Ghost in that Dallas club for men?

Every now and then, elite organizations such as the New York Times run strange, colorful stories about those strange people who live out there in flyover country, by which I mean the Bible Belt and other locations between the Hollywood sign and the Hudson River.

What we have here is a classic example of this genre, a simple news feature that ran on the Op-Ed page of the Times for some unknown reason. Still, a GetReligion reader noticed the religious content of the piece and sent it to me.

It’s hard to say that the story contains a religion “ghost,’ since the religious content is right out in the open. In fact, this story is built on one of the oldest and most resilient stereotypes linked to Dallas (the city of my birth, to be perfectly honest). Supposedly, there are as many strip clubs in Dallas as there are Baptist churches. This “fact” is usually attributed to unscientific surveys (wink, wink), which almost certainly means that the journalists involved visited way more strip clubs than churches. Nevertheless, this old, old, old cliche is an interesting comment about Sunbelt culture.

Thus, here is the top of the “Naked Capitalism” feature:

Jack Rubey’s fabled Carousel Club may be long gone, but the business of stripping is alive and well in Dallas, as a highly unscientific sampling of area clubs recently showed. While their alcohol sales remain 10 percent to 12 percent below the pre-recession peak, the clubs seem to have fared better in the recession than any other sector of the local economy, a commentary on human nature with implications too profound to be exhausted in a short Op-Ed article. …

At the Lodge, Dallas’s most upscale club, alcohol sales are up more than 11 percent from last year. “We’re doing better than real estate,” is how Michael Precker, the co-manager, put it. Even in a market as competitive as Dallas, which is home to upward of 40 topless clubs, neither Mr. Precker nor Dawn Rizos, the chief executive of the Lodge, could think of a single club that’s closed its doors during the past two years. But what, a neophyte might wonder, made Dallas a mecca for strip clubs?

“Because we’re in the Bible Belt,” said Ms. Rizos. “There’s a church on every block, and men just like to sneak around. Most of our customers are married men. They get a little bored with their wives, they can come in here and get some flirtation, our girls make them feel good and special, then they go home and feel so guilty about it that they treat their wives really nicely.”

“It’s very Baptist,” she continued. “If you’re going to give up sin, you got to sin.”

The Lodge has received lots of media coverage through the years, in part because of a mini-media storm linked to the club receiving an enlightened capitalism “award” from Newt Gingrich — which was retracted once the GOP leader discovered that this was actually a “club for gentlemen,” as the saying goes.

This current essay’s dig at the Baptists was totally predictable and, as I said, very old news.

However, it’s more than possible that the story contains another religion ghost. A tip from a Texas friend quickly confirmed this to be true.

The owners of The Lodge, you see, are prominent members of the Greek community. The life of Nick Rizos is the classic story of the immigrant who made good. He even married the daughter of a powerful local couple. You can read many of the details in this Dallas Morning News story from 2009.

The Rizos in this News report are portrayed as surprisingly normal, yet wealthy, Dallas folks who are a just a bit tainted by the family business. Their status, however, raises a question that almost anyone who has lived for a decade or two in Dallas would ask: Where do they go to church?

Well, they are Greeks.

Thus, with a few clicks of a computer mouse one can find this copy of a bulletin (click for the .pdf document) from giant Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas. There we find a list of major donors (stewards) that includes this reference — Nick & Dawn Rizos.

Based on what I know about Dallas, this does not surprise me. I am also not sure that this fact says much — pro or con — about this parish. It does, however, seem like an open door to some questions that might yield insights into the Rizos family.

Maybe this story contains a religion ghost after all, one less obvious and, thus, more interesting than the predictable pot shot at Texas Baptists. As a former Texas Baptist who is now a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, I would like to see a scribe pursue this ghost, especially one at the New York Times or the Dallas Morning News.

PHOTOS: A PR shot of one venue in The Lodge. Dawn Rizos on MSNBC, with Michael Precker, the club’s co-manager.

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NPR wrestles with Orthodox calendars

It must be so confusing to try to cover the churches of the East in the context of North America. Things are so complicated here in the New World.

Which brings us to a lovely little NPR story about that wonderful intersection between faith, family and food that is so common in the various ethnic branches of Eastern Orthodoxy and, of course, most other forms of religion around the world. Think Garrison Keillor and sweet corn or, even better, that cheesy broccoli-and-rice casserole (often with chicken) that is so important in Wednesday-night church suppers across the Lutheran Midwest. Or cue up the Jon Stewart jokes about Jewish foods (or not-so-Jewish foods).

One of the many reasons that the Orthodox are known for lively feasts is that fact that we spend so much time during church year in various kinds of fasts. At the end of Great and Holy Lent, people are going to want to eat meat and dairy early and often. And the same goes for Nativity Lent.

This brings us to NPR and its story about pierogies — those wonderful dumplings that you can fill with veggies, with cheese, with the meats of your choice or any combination of the above. Thus, in this lovely (and lengthy) chunk of this tasty story we are told:

Many Americans are busy sweeping up tinsel, but Ukrainian, Russian and other Orthodox churches are preparing for Christmas this week. And at the Christmas Eve feast, most of the faithful will eat pierogies. These dumplings are traditionally prepared at home, but recently they’ve become something of a parish industry.

Myra Petrouchtchak sets up shop in the basement of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church, a small parish of about 50 people in Southeast Portland. She’s sitting with a few dozen others, stuffing and shaping potato pierogies by hand — more than 2,000 pierogies. They’ve developed a following in the neighborhood.

“People come here and say that those pierogies remind them about their childhood,” she says. “Not only Ukrainian people — some German people, Polish people. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my grandmother used to do that.’ ”

Petrouchtchak and her husband, the priest at this parish, started weekly pierogi sales when they came to the church five years ago. They’ve raised enough money to renovate the church basement. But from the beginning, this was more than just a fundraiser.

“It was good for the parish as a community,” says Petrouchtchak, “because many young women didn’t know how to make pierogies or didn’t have time to make pierogies at home. But here, all children can learn how to do it and carry on the tradition.”

Please note that the word “tradition” has a small “t.” That matters to the Orthodox. Still, it’s nice to see this kind of practical, affectionate nod to the small-t traditions that are handed down from generation to generation to generation, often in kitchens (at home and at church).

But I digress. The problem is right there in the lede.

To see if you can spot it, consider the top of this localized Orthodox Christmas story from Kitchener, up in Ontario, Canada.

WATERLOO REGION – Christmas may be over for many of us, but for some Orthodox Christians, the holy day is yet to come.

Many Eastern-rite churches mark Christmas on Jan. 7.

Note the presence of the word “some,” as in “for SOME Orthodox Christians, the holy day is yet to come.”

That’s right, some Orthodox Christians celebrate on Jan. 7 according to the old Julian calendar. But many more — at least here in North America — celebrate Christmas from Dec. 25 until Jan. 5, following the newer Gregorian calendar used in the West. The Orthodox worldwide still use the Julian calendar for Pascha (known as Easter in the West).

Thus, the lede in the NPR story should be corrected. It needs some kind of qualifier to let listeners know that some Orthodox believers (even some Russians) ate their pierogies early, early on Dec. 25th. Others will do so — as the story says — on Jan. 7th. It’s a small mistake, I know. But you will see it crop up in more than a few news stories in the next day or two.

Meanwhile, lovers of pierogies also need to know that it is highly unlikely that they will find them in the parish halls of Greek churches, whether we are talking about old calendar folks or new. Pierogies at a Greek feast? That just wouldn’t be traditional.

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Tragic new year for Egyptian Christians

I went to church on New Year’s Eve, as many do. In the Lutheran church, we mark the eve of the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord. Many black Protestant congregations have Watch Night services, commemorating the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Many other Christians simply mark the new year. It’s so easy to take for granted the peace and ease with which we attended church in the United States.

But in Baghdad, the victims of one of the latest attacks on Christians were buried. Alexandria, Egypt, worshipers leaving their mass were greeted by a powerful car bomb, which killed at least 21 and injured another 100.

There is a lot of coverage of this horrible attack, as you might imagine. You can watch a video at Reuters, and read stories at the BBC, Reuters (with a helpful fact box about violence and death Christians in Egypt have faced in the last two years), Los Angeles Times and (with a little digging) CNN. I should warn you that the pictures and videos on some of these sites are very graphic.

If you read just one story, though, you could do worse than this Associated Press report by Maggie Michael and Lee Keath. It begins by discussing the angry protests that broke out in the wake of the bombing. Here’s how the attack is described:

Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the midnight Mass at the Saints Church in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, said Father Mena Adel, a priest at the church. The service had just ended, and some worshippers were leaving the building when the bomb went off about a half hour after midnight, he said.

“The last thing I heard was a powerful explosion and then my ears went deaf,” Marco Boutros, a 17-year-old survivor, said from his hospital bed. “All I could see were body parts scattered all over — legs and bits of flesh.”

Blood splattered the facade of the church, a painting of Jesus inside, and a mosque across the street. The blast mangled at least six cars on the street, setting some ablaze. As bodies were taken away after daybreak, some in the congregation waved white sheets with the sign of the cross emblazoned on them with what appeared to be the victim’s blood.

Health Ministry spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shahine said the death toll stood at 21, with 97 wounded, almost all Christians. Among the wounded were the three policemen and an officer guarding the church.

The article describes some of the history of attacks against Christians. We are reminded of the bombings from 2004 to 2006 that hit three tourist resorts in the Sinai peninsula, killing 125 people. Is this homegrown terrorism or the result of foreign meddling? The article looks at the issue from all sides and explains that Alexandria is no longer the cosmopolitan city of old but becoming a stronghold for Islamic hard-liners. In 2006, there were stabbings at three Alexandria churches. The article also reflects on the Islamist terror wave of the 1990s, which peaked with a massacre of 60 tourists in Luxor. What contributes to the conflict?:

Christians, mainly Orthodox Copts, are believed to make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s mainly Muslim population of nearly 80 million people, and they have grown increasingly vocal in complaints about discrimination. In November, hundreds of Christians rioted in the capital, Cairo, smashing cars and windows after police violently stopped the construction of a church. The rare outbreak of Christian unrest in the capital left one person dead.

The bombing was the deadliest violence involving Christians in Egypt since at least 20 people, mostly Christians, were killed in sectarian clashes in a southern town in 1999. In the most recent significant attack, seven Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting on a church in southern Egypt during celebrations for the Orthodox Coptic Christmas a year ago.

Eruptions of Muslim-Christian violence are often intermeshed with local tribal or personal disputes. But many Christians also blame rising Islamic extremism and anti-Christian sentiment and accuse the government of always pointing the finger at lone renegades or mentally ill people to avoid addressing sectarian problems and possibly angering Muslims.

As we see in this last excerpt, the reporters work to flesh out the complexity of the conflict and do so in conversational and vibrant language.

Reuters also had a good report, one that explained some of the technical details in a helpful way:

A statement posted on an Islamist website called on Muslims to “bomb churches during the Christmas holiday when churches are crowded.” It was not clear who was behind the statement that listed churches in Egypt and elsewhere, including Alexandria’s Church of the Two Saints that was targeted.

The Orthodox Coptic Christmas is on January 7.

Pope Benedict XVI condemned the widening campaign against Christians in his homily and the AP covered it as well. He said the lack of religious freedom is a threat to world security:

“In the face of the threatening tensions of the moment, especially in the face of discrimination, of abuse of power and religious intolerance that today particularly strikes Christians, I again direct a pressing invitation not to yield to discouragement and resignation,” he said. …

The Vatican is very worried that a steady exodus of minority Christians from Iraq will permanently reduce their numbers and discourage the wider community of Christians in the Middle East.

The article does a good job of relating the consistency of the Pope’s message as well as its significance. And for other in-depth coverage of the larger problem, you may be interested in this comprehensive report of violence against Christians throughout Muslim-dominant countries in Le Figaro, a conservative French paper. If you don’t read French, Google translate does a pretty good moving it into English here. This handy map shows where the state forbids the practice of Christianity (red) and where violence against Christians is endemic (orange).

I know that stateside (and elsewhere) the media are more focused on Islamophobia these days. But if Vatican reporter John Allen’s New Year prediction is true, there will be growing interest in and use of the term “Christianophobia” in the days to come. Let us know if you see any particularly good coverage of the plight of Christians in other countries.

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Not so bright photo cutline

Trust me, I have the greatest of sympathies for general-assignment reporters who find themselves forced to wade into the complex details of doctrine, rite and history that are frequently served up by day-to-day events that transpire on the religion beat.

This is true in religious movements ancient and new.

How is anyone supposed to make sense out of the whirling world of emerging, post-evangelical, neo-charismatic, nondenominational, free-church Protestantism, where there is often no legal or doctrinal authority higher than the pastor (ordained by who knows who) and the board of deacons-elders-presbyters-directors who hires him?

And in the ancient world, there are various forms of Orthodoxy to consider that overlap in the same regions with the competing claims of Rome. Which patriarch is on first? Who’s on second? Is the man in robes on third old calendar or new, is he oriental Orthodox or canonical? Really, says who?

So pity the copy editor who drafted the following photo caption for Reuters:

Palestinian Roman Orthodox Christian girl

A Palestinian Roman Orthodox Christian girl looks at candles as they are lit inside an old cave which residents say is used as a church, in the West Bank village of Aboud near Ramallah, ahead of Christmas December, 16, 2010.

A veteran GetReligion reader was both confused and amused by this unique reference, writing: “The picture shows Palestinians lighting candles in a cave in Ramalla, but IDs them as ‘Roman Orthodox’? What is Roman Orthodoxy?”

Good question.

It is possible, of course, that these Palestinian Christians were simply Eastern Orthodox, most likely linked to the ancient — to say the least — Church of Jerusalem. Then again, they may have been Eastern Rite Catholics, part of a flock that is loyal to the pope of Rome, yet one uses rites that are almost identical to those used by the Eastern Orthodox.

Then again, the photographer or reporter at the scene may have heard a spokesperson for the church use a very ancient name that sometimes appears in Eastern Orthodox rites. Consider these few lines from the Chrismation rite used when converts enter the church:

Bishop: Hast thou renounced all ancient and modern heresies and false doctrines which are contrary to the teachings of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Eastern Church?

Answer: I have.

Bishop: Dost thou desire to be united unto the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Eastern Church?

Answer: I desire it with all my heart.

Like I said, this is complex territory. It’s easy to make mistakes, even when doing one’s best not to.

Then again, there is always a chance that we are dealing with journalists who, when they see candles and people making the sign of the cross, immediately think of Rome — no matter what.

Be careful out there, folks.

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Park51 quietly returns to news

Were you enjoying the fact that the media had more or less dropped any coverage of the proposed Islamic Center near ground zero? Well, it’s back in the news with a couple of updates. There’s the rumor that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia might want to buy shuttered St. Vincent’s Medical Center and move the Park 51 mosque to a new Islamic cultural center he would build on the site (story in the New York Post).

And then there’s the revelation that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration helped the mosque organizers more than was publicly known. I believe the New York Daily News broke the story but it’s since appeared in a variety of other New York media outlets have reported on the latest. Here’s the Wall Street Journal:

The chairman of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission allegedly wanted “political cover” before denying landmark status to a building situated on the site of the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero, giving critics ammunition in their legal quest to stop the project, records released Thursday showed.

The records–sought by the project’s opponents and released by City Hall–show members of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration working very closely with the organizers of the project, known as Park51, to combat public opposition and navigate various governmental hurdles. One city official ghost-wrote a letter for the project’s organizers.

Aides to Mr. Bloomberg, an outspoken champion of the organizers’ right to build the mosque, said the slew of emails reflects the typical back-and-forth between government officials and members of the community. The project’s opponents said the records show the Bloomberg administration was in cahoots with the organizers. The records, they allege, raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Aug. 3 vote, which paved the way for the project to rise two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Another story reports that the city’s Community Affairs Commissioner drafted a letter for Daisy Khan, wife of the proposed mosque’s imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, to send to the head of the local community board ahead of its vote on the project. The Commissioner wrote that she hoped that the letter would “get the media attention off of everyone’s backs.”

The story does a fine job of getting the viewpoints from the administration and its critics. But one thing I would have appreciated was some feedback from First Amendment experts. Does the administration cross a line or not? It’s hard to make a judgment without some input from people who study or litigate this for a living and can help us with some perspective.

Another thing that would help is information about whether the administration has helped other groups navigate the New York City bureaucracy. This New York Post follow-up provides Mayor Bloomberg’s defense of his administration’s advocacy on behalf of Park51:

On the radio yesterday, Bloomberg rejected suggestions that the city’s stance on the controversial project — known as both Cordoba House and Park51 — had been “rigged from the start.”

“They asked for help. When the pope came to town, the Catholic New York Archdiocese asked for help. We did the same thing,” the mayor told WOR-AM host John Gambling.

“We wrote letters for them and figured out who they should go to, ’cause they wanted to tell community boards and other churches . . . that there might be traffic and whatever.”

Bloomberg also noted that the city assisted a group of Orthodox Jews in erecting a sukkah in Bryant Park and likened the efforts to official support of the business community.

It’s helpful to find out what the mayor’s defense of his actions is. But is anyone wondering the same thing I am? Remember this church? The one that was destroyed on September 11 when Muslim terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center towers, causing them to come crashing down? The one whose congregation claims they’ve had trouble with government entities reneging on agreements? I think the natural question is to ask Bloomberg what, specifically, he’s done to help that church. The latest on St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox (picture above from its web site), for what it’s worth:

The leaders of St. Nicholas Church, the small whitewashed Greek Orthodox Church destroyed by falling debris on Sept. 11, 2001, have begun legal action against the Port Authority demanding that the church be rebuilt under the terms of a deal worked out several years ago.

A claim filed against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by church leaders and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America on Monday accused the agency, which is overseeing Ground Zero’s rebuilding, of engaging in “arrogance, bad faith and fraudulent conduct” and “shabby and unlawful treatment.”

So while the reporting on this story has been fine and good, I think it could be improved by putting the advocacy on behalf of the Park 51 mosque in context of what, if anything, has been done to help the Orthodox Church that has resorted to legal action to get their project moving. And include some knowledgeable First Amendment experts with their takes on what the courts have said about such advocacy by government entities.

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A word on tmatt’s Christmas ‘rant’

Let me start by offering a “Merry Christmas” to all of you pro-tradition Christmas lovers who are celebrating the full season between Dec. 25th and the all-to-overlooked Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6th. We are talking about two crucial days that form bookends that support one another.

This brings me to a “Houses of Worship” article that ran in the Dec. 24th issue of the Wall Street Journal. I have received quite a few emails and Facebook messages about this, for reasons that will soon be apparent. I hesitated to write about this here, except that it actually focuses on a few issues of history and fact that affect reporters who cover both the ancient churches and the many Protestant flocks that place little or no emphasis on the Christian calendar.

The article was written by a Protestant writer named John Wilson who edits the respected bimonthly called Books & Culture, which is part of the wider world of the company best known for publishing Christianity Today. Here’s the headline:

Do Christians Overemphasize Christmas?

Some theologians claim that Easter is more important. That’s wrong. When we celebrate one, we celebrate the other.

Part of the problem is tied up those words “some theologians,” especially when linked with the words “more important.” Here’s the extended opening of this piece:

One of the hallowed Christmas traditions is the Anti-Christmas Rant. It takes many forms, and anyone reading this newspaper will be familiar with most of them. But unless you routinely hang out with people who argue about theology the way many Americans argue about politics or football, you may not have encountered one variant of the Rant that has been gaining momentum in recent years.

It goes like this: Christmas isn’t simply bad for all the usual reasons — the grotesque materialism that its celebration encourages, the assault of sentimentality and kitsch that somehow seems to grow worse every year, and the smarmy wrapping of it all in the most inflated spiritual rhetoric.

On top of all that, says the Ranter, there is a grievous theological error. In placing so much emphasis on Christmas, Christians fail to grasp the meaning of their own story — in which Easter clearly should take pride of place. This complaint isn’t new, but it’s been voiced more frequently of late. And not from the fringes, where members of tiny sects patiently explain that Christmas and Easter are pagan holidays that conscientious Christians must boycott. Well-respected voices are making the argument.

There’s Terry Mattingly of getreligion.org, for one, and N.T. Wright, a former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. And Rodney Clapp, who presides over Brazos Press, a major Christian publisher.

Where to start with what’s wrong with this analysis?

First, let me join in the views of many of my online correspondents who noted that I should be proud to be included as a “Ranter” in this lofty circle. Indeed, that is true!

What does Wilson say is the key content of our rants? Well, here is one of the key quotes selected from Clapp:

“The climax of the four Gospels is not Christmas … but the events we celebrate as Easter.”

Now, as it turns out, my ranting views are not actually quoted in the WSJ piece.

However, I know from correspondence with Wilson that it was a GetReligion post written last Easter that underlined our sincere differences of belief. Click here to read the whole “What’s Easter about, anyway?” piece, if you wish. Here is an early chunk of material that includes my alleged rant.

My family returned to Baltimore last night after celebrating a joyful Pascha (that’s Easter in the ancient churches of the East) at a church in Salem, Mass., with family and soon-to-be family. Anyway, as we drove home from the airport we made a tiny detour to buy some fried chicken — which is the kind of thing that Orthodox people do when they have a teen-aged son and the family has gone vegan for all of Great Lent.

As we walked in the store, there was an interesting dialogue going on between a patron and the young man behind the counter. To cut to the chase, they were listing all of the reasons that they dislike Easter.

Well, you know, the holiday kind of messed up some people’s work schedules, there weren’t any good parties to go to and, other than the odd chocolate bunny or two, the whole thing was a bit of downer in the gifts department. And then there was the fact that it was so much more religious than Christmas. What was that all about?

Chicken in hand, I joined in for a minute or two. There isn’t any doubt, I noted, that Easter is the single most important day in the Christian calendar.

This statement drew puzzled looks. Easter, asked the guy behind the counter, is more important than Christmas? Why? Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, he said. Easter was about “all that rising from the dead stuff. Right?”

Right, I said.

Please note that in this rather humble exchange I referenced the traditions and rites of the Christian calendar. It’s also crucial that the marketplace apologist with whom I was arguing was offended by the intensely Christian content of the Easter season.

What? As opposed to the faith-free season of Christmas?

Here is the ultimate irony. I have, in the past few decades, poured out oceans of ink arguing that — in the context of post-Christian America — hardly anyone is celebrating the actual 12-day Christmas season, as defined in Christian doctrine and traditions. In fact, I may have written more articles and posts about this subject than any other linked to worship life in the modern church. I mean, click here or, if you dare, here.

In short, I am about as pro-Christmas and Epiphany as a guy can get. I would argue that Christmas — the actual season — doesn’t get enough MSM coverage, as opposed to “The Holidays,” the cultural phenomenon in the marketplace.

I would go even further the say that the other great feasts of the Incarnation — especially that of the Annunciation — are sinfully overlooked in most churches, especially in Protestant sanctuaries (but sadly in Catholic and Orthodox settings as well). Thus, these feasts get very little news coverage, as well.

But that isn’t the real issue here, methinks.

Based on the content of the WSJ article (included material that was edited out), I am confident that Bishop Wright and Clapp would join me in wanting to ask Wilson this question: So simply noting the historical fact that Christmas is the faith’s second-ranked feast (with Advent/Nativity Lent as the second-longest penitential season), in comparison with Pascha as the great feast of feasts (preceded by Great and Holy Lent as the longest and most intense penitential season) is a rant against Christmas?

One more question: Saying things like this will get you lumped, even tangentially, in the Wall Street Journal with fringe folks who claim that Christmas should not be celebrated at all?

Now, I think I had better stop right there — before I am tempted to rant.

Meanwhile, let me once again urge GetReligion readers to be alert to mainstream-media coverage of the 12-day Christmas season and/or Epiphany. And, once again, let me offer to those who are celebrating this great fast of the Incarnation: Merry Christmas. And to the Orthodox: Christ is born! Glorify Him!

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DADT and last rites; chaplaincy questions (again)

In the wake of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a few mainstream journalists are still trying to get a handle on what happens next with issues of religious liberty in the U.S. military.

For example, I had a conversation with a national-level religion reporter or two the other day and the conversations started with the following kind of statement: “You know, we can’t find religious leaders who are going to pull their chaplains if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed. There really isn’t a story there.”

Of course not. That was never the issue.

The issue has always been what, if anything, happens to culturally conservative chaplains — most Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists, Muslims, evangelical and high-church Anglicans, Pentecostals, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc. — after repeal. I have not seen a single statement saying that mere repeal would cause an exodus. Note carefully what two prominent leaders actually said, in letters to military leaders about this issue (as quoted in my Scripps Howard column on this topic):

If “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed, “no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted,” noted Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services. While Catholic chaplains must always show compassion, they “can never condone — even silently — homosexual behavior.”

A letter from Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America to the chaplains board was even more blunt: “If our chaplains were in any way … prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as ‘prejudice’ or the denunciation of homosexuality as ‘hate language,’ or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service.”

Obviously, the flip side of this coin applies for the left, with many Lutherans, Presbyterians, mainstream Episcopalians, United Church of Christ clergy, American Baptists, Reform Jews and others having every right to express the pro-gay rights views that have been adopted by their church establishments (if not all of their congregations).

So while most of the mainstream press coverage (sample Washington Post report here) moves on to the next round of DADT politics (look for hearings on many implementation issues, including treatment of chaplains, in the new House of Representatives) it helps for religion-beat reporters to realize that the chaplaincy issue has not been settled.

As I stated not that long ago, it’s crucial to realize that the debates about the rights and responsibilities of military chaplains are decades old and certainly did not start with DADT. For years, most of the controversy came from secularists who — with good cause — feared the creation of a state-mandated, even if lowest-common-denominator religion funded with tax dollars.

For example: How many Wiccans are in the military? Quite a few. Where do they serve? Now, how many Wiccan chaplains are there? Maybe one? Where do they serve? One location, if any. How has that worked out? Not very well.

How many Wiccans feel comfortable with a Pentecostal pastor, a Muslim imam, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an evangelical Lutheran or anyone from another faith leading their rites (if they are allowed to do so under their own vows)? Now, many forms of pagan faith do not have formal ordination procedures (while some do). Who approves the appointment of a layperson as a chaplain? How do a small circle of pagan chaplains serve believers on bases spread out around the world?

This is an extreme example, in terms of the numbers, but the principles are what matter. Some chaplains simply cannot serve as substitutes for others. Some can. Some cannot. A liberal Episcopalian might make a grand substitute for a liberal United Methodist. She would make a poor substitute for a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an Eastern Orthodox priest or an imam, a Southern Baptist pastor, etc., etc.

Yet that is the policy and church-state experts on the left and the right are going to have their own reasons for feeling tense. Here are the facts, as stated in that excellent CNN.com report that I recently praised:

“Some feared repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell might limit their individual freedom of expression and free exercise of religion, or require them to change their personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality,” the report says. “The views expressed to us in these terms cannot be downplayed or dismissed.” But, it said, “Service members will not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs; they must, however, continue to respect and serve with others who hold different views and beliefs.”

The same holds true for the military’s chaplain service, the report says. “Chaplains, in the context of their religious ministry, are not required to take actions inconsistent with their religious beliefs, but must still care for all Service members,” it says.

As I said before, the key is how military leaders and lawyers for activist groups choose to define the word “care.”

Care could mean someone saying, “Under my ordination vows, I honestly have a conflict of interest in offering the help that you are requesting or affirming key details of your beliefs. However, I will do everything I can to get you in contact with a clergy person representing your faith or a chaplain who is acceptable to you.” That is painful and awkward, obviously, but people of good will could make it work. Then again, improper “care” could mean an openly gay Catholic turning in his or her priest who advocates the teachings of the church in a sermon, a chat over coffee or even, heaven forbid, during confession.

Let me stress that the codes guiding the chaplains have long stated that they are allowed freedom of conscience AND they are expected to care for all. The tensions have been there for some time, on the doctrinal left and the right. It is hard to have the state govern the acts and consciences of women and men — on the left and on the right — who have taken vows to a higher power. The conflicts have been real — before DADT.

So what does this look like in practice? Over at USA Today, veteran religion Cathy Lynn Grossman offered these scenarios at the Faith & Reason weblog:

If your loved one in uniform were wounded or dying, would you be all right with a chaplain at his or her side who withheld comforting prayers because your loved one is gay?

What if the chaplain’s view was that the most loving thing he could do would be to offer the evangelical vision of Christian truth that the chaplain believes is the only path to heaven?

That’s a perfect statement of half of the equation.

First, I cannot imagine any chaplain withholding prayers of comfort to a soldier in that circumstance. Notice that Grossman assumed that the gay soldier is not an evangelical of some kind. It is also assumed that the gay soldier is sexually active, as opposed to a celibate gay who affirms centuries of traditional Christian doctrines on faith and marriage. There are all kinds of variations here.

But let’s assume that this is a gay soldier who is secular or from a progressive flock that fully affirms homosexuality in all expressions. Then let’s assume that her chaplain is an outspoken Southern Baptist. The potential is there for the chaplain to voice offensive doctrines, right? And another chaplain may be miles away. Or the chaplain may be an Orthodox or Catholic priest who can offer words of comfort, but perhaps not the precise words of comfort sought by the soldier and his or her companion or companions (in the sense of friends who are with them at that moment).

Was proper “care” given? Is “care,” in this case, defined by the military or the body that ordained the chaplain? Or is “care” defined by the family of the fallen?

Now, the dying soldier is Hindu or a member of another polytheistic faith and the chaplain is Muslim.

Now, the dying soldier is a traditional Roman Catholic and the chaplain is Southern Baptist, a female Episcopal priest, a Reform rabbi, a Unitarian, a Pentecostal pastor (who rejects Catholicism), etc. etc. Who says the last rites and offers a final blessing or the Eucharist?

Now, the dying soldier is a Southern Baptist and the chaplain is a Mormon.

Now, the dying soldier is a Muslim and the chaplain is Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Wiccan, etc. etc.

Grossman’s scenario is perfectly valid and raises questions that should trouble all people of good will. But the variations on this scenario go on and on, don’t they?

That’s the story. The concerns on left and right are valid.

What are the options? They are three:

(1) Find some way to end the chaplaincy program (under the assumption that if equal access is not possible, then closing down the chaplaincy program is the only legal option that is fair to all).

(2) Allow clergy to serve without violating their ordination vows (with the knowledge that, even when working with people of good will, this imperfect system will cause tensions and accusations of “hate speech”).

(3) The establishment of state-mandated and government-funded religious rites and rules of conduct of chaplains, mandating that expressions of the beliefs of many clergy are acceptable and that expressions of opposing beliefs are not acceptable. Some chaplains would argue that option (3) is already in place, but it is inconsistently enforced.

So what is the next wrinkle in the story? Congressional debates about freedom of conscience and the meaning of the word “care.” Stay tuned.

TOP PHOTO: Image from the U.S. Air Force website.

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Ultra-tasty story; tiny hint of ghost

You know how, in the competitions during the summer Olympics, the divers’ scores are often calculated on the basis of the difficult of the dives that they are attempting?

There are times when religion reporting is like that.

What we have here is a perfectly wonderful Boston Globe story about a gourmet chef who just happens to cook in a shelter for homeless and poor women. I only know about this story because of a hat tip from my wonderful daughter, Sarah. However, I am sure that if I had read this story without her insider knowledge, I still would have asked the same basic journalistic question.

But let’s start with the wonderful anecdotal lede and set-up for his personality piece:

Curry-seasoned haddock (for vegetarians, tofu) is perched on steamed greens in a balsamic vinaigrette, the greens in turn are set on a puree of Jerusalem artichokes and roasted garlic. The fish is garnished with sauteed baby turnips and Swiss chard stems. Accompanying the dish is quinoa pilaf with winter squash and Chinese long beans.

This is lunch at the Women’s Lunch Place, a day shelter for poor and homeless women, located in the basement of the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street. Here, restaurant-quality food is served, free of charge, six days a week to all women (and their children) who want it. Many of the guests are among the city’s neediest, the chronic homeless; others are simply down on their luck. Besides free lunch and breakfast, there is help with legal and housing issues, financial assistance, a wellness program, hot showers, a nap room, even art classes. …

Enter the protagonist. This is where my mind started to lock in on the details. Is there a religion ghost?

“We’re here to provide a variety of services to women in an atmosphere of dignity and respect,” explains Lauren Reilly, director of development.

But the heart of the Women’s Lunch Place is lunch, and the heart of the kitchen is Josh Birdsall. The bearded, ponytailed, soft-spoken chef has been on the job since August, and by all accounts, he treats his dishes with the same care and respect as the shelter does its guests.

By 11 a.m., the kitchen is humming. Volunteers chop, prep, and cook under the watchful supervision of Birdsall, 27, who seems to be everywhere at once. The chef came here after stints at Whole Foods and Craigie Street Bistrot. He had worked in restaurants throughout college (his degree is in literature).

Now, what is the question that is in your mind? We learn that he works with an all-volunteer crew. He has trouble getting consistent food, since food-bank donations are at the heart of the menu. The budget is tight to nonexistent.

All together now: What is Birdsall doing at Women’s Lunch Place? It can’t be the paycheck. With the facts that are presented, it’s impossible not to ask the “why” question, isn’t it?

And then there is the matter of the ponytail and some of the interesting food choices.

Let’s just say that Eastern Orthodox men, for reasons linked to small-t traditions, tend to like ponytails and beards. Also, for reasons linked to large-T Traditions about fasting from meat and dairy products (think Great Lent), Orthodox cultures tend to produce lots of people who run restaurants that are open to vegetarian and even vegan options. Think about Greeks, Palestinians and the Russians.

As it turns out, this young man is a convert to Orthodoxy. I am not saying that there is a hole in the story because that connection wasn’t made. I am saying that the subject might have come up in the reporter had dug deeper on that totally logical question, “What are you doing here?”

As it is, the story does end this way:

The din of the dining room temporarily diminishes as everyone tucks in. Birdsall takes a moment to reflect on the contrast between cooking here and other kitchen jobs he’s held.

This kind of work, he says, brings its unique satisfaction. “I get to do food for people who really need it. There’s no promises, no pretensions,” he says. “Just good, simple, honest food — and it feeds people beyond just filling their bellies.”

And all the people gathered for lunch said: Amen.

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