AP! St. Paul belongs to everyone

iconLike many of our readers, I read this Associated Press lede and said: “Say what?!?”

ROME – The first-ever scientific test on what are believed to be the remains of the Apostle Paul “seems to confirm” that they do indeed belong to the Roman Catholic saint, Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday.

Archaeologists recently unearthed and opened the white marble sarcophagus located under the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome, which for some 2,000 years has been believed by the faithful to be the tomb of St. Paul.

The problem, of course, is not with the narrow, factual nature of the statement that the Apostle Paul of Tarsus is a “Roman Catholic” saint. Of course he is. And the problem isn’t that these remains are buried in the Vatican, which makes the Catholic reference rather relevant.

But, well, St. Paul is also an Orthodox saint, along with the rest of the saints of the one, holy, catholic church before the Great Schism that tore apart the Christian East and West. And, you know, the Protestants think rather highly of the Apostle Paul, too. He’s right up there at the top of the New Testament hero list for everyone in Christianity — period.

So the question is why choose a narrow wording to identify Paul, as opposed to a broader wording that is just as accurate?

So, gentle readers, what wording would you have chosen in this context?

In my own writings, I simply refer to him as St. Paul, when writing about the ancient churches, and the Apostle Paul, when writing about events in a Protestant context.

I was also intrigued by the reference to the carbon dating proving that these relics are, in fact, those of St. Paul. Here is the full reference:

Benedict said scientists had conducted carbon dating tests on bone fragments found inside the sarcophagus and confirmed that they date from the first or second century.

“This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul,” Benedict said, announcing the findings at a service in the basilica to mark the end of the Vatican’s Paoline year, in honor of the apostle.

Paul and Peter are the two main figures known for spreading the Christian faith after the death of Christ. According to tradition, St. Paul, also known as the apostle of the Gentiles, was beheaded in Rome in the 1st century during the persecution of early Christians by Roman emperors. Popular belief holds that bone fragments from his head are in another Rome basilica, St. John Lateran, with his other remains inside the sarcophagus.

The pope said that when archaeologists opened the sarcophagus, they discovered alongside the bone fragments some grains of incense, a “precious” piece of purple linen with gold sequins and a blue fabric with linen filaments.

Now, it seems to me that science has found evidence that the relics are from the proper time period, which adds weight to the ancient church traditions about their identity. But — pending some other DNA match — how would this prove the remains are those of a specific man, namely St. Paul?

Now hear me: What I have observed, in graduate school readings and in journalism, is that the claims of the early church are accurate on these matters a very high percentage of the time. The church of the martyrs tended to take these matters rather seriously. People died defending some of these holy sites.

I’m not arguing with the pope and the “seems to confirm” language in the lede is cautious. I simply wondered, again, if the wording could have been a bit more accurate.

Oh, a blessed feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, to GetReligion readers who worship in churches that take seriously that kind of thing. You know — celebrating the lives and deaths of the saints, like St. Paul.

PHOTO: The saints of the day. Can you say who is who?

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Icons, idols and the Gloved One

michael_jackson_beat_itIf you run a Google News search for “Michael Jackson” and “idol,” you’ll get tens of thousands of hits. If you watched any news coverage of the death of MJ, “icon” was the go-to word for describing the King of Pop. Here’s Agence France-Presse, for instance:

Michael Jackson is dead after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in yesterday for the tortured music icon revered as the “King of Pop.”

Clearly the media use this term to mean someone who is the object of a lot of attention and devotion. But I can’t help but think, if that’s what they mean to say about Jackson, that “idol” would be a better term.

Both terms are religious or have religious overtones. Here’s how one Russian Orthodox web site describes icons:

In the Orthodox Church, icons are sacred images painted on wood, carved in stone, molded in metal, sewn on cloth, or made in any suitable material, which conform to a canonical non-naturalistic style, and which are venerated by the faithful with bows, kisses, incense and lights, with the understanding that the icon itself is not worshipped, but the honor given it is transferred to Christ, the Mother of God, or to whatever saint is depicted thereon.

Now, even if you just use a non-religious definition, I’m not sure it’s the right word. Here’s what Random House says:

1.a picture, image, or other representation.
2.Eastern Church. a representation of some sacred personage, as Christ or a saint or angel, painted usually on a wood surface and venerated itself as sacred.
3.a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.
4.Computers. a picture or symbol that appears on a monitor and is used to represent a command, as a file drawer to represent filing.
5.Semiotics. a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.

Which of those definitions covers the media’s use of the term?

National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg didn’t enjoy the media rush to sanctify Jackson with the use of the term:

An icon, technically speaking, is a religious symbol deserving of reverence and adoration. The networks may not have intended to use the word that way, but they certainly showed an unseemly amount of reverence and adoration for the man.

What do you think of the use of the term icon for anything other than a representation of an object or person?

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A new miracle of St. George?

180941275First things first: His name is not St. George the Dragon Slayer. Most of the time, you will hear him called the Great Martyr St. George the Trophy-bearer, or a variation on that title. The key is that he died as a witness to his faith.

As one of the hymns honoring him says:

You were bound for good deeds, O martyr of Christ: George; by faith you conquered the torturer’s godlessness. You were offered as a sacrifice pleasing to God; thus you received the crown of victory.

Truth be told, the lede on this interesting Associated Press story gets the dragon right up top, but the story does not actually make an inaccurate reference to St. George. So with that stated, let’s move on to the heart of matter — which centers on an icon of the saint in the town of Ramla, Israel:

Christians have been flocking to this dusty Israeli town to see what locals are calling a miracle: streaks of what looks like oil mysteriously dripping down an icon of St. George at a Greek Orthodox church named for the legendary third century dragon slayer.

Worshippers said … that the more than two dozen streaks might represent God’s tears or the Christian rite of baptism. The church priest, Father Nifon, first saw the streaks while preparing for Sunday morning services, they said.

“He kissed all the icons, and when he reached that one, he took down the picture and he cleaned it,” said Aida Abu el-Edam, an English teacher and longtime church member. “After 20 or 25 minutes, he looked again and he saw the oil again and said, ‘This is a miracle.’”

We don’t have time to discuss the sad details behind another question here: What is a Greek Orthodox Church doing in what is clearly a Palestinian community in Israel. This is a case where I think the reporter should have called it an Eastern Orthodox church and left it at that. But there are many reporters, it seems, who think that the whole of Eastern Orthodox Christianity is Greek.

The heart of this story is the phenomenon of myrrh-streaming icons and, frankly, this report does a fine job of handling that subject (while failing to mention the myrrh).

Here is the key passage, starting with another quote from Aida Abu el-Edam:

“It’s a special, holy smell,” she said. “It’s not ordinary, like olive oil. It’s something strange that comes from God.”

The Greek Orthodox patriarch inspected the painting Sunday, el-Edam said, and the church has sent a sample of the oil to a laboratory.

Father Nifon said the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate had asked him not to speak publicly or to answer questions about the streaks, so that believers could draw their own conclusions.

In other words: Let the people pray and let the lab workers do their work. The church will then deal with the results.

The story contains some interesting information about the religious and even political context of these claims about the icon. I could have used a sentence or two about why St. George is so important to Arab Christians, but I understand that length is an issue for wire services.

It’s appropriate, of course, to look for non-miraculous explanations for this phenomenon with icons. That leads us to this wonderful quote, from another voice drawn from the laypeople of this parish:

“People these days, they’ve forgot God and this is a sign to tell them, ‘I’m still here,’ said Edith Fanous, 31, who works for a local trucking company and said she has been attending St. George’s since she was a little girl.

Fanous said she was singing in the church choir when the oil streaks appeared Sunday. She guessed as many as 1,000 visitors had been to the church since then. She dismissed the idea that the streaks could just be paint running on a hot day.

“This icon is 114 years old,” she said. “It passed through so much weather, hot and cold. And now that we have air conditioning in the church it’s started to melt? I don’t think so.”

Ah, the impact of air conditioning on the study of a 114-year-old icon. I sure hope the Associated Press does a follow-up report on this.

IMAGE: An icon on the life of the Great Martyr St. George.

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Imagine words that heal ancient wounds

In his attempts to build bridges on abortion, President Barack Obama has been able to draw favorable coverage by changing the words he uses to talk about the issue, while only hinting at minor policy changes that do not address core issues linked to any restrictions on abortion. Now, many mainstream journalists are now drawing parallels between the president’s approach on abortion with his historic Cairo University speech on tensions between America, Israel and the Arab world.

Or is that the Muslim world? Or was this speech actually about tensions between Christianity, Judaism and Islam? These questions are crucial and, quite frankly, there is way too much mainstream coverage of the speech for me to cover it in one post. The GetReligionistas will be wrestling with this for days, I am sure.

As a rule, journalists have tried to ask two questions: How will the speech sound to Jews? How will the speech sound to Muslims?

As far as I can tell, there has been little attempt, so far, to analyze how Obama’s own liberal Protestant approach to Christianity, rooted in universalism and a postmodern approach to scripture, influenced the contents of the speech. It is clear, however, that the further to the doctrinal left believers are — Jews, Muslims and Christians — the fewer worries they will have about the speech’s contents. There are times in the speech when people from the traditional wings of these three faiths will be tempted to suggest that media reports on Obama’s speech be followed by a recording of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace …

You see, in an attempt to use soothing (look for variations on “empathy”) words, Obama did everything he could not to raise specific issues that would cause tension, such as Islamic laws on apostasy, conversion and, dare I say it, free speech if that speech is evangelistic. More on that in a minute. He set out to be positive and the press coverage reflects that. It will take a few days for the voices of reality — political and religious — to be heard.

The Los Angeles Times offered a solid look at the language of the speech from the perspective of Judaism — mainly in terms of politics, but with a hint of religious language. The key truth: Words matter, especially when all one can afford to offer is the magic of words.

Obama spoke, for example, of Palestinian “resistance” — a word that can cast Israel as an illegitimate occupier. He drew parallels between Palestinians and the struggles of black Americans in slavery and of black South Africans during apartheid. Both references made some allies of Israel uneasy.

Moreover, in his defense of Israel’s legitimacy, Obama cited the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism, but not the belief of some Jews that their claim to the land is rooted in the Bible and reaches back thousands of years.

That’s crucial, in this report, because that language then links to other crucial words:

Nathan Diament, public policy director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and an advisor to the White House during speech preparations, said he was struck by “some surprising word choices.” In particular, Diament was troubled that Obama shifted from his previous use of the term “Jewish state” and referred instead to a Jewish “homeland.” It is a subtle distinction, but Israel advocates worry that it implies a downgrading in status.

However, Obama also referred to the need for a Palestinian “state,” while also talking about a yearning for a Palestinian “homeland.” But the issue all along has been whether some, repeat “some,” Muslims will ever — for doctrinal reasons — be able to accept the existence of a Jewish state on land that was, for centuries, ruled by Muslims and Islamic law. What happens to Muslim leaders who openly accept the existence of a Jewish state? Again, this is a divide within Islam.

The emphasis in most coverage, of course, has been on the reaction of hopeful moderate Muslims (often in America) to the content of the speech, with hints of rejection by other non-moderate Muslims (usually in Arab lands). A crucial Washington Post story, in particular, noted Obama’s use of scripture — Jewish, Christian and Muslim, but especially the emphasis on the Koran.

But again, note the locations for these voices that are praising Obama’s language:

Mohamed Magid, imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, a Sterling mosque, and vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, said he was “amazed” at the sophisticated use that Obama made of Islam’s holy text. “He was taking verses from the Koran to support his arguments,” Magid said. “He was looking to persuade them to believe in the ideas that he wanted to share with them — ‘Not only listen to my words, but your own religion asks you to do the same.’”

Obama quoted three times from the Koran, the 114-chapter Islamic holy book that Muslims revere as the word of God revealed to Muhammad, the founder of Islam, in the 7th century.

The first, quoted by Obama as “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth,” is from Chapter 33, Verse 70, titled “Ahzab,” or “The Confederates,” and addresses the issue of those who are hypocritical in their faith and maintaining one’s faith in hard times. It was quoted by Muhammad in his final sermon before he died, and imams worldwide use it frequently in Friday sermons, said Jonathan Brown, a Muslim who is a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Washington. When Obama used that verse, said Brown, “he wasn’t just quoting from the Koran, but he was doing what any Muslim preacher would do when speaking to an audience.”

Most striking to many Muslims was Obama’s use of the phrase “May peace be upon them” when referring to Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. It is a term of respect and reverence that Muslims use when referring, in speech or in writing, to such figures, and rarely is used by non-Muslims.

Over in another Los Angeles Times piece, the president’s goals were stated in very blunt language that stressed the hurdle that, in the end, he must clear. He must promote the strengthening of a liberal Islam, one that triumphs over its more doctrinaire forms. Check this out:

The president was attempting to insinuate himself into the larger debate within Islam — not among militants, who won’t be swayed by an appeal from an American president, but between mainstream conservative and moderate Muslim voices looking to keep their faith but also engage the secular West.

The New York Times reaction sidebar (this one is must reading) was not as blunt, electing to stress that the power of pretty words will only go so far. And, once again, the glowing reactions came from moderate Muslims in formal settings while the harshest words seemed to come from cafes and streets.

Again and again, Muslim listeners said they were struck by how skillfully Mr. Obama appropriated religious, cultural and historical references in ways other American presidents had not. He included four quotations from the Koran and used Arabic greetings. He took note of longstanding historical grievances like the stain of colonialism, American support for the Iranian coup of 1953 and the displacement of the Palestinian people. His speech was also embraced for what it did not do: use the word terrorism, broadly seen here as shorthand for an attack on Islam.

“He spoke really like an enlightened leader from the region, more than like a foreigner,” said Mustafa Hamarneh, the former director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “It was very unlike the neocolonial and condescending approach of the previous administration.”

You could read all day, of course, and only skim the surface of the coverage and commentary on this one.

But in the days ahead I will be watching for coverage of this part of the speech and, specifically, for reactions from Christian leaders in the Arab world. In particular, watch for any reaction quotes from Muslims and Christians who have collided with laws against apostasy and those that forbid statements and actions that may be considered “offenses against Islam.”

Here’s the crucial language from the speech to watch for, if you are concerned about religious liberty. In particular, note the passing reference to the rights of religious minorities. If you keep reading the full text you will quickly reach its content on the rights of women:

Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia where devout Christians worshipped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today. People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul.

This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive. But it’s being challenged in many different ways. Among some Muslims, there’s a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith.

The richness of religious diversity must be upheld, whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And if we are being honest, fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.

Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which people protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That’s why I’m committed to work with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat. Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit, for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.

We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism. In fact, faith should bring us together.

I hope readers will help us look for stories that take seriously the religious implications of this speech.

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Ghosts on holy ground in Ukraine

ukraine1lLast week, I went to Kiev to speak to a group of Ukrainian journalists — both secular and religious — about the challenges of covering religion news in mainstream press. My chapter in the Oxford Centre book, “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” had been translated into Ukrainian and it was a great chance to get some feedback from scribes in a very different context — a post-Soviet culture.

To tell you the truth, the professional challenges described by journalists there sounded very familiar to my American ears.

Also, when I arrived I picked up a copy of the English-language Kiev Post and, right there on page one, spotted a religion ghost. It was a story about a memorial service — led, in part, by President Victor Yushchenko — at the mass grave in Bykivnya forest northeast of Kiev, a grave containing 100,000-plus victims of Joseph Stalin and his regime.

The photos that ran with this story included some strong religious images, which is not surprising in a nation with such a rich Eastern Orthodox heritage. But the story itself was completely religion free.

As you would expect, I decided that I had to discuss this with the Ukrainian journalists and then write about it in my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week. Here’s a big slice of that, including some rather complicated material about the politics of Orthodoxy in Ukraine:

The mourners wept, while processing through the site behind Orthodox clergy who carried liturgical banners containing iconic images of Jesus and Mary.

“Because of the national symbolism of this ceremony, the priests there may not be important,” said Victor Yelensky, a sociologist of religion associated with the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences. “But the priests have to be there because this is Ukraine and this is a ceremony that is about a great tragedy in the history of Ukraine.

“So the priests are there. It is part … of a civil religion.”

This is where the story gets complicated. In the Ukrainian media, photographs and video images showed the clergy, with their dramatic banners and colorful vestments. However, in their reporting, journalists never mentioned what the clergy said or did.

Mainstream media reports also failed to mention which Orthodoxy body or bodies were represented. This is an important gap, because of the tense and complicated nature of the religious marketplace in this historically Eastern Orthodox culture.

It would have been big news, for example, if clergy from the giant Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — with direct ties to Moscow — had taken part in a ceremony that featured Yushchenko, who, as usual, aimed angry words to the north.

But what if the clergy were exclusively from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate), born after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and linked to declarations of Ukrainian independence? What if there were also clergy from a third body, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, born early in the 20th century?

You see, right now almost anything can create tensions between Ukraine and Russia. A ceremony with clergy linked to Moscow would create tensions in some circles. A ceremony without clergy linked to Moscow would create tensions in others. The symbolism has political content either way.

So why not cover the religious content of this event?

The journalists said that most Ukrainian reporters and editors are highly secular and think that politics is the only subject that matters. It was also hard to forget all of those unwritten Soviet-era press rules that said that religion was bad, irrelevant or, at best, merely private.

Then again, the journalists agreed that religion news is highly complex and packed with historic details and symbols. Many Ukrainian journalists are terrified of making mistakes, because of their lack of knowledge. It is also hard to dig past the surface details and the layers of ecclesiastical armor to get at the subjects that truly touch the lives of readers. That requires sensitivity and insight, as well as technical skills.

So why not hire professionals trained to cover the beat? That would mean admitting that religion is a subject is worthy of that step.

Consider this quote fro one of the nation’s top journalists:

“Many would say that, if we do not play the violin, we really should not attempt to comment on how others play the violin,” said Yuri Makarov, editor in chief of Ukrainian Week, speaking through a translator.

Hey, religion-beat veterans: Does any of this sound familiar?

Photo: Canadian embassy photo from a 2008 memorial service in Bykivnya Forest.

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Hanks and The. Big. Question.

angelsanddemonsmoviewithtomhanksI guess it all depends on your point of view and, yes, the audience for which you are writing.

Still, I think it’s rather interesting what the Los Angeles Times considered “The Big Question” facing superstar Tom Hanks during his work on “Angels & Demons.” This movie is, of course, based on the Dan Brown book that was written before “The Da Vinci Code,” but has, with some plot tweaking, been turned into a 24-meets-Vatican City sequel by director Ron Howard.

So, what was The. Big. Question?

Now, we’re not talking about the Catholic Church’s reaction to the film. The big questions is: was Hanks scared to wear a Speedo in one of the opening scenes of A&D?

He says no. … (His) character, Robert Langdon, is a regular 1/4 mile a day swimmer who plays water polo.

“You can’t do that in baggy shorts. It requires a Speedo,” Hanks admitted. “I have no fear about the Speedo. As an actor, I’ve worn stupider things and actually, I’ve worn less as an actor on occasion. It takes a man to slap on that Speedo and say ‘I’m ready to go to work.’ it felt great, felt wonderful.

Admittedly, he looks great in the scene where he’s on his elbows by the side of the pool. But we’ve seen some extended footage and we’re not completely sure that is really Hank’s abdomen in some of the underwater swimming scenes that prominently features a very taut belly.

Just saying ….

Maybe that is the big question in a place like Los Angeles, but I dare say that this latest collision between Brown and Rome might inspire some people in other zip codes to ask questions with a bit more weight. I’ll watch the Los Angeles Times coverage closely to see if any of them get asked.

Now, I must note that I have not seen all of the movie yet, only Howard’s early clips prepared for a press gig. But I know the book inside out — from research during Da Vinci mania — and it’s crucial to stress that this is not an anti-Catholic book. No, it is a pro-liberal Catholic book, and thus, by implication, it is an anti-traditional Catholic book.

It will not give away any plot points for me to note that the most symbolic Catholic figure in the book — a brilliant Catholic priest and liberal mystic, who also happens to be a CERN-level physicist and the father, through adoption, of the brilliant female scientist who is the heroine — is not in the movie. Howard and members of the cast confirmed that some of the speeches that define the book’s thesis are not in the movie, either.

Still, it’s safe to assume that the movie, like the book, is full of brilliant, noble, nuanced, modernist Catholics and a few angry, sad, simplistic, sick traditionalist Catholics who are afraid of science and change. Want to make a prediction who ends up being a serial killer?

speedo1So here’s my own version of The. Big. Question. I asked Howard and Hanks — in a press conference setting — what they think makes the good Catholics good and the bad Catholics bad. While answering, Hanks offered an insight or two to his own worldview (check out his take on conspiracy theories). Here’s a chunk of an earlier Scripps column:

“I feel that the good and bad believers have to do with the good and bad in their deeds,” said Howard. “Belief is personal and to be respected. But behavior and actions taken on behalf of those beliefs, well that’s something that society has to react to when it’s bad and applaud when it’s good.”

For example, Hanks quoted key lines in which the Swiss Guard commander aims this shot at the hero: “My church feeds the hungry and takes care of the needs of the poor. What has your church done? Oh, that’s right, Mr. Langdon, you don’t have one.”

“This is true,” noted Hanks, whose complex family history included doses of Catholicism, Mormonism, the Church of the Nazarene and several years as a Bible-toting evangelical teen-ager. “The church does feed the poor. It does take care of the hungry. It heals the sick. I think that the grace of God seems to be not only in the eye of the believer, but also in the hands of the believer.”

These days, he said, he still ponders the big questions, while raising a family with his Greek Orthodox wife, actress Rita Wilson. Miracles are everywhere in daily life, he said, and it’s the “mystery of it all” that continues to haunt him.

“I must say that when I go to church — and I do go to church — I ponder the mystery,” he said. “I meditate on the, ‘why?’ of ‘Why people are as they are,’ and ‘Why bad things happen to good people,’ and ‘Why good things happen to bad people.’ … The mystery is what I think is, almost, the grand unifying theory of all mankind.”

The powers that be were not allowing follow-up questions. Thus, I was not allowed to ask the obvious question that I wanted to ask, both as a reporter and as an Orthodox Christian who cares about the meaning of words.

Hanks is a very well-read guy and likes to discuss the big ideas of culture and history. I should also note that I have never seen an actual statement from him confirming that he has joined the Greek Orthodox Church that he attends with his wife and, thus, taken the vows of a convert and entered into a life of confession and participation in the “Holy Mysteries.”

Mysteries? As in sacramental and doctrinal mysteries? Do you see the question? Hanks kept using that big word — mystery — to describe his spiritual quest.

Now, I know that Hollywood Hanks has made public statements and taken stands that clash with Orthodox Christianity on a whole range of moral and, thus, political issues. Still, I wanted to ask: Was he saying that he ponders the “mystery” or the “Mystery”?

Just saying ….

Photos: Tom Hanks. Not Tom Hanks.

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Swine flu and the Copts

APTOPIX MIDEAST EGYPT SWINE FLUWhile the rest of the world seems to understand that swine flu is not really about the swine, Egypt continues its mass slaughter of every pig in sight. It is on a national campaign to rid the country of its estimated 300,000 pigs in the name of public health.

As has been widely reported, the campaign stems in part from the Egyptian abhorrence of the pig, the Koran’s ultimate “unclean” animal. But other Muslim countries have not taken similar steps to wipe out their pig populations. Israel neither.

Which brings us to the second reason for the pig assault in Egypt: the Coptic Christian pig owners. Egyptians never seem to miss an opportunity to unsettle its Coptic minority. One of our readers sent us the State Department’s 2008 report on religious freedom in Egypt which makes it clear that even before this outbreak things are getting worse for the Copts.

Copts complain about harrassement, discrimination in employment and lack of representation in government. Some live in fear that their children will be kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam. They have taken to tattooing a Coptic cross to the wrists of their children as a sign of their identity (second photo).

The key here is that killing all the pigs in Egypt would be a financial disaster for pig owners. In other words, the Copts. Miss that angle and you miss the story.

The other widely-reported religion story related to swine flu was about an Orthodox Jewish public health official who said that Israel should call it the “Mexican flu” instead of naming it for an unkosher animal. From the AP:

Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman said the reference to pigs is offensive to both religions and “we should call this Mexican flu and not swine flu,” he told a news conference at a hospital in central Israel.

While the story was widely reported, the repudiation of the official was not. I found on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which is sometimes called the AP for the Jews.

The swine flu will not take any new names in Israel despite the unease of a health official from a fervently religious party. …

“Israel has no intention of giving the flu any new names,” the official said. “It was nothing more than a slip of the tongue.”

coptic_cross01Finally, the flu scare has prompted warnings from several church bodies about the common cup used in communion. This from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal:

Concerns about a possible swine flu pandemic spread through Wisconsin houses of worship this week, where leaders were taking steps to educate their congregations and minimize any potential spread.

The Milwaukee diocese reminded pastors that they have the option not to offer communal wine for the Eucharist. A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said that it was using the outbreak as a “teachable moment” to underscore the idea that Christ is present in both the bread and the wine. Pastors were given the option not to offer the communal wine. “To receive just the host is still to receive the body and blood of Christ,” she said.

Other churches were stocking up on hand sanitizer and tissues to pass around after the “kiss of peace.” Pastors are reminding people that no actual kiss or handshake is required. In the age of swine flu, sometimes just a smile is enough.

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How do you say “we’re sorry”?

armenian_genocideRather than update my previous Armenian genocide post with a link to Julia Duin’s article on its anniversary in the Washington Times, I wanted to highlight it separately. I noted that most stories about the events of 1915 were solely or almost exclusively political. Very few touched on religion in any meaningful way.

However, the Times used the anniversary as a hook to explore how one theological concept — corporate repentance — differs across various religions. What would contrition look like, Duin asks, from a secular state based on a religious tradition that does not practice corporate repentance?:

The concept of national repentance started with Jewish prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. Christians then ran with the idea, with modern examples including President Lincoln’s 1863 call to a day of national repentance and fasting. His idea lives on in the National Day of Prayer on the first Thursday of each May.

Plus, Christians ranging from the late Pope John Paul II to bands of evangelical Protestant missionaries have apologized for the excesses of the Crusades. But what Islamic entity has apologized for the 300 years of conquest that provoked the Crusades?

These are the kinds of questions I wish newspapers gave more room to explore. (Side note: I’m always somewhat amazed at the widespread ignorance — both in the media and in the general population — about the periods before, during and after the Crusades. There’s so much to the larger story that is completely ignored. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t even know the Crusades were in response to anything until a few years ago. It was just never mentioned in my history textbooks or in any media reports. I knew almost nothing about the history of Muslim expansion until I explored the issue on my own after 9/11.) And bringing it forward, it would be so interesting to hear from people about how different views of corporate sin, repentance and absolution (or even individual sin, etc.) impact public policy.

Duin quotes Wadi Haddad, a retired professor of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, saying that such corporate repentance is very Western. Other scholars weigh in:

“Individual Muslims can express regret or repentance, but I don’t know what the appropriate institution would be to express Islamic regret,” Georgetown University Islamic history professor John Voll told me. Christianity has corporate bodies representing its various divisions, he added, but “in Islam, there is no corporate structure that represents the umma [world Muslim community].”

While many reporters are out there repeating the Armenian desire for acknowledgment of and apology for the genocide, what a great idea to explore how such requests are viewed from the Muslim perspective.

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