A dynamic, hip, inked leader offers salvation to the left

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It says a lot, in this financially tight age in American newsrooms, when editors put a reporter on an airplane and send her halfway across the nation to hear somebody preach.

In other words, the team at The Washington Post has decided that the work of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a truly national story, one with policy-cultural implications for American religion. After all, we know that the Post isn’t into covering mere “local” stories away from the Beltway.

That recent news feature on this rising star of oldline Protestantism is also interesting because she was about to visit Washington, D.C., for a speaking engagement, which means that the earlier feature story served as a kind of PR-friendly advance story to help build the gate and attract the base, to put this in political/entertainment terms. There was no need to head to Austin to catch the Denver-based punk pastor earlier on her tour, since she was coming to DC (which allowed the Post to feature her work a second time).

Interesting. So what is going on here?

What’s going on is that Bolz-Weber represents a charismatic development in the old, graying world of liberal mainline Protestantism, a highly symbolic slice of America’s religious marketplace that has been caught in a downward demographic spiral for several decades. Apparently, the consumer-friendly world of shopping mall faith likes what this woman is pushing, including her personal style — which the Post features in the lede:

AUSTIN – Nadia Bolz-Weber bounds into the University United Methodist Church sanctuary like a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian. Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.

Right up front, why strip this preacher of her title? Where is “the Rev.” in front of her name?

Also, it helps to know that she is (for the most part) drawing crowds in the hundreds, while a successful megachurch Christian pastor draws regular Sunday flocks that number in the thousands. How do Bolz-Weber’s market statistics compare with someone like, oh, that charismatic feel-good superstar, the Rev. Joel Osteen? Don’t ask.

Glance at the photos and videos from Bolz-Weber appearances and it appears that she is drawing a larger version of the usual liberal Protestant house, with a heavy emphasis on older singles and white people with gray hair and comfortable clothing. For the Post team, that means (hang on, because this gets complex):

To Bolz-Weber’s bafflement, this is now her congregation: mainstream America. These are the people who put her memoir near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out in September. They are the ones who follow her every tweet and Facebook post by the thousands, and who have made the Lutheran minister a budding star for the liberal Christian set. And who, as Bolz-Weber has described it in her frequently profane dialect, “are [mess]ing up my weird.”

A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers … cynics, alcoholics and queers.”

Which is where — strangely enough — the match with her fans makes sense. The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.

In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism. She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.

This is good stuff. The issue is whether the story will deliver the doctrinal details to flesh out the flash.

Here at GetReligion, we think this kind of detail is important since, from Day One, we have been saying that the press doesn’t devote enough ink to the religious, doctrinal content of liberal faith groups. All too often, stories about religious liberals focus on politics and that is that.

It’s clear that this Post piece is arguing that the faith content and the style of this preacher have substance and should be taken seriously. That’s good. So what is she saying? Are readers given substance, or just style?

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No chat about afterlife inside death cafés?

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We’ve been doing death, so to speak, at my house the last few weeks — working through the aftermath, talking about grief, that sort of thing. So I immediately was drawn to an Associated Press piece highlighting end-of-life discussions taking place in informal settings throughout the U.S. and in major cities worldwide.

Death Cafés, they call them:

It can be tough to get a conversation going if you want to talk about the late stages of dementia, your last will and testament or the recent passing of your mother.

Boy, is it ever, let me tell you. Especially if a heart attack was involved. It makes everyone think twice about eating the cocktail weiners, too

I digress …

“When you’re at a cocktail party and you lead off by saying, ‘What do you think about death?’ it’ll be, ‘C’mon, man, it’s a party! Chill out!’ says Len Belzer, a retired radio host from New York.

Belzer is among a growing number of people around the world who are interested enough in death to gather in small groups in homes, restaurants and churches to talk about it.

The gatherings, known as Death Cafés, provide places where death can be discussed comfortably, without fear of violating taboos or being mocked for bringing up the subject.

Organizers say that there’s no agenda other than getting a conversation started — and that talking about death can help people become more comfortable with it and thereby enrich their lives.

AP takes us inside one such gathering in New York City, where a group of six asks questions, laughs and eats biscotti while chatting about their eventual demises or those of others they’ve known.

This is all well and good. And I imagine the biscotti was homemade and the tea was steamy and the weather was nice and cool. But isn’t there something missing? Oh yes, the afterlife. The hope. The eternal aspect of a soul that continues on. The part that really matters.

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WSJ: Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah, come light the ‘Menurkey’

To purists, Hanukkah, sometimes rendered Chanukah, is the red-headed stepchild of Jewish holy days: it’s not a liturgical event, per se, but it’s also, to borrow a phrase, “not chopped liver, either.”

As Wikipedia summarizes it,  Hanukkah is “the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Greeks of the 2nd century BCE.”

Significant? Yes. A “holy day” on the order of Passover, Pentecost (“Shavuot” in Hebrew) or Yom Kippur? Not at all.

In the face of what might be considered a tsunami of post-World War II American Christmas marketing — are we seeing layaway ads in August now? — America’s Jews, principally, have amped up Hanukkah as an alternative winter holiday for “members of the tribe,” especially those who fight back against the dominant culture. The Pew Research study discussed here earlier, The Los Angeles Times (among others) noted, reported that nearly one-third of American Jewish homes display a Christmas tree annually.

Regardless, and, pace Adam Sandler, Hanukkah has gained a lot of currency in American life, and now even the calendar has conspired to make it a tad more special in 2013.

Why? For the first time since 1888, the first day of Hanukkah falls on America’s Thanksgiving Day, the first night having occurred the evening before, and won’t happen that way again for more than 70,000 years, if the calculations are correct. So, bring out the Menurkey everybody!

Or so suggests The Wall Street Journal, which gave “Thanksgivukkah” pride of place on its October 4, 2013 front page as the “A-Hed” story, usually a slightly offbeat-but-informative feature to lighten things up amidst the bond rate reports, not that those aren’t gripping on their own. Reporter Charles Passy appears to have just the kind of well-rounded background to parse this one. One of his sources (a friend) told me they spent 45 minutes on the phone, yielding all of one quote for the story.

Just as America’s Hanukkah Celebration tends more towards the commercial, so does Passy’s reporting:

A few see commercial opportunities in Thanksgivukkah as well. Dana Gitell, a community specialist with Boston-based elder-care provider Hebrew SeniorLife, has started a Thanksgivukkah Facebook page and is promoting a line of Thanksgivukkah commemorative items, including a T-shirt done in a Woodstock rock-festival motif with the catchphrase “8 Days of Light, Liberty and Latkes.” (Latkes are the potato pancakes typically served throughout Hanukkah.)

Not to be outdone is Asher Weintraub, a 9-year-old New Yorker who has created what he dubs the Menurkey—a menorah, the candelabrum that is the centerpiece of the holiday, in the shape of a turkey. With help from his filmmaker parents, Asher funded his project with a successful $25,000 campaign on Kickstarter, a fundraising website, over the summer (it netted $48,345). The family is now hoping to sell as many as 2,500 of his creation in versions both ceramic (for $150) and plaster ($50).

Even some Jewish congregations are jumping into this, the Journal reports:

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Little Valentine’s Day sex for those (old) mainliners?

On one level, I cannot believe that the folks at Religion News Service thought to get involved in doing a serious survey about the religious ghosts in Valentine’s Day sex.

However, I am glad that they did. Honest.

Stranger yet, it’s pretty obvious to me that the RNS team needs to do some more digging into stories that might spin out of this research — especially the stories linked to two of the most important niches in the religious landscape in postmodern America. I am referring to the declining world of liberal mainline Protestantism and the growing, and related (listen to pollster John Green) world of the so-called “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated believers and unbelievers.

We may as well start at the beginning on this rather short RNS report:

Unchurched Americans have high expectations that they will have sex on Valentine’s Day. Lutherans, Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants? Not so much.

A new study from the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute, conducted in partnership with Religion News Service, shows that 57 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans think sex is in store for them on the holiday of love. That compares to 51 percent of Catholics who predict Valentine’s Day sex, 48 percent of white evangelicals and 40 percent of white mainline Protestants.

This is particularly interesting because the religiously unaffiliated tend, as a rule, to be singles. This serves to underline one of the main themes that emerged in that media-friendly “‘Nones’ on the Rise” study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life — which is that one of the main bonding elements in the whole religiously unaffiliated camp is a rejection of traditional forms of religion, especially when it comes to sexual morality.

So more information, please? For the “nones,” is sex on Valentine’s Day somehow important for the sake of symbolism or, dare I say it, a kind of big-R Romantic sacrament? Is this their “church”?

Meanwhile, as the RNS story asks:

What’s going on — or not going on — between the sheets for white mainline Protestants?

“One thing you have to remember about mainline Protestants is that they tend to be older and be in longstanding relationships, and both those things are negatively correlated with having sex on Valentine’s Day,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s research director.

Whoa, baby.

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Dear Brother Powers (a parody)

From the desk of Ayatollah Hassan Sanei
Expediency Discernment Council, Tehran

Mr. John Powers
c/o 89.3 KPCC

Dear Brother Powers,

Please forgive me for using a business address for such a personal letter, but I cannot seem to find your home address on Google Maps.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent me a link to your review of Salman Rushdie’s memoir, I thought Punk’d might be returning to MTV. Oh, I know that too many Westerners see Mahmoud as eccentric and even a little dangerous. I hope that someday the world will meet the same man I know: a backslapping practical jokester who loves nothing more than slipping another one past the imams of greater Tehran.

As I began listening to your review, I was unsure whether you were really Fresh Air’s critic at large or a transgressive right-winger with shadowy ties to Breitbart.com doing a sly parody of an NPR nebbish. Your weightless voice, your staccato delivery, your contented verbal italics on each rhetorical flourish — all of these left me asking: Is it real or is it performance art?

But I powered through these doubts and then it hit me: this man speaks truth to power, and I am that power. After all these years I have realized that L’Affair Rushdie, as we like to call it in Iran, was not a question of blasphemy. It was not even about whether issuing a fatwa, as such, has a chilling effect on our world’s ever-fragile interfaith conversation.

It was, at heart, a question of literary integrity: Had I read the book before renewing the Rushdie fatwa? My face was crimson with shame. I had been called out as a fraud, and by a man who writes for Vogue from the West Coast of Babylon.

I took your challenge to heart, my gentle brother. I have since read every subtle page of The Satanic Verses, and I now realize that if Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had done the same in 1989 we could all have been spared 23 years of misunderstandings and unpleasantness.

I have learned deeply from this experience. I expect to turn next to God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, as I have heard that he and Rushdie were pals and that he too had a wry sense of humor. Perhaps after that I will make time for Robert Bly.

You made all of this possible, dear sir. Had you not found the insight to challenge me to read the book, I would have drifted about for the rest of my life with lingering anger and control issues. Thank you, gentle brother, thank you.

One qualifier: I speak only for myself and for no other imam.

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Get hexed? From our ‘no comment’ department

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Let me be honest with you. I am not sure how to start this post.

After all, I could simply say “click here” and send GetReligion readers to the Washington City Paper item in question and that would be that. In fact, I think I’ll do that in a minute.

But I honestly think there is a story here — a religion-news ghost beyond the obvious ones — and I’ve been searching for a way to put that into words. Here’s what I have come up with.

Several years ago, I went to the Czech Republic to speak to the broadcasters there who work in Afghanistan and in other Muslim-majority lands in that region. The key question: Why do American journalists keep insisting that there are “moderate” Muslims and “fundamentalist” Muslims in spite of the fact that Muslims in the region do not think in those terms?

Anyway, I spend several days in the company of a veteran Czech journalist known for his work in public broadcasting. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the nature of religious belief and unbelief in the post-Soviet era.

The bottom line: The Czech Republic is now one of the most secular nations in the world. However, there’s a twist in this story. As the number of people committed to traditional religious belief and practice has declined, the number of people whose worldview includes strong beliefs in superstitions — such as hexes and omens — has risen. Sharply. Today, the Czechs are among the least religious and the most superstitious people in Europe and in the world at large.

With that, let’s look at the following bizarre item from here in Beltway-land, concerning a statement by Sally Quinn of The Washington Post and it’s On Faith project:

At a New York panel Monday on spirituality earlier this week, Quinn recalled how she used her psychic powers in the world of southern magic (emphasis added):

What we really believed in and practiced was voodoo, psychic phenomenon, Scottish mysticism, palm reading, astrology, seances, and ghosts. And I have many, many stories about those, real stories. And that—those things were my true religion, aside from dances. Aunt Ruth was psychic, my aunt Maggie was psychic, and I’m psychic. We actually put hexes on people and they really worked. It was actually really scary and I finally stopped when my brother who has a PhD in religion from the University of Chicago and is a theosophist and a practicing Buddhist told me I had to cut it out because it would come back at me three times. Anything that I did later that was troublesome I kept thinking, I brought this on myself, I should never have put a hex on her.

First, a reminder that Quinn is a columnist for a major American newspaper. Second, huh?

Don’t count on Quinn for an explanation, though. At least not yet. “I’m saving it all for my book!” she writes in an email. “But be careful what you write anyway. ….”

Uh, OK.

Now, let’s try discussing this as a JOURNALISM topic.

So, thumbs up or thumbs down. Who thinks this is a topic — broadly defined, as opposed to defining it as belief in hexes among Beltway mavens who are atheists-turned-Episcopalians — worthy of coverage in the mainstream press?

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Mitt Romney, consumer of sinful ice cream

As all loyal GetReligion readers know, sometimes we see things make it into news print that are simply too good, too strange, too funny, to make up.

When this happens, the best course of action is simply to share the love and laughter.

In this case, here is what we need.

I’m calling out Jettboy (who provided the tip) and company. We need our Mormon readers to join us in, uh, consuming this delightful little Associated Press story about Mormonism and cold caffeine.

We will NOT get into a discussion of Mormons and their potentially sinful addiction to ice cream (which is another part of life in which they have a lot in common with Southern Baptists). Anyone who has ever been to urban Utah knows that, where New York City has world-class coffee shops and bars, the streets of Salt Lake City — at least as I remember them from the 1980s — offer a stunning number of fine ice cream shops.

With no further ado, dig into this sweet little number:

NANTUCKET, Mass. (AP) – Mitt Romney joins other observant Mormons in shunning alcohol and coffee. He apparently draws the line at ice cream.

The Republican presidential candidate ordered coffee ice cream at Millie’s restaurant in Nantucket Saturday when he bought treats for his staff and mingled with diners. His aides selected flavors including vanilla, rocky road, butter pecan and birthday cake ice cream.

It’s not clear that Romney took more than a bite or two as he shook hands and posed for pictures in the crowded and buzzing vacation eatery. Mormons traditionally avoid alcohol and caffeine.

Romney aides shrugged off the selection, saying the candidate can have whatever kind of ice cream he likes.

Where to begin when tackling this complex doctrinal issue? How about a quick insight on this Mormon-menu topic from Dummies.com?

Like many aspects of the LDS religion, the duty to maintain good health has its roots in revelation, in this case a section of the Doctrine and Covenants that Mormons call the Word of Wisdom. The legend surrounding its origin is that Joseph Smith and other early LDS leaders used to chew tobacco during Church meetings, spitting juices on the floor. Joseph’s wife, Emma Hale Smith, was disgusted by this act, and her complaints led the Prophet to ask God whether tobacco use was really appropriate for Latter-day Saints.

The Lord’s response, contained in D&C section 89, covered far more than just tobacco; it also restricted the consumption of wine, liquor, meat, and hot drinks (today interpreted to mean tea and coffee of any temperature). Although many Mormons understand this scripture as suggesting that all caffeine is bad and should be avoided, this idea isn’t official Church doctrine; the Church allows members to decide that issue for themselves, and some members choose to drink cola.

So is coffee-flavored ice cream simply coffee at another temperature?

Speak out, readers.

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Doggie Masses down under

Can a dog be a good Catholic? Must a dog be baptized before it receives Holy Communion? For that matter, can a dog be saved? Will all dogs go to heaven, or does Laika’s 1957 launch mark the apogee of canine celestial progress?

Must a commitment to inclusivity by a liberal Catholic mandate the rejection of speciesism?

Religion reporter Barney Zwarts writing in The Age — one of Australia’s great national newspapers — has an article that brought these questions to my mind. But I am not sure whether he meant to do this. Is he playing it straight or writing with tongue in cheek in this article about inclusive Catholics in Australia?.

The 6 August article entitled “Dissidents preach a new breed of Catholicism” begins:

FATHER Greg Reynolds wants his church of dissident Catholics to welcome all – ”every man and his dog”, one might say, risking the non-inclusive language he deplores – but even he was taken aback when that was put to the test during Mass yesterday.

A first-time visitor arrived late at the Inclusive Catholics service in South Yarra with a large and well-trained German shepherd. When the consecrated bread and wine were passed around, the visitor took some bread and fed it to his dog.

Apart from one stifled gasp, those present showed admirable presence of mind – but the dog was not offered the cup!

Father Reynolds, a Melbourne priest for 32 years, launched Inclusive Catholics earlier this year. He now ministers to up to 40 people at fortnightly services alternating between two inner-suburban Protestant churches.

The congregation includes gay men, former priests, abuse victims and many women who feel disenfranchised, but it is optimistic rather than bitter.

A few details of the service are offered, with the article stressing that the lector and homilist were women as were the lay eucharistic ministers who distributed the elements consecrated by Fr. Reynolds. The shift from narrative to analysis comes with this paragraph:

Inclusive Catholics is part of a small but growing trend in the West of disaffiliated Catholics forming their own communities and offering ”illicit” Masses, yet are slightly uncertain of their identities. The question was posed during the service: ”Are we part of the church or are we a breakaway movement?”

The article does not seek to answer this question, but returns to narrative by providing biographical details of Fr. Reynolds, whom it describes as “still a priest, though now on the dole.” Some rather predictable, but still crisp quotes are offered by participants. To whit: “This is inclusive and welcoming.” and “Intelligent, educated, adult Catholics have had enough.”

The article closes with this encomium for the inclusive Catholic movement:

But if there’s one thing that unites Inclusive Catholics and the mainstream church, it’s their reliance on hard-working women behind the scenes. The volunteer who made the name tags given out yesterday turned 88 during the week.

I am undecided as to the author’s editorial voice. Is he playing it straight yet allowing the subjects of the story to make fools of themselves, or does the pro-inclusive church framing of the story represent the author’s editorial voice? Let’s lay out the evidence for either proposition.

In favor of the ridiculous theme, we have the juxtaposition of the articles beginning and ending with its pivot paragraph. At the head of the story is a photograph of the congregation, Fr. Reynolds and the dog. A quick scan indicates that save for the dog, no one appears to be under 65 years of age. The closing sentence mentions the industrious work of the volunteer who writes out the name tags — noting her 88th birthday. Against this we have the “small but growing trend” argument put forward in the middle of the story. Are the photo and birthday greetings for this aging crowd to be set against the claim of a new movement in the church meant to ridicule Fr. Reynolds and his congregation, or demonstrate its strength?

The selection of quotes is also telling. We have two cliched quotes in support of Fr. Reynolds’ work, but nothing from the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne about the activities of this unlicensed, yet still in good standing Catholic priest. Did the author choose to leave the story unbalanced to allow the comments made by the subject to impeach their cause? Or, were the comments so self-evidently true that there was no need to balance them with a contrary view?

The shaggy dog story at the start of the article might also lend support to the ridicule thesis. The article starts with a joke about “inclusive” language, relates the story of the dog receiving the host, and then makes a joke about Fido not receiving the wine — here we can tell this is a Roman Catholic not Anglo-Catholic mass as the Anglicans would doubtless have required the dog to receive the elements in both kinds.

And without seeking to explain why someone in this congregation would gasp at the dog’s reception of the sacraments, we move into a litany of the sorts of persons who attend this service.

My vote is for satire. A crowd of aging hipsters celebrating a mass that is in bad taste and theologically and sacramentally scandalous with no comment, context or correction seems likely to be a way for the author to hold this group up to ridicule. Or, the author of this story is playing it straight and declines to offer context, contrary voices, or to develop the shaggy dog story at the start of his narrative because he does not believe it necessary.

Last month I reported on the discussion held by the bishops of the Episcopal Church on the appropriateness of prayers for animals. A proposed prayer put forward by the church’s liturgy committee was vetoed, the Bishop of Missouri, the Rt. Rev. George Wayne Smith reported and an alternate prayer provided by the Prayer Book committee “no longer express the desire for our animals to be part of the resurrection.”

The question of the place of animals in heaven is of real pastoral concern and the Christian tradition is divided on this point. I’ve touched on this issue at GetReligion in the past, noting that according to Oxford theologian Andrew Linzey there is “an ambiguous tradition” about animals in Christianity. Thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Fenelon, and Kant and have held that animals do not have rational, hence immortal souls. Descartes defended a distinction between humans and animals based on the belief that language is a necessary condition for mind and as such animals were soulless machines (Descartes, Discourse on the Method)

Others theologians, philosophers and writers as diverse as Goethe, St John of the Cross, C.S. Lewis, Bishop Butler, and John Wesley held the opposite view and believed that animals will find a place in heaven. Billy Graham is purported to have said:

I think God will have prepared everything for our perfect happiness’ in heaven. If it takes my dog being there, I believe he’ll be there.

The Episcopal Bishop of North Dakota, Michael Smith made this same point when asked by the press at the General Convention if animals went to heaven.

These are “theological issues not many of us have thought through,” he said, “but if a little girl needs Fluffy the cat to see the beatific vision, then Fluffy will be in heaven,” Bishop Smith said.

But lets come back down to earth and return to Melbourne — is this Inclusive Catholic Church pressing the theological envelope on these issues? Or has the author structured his story to expose a group of wayward elderly Catholics doing silly things and playing at church? What say you GetReligion readers? Serious or satire?

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