The prayer of the publican

denarius tiberias 1 01I turned over a new leaf last year: I filed my taxes a month before they were due. This year, unfortunately, I’m back to my old tricks. I’ll be with the throng of last-minute filers causing a pedestrian and auto traffic jam at the Capitol Hill post office late tonight.

Easter fell within a day of the tax deadline this year. Most religion reporters wouldn’t think twice about it. Peggy Fletcher Stack, the Salt Lake Tribune‘s longtime religion reporter, wrote a compelling story about it. She interviews local Latter-day Saints who say folks should pay their taxes, libertarians who oppose current tax policy and liberals who oppose tax breaks for those who earn profits. Many have heard Jesus’ saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” It’s a complex saying, one which has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Stack provides some context:

When the Jewish leaders asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay Roman taxes, they were setting a kind of trap for him. If he said “yes,” he would be siding with the despised Jews who collaborated with Rome and if he said “no,” he would be arrested.

How to deal with these competing claims?

“In my view Jesus teaches that, for survival, one pays, but one does so knowing a greater loyalty and knowing that soon ‘the kingdom or empire of God’ will be established in full and it will be the end of Rome,” [Warren] Carter[, who teaches at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.,] says. “Jesus’ answer resists Rome’s attempts to humiliate, it secures the dignity of those forced to pay, reminds them of their identity in God’s purposes, and points to the sure completion of those purposes.”

The article also looks at how Jesus treated tax collectors, and puts it in a modern context:

Today’s Internal Revenue Service is only slightly more popular than tax collectors were in Jesus’ time. Many Americans live in fear of being audited or having to deal with one of its agents, despite filing on-time, legitimate forms.

But they don’t have to worry about being cheated or extorted.

In ancient Jerusalem, tax collectors were often locals who contracted to gather a certain amount of wealth to hand on up the imperial system. After paying Rome, these locals — also called “publicans” — were free to collect from the people as they wished and free to make a profit for themselves. They were regarded as traitors, as complicit with the exploiting Romans, or as thieves who collected too much and kept the extra, Carter says.

Jesus spent a lot of time hanging out with these tax collectors, choosing one (Matthew) as his apostle, eating at their houses and using them to make a point in one of his famous parables.

In that story, Jesus described two men going to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee (a temple official) and the other was a publican. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even the publican.

The publican, meanwhile, looks down and says, simply, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Jesus tells his listeners that of the two, the publican and anyone who is humble will be exalted in heaven.

“He never ever taught that there was anything inherently wrong with paying tribute to the Roman Government or collecting the tax,” [scholar Marcus] Borg writes. “He was opposed to extortioners, but would fling open the door of repentance and salvation to them. He rejected none, not even the worst.”

The prayer of the publican is not something you find in mainstream media very often. And yet it is a prayer that many millions of Christians offer throughout each day. Stack managed to write about both worlds that many of her readers live in — the world where laws are administered and enforced and the world where Jesus’ words reign supreme. It’s a delicate art, and she did a great job writing about both Easter and tax day.

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Separation of mandala and state?

mandalaThe Buddhist monk who blessed Baltimore City Hall with a worship aide traveled to Detroit to do some outreach on a community college campus. Terry wrote earlier in the week about the interesting church-state issues raised by a Buddhist doing religious work on public property.

A college campus is a less controversial venue than city hall for a religious display such as this, but it’s still interesting to consider the angle reporters use when covering the Buddhist tour. David Crumm, the prolific religion reporter at the Detroit Free Press, began his column about the Detroit stop of the tour this way:

A monk in gold-and-crimson robes labored on his knees to bring to life an ancient symbol of wisdom in a Dearborn library on Wednesday, surrounded by an ever-changing crowd of students, some in Muslim scarves, others in Lions and Pistons sweatshirts and a couple in leather and chains.

The director of religious studies at the college tells Crumm that monk Tashi Thupten Tsondu‘s visit is part of an effort to expose students to diverse cultures, and the diversity angle is thread throughout the article. The story is great and reporters have to choose one angle out of many potential ones. But I hope that as the monk continues his tour throughout the country — and if he continues to do his religious work on taxpayer-funded property — that reporters would look at the issue of state-sanctioned religious activity.

I tend to be interested in raising questions about any state support of religious activity. Terry raised the issue of equal access when he wrote about the story of Tashi’s religious work in Baltimore. What other groups are taking part in the diversity campaign? And that raises the question of how these stories would be written if Campus Crusade for Christ were working on a project in the library.

The purpose of the monk’s visit is not to make pretty pictures and head back home. It’s to share Tibetan Buddhist philosophies. A report of the monk’s visit to Michigan State University a few years ago looks at how Buddhist tenets are shared during a question and answer period following the creation — and destruction — of the mandala. There’s even a personal testimony!

One of the things that distinguishes Crumm is how he lets his subjects talk about their own faith and philosophy. This article was no exception:

Tashi, 49, explained that a mandala is an ancient practice that combines meditation techniques and sacred symbols to create vibrant, circular works of art. The overall message is that life is precious as well as fleeting.

“I make the mandala, but then I dismantle it on the last day. I sweep it up with a brush,” Tashi said. “It reminds us that, one day, we all will die. It reminds us to think of other living beings compassionately in this impermanent life we have.”

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, in a ceremony open to the public, Tashi will complete the dismantling by placing the swept-up sand into a large bowl. Then, he will lead a procession from the library to the nearby Rouge River, where he will drizzle the sand into the water.

[William] Secrest [the college's director of religious studies] said, “The Buddhist message is that we cannot cling to this life. That’s a delusion. Life is constantly flowing away like the sand in this mandala will flow into the river.”

It’s such a simple thing, but one I wish more reporters would do. Rather than trying — and failing — to characterize complex religious issues, reporters can tell a much richer story by simply quoting religious adherents as they talk about their faith.

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Who says there’s nothing funny about Islamofascism?

nightjourneyofmuhammadThe interweb is buzzing about last night’s South Park episode. Did Comedy Central forbid creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker from showing an image of Muhammad? In the episode, Kyle, one of the show’s main characters, persuades network executives to run a Family Guy cartoon with a short scene including Muhammad. Kyle gives a speech about the importance of free speech. The Volokh Conspiracy, which broke the story, quoted Kyle’s speech, which ended:

“If you don’t show [Muhammad], then you’ve made a distinction between what is OK to make fun of and what isn’t. Either it’s all OK or none of it is. Do the right thing.”

At the point in the episode where Muhammad is supposed to be shown, the South Park creators inserted two statements:

In this shot, [Muhammad] hands a football helmet to Family Guy.

Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of [Muhammad] on their network.

Eventually (spoiler alert!) Al Qaeda broadcasts its own cartoon showing Americans, President Bush and Jesus defacating on each other and the American flag. You know, say what you want about them, Stone and Parker sure know how to embarrass their own network.

Many blogs have been up in pixels about the censorship, but it looks like David Bauder of the Associated Press is the first mainstream reporter to cover the issue. He also provided a bit of historical context about how the show came to be written:

In an elaborately constructed two-part episode of their Peabody Award-winning cartoon, “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker intended to comment on the controversy created by a Danish newspaper’s publishing of caricatures of Muhammad. Muslims consider any physical representation of their prophet to be blasphemous.

A brief interjection here to point out that AP reporter gives the impression that Muslims are unanimous in their belief that any physical representation of Muhammad is blasphemous. That’s not true. And while many reporters, myself included, repeated this untruth, Bauder has had a few months to learn from our mistakes. It is not acceptable for reporters to repeat this talking point without acknowledging reality. The 1514 picture I used here is The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq. It is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Go here for more Muslim physical representations of Muhammad that are supposedly not allowed.

And if you are going to say that Muslims find representations of their prophet to be blasphemous, why not mention what Christians think of portraying their divine Savior in such a disrespectful manner? Do they think not think it’s blasphemous? Is it the notion of blasphemy that is the undercurrent to this story? Or is it the threat of violence? Okay, back to our story:

When the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers worldwide in January and February, it sparked a wave of protests primarily in Islamic countries.

Parker and Stone were angered when told by Comedy Central several weeks ago that they could not run an image of Muhammad, according to a person close to the show who didn’t want to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity.

The network’s decision was made over concerns for public safety, the person said.

Comedy Central said in a statement issued Thursday: “In light of recent world events, we feel we made the right decision.” Its executives would not comment further.

Wow. And wow. There can be no question that an image of Jesus defacating on flags and President Bush during Holy Week is blasphemous and offensive. So how to explain Comedy Central’s decision? Especially considering that Comedy Central used to show Muhammad images with vigor? I certainly hope that my journalistic brethren will investigate this with rigor.

I’m a bad prognosticator of these things, and increasingly cynical, but I worry that this story will just go away. And I worry the media will simply acquiesce to violent demands rather than uphold the virtue of tolerance of all perspectives — including offensive ones like South Park‘s. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that there is much of a difference between the cowardly decision of almost every mainstream newspaper, including the standard-bearing New York Times, to hide the news (that is, the cartoon images of Muhammad which sparked the violent and fatal riots by some Muslims across the globe) and Comedy Central’s decision.

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Scientology birthing “controversy”

katie holmesI have a fairly low tolerance for celebrity “news.” I especially disdain with the greatest disgust the current rage regarding celebrity childbirth, as if it were the latest fad or cool thing to try out. And I do not have any sympathy for those birthing the babies (I do feel great sorrow for the babies). The celebrities thrive off celebrity and need it to keep their careers afloat, as much as it is degrading to humanity.

So when I stumbled across this Associated Press story on the religion page of washingtonpost.com about the birthing plans of Katie Homes and Tom Cruise, I was miffed. What does this gossip piece have to do with religion?

Other than the issue of Scientology — and how it “controversially” forbids any noise during a birth — the article is just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo Hollywood gossip (for more debate on whether Scientology is actually a religion, click here):

Tom Cruise has been practically shouting from the rooftops about his love for his pregnant fiancee, Katie Holmes. But when their much-anticipated baby is born, the superstar dad probably won’t say a word.

Cruise, a longtime Scientologist who introduced Holmes to the faith, is likely to follow Scientology’s practice of quiet birth. Followers believe the absence of talk and other noise in the delivery room is more healthful for mother and baby.

No one’s saying publicly where baby Cruise will enter the world, but if it is at the actor’s Beverly Hills home then noise control might prove a challenge. Buzzing paparazzi are already camped aside the property.

With the little one expected soon, tabloids and gossip Web sites have been rife with chatter about silent birth, spawning much speculation about what it is and isn’t.

The article fails to cite official Scientology authorities, but relies on a “self-professed ‘Scientology mom’” who was quickly contradicted by actress Anne Archer, a 30-year Scientologist who denounced the silent birth speculation as “ridiculous.” Scientologists apparently like to see their children brought into an “environment as calm, quiet and loving as possible.” Isn’t that just peachy. Archer added that “any culture in the world would understand that and any woman who’s given birth would understand that.”

Give me a break. Every culture? All women? Of course I can’t speak for women, or for the cultures of this world, the way Archer can, so I’m going to move on.

The article reads like a press release for the greatness of Scientology. Not that I see anything controversial about keeping a room quite while a baby is born, but if you are going to examine the subject, please talk to more than a few Scientologists and a Beverly Hills obstetrician, whose best comment was “You’re not going to yell at the patient. You may talk to them in a calming fashion and the patient will gain comfort from hearing your voice.”

I’ve only been present at one birth in my life (my own, 24 years ago), but I’m guessing that yelling at a woman giving birth is a bad idea.

How about examining the scientific claims behind L. Ron Hubbard’s writings that said infants should not be touched, spoken to or cleaned for the first 24 hours after birth? Or that mothers should not talk to their kid for 24 hours?

Do Scientologists still believe that today? I’m just dying to know. Oh wait, I really don’t care. Keep these stories to the gossip pages, washingtonpost.com.

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Work that Rolodex

rolodexWell, the Judas Gospel story, the one that was supposed to shake the foundations of Christianity, seems to have passed away rather quickly. Christianity was similarly unfazed by the week’s reports that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think, and that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera, not Joseph. Let’s see if Christianity implodes under the allegation that Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up.

The Judas Gospel thread had a number of comments. I wanted to share a few because they highlight a problem that reaches beyond the National Geographic public relations incident. I had questioned why all of the stories about Judas quoted the same narrow group of scholars. Amy Welborn shared her thoughts:

I’m guessing that the consistency that we see in the press stories are on this are due to nothing else than dependence on the press packet. The voices in the stories are all “consultants” and experts to the project. [Donald] Senior and [Craig] Evans are both in the program.

Reader Matt agreed that reporters on this story suffered from limited Rolodexes. He explained a bit more about how reporters get their sources:

I’ve worked at two newspapers. Every reporter at these papers had lists of experts provided by different sources. Stanford University made sure that each reporter had actual Rolodex cards to be filed by topic. For instance, there was an economics card with the names and phone numbers of several professors good for a quote. San Jose State’s College of Sciences and Arts published a little booklet titled “Knowledge Resources for Journalists” with the same kind of information. (Every election Dr. Terry Christiansen from the Poli Sci dept is interviewed on TV at least once.) One of my colleagues had a list of experts published by U.C. Berkeley stuck on her cubicle wall. Does Holy Cross or St. Vladimir’s or Biola or Franciscan of Steubenville publish similar lists and get them into the hands of reporters?

And everyone knows that Elaine Pagel’s agent is Royce Carlton. Royce Carlton makes money by getting bookings for their clients. They need to keep their client in the public eye and make sure that she is available to reporters covering any story related to any of her books or speaking topics. Does anyone know who Archbishop Dmitiri’s agent is? Or who is Harold O.J. Brown’s agent? Or who is Scott Hahn’s agent? How would a reporter reach these people? Does the average reporter know that these people, who would offer a different view than that of Pagels, even exist? I doubt it. The economic incentive to get their names out is not as great as it is for Pagels.

We reporters have our go-to sources. And we love it when a good public relations firm helps us locate folks who can speak coherently and competently, particularly when we’re approaching a deadline. But, as we saw, there are pitfalls with this. A wide variety of sources, especially for complex religious topics, helps reporters avoid embarrassing themselves like many of them did in promoting National Geographic‘s magazine sales and television show.

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Martin Peretz gets religion

Martin PeretzMartin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, must read GetReligion. I always know, when I read a piece by Peretz on the Middle East, I will be getting and honest and knowledgeable assessment on the conflict, but I wasn’t aware of his ability to grill a public figure for incoherent comments on religious matters.

I found one of his most recent blog posts, on the comments of presidential wannabe and already-run Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as quoted in a recent New York Times article, to be quite impressive. Kerry said that “not in one page, not in one phrase uttered and reported by the Lord Jesus Christ, can you find anything that suggests that there is a virtue in cutting children from Medicare.”

Peretz, doing my job, ripped into Kerry:

I’d actually go Kerry one further: I doubt that Jesus ever mentioned Medicare at all. Still, it’s probably significant that some presidential aspirants — Kerry, for one — want to demonstrate that there are among them some real live Democrats for God. Or, as the Times said about him, he is “A Roman Catholic, who has struggled at times to talk about his own faith … Mr. Kerry also told the group that he believed ‘deeply in my faith’.” Now, there are many Catholics including high ecclesiastics who doubt this. But who am I to have a point of view on what is essentially an intramural fight? In any case, as it turns out, Kerry is not only a Roman Catholic but also an ecumenicist.

Kerry also said the Koran, the Torah, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles had influenced a social conscience that he exercised in politics. To this Peretz said:

[L]et me ask: What hadith of the Prophet influenced him the most, and why? And here I have a personal interest: Which of the injunctions of Leviticus and who among the Prophets have the most meaning for him? Ordinarily, of course, I wouldn’t ask such personal questions of a politician. In the spirit of Jesus, Kerry will certainly forgive me for doing so.

Sure Peretz is being somewhat picky, but that is what we do here. Those who know religion must critique public figures invoking religious themes and historical analogies. While I would expect a reporter writing about such comments to ask probing questions and dig into the subject instead of merely rewriting what was said, I realize that is not always going to happen for a variety of reasons. That’s why we’re here, and it’s comforting to know that others are helping us out with the job.

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What did the university print and …

gay flag… when did it print it? That’s the question.

Here’s a quick note to the reporters covering the case of Jason Johnson, the student who has been expelled at the University of the Cumberlands after outing himself in his MySpace.com profile. I should, just to be clear, note that Cumberland is a Baptist university, but not part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the global network in which I teach.

This is one case where reporters are going to need documentation on dead-tree pulp. We need to know precisely what the school said in its student-life policies and when it said it.

Why does this matter? In a Louisville Courier-Journal article by Mark Pitsch we learn that at the time the theater major was recruited the school’s code of conduct barred only “lewd and indecent conduct.” Is that true? It would appear so, since we also learn that a new policy says:

“Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw from the University of the Cumberlands.”

Obviously, the word “promotes” is crucial. But that is not the big question for reporters at the moment. The big question is this: What did the student life handbook say the year that Johnson actually enrolled as a freshman? Were the policies in the handbook actually referenced in a printed document of some kind that he signed of his own free will when he agreed to become a student at this Baptist-affiliated school?

Here is why I ask. Over at the Lexington Herald-Leader, reporter Jamie Gumbrecht has some additional information, but not the smoking gun.

… (A) copy of the student handbook provided by the university confirmed the policy was not spelled out in 2003-04, when Johnson chose to attend. The school did not provide a copy of the policy for the 2004-05 school year. The 2005-06 student handbook says: “Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw.”

School officials said that although the 2003-04 policy did not explicitly mention homosexuality, it did say that students must “conduct themselves, on and off the campus, in a manner which is consistent with the objectives of the College and with its standards of conduct.”

Yes, it would appear the key is that missing 2004-05 student handbook and any documents the freshman signed that fall. However, there is a chance that Johnson — as a sophomore at the start of the fall of 2005 semester — may have signed an updated student-code pledge of some kind. It matters if he, at some point, signed a document that said he was bound to honor future changes in the university’s student-life code.

Reporters need to ask these questions for a simple reason. Private colleges — on the left and the right — have the ability to make the rules for their own voluntary associations. “Freedom of association” is the key phrase here, and this applies to Baptist colleges as well as to voluntary associations of gays, lesbians and lots of other people. On that theme, Pitsch provided some helpful background in that Courier-Journal story:

Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said yesterday that private colleges are entitled to enact rules and require students to abide by them.

“The relationship between a student and a private institution is purely contractual in nature. A student is presumed to be aware of the terms and conditions of that contract. Case closed,” Steinbach said.

Pitsch also notes:

In a written statement last week, President Jim Taylor said: “At University of the Cumberlands, we hold students to a higher standard. Students know the rules before they come to this institution. We’ve followed our policies and procedures in keeping with our traditional denominational beliefs. … We are different by design and are non-apologetic about our Christian beliefs.”

If students “know the rules before they come to this institution,” that means they are written down somewhere and that students had a chance to affirm or reject them as they enrolled. It appears to me — as a reporter and a veteran professor on Christian campuses — that the journalists covering this story need to find out what the university printed and when it printed it.

The school has every right to make its own rules and to attempt to enforce them consistently. Reporters — find that signed piece of paper and you have the story.

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The myth of A=M

voterguideIf access equals power and power equals money (A=P=M), then Monday’s Washington Post article on the near demise of the Christian Coalition left an unanswered question that probes deep into the true influence of evangelicals on the Bush Administration. Or perhaps it’s the connection of access and influence?

But first let me take issue with the story’s lead:

In an era when conservative Christians enjoy access and influence throughout the federal government, the organization that fueled their rise has fallen on hard times.

I know most liberals view the evangelical influence on the current White House as driven by the often idiotic comments of Pat Robertson, but please, how was the Christian Coalition the organization behind the rise of evangelicals in politics and the supposed grip the group has on national politics? How about not?

Try the Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship for starters.

Founded 17 years ago by former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, the organization is mired in debt and internal conflict. Part of the article’s hypothesis is that the coalition is on hard times due to its success. As an opposition group, the coalition thrived on raising money against President Clinton and a Democrat-dominated Washington. But since the Republicans ascended to power in at least two of the three branches of federal power (who controls the Supreme Court is difficult to determine conclusively), what is the coalition supposed to rally against? So the theory goes.

All that said, Robertson and the group he founded are made out to be a force that remains to be reckoned with, despite poor finances:

The Christian Coalition is still routinely included in meetings with White House officials and conservative leaders, and is still a household name. But financial problems and a long battle over its tax status have sapped its strength, allowing it to be eclipsed by other Christian groups, such as the Family Research Council and the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Although some of those groups have begun moving into the coalition’s specialty — grass-roots voter education and get-out-the-vote drives — none is poised to distribute 70 million voter guides through churches, as the Christian Coalition did in 2000.

The coalition’s decline is a story that can perhaps best be told along biblical lines: It is the narrative of a group that wandered after the departure of its early leaders, lost faith in some of its guiding principles and struggled to keep its identity after entering the Promised Land — in this case, the land of political influence.

From its inception, the coalition was built around two individuals, Robertson and Ralph Reed. Both were big personalities with big followings.

CCLogoSo a group that is routinely included in White House meetings can’t stay afloat financially? Most groups will do anything for that kind of access, and I have trouble believing that the coalition’s big asset at this point — its 70 million church-distributed voter guides — is all that precious, valuable or much of a bargaining chip when it comes to influencing key Bush administration officials. What real influence does the Christian Coalition — or Pat Robertson for that matter — have on George W. Bush and the people around him?

The closest thing I can come up with is two Supreme Court nominations that seem to have somewhat placated the 4 million evangelical voters that, yes, allegedly put Bush back in the White House. A key factor that many miss is that both nominations came after the last election Bush will ever face.

The Christian Coalition’s financial hard times have little to do with a decline in power and influence in Washington, because I don’t believe the coalition was ever that influential. I think a more likely culprit is a bit of good old American competition from similar groups. These groups have crowded out the financial support for the coalition, which has a founder many believe is frighteningly unfit as a spokesman for evangelical Christians.

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