Have Yourself a Megachurch Xmas

WallpaperVL9Now it’s official: The “Have Yourself a Megachurch Christmas” story is going to roll all the way through Dec. 25, which is the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (to get technical about it).

I think it is safe to predict the presence of the odd network and local news satellite truck or two on the lawns of the more prominent of these superchurches on Christmas Eve, with journalists interviewing the faithful as they enter about their views of the entire affair. Merry Christmas.

Who, I wonder, will be the first to broadcast video clips from the Willowcreek Community Church DVD that this trailblazing congregation is handing out for members to pop into their home entertainment centers on Sunday morning in place of gathering for corporate prayer, praise and, heaven forbid, something resembling the sacraments? (Photos from the church’s website.)

Wasn’t that a nasty way of wording the current situation?

You see, there are at least two stories of substance lurking behind this little media firestorm. The first is obvious and has now officially been locked into Holy Writ by Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times. Here it is right under the lead, with the headline “When Christmas Falls on Sunday, Megachurches Take the Day Off.”

Some of the nation’s most prominent megachurches have decided not to hold worship services on the Sunday that coincides with Christmas Day, a move that is generating controversy among evangelical Christians at a time when many conservative groups are battling to “put the Christ back in Christmas.”

This assumes, of course, that the moderate evangelicals who huddle in some of these megachurches are the same kinds of people who are out there on the front lines of the Christmas wars. This is highly unlikely, I think. But it is true that this particular battle has pounded a wedge into some cracks in the large, but terribly vague, world that sprawls around under that vague umbrella word “evangelicalism.” You cannot say this too often: Not all evangelicals think alike and act alike. Ask Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell.

The other story concerns the decision to cancel worship services at all.

Here, there are two entirely different attitudes at play and Goodstein (and many other reporters) are hinting at a division in doctrine between Protestants and ancient churches, but not really underlining it. However, Goodstein does write:

The uproar is not only over closing the churches on Christmas Day, because some evangelical churches large and small have done that in recent years and made Christmas Eve the big draw, without attracting much criticism.

What some consider the deeper affront is in canceling services on a Sunday, which most Christian churches consider the Lord’s Day, when communal worship is an obligation. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was in 1994. Some of these same megachurches remained open them, they say, but found attendance sparse.

This is only part of the story.WillowCreek

Churches that follow the ancient traditions of Christianity and, to one degree or another, honor its liturgical calendar, would never think of not gathering for worship on one of the most important Holy Days in Christianity — period. Sunday, or Monday, or Tuesday or whatever.

Christmas is Christmas. It’s the Christ Mass. You observe it in the early hours of the morning right after midnight and then come back on the day itself. This is part of what it means to be a church.

Or is it? What’s the larger question here and this whole episode helps point out the degree to which there are American churches, following the American calendar and its rites, and then there are, uh, churches that are part of the global history and community of Christianity in the broader, ancient sense of the word.

Here’s Goodstein again:

Canceling worship on Christmas Day appears to be predominantly a megachurch phenomenon, sociologists of religion say.

“This attachment to a particular day on the calendar is just not something that megachurches have been known for,” Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University, said. “They’re known for being flexible and creative, and not for taking these traditions, seasons, dates and symbols really seriously.”

P.S. For coverage of this story from the inside, click here for a new Christianity Today weblog essay.

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Parsing that Jesus and Santa joke

20051206 4 p120605kh 0147 515hLet me jump in with a note about Mollie’s post about the White House and the raging armies of Christmas, since all of us here at GetReligion are getting boat loads of email about this topic. For me, there are two newsworthy topics linked to this (in addition to all of those that discussed by Mollie, such as the interesting Americans United angle).

First of all, it is a sign of how tone deaf the whole Bush clan is about the cultural style and lingo of evangelical Christianity. I know there are people who think that George W. is a raging theocrat, but I just don’t see it. I still think of him as more of a Texas pragmatist who had a personal experience with God linked to kicking alcohol, yet he remains married to a tough Texas country club lady and his girls, well, do not seem to be Campus Crusade chicks.

Meanwhile, my all-time favorite Bush-ite story about religion and the Bush clan remains this one, as I told it in a column about George Bush, the elder:

George Bush never did learn to open up when anyone asked about his faith, salvation, family values and all those messy spiritual issues. On one campaign stop, he was asked what he thought about as he floated alone in the Pacific Ocean after his plane was shot down during World War II. His response was chilly: “Mom and Dad, about our country, about God … and about the separation of church and state.”

Now there is a guy who is comfortable in his own skin, when it comes to faith. Not.

So what can you say about that joke that George W. Bush tried to pull off the other day at the lighting of That Tree? It seemed that he was trying to wink at the ACLU and Focus on the Family at the same time and just could not pull it off:

“The lighting of the National Christmas Tree is one of the great traditions in our nation’s capital. Each year, we gather here to celebrate the season of hope and joy — and to remember the story of one humble life that lifted the sights of humanity. Santa, thanks for coming. Glad you made it.”

Actually, if you read the White House text for that remark, it seems obvious — or perhaps punctuation spin — that the speechwriters were trying to gently nod to Jesus in one paragraph and then veer into a new paragraph that opened with a Santa gag. However, if your run the two paragraphs together, you get the now infamous one-humble-life-equals-Santa joke.

It is, however, interesting to contrast the president’s remarks this year with those from 2002, which used stronger language while still managing to avoid the call-the-lawyers J-word:

The simple story we remember during this season speaks to every generation. It is the story of a quiet birth in a little town, on the margins of an indifferent empire. Yet that single event set the direction of history and still changes millions of lives. For over two millennia, Christmas has carried the message that God is with us — and, because He’s with us, we can always live in hope.

The second point that I find interesting about this whole flap is the degree to which, in the post Harriet Myers-world, many MSM journalists are paying attention to alternative conservative media — including blogs — as a way to gain insight into that key subculture in the wider Republican Party world. You can see this by noting who gets quoting in the big papers. To some degree, this trend started with Rush Limbaugh and the 1994 revolution, but it seems to me that we are now in a second wave.

This is perfectly valid, to me. If you are covering the left, you read the left — all kinds of people on the left. If you are covering cultural conservatives, you need to find out what they are talking about, both the good, the bad and the angry.

So is this a case of the Washington Post chasing WorldNetDaily? Stranger things have happened.

P.S. About the photo with this post. Someone needs to tell the White House that the lighting of the first Hannukah candle or lamp this year will be at sundown on Dec. 25th and, by the way, you are supposed to light them one day at a time. I believe that Dec. 25th is also a holiday in another major world religion.

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Put Christmas back in the church

manager emptyThis Associated Press report is one of those “believe it or not” stories that you just have to write straight and let the readers shake their head.

Or is it just me that thinks this way, since I am one of those strange liturgical calendar kind of guys?

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Central Kentucky’s largest church will be dark on Christmas Day, a decision drawing some criticism among the faithful.

Southland Christian Church near Lexington is joining several evangelical megachurches across the country in canceling services for the holiday, which this year falls on a Sunday. Officials at the church, where about 7,000 people worship each week, said the move is designed to allow staff members and volunteers to spend the holiday with their families.

The megachurches, which rank among the largest congregations in America, will hold multiple Christmas Eve services instead. Among the churches closed on Christmas Day are Willow Creek Community Church, the Chicago area’s largest congregation; Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich.; North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.; and Fellowship Church near Dallas.

The move is drawing mixed reviews. Critics say it’s the day of the week — not the day of the year — that’s sacred. To them, closing the doors of the church on the Lord’s Day is unthinkable.

Some churches are scaling down their Sunday schedule on Christmas. Louisville’s Southeast Christian Church, where 18,000 people worship each weekend, is scheduled to hold one service on Christmas in the fellowship hall.

You know, I think Easter falls on Sunday as well and that can be inconvenient, too.

But, seriously, this is a wonderful example of a news story that is the mirror image of the Christmas Wars story that some of you are so tired of, it seems. (Thanks for the link, Michael.) Actually, I remain interested in the “Merry Christmas” speech battles because, like Ms. Mollie, I am interested in anything that has to do with the blurring of public speech about religion. I am interested in what happens when people call out the lawyers to settle religious issues.

But the story that interests me just as much or more is the amazing fade out of Christmas in real, live, big-sign-on-the-lawn CHURCHES. It seems that the actual traditions of Christmas are being rolled over by The Commercialized Holidays Steamroller — and the mall calendar that goes with it — inside the doors of actual churches.

So I wish the Associated Press or one of the local newspapers touched by this trend had gone a step or two further and let us know what the leaders of these megachurches were actually thinking when they made this decision.

Do Christmas rites matter? Why not? Put Christ in Christmas? How about put Christmas back in the Church? Having the Feast of the Nativity fall on a Sunday morning would seem, to me, to be a chance to do more with this holy day — the first day of the 12-day Christmas season — rather than less.

If anyone sees a report of a Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran or Eastern Orthodox congregation canceling Christmas morning services or scaling them back, please let me know.

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Holiday Target practice

kettlesIf you have picked up a newspaper in the past week or so, you have surely noticed that we are well into our culture’s annual Christmas Wars.

This is that magical time of year when lawyers on both sides of the culture wars get to earn overtime pay, making the world safe for secular menorahs and faith-neutral holiday trees. Meanwhile, many people who think of themselves as conservative Christians do their best to make innocent store workers feel guilty if their corporate bosses will not let them say “Merry Christmas.” Meanwhile, most churches are worn-out with “Christmas celebrations” a week or more before Dec. 25th — the first day of the 12-day Feast of the Nativity.

It’s a mess. It makes you want to fast and pray, or something.

Even with his snarky tone, I have to admit that Adam Cohen of the New York Times is on to something with his essay entitled “This Season’s War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else.”

Here’s the opening:

Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They’re for it.

The American Family Association is leading a boycott of Target for not using the words “Merry Christmas” in its advertising. (Target denies it has an anti-Merry-Christmas policy.) The Catholic League boycotted Wal-Mart in part over the way its Web site treated searches for “Christmas.” Bill O’Reilly, the Fox anchor who last year started a “Christmas Under Siege” campaign, has a chart on his Web site of stores that use the phrase “Happy Holidays,” along with a poll that asks, “Will you shop at stores that do not say ‘Merry Christmas’?”

Bah, humbug. The story that actually interests me this year is related to the Christmas wars, but actually has some content. It also concerns Target, Wal-Mart and a bunch of other people. It focuses, of course, on the decision by Target — perhaps honoring a request by gay-rights groups — to start enforcing its ban on solicitations outside its doors by “Merry Christmas” whispering bell-ringers at those offensive red kettles. The result is a PR professional’s nightmare in a competitive economy, which you can see by clicking here.

I wrote about the Salvation Army a week ago for Scripps Howard and mentioned some of this, while focusing on this organization’s battle to retain or regain some of its public identity as a church. Religion-beat veteran Ken Garfield of the Charlotte Observer also published a thoughtful column on this standoff that included the following:

… (For) some who view the bells and kettles as a symbol of Christmas compassion, the ban by Target rankles — especially after Katrina and the other disasters to which the Salvation Army has responded. The debate is also deepened by the fact that other retailers, such as Harris Teeter, welcome the Salvation Army to their front doors.

Charlotte’s Susan Chaffin shared her embrace of the Salvation Army, and a warning to retailers, in a letter to the editor after Katrina: “To deny their traditional places and opportunities is to deny their efforts and contributions to these and other needy people in America. So just remember, no bell-ringers, no me.”

saltargetSure enough, folks on the anti-Target right are cheering a recent dip in the company’s stock, while those folks at Wal-Wart are singing glad tidings (to the sound of Salvation Army bells).

Meanwhile, my friend Simon J. Dahlman at Milligan College recently, in his “Face to Faith” column, addressed a topic that I believe should get more coverate this time a year — the religion of commercialism and the sacraments that people consume at the mall. Here, friends, is the war at Christmas that matters the most and, yes, it is spiritual. Would that more churches were concerned about this. Dahlman writes:

“Consumerism serves as a form of religion,” says the Rev. John Kavanaugh, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches philosophy at St. Louis University. “The mall serves as the new parish church, the new gathering place. People go there to socialize. It’s a community center, centered on shopping.”

Kavanaugh, who has written several books that examine the complex relationships between American culture and religion, including “Following Christ in a Consumer Culture,” notes other similarities between religion and retail.

“It’s amazing how many products are associated with values and with self-esteem,” he said in a phone interview this week, rattling off brand names to illustrate his point: Boss, Freedom, Joy, Easy to Be Me.

I could keep quoting, but I suggest that you read it yourself. If you see similar stories on this theme, please let me know.

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In praise of (disturbing) journalism

IMG7138108LOHere’s a hopeful note, for those who care about high-quality religion coverage in the mainstream press.

The name of this blog is GetReligion, because we believe that many journalists do not “get religion.” However, you could run another blog called GetJournalism, because there are many, many, many leaders in religious organizations — left and right — who have zero appreciation for the role that journalists play, or should play, in this culture. Many people with “Rev.” and especially “the Right Rev.” in front of their names want public relations, not journalism.

So I was encouraged when I saw this commentary on Baptist Press entitled “The perverse logic of abortion,” by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., one of the most brilliant minds on the rock-ribbed right side of Southern Baptist higher education. The subject of his commentary is that gripping feature story on abortion by Los Angeles Times reporter Stephanie Simon.

Now, as young master Daniel Pulliam noted earlier this week, this article is brutal in its candor and in its almost evangelistic use of “born again” language in describing the work of abortionist Dr. William F. Harrison of Fayetteville, Ark. Obviously, Mohler is sickened by much of what is reported. But, and here is the crucial point, he praises the journalist for the information reported, even though he is appalled by these very same details. Far too often, religious leaders lash out at the journalists in a classic damn-the-messenger manner.

This is progress.

Perhaps the most shocking dimension of Dr. Harrison’s candor is the manner in which he cloaks his practice of abortion in religious language. In the Los Angeles Times article, Harrison refers to women who have terminated their pregnancies as being “born again” through the experience. In his statement published in the Reproductive Freedom Task Force newsletter, Harrison claimed to have heard “a still, small voice asking, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ to which I was at last compelled to reply, ‘Here am I, send me.’” Here we confront the breathtaking delusion of a man who would cite God’s call to the prophet Isaiah as a parallel to his “calling” to be an abortionist.

The debate over abortion is often reduced to a battle over statistics and politics. Stephanie Simon’s article should remind us all that the reality of abortion is unspeakably ugly, undeniably tragic and morally corrupting. The statements made by these women seeking abortions — and by the doctor who so gladly performs them — reveals the true nature of the challenge we face. The culture of death is rarely revealed with such clarity.

Amen. May other hierarchs pay heed. It is good to praise journalists when they do their jobs with excellence. This will also pay off, when it comes time to put a hot spotlight on journalistic heresies.

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Meet C.S. Lewis, pedantic horndog

AdamGopnikEarlier this week, Daniel touched on some newspapers’ breathless “C.S. Lewis had premarital sex” exposes. Some of the comments on his post have mentioned the critique of Lewis in the Nov. 21 New Yorker.

Adam Gopnik’s essay offers the depth of detail readers would expect from The New Yorker, but dwells at tiresome length on Lewis’ sex life. In describing Lewis’ relationships with Janie King Moore and Joy Davidman, Gopnik leaves the impression that they were both married women still living with their husbands when they took to bed with Lewis. (We know that Davidman did. Contrary to Gopnik, we cannot be certain that Lewis and Moore “had a long affair.”)

Gopnik (pictured) does not mention that Lewis was fulfilling a promise to a World War I buddy to look after his widowed mother. (Whether Lewis and Moore ever engaged in a bit of the old non-marital rumpy pumpy is, as some comments on Daniel’s post indicate, not of great interest to Lewis admirers who understand that Lewis did many things before his conversion that he would not have done after it.)

Joy Davidman, in turn, was separated from her husband when she met Lewis, and Lewis left no impression that he was, in Gopnik’s words, “seduced by a married woman” by the time they were wed in a civil ceremony.

But enough about sex, as some of us are at least descended from the British.

Besides, Gopnik also is annoyed by Lewis’s brand of Christian faith. Gopnik depicts Lewis as a victim of that infamous Catholic soul-stalker, J.R.R. Tolkien:

It was through the intervention of the secretive and personally troubled Tolkien, however, that Lewis finally made the turn toward orthodox Christianity. In company with another friend, they took a long, and now famous, walk, on an autumn night in 1931, pacing and arguing from early evening to early morning. Tolkien was a genuinely eccentric character — in college, the inventor of Lothlorien played the part of the humorless pedant — who had been ready to convert Lewis for several years. Lewis was certainly ripe to be converted. The liberal humanism in which he had been raised as a thinker had come to seem far too narrowly Philistine and materialist to account for the intimations of transcendence that came to him on country walks and in pages of poetry. Tolkien, seizing on this vulnerability, said that the obvious-seeming distinction that Lewis made between myth and fact — between intimations of timeless joy and belief in a historically based religion — was a false one.

And so on. (This exceptionally long rant ends with Lewis on the brink of becoming a churchgoer, as if his conversion consisted primarily of faithful pew-warming at the nearest Anglican chapel.)

For Gopnik, Lewis commits the unpardonable modern sin of insisting that there’s such a thing as objective religious truth (and not merely subjective individual religious preference). On this point, Gopnik manages to make the postwar University of Oxford sound like a center of conformist Anglican piety:

Lewis insists that the Anglican creed isn’t one spiritual path among others but the single cosmic truth that extends from the farthest reach of the universe to the house next door. He is never troubled by the funny coincidence that this one staggering cosmic truth also happens to be the established religion of his own tribe, supported by every institution of the state, and reinforced by the university he works in, the “God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford,” as Gladstone called it. But perhaps his leap from myth to Christian faith wasn’t a leap at all, more of a standing hop in place.

Most tellingly, while criticizing Lewis for his allegories, Gopnik shows a breathtaking literalism:

The trouble was that though he could encompass his obsessions, he could not entirely surrender to his imagination. The emotional power of the book, as every sensitive child has known, diminishes as the religious part intensifies. The most explicitly religious part of his myth is the most strenuously, and the least successfully, allegorized. Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol, who has exasperated generations of freethinking parents and delighted generations of worried Anglicans, is, after all, a very weird symbol for that famous carpenter’s son — not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure.

So much for the Lion of Judah.

Memo to the legendary fact-checkers of The New Yorker: Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, not A Grief Portrayed.

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Update on the preacher in black

The folks at CT have an interesting feature online that addresses many issues related to the role of faith in the Walk the Line biopic of June and Johnny Cash.

witherspoon phoenixThe story includes some commentary from director James Mangold, actor Joaquin Phoenix and self-proclaimed church lady (sort of) Reese Witherspoon. Here’s an interesting, to say the least, detail from a post-dinner encounter with the Cashes in their home, beginning with the Johnny and June singing a duet:

The song was “The Far Side Banks of Jordan,” and Phoenix says he was amazed by the “profound sense of love” he witnessed between the Cashes. “And then, moments later, he quoted to me my most sadistic dialogue from Gladiator, saying it was his favorite part of the movie.” (The line: “Your son squealed like a girl when they nailed him to the cross. And your wife moaned like a whore when they ravaged her again and again.”)

Phoenix says the experience encapsulated the two separate forces that lived within Cash: “It really is night and day. You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it. And he seemed to relish that dialogue as much as he relished looking into June’s eyes and singing this song.”

The key, again, seems to be the movie’s timeline. It stops precisely at the moment Cash’s faith revived so strongly. However, it does seem to downplay the tensions about faith, sex, marriage, divorce, fidelity and everything else that so shaped the courtship of June and Johnny.

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Meanwhile, back at the Air Force Academy

v4n2 03jOK, so everyone remembers where GetReligion stands on the Air Force Academy story, right? We back free speech. Chaplains do not have to edit their own faith, especially in meetings that students choose to attend. Religious groups have the same rights as secular groups, when it comes to using emails, posters, public announcements and all of that.

Religious believers have a right to discuss their faith with others. The nonbelievers have a right to tell them to shut up. If believers keep at it, you throw the book at them. Right?

This brings us to the latest Alan Cooperman report in The Washington Post, in which the anti-proselytizing police have latched onto a fundraising letter from the well-known — at least to most people who know any evangelical Protestants at all — prayer and evangelism group called The Navigators.

It seems that this Colorado Springs-based organization is training cadets how to share their faith. Shocking. It also seems that the group has an office on the grounds of the Air Force Academy. This is something like learning that the Mormons have classes to teach people foreign languages and how to remove stains from white shirts.

In Cooperman’s breathless report the scandal of it all sounds something like this:

A private missionary group has assigned a pair of full-time Christian ministers to the U.S. Air Force Academy, where they are training cadets to evangelize among their peers, according to a confidential letter to supporters.

The letter makes clear that the organized evangelization effort has continued this year despite an outcry over alleged proselytizing at the academy that has prompted a Pentagon investigation, congressional hearings, a civil lawsuit and new Air Force guidelines on religion.

“Praise God that we have been allowed access by the Academy into the cadet areas to minister among the cadets. We have recently been given an unused classroom to meet with cadets at any time during the day,” the husband-and-wife team of Darren and Gina Lindblom said in the Oct. 11 letter to their donors.

This raises some questions, of course. But here is the big one: The Navigators, and many other religious groups, do this kind of work on campuses — state and private — all over the place. Under equal access laws, prayer groups and Bible studies are even held on public-school campuses, to the same degree as each school allows other student groups to use these facilities. The state is, in other words, not allowed to practice viewpoint discrimination.

So the question Cooperman needs to ask, concerning this Navigators rampage, is this: Are there any other student groups at the academy? Do they meet to discuss things like the environment, Islam, Jane Austen, NASCAR, skiing or other subjects of interest? Have other groups — religious or secular — been denied a similar use of facilities? Are the meetings voluntary?

If The Navigators have a unique arrangement, in comparison with secular student groups, then this is a scandal. If not, then repeat after me: “View-point dis-crim-i-na-tion.”

And by the way: When does The Washington Post plan to begin quoting church-state experts on the right as well as the left, to seek some kind of balance in its coverage on this issue?

What am I talking about? There are folks on the church-state left who could ask and answer the relevant questions in this case.

If The Navigators have claimed turf that other secular and religious groups have been denied, then book ’em. Otherwise, this is another case in which the answer to free speech is more free speech. The answer to freedom of association is freedom of association. Equal access is equal access.

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