Pod people: Hark the Gutenberg press?

GetReligion was launched around the idea of ghosts — religious aspects to stories that went unexplained or ignored. Sometimes those ghosts are very straightforward. Sometimes they’re more about subtext and nuance. In this week’s Crossroads podcast, we discuss some of the lingering ghosts surrounding that provocative New York Times celebration of a marriage built on the failure of two previous marriages.

That this caused such outrage among readers indicates that the marital norms of fidelity and monogamy still mean something in this culture. That’s not necessarily religious, but religious institutions, values and cultures certainly are part of the story — the larger story about marriage, at least. I propose that the reaction to this story suggests that the way marriage has typically been covered — as the ultimate expression of personal happiness — might have caught the New York Times off guard.

I still have no idea why it was this story — and not the countless other stories that embrace the “personal happiness” motif — bothered people so much.

We also discuss that wonderful NPR story about the history and evolution of Christmas carols. It’s a great example of how a particular media — the radio broadcast — can bring a story to life with the perfect balance of editing, audio clips and expert sourcing. My favorite anecdote was about how “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was originally written to mark the 400th anniversary of the Gutenberg press. In fact, “Hark the Herald” was originally where you’d sing “Gutenberg” and composer Felix Mendelssohn thought it would never work as a sacred tune. I love it.

Enjoy the podcast and have a wonderful Christmas!

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Pod people: Let Xmas be Christmas? (updated)

‘Tis the season for a timely show of hands among GetReligion readers.

How many of you attend churches in which, on Dec. 6th or sometime soon after, there were events linked to the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra? Have many will eventually have a some kind of church event that includes Santa Claus?

How many of you have already installed real or fake evergreen trees in your homes (or your churches), but they are currently decorated in purple and white, as well as with ornaments featuring symbols from the Old Testament?

How many of you have Advent wreathes and candles in your churches or homes?

If you are Eastern Orthodox, how many of you attend parishes that are asking members to fast during Nativity Lent and to go to confession before receiving the Divine Mysteries during the midnight Divine Liturgy that opens the Christmas season?

How many of you attend congregations that have already had a Christmas party and/or concert?

How many of you will be attending a Christmas party and/or concert that will take place in the 12 days following Dec. 25th, which is the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? How many of you plan to go caroling during the Christmas season?

These are the kinds of questions that loom in the background during this week’s Crossroads podcast, which you can download right here. For some reason, it is not on the iTunes site yet. Is anyone else having trouble subscribing at iTunes?

This podcast digs a bit deeper into the subject material behind my recent post, the one called, “When is ‘Christmas,’ anyway?” I wrote my Scripps Howard News Service column this week on a related topic, focusing on the quietly stunning pastoral letter by the Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City in which he asked his schools and parishes to — gasp — celebrate Christmas during Christmas. I hope you enjoy the paraphrased quote from Obi Wan Kenobi.

However, the key to this whole complex and emotional subject is rooted in this reality: America is not a Christian nation or culture. Sorry ’bout that.

Anyone who has studied the history of American religion (or church-state law) realizes that American is, essentially, a lowest-common-denominator Protestant nation or culture — with no one group holding the reins, from the Unitarians to the Puritans to the Anglicans. Thus, this means that there never has been an “American” way to observe Christmas.

Throw in a few court battles, Seinfeld, shopping malls, rising numbers true secularists and lots of other factors and we now have at least three major forms of Christmas present in the marketplace of ideas.

* The Holidays or Xmas: Begins formally on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, but the advertisements and cable movies keep creeping earlier and earlier. Ends on Dec. 15, with remnants through Dec. 25. Basically, this is the secular season defined by the shopping mall.

* Christmas: Begins on Black Friday or roughly Dec. 1 in most churches. Continues through Dec. 25, with most parties and concerts occurring between Dec. 7 and about Dec. 15, so as not to veer too far away from office parties, school “Holiday” events and complex family travel plans.

* The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: Rarely celebrated. It begins on Dec. 25 and runs for 12 days, ending at Epiphany (there are a few variations on the ending). While traces of this season lingered in some parts of the culture until the early 20th Century, it is now all but extinct.

This is America, so people get to choose.

The key is that the small-t traditions of the one normative Protestant culture overlap with those of the mall. Thus, most of the people who are yearning to “put Christ back in Christmas” are actually following the ever-changing traditions of the shopping mall and whatever is happening in the nation’s courts. That’s an interesting story.

At the same time, some people are getting so fed up with Xmas that — mostly in the context of liturgical churches — they are attempting in a few symbolic, yet important, ways to celebrate the actual season of Christmas. That’s an interesting story, too. Personally, one of the items on my “bucket list” is to be arrested while caroling in a public place during the 12 days of Christmas.

For me, all of this raises journalist issues, as well as liturgical issues. You see, there are all kinds of interesting stories linked to these realities, stories that have little or nothing to do with the waves of “Christmas wars” stories that have been so popular in recent years, especially You Know Where. Perhaps it’s time for a look at some different seasonal stories? Can you say, “Twelfth Night”? I knew that you could.

Enjoy the podcast. And have a blessed Advent or Nativity Fast.

UPDATED: Perhaps I was vague about this “hand raising metaphor” at the top of the post. I simply meant for people to leave comments.

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Pod people: No religion for abortion providers

Can I test a theory?

My sense is that reporters often look to religion when covering people who are against abortion. It might seem obvious, since people do often cite their underlying religious beliefs as their reason for opposition. Though when reporters explore why people do provide abortions, religion suddenly disappears from consideration.

Take the story about a gay abortion doctor who wants to adopt. The reporter showed that the doctor clearly felt there was some gray in the ethics of providing abortions, especially late-term ones. We were left wondering whether his faith (or lack of faith) had anything to do with why being an abortion doctor is so complex for him.

Earlier we saw the story about the 2,000 dead fetuses found at a Buddhist temple’s morgue. We learned about an abortion provider who adopted eight children that survived abortions. “I commit sin every day,” she said, “so if the kids won’t die, there’s no need to kill them.” We talked about her reaction, especially in the context of a primarily Buddhist country, but we still don’t know much about her religion.

We talk about these stories on the latest GetReligion’s podcast, so click here to listen to the most recent one.

By the way, when do you listen to podcasts? Have you listened to anything especially good recently? I know NPR isn’t terribly popular right now after the Juan Williams business, but I still listen to many of their shows. Are there good religion podcasts that I’m missing? Whether you’re on your computer, mp3 player, smart phone, whatever, thanks for “tuning in.”

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Pod people: Listen, while reading Allen

So is everyone tired of reading GetReligion posts about those tired labels that journalists keep using in their coverage of the Catholic Church?

Sorry, but here comes another one.

The last time we checked in on one of the week’s major stories, Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s historic, and somewhat surprising, election as the new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was being hailed as a loss by the “moderate” candidate and another sign of a rising tide of “conservative” political sentiment in the church.

I thought this was rather strange, since the affable and quotable Dolan defeated the candidate — Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson — who was endorse by some of the church’s most visible liberals and he also beat another candidate who is consistently identified as a strong conservative. In other words, it appeared that the “moderate” won.

Unfortunately, many journalists continue to use the word “moderate” to mean “people that we like” and terms such as “fundamentalist” or “radical conservative” to define “people we sure as heckfire think are dangerous.” And “conservatives”? Well, that depends what they are conservative about and how vocal they are about certain scary doctrines.

As you have guessed by now, this whole topic was the subject of this week’s GetReligion podcast. I am now receiving these every week via iTunes, so those of you who are into that should check it out. Just search for “GetReligion” on the podcast page in that cyber-superstore.

Also, please let me suggest that you listen to that podcast while reading the following column by the indispensable John L. Allen Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter. Here’s a taste:

In Dolan, the bishops have turned to their most gifted natural communicator, a leader with a demonstrated capacity to project a positive image for Catholicism in the public square. Rather than electing a behind-the-scenes broker of compromise, in other words, the bishops tapped their best front man. That choice could be taken as an imminently rational reaction to recent events.

… While Dolan certainly is more “conservative” than Kicanas, it’s not what’s distinctive about him. To be sure, there are plenty of other conservatives in the USCCB. Dolan’s defining quality isn’t really his ideology, but rather his capacity to build relationships with people who don’t share his outlook. In many ways, Dolan is a high-octane, populist American expression of what I’ve called the “affirmative orthodoxy” of Benedict XVI: no compromise on matters of Catholic identity, but a determination to express that identity in the most positive key possible, keeping lines of conversation open with people outside the fold.

In other words, it might be more analytically productive to read Dolan’s election not so much as a victory of conservatives over liberals, but rather as an endorsement of the “affirmative orthodoxy” wing of the conference’s conservative majority over its harder ideological edge.

In other words, the more “moderate” of the three options won.

Moving on.

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Pod people: Faith language and death penalty

Last week I highlighted some of the coverage of the jury that deliberated the death penalty for convicted murderer Steven Hayes. Many media reports did a good job quoting the jurors and affected family members even when those quotes included religious language.

Take, for instance, this Associated Press bit:

Dr. William Petit, the husband and father of the victims, said the verdict was not about revenge.

“Vengeance belongs to the Lord,” Petit said. “This is about justice. We need to have some rules in a civilized society.”

It seems weird to praise such a basic thing, but sometimes reporters — particularly those outside the religion beat — are uncomfortable pursuing lines of inquiry following discussions of religion. Or they strip quotes that use religious language. That became the topic of discussion for this week’s Crossroads podcast, which you can listen to here. Host Todd Wilken asked why reporters struggle in this particular way and I threw out some ideas. The fact is that I’m not altogether certain. I grew up in a household where religion was discussed by the hour and so I almost feel more comfortable when people include religion in their discussions. Not always, but frequently. I’m curious what your ideas are for why religious language gets sanitized from many stories.

Another point I raised in the podcast arose out of the death penalty coverage. One of the things I did find interesting, although I thought it might be a bit inappropriate to spend too much time on it last week, was how little coverage of the death penalty case reflected on the larger moral questions. Usually whenever a capital case comes to trial, the media devote more stories about how religious views shape people’s ideas of justice. But I didn’t see too much coverage on that front, which I found disappointing. I think that’s most likely because of the unbelievable barbarism involved in the particular crime. But tough cases still call for such discussions, in my view. What do you think about the lack of discussion about this particular death penalty?

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Faith, tolerance and terror — in Indonesia

As you would expect, there was a wave — totally justified — of press coverage of the major speech that was delivered by President Barack Obama during his return to Jakarta, Indonesia, a city that he called home as a child. To read the speech text, click here.

All of the major stories focused on the same core theme — Obama’s praise for Indonesia’s rich history of religious tolerance, especially in the context of the wider Muslim world. Thus, in the New York Times one could read the following passage:

Mixing the personal, political and religious, Mr. Obama spoke of Indonesia’s history of religious tolerance and its commitment to democracy and diversity before a receptive audience of 6,500 mostly young people at the University of Indonesia. In a 30-minute speech, the president underscored the shared values between the United States and Indonesia, which is known for its tradition of moderate Islam.

Mr. Obama spoke about hearing the “call to prayer across Jakarta,” where he lived for four years as a boy. He referred several times to his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soeotoro, who, he said, “was raised a Muslim” but “firmly believed that all religions were worthy of respect.”

“I thought the speech was very good because it showed that Obama knows about the people of Indonesia, our cultures and traditions, and mentioned what we have in common,” said Slamet Effendi Yusuf, a deputy chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations. “He was arguing against the people who say that there is something incompatible between Islamic and Christian civilizations.”

Although 90 percent of Indonesia’s nearly 240 million citizens are Muslim, the country’s constitution recognizes the world’s major religions, and for decades political Islam had little role in this country. But in the past two decades, as Indonesians have become increasingly religious, events in the Middle East and other Muslim regions have gained more traction here.

That last sentence is absolutely crucial and I’ll return to it shortly.

However, you could see some of the same essential issues covered in the following slice of the Washington Post report on the same subject:

(Obama) also praised Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation — for a “spirit of tolerance that is written into your constitution, symbolized in your mosques and churches and temples, and embodied in your people,” a quality worthy for all the world to emulate.

Obama received a warm welcome from the crowd of about 6,500 at the University of Indonesia, particularly when he spoke in Indonesian, as when he recalled buying satay and bakso from street vendors or referenced the national motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” or “Unity in Diversity.”

“We are two nations which have traveled different paths. Yet our nations show that hundreds of millions who hold different beliefs can be united in freedom under one flag,” Obama said.

Now, stop and think about this.

Did you notice the following phrase in that New York Times piece? It seems that life has become more complex — the hint is that the emphasis in tolerance has changed somehow — in the “past two decades, as Indonesians have become increasingly religious.”

That’s the phrase that made me think of the following, which is the top of a Scripps Howard News Service column that I wrote more than a decade ago — months before the events of Sept. 11, in fact. The setting, of course, is Indonesia:

One wave of warriors came out of the mountains while another came in boats from the sea, crushing the harbor villages on the island of Haruku.

“I heard a grenade and the house went up in an explosion at about 5:30 a.m.,” said an Indonesian pastor, in testimony read in the British House of Lords. “Nine people died at the football pitch. … Some were injured, but still alive, when the military came with bayonets and stabbed them in the neck.”

Similar attacks have destroyed hundreds of churches and mosques during the past two years in the Maluku Islands, which were once known as the romantic “Spice Islands.”

“Those who died were beheaded,” he said. “We have not been able to find their heads, because the soldiers take them.”

Hacking off the heads makes it harder to identify victims in the jungles far from modern Indonesia’s cities. Witnesses say the raiders wear white jihad robes, often over military uniforms.

The material made it into the House of Lords and, thus, the public record, because of the work of a controversial human-rights activist, the nurse and sociologist Baroness Caroline Cox. The key, she said, is that some people believe that it is impossible to stand up and defend universal human rights — such as the freedom of religious conscience — because these concepts are said to be the products of the Judeo-Christian West.

in Indonesia, some of the people who were fighting and dying to protect those freedoms were — yes, emphasize this — Muslims. Churches were destroyed. So were some selected mosques.

… (The) Indonesia crisis is not a simple clash between Islam and Christianity. Cox said she has seen evidence of Muslims dying to defend the homes and churches of neighbors.

The Republic of Indonesia is stunningly complex, a 3,500-mile crescent of 17,670 islands straddling the equinox between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The world’s largest archipelago is nearly three times the size of Texas and the population of 225 million includes 300 ethnic groups. The population of 225 million is 88 percent Muslim and 8 percent Christian, with smaller communities of Hindus, Buddhists and others.

I left that last paragraph in for a reason. Clearly, the journalists covering the Obama visit to Indonesia — and writing about its legitimate heritage of a limited tolerance of minority religions — could not go into these issues in depth.

But, GetReligion readers, did anyone see any mainstream coverage that mentioned that this nation’s heritage of tolerance is under violent attack? Did anyone read about the “white riders”? About kidnappings? Beheadings? The persecution and killing of, for lack of a better word, “moderate” Muslims, as well as members of religious minorities?

And what did the Times report really mean when it said that these problems are in the rise because “Indonesians have become increasingly religious”? Isn’t that a haunting statement to accept as fact?

So Muslims who are more religious are violent. Those who are less religious are tolerant. And note that it is “political Islam” that is the problem, yet this “political Islam” comes to power when people become “increasingly religious.” Is that what the editors meant to say?

Top photo: From WhiteHouse.gov

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Pod people: Faith & gay suicides

That great God Blog philosopher Brad A. Greenberg put it best a few weeks ago:

I make no secret of the fact that I prefer the written word to the spoken word.

Sure, I’m a talker. But I’m not a remarkably articulate speaker. The words just never seem to come out as neatly as they do on paper (though just how neatly they come out on paper is up for debate). And there are few things that frighten me, as a reporter, more than radio appearances. I’m always convinced that the interview to follow will be the one that ends my journalism career. Why? Because I need a filter, and real-time lacks the luxury.

I couldn’t agree more. Except that, unlike Brad, I’m not a talker. I prefer to hide in the back of big rooms with a reporter’s notepad in one hand and a digital recorder in the other. Alas, I like to please tmatt, the illustrious GetReligion guru, so I have joined my colleagues in the podcasting world. If you like accents with a heavy tinge of Texas/Oklahoma twang, be sure to check out my first Crossroads podcast appearance with Todd Wilken.

(I do much prefer the audio format to the TV appearances I had to do when I was religion editor at The Oklahoman and the newspaper developed a short-lived partnership with the local CBS affiliate. The newspaper voice and radio face made for a scary combination.)

But back to the podcast …

Taking off on two recent posts I did on bullying and suicides (click here and here to read them again), the interview explores whether the media have substantiated ties between traditional religious teachings on homosexuality and gay people taking their own lives.

Listen to the podcast to find out the answer. And as a bonus, enjoy a bit of discussion about my Texas Rangers’ remarkable season.

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Pode people: Nobody NoZe …

Some journalists really enjoy writing in first-person voice. I am not one of them.

Yes, I know that the previous sentence began with the word “I.” We are almost seven-years into the life of GetReligion and, obviously, I have had to get a lot more comfortable with first-person work.

Blogging does not have to be first-person, all-commentary based work, but much of it is. When I say that I have never been all that comfortable with first-person writing, I am mainly talking about first-person news coverage, as opposed to what we do here at GetReligion, which is first-person news criticism.

In other words, I find it much easier to quote other people than to quote myself, especially when it comes time to trust my own memories of news events. It was especially hard, this past week, to try to quote the 20-year-old version of myself, flashing back to events that I witnessed as an undergraduate reporter at The Lariat at Baylor University.

The subject this week: The mind-blowing role that the NoZe Brotherhood has played, and continues to play, in the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky.

There is no need to go into all of the crazy details again. You can, after all, read one or both of the GetReligion posts that I have written on the topic, so far.

I finally decided to try to turn out a Scripps Howard News Service piece on the topic, which required the use of first-person voice. That was the subject of this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to listen to that on your computer or download it to play on a mobile device.

The hard part was when my mind started playing tricks on me. You see, I was not a NoZe Brother, but I have known a few. I also attended quite a few events involving national-level news makers that were crashed by the NoZe crew. I mean, there are some very famous Ornery members of the NoZe Brothers. The Wikipedia page for this secret society of misfits names quite a few. Check it out.

My personal favorites are:

* Bill Cosby — “Bro. J-E-L-L-NoZe.”

* Billy Graham — “Bro. Cracker NoZe Graham.”

* Bob Hope — “Bro. SkiNoZe Hope.”

* Dan Rather — “Bro. CBS Evening NoZe.”

The one that threw me off was “Bro. Water NoZe Jaworski,” the title given to the final special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal.

Jaworski was a prominent Baylor alum. One of the funniest NoZe events that I witnessed was the Homecoming parade in which Jaworski was Grand Marshall, only days after the Saturday Night legal massacre that led to his appointment. With national television crews on hand to capture remarks from Jaworski, a NoZe Brother (complete with the classic fake nose, glasses, big wig and trench coat that implied indecent exposure could happen at any moment) walked silently in front of the new Beltway big gun’s limousine carrying a sign that said, “Clap if you think he is guilty.”

“He,” of course, was President Richard Nixon.

Baylor was already far into its transition from being a largely middle-class campus from old-fashioned Southern Democrat homes into a richer campus packed with suburban Republicans. Obviously, most of the parents and alumni felt that they needed to clap for Jaworski, but how could they do that without being filmed clapping to impeach Nixon?

It was a classic NoZe moment. Jaworski gamely played along, as he later became on honorary NoZe. Was he already a NoZe from his college days? Nobody NoZe or, at least, no one has spoken out.

In my memory, I was pretty sure that the NoZe had pinned the “Water Noze” title on Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, who lectured on campus (In the Q&A time I asked him to rank his favorite “Deep Throat” theories, since he could not ID the source on his own, of course) as part of the hubbub before and after the release of “All the President’s Men” (the book, at that stage). However, in my column research I found that there are multiple references online that pinned that title on Jaworski. Thus, I can only assume that some similar title went to Woodward, when the brothers “honored” him that night in Waco Hall.

What was that title? Is there anyone out there in post-Baylor land who remembers? Help this aging scribe out, please.

By the time I wrote the final version of the Scripps Howard piece to post on my own home page, I had decided to go with this more careful wording for the key sentence:

I was present when Woodward was made an honorary member — Brother Water NoZe, or a variation on that theme — when the NoZe crashed his lecture, presenting him with his own plunger, while seated on a rolling commode.

Sigh. Enjoy the podcast, I guess. I really don’t feel comfortable with my own first-person writing, when it comes time to try to write about news events.

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