Valid apologetics or another case of Anglican syncretism?

Sometimes it seems that the Church of England just can’t catch a break.

Now, trust me, I know that some very strange things have gone on in recent decades in the hazy spiritual territory between Anglicanism and hip, alternative forms of spirituality. Trust me on that.

However, The Telegraph recently published a story that — if you know any of the basics about the players and the teams inside the modern Church of England — just didn’t make any sense.

The context, of course, is that Anglicanism — in the West, as opposed to the Global South — is in a state of demographic collapse. So all kinds of people are doing all kinds of strange, or even logical, things in the name of apologetics and evangelism. On the liberal side of the doctrinal fence, this can sometimes lead straight to the door called syncretism — with the lines between major world religions getting blurred in ways that can warp the creedal basics of the faith.

That appears to be what is going on in this Telegraph report:

The church is training ministers to create “a pagan church where Christianity [is] very much in the centre” to attract spiritual believers.

Ministers are being trained to create new forms of Anglicanism suitable for people of alternative beliefs as part of a Church of England drive to retain congregation numbers.

Reverend Steve Hollinghurst, a researcher and adviser in new religious movements told the BBC: “I would be looking to formulate an exploration of the Christian faith that would be at home in their culture.” He said it would be “almost to create a pagan church where Christianity was very much in the centre.”

Now here is the crucial question: Is this an attempt to create an Anglican approach that fuses or blends elements of Christianity and streams of pagan or neopagan belief, or is the goal to ask Anglican ministers and parishes to address some of the specific concerns and questions of people who are seeking answers by turning to other religions?

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Covering opposition to syncretism in a syncretized world

There is nothing more fun about being a confessional Lutheran than explaining our position on syncretistic worship to those who aren’t.

I kid, it’s not fun at all. See, the world embraces syncretism. The general idea is, it goes without saying, that all religions are good and valid and different paths to understanding the same truth. If you don’t ascribe to that notion, you are probably a bad guy.

Civil religion has many components but one aspect is that it rather tries to transcend all religions while including them. All religions and all gods are to be equally tolerated, honored and respected everywhere. One of the most important aspects of American civil religion is participation in interfaith — or syncretistic — worship services. These worship services used to be more about “unionism” — the blending of Christian worship — whereas now they explicitly blend in groups that reject Christianity. It turns out that confessional Lutherans not only don’t support unionism and syncretism but it’s a big part of our story about how we came to America. The head of Germany was forcing joint worship (with the Reformed Christians) on confessional Lutherans and we took our doctrinal beliefs so seriously that we were forced to flee.

It’s a very serious issue for us. And one that most of our fellow Americans don’t understand (though they’ve graciously allowed us in and allowed us to practice our doctrinal beliefs).

We don’t do interfaith worship because of our understanding of the First Commandment, which is a demand for, as one of our scholars puts it, “a radical and absolute exclusivity in our relationship with the realm of divine beings.” And since the first duty of the believer is to worship, this is most clearly expressed in how we worship.

If you are a journalist who is genuinely interested in this topic and why we believe what we do, I’d encourage the book “The Anonymous God: The Church Confronts Civil Religion and American Society.” It’s a highly readable, succinct explanation of our doctrines and how American culture is hostile to our views. If you’re going for the quick and dirty version, I’d recommend (sorry …) my own Wall Street Journal piece on the matter the last time this became a big issue in the media, after a clergy member was suspended for his participation in interfaith worship:

In late June, the church suspended the Rev. David Benke, the president of its Atlantic District and the pastor of a Brooklyn church, for praying with clerics who don’t share the Christian faith.

Naturally, the suspension caused all hell to break loose. From the New York Times’ editors to FoxNews’ Bill O’Reilly, pundits and commentators chided the Lutherans for their intolerance. Mr. O’Reilly, not otherwise known for theological expertise, even accused the church of “not following Jesus.” A column in Newsday said Mr. Benke’s accusers were “advocating religious isolationism.” …

To participate in an interfaith service is, as the synod announced upon suspending Mr. Benke, “a serious offense” strictly forbidden by tradition and church law. But the source of the prohibition is Christ’s own words. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). As the Rev. Charles Henrickson, a Lutheran minister in St. Louis, explains: “The gospel is not served, it is not confessed — indeed, the gospel is eviscerated — when Jesus Christ is presented as one of many options from which to choose on a smorgasbord of spirituality.”

Basically we think it’s fine to set aside differences to work together in many things unless the thing we’re supposed to agree to disagree on is Jesus and the context is worship.

Another issue arose when a Lutheran pastor who everyone agrees is doing a great job ministering to his congregation in Newtown in all sorts of ways took part in a syncretistic worship service. He explained why he thought it was ok, but many Lutherans thought it not, it was becoming a bit of a “scandal” (in the church sense of the term), and his supervisors asked him to speak a word of apology. He did. The President basically told both the people who thought his apology didn’t go far enough and those who want to change church teaching on syncretism that they should work together in love and compassion. While it’s not a huge issue within the church body, some folks have been pushing for secular media coverage of same since that’s a much more favorable climate for changing church teaching on this matter.

So if you thought it was less than enjoyable to have your patriotism questioned after 9/11, you can imagine how easy it is to explain your church doctrine on the First and Second Commandments in the subtle and unpolarized aftermath of the Newtown massacre. The headlines and stories have been full of outrage. Some of that is to be expected for anything as countercultural as our doctrine on this matter. Some of it is just not the best work.

Or as Vanity Fair‘s Kurt Eichenwald put it:

Truth: Lutherans angry at minister 4 praying w/ a Rabbi 4 a dead Jewish boy wouldve been angry 4 prayers at the Crucifiction of Jesus, a Jew

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Halloween: trick or treat for Christians?

YouTube Preview ImageIn yet another case of liberal bias by GetReligion, tmatt screamed “Boooo!” the other day at a one-sided story praising Halloween evangelism.

I chimed in with a comment noting that in my Associated Press days I did a “hell house” story and included both sides — long before GR-style ghostbusting became a ghastly gleam in the Internet’s eye.

Since it’s Halloween, I thought I’d highlight a couple of stories reporting on how some Christians deal with the holiday’s pagan roots. Before I do, I want to be sure to give a hat tip — pumpkin hat, that is — to Religion News Service for the above video, which RNS included in its daily e-mail today.

The first story was written by Taya Flores, a reporter for the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Ind. Flores does a nice job of taking what could be a yawner of an annual story and making it interesting reading. The top of the story:

Heather Salemink of Lafayette has celebrated Halloween since childhood. She can recall dressing in costume and her dad decorating the house.

So even as a Christian, she never questioned whether her children would celebrate the holiday, too.

“Kids need opportunities to imagine themselves in different worlds,” said Salemink, 34. “It’s really kind of fun to watch them explore different parts of the world through their imagination. In Christianity, there is so much that requires belief in things that you can’t see.”

But not all religious groups approach Halloween with such ease and excitement. Controversy still surrounds the holiday, which has origins in ancient Celtic spiritualism.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of anecdotal ledes that start with someone who does not fit the theme of the story. In other words, if the story is about people who don’t approach Halloween with ease and excitement, begin the story with one of them, not with somebody who has no problem with Halloween.

Nonetheless, there’s much to like about this story. The writer provides historical background, quotes experts and pastors and even includes other faiths besides Christianity:

Other religions may shy away from the holiday as well. Traditionally, Muslims do not approve of Halloween either.

“Halloween, because it has pagan roots and traditions, is not something Islam will approve for its followers,” said Aurangzeb, president of the Purdue Muslim Student Association.

There’s variance among Jewish believers. Daniel Frank, director of the Jewish Studies Program and professor of philosophy at Purdue University, said from a traditional point of view, Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish festivals, whether it be pagan or Christian.

However, some conservative and reformed Jews may celebrate Halloween as a cultural holiday.

“Orthodox Jews as a typical rule don’t celebrate Halloween,” said Nora Rubel, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York. “Conservative and reformed Jews can, but it’s left to the individual family. It’s not just the pagan roots that bother Orthodox Jews but also the Christian roots.”

No pagans are quoted, however.

The other story was written by Tim Townsend, religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Townsend’s piece focuses on St. Louis-area churches using Halloween’s pagan roots to grow their flocks. The top of the story:

DES PERES — Jason and Stacey Leeker grew up going door to door on Halloween night, collecting candy in costumes. But after the couple dedicated their lives to their Christian faith, they decided they would shield their own children from Halloween’s pagan roots.

Last Saturday evening, the Leekers and their three children ventured out to Faith Des Peres Presbyterian Church’s trunk-or-treat party.

Trunk-or-treats — Halloween tailgating parties, with kids going from car trunk to car trunk — are an increasingly popular alternative for schools, churches and community groups to traditional doorbell trick-or-treating.

For the Leekers, the church atmosphere provided a safe Halloween outing where they could give their 5- and 3-year-old a taste of the holiday’s fun.

Like the Indiana story, the Post-Dispatch report provides historical context:

Jack Santino, a professor of folklore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has written that Halloween has its origins in a pastoral festival called Samhain (pronounced sah-ween). Throughout Europe, it was the biggest festival of the Celtic calendar, and a celebration of the end of harvest and the beginning of winter.

The Celtic people believed that during Samhain, the souls of those who had died during the year “traveled into the otherworld,” Santino wrote, and “their ghosts were able to mingle with the living.”

They lit bonfires to honor the dead, “to aid them on their journey and to keep them away from the living.” Early missionaries appropriated many pagan rituals and subtly transformed them into Christian rituals.

Like a trick-or-treat bag full of candy, Townsend’s story brims with specific details from trunk-or-treat events that he obviously visited firsthand.

If the story lacks anything, it’s a perspective on how mainstream Halloween has become in churches and whether many still resist the holiday. That’s a minor criticism, however, because I think the report’s strong focus on a specific phenomenon — trunk-or-treats — gives it a newsy, journalistic edge.

Your turn, GetReligion readers: Any insights on the stories mentioned? Any links to other Halloween-related religion stories that you’ve come across and your thoughts on them?

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Vatican picks a side in the nun wars?

As the media fallout continues from the Vatican’s decision to rein in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (see the full document here), I have been especially interested in the degree to which journalists are certain that this action was rooted in tensions caused by recent debates over health care, abortion and homosexuality.

The key word that interests me is “recent.”

I say this because, long ago, during my days in Denver, I covered quite a few events related to the work of liberal nuns, events that had to be creating files of complaints in somebody’s Vatican file cabinets. Nuns and feminism? Sure. Nuns and watered down forms of Wicca and neopaganism? Sure. Nuns and abortion rights? Sure.

In one memorable event, the famous duo of Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent came to town for a New Ways Ministry mini-conference on fighting homophobia in the church. I registered as a reporter and took my tape recorder to the main sessions.

Big idea No. 1: Homophobia is a sin because it believes x, y and z. Big idea No. 2: Pope John Paul II needed to repent — the word “repent” was used — because he was clearly teaching doctrines x, y and z.

Thus, I wrote a story for the Rocky Mountain News stating that the conference leaders had said the pope was a homophobic sinner who needed to repent of teaching x, y and z. I backed this with lots of direct quotes.

The sister and the priest flipped out and told my editor they wanted a correction. They had not, you see, called the pope a “sinner.”

I played my tape for my editor who, in more colorful language, said something like this: That’s nuts. Of course they called the pope a sinner. Why did they say all that in public if they didn’t want to be quoted saying it?

To some degree, this anecdote captures what I think this whole breaking story is about (click here for MZ’s major post on the topic). For several decades now, all kinds of progressive nuns have been standing at podiums saying all kinds of interesting and/or unorthodox things and complaints have been stacking up in file cabinets at the Vatican. The key is that these events received very little attention in the mainstream press.

You see, this hot news story is roughly 25 years old. Nevertheless, many journalists are acting like this is a bizarre Vatican canon shot out of the blue and, thus, this has to be about President Barack Obama and health care.

When I started reading a new Los Angeles Times report on this subject, for several paragraphs I actually thought it was going to beat the odds and cover the obvious. Here’s the start:

A group that represents the majority of Roman Catholic nuns in the United States has been chastised by the Vatican for deviating from church doctrine and promoting what the Holy See called “radical feminist themes.”

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious said Thursday it would consult with its members to decide on a course of action after the church’s three-year investigation resulted in the harsh assessment of its activities and a call for reform.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the enforcer of orthodoxy — criticized the group for “protesting the Holy See’s actions regarding the question of women’s ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons.”

All the Times had to do was flesh out the phrase “radical feminist themes” with some hard comments, perhaps even quoting critics of the nuns to offer the other side, and the larger picture would have come into focus.

But no, instead we get this:

The conference, based in Silver Spring, Md., is an umbrella organization for other groups composed of Catholic nuns. The conference says it has more than 1,500 members representing more than 80% of the 57,000 women religious in the United States. The group represents the majority of nuns who work in education, healthcare, religious education and social services.

Network gained notoriety in recent years when it supported the Obama administration’s sweeping healthcare bill. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops vehemently opposed it.

So what are the doctrinal issues that are at the heart of this dispute, other than issues linked to sexual ethics? The Times does not have a clue, in large part because no one interviewed (a) any critics of the liberal nuns or, specifically, (b) any conservative sisters from the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious — a group formed for those who have opposed the doctrinal innovations of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

That’s a rather important hole in the story.

Here’s another one, as captured in the “Recent Vocations to Religious Life” study from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research. Religion writer Julia Duin wrote about some of its key stats in a piece for The Washington Times.

Several years ago, Duin wrote:

Compared to the 1960s, when there were 23,000 priests, 12,500 brothers (monks) and about 180,000 sisters (nuns), the religious population has decreased by 65 percent. … Today there are about 13,000 priests in religious orders, 5,000 brothers and 59,000 sisters. Seventy-five percent of men and more than 90 percent of the women are at least 60 years old. Of those who are younger than 60, the majority are in their 50s, with only 1 percent younger than 40.

(That 1 percent, I am guessing, belongs to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, now numbering more than 250 women, who limit their candidate pool to women 30 and younger. They’ve got 23 postulants this year alone; the largest number of new nuns in training in the country. Which may be why I’m getting fundraising letters from them asking for money to feed, house and train these women.)

So there is a demographics battle going on behind the scenes, with the progressive orders graying and fading, while smaller and younger orders are offering a more traditional approach to religious life.

Consider this passage in the famous speech on moving “beyond Jesus,” delivered by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink at the 2007 national gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. This is from a Scripps Howard column I drew from her transcribed text.

Sister Laurie said that struggling and aging orders faced several tough options as they looked to the future.

The first option, she said, is “death with dignity and grace,” as opposed to becoming a “zombie congregation” that staggers on with no purpose. This option must be taken seriously since the average age of the 67,000 sisters and nuns in the United States is 69. Many retreat ministries are closing and large “mother houses” are struggling with finances, while some congregations no longer invite or accept new candidates.

Meanwhile, Brink noted with sadness, some orders have chosen to turn back the clock — thus winning the favor of Rome. “They are putting on the habit, or continuing to wear the habit with zest. … Some would critique that they are the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed. But they are flourishing. Young adults are finding in these communities a living image of their romantic view of Religious Life. They are entering. And they are staying,” she said.

In other words, has the Vatican cast its lot with these small, yet growing orders, the ones with the young women who want to practice a more traditionalist approach to religious life? Might that be a part of this story worth covering?

This would, of course, require journalists to break down and talk to some of these young romantic sisters and their leaders.

SECOND IMAGE: Young nuns in Nashville, incoming.

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Mixtape preachers, Kemetic priests and a prostitutes

A reader submitted this New York Times profile of a street preacher named Leyland George. He has a boombox ministry. The profile is very brief and totally interesting, but it does raise some questions:

“I realized I could reach more people in the streets than any church, so I made the streets my church,” said Mr. George, 70, a Guyanese immigrant whose special brand of Christianity deplores the separation of people along racial lines.

Oh, that special unnamed brand of Christianity, one that deplores the separation of people along racial lines. Unlike all of those other unnamed brands of Christianity that do? What else do we know about the man’s theology?

Mr. George’s theme song is Bob Marley’s “Rat Race,” which refers to race and urban problems. On Thursdays, Mr. George often delivers his special “rat race sermons” on the same themes.

“There is only the human race,” he said, “and when you divide it into groups, you get a rat race.”

Mr. George remains silent and solemn on his thrice-weekly sermon-walks through the neighborhood, preferring to let the mixtapes speak for him. The portable radio and tape player hangs around his neck and delivers the day’s sermon as he clasps his hands over it and walks in rhythm to the music, stopping at red lights and bobbing to the blaring beat of soca, calypso, ska or reggae — anything with a spiritual or positive social message and a West Indian feel.

Just some great color, eh? But the reader noted that the lack of details about this man’s Christianity and wonders if the best way to describe George is “Christian”:

The profile gives very little background about his beliefs (even leaving the key moment of his religious conversion – the death of his young daughter – to a sentence fragment in the sidebar). It does, however, say that his “theme song” is “Rat Race” by Bob Marley, perhaps the most famous practitioner of Rastafarianism who ever lived. It also mentions Mr. George’s ballcap and handmade signs, which proclaim “Jah Love.” Jah, of course, is the Rastafarian name for God.

There is a Rastafarian movement active in Guyana, and racial equality is a theme of Rastafari theology. Without more background, I have to wonder whether the NY Times has gotten this gentleman’s religion completely wrong.

Without more details, it’s impossible to know, isn’t it! When the reporter wrote “Christian,” did he mean that as something different than Rasta? Perhaps some more specific quotes or self-identification from the street preacher would have helped.

Since we’re on the topic of the New York Times “Character Study” section, there was another piece by the same reporter a month or so ago that also led to questions. In this case it was about Baba Heru Semahj, formerly Officer James Georges of the New York Police Department. More:

Mr. Semahj has spent most of his life studying Kemetic culture and was ordained years ago as a Kemetic priest — the first in New York City, he says.

It does raise some issues of authority. When we discuss those stories about women being ordained as Catholic priests, we’re frequently talking about authority. In this case, the reader wanted to know who ordained Mr. Semahj:

Was that person a priest of a particular Egyptian deity (that’s how things went in the old days, but Mr. Semahj’s deity-of-the-day system is understandable with Ptah’s vocation’s crisis). It’s a loose end in the story, which is otherwise pretty complete with this fellow’s journey.

These “Character Studies” are very brief, which doesn’t give the reporter much room to substantiate the claims made by the always-colorful characters profiled therein. I rather liked the profile of Barbara Terry, for instance, a streetwalker who is still going at the age of 52. And Corey Kilgannon, the author of all these pieces, does a great job of incorporating religion into his stories. But the request for a few more specifics is sound.

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CNN’s Sonora satanists scare

Maaro maaro sooar ko… (“Kill, kill, kill the pig…”): Mola Ram.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

Black and white — that is the way Hollywood likes its movies. By this I do not mean film stock but story line. Nazis are cinema gold. They will always be with us on the silver screen as they represent unrepentant evil. Steven Spielberg has been able to work Nazis into two of his Indiana Jones films, while the third saw a less well known, but equally unambiguous evil — the Thuggees and their high priest Mola Ram.

Spielberg took the story of the thugees, an Indian cult who worshiped the goddess of death — Kali — by murdering travelers and other unsuspecting victims, and mixed in a good helping of Aztec human sacrifice and devil worship to come up with a wonderful hiss-worthy villain.

Reading an article in CNN International this week on the murders of three people by members of the Santa Muerte cult brought this film to mind. The CNN presentation of Santa Muerte I found to be as flat and over the top as Spielberg’s thuggees. But what is praise worthy in a children’s movie is not always so in reporting.

The CNN story entitled “Officials: 3 killed as human sacrifices in Mexico” opens with:

Authorities in the northern Mexican state of Sonora have arrested eight people accused of killing two boys and one woman as human sacrifices for Santa Muerte — the saint of death — officials said Friday.

The victims, two of whom were age 10, were killed and their blood was offered at an altar to the saint, according to Jose Larrinaga, spokesman for state prosecutors. The accused were asking the saint, who is generally portrayed as a skeleton dressed in a long robe and carrying a scythe, for protection, he said.

Santa Muerte is a favorite among criminals and the country’s drug traffickers. The saint, though not recognized by the Catholic Church, has taken off in popularity in recent years.

Details of the case were laid out in a statement from the Sonora State Investigative Police (PEI), which described the cult as a “Satanic sect.”

The CNN story gives a surface description of what images of the saint look like, but does not anchor it to any bottom in the Mexican religious and cultural sea. For an American reader the language, the nouns and adjectives used in this story are Christian — saint, Satanic, Catholic Church, altar. Yet, CNN also says the “saint” is “not recognized by the Catholic Church.” Which means what, exactly? Is this another St Christopher or St George — popular saints removed from the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church in 1969 because their historicity was doubtful?

What I find more troubling, however, is the assumption in the CNN story that ritual murder is normative in Santa Muerte. Are all devotees of Santa Muerte bloodthirsty killers?

A confusion of language in the CNN story dulls this story’s impact. Compare it to the work of Adriana Gomez Licon and Felipe Larios of the Associated Press. They have done an outstanding job in reporting the facts, motives and police theories surrounding the ritual murders of two young boys and a middle-aged woman near the town of Nacozari.  It avoids the sensationalism of the CNN lede by beginning its story with a look at the suspected murderers and then brings in Santa Muerte.

It was a family people took pity on, one the government and church helped with free food, used clothes, and farm animals. The men were known as trash pickers. Some of the women were suspected of prostitution.

Mexican prosecutors are investigating the poor family living in shacks outside a small town near the U.S. border as alleged members of a cult that sacrificed two 10-year-old boys and a 55-year-old woman to Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a figure adored mostly by outlaws but whose popularity is growing across Mexico and among Hispanics in the United States.

The killings have shocked the copper mining village of Nacozari, on the edge of the Sierra Madre, and may be the first ritual sacrifices linked to the popular saint condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Known as “flaquita,” or “the skinny one,” the figure known as Saint Death is portrayed as a skeleton wearing a hooded robe and holding a scythe, much like the Grim Reaper.

In addition to developing the crime angle, the AP story, entitled “Mexican agents probe family in 3 ritual murders” in the version run in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, also brings in expert voices to speak about Santa Muerte.

Before last week, there have only been unconfirmed reports of human sacrifices related to the figure in Mexico in recent years, said R. Andrew Chesnut, chairman of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.”

Chesnut said the 2007 shooting deaths of three men appeared to be related to Santa Muerte because the bodies were abandoned at a shrine to the figure outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo. But they showed no signs of being sacrificial killings.

He said that although most Santa Muerte devotees consider killing a “Satanic aberration of devotion,” and that books about the Santa Muerte don’t mention human sacrifice, some followers are extreme.

“With no clerical authority to stop them, some practitioners engage in aberrant and even abhorrent rituals,” Chesnut said.

The bottom line for this expert is that mainstream Santa Muerte believers would consider ritual murder to be an aberration.

When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released in 1984 it was briefly banned in India for what was perceived to be a “racist portrayal of Indians and overt imperialistic tendencies.” The CNN story does not rise to this level, but I am nonetheless troubled by its failure to distinguish between aberrant forms of Santa Muerte and the wider religious movement.

Would a story whose main characters professed a mainstream faith be treated the same way as this Santa Muerte story? When all Muslims are tarred with a broad-brush of being Islamist terrorists, or all Christians as intolerant fanatics by the antics of Fred Phelps — intelligent readers rightly complain that this is ludicrous. Yet CNN appears to be able to get away with this sort of hasty generalization about an unpalatable and somewhat far away religious movement.

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Secular fall of a non-guru yoga guru

The Washington Post Style gods recently ran a long, long, long news feature that I am absolutely sure will be of interest to GetReligion readers. It contains all kinds of religious stuff — good and evil, sin and calls for repentance, claims of spiritual transcendence and healing.

Oh, and at the center of it all is a charismatic leader with near-miraculous levels of wisdom and insight. And did I mention that this story was quite long? How long, you ask? We’re talking 3,600 words long — on a weekday.

However, I am also sure that this is not a religion story.

I am sure that this is not a religion story because this is a feature about yoga and, as everyone knows, modern urbanites do not think that yoga has anything to do with religion. It’s about spirituality. Maybe.

The story focuses on a scandal — sex videos, ego, drugs, money, the whole works — swirling around John Friend, the visionary rock-star-esque founder of Anusara, one of our age’s most popular schools of yoga. The story notes that Anusara “combines rigorous physical poses with a philosophical framework, strict ethical standards and an emphasis on building a worldwide yoga community.”

Early on, readers learn:

Friend’s empire — an international network that claims more than 1,500 teachers, including 25 in the Washington metro area, and 600,000 students — is in crisis now, teetering under the strain of a sex scandal that has split its most loyal practitioners and prompted an astounding venting of emotions, from rage and recriminations to compassion and sadness. In conference calls, e-mails and hushed conversations, Friend has admitted to sexual relations with students and employees and married women. He has confessed to cheating on one girlfriend and smoking marijuana, according to senior Anusara instructors who have participated in conference calls with him. And he has acknowledged leading an otherwise all-female Wiccan coven whose members sometimes took off all their clothes for gatherings, according to senior Anusara instructors who detailed his admissions in a written summary provided to The Washington Post.

So, was he, in fact, a guru? Did his approach to yoga make religious claims, did it promise to deliver spiritual experiences, did it offer something that for believers resembled transcendence? Or how about this rather basic journalistic question: Did his so-called “sermonizing” draw on specific religious texts and schools of Eastern thought? Just the facts, you know.

Trust me, there is much that I want to quote from a riveting story that goes on forever, and with good cause. However, here are the two chunks that I found the most, well, haunting:

“John made yoga more mainstream,” said Jordan Bloom, a respected Washington-based yoga instructor who has dropped his affiliation with Anusara. By offering a sense of community and a life-affirming philosophy, Friend was able to appeal to a broader range of people.

“People were experiencing transformations physically, emotionally and spiritually,” said Jackie Prete, a New York-based Anusara instructor who remains affiliated with the organization.

Friend’s engaging, welcoming manner put students and teachers at ease. He had a mop of curly hair, wore frumpy clothes and laughed easily. He was not built like the conventional image some have of yoga masters; he was no willowy, impossibly sinewy creature but instead stood on thick, powerfully muscled legs. He even had a bit of a double chin. He was preternaturally talented, but he seemed human. His style was “very lighthearted and yet not flippant,” Bloom said.

With the help of a deeply committed core group of teachers, Friend developed “the Ivy League of certification processes,” said Jane Norton, a Martha’s Vineyard Anusara instructor who remains affiliated with the organization. Certification could take years and cost thousands of dollars in fees and travel costs. Anusara placed a greater emphasis on spirituality and philosophy than some yoga styles. Classes began with an invocation on the “grace-bestowing power of universal Spirit within and around us.” Friend’s most loyal teachers say his approach relied on “the tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness,” rather than tantra’s more sexual connotations.

Nope, no signs of religion in there.

Soon after that, there is this whiplash passage:

Willow Street, which remains open but is no longer an “Anusara-dedicated” studio, was founded by one of yoga’s grandes dames, a beloved instructor named Suzie Hurley who is now 67 and calls herself one of the “grandmothers of Anusara.” Hurley and her son, Joe Miller — who recently bought the studio from his mother — spent the early 1990s studying at the Kripalu Yoga Fellowship in Massachusetts. Kripalu was rattled by a sex scandal in 1994 when yoga master Amrit Desai confessed to having sex with three of his students. Desai made a clean break with Kripalu, and the method survived, Miller said.

In the aftermath of the Kripalu scandal, Miller felt himself drifting from yoga. Then he met John Friend.

“He was just goofy and real and brilliant,” Miller recalled. “He really totally reinspired me.”

Now, it’s happening all over again.

“This is sort of the inherent flaw in the classic guru model,” Miller said. “In the yoga world, these cycles of destruction are what it’s all about.”

Like I said, this is NOT a religion story. Right? I am sure that I am the only reader who, while working my way through this long read, wanted the reporters to transcribe one of the guru’s videos or audio recordings and then provide to readers a few chunks of what the man was actually teaching, a sample of the words that won over all of those devoted disciples and converts. In other words, while the history is interesting and the current scandal is gripping, I wanted a taste of the substance.

Maybe that’s just me.

In conclusion, I want to ask GetReligion readers one simple question. This is a very straight forward story that treats the believers with a great sense of respect. The Post editors also signed off on that 3,600-word format. Why do you think this story got the space and the respect that it deserved?

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AP vs. AP on Pope’s Mexico visit

Father George Conger sent around an Associated Press story headlined:

Predominantly Catholic Mexico not exactly thrilled about the pope’s visit this week.

“And the AP knows this how?” he asked. It reminded me of basically the same exact AP story from December that was headlined:

Mexican worshippers underwhelmed by papal visit

The reader who sent that story in wondered if journalists had a secret enthusiasm meter that they used to determine popularity. There were some great comments from that December story that are worth keeping in mind. Jerry wrote:

This seems to stem from the same kind of mentality that reporters are using to judge political candidates or perhaps sports figures and movie stars. Because otherwise I don’t see any rationale for even asking the question. Comparing the popularity a long serving Pope who might be named a Saint versus the current Pope seems to me to be a bizarre way of reporting on the Catholic church.

Brilliant! I love how he questions the very assumption behind the framing of the story. It’s like the Mexico City bureau was trying to answer the question “What is the least important way to analyze the upcoming Papal visit?” It’s also funny, of course, the strange new respect being accorded to Pope John Paul II. Why, I’m so old I remember when the media didn’t praise him.

Reader Bain pointed out:

One topic glaringly omitted from the report was the reason for the visit. It is not a publicity stunt, or a promotional tour, or a vote-catching exercise, or a popularity contest.

The Holy Father, in announcing the visit at the Mass on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, said: “…supported by divine Providence, before Easter I intend to make an apostolic trip to Mexico and Cuba, in order to proclaim the Word of Christ there, and convince people that this is the time to evangelise with strong faith, living hope and burning charity”

The idea that the success or failure of the visit is to be predicted or measured by commercial sales, is supremely ironic.

So let’s look at the latest story, datelined Mexico City and trying to loop in the Cuba visit as well:

The biggest challenge for Benedict is that he isn’t John Paul II.

Devotion still runs high for the pope’s predecessor, who honored Mexico by making it his first trip outside the Vatican and coming back four times. He is known as “Mexico’s pope.” Recently, a glass case containing his blood (one of the relics of his beatification) traveled throughout Mexico for 91 days and is said to have been seen by 27 million people.

John Paul had an age advantage; he was 58 when he first came to Mexico. Benedict turns 85 next month.

Still, the difference in atmosphere is inescapable. The papal souvenirs and promotions that preceded John Paul have yet to materialize for Benedict. The hilltop “Christ the King” monument in Guanajuato, where the pope arrives Friday, displays only a few Benedict key chains.

“We believed in John Paul II, but Benedict, no. We know he exists, but we don’t feel him,” said Noemi Huerta at a celebration for the apostle St. Jude that overwhelms a church in Mexico City every month. “That’s because he has rejected us a little. He keeps us at arm’s length.”

Nor is Benedict a fan of pseudo saints like Santa Muerte, or “Holy Death,” condemned by the church but adored by drug traffickers and other criminals. The skeletal saint’s statuettes have since become more popular, now sold in Mexican street markets and found in meth labs.

“La Flaquita,” or skinny saint, is thought to protect outlaws and help in matters of love, money and illness.

Benedict has urged the purging of such practices in favor of a more “pure” Catholicism.

By the way, the entire substantiation for the charge of the headline is contained in this section. That means we have Noemi Huerta and an anecdote about souvenirs. But at least the reporters actually went or otherwise gleaned details in Guanajuato, even though the story was datelined Mexico City. And I suppose it’s good to mention the difference in ages of the two popes.

But why, I must ask, are we analyzing this papal visit in terms of a popularity contest? Is this high school? Surely we can do better than this.

And as for the rest. Oy. What kind of story keeps the term “pseudo saints” out of scare quotes but puts “pure” in them? Or is that scare quoting or actual quoting? The quotes in this story confuse me. Sometimes I think that the big thing I missed by not going to journalism school was figuring out the mysterious art of when, where and why we use scare quotes.

That paragraph beginning “Nor is Benedict a fan” is just awful. What in the world is the story trying to suggest? That Pope John Paul II was a fan of Santa Muerte? We’re told that the church has condemned it and that is true. Why is it mentioned in this story? If it’s tied into the popularity contest the AP is running, it would be nice to flesh it out more. But the ham-handed attempt to make a big deal of Santa Muerte and “La Flaquita” (again, why does one have quotes and the other doesn’t?) and tie them into narco-trafficking without explaining what the point of the association is makes this seem a bit silly.

It’s getting a bit old but if you want to learn more about Santa Muerte, this is a good piece from the Chicago Tribune. This Time piece from around that time isn’t bad either. George looked at both bad and good coverage of Santa Muerte a few months ago.

Let us know if you see anything more substantive than this popularity contest coverage of the upcoming visit of Benedict.

Oh wait, while searching for an image, I found a story. You’ll never believe who published it or what it says. OK, it’s also the Associated Press and here’s a portion:

It takes a lot to prepare for the coming of the pope and the 3 million people the host Archdiocese of Leon says he is expected to draw. Facades must be spiffed; campgrounds must be sprayed for dengue-bearing mosquitoes.

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI, his first to Spanish-speaking Latin America, begins in just a week in Mexico’s central state of Guanajuato, where he will spend three days and give an outdoor Mass for some 300,000 people before heading to Cuba on March 26.

In the Bicentennial Park in nearby Silao, hammers and heavy equipment pound out the contours of a massive stage large enough for a Madonna concert. The religious order of the Capuchin Poor Clares in San Isidro is making 150,000 Frisbee-sized hosts for the Mass, though it won’t require vats of wine. While the masses eat bread, only the officiates will sip a mere 2.5 gallons (10 liters) of consecrated wine on stage.

Maria de la Luz Yepez of nearby San Francisco del Rincon is overseeing the stitching and stretching of faux suede and velvet on three artisanal sombreros that will be given to Benedict. Each took three weeks to decorate by hand. One has an embroidered face of Benedict inside the cap and features a map of Mexico on the brim. Another shows the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint.

She said the whole community, a suburb home to tennis shoe factories and makers of the black, spangled sombreros sold in airports and tourist stalls, wants to chip in.

So according to the Associated Press, people are “not exactly thrilled” but also totally excited about the upcoming papal visit. Hotels are booked, campsites are being set up and the people are showing “affection, gestures of love and welcome.” Or not. One or the other.

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