Religious Discrimination 101

FaithHypeClarity2Religion reporter Alan Cooperman had a very interesting article in Saturday’s Washington Post. I enjoy Cooperman’s stories. His smooth, clear writing style is easy to read and digest. Anyway, he uses the hook of a Missouri State University instructor requiring students to write letters urging state legislators to support adoptions by same-sex couples. One of the students, Emily Brooker, objected on religious grounds and the school charged her with discriminating against gays.

In his defense, instructor Frank Kauffman says the students were merely required to write the letter, not sign it or send it. As if that really changes anything. This may seem like an insane assignment, but I remember the time one of my feminist professors required the class to write a paper on why pornography should be illegal. No matter what you believed, that’s what you had to write.

Anyway, Cooperman says the case has fueled accusations by conservative groups that secular university professors despise conservatives, particularly conservative evangelical Christians. Part of that might be true and part of it isn’t quite right, Cooperman writes:

Such accusations have been leveled for years at the Ivy League and other elite private universities. But they are gaining new attention from politicians and educators because of the Brooker case, which took place at a public school in the Bible Belt, and because of two recent, nationwide surveys of professors’ views on religion.

The first, by sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, found that college professors are less religious than the general public but are far from the godless horde that is sometimes imagined. Even at the country’s 50 top research universities, a minority of the faculty is atheist or agnostic, Gross and Simmons found.

The other survey, by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, confirmed those findings but also found what the institute’s director and chief pollster, Gary A. Tobin, called an “explosive” statistic: 53 percent of its sample of 1,200 college and university faculty members said they have “unfavorable” feelings toward evangelical Christians.

A graph accompanying the story drove the point home. By comparison, only three percent of faculty members had unfavorable feelings toward Jews. What’s funny is that the latter survey was designed to gauge anti-Semitism.

The only groups with significantly negative responses were Christians and MuslimsMormons. A full third of faculty had negative views toward Mormons, with 22 percent reporting unfavorable views toward Muslims, 18 percent with negative feelings toward atheists, 13 percent with negative feelings toward Roman Caholics, 10 percent with negative feelings toward the non-religious, nine percent with negative feelings toward non-evangelical Christians and four percent reporting negative views toward Buddhists.

One of the things I liked about Cooperman’s story was how he gave the various sides a chance to respond. I wanted the conversation to keep going. He speaks with Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, who says that the poll reflects political and cultural resistance, not religious bias:

Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians probably have two causes: “the particular kind of Republican Party activism that some evangelicals have engaged in over the years, as well as what faculty perceive as the opposition to scientific objectivity among some evangelicals.”

William B. Harvey, vice president for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia, said that even if the survey has correctly identified a “latent sentiment” among professors, “I don’t know that it is fair to make the leap . . . that this is manifested in some bias in the classroom.” . . .

Tobin, the pollster, acknowledged that his survey did not measure how professors act, only how they feel. But he said the levels of disapproval are high enough to raise questions about how evangelical Christians are treated.

“If a majority of faculty said they did not feel warmly about Muslims or Jews or Latinos or African Americans, there would be an outcry. No one would attempt to justify or explain those feelings. No one would say, ‘The reason they feel this way is because they don’t like the politics of blacks or the politics of Jews.’ That would be unthinkable,” Tobin said.

I’ll be curious to see if there is any more discussion of these surveys. Cooperman rounds out the article by looking at a legislative initiative in Missouri to address religious bias. A recent New York Times article suggests that legislation may not be necessary. Alan Finder looked at another survey that may show an increased interest in religion among students:

More students are enrolling in religion courses, even majoring in religion; more are living in dormitories or houses where matters of faith and spirituality are a part of daily conversation; and discussion groups are being created for students to grapple with questions like what happens after death, dozens of university officials said in interviews.

A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Finder notes the lack of historical data on the religiosity of students, but it’s still an interesting look at religious life on campus. Both stories together show the potential disconnect between students and their faculty — this is an area that may merit further coverage.

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Rolling Stone’s State of the Union

DylanSaved2The first of three 40th-anniversary issues of Rolling Stone is on newsstands now, and it is overflowing with the witty Q&A interviews that make the magazine frequently worthwhile. There’s the requisite kissing of founder Jann S. Wenner’s ring, as nearly every interview involves a moment when an artist describes how important a role the magazine played in wide cultural transformation. The next 40th-anniversary issue will focus on the Summer of Love, and I can imagine people discussing how many times a stray Rolling Stone on the coffee table helped them get laid.

That would be in tune with how Rolling Stone‘s editors present themselves as keepers of the counterculture’s flame. As indicated in “A Letter From the Editors,” there’s a culture war going on, and Rolling Stone knows which side it has chosen:

Truly understanding the past means grappling with its complexities and contradictions. You need look no further back than the Sixties to realize that. The culture wars that began in that decade — about drugs, about American military incursions into foreign countries, about sex, the environment, the roles of women and women, and on and on — are still being fought.

… During the Clinton years, the country was energetically heading in the right direction — progress and prosperity were watchwords of the day. The failure of the Republicans’ desperate attempt to remove Clinton from office was itself a triumph of Sixties values. The American people saw through the hypocrisy of the impeachment effort and refused to abide what Clinton aptly called “the politics of personal destruction.” Rolling Stone proudly joined that fight and championed Clinton throughout his presidency.

Notwithstanding Rolling Stone‘s principled opposition to the politics of personal destruction, virtually every interview stokes the flames of Bush loathing. In some interviews people volunteer their belief that Bush is the worst president in U.S. history. Other times, the interviewer helpfully suggests such a finding.

It’s a fairly rich irony when Neil Young, composer of “Let’s Impeach the President,” is the one person to engage the question of the president’s humanity. The questions are by David Fricke:

In “Campaigner” [on 1977's "Decade"], you sang, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.” What did you mean by that?

I mean everybody’s human. The soul in Richard Nixon was in the way he looked with his family, how lost he looked. He was a great statesman — he went to China — yet he [expletive] so badly at home. He was very similar to Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton undid all the good he did, as a smart man running the country, with the disaster of his private life. He opened the door for the religious right and enabled the conservatives to pain the Democrats as faithless. That transferred into two lost elections.

Can you ever imagine saying George W. Bush has soul?

I’m sure he does. Where is it? It’s in Crawford, Texas, with his family — his wife and kids. One thing about Bush: You’ve got to respect him for being in such good physical condition. He works like hell to be fit. That’s a great example at his age.

The other thing is that he has so much conviction in what he believes. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we don’t agree with him. He and his people feel like they’re the only people that should be in government.

What’s more interesting, at least for the purpose of this blog, is how often the subject of religion emerges in these discussions, sometimes at the bidding of the interviewer, sometimes on its own power. God bless Jann Wenner — who did not recognize the word agape when Bono used it in a Q&A in 2005 — for trying so hard to coax Bob Dylan out of his fiercely guarded privacy on spiritual matters. [I am including links where possible, and these pages include embedded MP3s of the interviews' best moments. Rolling Stone assures its readers that more are on the way.]

Wenner makes the mistake of framing question as “being religious.” That would open Dylan up about as much as “You were known for some time as a Holy Joe. What’s up with that?” This is not a question of malice, but of being tone deaf:

Do you find yourself being a more religious person these days?

A religious person? Religion is supposedly a force for positive good. Where can you look in the world and see that religion has been a force for positive good? Where can you look at humanity and say, “Humanity has been uplifted by a connection to a godly power”?

Meaning organized religion?

Corporations are religions. It depends what you talk about with a religion. … Anything is a religion.

At one point, you took on Christianity in a very serious way, and then Judaism. Where are you now with all that?

Religion is something that is mostly outward appearance. Faith is a different thing. How many religions are there in the world? Quite a few, actually.

What is your faith these days?

Faith doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t have a category. It’s oblique. So it’s unspeakable. We degrade faith by talking about religion.

Contrast this with Tom Wolfe, interviewed by Mark Binelli:

But as a nonbeliever, you still seem to be defending belief.

Anyone who thinks that religion is bad for society is out of his mind. We are now beginning to see what happens when you don’t have it. People get depressed when they don’t have something to believe.

I think the contemporary conception of the human mind has become more and more depressing. This is my problem with the atheists, people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They’re saying that there is no ghost in the machine, that it’s all physical. And if it’s all physical, it’s going to obey certain laws. And the endpoint of the argument is that there is no free will, that you and I are machines that have had a certain genetic foundation, and as soon as we know enough about that, we’ll be able to predict what’ll happen when you meet me. We just need the information. That’s a very depressing thought.

Another consistent theme in these interviews is a a fear of the religious right. The editors rejoice in their opening letter that Norman Mailer — yes, Norman Mailer! — calls Bush a spiritual terrorist. How he reached this conclusion is entertaining reading, if only for the polemical fireworks:

We are supposed to take care of the poor, if we are good Christians. But in face there is no such thing as a good Christian. A good Christian is one man and one woman in a thousand. The average Christian is a mixture, like the rest of us, with their good and their bad. And churchgoing Christians have been running America in my lifetime. And they saw communism as the spawn of the devil. They didn’t see it as a messed-up system filled with people just like themselves, half-good, half-bad.

… The story of the terrorists is that is that they are working against immense odds, relatively speaking. They don’t have large resources. What they have is the possibility to do some dirty things in some dirty places and kill off a few hundred or a few thousand people, and if they can do that, they can feel they are immensely successful, because given the multiplication of the result that cheap politicians like Bush go in for, it will work to a degree. …

So what is the story of Bush, then, if that is the story of the terrorists?

Bush is a terrorist.

Do you think he is the worst president of your lifetime?

He is a spiritual terrorist.

It is interesting that, in retrospect, he makes somebody like Nixon look pretty good.

Like Mailer, Bill Moyers doesn’t much trust the religious right:

This is a country whose greatest contribution to political science was the separation of church and state. The exiles who were fleeing coercion in Europe came to this country where they could have freedom of conscience. The current effort of Christian fundamentalists to turn the government into their agent is a sinister development. I’m doing a story for my new weekly series on PBS about the fact that Pat Robertson’s Regent University has 150 graduates serving in the executive branch. No university has ever had that many graduates at one time in the government. Their mission is to turn the government into an agent of the church. They want to return us to the days of coercion.

Jack Nicholson, speaking with David Wild, draws a connection between the Christian right and — wait for it — Fidel Castro. But he feels skittish about it, what with how uptight the culture is these days:

I’m into Reichian therapy, so I think sexual freedoms have a lot to do with how far most radical movements get. Free love is usually the root and the vitality of the movement. Once you deny that normal, simple, organic sexual flow, the country is going to move right.

… If you were to say Fidel Castro, the Islamacists and the Christian right all have a lot in common, people would say, “What is this loon talking about today?” Well, they all fear American culture, and they don’t like too much sex and violence. This would be nothing to say in an interview in the Sixties, but now even I am thinking, “Uh-oh, keep that head down, baby.”

Nicholson also must take home the Esoteric Syncretist of the Year award for comparing Dylan to the late Jiddu Krishnamurti:

You’ve been described as being forever young and as having arrested development. Yet it strikes me you’ve pulled off a rare trick, staying vital as an artist and as a person.

I’m terribly easily influenced. What I noticed when I first saw Krishnamurti speak was he and Bob Dylan appeared onstage the same way. They were just kind of there — no flourish, no nothing. What Krishnamurti says could be reduced to “live in the now.” It’s a phrase we hear endlessly, but in fact it’s the point. I was skimming through A Course in Miracles. It says miracles can only occur in the present time, so there’s a common thread there. I’ve been reading about parallel universes and speed of light since I was in grammar school. If they break that all down, maybe the now will become less important. Until then, “live in the now” is as deep as I get.

Paul McCartney might resonate with that, as he twice refers to an “energy field,” at points separated by hundreds of words. Anthony DeCurtis interviews him:

Do you have a sense about what continues to speak to people in the Beatles’ music after all these years?

I think it’s basically magic. There is such a thing as magic, and the Beatles were magic.

It depends on what you believe life is. Life is an energy field, a bunch of molecules. And these particular molecules formed to make these four guys, who then formed into this band called the Beatles did all that work. I have think that was something metaphysical. Something alchemic. Something must be thought of as magic — with a “k” [laughs]. Am I being too far out?

. . . As you look ahead, what are the major issues facing us now?

To make some headway in world peace. It be brought if people with differences in the world today would realize that there are no differences — it’s an energy field, dude! What’s needed is the same old thing: peace and love. Not to be frivolous, but that is still the great aim.

The person who speaks most directly about her faith is Jane Fonda, in an interview with DeCurtis (who has written several articles for Beliefnet):

Somebody very hostile said to me, “Have you been saved?” I tap-danced around that, but later I asked a friend of mine who teaches Bible study, “What does that mean?” And she said, “What it meant to me was taking the next step.” Well, that’s all anybody had to say to me — I’m always ready to take the next step [laughs]! So I became a Christian.

And I remain a Christian, but I’m still on a journey to define what that means. I very much feel the presence of God. And then this person Jesus — I am utterly fascinated by this man. I feel that what he preached was revolutionary, and it’s totally what we need now. The most revolutionary statement anyone could make is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Whew, man. If we could live what he taught, everything would change. But it ain’t what goes by the name of Christianity right now.

Stephen Spielberg is the only person to discuss being Jewish, with movie critic Peter Travers:

I wasn’t popular in school, probably because I was Jewish in a predominantly gentile neighborhood. And also being this wimpy little kid whose hobby was scoffed at by other kids at school. I got out of that jam the minute I picked up a camera and took the bullies who had been preying on me for years and made them the stars in my 8mm movies.

… What worries you about the future?

As a Jew, I worry about the growing anti-Semitism in the world. As a father, I worry about my children growing up in a world where I see darkness.

And then we’re down to a few odds and ends.

Patti Smith tells Fricke why she “didn’t like the idea of a mass drug culture”:

I thought drugs were a sacred thing that American Indians used in sweat lodges and self-realization, that jazz musicians might use to speak to God. They were not a recreational tool. But people bought into the lifestyle. In the end, they got tired, burned out.

Martin Scorses speaks with Travers on an epiphany about Vietnam:

In “Taxi Driver,” you make Travis Bickle, the character played by Robert De Niro, represent the horror of Vietnam. What changed things for you?

Around 1965, I went into a local church one Sunday, and I heard the priest on the pulpit describe the Vietnam War as a holy war. That’s when I walked out. Something told me he’s dead wrong.

Former Grateful Dead singer Bob Weir tells Fricke about why he does not feel contaminated by the presence of Ann Coulter:

I was surprised to see recent photos of you backstage with Donald Trump and the conservative writer Ann Coulter. Don’t you find it strange that either of them would go anywhere near the Dead zone?

Ann’s a big fan. All I can say is, it takes all kinds [laughs]. They’re welcome to my shows. Everybody’s welcome. the night Ann Coulter was there, I had friends who were aghast — “You’re going to let her in?” C’mon, don’t you want to stand next to the person and see if you can feel anything, feel her humanity? I gotta at least see if she has any humanity about her. And she does.

Neil Young answers a question by Fricke:

There are a lot of Native American references in your music and artwork. Why did you identify so strongly with that culture?

I loved the simplicity and naturalness of it. The Indians are basically pagans. And that’s what I believe in: nature, whether God created it or it created itself. That’s my church — when I go to the forest, out into a big green field or in the water. I don’t need any preacher. I’ve been identifying with the moon cycles all my life. That’s what the Indians did — “How many moons since you’ve been here?”

Finally, interviewer Eric Bates asks Michael Moore to elaborate on why he’s tired of meetings in the basements of Unitarian churches. It’s nearly as good as Unitarians’ self-effacing jokes:

You once issued a passionate plea, saying that you didn’t want to go to any more meetings in the basements of Unitarian churches. How did we go from a place of real momentum in the Sixties to a handful of earnest but ineffective people scattered in church basements?

The left lost its sense of humor, then kind of lost its sense of humanness. It got caught up in jargon and forgot how to talk like a normal person. The art and culture that came out of this new rigidity wasn’t very entertaining. In fact, “entertaining” became a very bad word.

It’s the Calvinist, Marxist tradition of self-denial as a value: “Everything for the cause, nothing for the self.”

Exactly. Average working people generally don’t respond well to that sort of thing. It just becomes uncool — and we all want to gravitate toward the cool, right? When Roger & Me came out, the official left didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t understand that people go to the movies because they want to be entertained. If they wanted to hear a harangue, they’d go to a rally. If they wanted a sermon, they’d go to church.

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He heard the music of the spheres

EinsteinWhile interviewing Walter Isaacson on Wednesday’s Fresh Air, guest host Dave Davies raised the point that Albert Einstein has become an icon of unattainable genius. True, but he’s arguably the one scientist who most strongly attracted the affection of Americans. Whether because of his wonderfully untamed hair, his doleful eyes or that photo in which he sticks out his tongue, Einstein also became an icon of the scientist as approachable, and maybe even humble, human being. What other acclaimed scientist could have inspired Walter Matthau’s oddball role in the film I.Q.?

Time‘s excerpt from Isaacson’s new biography reinforce the notion of Einstein as a humble scientist, especially in his relation to God and faith.

Early on there is a glimpse of spiritual precociousness, even as the family maid called him “the dopey one”:

Consequently, when Albert turned 6 and had to go to school, his parents did not care that there was no Jewish one near their home. Instead he went to the large Catholic school in their neighborhood. As the only Jew among the 70 students in his class, he took the standard course in Catholic religion and ended up enjoying it immensely.

Despite his parents’ secularism, or perhaps because of it, Einstein rather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism. “He was so fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious strictures in every detail,” his sister recalled. He ate no pork, kept kosher and obeyed the strictures of the Sabbath. He even composed his own hymns, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school.

Later came disenchantment:

“Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of free thinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression.”

But later still came his connection with the God of Spinoza. Isaacson offers a pithy summary of an interview Einstein granted to George Sylvester Viereck, a son of Germany who eventually showed a troubling enthusiasm for Nazism:

Viereck began by asking Einstein whether he considered himself a German or a Jew. “It’s possible to be both,” replied Einstein. “Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind.”

Should Jews try to assimilate? “We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform.”

To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

You accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

… Do you believe in immortality? “No. And one life is enough for me.”

Most striking is Einstein’s attitude toward atheists:

“There are people who say there is no God,” he told a friend. “But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos,” he explained.

In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. “The fanatical atheists,” he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ — cannot hear the music of the spheres.”

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Thoroughly modern United Methodists

YarmulkeThis is the time of year when religion-beat specialists scramble to try to cover a liturgical parade of events in both Judaism and in all forms of Christianity. In the past few decades, one of the standard stories around this time of year has focused on the historical links between Passover and Holy Week, between the Passover meal and Holy Communion.

The Baltimore Sun found a story this year that took this kind of interfaith communication one step further. In some cases, educational Seders for Christian groups make some Jews nervous. But it appears that United Methodist officials in this region have taken this kind of work to a whole new level. Reporter Liz F. Kay’s story begins:

When Methodist clergy and congregations around Baltimore have questions about Jesus’ Jewish heritage, they can turn to their conference rabbi.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church appointed Rabbi Joshua Martin Siegel last year to help put the Jewish roots of the Protestant faith in context through Bible study and demonstration. …

(To) have a local Methodist organization put a rabbi on staff is an uncommon approach, said the Rev. Larry Pickens of the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

“It’s a unique way of approaching spirituality, and I think it also helps Christians understand the relationship we have with the Jewish faith,” Pickens said.

The rabbi leads a weekly study session on Bible readings. He also acts as a spiritual adviser for conference employees and writes a column for UM Connection, the conference’s newspaper.

methodist symbolThe story raises all kinds of questions and answers most of them. I have also, during my years on the religion beat, heard of all kinds of Christian groups — evangelical, mainline and Catholic — working with rabbis and Jewish scholars on issues of this kind. It’s an interesting trend.

However, I don’t think I’ve ever read a story that addressed this kind of work that mentioned a rabbi actually assuming a role of spiritual leadership in a Christian organization.

This makes me what to ask: What is this rabbi’s opinion of basic Christian doctrines linked to the identity of Jesus, to the role of the Christian Messiah in salvation? While she was at it, the reporter could have asked the same questions to the United Methodist leaders themselves.

I realize that there is a wide spectrum of belief and practice in the United Methodist Church on these issues. There are United Methodist evangelicals and there are United Methodist “Universalists,” when it comes to salvation (and lots of United Methodists are parked at doctrinal points in between). I also realize that there is no way a progressive Christian body such as this one would be working with a “Messianic Jew” or “Hebrew Christian” who believes that Jesus is the Messiah. That would be even more controversial.

I know all of that. I simply find it interesting that these topics never came up in this story.

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The New York Times explains Easter — not

paskhaReligion is a hard subject to pin down, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find a feature titled “On Easter, Symbolism and the Exuberance of Spring” in the Dining & Wine section of The New York Times.

I am not a regular food-pages reader, but it appears that the goal of writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ piece is to explain the mythical and religious symbols found in Italian and Mediterranean cooking this time of year. Thus, we read:

As the dull winter landscape of the Mediterranean breaks into fresh green life, the exuberance of holiday feasting neatly matches the exuberance of nature. The magic and mystery of Easter and Passover are firmly grounded in the realities of a Mediterranean springtime. The artichokes, asparagus, young fava beans and fresh green peas on the Easter table reflect that, as do the eggs that have piled up, uneaten throughout Lent, in the family larder.

I am sure many readers will be surprised to find that eggs have piled up in Catholic kitchens, since it would be hard to find many modern Catholics in the West who observe the ancient Lenten fast that avoids all meat and all dairy. However, this tradition is followed in the Eastern churches, both Orthodox and Catholic.

However, let us note that this reference does demonstrate that Jenkins appears to know something about the fasting traditions of the Lenten season, since she mentions those eggs in the first place.

In fact, there are all kinds of intelligent and appropriate religious and biblical references scattered throughout this feature story. Bravo. This is why it is rather interesting to bump into the following descriptions of the Christian and Jewish seasons that provide the context for the story, in the first place:

Even for those who no longer observe the traditional 40-day fast, Holy Week brings a palpable sense of anticipation. This Sunday, unusually, Western and Orthodox Easter celebrations fall on the same day, while Passover is observed throughout Holy Week and Easter weekend.

If Passover celebrates the resurrection of a people from the death of slavery in Egypt, Easter affirms the resurrection of individual souls. But both reflect ancient beliefs, lodged deep in the Mediterranean psyche, about the resurrection of the natural world after winter’s death.

OK, raise your hand — or click your mouse — if you think that most readers of a national newspaper will find this description of the meaning of Easter a bit, well, lacking. Also, raise your hand if you think that most synagogue-attending Jews will find it strange that the God of Moses was left out of the Passover equation.

I suggest a visit to a reference site — the “E” page at ReligionStylebook.org — offered by the professionals at the Religion Newswriters Association. There one can find the following definition of the most important day of the Christian year.

Easter: The major Christian holy day. It marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead three days after his crucifixion. In the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after March 21. If the full moon falls on a Sunday, Easter is the next Sunday. As a result, Easter may fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. The Eastern churches generally celebrate the holiday later than most other Christian churches, although sometimes the two celebrations fall on the same Sunday.

The Times reference isn’t totally wrong, of course. It just, well, misses the point.

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Anti-Trinitarian AP style revolt?

holytrinityA long time ago, in a post about the Grammy Awards, I raised a basic question about God-talk in The Associated Press Stylebook. Here is what I wrote at that time, in reference to a Los Angeles Daily News story quoting diva Mary J. Blige expressing thanks to “Father, God, lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

… I believe that Associated Press style would use an uppercase “L” in “Lord” and an upper-case “S” in “Savior.” Has there been a non-Trinitarian change in the journalism Bible that I missed, somehow?

I was not alone in asking this question. Soon after that, Frank “Bible Belt Blogger” Lockwood at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent me the link for another article that raised the same issue, this time from the sacred pages of The New York Times. The context of this reference is a profile of politico Marshall Wittmann, the press secretary for U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. Wittmann has also worked as top lobbyist for the Christian Coalition, a unique post for a practicing Jew.

Then there is this reference:

There are of course plenty of political people who have undergone philosophical evolutions over the years. But Mr. Wittmann, 53, has zigzagged in the extreme, from stints in left-leaning unions to right-wing policy shops. He describes his career as “eclectic,” saying he has always been drawn to independent thinkers. “The good lord has made me a contrarian,” Mr. Wittmann said.

The good lord has also blessed him with the gift of speaking in punchy and irresistible sound bites.

The question, of course, is whether the “lord” in this sentence is the “Lord God” of Israel. In his email, Lockwood raised a good question:

Should Lord be capitalized here? If so, should it be the good Lord, the Good Lord or (for those of you with King James Bibles) the good LORD?

Every since, I have been watching to see if I could find a consistent pattern for references to God in the Times and elsewhere. I cannot find a consistent pattern for a lowercasing of the names of the Judeo-Christian God and-or Trinity. Yet clearly this happens.

Meanwhile, page 106 of my newest copy of The Associated Press Stylebook still reads as follows:

Capitalize God in references to the deity of all monotheistic religions. Capitalize all noun references to the deity; God the Father, Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, etc. Lowercase personal pronouns: he, him, thee, thou.

Lowercase gods and goddesses in references to the deities of polytheistic religions. Lowercase god, gods and goddesses in references to false gods: He made money his god.

Some GetReligion readers have written me to ask if newspapers would dare to lowercase the “p” in the Prophet Muhammad. However, that is a totally different issue — falling under the style rule for the titles of religious leaders.

So let me ask the Godbeat — or godsbeat — professionals out there: Any theories as to what is going on? Have the rules been tweaked in your own newsrooms?

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We are family

parents understandMy husband and I are expecting a baby this August. During the AFC Championship Game in January, we were having a conversation with a friend who decided that if the baby is a boy, we should force him to become a football kicker. Our friend’s reasoning was that even relatively bad professional kickers make $400,000 a year. I told him to stop any such discussion because I hate it when parents force their children to fulfill the parents’ desires. Besides, I added, I want him to become a pastor.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Katherine Rosman had an interesting story about a different kind of relationship between parents and children. When children are more devout than their parents, relationships can get strained, she reports.

The parents of 16-year-old Kevin Ellstrand are self-described secular humanists who shun organized religion. Two years ago, Kevin says, he “started following Christ with all my heart.” He has taken a missionary trip to Mexico and participates in a weekly Bible study group.

In a time when many teens are having sex and taking drugs, his parents mostly consider his piety a blessing. They get upset, however, when Kevin explains that he doesn’t believe in evolution. “To me, this is appalling,” says his mother, Karen Byers, who has a doctorate in strategic management and was raised a Methodist. “We get into arguments, and voices get a little louder than they should.” Kevin says: “I don’t want my parents to go to hell for not believing in God. But that is what’s going to happen, and it really scares me.”

Rosman includes quite a few such stories about Christian, Jewish and Muslim youth. As far as the anecdotes go, the story is compelling. But her attempts to turn the reportage into a trend society are a bit disappointing:

While statistics on the number of devout young people are hard to come by, some groups that minister to the young report big gains. Young Life, an evangelical Christian ministry that focuses on children “disinterested” in religion, says more than 106,000 teens attended its programs on a weekly basis during the 2005-2006 school year, up from 66,362 12 years ago. “Mecca and Main Street,” a new book by Geneive Abdo, a senior analyst at the Gallup Organization’s Center for Muslim Studies, argues that a significant number of young U.S. Muslims are becoming substantially more devoted to Islam than their parents. In the Jewish community, a growing number of formerly secular young people are embracing an Orthodox lifestyle.

Rosman shows how some immigrant parents are particularly reticent to accept their children’s devotion. One Honduran immigrant is upset that her son is forgoing a psychology career for the Christian ministry because he promised her when he was a boy that he would support her. The son of Taiwanese immigrants was sent to Harvard with the expectation that he would become a corporate attorney. When he opted for Christian ministry his mother threatened to kill herself.

Holidays are particularly hard for families with different religious beliefs. Rosman looks at a secular Jewish family where one daughter became a Baal Teshuva (Hebrew for “master of return”). Rosman says that’s the name Orthodox Jews give to secular Jews who become observant:

Last year, Philip Ackerman of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and his wife wanted to take their three children and all of their grandchildren on a cruise to celebrate his 70th birthday. Among Mr. Ackerman’s children is Azriela Jaffe, who is a BT and the author of a book about how newly observant Jews can get along with their less-observant relatives, “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home?” Because the cruise ship didn’t offer kosher food, and the itinerary would require travel on the Jewish Sabbath, Mrs. Jaffe and her family declined the invitation.

The Jaffes celebrate Jewish holidays separately from their extended family because they aren’t observant. Secular holidays such as Thanksgiving are celebrated together when everyone travels to the Jaffes’ kosher home in Highland Park, N.J. “There is no compromise. It’s her way or the highway,” Mr. Ackerman said during a phone interview before abruptly hanging up at his wife’s urging.

Like every Wall Street Journal story I read, Rosman’s article is well written. The stories about Jewish, Christian and Muslim children interacting with their parents were all interesting in their own way. It made me wish that each religion could have had its own story. I know that there are similarities between each, but it would be nice to get an even deeper look into this understandable conflict.

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James Cameron to Christians: It’s over

James Cameron vs. jesus christThe hype machine for James Cameron‘s documentary The Lost Tomb of Christ has hit Anna Nicole Smith levels of ridiculousness.

An allegation that Jesus Christ’s body has been found is an interesting story. The fact that some big-name moviemaker is behind it adds to the spice and makes it a very legitimate story. But the silliness of the headlines, the hypothetical evidence, poor background information (likely fed by Cameron’s PR machine) and the hype factor all add up to give people who take religious issues seriously just another reason to ignore the media. And that’s too bad.

The story at this point is an embarrassment to reporters. It’s why they have a bad name in religious circles. As Amy Welborn said, “It’s nonsense, but you know what … Easter is coming!!!

When did a filmmaker turned amateur historian become a reliable source for questions related to archeology? Well, since his facts were based on “sound statistics,” as he put it. We all know what they teach journalists in training about statistics (“He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts — for support rather than illumination” — Andrew Lang).

The documentary is running on The Discovery Channel on March 4. Yes, this is the same channel that airs documentaries that make you want to believe we are visited frequently by UFOs.

One of my favorite quotes comes from an Associated Press piece by Marshall Thompson that draws on interviews the filmmakers did with various television stations:

Cameron told NBC’S “Today” show that statisticians found “in the range of a couple of million to one in favor of it being them.” Simcha Jacobovici, the Toronto filmmaker who directed the documentary, said the implications “are huge.”

“But they’re not necessarily the implications people think they are. For example, some believers are going to say, well this challenges the resurrection. I don’t know why, if Jesus rose from one tomb, he couldn’t have risen from the other tomb,” Jacobovici told “Today.”

The range of a million to one? What kind of statistical basis is that for any serious discussion, and what is Jacobovici trying to tell us with that cryptic statement about the implications? It confuses me. Things like that should be explained.

Another problem with the AP piece is including this comment by Cameron:

Cameron said his critics should withhold comment until they see his film.

“I’m not a theologist [sic]. I’m not an archaeologist. I’m a documentary film maker,” he said.

coffinSo let’s all follow Cameron’s advice and not write about the film until it comes out? Um, no. He’s not a theologian or an archaeologist, but just a documentary filmmaker. Then why are news organizations reporting his words as gospel truth (pardon the pun)? This is a highly scripted media campaign that is relying on all the free publicity provided by eager reporters looking for a story to write. The final paragraph of the AP report, relating to the experts who heavily criticized the documentary, is especially ironic:

None of the experts interviewed by The Associated Press had seen the whole documentary.

Did Thompson see the film?

My favorite press release news article comes from our friends at Newsweek, who were tipped off to the news much earlier than the rest of us, giving them time to put together a 2,100-word piece documenting the controversy.

Reporters Lisa Miller and Joanna Chen cite all the usual naysayers but frame their words as equal to that of the moviemakers, whose credibility in these matters is self-admittedly lower.

Time magazine’s Middle East blog post on the matter is lame:

Brace yourself. James Cameron, the man who brought you ‘The Titanic[,]‘ is back with another blockbuster. This time, the ship he’s sinking is Christianity.

The New York Times is no better:

Raising the Titanic, Sinking Christianity?

The media pack will likely follow this story to its airing in March. We will have gained little from it other than the knowledge that the media can be conned by clever PR tactics into writing a set of dubious stories that do little to sort out established facts from amateurish speculation.

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