Please talk to the coal miners’ pastors

STG HZ MinuteByMinute 4pI believe the woman’s name was Anna Casto. She appeared several times during the Wednesday NBC Nightly News coverage of the Sago Mine disaster. Her comments were blunt, agonizing and stunningly on target. I wish I could quote them to you, but I do not have Tivo and, for once, got caught without a notepad nearby.

For all I know, Casto and others are featured in some of the materials stored online at the broadcast’s cyberhome at MSNBC (photo). Here, for example, is a print story drawn from the coverage. And here is the link to the actual online version of the Brian Williams newscast. (However, since all of this material is based on Microsoft products, I cannot get the software to work on either of my computers — either my iMac G5 or an up-to-day Windows machine. Would someone please alert me when NBC offers a QuickTime or RealPlayer option?)

Anyway, back to Casto and the mourning mine families. I was struck by two of her comments. In one, she said that the whip-lash effect of hearing that their friends and loved ones were safe, then finding out they were actually dead, had left many of the believers huddled in the Sago Baptist Church doubting whether “the Lord is real.” I think that was the phrase she used. Later, with an obvious reference to the attitudes she has seen displayed about her region in national media, she said something like this: “We’re Christian people. … We’re West Virginians. … We may be dumb, but we love our families.” Again, I hesitate to put that in quotes, but that is very close to verbatim.

Meanwhile, the powerful, yet vague, aura of Bible Belt faith lingered over the evening newscasts like the smoke from the memorial candles held by the mourners on the church step as they sang old hymns, standing in an arc toward the television cameras. Those old, old songs were all chopped up by the video editors, many of whom obviously did not know the words or they would have selected the verses that applied directly to the emotions of the people singing. The people talked about God a lot and the journalists let them talk, sharing faith and doubt in the midst of their pain.

You can see this in the opening of the New York Daily News story entitled “Anguish, rage in church” by reporters Derek Rose (on the scene) and Corky Siemaszko (in New York):

One moment they were praising God, the next they were cursing His name. That’s how furious those in a church full of heartbroken West Virginians were early yesterday after reports of the miraculous rescue of 12 miners turned out to be false.

“I believe that everybody was stunned,” said John Casto, who was celebrating in the Sago Baptist Church with the miners’ relatives when they were hit by a tsunami of grief. “Just a few minutes before they were praising God and then they was cursing because they thought they lost a loved one.”

Casto, who lost a pal in the mine, said some of the angry men tried to slug the mine operator who delivered the devastating news. He said the church pastor tried to calm the furious crowd by saying, “Look toward God.”

“One of the men said, ‘What in the hell has God done for us?’” Casto said, his eyes welling up with tears.

Yes, note the last name — Casto.

group1I kept wanting the journalists to actually go inside the church or try to find a few minutes with one of the pastors. You see, my father was a Southern Baptist pastor and hospital chaplain. I have been around a few ministers in hard times. I also imagine that the pastors clustered with those suffering people have handled more than their share of mine tragedies and miracles. If they are anything like the pastors that I know, they have moved light years past the kind of one-level Bible commentary that appeared, in splinters and shards, on the national networks last night.

We did get to meet one pastor in a Washington Post piece entitled “After 44 Hours, Hope Showed Its Cruel Side.” But, once again, we get to read what I am convinced is only the first layer of what a veteran coal-country pastor would say in this circumstance.

The Rev. Jerry Murrell, pastor of the Way of the Holiness church in Buckhannon, was one of the local clergy members keeping vigil with the families at Sago Baptist. “There were times of intense prayer, and times of softly singing hymns,” he said. “Ministers would take turns reading Scripture. The one we seemed to keep turning back to was Romans 8:28 where the Apostle Paul promises that all things work together for good to those who love God.”

Memorial services almost always include sermons. The sermons almost always address the tough issues that face the people hit by the tragedy of the moment. In coal country, the sermons have to address the pain, terror, risk, guilt and fury involved in an entire way of life in a region that knows more than a little about faith and sorrow. You want Dante? These people live Dante, with some finding relief in bars, some in churches and many in both places.

Yes, these sermons will be packed with all of that Jesus language and the Bible verses that, to many journalists, sound like fingernails on a chalkboard or the unknown tongues of flyover country natives. But those pastors know more about coal mines, coal miners and death than most of the producers out in the television production trucks. Please. Go talk to them.

P.S. My dear friend (wife of our family’s parish priest) Frederica Mathewes-Green has a theological reflection on the Sago tragedy posted over at Beliefnet.com — click here to read it. Here is her version of another interview clip with John Casto:

John Casto tried to explain, in an accent broad as the hills, how this works, how faith can make it so you’re not alone. “You know, I’m not kin to none of these people under that hill over there, but each and every one of ‘ems a brother to me. Each and every one of them.” He then looked toward the reporter and said, “Because you’re my brother,” and then turning to the cameraman, “and you’re my brother. The way I look at it.”

There was something electrifying about that moment. In the midst of bitterness and turmoil, Casto broke through the wall.

“Because I love Christ,” he went on. This is not the sort of thing you usually hear on the news, and the camera was already pulling back. The reporter’s voice softly murmured “All right, John.” But Casto continued, “We’re gonna to pray for each and every one of these people.” At this point, the reporter patted him on the shoulder, with a “that’s enough, now” gesture.

P.S., number 2: Readers who are interested in the many, many journalistic issues raised by the coverage of this event will want to stay plugged in at Poynter.org — which currently has this round-up on its front page.

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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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Mitzvah vans and lawsuits

goyimMonday night, on my way to Monkeytown in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, I stepped out of the Bedford stop to the sight of a large menorah in the back of a pickup truck. Lubavitcher Jews were mingling about asking people if they were Jewish. My response of “no” got me a “Happy New Year anway!” but those who are Jewish were offered information about improving their religious life. Or so I assume. Judaism is not exactly the most inclusive religion out there. They could have been sharing information about how to build tree houses or commit a heist for all I know. That’s why I was struck by the missionary-type zeal of the group. Of course, Chasidim are kind of known for that.

In any case, news came out (for me via the Christianity Today weblog) that Jews for Jesus, an evangelical Christian group devoted to converting Jews to Christianity, is suing Google for trademark infringement. Google owns blogging company Blogspot which permitted someone not affiliated with Jews for Jesus to run a blog with the same name:

“We have a right to our own name and Google has allowed the use of our name on Blogspot without our permission,” said Susan Perlman, associate executive director with Jews for Jesus.

“Our reputation is at stake,” Perlman told Reuters.

Apart from whatever legal ground Jews for Jesus may be on, I will be curious to see how the story progresses. Last year I worked on a story that led me to believe they might be the most reviled religious group in America.

Nearly everyone I spoke to had something negative to say about them. My orthodox Jewish friends were physically unnerved when discussing them. Some Christians tolerated them while others found them weird. A Lutheran pastor who converted from orthodox Judaism told me he couldn’t stand them. Except instead of saying ‘them’ he used a word I’m not going to mention. In addition to his theological differences with the group, his beef was that no Jew for Jesus he met or heard of had been a practicing Jew. He felt Jews for Jesus operated under false pretense.

Obviously Jews for Jesus has its supporters, but the hostility the group engenders can sometimes bleed into coverage. Reporters should be careful to report about the group objectively. TechNewsWorld delved into the story nicely:

The blog in question is located at www.jewsforjesus.blogspot.com. Whistle Blower launched it in 2005 and began posting critical opinions of Jews for Jesus, though the site only had three entries until the evangelical organization filed its lawsuit.

“We have a very simple message,” Pearlman said. “That Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and savior of the world, and we use our name to proclaim their message. We don’t want someone else using it for their particular agenda.”

Whistle Blower has responded to the lawsuit with a blog-based attack on the group in the form of a letter to Jews for Jesus employees.

“Hasn’t your employer gone too far? Haven’t they this time, for sure, brought disrepute on the name of your lord by this action? Could this be the moment of your decision?” Whistle Blower asks in his blog.

Should be interesting to watch.

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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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Shameless self-promotion: back to work

PopGoesCover2I am back home from 10 days of travel near and far (I passed on buying the George W. Bush bobblehead doll in Crawford, Texas), which was hard since I enjoyed (or endured) varying degrees of Internet access. I don’t know how we are supposed to handle travel in the age of DSL, when things work great at home and zippo on the road. How do you folks handle it?

Anyway, some folks during the trip told me that I should be more pushy about my book. So, OK, here is a spot of shameless self-promotion, only I will still try to hook it to a few religion-news related topics we have been talking about here at GetReligion. Then, tomorrow, I will go back to work. Honest. Thanks so much to Mollie and Daniel for hanging in there during the break!

First of all, Dallas Morning News contributor Michael Darling hooked up for a long talk about faith and popular culture. This led to a shorter Q&A piece, that did open with a good question that kind of took me off guard. Thus, I will share it with you guys, too.

How did your time at Baylor influence your career choices?

It was during my junior year that my career interests sort of got switched. I was a writer for Baylor’s campus newspaper, and there was a huge mission festival in town. I went to cover it, and almost nobody showed up.

I thought I had a great story — why didn’t anyone show? But all the other students went, you know, “Grumble-grumble, if nobody shows up it isn’t a story.”

A famous professor, David McHam, one of the deans of journalism education in Texas, told me, “They didn’t get it from me, but they’ve already picked up on the notion that the media doesn’t consider religion all that important. … Religion’s the worst-covered subject in all of the media.”

It was at that moment that I became fascinated with why the media have trouble covering religion.

I still believe that to be true, even though there are signs of progress all over the place. Much has changed in 30 years or so, but now we are at the stage where religion news has become so important that it is getting harder and harder to know what is religion news and what is not.

You think I am joking? Check out the Associated Press list of the top 10 news events — news events, period — in 2005. See any events with religious overtones? What about Katrina? What about the politics of oil? Any faith themes in there?

I know, I know. This keeps coming up — with good reason. This is what this blog is all about, after all. Thus, here is what I said when the good people at Poynter.org, in an end-of-the-year feature called “Journalism’s Highlights and Lowlights,” asked me, “What’s the biggest change you’d like to see in journalism in 2006?” Naturally, I replied:

Like to see? That’s easy: Religion news being treated as a normal, complicated, serious hard-news beat, with skilled specialists. More people asking the question: What Would Dick Ostling Do?

Well, back to work.

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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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Define anti-Mormon

mitt romneyMassachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s likely bid for the Republican presidential nomination means we get to read lots of profiles about him. Saying absolutely nothing about his political positions, the man has got charisma and charm for days and certainly adds a nice new face into the never-ending campaign cycle.

James Taranto has an excellent run-down of where Romney stands in his Wall Street Journal article today, the focus of which is whether conservative Christians could support the Mormon. As a Lutheran, I don’t vote for elected officials based on their religion. I vote for elected officials based on their policies and ability to do the job well. I judge church officials, on the other hand, based on their religious views. So I could vote for a Druid for the Municipal Water Authority — or President — in good conscience so long as he shared my political views. Apparently other people don’t feel the same way.

A crucial question will be whether Mr. Romney’s religion is a handicap. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is indigenous to America, but many Americans view it with suspicion. In a 1999 Gallup poll, 17% of those surveyed said they would not vote for a Mormon for president, far more than said the same of a Jew (6%) or a Catholic (4%). . . .

The trouble is that much of today’s anti-Mormon sentiment is found on the religious right, a constituency that looms much larger in the GOP now than it did in 1968, or than it ever has in Massachusetts. Ask a conservative Christian what he thinks of Mormonism, and there’s a good chance he’ll call it a “cult” or say Mormons “aren’t Christian.”

The only problem is that it is not necessarily anti-Mormon to say Mormons are not Christian. It is true that Mormons call themselves Christian and may take umbrage that other folks disagree. But if a Christian thinks that a non-Trinitarian conception of God, a belief that God has a wife, and the belief that men can become gods puts Mormons outside of the Christian faith, that’s not anti-Mormon. One can believe that Mormons are not Christian and still donate gobs of cash to Mitt Romney for President. Reporters need to understand this distinction.

Reporters should also realize that it’s not just those on the “religious right” who don’t consider Mormons to be Christian. Officially speaking, almost all Christian church bodies do not consider Mormons to be Christian or believe their baptisms to be valid — meaning converts are baptized. This includes the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which accept baptisms from other Christian church bodies. Would it kill reporters to study this or understand why?

Admittedly, learning about Mormonism can be challenging. Mormons believe in ongoing revelation, which is how substantial church doctrines change over the years (polygamy, blacks not having the right to hold the priesthood). There are also difficulties in understanding which statements from the church’s authorities are ex cathedra, so to speak, and which are just personal thoughts. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Especially since the country might have its first Mormon president pretty soon. I wonder what James A. Garfield would say?

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Other voices on “Brokeback” morality

BrokebackTruckSorry for the delay on this one. I have been without a solid Internet connection for two days. Let me note what has already been mentioned in comments, which is a commentary on “Brokeback Mountain” by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher (who I had lunch with yesterday in Dallas, before flying on to Atlanta with my family in this long, long Christmas tour).

Dreher is a very orthodox, traditional Christian and does not hide that. However, his nuanced evaluation of this movie and the whirlpool around it is getting him some interesting mail over at the Dallas Morning News opinion-page weblog. This is one of those situations that journalists tend to cherish. Rod is managing to tick off people on both sides of the love-hate spectrum on this movie.

The key is that Dreher says this is a good, not great, movie that makes a sincere attempt to capture the art in a gripping short story — a story that is much more honest about this tragic affair (and its roots) than the movie that is being hailed as a political landmark. Thus, Dreher writes:

It is impossible to watch this movie and think that all would be well with Jack and Ennis if only we’d legalize gay marriage. It is also impossible to watch this movie and not grieve for them in their suffering, even while raging over the suffering that these poor country kids who grew up unloved cause for their families. As the film grapples with Ennis’ pain, confusion and cruelty, different levels of meaning unspool — social, moral, spiritual and erotic. In the end, Brokeback Mountain is not about the need to normalize homosexuality, or “about” anything other than the tragic human condition.

In other words, I think Dreher is trying to say that the movie — like any artistic work that deserves to be called a “tragedy” — is, in large part, about sin and “The Fall.” This kind of art is not tidy. Thus, Dreher quotes Flannery O’Connor: “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.”

Among the more gripping emails in response was a post by a man that Dreher simply identifies as a gay Catholic friend of his. His post points toward a possible story in all of this. How are gay conservatives, especially those who are seeking to honor traditional Christian beliefs, going to react to this film? What are the discussions like, these days, at Courage meetings?

Consider this passage from the online comment by the gay Catholic, with its reference to God — the Other Who — and the riptide of beliefs involved in all of this:

No man with homosexual attractions forgets the first time he ever had a serious love-crush on a male friend in a disapproving environment — disapproval being either internal (morality) or external (society). There’s a strange mix of terror and lust, and a need for SOME sort of same-sex approval that I cannot imagine having absolutely any equivalent in the straight world. It’s a whirlpool of attraction and revulsion. You know that what you most want, what your body is telling you (and male bodies can’t be fooled), is wrong and/or that acting according to it would ruin you in the eyes of the other, the one you love (in some sense). And in the eyes of the Other Who loves you. And in some sense yourself. If you know/believe (rightly or wrongly) that homosexual acts are wrong, there is simply no secular way out. Only the acceptance of tragedy, the embracing of the Cross, and seeking to die to self.

Like I keep saying, there are many points of view out there on this issue and this movie that are not making it into the MSM coverage. Journalists need to find the voices in between Hollywood and, well, the 700 Club.

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