Happy twelfth day of Christmas!

holytheophany3I know it sounds weird, but I think December is the hardest time of year to be a practicing liturgical Christian. During Advent we mark a solemn time of prayer and preparation for Christmas. And then when we’re ready to party and celebrate the 12-day Christmas season, very few other people are. Just when I get my tree up, everyone else is taking theirs down. There’s a predominant cultural feeling that Christmas has passed and it’s on to New Year’s, college football champsionships and the Superbowl. In fact, the notion that Christmas is a 12-day season is so forgotten that most people have no clue what that Days of Christmas song references. Which is probably why no one brought me my 12 drummers drumming today.

Anyway, I kept looking out for stories that would talk about what it’s like to celebrate the holy days of the season as a liturgical Christian. I didn’t find any but David Crumm’s piece in the Detroit Free Press today is great and looks into the Christmas celebrations of liturgical Christians from the East.

Michigan’s diversity of immigrant groups, drawn mainly to auto-industry jobs during the last century, has left a colorful sprinkling of Christmas customs across metro Detroit.

That includes an unusual Armenian Orthodox Church observance of Jesus’ birth tonight and Friday in congregations such as St. Sarkis in Dearborn and St. John in Southfield.

“The Armenian Church is one of the oldest churches in the world, and we still celebrate an ancient tradition from the early church that joins two Christian feasts into what we call Holy Theophany,” the Rev. Garabed Kochakian, pastor of St. John Armenian Orthodox Church, said Wednesday. “In this double feast, we celebrate both the manifestation of God through Jesus’ birth and through his baptism.”

The story also gets into the calendar issues we discussed last week that help explain why the Eastern and Western churches celebrate Christmas a few weeks apart:

One day after the Armenian observance, thousands of Russians, Serbians and other Eastern Europeans will celebrate Christmas for a different reason. They’re parishioners at more than a dozen local churches that still follow an ancient calendar for Christmas that runs 13 days later than the modern secular calendar.

Also, I keep wondering why the folks who fought the War on Christmas haven’t kept their battle going. What about the coming War on Epiphany and other seasons and feasts of the church calendar?

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Dang it, 10,000 people want to worship?

obj hands raised worship 150 tnTry to put yourself in the shoes of an assistant city editor down at the Washington Post.

It seems that you have about 10,000 people, per night, down at the District’s convention center, shouting and singing and carrying on and do who knows what all. That sounds like a story, perhaps with a photo essay on the side. The problem is that they are shouting and singing and praying and carrying on about, well, that Jesus guy. It’s called a “revival” and this is not something that shows up on the metro news budget all of the time.

The speakers and musicians appear to be world famous, but, dang it, they sure aren’t people you hear about all that often on National Public Radio, not even that T.D. Jakes man from the cover of Time. But it seems that thousands of people right here inside the Beltway seem to think that they’re important.

And it does seem that the people at this giant, multi-racial event were talking — at least some of the time — about a topic that appears on the news radar from time to time. That would be racial reconciliation.

Yet they seem to think that this should happen in church and not in a political convention. That’s a problem. What and editor supposed to do? If it was 10,000 people protesting the war, or watching basketball, or dancing to a hip-hop czar, the newspaper would know how to handle it. It it was 10,000 believers worried about the environment or mental health it would be on Page 1-A. You know it would.

Anyway, the Washington Post does have a highly skilled reporter who knows how to handle these tense situations and his name is Hamil Harris. He’s the kind of guy who knows as much about the economics of gospel music as he does about the crime statistics at the local morgue. He can chase 5-star pulpit superstars as easily as he can chase heavy-weight boxing champs who chomp on people’s ears. I must confess that Hamil is a friend of mine.

obj hands raised worship 150 tnThe man my students call “Hurricane Hamil” did manage to get a story about this gigantic urban revival into the Post this morning and this sounds like quite a scene. Here’s a sample and I am quite sure — although I haven’t talked to Harris about it — that the newspaper could have printed a whole lot more on this event. Who knows, maybe the people preached on other subjects that that are “newsworthy.”

After years of squeezing into the Upper Marlboro facility, the Rev. John K. Jenkins of First Baptist and Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr. of Greater Mount Calvary, which is in the District, decided to move the revival to the Convention Center this year to accommodate the growth and draw even more people from across the region.

“There was so much tragedy and so much pain in 2005, not just in this community but the nation,” Jenkins said, referring to the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. “Where else to start healing but in Washington, D.C.?”

Jakes, a popular television evangelist, unleashed a stormy sermon that challenged churches to go beyond the spiritual status quo in 2006.

“We are in the midst of a great war, and I am not talking about in Iraq,” Jakes boomed. “The church is intoxicated with its own wine . . . but sometimes we ought to get mad. The enemy is playing with us. . . . I’m tired of just going to church. I’m tired of just seeing folks. I want to see God. I want to see a movement of God.”

Dang it, there he went — dragging God into this. Don’t you hate it when preachers do that?

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Is “secularism” the goal in Iraq?

new iraq flagHere we go again. It seems that, in the current post-election environment in Iraq, the United States is pulling for “secularism,” whatever that means.

In the Islamic world, this quickly leads to hard questions, such as: Is Allah in favor of “secularism”? Is “secularism” the opposite of “Islam”? Can one be a “secular” Muslim, in the current faith-charged reality of the Middle East? Is a “moderate” Muslim the same thing as a “secular” Muslim?

Just asking. I could go on and on.

Meanwhile, over here, most Americans — or, at least, those who support the war — would say that we are fighting for “freedom,” the “rule of law” and similar concepts. But does this equal “secularism”? Does any of this square with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and that tricky Article 18 that insists on saying that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

I thought of all of this while struggling to understand the story by reporter Borzou Daragahi in the Los Angeles Times, the one with the pair of headlines that said: “Sunnis Bargain for Iraq Role as Allawi Fades: Ascendant Shiites and Kurds hint that a deal to form a new governing coalition may exclude the U.S.-favored secular politician.”

flag iraq oldTry to follow the labels through the following maze. There are plenty of words that imply faith connections or anti-connections. I have, for some time now, been saying that I wish that MSM journalists would take the time to give us some info on how these terms that sound religious actually relate to religious beliefs and practices. Then we can talk about how these words relate to “religious liberty” and other idealistic concepts that many people insist are “Western” and, thus, “secular.”

Hang on. This gets complicated. And confusing.

The emerging political alliance lumps together Shiites, Kurds and Islamist Sunni Arabs — and excludes secular Iraqis, hard-core Sunni Arab nationalists and those sympathetic to the Baath Party of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein. After all but enacting a cease-fire around the recent elections, Iraq’s mostly Sunni Arab insurgents have escalated their bombings and assassinations targeting officials of the Shiite-dominated government, U.S. troops and foreigners in Iraq.

Got that? It sure doesn’t sound like “secularism” is on the rise, does it? Come to think of it, would the White House say that the purpose of this war to sell “secularism” to the Islamic world?

Just asking. I don’t think that is a winning proposition.

Has anyone seen a story that helps explain the faith content of all of this?

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Consumer religion

shopper employeeThe New York Times reports on teenagers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who attend multiple churches each week. It would be nice for the Times to consider the possibility that some evangelical Christians reside outside of the city limits of Colorado Springs, but I suppose we should be thankful that they are noticing this sizable group at all.

“Teenagers Mix Churches for Faith That Fits” by Neela Banerjee details how teenagers in the Evangelical Vatican City have located where other teenagers hang out in environments with high-tech lighting and sound, hugging and drama: in this case, churches with contemporary worship. The teens then congregate in these spots where the other teenagers are! Crazy . . . Still, the larger story is interesting:

In a survey of 13- to 17-year-olds conducted from 2002 through 2003, the National Study of Youth and Religion found that 16 percent of respondents participated in more than one religious congregation. Four percent attend youth groups outside their congregations.

Some critics, particularly conservative evangelicals and the ministers of various denominations, decry such practices as a consumerist approach to faith.

But sociologists say it is a growing practice, a reflection of how Americans today are less attached to a historical, family denomination.

The article tells a few stories of Christian youth attending one non-denominational Protestant church with their family and then visiting another non-denominational Protestant church with their friends. The reporter quotes people explaining that this individualism is by and large healthy. Aesthetically speaking — and just a personal aside — I’m pretty sure there is nothing healthy about what’s described in this passage:

The youth pastor, Brent Parsley, entered on a sleigh dressed as a hip-hop Santa. “I’m going to break it down for you, Clarence,” Mr. Parsley told an actor in the Christmas play. “Christmas ain’t about presents, yo! The true meaning of Christmas is my main man: J.C.”

2005 01 26 thumbA few hundred years of evangelical American Protestant thought — which largely emphasizes a personal relationship with Christ, personal morality and emotional responses to preaching and music and deemphasizes Sacraments, corporate creeds and liturgy — should leave no one surprised by this church consumerism or individualism. The aversion to doctrine — or the view that it is less important than a personal relationship with, uh, main man J.C. — leads to the very notion of non-denominationalism. I would have loved for Banerjee to explore this more, but she did try:

As a hub of evangelical Christianity, Colorado Springs offers many churches that preach similar doctrines, like the inerrancy of the Bible and the need for a personal relationship with Christ. But here and elsewhere, many Christians, especially members of the clergy, take commitment to a particular church seriously.

As a reader, I wish that Banerjee would have been more specific about criticism of the church-hopping practice. Most people quoted in the article were in favor, but those that weren’t were not given the chance to be terribly specific. I wish Banerjee would have talked both to evangelicals who are opposed as well as those from the larger Protestant community. If the examples cited in the article are any indication, this is a trend that effects evangelical Christians more than those with strong denominational or doctrinal identity. It would be helpful to understand why.

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The scandal of particular prayers

we the peopleI can’t believe that I haven’t written about this yet, but here goes. Sunday’s Washington Post ran with an A3 story on the fight between members of the Indiana state House and a federal judge who ruled awhile ago that the daily prayers in the lower lawmaking chamber invoked the name of Jesus Christ too often and were illegal.

The story has generated a good number of headlines, columns, editorials, talk radio jabber and plenty of letters to the editor and pits the power of a federal court against that of a state lawmaking body. And it doesn’t look like the judge appreciates Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma’s attitude towards the original decision which was recently upheld by the same judge on an appeal for the decision’s vagueness:

U.S. District Judge David Hamilton rejected arguments by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, that Hamilton’s ruling was too vague to enforce.

And Hamilton issued a warning:

“If the speaker or those offering prayers seek to evade the injunction through indirect but well understood expressions of specifically Christian beliefs, the audience, the public, and the court will be able to see what is happening. In that unlikely event, the court will be able to take appropriate measures to enforce” the injunction.

Hamilton earlier this month found that the House practice of offering a prayer at the start of each day’s session breached the clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars the government establishment of religion. The House prayers, he ruled, were overwhelmingly Christian in content and amounted to the advancement of one religion over others. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.

I am dying to know what Judge Hamilton thinks he can do to Bosma or any other member of the Indiana House who use Jesus’s name in a prayer. According to the Post‘s story, the original lawsuit from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union was a reaction against an incident that some members saw as a bit over the top:

It was Clarence Brown’s energetic rendition of “Just a Little Talk With Jesus” that prompted several legislators to decide enough was enough. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union soon filed suit in the name of four people — a Quaker, a Methodist and two Catholics — to stop what critics considered an increasingly sectarian prayer practice.

Brown, 51, is an evangelical Christian layman who works in an auto parts factory 70 miles south of Indianapolis. Invited to give a prayer to open the April 5 House session, Brown said he was thinking about the separation of church and state as he drove to the state Capitol.

He said he talked with God during the ride and decided to speak up for the man he considers his savior. “I wanted to share the word. That’s what I’m supposed to do,” Brown said. “I have to do what Jesus Christ says for me to do as a witness.”

Brown’s prayer included thanks to God “for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died that we might have the right to come together in love.” When the prayer was finished, Bosma announced that Brown would “bless us with a song.”

As Brown led the rollicking tune, some members and staffers clapped and sang along.

Several others left the chamber.

I say, welcome to Indiana, folks. We can be a bit strange I guess and a bit religious. I’m sure this event weirded out the reporters who have covered this story, but so far, most of the coverage seems to be fairly evenhanded.

The crux of this story is buried somewhere in the legal debate between the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment. I won’t go into it here, but I’m told that the Everson v. Board of Education decision by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black provides a lengthy historical foundation for the creation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

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CT on top 10 events of the year

I guess I really am alone in thinking that terrorism remained one of the major “religion” news stories of the year. Christianity Today has its list out now and they have also produced a terrorism-free top 10.

CT did have this interesting item at No. 7:

Media Spotlight Religion: 2004 “values voters” bring reporters into churches, Time releases list of 25 most influential evangelicals, The New York Times promises more religion coverage, and CNN hires full-time religion correspondent.

Any other interesting lists out there?

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When is a leak a leak?

faucetI’ve spent a great deal of time researching media coverage of the Air Force Academy scandal that erupted last April. The press accounts, woefully one-sided, indicate that evangelical Christians are running roughshod over the rights of everyone else at the Academy.

Allegations range from the horrible — a Jewish cadet being called a slur by an unidentified classmate — to the perfectly legal in a country that protects religious freedom — Christian chaplains preaching Christian doctrine at voluntary Protestant worship services.

When the story broke nationwide last April — there had been a smattering of mostly-local coverage prior — it broke because two of the three major players in the story leaked it to the media. I know this because one of them admitted it after the fact — not because I read it any of the breathless Associated Press or Los Angeles Times coverage. The coverage also preceded the release of a report from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — but included the same information as was contained therein. Communication between Americans United and the press were not revealed.

Yesterday, a separate player — one on the other side of the imbroglio — leaked some inconsequential information related to the case. Do media reports mention how the information was obtained? Let’s take a look at the Rocky Mountain News:

First, there was the joke, e-mailed Wednesday night. Then, the cordial reply: “looooong time no chat, bro . . .”

By Thursday, the e-mail exchange had escalated into a war of words between evangelical Christian leader Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, who sent the joke, and activist Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, who is fighting what he calls religious proselytizing in the military.

The exchange took on added dimensions when Haggard’s office called the media Thursday to publicize it.

“An ambush — a cowardly ambush,” Weinstein said of the release of the e-mail exchange.

As a reporter who covers the federal bureaucracy, I would be dead in the water without leaks. When people leak to me, I assume they are doing so for a reason. That’s because they are. Revealing information due to personal conviction or to make your side in a dispute look better is, for better or worse, universal. But reporters only mention it some of the time.

chapelMedia folks need to develop some consistency in treating how they obtain information — especially considering that in this story, everyone involved was sharing the information far and wide:

Weinstein also distributed the e-mails — but only to supporters on his e-mail list. “I did not send them to the media,” he said.

Another thing that has intrigued me about the coverage is the failure to give a full picture of Weinstein, the man suing the Air Force. He is always referred to as a former Reagan official, an Albuquerque attorney and father of two Air Force Academy cadets. And those things are true. He is also a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, often refers to the movie The Passion of the Christ as the Jesus Chainsaw Murders or Freddy vs. Jesus, thinks that Academy leaders take their direction on evangelism directly from the White House and believes Christian cadets should be prevented from telling others they are going to hell if they don’t believe in Christ. Each of those views is perfectly legitimate for Weinstein to offer, but when they are concealed, it’s difficult for readers to understand Weinstein’s interesting religious motivation in the dispute.

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How reliable is a piece of rock?

stone reliefOne of the things that I have always been fascinated with is archaeology. Especially archaeology that uncovers things we did not know or could not confirm about the past. Such is the case here in an article on the China Daily Web site that describes an artifact that could be used as evidence that Christianity spread to China as earlier as 100 years after the death of Christ. The reporter Wang Shanshan has the details:

A Chinese theology professor says the first Christmas is depicted in the stone relief from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). In the picture above a woman and a man are sitting around what looks like a manger, with allegedly “the three wise men” approaching from the left side, holding gifts, “the shepherd” following them, and “the assassins” queued up, kneeling, on the right.

As he wandered into the dimly-lit gallery, he was stunned by what he saw. Was he standing, he asked himself, in front of the famous Gates of Paradise in Florence?

Wang Weifan, a 78-year-old scholar of early Christian history in China, said he saw images from Bible stories similar to those engraved in the doors of the Baptistry of St John. But in Florence he didn’t.

Even so, the art objects could be more precious in their own way if the early Christian clues that Wang believes he detected can ever be confirmed. They are from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), China’s parallel to the Roman Empire, and almost a millennium older than the gilt-bronze gates of Florence. …

Before Wang’s discovery tour to the Han Dynasty Stone Relief Museum in 2002, no one seriously believed that, merely 100 or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, his teachings could have reached as far as to China.

The veracity of these types of archaeological finds from a historical basis always perplexes me. Call me a skeptic, but the discovery of a piece of stone proves something as significant as the spread Christianity? Apparently, this rock provides us with some — pardon the pun — hard evidence:

There were myths. There was legend. But hardly any evidence.

But now Wang says the early Christian connection with China no longer seems entirely groundless. “It really happened,” he said.

The reliefs were carved on the stone tablets from two tombs, discovered in 1995 at a place called Jiunudun, or “Terrace of Nine Women,” in suburban Xuzhou. Many stone reliefs were found when tombs at the site were first excavated in 1954.

Art historians have long believed that the stone carvings portray the tomb owners in their life after death in ancient China. The styles and the themes were similar to those found in Shandong Province.

GetReligion reader David Buckna, who provided us with the link to this story, said that he found it incredible that the Chinese government would even report on these stone tablets. But could this report be exclusively for Western consumption, Buckna wonders.

As I said earlier, I am no archeological expert, nor will I attempt to play one on the Internet, but I’m sure some faithful readers could provide some insight into this subject. The piece contains some good back-and-forth between sources debating exactly how established Christianity was in the first centruy and how effectively it was spreading. And you have plenty to work with. The article is 1,500-plus words long and finishes with a dramatic pronouncement:

Despite the many objections of the other scholars, Wang’s discovery will definitely arouse the interest of historians in the Chinese Christian community, who will take up the research, said Qi, of Yanjing Seminary.

“They are not going to say no to Professor Wang without making investigations, because he is the ‘flagship’ historian in the Chinese Christian community,” Qi said. “He is a master not only of the Christian history in China, but also of Chinese art and culture.

“There could be an earthquake in the world’s Christian community and probably outside it if Professor Wang is right.

“World history could be rewritten.”

Is it time to rewrite world history? Call me a skeptic on this one.

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