Private schools can write their own rules

gay christianI have waited awhile to do an update on the MSM coverage of Jason Johnson, the gay student who was kicked out of the University of the Cumberlands, a school with Baptist roots. The story is still alive at two levels: (1) Key factual details remain a mystery and (2) there is an interesting church-state issue linked to state funds. More on that later.

GetReligion readers may recall that I stressed that early coverage failed to tell us whether the Cumberlands student handbook contained language forbidding sex outside of marriage at the time Johnson enrolled as a freshman. We know it was not there when the theater major was recruited and that it was in the handbook this past fall, his sophomore year. It appears that we still do not know what the handbook said — in writing — when he enrolled and, most probably, signed documents saying that he willingly agreed to live by the university’s student-life code.

We learn, in a report by Jamie Gumbrecht of the Lexington Herald-Leader, entitled “Gay and Christian“:

Although the 2005-06 student handbook says, “Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw,” Johnson said he was not expecting the expulsion. He was heading to class when he was told to go to the student services building. Caught unaware, he wondered if he was receiving an honor from the school, although it seemed odd to be told to skip class.

“In the back of my mind, I thought what I was doing was probably risky,” Johnson said of his Web postings. “When I’d already told my parents, I had nothing to be afraid of. If something happened at school, now there was no question that my parents would support me.”

Note that Johnson said he did not expect to be expelled, even though he knew about the policy on sex. This is actually an interesting hook in this story, no matter what you think of the policy in question. As noted in comments about the previous post, it is valid to ask if (1) the university has made consistent attempts to advocate or enforce its rules on sexual morality and (2) whether these rules are enforced for homosexuals, but not for heterosexuals.

Yes, there is a story there. The issue, strangely enough, is not whether these schools are being too conservative. The issue may, in fact, be this: Are they being conservative enough on sex? Are they being consistent? A former journalism student of mine, years ago, put it this way: Two gay guys get in trouble if they even look at each other. Meanwhile, we have straight students all but conceiving babies on couches in our dorm lobbies.

Meanwhile, we do know that private schools — left and right — can write their own student-life codes. This is true for liberal schools that want to crack down on “offensive” (usually conservative) speech or on campus evangelism. A liberal school could require on-campus Christian groups to water down traditional Christian doctrines. But here is the key: The school has to state the rules openly and enforce them consistently. (Click here for more information on that.)

HeaderBkgrdwLogoBy the way, it is interesting to note that Johnson grew up in a congregation openly identified (slogan: All are welcomed here — no exceptions) with the left or, in press speak, “moderate” side of the 25-year civil war inside the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock. This is the smaller, “progressive” camp (think Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter). As Gumbrecht reported:

Johnson has lived in Lexington with his parents and two brothers since the early 1990s. He was baptized in 1996 at Central Baptist Church, which split from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

So there is a story in there. How can close can Southern Baptists or former Southern Baptists skate to the edge of the mainline-Protestant ice on social issues without falling through? This is a hot issue among Baptists on the left, who are often afraid to discuss the issue openly.

Journalists can and should cover both sides of these theological debates on sex. But they must also understand that private schools — left and right — have the freedom to make their own rules. It is also legal for government aid to flow to the students in these schools.

But what about state money flowing to the schools themselves? That is another issue and that is the second layer to the Cumberlands story. The Louisville Courier-Journal notes that gay-rights groups are now pouncing on this question, in the wake of the Johnson expulsion. At stake is Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s drive to steer state funds to the Cumberlands administration for a new pharmacy school.

The state budget includes $1 million in pharmacy scholarships and $10 million to build a pharmacy school at the 1,743-student, Baptist-affiliated school in Williamsburg. Fletcher spokesman Brett Hall said the governor has not decided whether to issue any vetoes in the $18 billion budget for 2006-08 that state lawmakers passed this week.

Fletcher issued a statement saying, “My administration does not condone discrimination of any kind.”

As you would expect, this has led to a small effort to protest what happened to Johnson and to attack the possible state grant to the Baptist university. As you would expect, the demonstrators mixed liberal theology into their political views on the funding issue.

A sophomore and dean’s list student, Johnson reached an agreement with the university Tuesday that will allow him to finish his coursework and receive a transcript that will reflect his grades for the semester. His boyfriend, Zac Dreyer, was one of several speakers at the rally.

Some attendees wore T-shirts with such sayings as “Gay and Proud,” “Jesus Loves My Gay Friends, Too,” and “I’m For the Separation of Church and Hate.” Some carried signs that said: “If God Didn’t Make Homosexuals, Why Do They Exist,” “Jesus Wouldn’t Kick Him Out,” “WDJG: Where Did Jason Go” and “God Does Not Condone Hatred.”

That’s all fair game. Free speech is a good thing, for Johnson and for the millions of conservative Baptists who disagree with him.

For journalists, the goal is to cover both sides accurately and fairly while focusing on the bigger issue — the rights of private colleges and the rights of students to attend them or leave them. Perhaps this is a pro-choice story.

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Does God need good PR?

Larry RossSunday’s New York Times Magazine carried a relatively in-depth profile of Larry Ross, dubbed as possibly “the top public relations man for Christian clients in America.” The premise of the article (which goes along the lines of “Why does Jesus Christ need a publicist?”) is thought-provoking, and one that I’m sure came easily to the author, Strawberry Saroyan (author of Girl Walks into a Bar: A Memoir).

In introducing the question, Saroyan compares Mother Teresa’s need for a lawyer with the need of Rick Warren, and the entire Kingdom of God, for the help of public relations. “Why does God need someone to sell him?”

That’s a good question, but is Ross really trying to sell God? How about selling the earthly creation that is the church? I know most reporters have this image of public relations officials, especially the type you can hire for a buck, as sellouts and willing to represent anyone at the price, but this is not always the case.

In the nearly 5,000 words devoted to the subject, Saroyan fails to consider that while Ross has been behind some of the biggest Christian-themed moneymakers in the last few years and has directed big-budget marketing campaigns, the most basic need of those he represents is someone with the time and ability to explain their message to journalists who often have a poor understanding of religion.

If successful Christian leaders, preachers and evangelists are to use the mass media to spread their message, modern PR is necessary for the job. One can argue that, as Christians, they should be humble and not seek the spotlight. However, drawing 30,000 members to a congregation is bound to attract media attention. The following paragraph is a great example of this angle:

But Ross seems to be mostly at peace with his role and described it to me one afternoon this way: after invoking a biblical story about Moses’ engagement in a lengthy battle for the children of Israel, he said: “Moses stood there on top of a cliff, and as long as he held up his arms, the children of Israel won. Well, after a while he got tired, so there were two men that came and held up Moses’ arms so they could win the battle. That’s my job — to hold up the arms of the man of God, like Billy Graham or Rick Warren, in the media.” But his eyes really lighted up when he moved onto another topic — the press reception Graham received during his New York crusade last June. “He ended up doing 15 interviews, including all the major talk shows,” Ross told me. “At the press conference itself we had 250 journalists.”

Saroyan seems to think that pastors should be unwittingly put before the media horde, free to stumble over explanations of ecclesiastical language and possible fire and brimstone. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs:

Perhaps the most intensive training that Ross offers is his “media and spokesperson” sessions. These can last as long as two days and usually include several mock interviews, which are taped. Ross encourages his clients to engage the media, but he wants to prepare them for worst-case encounters, so he administers tough questioning. To loosen clients up, he shows them an old “Bob Newhart” episode in which a talk-show host suddenly turns on Newhart. “It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” Ross says. He advises clients to avoid ecclesiastical language when addressing the mainstream (“Somebody talks about the Holy Ghost or the Army of God — that sounds like a revolution and it’s coming out of Iran,” says Lawrence Swicegood, who has worked for Ross and [Mark] DeMoss) and to use metaphors because they stick in people’s minds. Toward the end of a session, Ross looses a “bulldog” interrogator, a role played these days by Giles Hudson, a former writer for the Associated Press, who poses questions ranging from financial queries to “Do homosexuals go to hell?” “Obviously not,” Hudson says is a good response to this challenge. “Each person has their own relationship to Christ. People don’t just go to hell because you’re an alcoholic.” Sometimes Ross and Hudson add a separate, ambush interview. After taking a “break” from a session with Promise Keepers, Ross’s team confronted its president in the reception area, camera crew in tow.

So am I in favor of PR consultants walling off their clients and keeping them from the unfriendly media folks? No, not at all. I deal with those types in my day job. The goals Ross seems to have put before him in his job are not blocking information, but rather spreading information about Jesus Christ, which is a core tenet of being a Christian. This message came through clearly in the article, and for that Saroyan deserves praise:

Ross takes pains to distance himself from the more unsavory associations with publicists. Once he playfully asked me, “So, where would a P.R. man fit on the social scale between used-car salesmen, lepers and incurable lepers?” But he also tries to serve his two masters fairly. When he was working with “The Early Show” at CBS during a Graham crusade in 2005, he was approached by “Good Morning America.” He recapped the incident for me: “Their ratings are significantly higher, but I said, ‘I have to tell you, we’re here with CBS, and we have to honor the fact.’ I feel dutybound. It’s not enough to do things right — we have to do the right thing.” Ross also said he is attuned to the spiritual needs of his colleagues in the media. On one occasion he spoke to a producer from a network newsmagazine for six hours, answering her personal questions about Christ. “We have people who come to the crusades to report the story and put down their pens and microphones and commit to God,” he said.

Finally, I believe Saroyan nailed it in explaining Ross’ “near-refusal to acknowledge anything other than the glowingly positive” as a tendency of Christians to not “want to let on to anything negative because they fear it will reflect badly on God.” Sadly, I’ve found this to be true in my own experience. It’s one thing to want to keep the Church from being unfairly criticized in the media, but it’s another thing to attempt to cover up its spots and blemishes.

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News flash: Resurrection story has staying power

Resurrection2Holy Week is so nice that we have it twice here at GetReligion. The Western Church, which includes Daniel and me, had Holy Week last week. The Eastern Church and Terry are in the midst of Holy Week now. Oh that wacky Julian Calendar! Because of our many services, I was a bit out of the loop on what religious stories ran over the weekend. But I couldn’t miss one story as I received almost a dozen emails about it. The headline sort of says it all:

Is Jesus Risen? Literal View Gains Ground

Yeah, the Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein penned a piece about how some (some?) Christians believe Jesus literally rose from the dead. They even have a whole day set aside to celebrate this bizarre belief in a literal, science-defying resurrection. Who knew? It’s a bizarre story and headline for Christians because the physical resurrection of Christ is a central tenet of the church, to understate wildly. Here are her nut graphs:

The Easter story is the centerpiece of Christians’ faith. For most, the miracle of Jesus overcoming death three days after the Crucifixion — whether in body or spirit — is not open to debate. Others do not view the Resurrection in a literal way but as a powerful, transformative metaphor about his message living on.

In the past two decades, there has been a heightened scrutiny of Scripture, with basic Christian tenets such as the Resurrection challenged by biblical scholars and others in their search for historical facts about Jesus. But in recent years, there has been a rise in the popularity and stature of books that embrace [the] traditional view of Easter, experts say.

We could talk about the problems with using descriptors like “most” and “others.” We could talk about the problem of not better describing the theology of people who renounce key Christian doctrines. We could discuss the odd use of the phrase “past two decades” to describe historical revisionism, which is a century old and has wreaked havoc on church bodies that used to be so important they were called mainline.

But I’m still stuck on the headline! To say that the key doctrine of Christianity is something on the rise within Christianity shows a lack of historical perspective and an odd starting point for a story. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass said it best:

Obviously, I work in the secular media, and we’re usually skittish about spiritual matters. But we’re quite dogmatic when it comes to some other things. For example, we’re almost severe in our collective belief in scientific progress, in the ability of government officials and technology and reason to solve the problems of the modern world. . . .

Just think about that. All across the world on Sunday, and again next Sunday, millions of folks will confirm their belief in something that can’t be proven by scientific means. That yearning is news, isn’t it? Even though it takes place year after year, it’s still news.

So we have the annual rite of questioning in the weeks heading up to Easter. This year we got the stories about how Jesus didn’t walk on water, but an ice floe; that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think; and that his father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. And on Easter weekend we get stories that focus on controversies — that sell books — rather than the stories taking place in Christians’ lives throughout the week. It will happen against next year. On that note, one controversy story this Easter that was fairly informative was the Associated Press’ Richard Ostling piece on beliefs about whether Jesus rose from the dead. But for Christians, the Easter story is not about controversy! It’s about salvation, peace and forgiveness of sins. Stories can be interesting and focused on what Easter means for Christians as opposed to what Easter means for non-Christians who love to cast aspersions on believers. It is possible. Just look at how well controversy stories go over with readers, judging from today’s letters to the editor section at the Dallas Morning News:

Great article, guys. Can’t wait for your coverage of how the Quran isn’t the last word for Muslims. You can run that during Ramadan. Or how about a story on the plutocrats and dictators who have resulted from various Mexican revolutions? Page One for Cinco de Mayo? Millions dead because of the DDT fad? Run it on Earth Day.

resurrectionThe other letters weren’t much more kind.

Anyway, I think this is my favorite passage from Boorstein’s piece:

The Rev. Steve Huber of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in the District said he sees a “deep spiritual hunger afloat in our culture” but isn’t sure whether that translates into more people believing in the physical Resurrection — or whether it matters. . . .

“If Easter is about proving the veracity of some historical event that happened 2,000 years ago, that misses the point,” Huber said.

She doesn’t just leave the comment hanging, exactly, but a point-counterpoint approach to reporting on an issue like this just doesn’t suffice. She doesn’t reference it in any way, but the issue of whether Christ literally rose from the dead was addressed by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 15, he wrote:

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up — if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the apostle Paul says, then you are the most pitiful loser to have faith in him. And Steve Huber says you’re not. Pick your sides. But if you are a reporter covering this issue, you have to understand who has more sway in Christianity. And you have to mention how central to Christianity a belief in the physical resurrection is and how it is the basis for Christian beliefs about life, death and forgiveness of sins.

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Worshiping those Bible Belt Idols

magazine 4covers2You just know that there has to be a religion ghost in there somewhere if the oh-so-cynical folks at the Washington Post Style section are going to get all worked up about a story that pits those strange folks out there in red-zip-code Middle America against the befuddled elites in dark-blue zip codes.

Sure enough, God, church, family, Wal-Mart and who knows what all (where was Mama?) make special appearances in reporter Neely Tucker’s “Who Put The Y’all In ‘Idol’? The Competition Is National but Its Finalists’ Accent Is Unmistakable,” which ponders the mystery of why so many American Idol hotshots are from the Bible Belt, of all places. Let’s go ahead and, with a giant wink, get the opening of the story out of the way:

What is it with this Southern thing on “American Idol,” anyway? Here we go, a national singing competition. It’s lousy with Juilliard proteges, Hollywood High sensations, right? Top-notch overachievers, best-that-money-can-buy training? Um, no.

For five years, the most wildly popular talent contest on American television has been dominated — thoroughly, totally and completely — by kids from Southern Hicksville, USA. Seven of the eight top-two finishers in the first four years were from states that once formed the Confederacy, and five of the seven remaining finalists this season are, too.

Bubba!

And guess what? While the Bible Belt folks — for some strange reason — eat this stuff up like cornbread with milk and honey, the math shows that the mega-vote folks in the big-city rating zones (mostly blue) also appear to like those golden-throated warblers from, what was that phrase again, “Southern Hicksville.”

Now please understand, I say all of this as a person who has, of his own free will, never (it may be dangerous to say this, scientists may want samples of my brain tissue as a control device) seen an episode of American Idol. I mean, if I liked that kind of music I would attend a megachurch.

But what is going on out there in the heartland? Could it be that ordinary Americans like over-the-top emotions when they are woven into shows that do not go out of their way to offend people who think the Tony Awards have gotten a bit, well, strange? Does this have something to do with Baby Boomers liking songs with three chords and a hook? Or is there something deeper? Is America a land of simple people who yearn, bless their shallow little hearts, for simple things?

… (A) softer Southern accent persists, as does the cultural memory of things long gone. There is still an emphasis on church and family, both entities that, in the course of Southern life, heavily influence music, particularly among the working class.

“There’s still an awful lot of old-school singers who got their starts in church, and many mainstream country musicians still do a gospel album,” said John Reed Shelton, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina and one of the region’s most respected observers. “Everybody tends to go to church, and Southern evangelical Protestantism, both black and white, emphasizes and rewards musical performance.”

Ain’t that sweet?

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Swimming in baptism news hooks

dunkthemMainstream editors always want at least one religion story in the newspaper during the days leading up to Easter. It’s a law. That’s one reason you see all of those strange faith-based cover stories on the magazine racks this time of year (and just before Christmas, too).

However, veteran Godbeat reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today — a friend of this blog, I should mention — didn’t settle for giving her editors one pre-Easter story this year. She turned in a story on baptism trends so packed with news hooks that they should have let her do a whole section on it. There are so many trends referenced in this story that my head was spinning trying to keep up.

Let’s start very broad, with the summary early in the story:

For believers, baptism is modeled on their savior, who the Bible says waded into the water to consecrate himself to God. They may be sprinkled, washed from a flowing pitcher or immersed, as faith rituals vary. But all forms point to beliefs: rebirth in faith, salvation from sin, acceptance of God’s promises and charges. For parents who bring a baby before their church, baptism is a pledge of their faith, a shield against evil, a wrapping of communal arms around a defenseless soul.

For Christians of all denominations, “even if they never darkened the door of a church any other time in their life … there’s a tendency to hold onto this life-cycle marker,” says the Rev. Paul Sullins, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

So far so good. Then comes the march of news hooks that raise question after question after question, all of them worthy of coverage in and of themselves.

Like what? Hang on.

The Catholic Church has more than doubled in size in the past half-century, but its rate of infant baptism steadily has fallen, Sullins says.

Methodists and Lutherans have seen both baptisms and their membership numbers slide for years. … (The) Assemblies of God, which has had a boom in membership since 1980, saw its annual baptism numbers peak in 1997, then inch downward.

The Southern Baptist Convention has seen a half-century decline in baptisms and stalled growth in membership.

Saint Jan 06 Baptism of JesusSo what’s up with the Catholics? The creeping impact of suburbanization? Birth control? Total assimilation into the mainstream? It is really interesting that the rate of Catholic baptisms has fallen even faster than the rate of decline in births. What’s up with that?

And the charismatics and the Southern Baptists, what’s going on there? Mass-media inspired Universalism? The drip, drip, drip of prosperity? Changing roles for women? The kind of functional Universalism that sets in when people are afraid to offend others by talking about faith issues? Is everybody home watching ESPN and Oprah? What does it mean that the membership of the Assemblies of God is growing, but the baptism numbers are down?

Looming over all of this is intermarriage, and not just between Catholics and Protestants. Also, scores of people are moving from denomination to denomination and the old ways often fade (or get stronger, with some liturgical converts).

And then there are the theological questions. As Grossman notes:

All the denominations that emphasize infant baptism, such as Catholics, Methodists and Lutherans, struggle with a contemporary culture that rejects the very idea that humanity is born into sin or that parents should steer children’s spiritual development, says the Rev. Gayle Carlton Felton, author of the United Methodist Church’s statement on baptism theology and practice, This Gift of Water. Methodists “no longer literally believe that baptism removes the burden of sin that would send a child to hell,” Felton says.

Well, is that United Methodists in the pews, pulpits or seminaries or all of the above?

OK, time for one more? How about “do it yourself” baptism?

There are now baptism-style ceremonies where God is never mentioned by parents seeking to initiate their children into a world of all faiths, says Ema Drouillard of San Francisco, who runs the website Ceremonyway.com.

She conducted such an event for Kirsten and Farnum Alston of Marin County, Calif., for their baby, Greer, in 1998. “We just wanted a larger spirit to guide our daughter, but we didn’t want to get specific. I wanted all her bases covered,” says Kirsten Alston. The couple grew up Presbyterian, but now “we just do Christianity L-I-T-E” for Greer, who “believes in angels and fairies, leprechauns and Santa Claus.”

That’s enough for now. Like I said, and this is a compliment, this story really should have been a series of stories. Would USA Today let a senior reporter do a series on an eternal-life-and-death topic like this? Why not?

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Emerging trends in emergent church?

04a prayer candlesWhat are we supposed to think when we read that pastor so-and-so is controversial because he is the leader of such-and-such a church (which may or may not call itself a church), which is part of the emergent stream of the emerging conversation inside the emerging or emergent church?

If you don’t “get it,” does that mean you are merely the kind of person who just doesn’t “get it,” which means you will not understand what the people on the inside who do “get it” are talking about when they talk about “it”?

Yes, on one level we are talking about postmodernism. At the same time we are talking about evangelical Protestants who love postmodernism, which may or may not mean that they are no longer evangelicals, but it surely means that they are free-church Protestants because they are all creating their own future churches out of the pieces of lots of other churches in the past (woven together with media and technology from the present), except for those who are so free church that they now insist that their congregations (because they say so) should no longer be considered old-fashioned churches at all. I think that’s what they are saying and I ought to know, since, for some reason, many emerging-church leaders read this blog. I think.

Clearly I am confused. But that’s OK. In fact, it’s kind of postmodern. Maybe I “get it” after all.

So, journalists, if you are as confused as I am, you need to scroll through the resources at the new covering-the-emerging-church resource page assembled by the religion-beat professionals at ReligionLink.org. They say that this emerging thing is just starting to warm up and get complex, because it’s not just for evangelicals anymore.

As the emerging church — also known as the postmodern church or “po mo” — evolves, it’s also diversifying. Some want to transcend boundaries between conservative evangelicals and liberal mainline churches. Others are seeking more leadership opportunities for women and non-Anglos. And many churches, though they’re not all about youth or culture, are borrowing ideas from the emerging church trend, available through the Internet, conferences, books and CDs. Jewish leaders hoping to engage more youth have even consulted with emerging church groups.

So are people messing with (1) the doctrine of the church, (2) traditional doctrines (plural) taught by the church or (3) the very idea that doctrines should exist at all?

ReligionLink says that:

The emerging church seems to be forking in three directions, says scholar Ed Stetzer in his forthcoming book, Breaking the Missional Code: When Churches Become Missionaries in Their Communities (co-author David Putman, Broadman & Holman Publishers, May 2006). The most conservative fork accepts the gospel and the church in their historic forms but seeks to make them more understandable in contemporary culture. A second fork accepts the gospel but questions and reconstructs much of the traditional church form. The third, the most radical, questions and re-envisions both the gospel and the church.

chartreslabyrinth3abSo what does all of this mean?

Early on in my work as a religion reporter — about 25 years ago — I started trying to find quick ways to find out who was who in the various Christian groups that I covered. This quest evolved into my fascination with the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter at the University of Virginia (click here for background).

Before long, I learned that you could learn a whole lot in this post-1960s world by asking mainline and Catholic leaders three blunt questions. Think of these as research questions that would work for any Godbeat reporter.

(1) Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus alone?

(3) Is sex outside of the sacrament of marriage a sin?

Now, it appears that it is time to start asking these old mainline questions among some of the “emerging” evangelical leaders, including the person who often is named as the leader of the progressive pack. As ReligionLink notes:

For a sense of the distance between conservative and liberal emerging evangelicals, read Mark Driscoll’s “rant” about Brian McLaren and homosexuality at the Christianity Today blog, Out of Ur. [Out of Ur is the blog of Christianity Today's sister publication, Leadership Journal. CT's blog is here.]

By all means, read it. The rise of a true evangelical left is an emerging story.

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Separation of mandala and state?

mandalaThe Buddhist monk who blessed Baltimore City Hall with a worship aide traveled to Detroit to do some outreach on a community college campus. Terry wrote earlier in the week about the interesting church-state issues raised by a Buddhist doing religious work on public property.

A college campus is a less controversial venue than city hall for a religious display such as this, but it’s still interesting to consider the angle reporters use when covering the Buddhist tour. David Crumm, the prolific religion reporter at the Detroit Free Press, began his column about the Detroit stop of the tour this way:

A monk in gold-and-crimson robes labored on his knees to bring to life an ancient symbol of wisdom in a Dearborn library on Wednesday, surrounded by an ever-changing crowd of students, some in Muslim scarves, others in Lions and Pistons sweatshirts and a couple in leather and chains.

The director of religious studies at the college tells Crumm that monk Tashi Thupten Tsondu‘s visit is part of an effort to expose students to diverse cultures, and the diversity angle is thread throughout the article. The story is great and reporters have to choose one angle out of many potential ones. But I hope that as the monk continues his tour throughout the country — and if he continues to do his religious work on taxpayer-funded property — that reporters would look at the issue of state-sanctioned religious activity.

I tend to be interested in raising questions about any state support of religious activity. Terry raised the issue of equal access when he wrote about the story of Tashi’s religious work in Baltimore. What other groups are taking part in the diversity campaign? And that raises the question of how these stories would be written if Campus Crusade for Christ were working on a project in the library.

The purpose of the monk’s visit is not to make pretty pictures and head back home. It’s to share Tibetan Buddhist philosophies. A report of the monk’s visit to Michigan State University a few years ago looks at how Buddhist tenets are shared during a question and answer period following the creation — and destruction — of the mandala. There’s even a personal testimony!

One of the things that distinguishes Crumm is how he lets his subjects talk about their own faith and philosophy. This article was no exception:

Tashi, 49, explained that a mandala is an ancient practice that combines meditation techniques and sacred symbols to create vibrant, circular works of art. The overall message is that life is precious as well as fleeting.

“I make the mandala, but then I dismantle it on the last day. I sweep it up with a brush,” Tashi said. “It reminds us that, one day, we all will die. It reminds us to think of other living beings compassionately in this impermanent life we have.”

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, in a ceremony open to the public, Tashi will complete the dismantling by placing the swept-up sand into a large bowl. Then, he will lead a procession from the library to the nearby Rouge River, where he will drizzle the sand into the water.

[William] Secrest [the college's director of religious studies] said, “The Buddhist message is that we cannot cling to this life. That’s a delusion. Life is constantly flowing away like the sand in this mandala will flow into the river.”

It’s such a simple thing, but one I wish more reporters would do. Rather than trying — and failing — to characterize complex religious issues, reporters can tell a much richer story by simply quoting religious adherents as they talk about their faith.

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Who says there’s nothing funny about Islamofascism?

nightjourneyofmuhammadThe interweb is buzzing about last night’s South Park episode. Did Comedy Central forbid creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker from showing an image of Muhammad? In the episode, Kyle, one of the show’s main characters, persuades network executives to run a Family Guy cartoon with a short scene including Muhammad. Kyle gives a speech about the importance of free speech. The Volokh Conspiracy, which broke the story, quoted Kyle’s speech, which ended:

“If you don’t show [Muhammad], then you’ve made a distinction between what is OK to make fun of and what isn’t. Either it’s all OK or none of it is. Do the right thing.”

At the point in the episode where Muhammad is supposed to be shown, the South Park creators inserted two statements:

In this shot, [Muhammad] hands a football helmet to Family Guy.

Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of [Muhammad] on their network.

Eventually (spoiler alert!) Al Qaeda broadcasts its own cartoon showing Americans, President Bush and Jesus defacating on each other and the American flag. You know, say what you want about them, Stone and Parker sure know how to embarrass their own network.

Many blogs have been up in pixels about the censorship, but it looks like David Bauder of the Associated Press is the first mainstream reporter to cover the issue. He also provided a bit of historical context about how the show came to be written:

In an elaborately constructed two-part episode of their Peabody Award-winning cartoon, “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker intended to comment on the controversy created by a Danish newspaper’s publishing of caricatures of Muhammad. Muslims consider any physical representation of their prophet to be blasphemous.

A brief interjection here to point out that AP reporter gives the impression that Muslims are unanimous in their belief that any physical representation of Muhammad is blasphemous. That’s not true. And while many reporters, myself included, repeated this untruth, Bauder has had a few months to learn from our mistakes. It is not acceptable for reporters to repeat this talking point without acknowledging reality. The 1514 picture I used here is The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq. It is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Go here for more Muslim physical representations of Muhammad that are supposedly not allowed.

And if you are going to say that Muslims find representations of their prophet to be blasphemous, why not mention what Christians think of portraying their divine Savior in such a disrespectful manner? Do they think not think it’s blasphemous? Is it the notion of blasphemy that is the undercurrent to this story? Or is it the threat of violence? Okay, back to our story:

When the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers worldwide in January and February, it sparked a wave of protests primarily in Islamic countries.

Parker and Stone were angered when told by Comedy Central several weeks ago that they could not run an image of Muhammad, according to a person close to the show who didn’t want to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity.

The network’s decision was made over concerns for public safety, the person said.

Comedy Central said in a statement issued Thursday: “In light of recent world events, we feel we made the right decision.” Its executives would not comment further.

Wow. And wow. There can be no question that an image of Jesus defacating on flags and President Bush during Holy Week is blasphemous and offensive. So how to explain Comedy Central’s decision? Especially considering that Comedy Central used to show Muhammad images with vigor? I certainly hope that my journalistic brethren will investigate this with rigor.

I’m a bad prognosticator of these things, and increasingly cynical, but I worry that this story will just go away. And I worry the media will simply acquiesce to violent demands rather than uphold the virtue of tolerance of all perspectives — including offensive ones like South Park‘s. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that there is much of a difference between the cowardly decision of almost every mainstream newspaper, including the standard-bearing New York Times, to hide the news (that is, the cartoon images of Muhammad which sparked the violent and fatal riots by some Muslims across the globe) and Comedy Central’s decision.

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