Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

TimeMostInfluentialTerry and I had trouble agreeing on the method of counting religious leaders in “The Time 100: The Most Influential People in the World.” Terry pointed me toward his recent quip about last year’s list:

In a list of 100 men and women who are “transforming our world,” Time editors included 27 “artists and entertainers,” 16 “scientists and thinkers” and many other powerful people. However, the list included only three religious leaders. This is the planet earth we are talking about, right?

I enjoy lists like these primarily as exercises in cheekiness, the journalist’s equivalent of singing “My Favorite Things” off-key and then declaring it definitive. I don’t suffer any illusions that the editors of Time (or Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone) have a foolproof way of determining who should be on a list of the most powerful, or It People or the most important rock & roll songs ever. Lists by magazines are so clearly subjective that they could just as easily be about tastes in cheese, pipe tobacco or kitschy television shows.

I was most interested in identifying the people on this year’s list who are known for embracing — or, in one case, regularly attacking — religious faith. I present the list here and quote from relevant passages in Time. Where I am stretching the boundaries (Sacha Baron Cohen, Rick Rubin), I acknowledge this. I’ve left off Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards, Al Gore, Garry Kasparov, Oprah Winfrey and Queen Elizabeth II because their profiles do not engage questions of faith that could have been engaged).

For the sake of continuity, especially for anyone following along at home in the paper version, I’ll follow the same order as Time‘s package.

Barack Obama:

From his very first moment in the national spotlight — his keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 — Barack Obama has attached himself to the notion of audacity. He spoke that night of the “audacity of hope,” a phrase he borrowed from his minister at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Condoleezza Rice (in a strikingly warm tribute by Democratic consultant Donna Brazile):

Condoleezza Rice knows who she is and remembers where she came from. Early in her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, she brought then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to her home state of Alabama. She took him to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four little girls had been murdered by an act of racist terrorism. She took him to the Civil Rights Institute, the South’s finest museum about its worst embarrassment. And she took him to attend services at the church where her father served as pastor during the turbulent 1960s.

John Roberts (by Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School):

His early decisions and questions from the bench suggest that Roberts has figured out how to achieve substantive results without appearing to be results oriented or activist. He accomplishes this through the technical mechanism of “standing,” which means a litigant’s power to challenge the actions of the government. . . . Roberts’ statements suggest that he would deny standing to citizens who challenge on First Amendment grounds the Bush Administration’s giving money to church groups that proselytize.

[Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei:

The intimates of [Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, call him “the great balancer.” They could as easily call him “the great hedger.” The reticent cleric refuses to make peace with the West but eschews open confrontation. He obstructs democratic reform but holds the country’s most hard-line radicals in check.

Osama bin Laden (a masterpiece of pithiness by Martin Amis, though I do not share his sense that so many moderate Muslims are sympathetic with bin Laden):

What he has is charisma — the visionary smile and a talent for asceticism. Moderate Islam has had to decide whether Osama is a good Muslim or a bad Muslim. That many have opted for the former view owes much to the sacrifices that seem to have been made by this rich but stoic troglodyte.

Pope Benedict XVI:

What makes people rush to this fragile man who speaks softly and politely without moving his hands, without ever acting? Evidently, there is a sort of secret attraction, as if many can sense the fascination of the sacred through the witness of Benedict’s thoughts and his modest and humble life.

Sonia Gandhi:

Imagine if the U.S. were run by an Indian Hindu woman without a college degree. It’s tough: the U.S. has never elected anyone who’s not Christian, white and male — even as Vice President. But India, which is an even bigger democracy, is run in all but name by an Italian Catholic widow with a high school education.

Peter Akinola:

Full schism would be achieved if Anglicanism’s conservative southern provinces decided that even the Anglican Church’s top official, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is too liberal and chose their own leader — perhaps Akinola.

Sir John Templeton:

The native Tennessean, 94, began awarding the annual Templeton Prize in 1972. Valued at more than $1.5 million, it is for those who exhibit “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities,” from philosophers to physicists.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud:

With his $20 billion fortune, he has endowed American studies at Middle Eastern universities, given $40 million to underwrite Islamic studies at Harvard and Georgetown and helped fund the construction of an Islamic wing at the Louvre in Paris.

(Disclosure: John Templeton and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud are mentioned in a sidebar on “Power Givers.”)

[Army Capt.] Timothy Gittins:

Based at Fort Campbell, Ky., the 31-year-old Southern Baptist is devoted to his wife Shelley and their two sons T.J., 6, and Cole, 4. He drinks Bud Light and tries to find time to zoom around on his new Harley.

. . . The Army recently recognized Gittins as one of its most outstanding young officers. The highly decorated Ranger says he loves leading troops in combat. “We have liberties that we stand to lose if we aren’t willing to fight for them,” he says.

Tony Dungy. The tribute by his former colleague and fellow Christian, coach Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears, does not mention Dungy’s faith. But you’d have to live in a cave not to be aware of Dungy’s evangelical Christianity, and I say this as a person whose exposure to professional football is limited to an annual indulgence in the Super Bowl.

Amr Khaled:

At a time when conservative clerics have become primary arbiters of power, Khaled, a layman, has one of the Arab world’s most popular websites; regular shows on Iqra, a Saudi-owned religious satellite channel; and an influence that prompts comparisons with everyone from Dr. Phil to Pat Robertson. But Khaled may be most like Rick Warren, who has built an empire around his “purpose driven life” philosophy.

Richard Dawkins (in the most brilliantly counterintuitive pairing of author and subject, this one is by Michael Behe):

Dawkins had a mild Anglican youth but at 16 discovered Charles Darwin and believed he’d found a pearl of great price. I believe his new book follows much less from his data than from his premises, and yet I admire his determination. Concerning the big questions, the Bible advises us to be hot or cold but not lukewarm. Whatever the merits of his ideas, Richard Dawkins is not lukewarm.

Rick Rubin. Natalie Maines uses her tribute as another opportunity to vent about the angry response to her criticism of President Bush. Still, any Buddhist who shared a daily Holy Communion with Johnny Cash during Cash’s waning months is a figure worth watching.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Roseanne concentrates on Cohen’s comedic talents rather than his observant Judaism, but that’s Roseanne):

The bigot comes to America and insults its most genteel members, agrees with its most ignorant, and sets out to pursue the Big Breasted Virgin Blonde, the real American male dream. He gets broken, abandoned, betrayed and cuckolded, and then born again. And at long last, he finds his true love in the form of a fat hooker with the proverbial Heart of Gold.

. . . The heart of America honored by Arabs, Jews and vice versa, and versa vice! That, as Borat would say, is NIIIICE!!!

Rhonda Byrne (by Jack Canfield):

I first met Rhonda Byrne in July 2005, when she asked if she could bring her film crew to a meeting of the Transformational Leadership Council and interview our members for a movie she was creating called The Secret.

I’ll stop there in Byrne’s item, because to continue would be to drown in a vat of spiritual molasses.

Religious figures also make a few appearances in Joel Stein’s wonderful “Alt Time 100,” in which Stein gathers the collective wisdom of “Xzibit, rapper and host of MTV’s Pimp My Ride; Bridget Marquardt, 1/3 of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend and star of E!’s Girls Next Door; Eddie Sanchez, UFC fighter; Tommy the Clown, krump dancer; Dr. Boogie, hairstylist and contestant on Bravo’s Shear Genius; Jimmy Jimmy Coco, spray tanner; Glenda Borden, party planner.”

Here are some of their choices:

3. Russell Simmons, owner[,] Phat Farm
Simmons appeared on a surprising number of the panelists’ lists. It turns out that’s because most of them knew him. “He’s a really nice guy,” said Bridget Marquardt. I had a chance to work and live with him,” said Dr. Boogie. Russell Simmons, despite all the meditation, is not a quiet homebody type.

25. Osama Bin Laden, head of Al [Qaeda]
The panel pointed out that he’s likely to outlast Bush as head of an organization.

28. Jesus
When I made it clear that only living people could make the list, the panel — in loud unison — pointed out that he’s very much alive. There was no talking Jesus off this list.

45. Bono, singer
All that Africa stuff.

48. Rhonda Byrne, author, The Secret
The real Time 100 will probably be nice to Ms. Byrne. But the Alt Time 100 panel was much more honest. Which was striking for a bunch of L.A. celebrities. “People have to watch this to figure that stuff out?” asked Xzibit[.] Still, he wanted her on the list for pulling one over on people so well.

53. Tyler Perry, actor [and friend of T.D. Jakes]
He makes those movies all by himself, basically.

64. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran
“Not because of his mental disabilities, but because he always has a tight blazer on,” explaned Xzibit.

73. Virginia Tech victims’ parents
The group suddenly turned into a group of Time editors. “How do we handle the shooting on the list?” the asked out of nowhere. There was no way they were putting the shooter, even though that seemed the most intellectually honest. At first the victims were considered. Then the grief counselors. Then someone suggested the parents, and everyone was quite pleased. It was exactly like being at a 10 a.m. meeting at Time.

77. Coco Brother, host of Spirit of Hip-Hop
Corey Condry hosts a radio show where he bridges hip-hop with the gospel. And it’s sweeping the nation! Maybe not, but Tommy the Clown thinks it’s important.

90. Barack Obama, senator
A huge hit with the panel. Bridget particularly liked his proposals on health care.

100. Dog the Bounty Hunter, bounty hunter [and self-identified born-again Christian]
Xzibit likes that show. I’m just mad because he was out of town and couldn’t make the lunch.

Grand totals of religion citations:
The Time 100: 17
The Alt Time 100: 10
Inside joke about Time: 1
Clerics: 3
Deity: 1

Thank you for playing, and please visit us again next year!

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Who is synonymous with discontent?

pronouns3One of the hardest things to teach journalism students, I think, is to recognize the dangers present in what I called “buried pronouns.”

What are these little monsters?

Let’s say that you have this really important direct quote that you want to use in a story. The problem is that it contains a pronoun, which means that the entire content of said quotation depends on your ability to include a clear reference, in the previous paragraph, to the noun that defines the “buried pronoun.” This is not always as easy as it sounds.

Take, for example, the Washington Post story about that recent installation service for Bishop Martyn Minns in Northern Virginia. Here is the passage in the story by reporter Michelle Boorstein — whose work is often praised on this blog — that rubbed some conservative Anglicans the wrong way:

The installation, held at a 3,500-seat Christian event center next to the Potomac Mills, was high-profile fuel for the debate in the 70 million-member Anglican Communion over the proper reading of Scripture on homosexuality and other issues. The questions have not only roiled the Episcopal Church but also divided other denominations worldwide over the past decade.

“Our name is now synonymous with discontent,” Minns said from a stage lined with large purple-and-yellow banners reading “CANA” — for his mission, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. “It is a disaster, but it’s not the end of the story. God wants to transform this into a celebration, and CANA is a gift.”

You can see the problem. Thus, the Rev. Canon Kendall Harmon and his titusonenine crew (How many people run that omnipresent blog?) urged their readers to check out the Post story, but with a warning:

Read it all but note that Martyn’s sermon (available here) is misquoted in the Post. “Our name is now synonymous with discontent” was in reference to the Episcopal Church, not CANA.

The problem, as I read it, is that there is a clear reference to the “Episcopal Church” in the sentence just ahead of the word “our,” and to the “Anglican Communion” as well, but it is not clear precisely which noun defines the crucial pronoun. Why? Because the direct quote — “Our name” — is followed by that clear description of the banners containing the name of Minns’ Anglican network.

One assumes that “Our name” is defined by the reference to the group’s name.

Listen to the sermon and see what you think. Do the supporters of CANA have a case? Was Minns misquoted and, if so, should there be a correction?

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Key story behind B16′s Brazil visit

catholics in brazilThere seem to be two dominant story lines coming out of the Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Brazil that began Wednesday. One is that the Pope is facing the lingering spectre of his longtime nemesis — Marxist-inspired social liberation within the Catholic Church — and the other is the Protestant challenge from Pentecostals.

The “rival theology” story, focused on “socialist-influenced ‘liberation’ Catholicism,” has a rich history and is what most people think of when approaching a Latin America religion story. But from what I’ve gathered, this theme is growing tired and is losing its news value. That is not to say that reporters shouldn’t pay attention to that angle, but several media reports have overplayed its significance.

For starters, here’s The New York Times on Monday:

In the early 1980s, when Pope John Paul II wanted to clamp down on what he considered a dangerous, Marxist-inspired movement in the Roman Catholic Church, liberation theology, he turned to a trusted aide: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Now Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI, and when he arrives here on Wednesday for his first pastoral visit to Latin America he may be surprised at what he finds. Liberation theology, which he once called “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church,” persists as an active, even defiant force in Latin America, home to nearly half the world’s one billion Roman Catholics.

Over the past 25 years, even as the Vatican moved to silence the clerical theorists of liberation theology and the church fortified its conservative hierarchy, the social and economic ills the movement highlighted have worsened. In recent years, the politics of the region have also drifted leftward, giving the movement’s demand that the church embrace “a preferential option for the poor” new impetus and credibility.

The key words in that lede are “once called” and “persists.” Exactly how is liberation theology persisting, and how forcefully does Benedict speak out against liberation theology these days?

A Los Angeles Times headline from Wednesday really overstates the case: “Benedict to confront a vast theological divide in Brazil.” Yes, there are differences, but that’s overstating the case just a bit.

For a more balanced perspective, check out the subtitle to this Economist article (sub required) on the visit that sums up nicely the real story behind Benedict’s visit: the growth of Pentecostal churches and its influence on Catholic worship services:

In his first Latin American visit, Pope Benedict XVI will find a less divided church facing stronger rivals

This idea is expounded on later in the piece. The Economist should be commended for treating religion like any other “real world” subject rather than relegating it to a category of non-real-world subjects like The Wall Street Journal has done repeatedly of late (here and here):

The bishops’ conference may be less disputatious than its predecessors. Democracy and the end of the cold war have drawn some of the sting from the arguments between conservatives and progressives. Dom Raymundo says the bishops will reaffirm the church’s preference for the poor, but he insists that social change begins with the transformation of the individual believer. In the coming fights against abortion and the use of embryonic stem cells, the Latin church is probably more united than its North American counterpart. According to a recent poll, just 16% of Brazilians want to change a law that makes abortion illegal unless the mother has been raped or her life is endangered.

That does not put to rest nagging questions about the shape of a church with too few priests to sustain its traditional structure. Benedict will arrive in Brazil fresh from having censured Jon Sobrino, a liberation theologian in El Salvador, for over-emphasising Christ’s humanity. The original draft of the conference guidelines was modified after pressure from the many in Latin America who take a less hierarchical view of the church and want a greater role for the laity. “For us the pope is father and pastor” rather than an “authority figure”, says Carlos Francisco Signorelli, who heads the National Council of Brazilian Laity. In Aparecida, Benedict may reveal how he sees himself.

Now I’m not saying this all to say that these individual stories are a huge problem or anything. Balanced with stories that focus on the huge issue of the growth of Pentecostalism, they’re fine. The LAT did just that in a very long piece on Tuesday:

The pop-idol priest strides to the altar like the star that he is, a rock band pounding away to his right, cameras flashing to his left and the multitudes pulsating in this cavernous ex-factory that serves as a church.

“Hold the hand of Jesus!” Father Marcelo Rossi, a dynamic giant in a red cassock and billowing white sleeves, proclaims into the cordless mike, urging the faithful to hold hands. “God is tops! God is tops!”

Rossi is the kind of priest who just might be able to save the Roman Catholic Church here. Brazil has more believers than any other country, but the church has been steadily losing members to evangelical denominations.

Rossi is also just the kind of priest that Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives here Wednesday, is likely to frown upon.

Covering a story as huge and as fast-moving as a pope’s first major world tour is all about balance. There are more than enough stories that could be told, but the big one is the very threat to the existence of Catholicism in Brazil. According to the Pew Forum, Protestantism in the form of Pentecostals is growing at an amazing pace. That’s going to be the key story worth focusing on.

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Anglicanism out of AP style at the Times?

289517980 eb53a9b5cb oGentle readers, I am going to have to ask your patience for a few minutes as the former copy editor in me rages a bit. However, I have no idea what is going on at the moment at The New York Times‘ copy desk when it comes to handling the tricky issue of formal titles for clergy.

I totally understand that some newspapers have their own unique styles and have, in fact, worked at one or two that had some strange pages added in the local style sections.

That is well and good. What I am trying to figure out is why the Times has done what it has done with clergy titles in its coverage of the Anglican world wars. I also wonder whether the lords of the copy desk will be consistent in applying the rules.

What do I mean? Consider, first of all, a very recent Times story about a Connecticut law that will require all hospitals to provide rape victims with emergency contraception. The Roman Catholic hierarchy is not pleased.

Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford and other church leaders argued that the legislation would conflict with Catholic beliefs, which state that life begins at conception and prohibit abortion.

This is the normal way to identify a clergy person — the title goes before the name on first reference, uppercase. It is very common to see this condensed further, as in “Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell.” If the story involves clergy of several different churches, you might see “Catholic Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford.”

This is the normal style and the Times seems to be using it consistently — except with Anglicans and Episcopalians. What do I mean? Consider the latest developments in Northern Virginia, as described by reporter Neela Banerjee. Here is the opening of the latest story:

WOODBRIDGE, Va. May 5 – The Anglican archbishop of Nigeria, Peter J. Akinola, on Saturday installed Bishop Martyn Minns of Virginia as the new leader of a diocese that would take in congregations around the country that want to leave the Episcopal Church. In doing so, Archbishop Akinola rejected requests by leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church to refrain from taking part in the ceremony.

This contains a traditional reference to “Bishop Martyn Minns” as well as a rather roundabout reference to the “Anglican archbishop of Nigeria, Peter J. Akinola,” who becomes “Archbishop Akinola” on the second reference. A few lines later, we see this unorthodox use of titles used again — three times.

A decision by the Episcopal Church in 2003 to ordain an openly gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire outraged traditionalists in the United States and abroad, who believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Anglican Communion, sent a letter to Archbishop Akinola late last week urging him to cancel his plans to visit the United States. His letter repeated requests made by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the American branch of Anglicanism. Bishop Jefferts Schori said that by attending the ceremony, Archbishop Akinola would heighten tensions between the Episcopal Church and many in the 77-million-member Anglican Communion.

gene robinsonNormal style, for those keeping score, would be “Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire,” “Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams” and “Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church.” Also, shouldn’t that be “Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori” on second reference instead of merely “Bishop Jefferts Schori”?

What is going on here? Did style-committee members at the Times debate this issue and, in the end, decide that it is impossible to decide who is an Anglican bishop or archbishop at the moment and who is not? Did this result in a compromise for the newspaper of record to, as a rule, soften the use of clergy titles — period?

All of this is, I know, very confusing. So much so that I can understand that journalists are perplexed when they hear from liberal Episcopalians who are sure that Bishop Minns is not a real bishop and from traditionalists who are sure that Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori is not a real priest, bishop or archbishop. These issues are at the heart of the current liturgical warfare.

How? OK, if Minns ordains a man as a priest, is he an Episcopal priest or is he an Anglican priest? Can he serve at an altar in London? In New York? On the other side, if Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori ordains a man or a woman as a priest, is that person a priest in Lagos? At all altars in the United States? This division goes beyond issues of gender, but strikes at the heart of Anglican doctrines of apostolic succession. What happens when several female bishops are involved in the consecration of a bishop? Is that person a bishop in parts of the Anglican Communion and not others? Who is keeping careful records on who is and who is not valid?

So how does a newspaper handle this, when it comes time to apply formal titles to these clergy? There is, after all, no way to make both sides happy. However, unless I am missing something, it appears that the Times is using this innovation in style for Anglicans and Episcopalians, but not in coverage of other churches.

It is also possible to see the battle over the titles affecting other publications, such as The Washington Post and its “missionary bishop” status for Minns. Has the Post printed a clear reference to “Bishop Minns” yet? A search for that title on the newspaper’s website gets zero hits.

Meanwhile, The Washington Times continues to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, with simple first references to “Bishop Martyn Minns,” “Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola,” “New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson” and “Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.”

Let me stress again: There is content in this journalistic confusion, content that is at the heart of this regional, national and global story. There is good reason to be picky here. The words matter.

Photos: U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

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Faith in ‘The Other Iraq’

I need to flash back to a recent Washington Post, so please hang in there with me for a moment. When it comes to knowing how to embed YouTube videos, I have issues.

One of the goals of GetReligion is to point out religion “ghosts” in mainstream news reports, with said “ghosts” being defined as religious themes that the newspaper’s staff either missed altogether or didn’t know how to handle.

Well, the page-one Washington Post story “Kurds Cultivating Their Own Bonds With U.S.” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a good example of a reporter spotting the religion ghost in a big story. In fact, the ghost makes a brief appearance near the top of the story.

The problem is that the ghost then drifts away and it takes the reader a long, long time to find that thread again. There is even a chance that the ghost is driving the story.

Here is the opening of the piece:

The 30-second television commercial features stirring scenes of a young Iraqi boy high-fiving a U.S. soldier, a Westerner dining alfresco, and men and women dancing together. “Have you seen the other Iraq?” the narrator asks. “It’s spectacular. It’s joyful.”

“Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan!” the narrator continues. “It’s not a dream. It’s the other Iraq.”

With Sunni and Shiite Arabs locked in a bloody sectarian war, Iraq’s Kurds are promoting their interests through an influence-buying campaign in the United States that includes airing nationwide television advertisements, hiring powerful Washington lobbyists and playing parts of the U.S. government against each other. A former car mechanic who happens to be the son of Iraq’s president is at the center of Kurdish efforts to cultivate support for their semi-independent enclave, but the cast of Kurdish proponents also includes evangelical Christians, Israeli operatives and Republican political consultants.

There is a lot of color in there. However, I was hooked by the image of “The Other Iraq” campaign and the advertisements themselves. I immediately wanted to know: OK, where in the world did that come from? This is a crucial question since, as the story notes, this PR campaign by the Kurds is, in a subtle way, clashing with U.S. policies to maintain a unified Iraq and a happy Turkey — no matter what.

It takes a long time to get to the ads and, while much of the material through which the reader has to march is fascinating, I finally decided that this was one case in which a long page-one story really needed to be broken up into some reader-friendly sidebars. This leads us to evangelical activist Bill Garaway in Santa Cruz, Calif., who is one interesting guy. His devotion to the Kurdish cause is rooted — no surprise here — in missionary work in the region. He is convinced, as he says in the story, that “There is nobody like them in the Middle East. They’re Muslim, but they hate fundamentalist Islam. They love America.”

So who is this guy?

Garaway, a rangy 62-year-old with receding silver hair, became enamored with the Kurds more than a decade ago, after concluding that many key events described in the Bible occurred in Kurdistan, including the stories of Noah’s ark and Queen Esther. He believes not only that the Kurds are descendants of the ancient Medes people, but also that the three wise men who the Bible says visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem came from Kurdistan.

For Garaway, championing the Kurdish cause has been the latest twist in a life filled with unexpected turns. As he tells it, he protested the Vietnam War as a college student, burning his draft card at a UCLA rally in 1967. He subsequently lived in a commune with 140 others in the hills above Palo Alto, Calif., where he ran a food cooperative, taught yoga, befriended members of the Grateful Dead and hosted poet Allen Ginsberg in his treehouse. One day, a group of friends who had left the commune returned and invited Garaway to join their church. He did, and soon after, he said, “God revealed himself to me.”

He and his wife settled in Santa Cruz in the early 1970s, where they opened a church, started to surf and began to raise a family. They had six children, all of whom were home-schooled. Four have become professional surfers.

Right. Now read the whole story and tell me, does this guy deserve a sidebar or what? This is one case where I think the religion angle deserved to be broken out of the political, war-story structure of this massive story and allowed some room to grow.

One more thing: Are the Kurds (a) Sunni, (b) Shia, (c) Zoroastrian or (d) all of the above? It would have been nice to know. Did I miss a reference?

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Deadly social networking in Japan

ReiPortraitIn his feature article “Let’s Die Together” in the May Atlantic, David Samuels does a heroic task of explaining why anonymous group suicide is becoming popular in Japan. The opening image Samuels uses, of a car in a Tokyo suburb in which five young men and one young woman died together, reminded me of a scene in P.D. James’ novel The Children of Men, in which a group of elderly people on a bus cruise hold hands and jump to their deaths from a cliff.

My only criticism of Samuels’ report is his assertion that suicide “is known in Christian teaching as ‘the sin against the Holy Ghost.’ ” Historic Christian teaching certainly condemns suicide, but the church also has been very cautious about identifying any one thing as the sin against the Holy Ghost (presumably because of Jesus’ sobering warning about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). That said, Samuels’ larger point stands: Suicide “occupies a very different place in the imagination of the West than it does in Japan, where self-disembowelment with a specialized blade has long been considered a proper response to shame or dishonor.”

Samuels writes:

Whereas in the West, suicide is generally seen as the needless act of desperate souls, or of the terminally ill, in Japan it is understood as a more or less rational decision that can be taken by perfectly sane individuals as well as by groups. Japan has a long history of families committing suicide together, as well as suicides by cults and militaristic groups, including kamikaze pilots, or samurai warriors who suffered dishonor and hoped to wipe the slate clean. What is shocking about the new suicide epidemic is not so much that it is a group activity as that people are choosing to kill themselves together with total strangers. The Perfect Suicide Manual has become the essential text of a decentralized death cult that takes orders from no one, and whose members meet on Web sites designed solely to support and strengthen their common intention to die.

Samuels does not attribute the phenomenon to any one social factor. He discusses the roles of Japan’s collapsed “bubble economy,” publication of The Perfect Suicide Manual by Wataru Tsurumi, the ease of connecting with like-minded people through the Internet and the popularity of the animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Tsurumi offers this: “There’s nothing bad about suicide. We have no religion or laws here in Japan telling us otherwise. As for group suicides, before the Internet, people would write letters, or make phone calls … it’s always been part of our culture.”

Samuels interviews animator Hideaki Anno about his series and its heroine:

I am particularly interested in talking to Anno about the character of Rei, a depressive, suicidal girl whose big eyes, girlish body, and blank expression have been the model for the central female characters in Japanese anime for the past decade.

“Rei is someone who is aware of the fact that even if she dies, there’ll be another to replace her, so she doesn’t value her life very highly,” Anno explains, slouching ever-deeper into the couch. “Her presence, her existence — ostensible existence — is ephemeral. She’s a very sad girl. She only has the barest minimum of what she needs to have. She’s damaged in some way; she hurts herself. She doesn’t need friends.”

More troubling still is how Anno describes his neighbors:

Anno pauses for a moment, and gives a dark-browed stare out the window. “I don’t see any adults here in Japan,” he says, with a shrug. “The fact that you see salarymen reading manga and pornography on the trains and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn’t have seen 30 years ago, with people who grew up under a different system of government. They would have been far too embarrassed to open a book of cartoons or dirty pictures on a train. But that’s what we have now in Japan. We are a country of children.”

The next time I’m tempted to think that euthanasia clinics will be widespread in the United States, I think Samuels’ essay will help me regain perspective.

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On the other side of the notebook

theotokos grA very strange thing happens when journalists write books — they find themselves (hopefully) being interviewed by other journalists, often before speeches and other (hopefully) book-promoting events. Soon thereafter, they often read articles based on these interviews and find themselves exclaiming, “Wait just a (provide colorful descriptive words here) minute, I didn’t say that!”

There’s more to this than the fact that most writers have pretty firm ideas about how we want to express our own beliefs and what we think about our own writings. Truth is, we tend — when being interviewed — to use many of the same words over and over to express what we think. Journalists, in particular, are good at quoting other people, and it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that we are also pretty good at quoting our own best quotes.

This is why it is rather strange to read your own words in print and know that you are being misquoted. This brings us to another episode of an every-now-and-then GetReligion feature that I call “As the Notebook Turns.” This time around, the writer being interviewed was Frederica Mathewes-Green, who is a close friend and the wife of the priest at my family’s parish.

Frederica is best known for her books, Beliefnet columns and NPR commentaries, but she has done more than her share of writing in a more journalistic, magazine style. Recently, she headed down to Lynchburg, Va., for a speaking engagement linked to her latest work, The Lost Gospel of Mary. (Click here for an excerpt.)

This led to an article in the local News & Advance that included all kinds of things. For starters, what does this mean?

A thoughtful, articulate Christian whose pendulum has swung from one philosophical divide to another (once a staunch feminist and spokesperson for Feminists for Life, she is now anti-abortion, albeit non-stridently), Mathewes-Green eventually came to occupy a niche as someone who would speak on religious/social issues that scared other Christians away.

Part of that is accurate, but — last time I checked — Feminists for Life is, as the name suggests, a pro-life group. And then there’s this puzzler:

After leaving Hinduism behind, Mathewes-Green graduated from the Episcopalian-based Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. Later, she and her husband became Anglicans, and now they operate within a denomination with strong ties to Eastern Orthodoxy.

“I’ve never really considered myself a conservative Christian,” Mathewes-Green said, “but gradually, over time, you embrace a classic.”

What, pray tell, is an “Episcopalian-based” seminary? The campus in question is simply an official Episcopal seminary — period. I am also sure that our bishop would be amazed to find out that our congregation has “strong ties to Eastern Orthodoxy,” as opposed to being a real, live, normal Orthodox Christian parish.

Mathewes-Green says the article contained several phrases she has never used while describing her path to Christianity, but she was particularly tickled by that “embrace a classic” phrase. “I have no idea where that quote came from,” she said, in an email about this episode. “As you can see, it was one of the odder interview experiences for me.”

NotebookTurnsBut this wasn’t the most serious misquote, from a doctrinal point of view. Here is the bombshell misquote, from the perspective of an Orthodox believer — especially one who has just written a book about St. Mary, the mother of Jesus. A misquote is one thing. Heresy is another.

“People are hungry to know more about Mary,” she said. “They want a prequel to the Jesus story.”

Among other things, Mathewes-Green’s research led her to believe that Mary did not live out her life as a virgin.

“No one expected that of her,” she said. “She was a normal human being.”

In another sense, however, Mathewes-Green is quite conservative.

What in the world? There is no way that Frederica said that.

So what did she say? Let’s go back to her email:

My point was that the first target audience for evangelism, the Jews, didn’t expect the Messiah to be born of a virgin, nor that his mother would be virgin for the rest of her life. So it isn’t a doctrine the Christians would have invented. The best explanation is, they believed it was true. They stood by this belief consistently, unanimously, and the belief she and Joseph had a regular married life doesn’t arise for over 1500 years.

There are all kinds of things that evangelical, liberal Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic Christians might discuss linked to this issue. That is not the point here (so don’t click the Comments link just to argue about all of that). The key is that an articulate, experienced writer was quoted as saying precisely the opposite of what she believes and what she said. I have been unable to find a correction anywhere on the newpaper’s website. How about you?

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I have no response to that

0512 cnIt has been a very busy week for me as we ended the spring term at the Washington Journalism Center. I have been away from my keyboard quite a bit.

Thus, for several days I have been wondering what in the world to say about Ruth Gledhill’s story in The Times about the death of Father Rodney Hunter, a missionary in Central Africa who was a player in the worldwide Anglican war over creedal doctrine, sacraments and, of course, sexuality. The question is whether he is its first casualty — literally.

I really do not know what to say about this and, to my shock, the story has drawn almost total silence.

How does one research cause and effect in this story until it reaches a court, if it does? The plot is quite complicated and there is really no way to untangle it in a few lines. So, read the story. You can also read some background at Gledhill’s Articles of Faith weblog. But here is a starting point:

Relatives of Canon Rodney Hunter, 73, believe that his food was contaminated by supporters of the Rev Nicholas Henderson in a battle between the liberal and conservative wings of the Anglican Church.

In November Canon Hunter was found dead at his home in Nkhotakota, Malawi, with a strange black substance around his mouth. The day before his death he had complained of severe stomach pains, and postmortem examination has now shown that he was killed by three poisons. Malawi police have charged his cook with murder and are investigating rumours that the poisoning was organised by supporters of Mr Henderson, who had no knowledge of the alleged plot.

Canon Hunter was an outspoken critic of plans to appoint the liberal Mr Henderson as Bishop of Lake Malawi. The Province of Central Africa is at the heart of conservative evangelical opposition to the liberal Anglican outlook in the West on homosexuality.

Who knows what is going on here. Still, it is hard to believe that — outside the blogosphere — it has received no attention. Am I missing something online somewhere else in the mainstream?

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