This has long been true in white suburbia. Now, as in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and some other urban areas, the rise of the modern black megachurch is creating some interesting dynamics in politics and culture.

Long, a political independent, has also been one of a number of black ministers who have been actively courted by Republicans. He has met with President Bush, who will be among those attending the funeral Tuesday. Bernice King, the youngest King sibling, who rested on her mother’s lap as she mourned her slain father, drove the decision to hold the service at New Birth. She is a co-pastor there, and in the last years of her life Coretta King attended the church more and more, occasionally speaking there.

In other words, what happens if growing African American churches continue to defend the faith and values of the generations that came before them? Who will modernize? Who will rise in numbers? Who will decline? These questions have haunted many American denominations and religious groups. Now we are seeing these questions asked in new settings.

Watch for these themes in the funeral coverage tomorrow.

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