Icon of controversy (updated again)

Let me be frank with you: I do not know quite what to make of a recent story in The Oklahoman about a bitter fight in a local Catholic church about — brace yourself — an allegedly obscene crucifix.

We may as well start right at the top:

WARR ACRES – Churchgoers are outraged over a crucifix in a Catholic church that they say shows an image of genitalia on Jesus.

The controversial crucifix has caused a deep divide among members of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, where it hangs above the main altar.

“There are a couple people who have left the parish,” said the Rev. Philip Seeton, the church’s pastor. “There are people in the parish who don’t like it and have stayed.”

Critics of the crucifix take issue with what appears to be a large penis covering Jesus’ abdominal area. Seeton said the portion of the crucifix in question is meant to be Jesus’ abdomen “showing distension” — not a penis. …

Janet Jaime, a local iconography artist who designed the crucifix, had no comment.

“I think it was painted according to the certain specific rules of iconography and church art,” Seeton said of the crucifix.

The crucifix is about 10 feet tall. It has been hanging above the altar since Feb. 21. Seeton said the crucifix doesn’t concern him, and there are no plans to remove it.

First of all, you have to see the icon in question to understand much of what I am about to say. I can’t run the photo, of course, due to copyright issues. The three-part video presentation that tops the Oklahoman report is also very useful, especially since this is a story about a visual controversy.

The story does contain some references to icons and their creation that I, as an Eastern Orthodox believer, would question. When I first saw the story — in print only — I doubted whether we were talking about an “icon” at all.

But this is an icon and, clearly, one that shows the ties between the Christian East and the Franciscan tradition. The story does a good job of explaining that this is a San Damiano Cross (another example is at the top of this post), one based on clear archtypes and guidelines. I am not sure that this means the artist “designed” the cross, rather then “creating” or “writing” it, but the point is made. Click here for more examples of that crucifix.

As for the controversial part of the image, you can see that it is somewhat different — but not much — than the norm in the San Damiano archtype.

To see how this issue of pain, suffering and “distension” is handled in other images, it would help to look at some examples of the icon known in the East as “Christ the Bridegroom.”

But here’s my main point: I am not sure that this is a fight over an icon. It’s clear that the reporter and editors know that more is going on with this controversy, as well.

What are we to make of this part of the story?

… (N)umerous current and former church parishioners contacted The Oklahoman this week expressing outrage at what many called a “pornographic” depiction of Jesus. Many asked that their identities be withheld. Parishioner Rita Cook said the crucifix is one of many recent decisions by Seeton, who has been at the church since 2008, that longtime parishioners are concerned with.

“The crucifix is the straw on the camel’s back,” said Cook, who has attended the church for 35 years. “I think it’s an embarrassment to our Lord. I think it’s an embarrassment to our parishioners. And I think it’s an embarrassment to our visitors.”

Molly Jenkins, who is not a member of the church, said she attended a funeral at the church recently and immediately noticed the crucifix. “I was appalled at the sexualization of Christ,” said Jenkins, who is not Catholic. Jenkins said she contacted a Catholic friend to ask whether such crucifixes are common.

And so forth and so on. As you would expect, some people are upset that children from a nearby Catholic school are being exposed to this icon — thus creating a link between this controversy to the wider issue of sexual scandal and abuse in the church.

What is going on? Is this, in fact, a fight with the priest? Is it possible that, well, the priest is from some other part of the country and is struggling to relate to people in Oklahoma? Then, there is a chance that the parishioners are not used to seeing iconography — period. The story does explain:

The crucifix in question is a San Damiano cross, a common Catholic icon that originated in Italy in the 12th century and is widely associated with St. Francis of Assisi and the order he founded, the Franciscans. The original cross is in Assisi, Italy.

The San Damiano cross is considered an icon because it depicts biblical figures. The crucifix hanging at St. Charles Borromeo resembles other San Damiano crucifixes except for Jesus’ abdominal area, which is noticeably more pronounced than on similar crucifixes.

I think that is an accurate statement (other than the statement that this “an icon because it depicts biblical figures”) and I can see why people who do not understand the tradition, or this somewhat strange variation on the tradition, would be upset. I am not sure that the Oklahoman is in a position, at this point, to really know what is going on in that parish.

Strange, strange, strange.

NOTE: Updated to note that I could not run the actual Oklahoman photo due to copyright issues.

NOTE II: A reader has provided some new info, namely that that Father Philip Seeton has previously served as pastor of a Byzantine Catholic Church — Eastern Rite — for a number of years in Texas. This would certainly imply that he knows quite a bit about iconography and the traditions that define the creation and use of icons in the Eastern churches. That certainly would have been good information to include in the story.

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Trashing 19 centuries of doctrine?

Whenever I get on my high horse about the ways in which mainstream journalists abuse the term “fundamentalist,” I always urge journalists to simply allow religious believers to describe their beliefs. It is also fair game, of course, to describe the people’s actions in the public square, then ask them to explain how their beliefs shape those actions.

However, a GetReligion reader sent me a Des Moines Register story almost two weeks ago that was so troubling that I’ve been stewing over it ever since — trying to decide precisely what to say. Yes, the word “fundamentalist” plays a role in this, as you will see. But that word only points toward a larger issue of accuracy and fairness in this report.

This is your basic culture-wars story about divisions inside churches that are wrestling with issues of marriage and sexuality. Here is the opening:

Immanuel Lutheran Church in Waukee is five miles down the road from Walnut Hills United Methodist Church in Urbandale. But they have moved further apart, philosophically, since the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on April 3, 2009, to legalize same-sex marriage. …

In January, the Waukee congregation overwhelmingly voted to drop out of its denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — or ELCA — and join another Lutheran denomination. The congregation didn’t agree with the ELCA decision to allow ordination of noncelibate gay pastors. Immanuel became one of 17 ELCA congregations in Iowa and 276 nationwide to vote on leaving the denomination. Most voted to leave; some have not completed the voting process.

The parishioners at Walnut Hills United Methodist Church also took a church-wide vote, but with a very different result. Their vote was overwhelming, too: Parishioners voted to become a “reconciling congregation,” one of 10 United Methodist congregations in Iowa that have taken that step. It means their church not only welcomes gays and lesbians but accepts their sexual orientation as part of their human condition.

Now, it is a good thing that the Register team attempted to explain what these splits are all about. It is also good that we get to hear from some participants as they talk about issues of biblical authority and interpretation.

But something goes terrible wrong in some of the background material. The story uses a classic device — the outside, expert observer. Thus, readers are introduced to a scholar from a secular campus who is allowed to provide a basic set of facts that will serve as a framework for these conflicts.

Ready? This passage is rather long, but it’s hard to understand what’s going on without reading it:

As pastors look out on their congregations, they see a dividing line that runs down the middle of their pews. Pastors know one congregant considers homosexual behavior a sin that Christians must speak out against, while another believes same-sex marriage is a good and moral step toward a more just society. …

Ultimately, the difference comes down to this: Is the Bible the written word or the living word? Is it open-and-shut, or open to interpretation? It’s a battle of traditionalists vs. progressives. Traditionalists point to Romans, to Leviticus, to 1 Corinthians, each of which calls homosexual behavior a sin. Progressives say you must read Bible verses in the context of their time: God also outlawed eating pork, but that was because back then pork wasn’t safe.

“The issue for conservative Christians revolves around the sanctity of the nuclear family as they understand it,” said Mary Sawyer, a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University. “When fundamentalism started in the early 1900s, it was a reaction to the social gospel, to liberal Christianity. One of the things emphasized was personal morality, particularly sexual morality and not having sex outside of marriage. Marriage being between a man and a woman is something that to them isn’t debatable because it’s Biblically based. …

“This is based on passages of the Bible that progressive Christians say is misinterpreted. (Progressives say) you don’t take one line out of Bible and hang the truth on that without reading it in context of the whole chapter.”

Note that the newspaper’s word for those on the doctrinal right is “traditionalist.” Well, that’s better than “fundamentalist.”

Then note that scholar also, accurately, says that the movement that is accurately called “fundamentalism” started in the early 1900s and that, yes, biblical literalism — “inerrancy” is the preferred word — was and is a key part of that movement. But note, also, that there is no content given for the doctrinal approach used by the ancient churches of the Christian faith. It’s the shallow fundamentalists of the 1900s vs. the nuanced progressives who want to read the Bible in context, who want to move beyond simple, isolated proof texts.

What? Where did the other 1900 years go? Where did centuries of thought among Catholics, the Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Wesleyans, the Reformed and others go? Are the conflicts over issues as basic as the definition of marriage and the sinfulness of sexual acts outside of marriage simply rooted in a showdown between fundamentalists, accurately defined, and progressives?

Obviously, that is too simplistic. You can tell that this scholar’s explanation is too simplistic because the Register story — while never explaining or labeling this third point of view — actually allows a sympathetic local pastor to articulate another approach to these conflicts.

It’s not that the Rev. Mike Housholder, of Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, avoids talking about homosexuality. Housholder posted an eight-page Q&A on the church Web site shortly after the ELCA vote. But he fears a pithy quote in a newspaper article would be taken out of context — by either side — where a sermon or longer conversation would not. …

His church’s teaching is clear: Sex is a gift from God, shared within marriage between a man and a woman. Anything else is sin. But well-meaning Christians, Housholder said, often lose their balance. On one side, they fall into the ditch of fundamentalism, defining a good Christian as following certain rules. On the other side, they fall into the ditch of relativism, changing God’s rules to fit their fancy.

“We’re a hospital for sinners, not a hangout for morally perfect saints,” Housholder said. “First, Jesus commands us to love everyone. When Christians hate, we lose our moral center and our mission … .

“Second, we’re all sinners in need of a savior,” Housholder continued. “There aren’t different categories of sin. I get nervous when people want to elevate sexual sin as somehow being more of an issue spiritually than other sinful behaviors. Once we’ve established that, then we can speak what we believe to be God’s truth in love regarding sexual boundaries. …”

So, is this pastor a “fundamentalist” or a “progressive”? Where does he fit in Sawyer’s mini-lecture on biblical authority?

This is the paradox that has had me stymied for more than a week. On this Register report is very complete and complex. It contains quite a few voices representing different points of view and we get to hear from these believers in their own words. However, this story also has one of the worst chunks of background material I have ever seen, one that allows a single scholar to slash 19 centuries worth of doctrine off the timeline of church history.

So this story is very, very good and very, very bad. Color me confused.

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5Q+1: Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news

Ann Rodgers has earned such a reputation for her thorough reporting that a reader e-mailed us recently describing her as “Pittsburgh’s queen of religion reporting.” What an appropriate title for a journalist who regularly covers local news that deserves national attention and national news from a local perspective.

Rodgers, who serves as vice president of the Religion Newswriters Association, has been the religion reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since 1988. She received her degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master of theological studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. You can follow her on Twitter or simply watch for her name after reading her answers to GetReligion’s five questions.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
From all sorts of places. I subscribe to several magazines that represent different aspects of Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and get a lot of freebies from other religious groups. I have some favorite Web sites, including Whispers in the Loggia and www.ocanews.org. I also am on the Vatican Information Service and Zenit, both of which are invaluable to anyone who covers the Catholic Church. CAIR bombards me with its summaries. The Pew Forum provides a lot of good updates. There are denominational news releases (although I keep getting bumped off their e-mails because my mailbox fills up and sends a dead letter message back to them when I’m on vacation.) Then there are local sources, including attending presbytery meetings and other events that expose me to cool stories happening in congregations. Frankly my biggest problem is that I’m bombarded by too many sources of religion news and consequently can do little more than skim them.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

I think there are serious problems because reporters don’t understand Catholic canon law and the church bureaucracies that surround it. If they want to get the story about the Vatican and sex abuse right, they really need to talk to canon lawyers about what the church judicial process was set up to do, how its law operates and what laws these cases were prosecuted under at various times. They also need to understand the relationship, or lack thereof, between canon law and the various civil law systems worldwide. Not every legal system operates like the American system, in fact most of Europe doesn’t.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
There are a bunch of them. I’m very interested in the dynamics of evangelical Protestantism right now. There’s a lot of sorting out over how that movement relates to politics and how it will seek to interact with the wider public in the future. Longtime leaders are retiring or dying, and younger evangelicals have somewhat different priorities than their elders, particularly on gay rights. Although I don’t write a lot about politics (we have theologically literate political reporters at my paper) I do expect to keep a close eye on these dynamics.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Because religious faith is the number one motivator of how people conduct themselves in the wider community and it determines their view of the larger world. Some people might say that economics has that role, but I think that’s only true for those who worship money. People do incredibly self-sacrificial things in the name of God, whether that means providing medical care to the poor, peacefully resisting brutal dictators or, unfortunately, becoming a suicide bomber. But, overall, the delivery of social services to the poorest regions of the world would disappear if religious groups withdrew from it. Even atheists would say that their behavior is motivated by their lack of belief in God, which is a sort of shadow faith. You can’t understand human behavior, locally or globally, without understanding religious faith.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
I’ve seen some gaffes, but they don’t meet that description. Something that I do see very few years, but didn’t spot anywhere this year, is a holiday food story that will begin something like, “Ham is the perfect, easy main course for all of your special spring holiday meals.” Last year I even heard an announcement very similar to that in my local supermarket, which I thought especially bizarre because the chain is owned by a prominent Jewish family. I do find it the height of irony that these writers are straining to be “inclusive,” while insulting the very group that they’re trying to include. And I think it shows the problems that arise when we try to homogenize references to religious or cultural holidays. We need to let each faith group speak for itself about its specific beliefs and practices.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
It’s important to understand the limits of what we can do. We don’t write about God, who hasn’t given any interviews lately. We write about what human beings believe about God. Our job is to describe those beliefs as accurately as we can. But we can’t solve the great theological mysteries, such as whether God is transcendent or immanent–or plural or gendered or loving or silent or whatever. That is the job of pastors and theologians. As journalists, we can only write about human efforts to understand and interpret those things.

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An Easter for all seasons?

Catholics Take Part In Way Of The Cross Procession In Washington

A reader sent in the headline and caption that is running on the CNN.com home page right now:

Easter celebrations around the world: Christians around the world are celebrating Easter this weekend, including re-enactments of Jesus’ walk to his crucifixion on Good Friday. On Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI will preside over the Easter Vigil at the Vatican. GALLERY

I certainly understand the difficult that the press has in understanding this, but there’s a bit of a problem with this headline and caption.

Clicking through the gallery photos reveals that, at this point, almost every photo deals not with Easter — the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus — but, rather, with Good Friday or the events preceding Good Friday — the day on which Christians remember Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and death.

It might all seem like the same season to the outside observer but there is a huge, bright line dividing the events preceding the resurrection and the celebration of the resurrection. It’s two different seasons.

Lent, for Western Christians at least, is a 40-day penitential season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends with the Great Vigil of Easter. Holy Week ends with what many Christians call the Triduum (aka “the three days” in Latin) — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. My congregation’s Easter Vigil tonight is our longest and most beautiful service of the year.

The vigil marks the transition from Lent to the Easter season. Easter is the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. “It is the oldest and holiest Christian festival, the climax and center of the liturgical year, and the holy day to which all other holy days point.” The season that begins on Easter is the most joyful and festive of the year.

There is no greater contrast in the church year than the seasons of Lent and Easter.

The point is that re-enactments of Jesus’ walk to his crucifixion are not things one does during Easter, as the CNN caption indicates, but during Lent.

Perhaps the use of the term “Holy Week” would have been better in this case.

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News flash! Eastern Rite priests get married

Every now and then it seems that a story in the mainstream press gets under the skin of GetReligion readers and quite a few drop us notes pointing toward the same URL. This time around, it was a story in the New York Times that ran under the headline, “A Flock Grows Right at Home for a Priest in Ukraine.”

At first glance, this appears to be yet another news feature in which professionals at a major newspaper are shocked to discover that there married priests in the wider world of Catholicism. One year, it’s former Anglicans. Another, it’s the odd former Lutheran, or two. Then again, these stories may focus on priests in Eastern Rite Catholic flocks. It’s a subject that’s evergreen.

But pay close attention to the rumblings down in the foundations, as you read the top of this report:

RUDNO, Ukraine – Let the rest of Europe be convulsed by debates over whether the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests is causing sex abuse scandals like the one now unfolding in Germany. Here in western Ukraine, many Catholic priests are married, fruitful and multiplying — with the Vatican’s blessing.

The many feet scampering around the Volovetskiy home are testament to that. The family’s six children range from Pavlina, 21, to Taras, 9. In the middle is Roman, 16, who wants to be a Catholic priest when he grows up. Just like his father.

Dad is the Rev. Yuriy Volovetskiy, who leads a small parish here and whose wife, Vera, teaches religious school. The Volovetskiys serve in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which believes that celibate priests are not necessarily better priests.

Ukrainian Greek Catholics represent a branch of Catholicism that is distinct from the far more prevalent Roman Catholic one. The Ukrainian church is loyal to the pope in Rome, and its leader is a cardinal and major archbishop. But it conducts services that resemble those in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In religious terms, it follows the Eastern Rite, not the Latin one that is customary in Roman Catholicism.

Historically, the Vatican appears to have tolerated the traditions and attitude toward celibacy of the so-called Eastern Rite Catholics in order to retain a foothold in regions where Orthodox Christianity has dominated. But this exception suggests that the Vatican view on celibacy is not as rigid or monolithic as it might otherwise appear.

All kinds of things are assumed in this prologue that are never really addressed in the story with attributed quotes, let alone facts. For example, we never really read any facts about links that do or do not exist between sexual-abuse statistics in the ranks of celibate priests, compared with those among married priests. And the story never addresses the evidence that pedophilia — sex with children — does not appear to be linked to sexual orientation. Then again, it also does not address the fact that, during the recent decades of scandal, high rates of ephebophilia — sex with post-pubescent young people, almost always males — may point to what conservative and some liberal Catholic activists have called a “gay subculture” in the celibate Catholic priesthood.

The story simply assumes that people are arguing about celibacy and that this is somehow linked to recent Catholic sex scandals and that’s that. Move along.

Along the way, readers will be stunned to learn that these Eastern Rite churches also believe that “sexual relations outside marriage are not an option” and that, since they are using ancient Byzantine rites, their sanctuaries tend to look like Orthodox sanctuaries. You’ll also be shocked to learn that married priests believe that their marriages help them related to married people and their families. Folks, we’re not talking about breaking news, here.

Back to the issue of debates over the link between celibacy and the scandals:

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, is celibate, as is typical among the leadership of Eastern Rite Catholic churches. The cardinal has not spoken out in recent days on the issue of celibacy, though he has said that he does not think that ending the requirement would help the Vatican confront the declining number of men who want to become priests.

But Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vienna, suggested this month that in response to the German abuse scandal, the Vatican should question its policies, including celibacy. His spokesman later clarified that Cardinal Schonborn was not calling for abolishing the requirement.

Actually, all Eastern bishops — usually drawn from among monastics — are celibates, an ancient tradition that is honored in the giant Orthodox churches of the East, as well. That word “typical” makes it sound as if this is common, but perhaps optional.

It’s a strange story, all the way around. It’s an interesting subject, but the Times then connects that subject to a hot-button controversy in ways that seem simplistic, at best. As one GetReligion reader noted, via email:

Is it just me, or does it seem that the reporter here is stretching to make a point? He raises the question of whether allowing Roman Rite Catholic Priests to marry would decrease the incidence of sexual abuse, and looks to the married clergy of the Eastern Rites as an example. But none of the Eastern Rite sources he interviewed offered an opinion on the issue. …

Another thing that bothers me about this story is the complete absence of historical context. A little background on the origins of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and why their rules on celibacy differ from those of the Roman Rite Church would be useful for most readers.

Amen. And what is up with that phrase “so-called Eastern Rite Catholics”? Is there some controversy about their existence, in the context of the Roman Church? There is controversy among the Orthodox, but the Times never talks to the Orthodox.

Strange, strange, strange.

Photo: Worship in a Ukrainian Catholic church, with a bishop leading the Byzantine rite.

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St. Patrick didn’t drive errors out of journalism

Celtic cross

In his thought-provoking essay “Reclaiming St. Patrick’s Day,” Christianity Today‘s Ted Olsen talks about how Christians could emphasize the day by highlighting issues related to the great saint (e.g. fighting human trafficking, celebrating multi-ethnic communities and incarnational ministry). Here’s how it begins:

If you’ve ever read an article about St. Patrick’s Day, it probably talked about how little the celebration has to do with the actual Patrick.

I, for one, have grown tired of the annual rehashing of how he didn’t really drive the snakes from Ireland and didn’t really use the shamrock to explain the Trinity.

You know who hasn’t gotten tired of that? The Christian Science Monitor. I’ve long been on record opposing the error-ridden “mythbusting” articles that run around Christian holy days, but even for that genre, this one (“St. Patrick’s Day: Did Patrick become Christian for the tax breaks?“) was a piece of work:

Patrick, in fact, isn’t even recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as an official saint. Perhaps more jarring, he likely became a Christian for the tax breaks.

Um, how does one even respond to this? Let’s just say that these things would be jarring if they were in any way true. Not only is St. Patrick recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as an “official” saint, he’s recognized in Eastern Orthodoxy as well! And, well, he didn’t become a Christian for the tax breaks. He wrote about his life in Declaration. Here are the first two paragraphs:

1. I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

2. And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

The odd thing is that the Monitor story actually explains a bit about these letters and never substantiates its claim about Patrick joining the church for a tax break with anything other than a link to the History Channel. The relevant bit is this:

Although his father was a Christian deacon, it has been suggested that he probably took on the role because of tax incentives and there is no evidence that Patrick came from a particularly religious family.

So Patrick’s grandfather was a priest but Patrick’s father only became a Christian for the tax breaks? I mean, as much as I love to believe the unsubstantiated, passive-voice claim from a network that runs more shows on ghosts than on, you know, history, I’m going to need a bit more convincing. Either way, though, the History Channel’s claim isn’t that Patrick became a Christian for tax purposes.

It turns out that the Monitor has appended a correction. And rewritten the offending paragraph. Now we have:

While recognized a saint, Patrick was never canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, as he died before the official sainthood process began. And in an odd path to the church, his father possibly became a church deacon for the tax breaks — though the jury is out on Patrick’s motivations.

The jury is still out on Patrick’s motivations for becoming Christian? What does that even mean? I think the Occam’s Razor answer as to why Patrick’s dad came to the church — considering that he was raised in the church by a father who was a priest — has got to be “tax breaks,” don’t you? But apart from that silliness, the last phrase is just not true. There is no jury and it is not deliberating Patrick’s motivations.

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The camel’s nose called ‘evangelism’

Before we look at the journalistic essay that has me so hot and bothered, let us pause and read two crucial passages in a document that used to be dear to the heart of old-fashioned liberals — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This cornerstone of human-rights work was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.

Article 18.

* Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

* Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Note, in particular, the link — by proximity and logic — between the right to convert people to another faith and the right to express one’s beliefs to other people in any medium, which I would certainly assume includes human speech (and newspapers, too). As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said at a World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver, during a debate about public evangelism, one person’s evangelist is another person’s political activist.

Now, there are missionaries who take this too far. I assume that rape and forced marriage is not a valid form of evangelism, even though it is common in Egypt. I assume that bribery is not a valid form of evangelism. The same goes for torture and death threats that must be taken seriously.

With all of that in mind, please read the following online essay — entitled “Christian Soldiers” — from Robert Wright at the New York Times. I would never claim that his point of view dominates American newsrooms. That’s a straw man argument, the kind of thing that conservatives spout who, in reality, tend to hate journalism. However, his point of view is common and may affect coverage in some significant newsrooms.

To comment, you are really going to need to read it all. But here is the top of the piece, which contains a key part of his argument against Christians who insist on following the commands of their Scriptures and attempting to convert other people to their faith.

You see, it seems that missionaries — and even native Christians who are part of local churches in foreign lands — are causing violence. It is also crucial that, according to the Times, Muslims do not attempt to convert others and Christians would be very, very upset if Muslims began trying to spread their faith.

Last Friday night a New York Times headline underwent an online transformation. The article formerly known as “A Christian Overture to Muslims Has Its Critics” acquired a new billing: “A Dispute on using the Koran as a Path to Jesus.”

For my money this was a big improvement, and explaining what I mean will illuminate a dirty little secret: some American Christians are fostering religious strife abroad. They mean well, but the damage they’re doing can be seen all the way from Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims are killing each other, to Malaysia, where Muslims are trying to keep Christians from using the term “Allah” for God.

The Times story is about an outreach technique that some Baptist missionaries use with Muslims. It involves stressing commonalities between the Koran and the Bible and affirming that the Allah of the Koran and the God of the Bible are one and the same.

You can see how a headline writer might call this an “overture.” And certainly the Christians who deploy the technique see it in sunny terms. Their name for it — the “Camel Method” — comes from the acronym for Chosen Angels Miracles Eternal Life. But a more apt etymology would involve the “camel’s nose under the tent.” The “overture” — the missionary’s initial bonding with Muslims via discussion of the Koran — is precision-engineered to undermine their allegiance to Islam.

Now, apparently, when some Christians get together with Muslims (and members of other world religions) and talk about areas of common ground between the faiths — while stressing that the faiths are all equally true and there is no need for anyone to convert anyone — this is called “interfaith dialogue” and this is a wonderful thing.

But when former Muslims and foreign missionaries meet with Muslims to discuss areas of common ground between their faiths — while insisting that, as these two faiths claim, one of them is eternally right and the other eternally wrong, this is dangerous evangelism that leads to violence.

The status of both of these activities under the U.N. Charter? They are both protected. But it appears that some civil liberties are more protected than others, even when they involve activities that are tightly linked to free speech and the freedom of the press.

Now here is what we are going to discuss here, since I totally concede that some forms of evangelism are dumb and some are offensive.

However, what is the journalistic argument for arguing that the U.N. Charter is wrong? Is it wrong on press freedom, too, since that is very, very dangerous. Right? Was Tutu right to connect persuasive political speech and persuasive religious speech? Etc., etc.

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Weekend stories worth reading


Happy Monday, everyone. If you’re catching up on stories from the weekend, consider three worth your time.

The first story takes place in Texas with the spotlight on Matt Chandler, the 35-year-old Texas pastor recovering from cancer. Call me melodramatic, but Eric Gorski’s story for the Associated Press reminded me just how much the religion beat will miss him. Somehow Gorski convinces his editors to give him the time and space to tell compelling, informative stories like this one. Here’s a section of his 2,500-word piece.

Matt Chandler doesn’t feel anything when the radiation penetrates his brain. It could start to burn later in treatment. But it hasn’t been bad, this time lying on the slab. Not yet, anyway.

Chandler’s lanky 6-foot-5-inch frame rests on a table at Baylor University Medical Center. He wears the same kind of jeans he wears preaching to 6,000 people at The Village Church in suburban Flower Mound, where the 35-year-old pastor is a rising star of evangelical Christianity.

Another cancer patient Chandler has gotten to know spends his time in radiation imagining that he’s playing a round of golf at his favorite course. Chandler on this first Monday in January is reflecting on Colossians 1:15-23, about the pre-eminence of Christ and making peace through the blood of his cross.

The Bible reference took me by surprise because I don’t see them very often in mainstream media reports. I can imagine most reporters might feel uncomfortable including references in their stories unless it’s hard to ignore. Perhaps some think they are giving the individual a platform to spout their religious views. While that might be a legitimate concern in some cases, this detail in the story gives us a nice, clear picture of Chandler’s thought process in dealing with cancer.

Chandler never thought such a trial would shake his faith. But until now, that was just hope in the abstract.

“This has not surprised God,” Chandler says on the drive home. “He is not in a panic right now trying to figure out what to do with me or this disease. Those things have been warm blankets, man.”

Chandler has, however, wrestled with the tension between belief in an all-powerful God and what he, as a mere mortal, can do about his situation. He believes he has responsibilities: to use his brain, to take advantage of technology, to walk in faith and hope, to pray for healing and then “see what God wants to do.”

“Knowing that if God is outside time and I am inside time, that puts some severe limitations on my ability to crack all the codes,” he says. “The more I’ve studied, the more I go, ‘Yes, God is sovereign, and he does ask us to pray … and he does change his mind.’ How all that will work is in some aspects a mystery.”

Even though Christians generally hold similar beliefs about God, Jesus, and the afterlife, Chandler might deal with his cancer differently than someone who believes that Christians have “free will.” Gorski’s piece does a nice job of exploring that a little bit through quotes from Chandler.

Yes, we’ve lamented the loss of Gorski. Fear not, though. Excellent religion reporters still toil away. Case in point: Bob Smietana, who wrote a piece for Sunday on how Churches of Christ are dropping an isolationist view.

Since the late 1800s, Churches of Christ, one of Tennessee’s largest faith groups, have believed their approach to church–singing without instruments in worship, interpreting the Bible literally, taking Communion weekly and banning women from church leadership–was God’s way.

That meant they kept mostly to themselves, shunned other Christians and did not participate in interfaith projects for the community.

In recent years, congregations like Otter Creek have adopted a more progressive view of their faith. They’ve added instruments to church services on Sunday nights and during the week. And they’ve begun cooperating with other faith groups, especially on charitable projects.

These might be subtle differences to the casual observer, but a sharp reporter like Smietana sees the significant shift for the group. He explains that the movement was founded in the 1800s because the founders believed churches of their day had split into too many denominations.

Those early Churches of Christ followed what they believed was the New Testament model for churches. That meant observing Communion every week, baptizing adults by immersion and having no ordained clergy.

The new churches also were autonomous, with no denominational structure. Because the New Testament doesn’t mention musical instruments, these new churches banned musical instruments from all worship services.

That remains true for most of the 258 Churches of Christ in the Nashville area. Statewide there are 1,443 congregations, with 166,302 members. Nationwide, there are 12,629 Churches of Christ with a total of 1,224,404 members.

My only question is whether this group is growing, declining or stagnant. Interesting story, though, with a lot of angles covered.

Finally, in The New York Times Sean Hamill writes about Father Moses Berry, a black priest of the Orthodox Church in America, who leads a 50-member parish and runs a museum for the black history of a nearly all-white town in Missouri.

Father Moses, 59, said he had spent much of his life on a spiritual quest that began in San Francisco in the late 1960s, included nearly a year in jail in Missouri on a drug charge that was later thrown out, and took a positive turn with his conversion to Orthodox Christianity. He was ordained, first in 1988 by an Orthodox church that he now considers “unauthentic” and in 2000 by the Orthodox Church in America.

When he returned here in 1998, after the death of an uncle who had willed him a 40-acre family farm, he had no intention of starting an Orthodox church in a town already served by 10 Christian churches of various denominations, let alone opening a black history museum.

…For Father Moses, his church and his historical work are inextricably linked.

“It’s all bound up in my faith,” he said. “That is, that we are all children of God and that we do have a shared heritage and not just a national heritage.”

I would have liked to read more about why Father Moses is in the Orthodox Church and the challenges he faces leading an all-white congregation. The author links his faith with his historical work quite nicely, though.

Those were my weekend picks. Were there other stories you found worth noting?

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