Birds of a doctrinal feather

gallery-75208-Birds-on-a-Wire-WallstickerThe church-state junkie in me really does not know where to begin when it comes to evaluating the mainstream media coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case pitting the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco against the campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, there was this strange passage:

Hastings was sued in October 2004 by the Christian Legal Society, which requires voting members to sign a statement committing to “orthodox” evangelical Protestant or Catholic beliefs. A student is ineligible, the group says, if he or she “advocates or unrepentantly engages in sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman.”

OK, look at the sneer quotes around the word “orthodox.”

Is the newspaper actually saying that there is some doubt about the historical fact that the ancient Christian churches — Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (let’s leave the complex Protestant timeline out of this, for a moment) — have for the past two millennia taught that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin? In effect, is the newspaper going postmodern on us and saying that it is impossible to establish this kind of fact about the history of doctrine in Christianity?

I’m not saying that anyone in the newsroom has to agree with this doctrine. I am saying that it is inaccurate — bad journalism, in other words — to say that small-o and large-O doctrines do not exist on this kind of question. Now, obviously, modern churches are free to change their doctrines on all kinds of creedal and sacramental issues (hello Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori), but that doesn’t change basic facts about history before those changes in those isolated churches.

But I digress.

I was fascinated that in two major California newspapers, the copy desks let the stories go to print without one essential paragraph of facts. In this age of equal-access laws, what other kinds of groups exist on the Hastings campus, in addition to the Christian Legal Society? Do any of these other groups have doctrines or beliefs that define them?

Why does that matter? Here’s a key exchange in the Chronicle piece:

“Religious groups have a right to require their officers to share their religious faith,” said Kim Colby, an attorney with the group, which has chapters at 165 law schools around the country and encourages lawyers to apply biblical principles. “If, at every meeting, the president of the group said, ‘Today we’re going to discuss whether Jesus was the son of God,’ that’s going to bog the group down.”

But Ethan Schulman, an attorney for Hastings, said the issue in the case is whether public universities are obligated to subsidize discriminatory groups.

“This is about a blanket exclusion of gay and lesbian students and students who don’t hold what the Christian Legal Society describes as orthodox Christian beliefs,” Schulman said. “If they’re going to use public money and public facilities, they have to be open to all interested students.”

Note that the CLS allows all kinds of people to attend its meetings. The issue is who gets to vote and assume leadership roles. Does a club have to allow people to assume leadership if they completely and utterly reject the mission and beliefs of the organization? Does a Palestinian student group need to be open to Zionist leaders? What does a Green organization do if dozens of people show up — to vote and to seek leadership — who do not believe in environmentalism and want to corrupt the group’s work?

geeseSeveral years ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about a similar case. Here is how I opened that piece.

It took a few minutes for leaders of the Bisexual, Gay & Lesbian Alliance at Rutgers University to realize something was wrong at their back-to-school meeting.

The hall was full of unfamiliar students wanting to become members. Most were carrying Bibles with markers in the first chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. They also had copies of the campus policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of “race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital or veteran status.”

Truth is, this scene hasn’t happened at Rutgers or anywhere else — so far.

What if it did? What if conservative Christians tried to rush a gay-rights group and elect new leaders? What if, when told they couldn’t join because they rejected its core beliefs, evangelicals cited cases in which Christian groups were punished for refusing leadership roles to homosexuals? What if, when jeered by angry homosexuals, evangelicals called this verbal violence rooted in religious bigotry and, thus, harassment?

So what other kinds of groups are accepted, under the Hastings policy? Who makes the cut? The Chronicle doesn’t tell us and the Los Angeles Times doesn’t tell us either. I think that’s a rather important hole in the story, if equal-access laws still apply to religious and non-religious groups on state campuses.

The information, however, is not that hard to find. Check it out. There are some interesting groups, issues and implied doctrines and identities in this list. However, I do find it interesting that HAGL (Hastings Alliance of Gays and Lesbians) is not in this version of the list. Is this complete? There is no legal society for LesBiGay students on this campus in San Francisco?

Stay tuned. I expect this issue to be pivotal in the arguments before the Supreme Court. Oh, one other factor: In the Hastings student handbook, does it clearly state in black and white that the religious liberties of students will be limited in this way on this campus? It is my understanding that policies of this kind — such as codes that limit free speech — must be stated clearly in public documents.

Just asking.

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Minarets and steeples

The minaret of the Geneva mosque

Steve already looked at some of the media coverage of the story about Switzerland banning the construction of minarets on mosques. For those of us accustomed to First Amendment-protected religious freedom, the vote probably comes as a shock and disappointment. Nairobi reader William Black wrote about a couple of the problems he saw in the coverage. He was disappointed with the vote saying that, as a Christian, he sees no reason to fear Muslim voices in the marketplace of ideas or Muslim presence in his neighborhood. And he worried that this vote would set a dangerous precedent for limiting the freedom of other religious groups in Europe.

But the mainstream press should be looking at another angle, he wrote. He complained about the lack of coverage explaining how Muslim countries handle religious freedom on a routine basis. He asks how many Christian churches are being built today in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and other Muslim countries and:

How many Christian bookstores are allowed to market their resources in these countries? How many Christian charities are allowed to distribute aid? How many Christian missionaries are allowed to work in their neighborhoods? How many Muslims are free to convert to Christianity without fear of being killed?

Similar issues were also raised in a Washington Post op-ed by Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. After strongly criticizing the Swiss vote, she added a critique of how religious freedom is handled in some Muslim countries:

The Grand Mufti of Egypt, for example, denounced the ban as an “attack on freedom of belief.” I would take him more seriously if he denounced in similar terms the difficulty Egyptian Christians face in building churches in his country. They must obtain a security permit just for renovations.

Last year, the first Catholic church — bearing no cross, no bells and no steeple — opened in Qatar, leaving Saudi Arabia the only country in the Persian Gulf that bars the building of houses of worship for non-Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, it is difficult even for Muslims who don’t adhere to the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi sect; Shiites, for example, routinely face discrimination.

Bigotry must be condemned wherever it occurs. If majority-Muslim countries want to criticize the mistreatment of Muslims living as minority communities elsewhere, they should be prepared to withstand the same level of scrutiny regarding their own mistreatment of minorities. Millions of non-Muslim migrant workers have helped build Saudi Arabia. Human rights groups have long condemned the slave-like conditions that many toil under, and the possibility of Saudi citizenship is nonexistent. Muslim nations have been unwilling to criticize this bigotry in their midst, and Europeans should keep in mind that Sunday’s ban takes them in this direction.

And yet many mainstream stories didn’t even mention how religious freedom is handled in other countries, much less Muslim countries. This Wall Street Journal story about the vote went to Turkey for reaction and got this quote:

Cavid Aksin, an Istanbul metalworker, was angered that the referendum coincided with the end of one of the most important religious feasts in the Muslim calendar. “I think Turkey should have a referendum on whether to close down its churches,” he said.

It might have been a good time to mention what happened in Turkey to this basilica, or this cathedral and its monks, and this seminary.

But at least one mainstream media outlet did raise the issue. Here’s a bit from the Christian Science Monitor‘s article “Outrage on Swiss minaret vote, but how do Muslim states handle churches? Swiss minaret vote leads to Muslim anger, but the Swiss aren’t alone in restricting religious freedom.” Before reviewing the legal practices regarding religious freedom in Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, reporter Dan Murphy wrote:

Daily Life Returns To Normal In Istanbul After Bombings

Muslim reaction across the world to Sunday’s Swiss referendum banning the construction of further minarets for mosques in the tiny Alpine nation has been almost entirely negative.

Indonesia’s Maskuri Abdillah, leader of the largest Muslim organization in the world’s most populous Muslim nation said the vote reflected Swiss “hatred” of Islam and Muslims.

Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, close to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, said the ban was an attempt to “insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland.”

Yet the referendums outcome pales in comparison to restrictions on non-Muslims who aim to practice their faith in Muslim lands. In fact, the vote only brought Swiss legal practice closer to that of many majority Muslim states that also place limits on the construction of houses of worship.

It seems like a discussion of how Muslim countries handle religious freedom would be an obvious point to mention when covering the reaction of Muslims to the vote. But this story is too brief. It seems important to show the range of Muslim treatment of religious freedom. Certainly Saudi Arabia isn’t going to win any religious freedom awards any time soon (unless it’s a “World’s Worst” award or something) but even Iran has some religious freedom. If you’re not Baha’i, that is. The point is, this is an important topic and the media desperately need to tell us more about the state of religious freedom abroad as well as what influences increased or decreased religious freedom. And it shouldn’t be shocking that the Monitor raised the issue. Unfortunately it is.

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Black Fridays and purple Sundays

Advent-CalendarEvery year we read about the War on Christmas. The mainstream media love to cover stories about those Scrooges who ban the use of any specific greetings related to Christmas and the old curmudgeons who complain about the same.

But I like to cover the war on all the other seasons of the liturgical calendar. For one thing, how can it be a war on Christmas when this isn’t even the Christmas Season? That begins on Christmas and lasts 12 days. You may have heard of these mysterious 12 days of Christmas. But half the time we get stories about the 12 days of Christmas, we get them as the final 12 days leading up to Dec. 25. A few years ago, there was a minor epidemic of Washington-area newspapers confusing the issue. This year we have an Associated Press story about how much it would cost to give the gifts mentioned in the famous “12 Days of Christmas” song ($87,403). But maybe the AP is just super early rather than wrong.

So Sunday was the start of the Advent season for Western Christians. Advent is the beginning of the church year and the time in which the church patiently and eagerly prepares for Christmas by confession and repentance, prayer, Scripture study, fasting and the singing of seasonal hymns. The liturgical color for the season is purple (or, I hear, blue).

This is a major season that isn’t ignored so much as competed against with “Christmas.” The first day of this alternative religious season begins with Black Friday. That’s the day when we all pin our annual economic hopes on mass purchasing of retail goods. So here’s how one recent Reuters story broke the news:

U.S. consumers spent significantly less per person at the start of the holiday season this weekend, dimming hopes for a retail comeback that would help propel the economy early in 2010.

My sister is a retail manager and she was forced to open her story at midnight after Thanksgiving. She worked two eight-hour shifts that day. I agree with Dell Dechant that there are religious components to the consumer culture. It might have something to do with why I avoided the malls.

And I might not be alone. Jeff Strickler of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune found others who rebel against the pressures of Black Friday:

William Doherty won’t be among the throngs in the shopping malls Friday morning. He will be in church.

Doherty, a professor in the Family Social Science Department at the University of Minnesota, is part of a growing backlash against the commercialization of Christmas. Last year, he helped his church, Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul, hold a worship service on what has become known as Black Friday, the official kickoff of the holiday gift-buying bonanza and biggest retail shopping day of the year.

This year, he is helping launch a similar “Black Friday at Church” event at New Hope Baptist Church in St. Paul.

The protest against Christmas consumption, organized by the Advent Conspiracy, has become an international phenomenon. The program, created by three pastors in 2006, is being presented this year in as many as 1,500 churches, including several in the Twin Cities.

The story is a great local look at a religious trend in the area and he does a good job of explaining the theological approach of the folks behind the Advent Conspiracy, although the name isn’t explained at all. I was also wondering why those of us liturgical Christians who are engaged in, um, an Advent conspiracy every year weren’t mentioned. But it’s okay because Strickler has another article devoted to nothing other than explaining the symbols of Advent:

This weekend marks the first Sunday in Advent, the month leading up to Christmas that Christians have marked for centuries — but not always in the same spirit.

Originally, Advent and Lent were cut from the same theological cloth. They both were times of devotion, introspection and repentance. But while Lent has retained its initial tone, Advent has become more about parties than penance.

While the activities of Advent might have changed, its symbols live on. Many of the iconic images of Christmas actually started with Advent. The wreath, St. Nicholas and even the decorating of a Christmas tree trace their roots to the days leading up to the holiday.

Well, for some of us Advent is still a time of devotion and repentance rather than parties. The Orthodox even call this period Christmas Lent. But Strickler’s point is clear. And with an economy of words, he quickly runs through many Advent traditions and where they come from. Here, for example, is a treatment of the color for the season:

The color purple: In most Protestant denominations, ministers wear purple vestments during Advent. Contrary to what many football fans might think, this has nothing to do with supporting the Minnesota Vikings (although if your minister shows up this weekend wearing green and yellow, be very suspicious).

There are various explanations for the choice of purple. The most common is that in ancient times, purple dye was the most expensive and was reserved for use by royalty. Therefore, the theory goes, it was chosen to designate the Christian year’s most regal event, the birth of its new king.

Like I said, it’s a real quick treatment. There are huge differences of opinion in the Western church over whether the proper color is violet, purple, blue, etc. And I’m not even sure that “most” Protestant denominations mark Advent, much less that its ministers wear vestments of any color. But purple was traditionally chosen for its royal ties and it’s good to mention that.

And I’m just so happy that any major paper is treating Advent at all. This is a very important time for so very many liturgical Christians and it’s wonderful that a paper would simply acknowledge that and instruct readers about it. And on that note, here’s USA Today‘s Advent calendar shopping guide!

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This reporter gives thanks that ….

Honey_and_Cumin_Glazed_Cornish_Hens_0.previewIt’s Thanksgiving, of course. So I would like to give thanks that I was not in Laurie Goodstein’s shoes the other day when she heard about the upcoming “Manhattan Declaration” announcement — click here for details — and then got the news that she could only write 570 words about this very complex ecumenical statement.

Talk about mission impossible.

Here’s the top of that New York Times story, for those of you who missed the initial wave of coverage.

Citing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to civil disobedience, 145 evangelical, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders have signed a declaration saying they will not cooperate with laws that they say could be used to compel their institutions to participate in abortions, or to bless or in any way recognize same-sex couples.

“We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence,” it says.

I am still trying to wade through the various commentaries and documents linked to this 4,700-word statement. For those who are interested in the emerging world of conservative ecumenical work, there are some highly symbolic names on the first list of signatories. Of course, it is also significant who is not, at this point, in the list — including a very interesting evangelical absentee in the “W” section. There are crucial Orthodox and Catholic names missing, too.

I do not know what was cut from this report. My only complaint about this short, short story is linked to these two pivotal paragraphs when, once again, the assumption is that the primary purpose of the statement is political.

The manifesto … is an effort to rejuvenate the political alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that dominated the religious debate during the administration of President George W. Bush. The signers include nine Roman Catholic archbishops and the primate of the Orthodox Church in America.

They want to signal to the Obama administration and to Congress that they are still a formidable force that will not compromise on abortion, stem-cell research or gay marriage. They hope to influence current debates over health care reform, the same-sex marriage bill in Washington, D.C., and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Now all of that may well be true. However, where are the attributions for these strong statements of opinion? Cut due to lack of length? Probably. However, I still think that this report is quite solid, in view of the short length. The emphasis on religious liberty issues is, of course, a sign of things to come.

Again, I am truly thankful that I didn’t have to deal with this topic in a story of this length in a forum as crucial as the Times. Heck, I may have trouble producing a 700-word column that addresses even one or two issues linked to this complex manifesto.


Photo: Why Cornish Hens? That’s what my family always cooks for Thanksgiving so that each of us can baste the mini-bird in the sauce of our choice. Plus, there are no leftovers to freeze as we return to the Nativity Lent fast observed by the Orthodox. So there.

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Non-Trinitarian AP style?

rublev_trinity3Now here is a strange one.

You can call me picky, but, hey, when it comes to messing with the fine points of Trinitarian theology, the Orthodox are known to be a bit picky. So please be patient with me for a moment.

So what we have here is your basic Associated Press follow-up report about Rome’s response to the petitions by some Anglo-Catholics seeking a safe haven in these crazy times. The focus, in this one, is on the issue of whether this move represents a weakening of Rome’s commitment to celibacy for priests in the Western churches (there were dozens of stories about that angle, of course).

It’s in that context that we read the following, which contains one very strange twist that is definitely not in the Bible of journalism, the Associated Press Stylebook. Pay attention, because here we go:

On Monday, the Vatican reaffirmed its resolve to leave the celibacy requirement unchanged. … It praised priestly celibacy as “a sign and a stimulus for pastoral charity.”

Apparently seeking to squash any speculation that Rome had been courting the disaffected Anglicans, the Vatican said the “Holy Spirit” inspired Anglicans to “petition repeatedly and insistently to be received into full Catholic communion” individually and as a group.

Did you catch it, or should I say “them”? I am referring to those quote marks — call them either “scare” or “sneer” quotes — around the words “Holy Spirit.”

What do you think is going on here, precisely? Why is the existence or the activity of this one member of the Holy Trinity now subject to grammatical doubt? Has one corner of the Trinity been demoted?

Maybe this is part of a larger change in AP style. If so, are Christians now followers of “Jesus Christ”? When people survive some horrible disaster, are we supposed to report that they felt comforted by the presence of “God”? Do people now praise or express anger at “God” when wrestling with the big issues of life? I guess that when President Barack Obama ends a speech now, journalists are supposed to quote him saying: ” ‘God’ bless you and ‘God’ bless America.”

Or did someone at the AP simply decide that Rome must have had other motives in this case and, instead of being honest, these tricky voices at the Vatican attributed their actions to — well, you know — the “Holy Spirit.” It wasn’t really God’s work. It was “God,” with a wink of doubt. Or maybe someone simply messed up a larger direct quote, while cutting it down to size.

Really strange. I hope the AP style committee sees this and has second thoughts.

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Missing the point of Coptic tattoos

WristCopticCross-1When my family made the decision to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, we helped start a tiny mission in the Tennessee mountains — in Johnson City, to be precise. In the early days, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Mission included a family in with very recent roots in Egypt and its Coptic Orthodox traditions.

We learned all kinds of things, including some insider tips on making falafel and tahini and other traditional foods that come in handy during fasting seasons.

But we also learned about the often dangerous lives of Christians in the Middle East and, especially, Egypt. For example, why do Coptic Christians have those small crosses tattooed on their wrists? Our friends answered that question, the mother with tears in her eyes.

But if readers want to know the most painful answer to that question — this is a question, I admit, with several possible answers — they will not find it in a recent Global Post story that focuses on that topic.

The headline hints, in its second line: “Egypt’s Christians uphold tattoo tradition — Never mind the children’s screams: For Cairo’s Copts, tattoos are a mark of pride — and of protection.”

The story does not deliver, when it comes to information that backs that loaded word, “protection.” That makes the reader want to know, “Protection from what?” Here’s a sample of what you learn, in this case about the work of a tattoo artist named Girgis Gabriel Girgis:

Regardless the age of his human canvas, Girgis went to work — inscribing not fire-breathing dragons, fierce skulls or the gestures of star-crossed lovers, but rather simple blue-green crosses on the inside of his subjects’ wrists. The crosses are small, but they symbolize community in a country that Copts often view as hostile towards them.

Girgis’ open-air stand, just outside the church gates, has been his studio for almost two decades. For that long, he has been among the small ranks of Coptic tattooists, marking his subjects with symbols that identify Egypt’s Christian minority.

“When God chooses you for something, what you can do is just to obey his calls and do exactly what he wants you to do,” Girgis said.

Toward the end of the story, this hint of a hostile environment is repeated.

The Copts have long felt themselves a repressed minority — they are thought to make up about 10 percent of the country’s population, or 8 million people — and their tattoos can serve as a means of communal identity in a country that has a history of sectarian friction.

But note that the Copts merely “view” the Egyptian establishment as hostile and the have “long felt” that they are repressed. This is a matter of feelings and their point of view, not facts that can be reported by journalists.

Really? I realize that this is a controversial subject and that people disagree on some of the facts, but click here and explore some of the terrain covered by human-rights activists and others. Is there any real doubt that the Copts suffer from overt and covert persecution in modern Egypt?

And what does this have to do with those tattoos? Yes, they help build a sense of community in this ancient and highly symbolic flock. The Copts are, literally, the oldest Egyptian surviving community in that ancient land. On one level, the tattoo tradition must single them out for special, and often unwanted, attention in a land that in recent decades has veered closer to more radical forms of Islam.

But as our Coptic friends explained to us, those tattoos serve another purpose. They make it harder for Muslim extremists to kidnap their children and force them to convert to Islam, including forced marriages of young Christian girls to Muslim men. It’s hard to cut those crosses out of the thin skin over the veins in a human wrist. Click here for additional information on this controversial subject.

Yes, the tattoos serve as a form of identity and protection. But to fully understand this Coptic tradition, it helps to know a few of the painful details.

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American idolatry

CharltonHestonTheTenCommandmentsC101021021This past June, I commented on the popular use of the word “icon” to describe Michael Jackson. In a way, the story below is a fitting follow-up to the summer stories of the deaths of other icons, such as Farrah Fawcett and Ted Kennedy. (Don’t forget this Wall Street Journal piece that made fun of how low the “icon” bar had been set.)

In this article, ABC News’ Terry Moran looks at “Celebrity Culture and Worshipping False Idols: ‘Idols’ of Second Commandment Means Anything That Occupies Place of God, Pastor Says”:

In America these days, idols are everywhere. Music idols like Britney and Madonna. Sports idols like Jeter or Manning. Fashion idols like Gucci, Armani or Prada. We even have television shows to make our own “American Idol.”

It’s as if there is a need, a hunger in America to idolize.

But wait a minute. Isn’t that just pop culture? Modern life? Isn’t the second commandment about worshipping the golden calf and graven images?

Just what is an idol?

Pastor Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill Church in Seattle has a clear answer.

“An idol is someone or something that occupies the place of God in your life,” he said. “[It] gives you identity, meaning, value, purpose, love, significance, security. When the Bible uses the word ‘idol’, that’s what it’s getting at.”

I couldn’t believe Nightline was running a story that looked at doctrine. Turns out this story is part of a larger series on the Ten Commandments.

Quick note — while the Bible refers to ten commandments, it doesn’t number them in a particular fashion. So while Jews, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, Roman Catholics and Lutherans all have ten commandments, they’re numbered slightly differently. I’m Lutheran and we number them as Catholics do. So we don’t consider Exodus 20:4 (discussed above) the second commandment so much as a part of (or commentary on) the 1st Commandment (Exodus 20:3). So when the reporter refers to the graven image prohibition as the “second” commandment, he’s taking a bit of a sectarian position. Not that people tend to get worked up about the numbering. (And you really should read this 1903 letter to the editor of the New York Times to see the earliest days of what GetReligion is all about!)

Anyway, the segment on idol worship is really interesting. Driscoll talks about how alcohol, sex, food, sports, work and health can all become idols if they’re made more important than God. And he brings it back to Michael Jackson:

“When his face is on your T-shirt and when you listen to his music for hours, when you give large sums of money to him personally, when his death causes you to go into a steep depression and you have a collection of memorabilia — I think if you walked in from another culture, you would say that’s a very curious god they’ve chosen,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll also warns of the dangers misplaced worship can have on the people others idolized.

“It destroys them. Because they invariably disappoint. People can’t do what God does,” Driscoll said. “They aren’t perfect. They aren’t continually faithful. They don’t endure forever. That’s why we live in a culture that when heroes fall we’re devastated.”

It’s great to read what Protestants (and some other Christians) actually believe about the prohibition on idols rather than how the issue is typically treated in popular culture — as if it’s some archaic commandment with no relevance to today. But while Driscoll gives a very thorough look at how the commandment relates to life today, it’s still just one perspective. I would love to get some more depth to this report.

Perhaps I’m just struggling to navigate the Nightline web site, but there’s so much more that could be said about idol worship and speaking with more than one religious group is probably in order.

Also, while I consider the commandment referenced above to be part of the 1st Commandment, I don’t see any story devoted to the 1st Commandment on the web site. I wonder why. There are panels and stories and polls, as you will not be surprised to find out, about the commandment against committing adultery (‘We Can Have Big Sex’; Author discusses why her open marriage is not adulterous; Ashley Madison president says infidelity can save the save the marriage; Former sex addict speaks out against adultery in marriage, etc.).

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When the Times comes to call

HolyCrossPascha2009The New York Times ran a very old story the other day, a story about a topic that has, in fact, been around for several decades.

Still, it caught my attention for an obvious reason. It was a story about my own parish, my own priest and some of my closest friends. That isn’t something that happens every day.

Actually it was a column by Samuel G. Freedman of the School of Journalism at Columbia University, part of his ongoing series entitled “On Religion.” That also interests me, of course, since I have written a column with the same title for 21-plus years for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Freedman’s column about our parish, Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Md., is about two different subjects — working on two different levels.

The first level is stated in the headline: “More Protestants Find a Home in the Orthodox Antioch Church.” But that isn’t really news, in light of the headlines that greeted the influx of evangelicals into the Orthodox faith back in 1987. I think I wrote my first column about that trend in 1989, a decade before my own conversion to Orthodoxy, meaning that I can’t link to it since that precedes the online explosion called the World Wide Web (or widespread public use of the Internet). One way or another, that’s a 30-year-old story.

On a deeper level, however, this is a column about why people convert from one church to another, or from one faith to another. That brings us to the opening anecdote, which focuses on the man who stands next to me in the Holy Cross choir week after week.

Cal Oren was threading his way through the Santa Cruz Mountains of California early one evening in 1993, driving his wife, brother and three tired children back from a day of hiking amid the redwoods. As their car neared the town of Ben Lomond, Mr. Oren said, his brother pointed to a church on the roadside and said: “I’ve been inside this. It’s really neat.”

So Mr. Oren pulled to a stop, and as the children stayed in the car, the grown-ups gingerly padded into the sanctuary of Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church. A lifelong Presbyterian, Mr. Oren knew virtually nothing about the Antiochians or, for that matter, Orthodox Christianity in general. He had always associated Ben Lomond with hippies, geodesic domes and marijuana fields.

As he entered, a vespers service was under way. Maybe two dozen worshipers stood, chanting psalms and hymns. Incense filled the dark air. Icons of apostles and saints hung on the walls. The ancientness and austerity stood at a time-warp remove from the evangelical circles in which Mr. Oren traveled, so modern, extroverted and assertively relevant.

“This was a Christianity I had never encountered before,” said Mr. Oren, 55, a marketing consultant in commercial construction. “I was frozen in my tracks. I felt like I was in the actual presence of God, almost as if I was in heaven. And I’m not the kind of person who gets all woo-hoo.”

The ineffable disclosure of that evening, a 15-minute glimpse into Byzantium, rattled everything certain in Mr. Oren’s spiritual life.

Freedman has the history of all of this in his column, beginning with the 1987 events. But it’s clear that he is using our parish as a metaphor — a snapshot of a phenomenon that stands for a much larger picture. As I said, the larger picture is the subject of conversion.

So don’t let my familiarity with the specific — the conversion era in Orthodoxy — cause you to turn away from a nice column about this larger subject. Please, read the column for yourself. And you may want to check out this PBS feature about our parish, featuring one of the Oren children, who has grown up to become a breathtaking singer of Byzantine chant. What will the Oren family do for an elite-media encore?

Meanwhile, I would quibble about one or two facts in the Times piece. I would say that our parish is nearly 90 percent converts, although you get into the issue of how to count the children of the converts (and there are many, many youngsters in our parish). They are “cradle Orthodox,” of course, but still part of the larger convert scene.

And what’s up with that strange final anecdote about our priest, Father Gregory Mathewes-Green? Check it out:

The unexpected evolution of the Antiochian Church has had only one drawback, at least at Holy Cross. When Father Mathewes-Green was persuaded several years ago to raise money with a church supper, people flocked to Holy Cross, expecting the savory specialties of the Levant. What they got was the culinary outcome of the priest’s former life as an Episcopalian from South Carolina: hot dogs and brownies.

The fund-raiser, all prayers and chants to the contrary, was a loser.

This has to be some kind of mistake. Anyone who knows our priest knows that he would have made barbecue under this circumstance — pulled pork, as God intended from the beginning of time. Or maybe chili. But mere hot dogs?

Talk about unorthodox. Talk about having no sense of Tradition, with a large “T.”

Photo: The faithful begin to re-enter the sanctuary after the great procession of the Divine Liturgy at Pascha, 2009. Yes, that large chandelier is swinging from the rafters, a symbol of the whole world turning upside down with the reality of the Resurrection. Used by permission of

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