Did he die of a broken heart?

enron the smartest guys in the roomThe readers on the MSNBC bulletin boards are pretty shaken up by the death of Ken Lay.

Here’s one three-in-a-row clip, complete with ghosts and demons:

I’m confused … Don’t you need a heart to have a heart attack? — WBernie

In the matter of Ken Lay’s unexpected and sudden death, my sincerest condolences to his wife, Linda, and his beloved family. The stress and condemnation of all events for Ken Lay in these past trying years finally took its toll. Dr. Lay’s faith, though, vindicated him from future sentencing and further humiliation. As always, God has the last say in everything and the courts will have to accept God’s final decision in the matter of Ken Lay. — Peggy Fadgen, Texas

May he rot in hell. – the working man

You can hear some of this rip-tide effect in the mainstream coverage. Here are some clips from two radically different takes. First, let’s hear from the basic Associated Press story by business writer Kristen Hays in Houston. This is probably the story most people in middle America would end up reading.

Just last week, Enron Corp. founder and convicted felon Kenneth Lay told his pastor he was at peace with his future, even if it included prison.

Lay maintained that he was innocent of fraud and conspiracy in Enron’s searing scandal that left thousands jobless and wiped out billions from investors. The former corporate celebrity who ascended from near-poverty as a minister’s son in Missouri to the pinnacle of America’s business elite died Wednesday of what a county coroner said was heart disease while vacationing in Aspen, Colo. He was 64.

“I know he looked to be in good health. He looked like things were going well for him. He was in church last Sunday,” said his pastor, Steve Wende of Houston’s First United Methodist Church.

Suffice it to say that Henry Allen, pondering the darker side of the public psyche for the edgy Washinton Post Style pages, tapped into a darker muse:

… (Now) that he’s died of a heart attack in the luxury of his Colorado getaway while awaiting sentencing for his crimes, none of his victims will be able to contemplate that he’s locked away in a place that makes the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel look like Hawaii; that he might be spending long nights locked in a cell with a panting tattooed monster named Sumo, a man of strange and constant demands; and long days in the prison laundry or jute mill or license plate factory, gibbering with anguish as fire-eyed psychopaths stare at him for unblinking hours while they sharpen spoons into jailhouse stilettos.

Want some more? Allen is — anticipating the reactions of some of his readers — just getting started.

He will not be ground into gray jailhouse paste by listening to the eardrum-scarring symphony of 131-decibel despair that is the Muzak of penitentiaries, by gagging on the dead prison air, by choking on the deader food, by watching the blue sky taunt him with freedom over the exercise yard, and by feeling his nervous system rent by the cruel grenades of memories — explosions of nostalgia for the days when he knew he’d be swanning forever through the comfy laps and cool lawns of luxury and infinite possibility. Sweet Gulfstreams through sweet skies, the pools, the jewels, the Maybach limousines, a life in which he didn’t just pimp his ride, he pimped the entire world as he knew it.

Now, I happen to think there is a whole lot of truth in that second Allen paragraph, and anyone who followed the Enron story would have to admit that, even those who insist that Lay was — in some way real or technical — innocent. But what if Lay was, in some real sense, an actual mainline Protestant upscale believer who also was blind to his own sins? And then what if he came to realize his own sins? Is there any chance of that?

enronThis is one of good things about that out-of-date word “sin.” It’s one of the reasons why good news stories and good screenplays need to find a way to talk about sin. Sin is human and very real, and it is hard to know much about words like “repentance” and “forgiveness” without wrestling with the concept of sin.

That’s why, at the end of this busy day over in Oxford — where the tabloid pages, as always, are full of ripping good scandals and hardly anyone is talking about “Ken Lay” — I am left thinking about today’s Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan.

Is this column “soft” on Lay?

I don’t think so. It is willing to be sad because a man crashed and, to Noonan, it seems the evidence is that he knew it — deep down in his heart.

Putting aside all judgments and conclusions, all umbrage, outrage and indignation, and all debates on who was most responsible for the Enron scandal — putting all those weighty and legitimate concerns aside — isn’t it obvious that Ken Lay died of a broken heart? We forget that people do, or at least I forget, but they do.

His life was broken and would never be healed. Or if it was to be healed it would happen while he was imprisoned, for the rest of his life, with four walls to look at. All was wreckage around him. He died, of a massive coronary. But that can be another way of saying broken heart.

Is this Shakespearian in the sense of being towering and tragic? I don’t know. I think it’s primal and human. And I think if we were more regularly conscious of the fact that death through sadness happens we’d be better to each other. I’m thinking here of a friend who reflected one day years ago, I cannot recall why, on how hard people are on each other, how we’re all complicated little pirates and more sensitive, more breakable, than we know.

Whoa — complicated little pirates.

Yes, that is what we are. I think the accurate word is “sinners.” It’s hard to work into a headline, but sometimes it’s the right word to use.

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Rick Warren will “use” North Korea?

rick warrenSarah Price Brown of Religion News Service scored a nice scoop in a June 27 report that Rick Warren of The Purpose-Driven Life fame was headed to North Korea to speak in a 15,000-seat stadium.

With one of the world’s last remaining Communist regimes pulling all sorts of geopolitical stunts these days, one would think this type of news would be picked up by the mainstream press, but so far there has been nothing. Here’s the RNS story posted at Beliefnet:

LAKE FOREST, Calif., June 27 — Evangelical pastor Rick Warren has been invited to preach this summer to some 15,000 Christians in North Korea, a communist country infamous not only for its nuclear threats but also for its religious persecution.

Warren, author of the bestselling book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” said he would make the trip as part of a nearly 40-day journey to meet with the leaders of 13 foreign countries.

“I want to ask you to pray for me,” Warren told about 5,000 worshippers at his Saddleback Church on Sunday (June 25). He said he would be embarking on a “grueling” tour, meeting with presidents, business leaders and pastors in countries such as Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Rwanda and South Korea, where he would preach at the world’s largest church.

And then, he told the crowd, “I’ve received another invitation.” Warren said North Korea would allow him to preach in a stadium seating 15,000, but that he could preach in a larger venue if he could fill the seats.

Quick question: there are 15,000 Christians in North Korea? I guess that number would be difficult to verify, considering that the country restricts the flow of information so tightly.

Associated Baptist Press and the Christian Post were quick to pick up on Billy Graham comparisons, ABP focusing on Graham’s 1982 visit to Communist Russia and the Post focusing on Graham’s trip to North Korea over 10 years ago, but the nature of this trip still seems a bit vague and the international reaction limited due to the lack of media coverage.

Warren attempted to deflect criticism that the trip will be highly staged, as past trips by religious leaders to North Korean have been:

“I know they’re going to use me,” Warren said, responding to a question about whether he was concerned that the invitation could be a set-up, a ruse to draw out Christians so that the government could punish them.

“So I’m going to use them.”

Great. So Rick Warren now has Superman-like powers? Exactly how does he plan to use them?

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What is today Istanbul

1142553 Map of Constantinople IstanbulA 74-year-old Catholic priest was attacked this week in Turkey. A man, who was described as mentally ill, was arrested in the knifing of Father Pierre Brunissen. The previous two were linked to Islamic opposition to Christian clergy. This, however, may be a personal case. Here’s what the BBC wrote:

The man had allegedly made complaints about Fr Brunissen trying to convert people to his faith.

Reports said he was attacked in a busy street about 1km from his church.

“I hope this has nothing to with Islamic fundamentalism,” Monsignor Luigi Padovese, the apostolic vicar for Anatolia, told the Associated Press news agency .

“The climate has changed… it is the Catholic priests that are being targeted.”

Anonymously-sourced alleged complaints notwithstanding, this story really could have nothing to do with religious intolerance. But the secular situation in Turkey is very tenuous and worthy of deeper coverage. When I came across this article, I was also pointed to a months-old Washington Post story that looked at the situation in Turkey with a bit more depth. It showed how Muslims believe Roman Catholic missionaries are paying young Muslims to convert to Christianity. It also had this very amazing line:

The tension dates at least to the 13th century, when Christian Crusaders sacked what is today Istanbul.

Really? That’s where the Muslim — Christian tension in Istanbul comes from? From before it was a Muslim city? Interesting.

See, I thought that the great and ancient Christian city of Constantinople (or, as the Post says, “what is today Istanbul”) withstood dozens of attacks from Muslims before finally falling to Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. I mean, yes, soldiers in the Fourth Crusade took over Constantinople — from the Byzantine Christians. I don’t think that’s where Muslim-Christian conflict came from. And the Western-Eastern divide was centuries older, besides. However, I seem to recall there was a particularly brutal final 54-day siege and capture of the city.

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Yes, there’s even a castration ghost

vasariReaders of The Washington Post were greeted this morning with the sickening report of how a convicted child molester fixed his problem with fantasizing about young children. He castrated himself. And here is why:

[James] Jenkins, 63, doesn’t flinch when he talks about it now. “Castration has done precisely what I wanted it to do,” he said. “I have not had any sexual urges or desires in over two years. My mind is finally free of the deviant sexual fantasies I used to have about young girls.”

He spoke with the clinical cool of a surgeon as he tried to explain his pedophilia during a rare interview in a guarded room of the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, the sex offender treatment center where Jenkins was sent. The Petersburg facility is part of a new way the state is trying to keep sex offenders off the streets: Identify the most dangerous before they are released from prison and ask a judge in civil court to commit them to a treatment facility even after they have completed their sentences.

Jenkins readily admits that the prospect of being confined indefinitely partly prompted his drastic action three years ago. But he also insists he did it to prevent himself from victimizing another child.

Words befuddle my attempts to describe the horror that the story’s first three paragraphs (not included in this post) introduced to my first real morning of work in five days, but I have since recovered and wanted to raise one question with the author, Candace Rondeaux. Was the religious significance of what the convicted child molester did to himself considered or talked about? Ponder for a moment the instructions for stumbling sinners found in Matthew 5:29-30 (New American Standard Version):

If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.

A reporter who dug into that subject a bit would find an obvious connection to the subject, filled with all sorts of theological arguments and various interpretations of the Bible. I wonder if the child molester considered this instruction before taking his problems into his own hands, so to speak.

But setting the Bible verses aside, this article raises all sorts of moral questions. Was this man simply made that way? Did he have a choice in doing what he did?

The article does a good job addressing the larger question of whether this type of action should be used more often by the judicial system (drugs are the preferred method, not the razor, by the way), but failing to address these other issues left me looking for more.

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A Mormon for president?

RomneySo the Los Angeles Times has a great idea for a poll, and interviews 1,321 adults about whether religious views would affect their votes in the presidential election. And this is very interesting right now because Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and making a bid for the presidency. So what did the Times find?

Thirty-seven percent of those questioned said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, and 54% said no to the prospect of a Muslim in the White House.

In addition, 21% said they could not vote for an evangelical Christian.

Fifteen percent said they would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, and 10% were unwilling to cast ballots favoring a Catholic chief executive.

While this poll result may not be terribly surprising — American voters have expressed their uneasiness about voting for Mormons previously — that 37 percent is a huge number. It would be great to break that number down and learn a bit more about why so many voters are disinclined toward anonymous Mormons. Is it Mormons’ belief in a multiple godhead? Is it their history with polygamy? Is it Orrin Hatch’s music? But the report takes rather a view from 50,000 feet, interviewing political consultants, academics and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Here are the nut graphs dealing with religious beliefs:

A great-grandfather had five wives, but the church now opposes polygamy, as does Romney. The Mormon Church has about 12.5 million members worldwide, according to the church website; a little under half are in the U.S.

Romney is reticent about his religion, citing privacy and contending that candidates should not be judged on their “brand of faith.” But he regularly describes himself as a Christian, saying, “Jesus Christ is my savior.”

Some branches of Christianity do not embrace the Mormon Church. On its website, the Southern Baptist Convention includes Mormonism in a section called “cults, sects and new religious movements.” Kenyn Cureton, a vice president of the Baptist convention, says his church does not regard Mormons as Christians.

“They are not orthodox in their beliefs,” Cureton said. “They have additional books that they add to the Bible, which evangelical Christians believe is God’s word. They believe that there are many, many gods and that you too can become a god in your own world. It sounds good, but unfortunately it is not based on sound teaching.”

Cureton praised Mormons as “very moral, very family-oriented people.” Southern Baptists, he said, “would appreciate that angle. But as far as our beliefs, we would have disagreements.”

Those paragraphs are a bit inadequate. The poll did not specifically measure whether Christian voters would only vote for fellow Christians. However, if the sample size represents the American electorate, which is three-quarters Christian, it’s obvious from the poll that some Christians would vote for a non-Christian Jew but would not vote for a Mormon. So pointing out that most Christians (or “some branches” as our reporter puts it) don’t recognize Mormon beliefs as Christian (or “embrace the Mormon Church,” as she puts it) doesn’t in any way illuminate the poll. It is conceivable, for instance, that some Southern Baptists would believe that Mormons are not Christian and at the same time vote for Romney. There is no inherent conflict there.

Again, what is it about Mormons or voters that yields this poll result? Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t ask and this report fails to answer the question.

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Missing religion in the comic-book wars?

DC vs. MarvelIn M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, Samuel L. Jackson, playing the character of Elijah Price, states that comic books are an ancient way of passing on history. They are our version of the ancient mythologies.

I’ve never been that avid a comic-book reader, and it’s something I have some regret over, so I’m hoping that you all will help me out with comments, as you have in my past attempts to write about the media’s coverage of comic books and religion. I will say that after watching Superman Returns I was somewhat impressed with level of religious imagery. But without that background, it would be easy to completely miss, which is why I believe many movie reviewers missed it.

But on to more comic-book news.

Saturday’s Washington Post carried an excellent piece on the longstanding battle between the two comic-book titans, DC and Marvel. The article, written by Hank Stuever, makes many comparisons between the two publishers, but largely leaves out the subject of religion:

DC Comics, led by Superman, was for people who adored the fantasy, the Ubermensch triumphant. These readers loved skyscrapers and archvillains and sidekicks, billowing flags, unerring ethical strength.

Marvel, led by Spider-Man, was a place for the smart but troubled reader, the deeply weird. They loved the night, the underground, accidents in the lab. All that dialogue, so many thought balloons! The heroes always on some emotional ledge, and the hubris of it all — a grittiness that came with saving the world.

DC was about younger kids in back yards, wearing bath towel capes, leaping from treehouses.

Marvel was about older kids in basements, possibly stoned, deconstructing Thor.

DC invented places to go — Metropolis, Gotham City, Paradise Island.

In the Marvel universe, New York is New York, and it’s nothing but trouble.

DC: It was always the Fourth of July.

Marvel: It was always Halloween.

DC: Comic books are a wonderful escape.

Marvel: Comic books are a dark refuge.

Does a discussion of religion in these two comic book empires have a place? I wouldn’t be able to say for sure because, as I said, I am not an avaricious reader of comics. I would say, after seeing Superman Returns, that the folks over at DC Comics appear to be more in tune to the religious side of the world, but I don’t see why that would be any different over at Marvel Comics.

So you tell me. Did this article miss something?

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If God is mother, who is Mary?

three  s companyWe had an entertaining discussion a few weeks ago about the decision by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to accept alternative names for the Trinity. Most readers offered their own names for the PCUSA to consider (Ears, Nose, Throat; Jack, Chrissy, Janet, with a further discussion of who Mr. Roper and Larry represented. I say the Regal Beagle represents heaven).

A few readers brought up how one of the more controversial name suggestions — Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb — denigrates Mary and deviates from Jesus’ own words. Father Joseph Honeycutt wrote:

FWIW, Jesus refered to his Father in heaven because . . . His Father WAS (is) in heaven! He would never have said “Our Mother in heaven” . . . because, well, she was right down the street!

K. Connie Kang, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times had a great article a few days ago that looked at the decision to accept additional names for the Trinity as well as what fallout the convention’s decision was having. She didn’t just do a “he-said, she-said.” Kang sought out multiple perspectives from folks on either side and explained a bit more about their opinions. For instance, she cites from the report that makes the recommendations for changes but also lets those unhappy with the view have their say:

Written by a diverse panel of working pastors and theologians, the report noted that the traditional language of the Trinity portrays God as male and implies men are superior to women.

“For this and other distortions of Trinitarian doctrine we repent,” the report said. . . .

“They’re attempting to be politically correct, and unnecessarily so,” said Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute in Charlotte, N.C.

“Jesus Christ comes into a culture in which women are considered to be on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder . . . and makes women his disciples,” he said.

“Women are the first to bear witness to the empty tomb, which is central in Christianity. The Bible says in Christ there is neither male nor female. We are one in Christ.”

Kang’s story also explains the bureaucracy behind the report’s acceptance, when the new terminology may and may not be used, the trouble the PCUSA is having in retaining members, and even a criticism that the changes equate the name of God with metaphors for God, which our reader R. Boyd hinted at a few weeks ago in his satirical campaign against the use of the cross:

Clearly the time has arrived to select and embrace a new, life-affirming symbol of our sophisticated and superior post-modern faith in absolutely anything we feel good about. Something that celebrates the bounty of creation, rather than sin, suffering, and death.

I suggest a golden calf.

I hope more local reporters look at how this national decision affects Presbyterians on the local level. Let us know if you see any reports.

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As Canterbury Turns: Yelling in Virginia

chichester(Musical cue: Another swell of English cathedral pipe organ)

Yes, the lead of this story was wrong, but what DID the reporter hear that made her write what she did about what the bishop was told? I find it astounding, and a bit unbelievable, to think that the reporter (Julia) heard, in effect, “We’ve told the bishop we’re leaving” when the message was “We’re going to have a ‘discernment’ process in the fall” (which she did include in the story). …

Unlike the Rather memo, the reporter apparently gained a truthful insight into this church that it (or at least some within it) is preparing for departure. Again, the reaction of the church to the story tells me they are simply embarassed that these plans were revealed too early.

Posted by Stephen A. at 10:50 am on June 30, 2006

It’s time for another episide of As Canterbury Turns: The Virginia Story. The following thoughts are my own, based on my experiences as a reporter and editor.

Julia Duin’s controversial story in The Washington Times is back online with this correction added at the top. Click here to read my original post on this affair.

CORRECTION: The Washington Times mischaracterized a meeting Wednesday between the Rev. Martyn Minns and Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee. Representatives of the Falls Church Episcopal and Truro Episcopal churches now say no final decision on leaving the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has been made.

This is one of the strangest corrections that I have ever seen. Let’s cut in in half, because there are two different issues here.

Here is the lead:

Two of Northern Virginia’s largest and most historic Episcopal churches — Truro and the Falls Church — informed Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee yesterday that they plan to leave the diocese and that as many as two dozen other parishes may follow suit.

The hot word in this lead, the source of the whole controversy, is “plan.”

Note that the correction stresses that the leaders of Truro and the Falls Church denied that they have decided to leave the Diocese of Virginia. This is a fascinating statement, since the original story never says that they have made this decision. The story says they are preparing — along with a large circle of other parishes — to start a 40-day spiritual process that will lead to a decision.

Is that the same thing as “planning” to leave?

OK, here is my guess on what happened here. For at least a decade, traditional Episcopal parishes have known that, at some point in the future, they might — note the word “might” — need to find an exit door to escape The Episcopal Church. In almost all of these parishes this is a move that would have majority support in the vestry and the congregation, which is why they have been exploring a wide variety of options in the first place. But there are debates and divisions in these congregations, due to the legal risks involved linked to buildings, pensions, endowments and whatnot.

Most of these meetings, of course, take place behind closed doors and reporters find out about them after they have taken place. The most accurate way to describe these sessions is to say they involve church leaders who are discussing “contingency plans” that may or may not be used in the future. They are making plans, but they have not made the final decision to put them into effect.

Thus, the original Duin story says:

Truro and the Falls Church have a combined $27 million in assets. Situated on some of Northern Virginia’s most valuable real estate, both churches are having 40-day “discernment” periods of prayer, fasting and debate, starting in September and ending just before Thanksgiving, before announcing a final decision. …

The Falls Church and Truro Church presented their plan in Fairfax on Saturday to a meeting of officials representing 20 to 30 Episcopal churches around Virginia. Thirteen to 14 churches already have agreed to have their own 40-day period, he said.

Rectors of two other large Northern Virginia parishes also told The Washington Times yesterday, on condition of anonymity, that they, too, may be leaving. One is involved in secret negotiations with the diocese over property issues; another says his vestry, or governing board, approved the 40-day idea Tuesday night, but his parish needs to vote on it Sunday.

The official disclaimer from the Falls Church says the following:

The Washington Times reported that our church informed our Bishop that we are leaving the Diocese of Virginia and leaving the Episcopal Church. This certainly is not true and misrepresents where we are as a congregation.

Does the original Duin story say that the parish has decided to leave the diocese? It does not. So why did the Times correct a statement that its own story did not make?

This brings us back to the word “plan” in the lead.

There is a big difference between “they plan to leave” and “they are making plans that may lead to their departure.”

My guess is that this lead was, in the editing process, strengthened. The phrase editors use is “pump it up.” Reporters can resist this process and almost always do so. But it happens. Editors do not like words like “may” or “might” in leads on page one.

In this case, the qualifier was needed and you can see that in the actual text of Duin’s story. As I said earlier this week, the heart of the story is the meeting in which parish leaders from Truro and the Falls Church formally presented their plans for the 40-day discernment process. That’s the story.

Plans are being made. However, the decision to put them into effect is in the future, even as steps are taken that show which way things are going. There are dozens and dozens of stories ahead.

Stay tuned, and prepare for lots of yelling by people in mitres.

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