Jesus and fermented grapes

The Grapes of GalileeThe business section of any newspaper should contain a religion story every now and then. An ad for Grapes of Galilee Wine in Catholic Digest caught the attention of Los Angeles Times staff writer Alana Semuels, who put together a short, quippy article that covers all the necessary bases when one is writing about Christians and alcohol:

Some denominations might think that the Grapes of Galilee isn’t kosher. “Jesus chased people out of the temple for selling products in God’s name,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, an arm of the teetotaling Southern Baptist Convention. “He did not put his name on the label to pump up sales.”

Beyond that, by marketing wine with Jesus’ image, “you’re associating Jesus with getting drunk and people don’t necessarily want to be doing that,” said Mara Einstein, author of “Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age.”

And appropriately for the sake of thoroughness, the article concludes with this point, quoting Pini Haroz, a Georgia-based wine importer:

“If he ate grapes or made wine,” Haroz said, “it must have been from these vines.”

After all, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine.

This is a nice little story that shows an awareness of religious issues and a willingness to step out and explore ideas on both sides.

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Dinner with the anti-Antichrist

NicolaeCoverHere is the safe prediction of the year.

The mainstream press is just getting started when it comes to covering the splinters that are almost certainly going to take place inside American evangelicalism in the months between now and the election. The key to all of this is that some people think it’s really amazing to discover (a) that evangelicalism (whatever that means) is not a monolithic movement and, duh, (b) that Protestants who have every right to decide (thus saith one interpretation of Sola Scriptura) what the Bible means are going to reach different conclusions on some hot doctrinal and social issues.

But come on, people, making fun of Left Behind books is too easy. That’s shooting ducks in a pond. Take Dana Milbank’s recent column in The Washington Post. This is setting the bar way too low:

In the wildly popular “Left Behind” series of evangelical Christian novels, the Antichrist takes the form of the secretary general of the United Nations, sets up an abortion-promoting world government and becomes the Global Community Supreme Potentate.

Last night, the National Association of Evangelicals met for dinner at the Sheraton in Crystal City. The keynote speaker? Why, the Antichrist himself.

Actually, the NAE, the umbrella group for the nation’s evangelical denominations, brought in the real U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, not his fictional satanic equivalent, Nicolae Carpathia of Romania. But for the Rev. Richard Cizik, the NAE official who invited Ban, it was just about as daring. Evangelical Christians regard the United Nations’ blue helmets with about as much enthusiasm as Satan’s red horns.

Now anyone who knows almost anything about South Korea these days will not be surprised to find the anti-Antichrist ends up reading from Scripture by the end of this column. But, wait, isn’t that exactly what one would expect the Antichrist to do?

Come on, folks, you can do better than this. Tell us something we don’t already know.

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Ghosts in Swiss cultural rage

four churches in ZurichMolly Moore of The Washington Post Foreign Service had a dramatic and tragic story in Tuesday’s paper that shows the surge of immigration — and racist attitudes — in the suburbs of Zurich, Switzerland.

The land that embraced John Calvin and many other immigrants is struggling to embrace Muslims, but the Post story only hints at this fact, leaving the reader wondering what religion ghosts are hiding behind this story:

One of the world’s oldest democracies is at the center of Western Europe’s most divisive political debate: to embrace an increasingly globalized, multicultural society or to retreat into social isolation in an effort to preserve eroding traditional identities.

Across Switzerland, anti-foreigner and anti-Islamic attitudes have become so pervasive on the streets, in politics and within governmental institutions that the United Nations, European Union, Amnesty International and Switzerland’s own Federal Commission Against Racism have expressed alarm in recent months.

The theme is dominating the campaign for national parliamentary elections Oct. 21 and is crystallized in a controversial campaign poster showing three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag above the slogan, “For more security.” …

The Commission Against Racism said those decisions “sometimes take the shape of a refusal with discriminatory and even racist overtones.” The commission said most people denied citizenship were Muslims and natives of the Balkans who were granted asylum during the ethnic wars of the 1990s.

While Switzerland does not have an official state religion, many of the cantons (counties) do have official churches (supported by tax dollars) and represent either the Catholic Church or the Swiss Reformed Church. While you have this in the background, the country has seen an influx of Muslims, primarily from Albania, among other immigrants (one-fifth of the country’s residents are foreign-born), which is creating political and social tensions.

I wonder if this story is as much about groups of people opposing Muslims moving to their country as it is about racism. Where does one prejudice start and the other begin? And how does the country’s official support of certain religions play into these developments?

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A quiet story in a holy place

6a00c22524135a549d00d414376ccb685e 500piI think this post will break some kind of record for the oldest story ever featured on this weblog, and this news clip is not even from the famous tmatt GetReligion Guilt folder.

Some will believe I am calling attention to it because it is about some Eastern Orthodox monks and, I guess, there is a bit of truth to that.

But here is why I want you to check out this story from San Antonio. The story itself, by Express-News religion writer J. Michael Parker, is good and has some nice details about a monastery in the quiet Texas Hill Country. The story has to deal with a tough issue or two, like the following material very close to the top:

Founded in 1996, Holy Archangels is less known these days than the 25-year-old Christ of the Hills monastery 5 miles southwest of Blanco.

Christ of the Hills has courted frequent publicity, with a “weeping” icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary that attracted thousands of visitors for years and with … charges of sexual assault against several of its monks.

The Blanco monks’ only affiliation with any recognized ecclesiastical jurisdiction — the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia — lasted from 1991 to 1999. A church spokesman said its recognition was revoked because the Blanco monks refused to abide by church discipline.

You think? Not a nice thing to have to bring up.

But that is not the real story. What this is all about is some spiritual fish who are now in a totally new and very foreign pond, only we get to see it from the other side because the foreign pond is contemporary America — Protestant Texas, even. The “normal” world, for these monks, is a place that most Americans would consider as natural an environment as, well, Jupiter or Mars.

The eight monks of Holy Archangels are veterans of monastic life on Mount Athos in Greece. They left the “holy mountain” to join other pioneers in establishing Greek Orthodox monasticism across the United States. …

In parts of the United States with large Orthodox populations, the monks are readily recognized by non-Orthodox neighbors, said Father Ephraim, 36, a Galveston-born priest-monk at Holy Archangels. “But there aren’t many monasteries in the Texas Hill Country.”

OK, so why bring this up?

This story (hat tip to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher for finding this) has a nice little multi-platform journalism feature with it. That is journalism education jargon for a click-on feature that blends some photograph — nice photography — with some very basic and simply beautiful audio into a feature that, in a story like this one, lifts you totally off the printed page and takes you somewhere else far, far away. It’s all about the sound, isn’t it?

You have to know to actually click right on the photo feature to activate the sound. So I think this will work — click here.

The emerging digital journalism era has, so far, offered lots of bells and whistles that, to me, rarely deliver. This is one case where a little bit of multimedia goes a long, long way. Enjoy.

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Ah, Turks and Armenians, move on!

tutorialendfI think we could use a bit of a flashback to an amazing column that I read this summer in the Turkish Daily News by the Muslim journalist Orhan Kemal Cengiz. This was, you may recall, a column titled “We Cannot Afford to Lose Our Armenians!”

There is a reason that this genocide vs. “genocide” story is hot and refuses to fade very much. That reason? Because, in Turkey, it refuses to fade away. Why? The passions of faith and blood fade slowly.

Ask Hrant Dink.

That brave Turkish Daily News column — click here for the earlier GetReligion post — included then-fresh material about new threats against the Armenian community if it didn’t stop trying to provoke public discussion of the genocide. The threatening letter was sent to Armenian schools.

Thus, we read in this “Last Warning and Ultimatum” that Turkish Armenians are trying to wreck the Turkish state.

The message also mentioned the murder of Hrant Dink: “… exclamations saying ‘We are all Armenians, we are all Hrant Dink’ are examples of extreme chauvinism and summons for revolution. Do not forget that besides the Armenian citizens of Turkey, there are also Armenians from Armenia in our land, and they number over one hundred thousand. Both their addresses and their workplaces are well known. Henceforth we hope to see our Armenian citizens as advocates of truth, concerning the Armenian genocide or any other matter, and as defenders of the Turkish statehood.

“We shall keep an eye on how the Armenians are playing this role. Otherwise, the Armenians shall be those to lie in the grave and count how many Armenians and how many Turks there were in the ‘ages long past’. This land has never pardoned treachery and shall not. Who does not stand for our paradise homeland is against us and shall be vanquished.”

The text ends with the following words: “There is no defense line. That line is the entire territory. Anything else is just a trifle when the fate of the homeland is concerned. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk … This is the last ultimatum. It is not to be repeated.”

… It is also quite thought provoking, isn’t it, that this racist letter threatens Armenians with a total extinction if they talk about the Armenian genocide — “Do not talk about genocide or you may be the victim of a new one!”

Oh well.

This is an old, old issue (Yada, yada, says Dana Milbank at The Washington Post). It is also, alas, a contemporary issue. Religion stories are often both.

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What is genocide vote actually about?

armenian genocideSometimes you just have to go ahead and beat your head on the wall.

The Los Angeles Times has a small feature today — a little box of text — with this headline: “Back story: Armenian genocide.”

How would you like that writing assignment? Cover the Armenian genocide (or the non-genocide). You have 100 words or less. Here is what they ended up with:

Between 1915 and 1923, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed in eastern Turkey as the region was engulfed in the violence of World War I and the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire. Substantial evidence and authoritative research support the conclusion that they were victims of a genocide, murdered by Turkish forces or killed by exposure to harsh weather and disease during forced deportations. Turks insist there was no government-sponsored program to eliminate Armenians. They maintain that massive numbers of Armenians, and Turks, died in the chaos of war and in an uprising staged by Armenians seeking to take advantage of a government weakened by World War I.

So once again we plunge into the mystery of Turkey, a “secular Muslim” state — while a key historic reality in traditional Islam is the union of mosque and culture. To have a genocide, does it have to be “government-sponsored”? What if the whole idea is trying to form a government in the first place and you have racial and religious hurdles to conquer?

So what is this whole genocide resolution debate on the Hill all about? It’s hard to tell from the major newspaper stories today (click here for The New York Times). Clearly, the White House thinks this is about national security. The Democrats in key zip codes face Armenian voters. The Turks are furious. The Armenians are praying for victory.

What is this about? It’s interesting, after all the politics, including hints that this is linked to clashes over Iraq, to read the end of the Washington Post piece:

Armenian Americans erupted in applause after the vote, while attendees of Turkish descent sat in stony silence.

Outside the hearing room, the Rev. Sarkis Aktavoukian, who leads an Armenian church in Bethesda, wept. “America has shown its justice today,” he said.

The vote drew swift condemnation from the Bush administration. “We are deeply disappointed,” said R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state of political affairs. “Turkey is one of our most important allies globally.”

varzahan bachmann plate8bSo we have the death of the last great Islamic empire in the region, which was followed by the start of Turkey’s ongoing attempt to create a secular form of Islam, which has consistently had to cope with the reality of the Islamic fervor in its midst. Somewhere in there about 1.5 million Armenians who are Christians, for the most part, died and many of their priceless, ancient churches were destroyed (a painful issue that is still very much alive).

This is a very emotional story. Does it have anything to do with religion? You think?

Obviously there is more to it than religion. Obviously. But it’s hard to ignore the religious element. You really have to try to avoid it.

Once again, it is interesting where the religious voices appear in these stories. Here is the end of the Los Angeles Times piece:

The head of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church, His Holiness Karekin II, delivered the invocation in the House chamber earlier Wednesday, asking all to “remember the victims of the genocide.”

Both sides are expected to step up lobbying before the House vote. A few lawmakers who were once cosponsors have withdrawn their support.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) said last week in a letter to the Foreign Affairs Committee that “a terrible crime was committed against the Armenian people,” but, noting that Turkey helps to moderate extremist forces in the Middle East, concluded, “I have great concern that this is the wrong time for the Congress to consider this measure.”

So, please the Turks or you play into the hands of people who are even worse.

Nope, no signs of religion in this debate, there are no religious tensions at all. No way.

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Listening to the African Anglicans

Akinola MinnsDon’t get me started on the state of air travel these days. My wife and I had lots (and lots) of extra time yesterday in Logan International Airport during a trip north for parents day at Gordon College, and I spent much of that time digging really deep into the new issue of The New Republic.

By all means, take the time to check out Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy cover story review of the controversial book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. The headline says it all: “The Usual Suspect.”

But the mini-essay that really caught my attention was “The African War Over Homosexuality.” It is, as you would expect, a commentary on the warfare inside the global Anglican Communion.

The byline was at the end of the piece and, thus, I was well into reading it before I said to myself, “Wait a minute. This writer has the ability to stay calm about a subject that is driving almost everyone else into journalistic craziness. Who is this guy?” I also wondered what the piece was doing in The New Republic, only that wouldn’t really be a fair statement since the magazines runs a wide variety of excellent work on religious topics.

The goal is to try to understand why African Anglicans say the things they say, while defending centuries of Christian tradition about sexual morality. Here is one of the long, logical passages that caught my attention:

Why, then, did opposition to gay rights become so critical for many African Christians? The answer has a lot to do with the rapid spread of Christianity on the continent in a relatively short time. In 1900, Africa had 10 million Christians, representing around 10 percent of the population. By 2000, that figure had grown to 360 million, or 46 percent. As a result, most African Christians today are first- or second-generation members of the faith, and many are adult converts. Sociologists generally agree that newer religious groups tend to have more literal approaches to scripture. In practice, of course, literalism still leaves plenty of room for debate and interpretation; but, when the Bible specifically condemns a particular sin — and same-sex interaction is repeatedly denounced in both the Old and New Testaments — that makes it difficult for literalists to find wiggle room.

In other ways, too, the rapid expansion of Christianity has conditioned African views on homosexuality. African churches exist in a ferociously competitive environment, one where traditional groups — like Anglicans and Catholics — must fight to maintain their market share against newer Pentecostal denominations, with their enticing promises of miracles and healings. The last thing the older churches need is a suggestion that their commitment to scriptural truth is anything less than absolute or that they are any less rigorous than their rivals in condemning sin.

The other key rival — and another factor shaping moral attitudes — is Islam. Over the past century, African Christianity has grown much more rapidly than Islam, a fact that puzzles and infuriates Muslims who regard the continent as naturally theirs. In 1900, for instance,
Christians accounted for just 1 percent of the people of what would become the state of Nigeria; Muslims made up 26 percent. By 1970, however, the religions had achieved parity, each having around 45 percent of the population. And some recent polls suggest that, today, the nation has a Christian plurality. Against this background of rivalry and potential violence, Christians cannot be seen to concede anything to Muslims in terms of their commitment to strict morality.

This writer is clearly not a conservative hardliner, yet he has paid close attention to what is actually happening in Africa. He notes, for example, that the harsh Nigerian laws on homosexuality that have been endorsed by African Anglicans are — when seen in this context — far milder than the other alternative, which is Muslim sharia law.

There is another factor that is often overlooked: Africans do not want to be seen as bowing to pressures from the all-powerful West and, especially, the United States of America. They cannot afford to be seen as American puppets, forcing changes that offend Africans.

And finally, there is this:

In the region later known as Uganda, Christianity first arrived in the 1870s, when the area was already under Muslim influence and a hunting ground for Arab slave-raiders. The king of Buganda had adopted Arab customs of pederasty, and he expected the young men of his court to submit to his demands. But a growing number of Christian courtiers and pages refused to participate, despite his threats, and an enraged king launched a persecution that resulted in hundreds of martyrdoms: On a single day, some 30 Bugandans were burned alive. Yet the area’s churches flourished, and, eventually, the British expelled the Arab slavers. That foundation story remains well-known in the region, and it intertwines Christianity with resistance to tyranny and Muslim imperialism — both symbolized by sexual deviance. Reinforcing such memories are more recent experiences with Muslim tyrants, such as Idi Amin, whose victims included the head of his country’s Anglican Church. For many Africans, then, sexual unorthodoxy has implications that are at once un-Christian, anti-national, and oppressive.

So who is this writer, who is this man of the West who can hold two or more ideas in tension in his own mind?

It is, of course, historian Philip Jenkins — author of God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis. Reporters need to follow this man’s work, if they want to know what is happening in the Global South. One of the quickest ways to dip into his scholarship is to read his famous cover article from The Atlantic Monthly, the one titled “The Next Christianity.”

So read his stuff. And try to stay calm.

Photo: Nigerian Archbishop Archbishop Peter Akinola, with missionary Bishop Martyn Minns of Virginia.

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Faith-free Pakistan news, again

Dec14BomberContrailsToraBoraI am, at the moment, reading The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. It’s an amazing book (a Pulitzer Prize winner), especially if you are interested in the foundational beliefs that fuel the fire in the Al-Qaeda faithful.

So when you read this book, religion is all over the place in the story of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. There are other factors, but this is essentially a drama about love, hate, anger, shame and the power of faith.

Thus, it was strange to pick up a copy of The Washington Post last week and read Griff Witte’s report, “Pakistan Seen Losing Fight Against Taliban And Al-Qaeda.”

Now, if the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are, in some deep sense, organizations that draw power from religious faith, then one would assume that strategic gains by these groups might have something to do with religion. One side is doing something right and the other is doing something wrong.

Apparently, one would be wrong if one thought that. Religion is MIA. Here is the top of the story:

Pakistan’s government is losing its war against emboldened insurgent forces, giving al-Qaeda and the Taliban more territory in which to operate and allowing the groups to plot increasingly ambitious attacks, according to Pakistani and Western security officials.

The depth of the problem has become clear only in recent months, as regional peace deals have collapsed and the government has deferred developing a new strategy to defeat insurgents until Pakistan’s leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, can resolve a political crisis that threatens his presidency.

Meanwhile, radical Islamic fighters who were evicted from Afghanistan by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion have intensified a ruthless campaign that has consumed Pakistan’s tribal areas and now affects its major cities. Military officials say the insurgents have enhanced their ability to threaten not only Pakistan but the United States and Europe as well.

This is big stuff. The experts have all kinds of things to say about the state of the military and about the political mistakes made by Pakistan’s current leadership. It’s a newsy, hard-hitting report.

But it is a faith-free zone. A reader paying close attention will find only one reference to the war that is taking place in Pakistan within the Islamic community, between armies of believers who have clashing approaches to their faith.

How bad is this situation at the moment?

Even hard-line religious leaders are not safe. Last month, one of Peshawar’s most prominent clerics, Maulana Hassan Jan, was assassinated as he rode in his car to evening prayers. Although he had been outspoken in his criticism of the United States and was revered among many who want to bring Islamic law to Pakistan, he was not radical enough to satisfy insurgent groups, who are blamed for his killing. He had, for instance, shunned the pro-Taliban clerics at Islamabad’s Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, when they instigated an armed standoff with the government in July.

So what is gaining traction is a brand of faith that is to the radical side of the “hard-line religious leaders”? So what’s happening here? What do these people believe? I would like to know, but maybe that’s just me.

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