Covering opposition to syncretism in a syncretized world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or as Vanity Fair‘s Kurt Eichenwald put it:

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

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GetReligion turns nine: Thoughts on comments and trolls

So, friends and neighbors, if we are going to do some intense navel-gazing here at GetReligion (nine years into this project), then I will assume that it’s fair game to briefly pay some attention to a different set of navels.

So a blogger named Baldur Bjarnason decided to do a bit of reflecting on the lessons he learned about online writing during 2012. All of his reflections were worth reading, but I was especially struck by his blunt thoughts on what kind of material draws comments from readers (and the nature of those comments).

As I have said many times, GetReligion is not an opinion blog about religion news and trends, it is a commentary blog about the highs and lows of mainstream media attempts to cover religion news and trends. We are strong advocates of old-school American journalism, with an emphasis on accuracy, balance and fairness to voices on both sides of hot-button topics.

Many readers simply cannot grasp what we are doing, or choose to ignore the journalism angle.

That has always been the case, but since this blog’s move to the Patheos universe there has definitely been an increase in the number of readers who click “comment” and then comment on the religious and cultural issues in the posts, rather than on the journalism hooks in the posts. I would say that, on my posts, I end up spiking about 50 percent of all comments. The goal is to try, try, try to discuss religion-news coverage.

Bjarnason faces different challenges, but several of his comments, for me, hit close to home. Some samples:

* There is little to no discourse online. What you get are dug in factions and people’s opinion on you are based solely on whether your argument supports what they have chosen to be ‘their team’. If you try and stick to facts and logic, most factions will reject you. It’s ideological trench warfare and the best you can hope for is that the machine-gun nests don’t notice you. …

* People love to send you argumentative, angry, or otherwise negative emails. That is, if they aren’t asking you to work for free.

* Praise is generally only handed out on disposable media, like Twitter, and rarely anywhere where it counts (like blogs, reviews, or other writing). … A remarkable number of people will only say nice things to your face, in private, and never in public. …. The end result is that positive feedback is ephemeral while negative feedback gets preserved forever on angry blogs, comments and forums. …

* You can trust that ideas that are new and unfamiliar to an audience will be either ignored or met with anger.

* Nobody cares when you’re right but a lot of people really enjoy it when you’re wrong. They will rub it in your face.

* There’s no way to tell beforehand which bits you make will take off and which won’t. That nicely written, funny, and informative post will go down like a feminist speech at a men’s rights convention while the quick info-dump written and posted in less than an hour takes off and gets stratospheric traffic.

* There is absolutely no correlation between how much work you put into a post or a piece of writing and how much attention it gets.

* Nasty people are incredibly persistent while nice people go off having lives of their own (they have lives because they are not nasty).

* The only thing people like more than a post that states the obvious is an angry post that states the obvious. Angry and unreasonable will easily get ten times the attention of even-handed and rational. …

There’s much more, but I focused on the really negative stuff (cue: rim shot and cymbal splash) so that more people would comment.

Please keep reading.

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SPLC to get Sarah Palin treatment any day now

I want to talk about media coverage of the man who was convicted today of shooting up the Family Research Council. But let’s first go back to the horrible story about the murderous rampage that one disturbed individual went on in Arizona.

The mainstream media narrative, initially, was that a right wing Tea Party supporter acting under the orders of Sarah Palin had assassinated a sitting member of Congress. Precisely none of that was true or even close to true, but it didn’t keep the media from pushing a particular narrative about it for some time. (It wasn’t the biggest religion story, per se, but see our posts here, here and here) I also wrote a post about the role that alternate realities played in the shooting and media coverage of same. The shooter was said to engage in alternate realities. But, I argued, the same might be said of the media, feverishly trying to create a world where political opponents could be blamed for the most brutal crimes imaginable even if the facts didn’t support that.

For days the media focused on the need for civility, and how this shooting was the result of conservative political rhetoric. Some media outlets suggested that campaign and battle words be avoided when talking about politics. See, a PAC associated with Sarah Palin had put out a map with races to “target” and had identified those “targets” with crosshairs. The Atlantic Wire highlighted some of The Atlantic‘s writers on the matter in a piece headlined “Did Sarah Palin’s Target Map Play Role in Giffords Shooting?

In the wake of his shocking and senseless attack, a number of commentators are asking, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows put it, “whether there is a connection between” such “extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery” as that published by Palin and “actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be.” In other words, did Palin’s map cross the line famously described by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic?”

The Washington Post wrote a story headlined “Palin caught in crosshairs map controversy after Tucson shootings.” The story acknowledges that it’s written as the “result of a national tragedy in which there is no known connection between anything Palin said or did and the alleged actions of Jared Loughner, who is accused of fatally shooting six and severely wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 13 others.”

More from The Atlantic (which also included folks who didn’t blame Palin):

Palin at Fault

  • What Palin Did Wrong  The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan clarifies, “No one is saying Sarah Palin should be viewed as an accomplice to murder. Many are merely saying that her recklessly violent and inflammatory rhetoric has poisoned the discourse and has long run the risk of empowering the deranged. We are saying it’s about time someone took responsibility for this kind of rhetorical extremism, because it can and has led to violence and murder.” He points out that Giffords herself had expressed concern about Palin’s map.
  • ‘Imagery of Armed Revolution’  The New York Times’ Matt Bai writes, “it’s hard not to think [Loughner] was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon.” Bai explains, “The problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences.” He says Palin and other used “imagery of armed revolution. Popular spokespeople like Ms. Palin routinely drop words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘socialism’ when describing the president and his allies, as if blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms. “
  • The Psychology of Incited Violence  At Psychology Today, neurologist David Weisman writes, “The question is not ‘did Sarah Palin’s violent rhetoric cause this shooting?’ The question is ‘does inciting violence factor in a multi-factorial process?’” Weisman explores the decision-making process and role of unconscious biases, concluding, “Although there is little clear evidence in this case, the data highlights the importance of butterfly events on human actions. Jared Loughner is clearly deranged. He drank deeply from internal insanity and external stimuli.  His actions did not take place in a vacuum.”

So yesterday, Floyd Lee Corkins II pleaded guilty to three criminal counts involving his August 2012 attack on the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Family Research Council. He told the FBI that he picked his target from a “hate map (!) on the web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center. That’s the liberal group that is frequently used as a legitimate source in news reports (I sort of thought they jumped the shark when they identified “pick-up artists” as hate groups but this Reason archive might be worth a read for developing a tad of skepticism of their treatment by the media).

OK, so we have a real criminal who cites a real “hate map” as a key factor in his violence. How do you suppose the media treated that story?

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Lining up the facts on eruvim

The New York Times  has a story about three lawsuits that have been filed over the erection of an eruv, or ritual boundary, for Orthodox Jews in the Westhampton Beach area of New York. It gets some important details wrong. Let’s look at the beginning:

Every Saturday, Eugene Milanaik, a nurse anesthetist, walks more than five miles back and forth between his Orthodox synagogue and his weekend house on Dune Road. When it rains, he gets soaked, because he cannot carry an umbrella. When his 3-year-old grandson is in town, as he was last weekend, his wife must stay home, because she cannot push his stroller.

Life would be much easier, in Mr. Milanaik’s view, if Westhampton Beach would finally permit a series of narrow plastic strips, known in Hebrew as lechis, to be placed on the village’s utility poles. The strips would create an eruv, a ritual boundary that would allow those Orthodox Jews who do not push or carry things outside the home on the Sabbath to do so when within the eruv’s perimeter.

Technically, the strips don’t create the boundary — there needs to be a string between them. Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that this passage leaves the impression that it would be permissible to carry an umbrella if the eruv were created. But is that Orthodox practice? Here’s Rabbi Ari Enkin:

It is well-known that one is forbidden to use an umbrella on Shabbat. This is because the use of an umbrella is considered to be a violation of the melacha of “boneh”, the prohibition of erecting any type of tent, structure, or protective covering.[1] In fact, the use of an umbrella might even be a violation of a number of other Shabbat prohibitions, as well.[2] An umbrella may not be used on Shabbat even if it was opened before the start of Shabbat. This is primarily due to the prohibition of ma’arit ayin (“the appearance of a sin”) lest onlookers be led to believe that one had opened the umbrella on Shabbat itself.[3]  ….

Even though there have been authorities in the past who supported the use of umbrellas on Shabbat, the familiar ban on using them is one which has been universally accepted.[6] In fact, the Chafetz Chaim writes that “one who is careful with his soul will refrain from using them”.[7] Not only is it forbidden to use an umbrella on Shabbat, but they are muktza and may not even be moved.[8] Furthermore, our sages decreed that one should avoid assembling all forms of tents and canopy-like structures on Shabbat, even permitted ones, lest it lead to handling forbidden ones.[9] Nevertheless, one need not overly rebuke those less-learned who use an umbrella which was opened before Shabbat.[10] One may open and close garden umbrellas on Shabbat which are permanently implanted into the ground or some other base.[11]

The next error is also striking.

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Running the White House spin on HHS regulations

If news is ever going to break on your beat, it will break on Friday afternoon, a few hours before you planned to enjoy your weekend. I don’t know why it’s always true, but it’s always true. Or at least, that’s how it works for me.

On Friday, the White House announced that there’d be another change to its rule requiring groups to provide insurance plans that cover abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization even if they have religious objections. On Twitter, Godbeat pros immediately started complaining about this change happening on a Friday afternoon — like all the other news related to this ruling had happened on Friday afternoons.

Why is this significant? Well, you have an extremely limited time to compose a story and people who might react to the story have a very short time to think through their reaction to this story. Some were able to power through the mandate revisions and respond, but some wanted to take their time and reflect before reacting. Do they have any idea how frustrating this is to a reporter on deadline?

I simply must share Sam Rocha’s hilarious post from elsewhere on Patheos, headlined “BREAKING NEWS: USCCB to Think About HHS Amendment Sanely and Without the Advice of Drudge, Huff Post, or Alike.” Here’s how it begins (though the whole thing is funny):

In a shocking press release, United States Conference of Bishops made several unexpected moves in response to the Obama administration’s proposed modifications to the HHS mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, known by many as Obamacare. In a brief three-sentence memo, Cardinal Timothy Dolan implied a number of cryptic, esoteric, and ridiculous things. Two of the three sentences were particularly disconcerting to American Catholics:

We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later.

American journalists and politicians are outraged. An MSNBFOX reporter writing on condition of anonymity e-mailed,

WTF! Seriously? The USCCB is going to READ the whole document before they comment? What is this, the stone age? Clearly the Bishops are again showing how out of touch they are with the times. We reported on this story before we were sure it was real. That’s what we do: we make things real, even if they’re not. And if they are, we sometimes make them unreal by ignoring them. How naive and trite of them to act like this is their role. Ridiculous, really. Know your role, Bishops.

Obviously I love daily journalism, but I’ll take a chance to ruminate on a story any day. So I was impressed with how some reporters were able to get the details out quickly, including some reaction from the affected groups who claim they care about something they call “religious liberty.” (I think that’s how we’re supposed to characterize the parties suing the federal government.) Here’s Christianity Today, for instance.

The White House is claiming that they’ve compromised. Some folks need time to react to the changes and others are already saying that the changes are not a compromise. A lot of what’s been said in response to the mandate changes sounds like spin, too. So should media outlets just run with White House spin?

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Pod people: Making progress on abortion coverage

In this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the good and bad of March for Life coverage. You can listen to it here. We revisited some of the themes we first looked at in these posts: “How to write a bland story about the March For Life,” “Foot-long subs vs. March For Life,” and “Savvy PR firm scores NYTimes coup against March For Life.”

One of the problems with the annual discontent over how the signal event of the pro-life movement is covered is that the two sides in the dispute (that is, the pro-lifers and the media) have a very difficult time getting the other side to understand each other.

So I wanted to highlight an interesting conversation on another thread from this week, headlined “We don’t have a free press. Discuss.” I don’t think we all came to agreement on anything, but there were some interesting comments. The occasion of the comments was Professor Anthony Esolen’s jeremiad against the media’s coverage of the abortion debate in general.

Journalist Jeffrey Weiss got the ball rolling with his suggestion that the March for Life isn’t big news, particularly after 40 years, and that the crowds aren’t that big of a deal when compared to a weekend of sporting events. Reader Martha wondered whether the 40 years’ commemoration itself doesn’t make it more newsworthy. She made a comment about how the media find it possible to cover annual sporting events. Jeffrey responded that it’s a “pep rally for the faithful. A large preaching-to-the-choir.”  Reader Patrick pointed out that it’s a massive pep rally, if that’s the case, and one that even 40 years after the initial court decision represents a movement as large as the movement for same-sex marriage. And there were many more interesting comments, too, including Jeffrey’s latest, with wise words for all.

But I wanted to highlight this comment from reader Michael, who is always worth reading:

All the usual comments about media bias and the tired discussion of whether or not the March is news miss what I think is the most provocative part of Esolen’s essay: the suggestion that journalism on the whole makes us stupid (which in turn makes the abundance of stupid journalism rather unsurprising) and that a people who think in journalism (newspeak) will be a people who are ultimately incapable–and worse, uninterested–in thinking. I have my own theories about this, not to mention a few qualifiers, which I’ve trotted out here from time to time, and I wish he had done more to explain why this is so, but clearly he wanted to vent about coverage of the March. I can’t say that I blame him. Yet to me this essay is as much an indictment of the culture dominated by its superficial media as it is an indictment of the superficiality of the reportage. And this seems to me to be much the point of the article: that the two are made for (and by) each other.

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GetReligion turns nine; Newsweek sort of vanishes

So once again, with feeling.

Nine years ago today, the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc clicked a mouse and GetReligion went live. As I have noted before, I actually wrote the “What we do, why we do it” post on Feb. 1, 2004, but the site opened its cyber-doors the next day, on Feb. 2, 2004.

This kind of anniversary landmark tends to inspire meditations on the passage of time (and a GetReligionista or two will jump in with anniversary thoughts in the next few days). So what is on my mind this year?

Well, how about this: Newsweek, Newsweek, Newsweek, wherefore art thou Newsweek?

Let’s start with a confession or two.

I was a loyal Newsweek (and Time, as well) subscriber for several decades, until theologian-in-chief Jon Meacham openly and honestly decided to run off a million or more of his readers in order to re-brand his struggling magazine as a more elite and openly progressive advocacy operation. At the time, I observed that this mystified me. I mean, I already subscribed to The New Republic. Why would I want Newsweek to take the same approach to the news?

It was pretty obvious that issues linked to religion and faith were at the heart of this Newsweek lunge to the journalistic left. I wondered, out loud, if Newsweek was simply trying to become the World Magazine of the religious left.

Whatever. It didn’t work. Meacham left and Newsweek drifted into another brief era, one in which editor Tina Brown tried to keep the advocacy thing going, while featuring voices on the right as well as the left. The key, however, was that opinion and heat was more important than journalism, more important than reporting and clearly attributed information.

All I knew was that, with the magazine’s ties to The Daily Beast, I needed to start paying attention to Newsweek once again — because that was where I would find the religion, politics and culture reportage of one of the best journalists on the planet, Peter Boyer (best known for his years of work at The New Yorker). So I bought another subscription.

Well, that didn’t last long.

For me, the key was that Newsweek — along with most of the work published at another Meacham-DNA platform, “On Faith” at The Washington Post — came to symbolize the belief that the best way for journalists to handle religion coverage was to baptize it in emotions, feelings and opinions, as opposed to striving for a journalistic blend of history, factual material and clearly attributed quotations from qualified people on both sides of hot-button issues.

Religion, in other words, was not real.

Religion was not worthy of real journalism. Religion was interesting and powerful, but there was no need to think of it as an issue linked to real life in the real world. It was sort of, well, hazy, vague and foggy. In a GetReligion post about “On Faith” (“On Fog” — A Meditation), I noted:

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Telling the story of Timbuktu’s terror

The New York Times has done some amazing work this week covering Islamic conflicts in Africa. This story, which tells how sharia was implemented during Islamist domination of Timbuktu, is so very good. Note the beginning:

When the Islamist militants came to town, Dr. Ibrahim Maiga made a reluctant deal. He would do whatever they asked — treat their wounded, heal their fevers, bandage up without complaint the women they thrashed in the street for failing to cover their heads and faces. In return, they would allow him to keep the hospital running as he wished.

Then, one day in October, the militants called him with some unusual instructions. Put together a team, they said, bring an ambulance and come to a sun-baked public square by sand dunes.

There, before a stunned crowd, the Islamist fighters carried out what they claimed was the only just sentence for theft: cutting off the thief’s hand. As one of the fighters hacked away at the wrist of a terrified, screaming young man strapped to a chair, Dr. Maiga, a veteran of grisly emergency room scenes, looked away.

“I was shocked,” he said, holding his head in his hands. “But I was powerless. My job is to heal people. What could I do?”

This piece is riveting and so very descriptive. It shows how Muslims dealt with Islamist fighters linked with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. While Islamist militants have retreated to the desert, they are still a threat — and the story deals somewhat with that.

The damage done to Timbuktu, according the story, is severe. Many residents fled. The city is dangerously isolated. I love the attention to religious detail in this story. For instance:

Those who remained told stories of how they survived the long occupation: by hiding away treasured manuscripts and amulets forbidden by the Islamists, burying crates of beer in the desert, standing by as the tombs of saints they venerated were reduced to rubble, silencing their radios to the city’s famous but now forbidden music.

“They tried to take away everything that made Timbuktu Timbuktu,” said Mahalmoudou Tandina, a marabout, or Islamic preacher, whose ancestors first settled in Timbuktu from Morocco in the 13th century. “They almost succeeded.”

The story provides some historical perspective of the occupations of Timbuktu.

My favorite aspect of the story, however, is how both groups’ religious beliefs are included in the story — not just those of the religious extremists, as is so often the case.

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