Revising a reading of Joseph Smith Jr.

book of mormonPeggy Fletcher Stack has been all over a story coming out of Utah, where she reports on religion for The Salt Lake Tribune. A week and a half ago, she wrote about an interesting change being made by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

The LDS Church has changed a single word in its introduction to the Book of Mormon, a change observers say has serious implications for commonly held LDS beliefs about the ancestry of American Indians.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe founder Joseph Smith unearthed a set of gold plates from a hill in upperstate New York in 1827 and translated the ancient text into English. The account, known as The Book of Mormon, tells the story of two Israelite civilizations living in the New World. One derived from a single family who fled from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and eventually splintered into two groups, known as the Nephites and Lamanites.

The book’s current introduction, added by the late LDS apostle, Bruce R. McConkie in 1981, includes this statement: “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

The new version, seen first in Doubleday’s revised edition, reads, “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”

The change continues a debate about the book’s — and the church’s — historical claims, Fletcher Stack explains. She shows how the new wording is different from what many Mormons, including several church presidents, have taught and how DNA testing came into play. But she is very fair and bends over backwards to provide the church’s explanation for its teaching.

Her follow-up stories in the last couple of days have also been interesting. In a special report on Saturday, she spoke with a Mormon apologist who thinks he might have been the cause of the change. She also explored how the Book of Mormon is understood by its academic critics and champions.

DNA is not the only challenge to the Book of Mormon’s version of history.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith said the book was written in “Reformed Egyptian,” which he claimed to translate from the writings on gold pates he unearthed in Upstate New York. Non-Mormon scholars have never heard of such a language and wonder why Jews would use the language of their oppressors rather than Hebrew to record their sacred history.

The book mentions metals, elephants, horse-drawn chariots, wheat, and barley — all of which had yet to be discovered in Meso or South America during the scripture’s time period, 2200 B.C. to 400 A.D. Critics see no sign of Book of Mormon kings, no palaces or tombs, no mention of important names from the scripture, no site of the book’s final battle that included thousands, if not millions of soldiers.

DNALDSBut the bulk of her story is an exploration of how Mormon scholars explain these aspects of the Book of Mormon. It provides an interesting insight into Mormon apologetics and is well worth a read.

Another story looked at how the thousands of changes to the Book of Mormon are seized upon by opponents as evidence of LDS problems.

Starting in the 1980s, longtime anti-Mormon researchers, Sandra and Gerald (now deceased) Tanner have charted nearly 4,000 changes from the 1830 version and the book as it reads today. To them, such a magnitude of difference suggested Mormon leaders were playing fast and loose with the sacred text and contributed to the Tanners’ view of the book as fake.

Mormon researchers agree with the Tanners’ numbers, just not their conclusion.

The majority of the changes were punctuation and spelling differences between the handwritten manuscript Smith dictated to scribes in 1829 and the printer’s first typeset, according to Brigham Young University linguist Royal Skousen, who has studied all the versions side by side.

Skousen later says that there are only about 250 changes of meaning to the text. Fletcher Stack quotes Mormons explaining how those changes came about. Smith himself revised the text twice. Apostle Orson Pratt added chapters and verses in 1879, for instance, and a committee of apostles altered it in 1981. Fletcher Stack mentions the most controversial change, which related to racial issues, but she quotes Skousen defending the change. The package also included a summary of what the Book of Mormon says, provided by a Mormon apologetics group, and how Native American Mormons feel about the change.

It’s so nice to read a series of stories about what a church body believes and how it engages in apologetics. I wish that other reporters had noticed the change (it’s not like Mormons only live in SLC) so we could look at more coverage but, at this point, it looks like only Fletcher Stack is on this story.

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A very inclusive and very small church

CoverPhoenixThe Rev. Drew Phoenix of Baltimore is back in the news, as the United Methodist Church tiptoes back into the minefield of human sexuality.

A recent Religion News Service story by Daniel Burke deals with some of the theological issues involved in this fight over the status of a transgendered pastor, quoting generic, anonymous doctrines on the right that are clashing with scores of living human beings on the left. It’s a strange balance that sounds something like this:

Conservative Christians tend to treat transgenderism as an extreme form of homosexuality. It’s a disorder to be overcome, a cross to be borne. Christians and Jews have traditionally derived fixed notions of gender from the Hebrew Bible, when God creates Adam and Eve. To mess with that, some argue, is to mess with God’s plan for creation.

Other conservatives point to Deuteronomy, which says, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”

“There’s the issue of what’s God’s intention for us,” said the Rev. David Simpson, a United Methodist pastor from the Baltimore suburb of Ellicott City, who challenged Phoenix’s reappointment. “Is that something that we get to choose?”

On the other hand, some medical professionals and transgendered people say gender identity and sexual orientation are separate things.

“It’s not about whom I love,” Phoenix said. “It’s about who I am.”

This is the issue that makes headlines and that is to be expected. However, I find myself curious about another issue — the status of St. John’s United Methodist Church itself. Here is the key description of this unique little congregation:

The 40-odd members of St. John’s, who say they pride themselves in being the most accepting and inclusive Methodist church in Baltimore, said their minister’s sex change was no big deal. They had some questions, which Phoenix answered in individual meetings, but no large theological hang-ups.

“It was like, ‘OK, great, congratulations. You’re living as God intended now, how wonderful,’” said Kara Ker, 33, a social worker and lifelong Methodist. “Every now and then people struggle with the pronouns, that’s the biggest challenge.”

phoenix23 01And later we have this description:

The congregation at St. John’s say they would be devastated if they lost Phoenix, whom they describe as the beating heart at the center of their growing church. When Phoenix started five years ago, eight people showed up for Sunday worship; now 40 do. But the pastor said he’s prepared for whatever happens.

As Phoenix began to preach on a recent Sunday, beneath the huge cross and beside the posters proclaiming “This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Church,” he told the Gospel story about Jesus and the 10 lepers.

After Jesus heals the lepers, he tells them to visit the priests and get certified for temple life. One, a Samaritan, realizes he’s been healed and turns back to thank Jesus.

“The Samaritan realizes he’s already recovered what most matters,” Phoenix told his church, “not certification, but his own healing.”

This raises several questions for me.

Baltimore is a very mainline and Catholic town, known as a center for progressives and social activism when it comes to religion. I mean, I live in Baltimore and, when it comes to religion, this is not Colorado Springs or Dallas, folks.

So why does the most “accepting and inclusive” congregation in a mainline, liberal town have only 40 members? Who is being accepted and who is choosing not to attend? The story mentions Phoenix’s skill at youth ministy. But how many young people and children are there in a congregation with 40 members, especially in light of the aging demographics of mainline churches in this region?

Here’s another question to explore. It is a rule of thumb that it takes somewhere between 80 and 120 serious, active members to donate enough money to pay the salary and the benefits of a full-time pastor in a mainline church. How is this congregation managing to pay the bills and the upkeep on its old sanctuary? Are other United Methodist congregations, in any way, helping out financially as a way of supporting the cause?

In other words, there are several interesting stories here about the intersection of several different issues in the world of oldline, mainline, Protestantism.

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Male or female, AP style created him or her

phoenix23One of the crucial principles in Associated Press style is that, when in doubt, reporters are supposed to let groups of people define themselves.

As a rule, a journalist is not supposed to force a person or a group to be defined in a way that the person or group insists is inaccurate. At the very least, the news organization is supposed to show that the issue of a label or identification is in doubt.

Well, Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times faced a somewhat unique situation while covering one of the ongoing sexuality disputes in the world of mainline Protestantism. She came to Baltimore recently (no, she did not let the GetReligionistas know that she was in the area) to write about the case of the Rev. Ann Gordon of St. John’s United Methodist Church, who has caused a blitz of headlines by announcing her medical transformation into the Rev. Drew Phoenix, who is legally male in the eyes of the state.

But what about the United Methodist Church? And what about the Associated Press Stylebook?

Simon does her usual fine job of handling voices on both sides of this hot dispute, although some might question whether it is all that amazing that this pastor has managed to take the urban congregation from a membership of 12 to about 36.

But it is the transgender issue that is at the center of this national story. And this reality leads to a truly unique passage in the story:

Never during her eight-month-long transition did she question whether God would want her to renounce her femininity. She was sure God had intended her to be male; her woman’s body was meant to challenge her. And, perhaps, to push her church toward a fuller understanding of Christ’s love.

“Maybe this is my gift to the church. Maybe part of the reason I became pastor was this very moment,” Phoenix said.

He revels in his physical changes: His knuckles are hairy! His biceps bulge! But he also finds joy in a new sense of unity with his creator. “It’s like when you come back after a long trip, you collapse on the couch … and you just feel, ‘I’m home,’” he said. “I am who I am. God doesn’t make mistakes.”

His critics share the same certainty: God doesn’t make mistakes. Which is why they’re not sure they can endorse a pastor with a woman’s double-X chromosomes presenting herself as a man.

“There are theological implications we need to talk about as a church,” said the Rev. Kevin Baker, a United Methodist pastor in a Maryland suburb.

Here’s the question that bugged me. Was there any way to write this section of the story that did not appear — to people on one side of the issue or another — to have settled this issue? If the reporter changes from she to he, that is backing the medical and legal view. Yet that also appears to have decided the theological issue. Yet if the pronoun stays the same, then it appears that the reporter is siding with traditionalists.

There is, of course, no question about how Gordon/Phoenix would want this covered. Under AP style, that is the safe way to go. Any disagreement out there?

Photo: The Rev. Drew Phoenix

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All hail, Bill Gates the Great

BILL GATES bsodI meant to post this flashback last night, but was caught up in that server crash that shut GetReligion down for several hours.

So here goes.

Several days before control of Hong Kong was handed back to the regime that runs China, I took part in a small conference in that mega-city focusing on journalism and religious liberty. During that meeting, I ended up at a dinner table — containing one really, really large fish — talking with a powerful local publisher.

As you would imagine, we were talking about the subject of the day — the handover. At one point, he made a statement that went something like this (it was not a setting in which one pulled out a notepad and took notes): “There are, you know, only two men in the world that the leaders of China truly fear.”

Everyone at the table gestured for him to tell us more and he replied, “They are Bill Gates and Pope John Paul II.”

We all gestured again: Why those two?

The first of the two men, he noted, wanted to designate how a country carried out almost any kind of transaction in business, educational, politics or culture. All of those activities, in this day and age, involve computers in one way or another, and Gates wanted to set the standards and write the rules for all of that. You could either work with him or you had to oppose what he was trying to do, and that would be very hard.

And then there was Pope John Paul II, a man who was very difficult to control because his followers were committed to honoring an authority far higher than the state.

One man wanted to control this life (or most of its public expressions), while the other’s authority was rooted in the life to come. For a totalitarian state, these were two very different threats.

I thought of this while working through one of the lists that the editors at USA Today have started posting as part of the celebration of the newspaper’s 25th birthday. They started with a bang:

They are the 25 most influential people of the past 25 years — those who changed our world, transformed technology, mapped the human body and affected the way we relate to one another.

And who was No. 1? Ask the Chinese authorities:

1. Bill Gates, software entrepreneur

His Microsoft software shaped the way millions use the technology that has transformed communications and commerce — making him the world’s richest man and, now, a leading philanthropist.

As you would imagine, this immediately made me want to know where Pope John Paul II finished in this race. So I looked down the list. And down the list. Here is what that looks like, in terms of the rest of the Top 10.

2. Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. president

Elected in 1980 and re-elected in 1984, he put the United States on a more conservative course, restored buoyancy and confidence in the presidency and forged a partnership with a reformist Soviet leader that helped end the Cold War.

3. Oprah Winfrey, talk show host

As a talk-show host, first at WLS-TV’s AM Chicago in 1984, she pioneered a form of intimate public discourse that brought taboo subjects into the open and sparked a confessional, self-help culture.

4&5. Francis Collins & J. Craig Venter, mappers of the human genome

The Human Genome Project headed by Collins and a parallel private effort by Celera Genomics under Venter jointly announced the mapping of the human genome in 2000, opening the door to breakthroughs in identifying, treating and preventing the world’s most feared diseases.

6. Osama bin Laden, terrorist

For most Americans, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by the al-Qaeda network he leads marked the beginning of a global battle against radical Islamists 12 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War.

7. Stephen Hawking, physicist

In the tradition of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, he explored the nature of the universe. He popularized science, wrote the best-selling A Brief History of Time in 1988 and remains a puckish personality despite being severely disabled by Lou Gehrig’s disease.

8. Lance Armstrong, cyclist and cancer activist

He won a record-breaking seven consecutive Tour de France races, cycling’s most prestigious event, after battling testicular cancer. Sales of his iconic “Livestrong” wristbands have raised millions of dollars to help fight cancer.

9. Pope John Paul II, pontiff

Polish-born Karol Jozef Wojtyla helped propel a peaceful revolution in Poland in 1989 that ended Soviet domination and reverberated through Eastern Europe. In a 26-year papacy, he defined the Roman Catholic Church’s role in modern times.

10. Bono, rock musician and activist for Africa

Born Paul Hewson, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2 has shrewdly pressed world leaders to forgive third-world debt and address the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

oprah secretNow what is amazing to me about this ranking for this pope — behind Lance Armstrong? — is that the editors linked John Paul the Great to Poland and the fall of the Soviet empire and still put him at No. 9. Did we live through the same quarter century?

This lists are made to cause arguments. The key to me is the various forms of religion and faith that are found in the list of 25. You should strive to do a LeBlancian analysis of the list, so to speak.

Go through the list yourself. Count the people who you consider to be “religious leaders” in one form or another. Yes, Oprah has to be in there. Ditto for Bono. We live in the mass media age, for better or for worse. And it is even hard to remove the Bible Belt trappings from the career of Sam “Wal-Mart” Walton and the causes he backed.

More questions: Is coffee a sacrament? And is Homer Simpson a real person?

Well, there you go. That offers a few clues as to my thinking. What think ye?

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From our ‘no comment’ department

WWN Dec27 723878Now why in the world didn’t I think to write this column?

Veteran Godbeat scribe Peter Steinfels offers this heartfelt plea to those who believe that the mainstream press does not devote enough attention to religion news or, when covering the beat, gets things messed up.

Wait a minute: What exactly is the mainstream press? Keep that in mind as you read the following riot of a piece. I mean, is this shooting ducks in the pond or what?

The next time laments are heard and verdicts rendered about the media’s lack of attention to religion, will someone please remember Weekly World News?

As everyone whose life experience has not been limited to upscale food stores or buying groceries online knows, Weekly World News was the supermarket tabloid printed only in black and white but carrying articles as colorful as the most fevered imaginations could produce.

When those articles did not feature a resurrected Elvis, the love life of Bigfoot or space aliens meeting secretly with leading politicians, they often dealt with religion: “Baby Born With Angel Wings” (accompanied by photo). “Quick Test Tells If You’re Going to Heaven or Hell!” “Adam & Eve’s Skeletons Found — in Colorado!”

Well, where else would it be? The Rockies have always looked like heaven to me (along with some really nice territory in the Great Smokies).

But Steinfels does have a news hook. The strangest of all checkout line tabs is closing shop and he simply wants to note that “no one has sufficiently mourned the loss to religion reporting.” With a hat-tip to the mainline standard, The Christian Century, he offers a short list of the scoops offered by Weekly World News.

Like what?

Q.: What does God look like?

A.: God “has fiery green eyes, flowing brown hair and stands 9 feet tall.” …

Q.: Where is heaven?

A.: Heaven is 28,000 light-years from Earth, according to another space probe.

Q.: Where is hell?

A.: Nine miles below the surface of Earth, according to Soviet engineers drilling in Siberia (the Soviets played a curiously large part in these discoveries). Weekly World News reassured readers that those engineers had capped the hole after smelling smoke and hearing the cries of the damned.

Q.: How do you get to heaven?

A.: Through the Bermuda Triangle — did you have to ask? This was attributed to a Dutch physicist, who also reported that the passage to heaven was open 16 times a year.

So is there anyone else out there who wants to share a favorite religion-beat classic from this august newspaper of record? Speak up.

Confession is good for the soul. You at least read the headlines from time to time, right?

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Doctrinal battles in academia

transgender symbolNew York Times health and science reporter Benedict Carey has had more than a few interesting stories this summer. I particularly liked his write-up about how firstborn children have higher IQs. I’m a last born, for what it’s worth. For years he’s covered the case of one J. Michael Bailey, a pscyhologist at Northwestern University. Yesterday he wrote about the academic dispute involving Bailey, the former head of the psychology department:

The central figure, J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has promoted a theory that his critics think is inaccurate, insulting and potentially damaging to transgender women. In the past few years, several prominent academics who are transgender have made a series of accusations against the psychologist, including that he committed ethics violations. A transgender woman he wrote about has accused him of a sexual impropriety, and Dr. Bailey has become a reviled figure for some in the gay and transgender communities.

To many of Dr. Bailey’s peers, his story is a morality play about the corrosive effects of political correctness on academic freedom. Some scientists say that it has become increasingly treacherous to discuss politically sensitive issues. They point to several recent cases, like that of Helmuth Nyborg, a Danish researcher who was fired in 2006 after he caused a furor in the press by reporting a slight difference in average I.Q. test scores between the sexes.

“What happened to Bailey is important, because the harassment was so extraordinarily bad and because it could happen to any researcher in the field,” said Alice Dreger, an ethics scholar and patients’ rights advocate at Northwestern who, after conducting a lengthy investigation of Dr. Bailey’s actions, has concluded that he is essentially blameless. “If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself.”

Bailey argued, in his 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen, that some men who desire to change their sex are driven by an erotic fascination with being female. Conventional teaching is that most people who desire sex changes are correcting a biological mistake of being born the wrong sex. And as political as most academic fights go, you can imagine how heated this one is.

Let me be clear: this story is not directly about religion at all. It’s about political correctness and academic independence and all sorts of other juicy things. But I think it’s worth considering from a journalism and religion angle. So many of the hottest religion stories are framed as religion vs. science — assuming not only a conflict but a superiority of supposedly objective reason, logic and scientific method.

One of my husband’s best friends is a cell biologist and we were recently discussing how the academic funding system reinforces conventional views and makes it somewhat difficult to deviate or experiment with alternate views. Particularly considering how much scientific research is conducted with federal taxpayer dollars, this funding mechanism is understandable. But it’s worth considering how much pressure is on scientists to follow governmental or big business research goals.

Carey’s story is readable and very balanced, quoting Bailey critics such as one of my favorite economics professors (Deirdre McCloskey). Interestingly, he doesn’t mention that McCloskey is transgendered — someone I began reading as Donald McCloskey. I’m not sure why that information was deemed unimportant, but I can’t help but think more transparency is wise in a story about political correctness and questionable motivations. Carey does mention the transgendered status of Bailey’s other critics.

Anyway, Bailey went through holy hell after the publication of the book. While the Lambda Literary Foundation nominated the book for an award, prominent transgendered activists were alarmed. One compared Bailey’s views to Nazi propoganda. Four men who changed their gender and discussed same with Bailey wrote letters of complaint to Northwestern. One claimed Bailey had sex with her. A transgender advocate downloaded pictures of Bailey’s children and posted them on her website with sexually explicit captions. The university launched an investigation, as did Dreger:

Dr. Dreger is the latest to arrive at the battlefront. She is a longtime advocate for people born with ambiguous sexuality and has been strongly critical of sex researchers in the past. She said she had presumed that Dr. Bailey was guilty and, after meeting him through a mutual friend, had decided to investigate for herself.

But in her just-completed account, due to be published next year in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, the field’s premier journal, she concluded that the accusations against the psychologist were essentially groundless. . . .

The accusation of sexual misconduct came five years after the fact, and was not possible to refute or confirm, Dr. Dreger said. It specified a date in 1998 when Dr. Bailey was at his ex-wife’s house, looking after their children, according to dated e-mail messages between the psychologist and his ex-wife, Dr. Dreger found. . . .

“The bottom line is that they tried to ruin this guy, and they almost succeeded,” Dr. Dreger said.

ulcerBailey’s book was social science — not grounded in hard science — but he was doing what scientists do. He threw out an idea and tested it. It may or may not be worthy, but it’s interesting how vociferously it was fought. It’s also worth noting just how much political pressure scientists face. Consider this quote from Carey’s piece:

Dr. Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, said in reference to Dr. Bailey’s thesis in the book, “Bailey seems to make a living by claiming that the things people hold most deeply true are not true.”

Yes, and from Darwin to Freud to Dawkins, this is precisely what scientists do. But challenging science and transgendered activists can be just as — if not more — difficult as challenging religious doctrine. Think about all the myriad of academic debates dealing with cloning, embryonic stem cell research, evolution and global warming. And consider this other bit of reportage from the article:

One collaborator broke with Dr. Bailey over the controversy, Dr. Bailey said. Others who remained loyal said doing so had a cost: two researchers said they were advised by a government grant officer that they should distance themselves from Dr. Bailey to improve their chances of receiving financing.

“He told me it would be better if I played down any association with Bailey,” said Khytam Dawood, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University.

Next time reporters pit science vs. religion, it’s worthwhile to investigate a bit further on both sides of the equation.

NB: I chose that peptic ulcer image on account of how conventional wisdom held for decades that stress caused ulcers. In 2005, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for successfully challenging prevailing dogma in showing that bacteria cause peptic ulcers.

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Green evangelicals on page one (surprise)

Evangelicals and Global Warming A Formal Debate largeAt some point, the whole “moderate evangelicals are starting to care about Creation” story is going to get old, but it sure does not seem that this will happen anytime soon.

Don’t get me wrong. This is an important story. However, it is also an example of an old truth: The quickest way for a conservative to get on page one of a major newspaper is by saying something critical of powerful conservative leaders or groups.

The Green evangelicals stories are also linked to coverage of the rising Christian left, and that’s another important story. And there are many, many doctrinally traditionalist Christians (Can I see some hands raised?) who are tired of seeing journalists link conservative moral stands with GOP position papers on every issue under the hot sun.

However, the best mainstream stories on these trends tend to note that these pro-Green evangelicals (What does one need to believe to be an anti-Green evangelical?) rarely forsake their conservative stands on other moral issues. They are broadening their agenda, not editing it.

However, the hook that some evangelicals are embracing a position advocated by the mainstream press is simply catnip for journalists. That story is heading to page one. Pronto.

This brings us to the latest high-profile Washington Post report on this hot story: “Warming Draws Evangelicals Into Environmentalist Fold.” It really helps that reporter Juliet Eilperin has a story hook with a church that is clearly, under anyone’s definition, an “evangelical” stronghold. We are talking about Northland Church in Longwood, Fla.

A key question, however, is this: Where did this trend come from? We are told about an activist named Denise Kirsop:

Her conversion to environmentalism is the result of a years-long international campaign by British bishops and leaders of major U.S. environmental groups to bridge a long-standing divide between global-warming activists and American evangelicals. The emerging rapprochement is regarded by some as a sign of how dramatically U.S. public sentiment has shifted on global warming in recent years. It also has begun, in modest ways, to transform how the two groups define themselves.

And this brings us to the key figure in the story:

“I did sense this is one of these issues where the church could leadership, like with civil rights,” said Northland’s senior pastor, Joel C. Hunter. “It’s a matter of who speaks for evangelicals: Is it a broad range of voices on a broad range of issues, or a narrow range of voices?”

Hunter has emerged among evangelicals as a pivotal advocate for cutting greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are warming Earth’s climate. A self-deprecating 59-year-old minister who can quote the “Baby Jesus” speech that Will Farrell delivered in the 2006 movie “Talladega Nights” as readily as he can the Bible, Hunter regularly preaches about climate change to 7,000 congregants in five Central Florida sites and to 3,000 more worshipers via the Internet. He even has met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to talk about environmental issues.

While he remains in a distinct minority, and a number of others on the Christian right disparage his efforts, Hunter and others like him have begun to reshape the politics around climate change.

bible worldIn other words, this man is smart and hip. He hangs out with people from Great Britain. And media people, too! As you would expect, that leads to trouble.

The “greening” of Hunter and others still elicits scorn from many evangelicals, including Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and Prison Fellowship’s Charles W. “Chuck” Colson. They question whether humankind really deserves the blame for Earth’s recent warming and argue that their battles against abortion and same-sex marriage should take precedence.

And there is the giant hole in the story.

The Post team that produced this story does not tell us how Hunter and the members of his flock who have gone Green link their beliefs on this topic with any other doctrines, including moral teachings that have been central to the Christian faith for 2000 years or so. The implication is that this flock has gone soft on the life issues and on moral theology about sex.

In this day and age, it just isn’t fair — to readers or the people quoted — to leave this hole in the story. If there is a clash there, cover it. If these people are linking their conservative beliefs with this stand on the environment, if they see this new stance as consistent with their faith, then let them say it.

It is one thing to say that Hunter wants to move beyond “below-the-belt issues” such as homosexuality and abortion. It is something else to hint that he has changed his beliefs on basic doctrines. Silence just won’t cut it, in this case.

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Ghost in the gorilla mists?

virunga gorillaMost of the time, when I encounter a religious reference in a mainstream news story I can figure out what it is doing there. However, I hit something the other day in Newsweek that really puzzled me and it still does.

The story in question is part of the cover package about exotic species around the world that are in danger of being snuffed out, often by insane human hunting. This leads into a tragic sidebar about those famous gorillas in the Congo, written by reporter Scott Johnson.

It seems that the gorillas are caught in the middle of another round of the hellish wars between the Hutu and Tutsis, with economic interests at stake in the lush jungles of the parklands. Killing the gorillas is one way to lash out at the rangers — many of whom have been killed — who try to enforce the rules of the park. This leads to the following reference that puzzled me:

One of the rangers, Paulin Ngobobo, 43, has been intimately involved in trying to stop the charcoal trade from spreading across Virunga. A devout Christian, with a wry sense of humor, Ngobobo is fiercely protective of the gorillas in his sector of the park. Six months ago he was lecturing villagers about the threat the charcoal industry posed to Virunga when men in military uniforms showed up, stripped him of his shirt and flogged him in front of the audience. Last month he posted a blog item in which he accused the charcoal merchants of being complicit in the destruction of the gorillas’ habitat. Two days later unknown gunmen killed a female gorilla under his care.

Ngobobo says he has received death threats and warnings to stop criticizing the charcoal industry. Then came last week’s killings, which many in his unit have interpreted as political assassinations — a message from the powerful interests that operate in the area. “There are people who are feeding off this conflict,” Ngobobo warns darkly. Last week authorities arrested Ngobobo and accused him of negligence because the recent killings all happened on his watch; his supporters claim that that was part of the assassins’ plan all along. Ngobobo denies any wrongdoing.

Why the reference to the ranger’s faith? Is it a way to undercut the latter claims of negligence? Perhaps, especially due to that word “devout” in front of the word “Christian.”

I also thought it was interesting that the reporter called him a Christian, instead of using the term Catholic. No, I am not bashing Catholicism. I am merely referring to the fact that the Hutu-Tutsi wars not that long ago included many accusations that powerful Catholic leaders in this part of the world should have done more to stop the bloodshed or, at least, not made it worse.

And is there some link to religion in this new conflict? The rest of the story does not tell us. Strange, no?

I, for one, wanted to know more about that strange description of the ranger.

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