Appalachian faith: Beyond those snakes

copperhead_JDcutout.jpgWant to visit someplace interesting, a place rarely visited by mainstream journalists?

My good friend S.J. Dahlman is a columnist at the Johnson City Press in the Northeast mountains of Tennessee and a mass-media professor at Milligan College (where he literally sits at the desk I called home for six years). You ought to see the view out of his office window.

This week, his “Face to Faith” column takes a look a religion in the Southern Highlands and, yes, it does include some snakes — sort of. The big idea of the piece is that there is more to faith in the Appalachian religion than snake handlers, even if that is what interestes the press.

Truth is, the snakey folks are considered mighty strange everywhere — even in Dahlman’s neck of the woods.

According to the Religious Movements Homepage Project at the University of Virginia, perhaps 2,000 people nationwide are members of churches that practice serpent handling. In the big picture, that’s not a lot of people.

Check out Dahlman’s piece, because there is more there than snakes. But if the slithering fundamentalists (as opposed to the creepers) interest you, you might want to check out this piece I did long ago for Scripps Howard. As it turns out, the snake handlers raise some interesting issues linked to biblical authority, issues that makes people nervous on the left as well as the right. Here was my attempt to sum that up:

Millions of Americans say the Bible contains no errors of any kind. “Amen,” say the snake handlers. Others complain that too many people view the Bible through the lens of safe, middle-class conformity and miss its radical message. Snake handlers agree.

Millions of Americans say that miracles happen, especially when believers have been “anointed” by God’s Holy Spirit. “Preach on,” say snake handlers. Polls show that millions of spiritual seekers yearn for ecstatic, world-spinning experiences of divine revelation. “Been there, done that,” say snake handlers. The bottom line: Snake handlers say they have biblical reasons for engaging in rites that bring them closer to God.

These folks are wild, but they are not crazy. Even in the context of those lovely Southern mountains.

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Kristof on religion, press: More diversity!

news-printing-press.jpgGetReligion readers may have noticed that Nicholas D. Kristof experienced a fit of journalistic paranoia this week, one inspired, in large part, by a topic close to the concerns of this blog. Basically, he is scared stiff — with just cause, in my opinion — that the American public now views the MSM as a bunch of biased jerks, or worse. Thus the headline: “A Slap in the Face.”

Here is a key passage in his New York Times column, which began with reports about reporters clashing with courts that are not friendly to First Amendment claims.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center, “Trends 2005,” is painful to read. The report says that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers, up from 16 percent two decades ago. In this kind of environment, it’s not surprising that journalists are headed for jail. The safety net for American journalism throughout history has been not so much the First Amendment — rather, it’s been public approval of the role of the free press. Public approval is our life-support system, and it is now at risk.

Since 1973, the National Opinion Research Center has measured public confidence in 13 institutions, including the press. All of the other institutions have generally retained a good measure of public respect, but confidence in the press has fallen sharply since 1990.

Many mainstream reporters are going to say that Kristof is off his rocker and needs to calm down. Others simply believe that the media-bias claims are rooted in political, cultural or even religious differences. Right-wingers just hate the news media. So what else is new? In due time, all of those conservative people will grow up and get smart. They probably don’t read newspapers anyway. Right?

The problem, noted Kristof, is that lots of people on the left are mad, too. And some of the people at Pew think this chasm has as much to do with class conflicts as with politics and religion. I wrote on this topic last summer and featured this quote on the subject from conservative scribe James Leo at U.S. News & World Report:

“When I was at the New York Times, the leadership was full of people who had gone to the wrong schools and fought their way up with brains and talent,” he said. “Two desks away from mine was McCandlish Phillips, a born-again Christian who read the Bible during every break. . . . Phillips was a legendary reporter, rightly treated with awe by the staff, but I doubt he would be hired by most news organizations today. He prayed a lot and had no college degree.”

This leads us directly to the most controversial quotation in the Kristof column, one I am sure has people inside the New York Times building questioning his sanity. Clearly, this man’s willingness to talk with religious people and cultural conservatives is getting to him!

In effect, he says the Times needs to find some more people like McCandlish Phillips — that is, if it wants to lay claim to being a national newspaper of record.

More openness, more willingness to run corrections, more ombudsmen, more acknowledgement of our failings — those are the kinds of steps that are already under way and that should be accelerated. It would help if news organizations engaged in more outreach to explain themselves, with anchors or editors walking readers through such minefields as why we choose to call someone a “terrorist,” or how we wield terms like “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”

We also need more diverse newsrooms. When America was struck by race riots in the late 1960′s, major news organizations realized too late that their failure to hire black reporters had impaired their ability to cover America. In the same way, our failure to hire more red-state evangelicals limits our understanding of and ability to cover America today.

You may want to read that again.

That statement sounded wise to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, but he does not have his hopes up. Here is a long clip from his reaction to the Kristof piece, published on the Dallas Morning News editiorial-page blog. Sadly, I cannot link to it directly, because the technical crew that set up this blog seems to have little understanding of how blogs actually work and interact. Anyway, here is Dreher about the Kristof call for diversity:

He’s entirely correct, but that will never happen. Some people are more diverse than others. In 1997, when I worked for another newspaper, I got into a heated conversation with the woman who ran the diversity training program at the paper. She was awfully proud of herself for having worked to put together a newsroom that looked like our readership area. I told her she shouldn’t be so smug, because though they had a good mixture of men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, and on and on, the diversity was largely skin deep. Most everybody in that newsroom was middle class, had gone to the same kinds of universities, held more or less the same general cultural and political outlook. . . .

“There are lots of Pentecostals in this county, lots of them black or Hispanic,” I said. “But you won’t find them in this newsroom, except working as secretaries or janitors. This county is 40 percent registered Republican. How accurately do you think they are represented in this newsroom?” Etc. She had no idea what I was talking about, and dismissed me condescendingly as a Grumpy White Male. Wasn’t going to have her ideological apple cart upset.

“Amen.” But let me add one more thing about this call for ideological diversity. American journalism will be improved by people who love journalism, not people who hate journalism. Too many religious and cultural conservatives hate the news media and, truth be told, are more interested in public relations than tough, accurate news stories that try to deal with both sides of controversial issues. How many conservative colleges and universities have solid journalism programs? How many have college newspapers that get to, oh, take notes during trustee meetings? Just asking.

This is a blind spot with two sides, Mr. Kristof. The press does not respect the valid role that religion plays in American life. And many people in the pews do not respect the valid role played by the press. We have to get to work on both sides of that equation.

End of sermon.

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Questions about the Third World "papabile"

NextChristendom.jpgI could have sworn, during the first few hours after the papal funeral, that I saw National Catholic Reporter superstar John L. Allen Jr. on at least three cable news shows at the same time.

It was amazing and predictable and, let me add, he was doing a great job keeping a straight face as, over and over, the anchor people kept trying to find new ways to ask him the same question: Who are the front runners in the political race to be the next Holy Father?

I think it was on CNN that one anchor said something like, “So the lead is that we basically don’t know?” To which Allen flatly answered, with that serious look of his: Yes, the lead is that we just don’t know.

Meanwhile, journalists keep quoting that old Vatican saying that cardinals who enter the conclave as “papabile” — or likely popes — come out as cardinals. Everybody knows that is almost always true, but you can still search Google News for papabile and get 1,370 references. Journalists know the questions are all but meaningless, but we cannot stop asking them, even if it angers — or worse, amuses — the insiders and experts we are interviewing.

So the anti-Borg here at GetReligion has not been anxious to bring you all kinds of links to the best and worst of the “who is the next pope” coverage. There have been waves of it already and the waves will only get higher, especially now that the cardinals have chosen to remain all but silent. There are hundreds of stories about that silence.

Still, there are new angles to cover. I think the most interesting is linked to the rise of the Third World cardinals and the tensions that must exist behind the scenes between this voting bloc and the cardinals of the “frozen chosen,” the Catholics in the declining sanctuaries of Europe and the West.

If this topic interests you, you might want to check out this major New York Times feature story on the clout of the Third World cardinals or even this recent column from Nicholas D. Kristof about the state of Christianity in Africa. Then there is this nice summary feature by reporter David Blair in The Daily Telegraph, titled “Centre of Christianity moves to Africa.” Here is a crisp summary:

The pews of Africa’s churches now hold 390 million worshippers_ more than three times the total of 35 years ago. Over the next two decades, Africa’s congregation is likely to grow by another 200 million, causing a huge shift in the character of the Christian faith. Its heartland will move decisively southwards, away from the empty churches of Europe and into the developing world.

The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity, an American think-tank based in a Protestant seminary, is charting this transformation and its findings are dramatic. Already, its study of “World Christian Trends” shows that white Europeans and Americans account for only 43 per cent of the world’s Christians.

None of this comes as any surprise to Africa’s clergy, who are well used to conducting three-hour services before packed churches.

Then again, you may simply want to read the Atlantic Monthly cover story that planted the seed for all of these Third World stories in the first place — “The Next Christianity” by scholar Philip Jenkins. Or you can click here to read it on a Catholic education site.

It’s time for some serious questions about the Third World church, which is very much alive, but mysterious at the same time. These churches are said to be “conservative” and “orthodox,” but what do these words mean in the context of the Third World, as opposed to the “Culture Wars” context of North America? If questions about homosexuality are the “elephant” in the American Catholic sanctuary, what are the unspoken questions in Africa, Asia and South America? Can Third World cardinals thrive in the dense bureaucracies of the Vatican?

If you see anyone asking these questions in print, please let us know.

UPDATE: You just knew this was coming — a rate the papabile blog. My reaction? Only one blog of this kind at this point in the primaries?

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Wired Vatican? Can the digital security hold?

art00.gifSeveral years ago, as the clergy sexual abuse story kicked into high gear, papal biographer George Weigel made an interesting comment about a practical reason that many top officials inside the Vatican were failing to grasp the anger of many American Catholics — especially the anger of traditionalists who usually are Rome’s strongest defenders.

During an Easter trip to Rome, he said, he discovered that many in the heirarchy still thought the story was hype. They could not see that the big wave of fury was still to come. They didn’t get it.

But why? Didn’t they read their email?

Weigel was amazed. Clearly there was some kind of “information gap” between the U.S. Catholic establishment and Rome, he said. Also, the worldly European press had remained silent, perhaps due to a jaded view of American obsessions about sex. But something else was wrong.

“Suddenly it dawned on me that the Vatican is simply not, to this day, a part of the Internet culture,” said Weigel. “There are a few people who take the trouble to go online every morning or evening. . . . But in the main, what we have become used to and what frames our emotional responses to these questions, namely real-time information and a constant flow of chat, commentary, argument and so forth, . . . none of this exists over there.”

So the Vatican just doesn’t get the blogosphere. Does it grasp the realities of digital audio? I know Vatican officials will try to find hidden cell telephones inside the high walls of papal security. Can they find them all?

I bring this up because of an interesting Washington Post report the other day by Glenn Frankel and Alan Cooperman that ran with the headline “Wired, News-Hungry World Tests Venerable Traditions.” The digital bottom line is easy to find. In the best-case scenario, this conclave is going to take place under a cyberdome of listservs, blogs, email and a level of cable TV and speciality publication journalism that has never been seen before.

Someone on CNN, during the funeral coverage, noted that CNN did not really exist during the conclaves that elected John Paul I and John Paul II. Now the world’s media is so post-CNN. CNN is one of the old geezers of media, when it comes to this kind of insider, niche-oriented journalism.

So the Post is right to ask: What is ahead? What is the worst-case scenario?

The ritual contest to succeed the late pope could be another moment when tradition is tested. In a 1996 document setting out new rules and conditions for papal succession, John Paul conceded that he needed to take into account changing times and present-day requirements. Still, the document seeks to maintain the traditional wall of secrecy around the selection process and warns of dire consequences for violators.

“I absolutely forbid the introduction into the place of the election, under whatsoever pretext, or the use, should they have been introduced, of technical instruments of any kind for the recording, reproducing or transmitting of sound, visual images or writing,” wrote John Paul, who specified the exact wording of the three oaths of secrecy that all cardinals attending the sessions are required to take.

Once upon a time, the infamous Father Andrew Greeley claimed to have sources who gave him the scoop on what went on inside the year of the three popes. This year, there will be legions of digital Greeleys trying to get info. Does the Vatican truly grasp what is coming?

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Is being an absolutist absolutely wrong?

stern pope.jpgDamon Linker, former editor of First Things, has written a provocative (and sometimes annoying) essay on how he believes Pope John II’s moral absolutism has affected Americans’ discussions of embryonic stem-cell research and the court-sanctioned dehydration death of Terri Schiavo:

After a century of mass murder, John Paul’s unconditional defense of human dignity cannot fail to impress. His articulate and passionate advocacy for human rights helped to bring about the fall of communism, and it justly earned him the respect and admiration of humanists (Christian and non-Christian alike) around the globe.

Yet there are reasons to be suspicious of all absolutisms — even the noblest kinds. While they inspire great certainty and conviction, they also distort our vision, obscuring the exceedingly complicated, even paradoxical, character of morality itself.

Take the Pope’s influence on the way stem-cell research is discussed in the United States. John Paul convinced many American conservatives that the union of sperm and ovum instantly produces a unique person who possesses the same dignity (and thus rights) as a mature human being; embryonic stem-cell research, which destroys this person within two weeks of conception, must therefore be prohibited. From this standpoint, those who support such research appear to be immoralists advocating a bloodthirsty “culture of death.” But this is far from fair. . . .

It also tends to poison and polarize political debate, as we recently observed in the rancorous conflict over the fate of Terri Schiavo. It is an eerie coincidence that John Paul’s death followed so swiftly on the heels of this saga, since it stands as a further, and even more troubling, example of the Pope’s influence on moral argument in the United States. Those who sided with Schiavo’s parents in their efforts to have her feeding tube reinserted (including President Bush and leading members of the Republican Party) explicitly described themselves as defenders of a “culture of life” against its enemies. It didn’t matter to them that 19 judges had ruled that removing Schiavo’s feeding tube was permitted under Florida law. It didn’t matter that established legal procedures precluded appeals to the federal courts. It didn’t matter that the U.S. Constitution left open no role for Congress or the president. Such procedural and pragmatic considerations were irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was that they turn back the “culture of death” by any means possible.

Both culture of life and culture of death take sneer quotes throughout the essay, but that’s pretty much inescapable in reports that acknowledge the concepts. In writing about the dangers of moral absolutism, Linker paints with too broad a sweep. It would help, for instance, to see an acknowledgment that some activists opposed Terri Schiavo’s death on grounds other than moral absolutism.

Still, given how often religious leaders favor avoiding difficult moral stances, it’s refreshing that the pope affirmed moral absolutes clearly enough to attract criticism. Compared to an editorial that blames millions of African deaths on John Paul II’s opposition to contraception, Linker’s essay is a model of restraint.

Tom Round of the Father McKenzie blog says Linker’s essay is a man-bites-dog phenomenon because in 1996 First Things questioned the American government’s legitimacy amid earlier culture of life/culture of death debates. But First Things raised that question five years before Linker joined the staff as an associate editor.

Linker’s subsequent employment at First Things is a tribute, I think, to that journal’s editorial ecumenism and to Linker’s diverse interests as a writer. More specifically, Linker — a Roman Catholic — has:

• Taught for two years at Brigham Young University.
• Written as the first non-LDS contributor at a Latter-day Saints blog called Times and Seasons.
Criticized Richard Rorty’s liberal absolutism.
Tagged Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez as a work of New Age theology.
• Ticked off the right people in a letter to his alma mater’s Ithaca College Quarterly.

Linker’s bio line in The New Republic mentions that he is “writing a book about the influence of religious conservatism on American politics.” However that book turns out, it’s unlikely to be boring.

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That gap between newsrooms and pews

padpew.jpgThe anti-Borg here at GetReligion does not go out of its way to comment on op-ed page columns, unless they are directly related to how the press is covering a particular news story.

In this case, Washington and Lee University scholar Edward Wasserman has jumped right on top of this blog’s Ground Zero with a Miami Herald column about why religion news is so controversial. He thinks all kinds of thoughts about this, some of them — in my opinion — quite muddled and some of them right on the money.

However, there is no doubt about what makes him mad:

. . . Steven Roberts, a 25-year New York Times veteran, said, “I could probably count on one hand in the Washington bureau of The New York Times people who would describe themselves as people of faith.”

So the connection was drawn: The media neglect religion because journalists themselves are impious.

No, no, no, no. Both sides of that debate are being too simplistic.

Wasserman later says the key is that journalists who cover religion have to respect the beat and try to get their facts straight. GetReligion will continue to say “Amen!” to that sentiment, as often as we can. But as I noted in a lecture at the Poynter Institute, that does not mean the gap between newsrooms and pews is meaningless.

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The soul — Father Gushee knows it when he sees it

PopeJohnPaulII25th.jpgThis, dear readers, is what the editors of The Palm Beach Post think of the religion beat and any traditional Catholic and Christian readers who remain on their subscription lists.

Veteran religion writer, and Episcopal priest, Steve Gushee is back with another column on why this pope just does not get the postmodern world and its evolving view of life and death, truth and mystery.

The bottom line: The Terri Schiavo case proves that John Paul II is a heretic and an idol worshipper.

You need to read it all. Here is a glimpse.

A human being has that extraordinary, intangible presence we call life. Like love and beauty, life defies precise definition. Some call it spirit. Others label it soul. Whatever we call it, we know it when we see it. The human body is a shell, a temple in the words of St. Paul, that houses the spirit, the soul, the human being. Through modern medicine, a human body often can continue to function long after its spirit has left. . . .

People of faith routinely speak of the body and the soul as distinct entities. Paul wrote of his desire to cast off the body to enable his spirit to be closer to God. Those who define life as any biological function that enables the body simply to exist confuse the spirit and its temple and cause extraordinary moral confusion.

Should the Post continue to print Gushee? Of course it should. That is not the point.

Should the newspaper get itself one or more other columnists who can add balance and, every now and then, some facts and authoritative quotes from experts? Yes.

Why continue to allow one reporter/priest to bash away at traditional believers in this region? What’s the point? And why aren’t local Roman Catholic authorities up in arms about this?

UPDATED: An email from a reader notes that The Wall Street Journal published precisely the opposite″>point of view yesterday in Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart’s piece, “The Soul of a Controversy.” A sample, starting with the writer listening to some very American voices on talk radio:

What caught my attention was the unreflective dualism to which all three clearly subscribed: The soul, they assumed, is a kind of magical essence haunting the body, a ghost in a machine. This is in fact a peculiarly modern view of the matter, not much older than the 17th-century philosophy of Descartes. While it is now the model to which most of us habitually revert when talking about the soul — whether we believe in such things or not — it has scant basis in either Christian or Jewish tradition.

Thus, his final question in the Schiavo case is one that haunted much of the mainstream press coverage.

I do not understand exactly why those who wanted Terri Schiavo to die had become so resolute in their purposes by the end. If she was as “vegetative” as they believed, what harm would it have done, I wonder, to surrender her to the charity (however fruitless) of her parents? Of this I am certain, though: Christians who understand their faith are obliged to believe that she was, to the last, a living soul. It is true that, in some real sense, it was her soul that those who loved her could no longer reach, but it was also her soul that they touched with their hands and spoke to and grieved over and adored. And this also means that it was a living soul that we as a society chose to abandon to starvation and thirst. . . .

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Online journalism world gears up — again

JPII shield.jpgAs we continue to wait and watch, I wanted to note a few sites that are collecting online reporters’ resources linked to the life and work of Pope John Paul II.

Our friends over at have a special edition of Al’s Morning Meeting online, in which online researcher Al Tompkins pulls together a mountain of links and background resources. There is no way I can compete with that, so just click here.

Similar materials will continue to be updated at the ReligionLink site operated by the Religion Newswriters Association. (Here is a direct link to the RNA’s fast-developing collection of links on Pope John Paul II and the Vatican.

Those seeking materials from a traditionalist Catholic perspective can head to Catholic World News and its Off the Record blog. Christianity Today‘s team is hard at work, so click here.

This list will keep growing in the hours and days ahead. However, may I also be so bold as to point you toward a column that I wrote recently for the Scripps Howard News Service, at the time of the first real crisis in this threat to the life of the pope and the media panic that ensued.

I called it “Pope John Paul II: What’s the lead?” I really think that is the question many are facing right now. It featured input from a host of veteran pope-watchers, from papal biographer George Weigel to Godbeat legend Russell Chandler, from Beliefnet czar Steven Waldman to Baptist scholar Timothy George. Here is a quick bite from that column:

Reporters are trying to cover their bases. The panic also may have been fueled by another reality. This pope’s life is impossible to capture in a few dramatic images, a three-minute sound-bite blitz and a sentence or two about the length of his tenure (second longest ever) and the number of nations he has visited (125 so far). Journalists must ask: What is the lead on this story?

Please let us know of the best, and the worst, articles that you see in the mainstream press. Also, pass along good sites for research on the story. Once again, please know that we are interested in a wide range of materials, from a variety of viewpoints. I would also be interested in hearing from journalists evaluating the, well, doctrinal balance of some of these resource sites.

While we all face our personal reactions to this story, we must remember that people have work to do. It’s called journalism.

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