Is it news that some women want to stay home?

christian homemakerUSA Today‘s op-ed page on Monday had a nearly full-page opinion piece on a degree offered at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that could include a concentration in homemaking. The catch is that it’s offered exclusively to women.

But still, at first blush, one would think this is a private school, not a state school, so why can’t we just let them do what they want in offering women-only degrees? I think it matters because even within the institution and the community surrounding it there is a good debate going on over the theological significance of women and their options in higher education.

The author of the column is Mary Zeiss Stange, a professor of women’s studies and religion at New York’s Skidmore College, who digs deep into the social and religious reasons one would find a program of this type worth discussing, at the minimum.

Stange spends a good portion throwing barbs at the seminary (return to the 1950s, set back the clock). Thankfully she gets at the real debate that is no doubt occurring on hundreds of Christian college campuses around the country:

Seen in a biblical light, Southwestern’s homemaking program is consistent with the Southern Baptist Convention’s social and theological conservatism. But seen in that same light, the program is fraught with contradiction. For one thing, if women’s role as nurturer and housekeeper is written into the divinely ordained scheme of things, why should something so very natural need to be taught to them? Shouldn’t these skills be innate? And mightn’t they best be taught in the context of the home, not the classroom?

Claire St. Amant, a senior at Baylor — the world’s largest Baptist university, in Waco, Texas — nicely put her finger on the problem in The Baylor Lariat, the student newspaper: “It isn’t logical for someone with a master’s of divinity to teach you how to make a bundt cake. … I’d say the same thing if Emeril started teaching classes on systematic theology.”

More vexing still, Jesus himself had some rather harsh words for the New Testament’s most prominent — and unhappiest — housewife. In Luke’s Gospel, Martha is busy serving and cleaning up after dinner, while her sister Mary has joined the disciples to hear the teaching. When Martha complains, Jesus rebukes her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” Mary, in other words, has chosen the same path as Sheri Klouda did. Homemaking isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. And it certainly isn’t the only appropriate path for women.

Strictly as an opinion piece, this article is all fine and good, but there is a news angle here as well. Has there been a pushback against the pushback against feminism within evangelical communities? The arguments summarized by Stange are just the tip of the iceberg of the debate that is going around Christian colleges, particularly among women, about why they are treated differently than their male counterparts.

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How to face Mecca when floating in space?

Sheikh MuszapharWe interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you this interesting religion news from the Associated Press out of Malaysia: Malaysian cosmonaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor will be part of a Russian crew heading to the International Space Station next month.

Sheikh Muszaphar, a medical doctor, was a finalist in the Malaysian Angkasawan space program (space camp for adults). He has trained in Star City, Russia, for 18 months and ended up chosen for the top spot on the crew. He’s also a model and does commercials. He will be Malaysia’s first person in outer space.

But that’s not the most interesting part of the story, according to the AP. Sheikh Muszaphar is a Muslim and takes his faith seriously, which raises the interesting question of how he will determine the direction of Mecca when he prays. And how in the world is Sheikh Muszaphar supposed to kneel when there is no gravity?

“I do agree that I am a Muslim, I am Islamic, but my main priority is more of conducting experiments,” the 35-year-old astronaut said. “As a Muslim, I do hope to do my responsibilities, I do hope to fast in space.”

After months of discussion and two international conferences, the Islamic National Fatwa Council came up with guidelines as to how Muslim astronauts should observe daily rituals. The rules were published in 12-page booklet titled “Muslim Obligations in the International Space Station.”

Observant Muslims are required to turn toward Mecca — located in Saudi Arabia — and kneel and pray five times a day. However, with the space station circling the Earth 16 times a day, kneeling in zero gravity to pray — or facing toward Mecca for that matter — makes fulfilling those religious obligations difficult.

Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council ruled that Muslim astronauts will not be required to kneel to pray if the absence of gravity makes it too hard. Facing Mecca while praying will be left to the “best abilities” of the astronaut, the council said.

Why did it take two conferences and so much talk to come up with such basic and sensible rules? The story doesn’t tell us what the controversies and sides were, which is too bad.

Space travel has always posed interesting theological questions to people of all faiths. Politician-fighter pilot-ordained Presbyterian elder-corporate executive John Glenn faced a difficult life-or-death situation in 1962 when questions arose about whether the heat shield on the Mercury Atlas 6 might fail. Friends assured Glenn’s mother that if Glenn died in space, God was still in control of Glenn’s soul outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

Sheikh Muszaphar’s spiritual challenges and questions will hopefully rest at how and where he should pray while in space.

Time had a great article in 1969 about the spiritual issues in space travel. Apparently space travel was a hot topic for pastors in their sermons, and — believe it or not — politics played a part back then in theological issues:

Certainly one of the biggest spiritual problems posed by man’s conquest of space is the new perspective that he will have from which to contemplate himself and God. Although the question is not a new one, man’s journey in the cosmos raises again the issue of whether he and his planet enjoy the special favor of God, as set forth in Scripture. Space exploration, suggests Dr. Bernard Loomer of Berkeley Baptist Divinity School, “may reinforce the idea that man may not be the most important thing in creation. Say that out there we find persons superior to us, as we consider ourselves superior to dogs?”

… The Rev. Jules Moreau, professor of church history at Seabury-Western (Episcopal) Seminary in Evanston, Ill., suggests that the moral issues of imperialism and religious elitism, which were raised by Europeans when they began colonizing the rest of the world, also confront modern man as he prepares to colonize space. A modest but perplexing dilemma would result from the discovery of intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe. The question then would be: Should Christians attempt to convert their celestial neighbors? Extraterrestrial evangelism might not be necessary, suggests Dr. Per Massing of the Boston University School of Theology. “If God has revealed himself to people on another planet,” he says, “that revelation must be essentially in agreement with that which he revealed to us — given the assumption that the Christian faith in its essence is true.”

There’s no mention in Time‘s article about the troubles a Muslim could have in praying toward Mecca. I guess it wasn’t an issue back then to the publication’s predominantly American readership. It makes me wonder what other issues could be raised in a thorough study. Unfortunately the issue hasn’t been explored that significantly since. Perhaps it’s time for an update?

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John the Baptist story hits locally

john mccainIn the aftermath of GOP presidential candidate John McCain’s statement that he is a Baptist and not an Episcopalian, the Associated Press followed up and did something of a clarification story by getting some more comments from the always-media-accessible Arizona politician:

AIKEN, S.C. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Monday that questions over whether he identifies himself as a Baptist or an Episcopalian are not as important as his overarching faith. “The most important thing is that I am a Christian,” the Arizona senator told reporters following two campaign stops in this early voting state.

The comment came after a weekend during which McCain corrected an Associated Press reporter who asked him how his Episcopalian faith plays a role in his campaign and his life. While it’s well-known that McCain and his family for years have attended the North Phoenix Baptist Church in his home state of Arizona, the senator had consistently referred to himself in media reports as Episcopalian.

OK, other than that first paragraph, there is nothing new in this story. But a more interesting story is coming out of The Charlotte Observer‘s columnist Dannye Romine Powell about Baptist identity and how this plays in the Bible belt:

I don’t care whether Republican presidential candidate John McCain is an Episcopalian or a Baptist.

But the implication in Monday’s paper that he’d been caught at something — outed while trying to pass as an Episcopalian — hit a nerve.

Why do we diss Baptists?

Powell’s story is one of church social rankings, avoiding the term “Baptist” and whether one’s church parking lot is filled with “Mercedes and BMWs” or “Fords and Chevys.” It’s a great local perspective that I missed when I first saw the McCain story roll out, but it is a question that should be asked and applied, at least regionally, if not nationally.

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Huckabee the hipster

In many ways, the news coverage of GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee reminds me of the type that would be given to a city’s new young, hip youth pastor. He’s got all the right moves, says all the right things, draws praise from nearly everyone, including his opponents, and — guess what? — he strums the guitar. One more thing: he’s got a great personal story of losing nearly enough weight to make up another person.

The focus on the new guy is primarily on how different he is from the typical image people have of pastors. To those writing profiles of him, it’s somehow shocking that a pastor could be, like, normal.

Huckabee’s media coverage has all these elements, and he’s a pastor nonetheless. The news profiles give off a tone of amazement as they describe what could be the new face of the religious right. Here’s the Los Angeles Times on The Huckster’s latest visit to the country’s entertainment Mecca:

So what was Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee — the near-asterisk in the polls, the former governor more famous for losing 110 pounds than anything he did in office, the second-best politician to come out of tiny Hope, Ark. — doing in an office park in Irvine?

Whatever he can.

In a lawyer’s conference room Wednesday, Huckabee was working to impress three dozen members of the local Lincoln Club, hitting on the issues — during the portion that was open to reporters — in a soothing voice that masked some rather pointed rhetoric.

Huckabee is getting some unusual coverage from many different media outlets. His humor and religion are mixing together in a not-so-unusual way, at least outside of politics in the last couple of decades, and the media’s picking up on it. Is Huckabee, in his efforts to be the evangelical right’s new political leader, changing the image of the group? Or is he some kind of exception to the rule in the eyes of the media?

At the end of August, The Washington Post ran a piece that focused on Huckabee’s coolness as compared to the rest of the Republican candidates. But is the focus on the supposed hipness of the former Arkansas governor more a sign that the people writing about conservative evangelicals had created a stereotype that Huckabee has the political benefit of shattering?

Sarah Huckabee has known her father, Mike, as many things. When she was little, he was the man whose wallet she could dig into with any sentence that began “Daddy, I need . . . .” Later, he was the man whose ascent to the Arkansas governor’s office ripped her away from her friends and familiar surroundings the summer before she entered high school. Now, as his national field director, she’s known him as a Republican Party candidate for president and charismatic speaker. But, she says, she’s never known him as “hip.”

“We’d have to work on some of his clothing options before I’d say that,” the 25-year-old Huckabee says during lunch Wednesday at a brew pub here where her father — sporting a prep-school ensemble of a blue-striped oxford shirt and blue blazer — eats with a local newspaper columnist.

But hip is precisely what Huckabee has become in the weeks since he placed second in the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 11. Indeed, since walking into the media filing room that night and being swarmed by the media as if he were — these are his words — “Britney Spears being released from prison,” Huckabee has been seen as the cuddly antidote to what has been an awfully tough-talking Republican field. He’s the affable, compassionate, good guy and rock-and-roll evangelical who plays guitar and wants to hang with the Rolling Stones.

The big question journalists should be asking, as they seem to bask in awe of this folksy politician from Arkansas (dêjà vu, anyone?), is whether Huckabee is really that unusual for his political base. Whether Huckabee represents a changed evangelical right or just a different side of the group is still undetermined, and journalists should not assume either conclusion is correct.

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Rise of convert Islam in Europe

islam in europeTucked away in the middle of The Washington Post Saturday was an extensively reported story about how recent Islamic converts were key players in recently foiled terrorist attacks in Germany. The story starts on the front end discussing what “counterterrorism officials and analysts” are saying and follows up on the back end with a rebuttal of sorts from religious leaders in Germany’s Muslim community. For one reason or another I get the sense that those reporting this story spent less time in the mosques and more time on the phone with law enforcement and public safety officials and thinkers who watch things like this:

In Copenhagen, a convert is among four defendants who went on trial this month for plotting to blow up political targets. In Sweden, a webmaster who changed his name from Ralf Wadman to Abu Usama el-Swede was arrested last year on suspicion of recruiting fighters on the Internet. In Britain, three converts — including the son of a British politician — are awaiting trial on charges of participating in last year’s transatlantic airline plot.

“The number of converts, it seems, is definitely on the rise,” said Michael Taarnby, a terrorism researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. “We’ve reached a point where I think al-Qaeda and other groups recognize the value of converts, not just from an operational viewpoint but from a cultural one as well.”

There is a lot of psychoanalysis later in the story about Islamic converts’ “zeal to prove their newfound faith.” It starts out with the slightly radical but nonviolent mosques in their hometowns, but then come the visits to the madrassas in the Middle East. And then al-Qaeda has yet another suicide bomber, according to the analysts:

Converts are a tiny subset of the Muslim population in Europe, but their numbers are growing in some countries. In Germany, government officials estimated that 4,000 people converted to Islam last year, compared with an annual average of 300 in the late 1990s. Less than 1 percent of Germany’s 3.3 million Muslims are converts.

While religious leaders emphasize that most converts are law-abiding citizens who often promote interfaith understanding, the recent arrests in Germany prompted some lawmakers to suggest that police should keep converts under surveillance.

“Of course not all converts are problematic, but some are particularly dangerous because they want to demonstrate through extreme fanaticism that they are particularly good Muslims,” Guenther Beckstein, interior minister for the state of Bavaria, said last week.

Here are some big questions that are left unanswered and would probably take more than three reporters a couple of weeks to figure out: Why do these people convert? Why the increasing numbers? And what are they converting from? Christianity? Agnosticism? Atheism?

Why would any of these converts turn radical? For the purposes of a story like this, it doesn’t matter if 95 out of 100 converts stop at the madrassas. All we’re talking about in this story is a handful of converts who have since been arrested for being involved in terrorism. This rough spiritual timeline from the so-called experts is nice, but we need more. These are tough questions that will require some tough reporting.

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McCain: An unbaptized Baptist?

john the baptistThe Associated Press broke a story ab0ut presidential candidate John McCain’s statement this past weekend that he is in fact a Baptist, despite his past comments that he is an Episcopalian. The news hook is that McCain made these comments while he was in South Carolina, which happens to have a lot of Baptist voters.

The AP did its due diligence and found comments the senator made to McClatchy Newspapers:

In a June interview with McClatchy Newspapers, the senator said his wife and two of their children have been baptized in [North Phoenix Baptist Church], but he had not. “I didn’t find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs,” he said.

He told McClatchy he found the Baptist church more fulfilling than the Episcopalian church, but still referred to himself as an Episcopalian.

Does this matter? On the campaign trail it seems to matter to the self-described straight-talker:

The Associated Press asked McCain on Saturday how his Episcopal faith plays a role in his campaign and life. McCain grew up Episcopalian and attended an Episcopal high school in Alexandria, Va.

“It plays a role in my life. By the way, I’m not Episcopalian. I’m Baptist,” McCain said. “Do I advertise my faith? Do I talk about it all the time? No.”

McCain does discuss faith on the campaign trail. He regularly tells crowds about a North Vietnamese POW guard who would loosen his bindings while he was a prisoner. One Christmas, the man surreptitiously signaled his Christian faith, McCain says, by making the sign of a cross with his toe in the dirt.

McCain said Sunday he doesn’t know how his Baptist faith might affect his showing in South Carolina.

The bigger story here is that McCain is actually talking about his religion. McCain is known for criticizing others for talking about their faith. But back to the particulars of McCain’s statements. There is a simple way of proving one is a Baptist: Has McCain undergone a full-immersion baptism?

As the AP noted, McCain had not been baptized into the Baptist church as of June. The first question a reporter should ask a person claiming to be Baptist is whether they have been baptized into the church. Anyone know the answer to this? Unfortunately, the AP found the politics of McCain’s statement more interesting than what most Baptists in South Carolina are probably wondering.

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Tulsa World truncates Good Samaritan

samaritansThe headline on a Tulsa World story — “Samaritan slain during a robbery” — caught the eye of a reader of ours named Charles. While Samaritan implies goodwill, charity and medical aid (e.g., Samaritan’s Purse, Good Samaritan laws and the British Army armored ambulance FV104 Samaritan), its more important use is in defining an ethnic group.

By any reasonable measure of popular usage in the United States, the words Good Samaritan bring to mind the non-ethnic meaning, but that’s not what the Tulsa World did. For whatever reason, space constraints probably most likely, the word Good was left off the headline:

A Tulsan who tried to help someone who claimed to have run out of gas was killed Tuesday after he pulled out his money, police and the victim’s father said.

Steffan Jerome Schlemme, 27, was shot outside his mother’s house at 565 S. Zurich Ave. and died later at St. John Medical Center, Tulsa police officer Leland Ashley said.

Robbery was the apparent motive in the shooting, and Schlemme appears to have been chosen at random by the shooter, Ashley said.

Schlemme was in his mother’s backyard when a man walked up to him and said his car had run out of gas, Ashley said.

Schlemme told the man he would check the garage to see whether he could find any, said his father, David Schlemme, who was helping him work on a weed trimmer they had bought for Steffan Schlemme’s mother.

“He liked to help people, so he said he would go check,” David Schlemme said.

No doubt this good-hearted man was acting in the spirit of Jesus’ parable, in which a man goes more than the extra mile to help an injured man found beaten on the side of the road. The story also fits within the legal definition of the word, which defines laws that protect people who choose to help the injured or sick.

The word Samaritan obviously has multiple connotations in the Western world. But that does not mean the original and most historically accurate form of the word should be ignored just because the group is small and isn’t that familiar in the West.

This is what Charles had to say about the headline through our Submit a Story link:

The headline immediately caught my attention because of the fact that there are less than a thousand living Samaritans today. Unfortunately, the article went on to tell the story of a man who was shot in a robbery attempt while offering help to a man who claimed to have run out of gas.

I was seriously disappointed in the World for not catching that in editing. The least they could have done was say “Good Samaritan” (with the quotes).

I agree with Charles that at the minimum the World editors should have included a couple of quotes around Samaritan, if not juggling things around to fit Good Samaritan into the headline. It’s just more accurate that way.

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NYT: Library moral equivalency?

book chainsMaybe it’s appropriate to write about this on the morning of Sept. 11. How different would things be today if the terrorist attacks of six years ago had never happened?

On Monday Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times gave us a hugely important story about new policies that are limiting the religion books inmates in federal prisons can freely access from their facilities’ libraries. According to Traci Billingsley, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman, the agency is responding to a Justice Department Inspector General’s report that recommended actions in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to keep prisons from becoming recruiting grounds for Islamic militants. And other groups:

But prison chaplains, and groups that minister to prisoners, say that an administration that put stock in religion-based approaches to social problems has effectively blocked prisoners’ access to religious and spiritual materials — all in the name of preventing terrorism.

“It’s swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” said Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian group. “There’s no need to get rid of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are fine simply because you have a problem with an isolated book or piece of literature that presents extremism.”

Good for the Times in quoting Earley, but was the organization’s founder, Chuck Colson, unavailable for comment? With his close ties to the Bush administration, it would be interesting to know his thoughts. Obviously this is issue is several steps removed from the White House, but if I’m not mistaken each agency has a White House-designated official who reviews and approves all new agency regulations.

Instead of weeding out books that could be placed into this category, the prison agency talked to a bunch of unnamed people and put together a list of 300 books and multimedia resources comprising 20 religions or religious categories. The Times received a copy of the list from a source who doesn’t like the project. The problem raised by a project like this is, of course, some books won’t be on that list:

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.

The identities of the bureau’s experts have not been made public, Ms. Billingsley said, but they include chaplains and scholars in seminaries and at the American Academy of Religion. Academy staff members said their organization had met with prison chaplains in the past but was not consulted on this effort, though it is possible that scholars who are academy members were involved.

The bureau has not provided additional money to prisons to buy the books on the lists, so in some prisons, after the shelves were cleared of books not on the lists, few remained.

What’s almost as interesting as the list are the book examples provided by the Times. I’ve complained about this before, by why in this era of the Internets can we not just publish the whole list on the Times site and provide a link? All we are given is a list of “http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2007/09/10/us/20070910_PRISON_CHART.html/”>Some Excluded Works.” It’s a good thing the Times qualified that with “some,” since there is no way to compile the list of all the excluded titles. It would be easier if the Times had just given us the list of approved books.

Nevertheless, the legal justification behind this policy sounds like something the government would try to put forward. The coming legal battle could end up being a defining case in determining the federal government’s relationship with religion.

The Times quotes David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group:

Mr. Zwiebel asked, “Since when does the government, even with the assistance of chaplains, decide which are the most basic books in terms of religious study and practice?”

The lawsuit raises serious First Amendment concerns, said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, but he added that it was not a slam-dunk case.

“Government does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons,” Mr. Laycock said. “But once they say, ‘We’re going to pick 150 good books for your religion, and that’s all you get,’ the criteria has become more than just inciting violence. They’re picking out what is accessible religious teaching for prisoners, and the government can’t do that without a compelling justification. Here the justification is, the government is too busy to look at all the books, so they’re going to make their own preferred list to save a little time, a little money.”

Since this is a story about book lists — a genuine news story about lists! — we’re given a few opinions on the thoroughness of the list, which is great. But wouldn’t it be greater for us all to be able to chime in with what we think should be on the list? I’m sure a few of us would have an opinion or two:

Timothy Larsen, who holds the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, an evangelical school, looked over lists for “Other Christian” and “General Spirituality.”

“There are some well-chosen things in here,” Professor Larsen said. “I’m particularly glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. If I was in prison I would want to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” But he continued, “There’s a lot about it that’s weird.” The lists “show a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism,” he said, and lacked materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations.

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame (who edited “The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism,” which did make the list), said the Catholic list had some glaring omissions, few spiritual classics and many authors he had never heard of.

“I would be completely sympathetic with Catholic chaplains in federal prisons if they’re complaining that this list is inhibiting,” he said, “because I know they have useful books that are not on this list.”

The next step for the journalist is to determine who was on the committee that put this list together. I certainly hope a Freedom of Information Act request has been filed.

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