Star prayer power

maria_magdalene_prayingThe following bit of local news may not be the best evidence of a declining newspaper industry, or the media’s overall challenges in covering religion, but I must say a word about The Indianapolis Star‘s decisions to cut the short prayer on page A2 next to the chuckle and horoscope and then bring it back a couple of weeks later.

Star religion writer Robert King told us back when the prayer was yanked that of all the changes the newspaper made the day it dropped the prayer (eliminating the stand-alone business section, folding the features section into the classifieds section), the decision to send the short non-denominational prayer to the dumpster generated the most reader outrage. As a disclaimer, I never read the prayer until now (or the chuckle or the horoscopes and only occasionally the comics), but I’m told by a reliable source (my wife) that the prayer was a nice way of starting one’s day along with the chuckle (which remains, but was reportedly less funny as a result of the prayer’s temporary demise).

Apparently other readers felt the same. Here is King’s blog post on the matter:

In conversation, [Star Editor and Vice President Dennis] Ryerson told me that he understands that there are people who grew up with prayer in the public schools and prayer in other public settings who see things like this as a “chipping away” of something sacred. But Ryerson told me he really sees prayer as something intensely personal and that he has spoken with Christian ministers who agree with him that prayer belongs in churches and in hearts, but not on the pages of the newspaper.

Callers so far do not seem mollified that the Star still maintains a Bible verse (“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” II Cor. 3:17) high atop the front page — one of the few major metro papers in the country to do so. And there is no indication that the Spirit verse will go away.

But the question remains, in an environment where newspapers are struggling to remain viable, is saving the postage stamp sized space the prayer occupied worth the grief to readers accustomed to seeing a prayer in the paper?

That was then. This morning’s front page contained a note that the “Prayer Returns:”

Earlier this month we eliminated the prayer that had been published daily in The Indianapolis Star for more than 40 years. We reasoned that philosophically, prayer was not the function of a newspaper. Our role is to be the voice of news and information in Central Indiana.

Thousands of calls, e-mails and letters to the editor later, we have been reminded of, and are thankful for, another important role: to be a vital part of our readers’ lives. As our religion writer, Robert King, put it: “You don’t get much more important than being a part of grace said over breakfast.” The daily prayer returns today to Page A2.

Thank you for letting us be part of your life.

As for the prayer, read this with the fact that it’s negative 12 degrees in Indianapolis right now:

O God, in these cold months, so many are homeless. Give them shelter, warmth and hope. Bless them through your care and ours. Amen.

That’s a pretty good prayer, in my opinion. For a more extended explanation for why the newspaper removed the prayer in the first place, see here.

Former Star columnist Ruth Holladay and now local blogger provides some insight when the prayer was first canceled:

But in the meantime, those of us who know Ryerson’s mindset are surprised, frankly, that the prayer has lasted this long. I can see the problematic nature of such a feature — years ago, pre-Gannett, a copy editor who was Jewish pointed out that the Thanksgiving prayer set to run in the Thanksgiving paper was aimed at Jesus Christ. The last she had checked, the holiday was not a Christian one. Hence, she was concerned, perhaps even offended, and the prayer was changed.

But as King notes, the prayer for years has been vanilla flavored. It lacks the muscle to offend anyone.

Yet its removal clearly has created a sense of being wronged.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion editor Frank Lockwood notes that the newspaper kept the daily horoscope. Well, now they’re both in the newspaper.

Clearly there are bigger things on the minds of the journalist at the Star right now, who just went through a severe round of layoffs and are now facing a quarter in which they will be forced to take an unpaid week off to avoid more layoffs.

The news that is bigger than the prayer controversy is, of course, the disturbing lack of news reporters and writers at the city’s only major newspaper. The last couple of years have seen the growth of a fleet of local bloggers who occasionally break news ahead of the Star, a couple of alternative newspapers, the handful of local TV news stations, and a couple of radio stations. However, the days of the muscular local newspaper are over in Indianapolis and most communities around the country. (Star readers and reporters should be thankful they are not in the position of the Rocky Mountain News or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.)

As for religion coverage, King continues to produce excellent local articles relating to religion news (occasionally producing a local version of a national story), but that is about all we have when it comes to religion coverage in my city’s major newspaper. The entire features section has essentially been eliminated (which used to occasionally carry religiously-themed articles) and a popular local columnist who wrote on family issues from an occasionally religious perspective was let go recently. Here is my question: what will rise in its place, with or without a prayer?

Image of Mary Magdalene by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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Tragically hip New Calvinists

MD_Pulpit1.jpgThe New York Times Magazine has wandered into the testosterone-heavy world of Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church and emerged with a feature story that mostly does justice to both Driscoll and his critics. The coverage is by Molly Worthen, who has also written a previous New York Times Magazine story on classical Christian education and a feature about L’Abri Fellowship for Christianity Today. She is no stranger to the subcultures of evangelical Protestantism.

I have only a few criticisms of Worthen’s report, most of them involving overstatements of Driscoll’s importance and — in one case — an overly simple description of most evangelicals’ theology:

Mark Driscoll is American evangelicalism’s bête noire. … Conservatives call Driscoll “the cussing pastor” and wish that he’d trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements.

… With his taste for vintage baseball caps and omnipresence on Facebook and iTunes, Driscoll, who is 38, is on the cutting edge of American pop culture.

… Since the early 19th century, most evangelicals have preferred a theology that stresses the believer’s free decision to accept God’s grace. To be born again is a choice God wants you to make; if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.

I think it’s safe to say that modern evangelicalism is Driscoll’s bête noire, especially judging by his remarks in this report. Considering evangelicals’ many concerns about politics and culture wars, however, it’s difficult to imagine evangelicals choosing Driscoll as their bête noire — or wasting time on hoping that he will “trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements.”

If one can be on the cutting edge of pop culture through baseball caps, Facebook and iTunes, that cutting edge sounds more like a 16-lane highway, gridlocked in both directions by packed SUVs.

Further, it’s hard to think that even Joel Osteen (much less most evangelicals) reduces Jesus to one’s personal friend. Even the overused “personal Lord and Savior” says more than that. These sorts of generalizations add to the sense, expressed here before by Mollie, that too much mass-media coverage of evangelicals reads like a “typical anthropological study of a bizarre species.”

That said, I admire Worthen’s moments of elegant writing and insight. These paragraphs were my favorites:

Calvinism is a theology predicated on paradox: God has predestined every human being’s actions, yet we are still to blame for our sins; we are totally depraved, yet held to the impossible standard of divine law. These teachings do not jibe with Enlightenment ideas about human capacity, yet they have appealed to a wide range of modern intellectuals, especially those who stressed the dangers of human hubris in the wake of World War I.

… Mars Hill counts four of the city’s top tattoo artists among its members (and many of their clientele — that afternoon, [Damon] Conklin was expecting a fellow church member who wanted a portrait of Christ enthroned across his back). While other churches left people like Conklin feeling alienated, Mars Hill has made them its missionaries. “Some people say, ‘You’re pretty cool and you’re a Christian, so I guess I can’t hate all of them anymore,’” he says. “I understand where they’re coming from.”

… Critics on the left and right alike predict that this delicate balance of opposites cannot last. Some are skeptical of a church so bent on staying perpetually “hip”: members have only recently begun to marry and have children, but surely those children will grow up, grow too cool for their cool church and rebel. Others say that Driscoll’s ego and taste for controversy will be Mars Hill’s Achilles’ heel. Lately he has made a concerted effort to tone down his language, and he insists that he has delegated much authority, but the heart of his message has not changed. Driscoll is still the one who gazes down upon Mars Hill’s seven congregations most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens around the city. At one suburban campus that I visited, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll’s face blocked the cross from view.

Photo of Mark Driscoll is from the Press Room section of Mars Hill’s website.

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Change at Obama’s (old) church

800px-barack_obama_houstonOh the constant joy it must bring to be a religious person associated with President-elect Barack Obama. With Baptist minister Rick Warren being sued by atheists over the use of the Lord’s name in an inauguration prayer, Obama’s old home church appears to be breathing a sigh of relief now that the election is over and Obama has officially moved to Washington, D.C.

On Sunday, The Chicago Tribune published a fairly intimate portrait of a recovering church body that used to be Obama’s spiritual home. After reading the article, one can understand the reason why past presidents such as Ronald Reagan may have avoided attending church while in the presidency.

Trinity United Church of Christ has not been in the news lately, but it was good to see that not all reporters were simply leaving the congregation in seeming shambles in the wake of the scandal that hardly portrayed the institution in a positive light. The Tribune reporters do a solid job explaining that while all the shouting, accusing and assuming was going on during the election, Trinity attempted to continue being a church like any other:

On Sundays, media swarmed the church, pressing members for comment. Protesters parked themselves across the street from the entrance, bludgeoning the faithful with vitriol and insults as they made their way inside.

Security costs for the church skyrocketed to $40,000 weekly, diverting money from missions in Mississippi, New Orleans and nearby Chicago neighborhoods. Church attendance dropped, as more members stayed home to watch worship on the Web. Some expressed doubt about Moss’ leadership. Others, like Obama, struggled with whether they should find a new church.

Now, Moss and the more than 6,500 members of his congregation have emerged from the storm, recounting painful lessons and preparing for the future. They attend church knowing a former Trinity member became the nation’s first African-American president. They now believe the spotlight can be a positive force and are hopeful their faith values might be used to minister to the world. They look to the new year as a chance to redefine Trinity.

Overall I liked the article. However, I wish the reporters had attempted to delve into the theologically-based shifts and struggles that are running through both the United Church of Christ denomination, and in predominantly African-American churches around the country.

Here the article touches on some of those struggles, but there could have been more:

Looking back, Moss knew taking over Trinity from Wright would be tough. Elders questioned where Moss, the 38-year-old “hip-hop pastor,” would lead them. Those doubts grew after snippets of Wright’s sermons surfaced on the Internet in March, sullying Wright’s legacy and disrupting Moss’ already difficult transition. Outside the church, conservative pundits bashed the church’s Black Value System as anti-white and hateful.

“No one has ever been asked to transition through trauma and to lead a church that literally has the focus of the world upon them,” Moss said. “There was nobody to call and say: ‘How did you deal with this?’ We were writing the playbook as we went along.”

When Obama decided to leave Trinity, Moss said he wasn’t surprised. The candidate first expressed his concerns to Moss at an Easter dinner in 2007, shortly after announcing his bid for the presidency and rescinding an invitation for Wright to say a public prayer at the event. Obama did not want to cause trouble for the church and suggested then that a time might come when he would have to leave, Moss said.

More of course could have been said about Moss’s identity as a “hip-hop pastor.” Perhaps the details have been covered in previous articles (I wish newspapers did better jobs of linking to old articles!). Also interesting is that Obama seemed to have predicted some of the troubles that arose during the campaign. One has to wonder though whether Obama knew how significant the issue would be before he launched his campaign.

Image of Barack Obama speaking in Houston, Texas on the eve of the state’s primaries, used under a public domain license.

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No war on Epiphany

bosch_epiphanyThe Epiphany of our Lord — Epiphany for short — is the liturgical festival observed on January 6. The oldest Christmas festival, and originally the most important, It is still the climax of the Christmas season in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where it is celebrated as Theophany. Epiphany as a season of the Lutheran liturgical calendar lasts until the beginning of Lent and encompasses four to nine Sundays, depending on the date of Easter.

The festival has not gone unnoticed by the media, which is nice. Much of the coverage is of the local color variety — with brief articles and photos of Epiphany celebrations. The Times Herald-Record (N.Y.) looks at a Lutheran church’s Christmas pageant — held on Epiphany (observed in some churches last Sunday) as opposed to late in Advent.

For those confused about when the 12th night of Christmas falls, this Telegraph story was no help, but it was fun.

Epiphany is celebrated with particular fervor in many Spanish-speaking countries. The BBC‘s brief look at Madrid’s annual parade made me wish I was there. The Los Angeles Times reported on a 1,600-meter-long Rosca de Reyes baked by local bakers.

This Democrat and Chronicle (N.Y.) article caught my eye:

At the Church of the Assumption, part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, packets containing a piece of chalk and a prayer were handed out during the service. Families took these packets home to write “20 CMB 09″ above their front door with the chalk.

The numbers indicate the current year and “CMB” stands for the “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” which — translated from Latin — means “May God bless this house.”

How bad does your Latin have to be to translate Christus as “God”?

The coverage of Epiphany celebrations in Tarpon Springs, Florida, is truly remarkable. Apparently the Greek Orthodox churches there have huge celebrations that bring in visitors far and wide. Rita Farlow, St. Petersburg Times reporter, has the beat covered, with several stories on the festivities. Here’s a portion of one story:

Between 8,000 and 10,000 people are expected for the city’s 103rd Epiphany celebration today, which begins with services at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and ends with an eight-hour Glendi.

In between, 65 young men will dive to retrieve this year’s Epiphany cross. The teen who finds the cross will receive a special blessing that is supposed to bring him a year of prosperity.

The reporter profiled a young woman who will release a dove as part of the festivities. A Suncoast News story looked back on the year had by the winner of last year’s dive.

No matter how big or small the stories on Epiphany and Theophany were, they all handled the theological significance pretty well. Some media outlets used the occasion to get into deeper religious themes. The Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette ran a piece by an Orthodox priest. Beliefnet‘s Patton Dodd had an epiphany while teaching an Epiphany Sunday School lesson. The Rev. Peg Chamberlin’s regular column in the Star-Tribune dealt with the topic. And the Santa Barbara Independent had an interesting piece on the similarities between Epiphany and Theopany:

One interesting aspect of these two parallel holidays is that they’re much more similar, theologically speaking, than they would appear. To a secular observer, a visit from three Magi and a dip in the river Jordan are entirely different activities; their connection appears obscure. To a Christian scholar, however, they’re both manifestations of Christ as the son of God.

She goes on to describe particular aspects of how the holy days are celebrated. So all in all, not a bad treatment of this major festival. Please let us know if you saw any particularly good or bad coverage of the day and season.

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Old gods on rise in Greece?

greek_mtolympusRemember that strange story a few years back about all of those Brits who wanted to write “Jedi knight” or something like that in the official census form slot for “religion”?

That’s what I thought of when someone sent me this fun report from the Guardian, knowing that I would be interested in this religious twist in Greece. The headline: “By Zeus!” The reporter (I love this first name): Helena Smith. And here’s the anecdotal lede:

It was high noon when Doreta Peppa, a woman with long, dark locks and owlish eyes, entered the Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus. At first, tourists visiting the Athenian temple thought they had stumbled on to a film set. It wasn’t just that Peppa cut a dramatic figure with her flowing robes and garlanded hair. Or that she seemed to be in a state of near euphoria. Or even that the group of men and women accompanying her — dressed as warriors and nymphets in kitsch ancient garb — appeared to have stepped straight out of the city’s Golden Age.

To the astonishment of onlookers, Peppa also began babbling Orphic hymns, before thrusting her arms upwards into the Attic skies and proceeding, somewhat deliriously, to warble her love for the gods of Mount Olympus. But, then, for the motley group of modern pagans coalesced around the temple’s giant Corinthian columns, this was a special moment. Not since the late fourth century AD, when the newly Christian Roman state outlawed all forms of pagan worship, had a high priestess officiated on the sacred site.

Oh my. It isn’t hard to write a colorful report about a “trend” like this one. Peppa is, of course, a former advertising executive, and clearly knows have to play the media game.

The Guardian is more than willing to play along with this “very, very big thing.”

So big, that like a thunderbolt from the deity himself, the one-hour ceremony has achieved the near-impossible task of unnerving Greece’s powerful Orthodox church. Since Peppa’s performance 10 days ago, hierarchs have redirected the venom they usually reserve for homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, masons and the “barbaric” Turks at the “miserable resuscitators” of the degenerate dead religion. In fire-and-brimstone sermons priests have slammed the “satanic” New Ageists and fulminated against their idols.

For years, Orthodox clerics believed that they had defeated Greeks wishing to embrace the customs and beliefs of the ancient past. But increasingly the church, a bastion of conservatism and traditionalism, has been confronted by the spectre of polytheists making a comeback in the land of the gods.

Well, alright then. That tells us quite a bit about what the Guardian thinks of the Orthodox hierarchy. It does not tell us much about the beliefs and practices of the 2,000 hardcore believers in the old gods or their 100,000 allies. We get a few flashes of color, which is fine, but not much, uh, meat about the doctrines and beliefs. Oh, and how about some commentary from a real, live Orthodox leader? Is this a news story?

For example, check this out:

“If you are brought up with Greek mythology, the idea you are the descendants of the ancient Greeks and imbued with the importance of ancient Greek culture, you have all the pre-requisites for such an inclination,” says Nikos Dimou, the acclaimed author of a tongue-in-cheek bestseller, The Misfortune to be Greek.

Ninety-eight per cent of the population may officially be Orthodox Christian, but in many ways Greeks remain bonded to their pagan past. “OK, the ancients had hubris, but the concept of sin was totally unknown to them, as indeed it is in modern Greece,” Dimou says. “Greeks today don’t observe many of the 10 commandments. Their outlook on life and values are much nearer to pagan ideas than those of the austere Judaeo-Christian faith.”

Now I, for one, can think of some interesting questions that a reporter could have asked after someone says something like, “Greeks today don’t observe many of the 10 commandments.” If you were standing there with a pad and pencil, what would your next question have been? Go ahead, ask it.

A fun, yet important, topic. I would have been nice to have seen a bit more serious content, woven into the fun stuff and the anti-Orthodox sermonizing.

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In Jesus’ name

jesus_bible_namesUnlike all other Americans (give or take a few) I’m not a big fan of civil religion. I dislike the way it forces a syncretism and watering down of sacred beliefs in service to political goals. But there is a long-standing tradition of civil religion in America — invocations at political events, mentions of religious texts in inaugural speeches, veneration of Lincoln and other great politicians, interfaith events for political causes, etc. And so we will be witnessing a tremendous amount of civil religion in a few weeks when President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office to lead our country.

Obama has already been criticized for selecting Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. Warren, like the majority of Americans, does not favor same-sex marriage. Even though Obama also publicly opposes same-sex marriage, many of Obama’s gay and lesbian supporters — and other gay rights activists — feel that this selection was a betrayal of their support. Anyway, other prayers will be offered and interfaith services will be held. It will be interesting to see how, or whether, Obama incorporates religion into his inaugural speech.

But Associated Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll had a great piece of advance reporting looking at additional trouble Warren could find himself in if he invokes the name of Jesus Christ. Warren wouldn’t give details on whether he’ll pray in the name of Jesus but said he will pray as a Christian:

“Prayers are not to be sermons, speeches, position statements nor political posturing. They are humble, personal appeals to God,” Warren wrote. His spokesman would not elaborate.

Evangelicals generally expect their clergymen to use Jesus’ name whenever and wherever they lead prayer. Many conservative Christians say cultural sensitivity goes way too far if it requires religious leaders to hide their beliefs.

“If Rick Warren does not pray in Jesus’ name, some folks are going to be very disappointed,” [Rev. Kirbyjon] Caldwell said in a recent phone interview. “Since he’s evangelical, his own tribe, if you will, will have some angst if he does not do that.”

Zoll came up with an awesome idea for a story. Already we’re seeing lawsuits attempting to halt any prayers at the inauguration. Previous lawsuits haven’t gotten terribly far. She gives the historical perspective, looking at the trouble Caldwell, a spiritual adviser to President Bush and President-elect Obama, got into when he quoted from Philippians and delivered a prayer at Bush’s first inauguration “in the name that’s above all other names, Jesus the Christ.” She also quotes civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery and Rev. Franklin Graham supporting the prerogative of any religious person to pray in a manner true to their religion.

I thought this set-up to Billy Graham’s 1969 prayer to be funny in its understatement:

Billy Graham, now 90, didn’t say Jesus’ name during presidential inaugurations, but made obvious references to Christ.

At Richard Nixon’s 1969 swearing-in, Graham prayed “in the Name of the Prince of Peace who shed His blood on the Cross that men might have eternal life.” In 1997, for Bill Clinton’s inaugural, Graham prayed “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Yes, that first mention in particular would be a pretty obvious “reference” to Christ. Can you imagine if anyone prayed such a specific prayer next month? For the article, Zoll also gets perspective from adherents to other religions who pray regularly in interfaith settings. They say that they try to tone down any specificity. It’s something I’ve noticed in my many visits to interfaith services: no one minds if anyone gets very specific about their particular religious beliefs but most people don’t. This last quote was a nice way to end the piece in that it matched the overall tone of the reportage:

Rabbi Burt Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism, said he invokes “God” for interfaith prayer.

“I know that for Christians, Jesus is part of their Trinity,” said Visotzky, who has taught at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and at Protestant seminaries in the U.S. “For me as a Jew, hearing the name of a first-century rabbi isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s not my God.”

Kudos to the AP for jumping on this story early and doing it in such a calm and even-handed manner. The drama of the topic alone manages to make this story compelling and fascinating for general interest readers.

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On the street where they live

800px-kentucky_boundary_i65Oh my, this is good religion reporting — that was my first thought when I got about halfway through the first in Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times series on overseas priests serving Catholic parishes in the United States.

My second thought was, of course: why is it so good?

Goodstein does something increasingly rare in these days of budget constraints, reporting a story about a national trend from the local point of view. Kudos to her editors for giving her the time to do it.

Digging well below the headlines in this series, she “get religion” in a very basic way — giving us a picture of clergy and congregants grappling with pastoral issues that matter to them on a daily basis.

Are Fr. Oneko’s sermon’s too long? Will a primarily white congregation accept a priest of color? What happens if a foreign priest has behavioral problems?

Most of us are aware of the shortage of Catholic seminarians and priests. But readers may not know (unless they attend parishes with foreign-born priests) that the “face” of the Catholic Church is becoming much more diverse:

One of six diocesan priests now serving in the United States came from abroad, according to “International Priests in America,” a large study published in 2006. About 300 international priests arrive to work here each year. Even in American seminaries, about a third of those studying for the priesthood are foreign-born.

Goodstein jump starts her story by taking us to directly to Kentucky and the plight of a rural diocese:

Sixteen of the Rev. Darrell Venters’s fellow priests are running themselves ragged here, each serving three parishes simultaneously. One priest admits he stood at an altar once and forgot exactly which church he was in.

So Father Venters, lean and leathery as the Marlboro man –a cigarette in one hand and a cellphone with a ring tone like a church bell in the other — spends most of his days recruiting priests from overseas to serve in the small towns, rolling hills and farmland that make up the Roman Catholic Diocese of Owensboro.

He sorts through e-mail and letters from foreign priests soliciting jobs in America, many written in formal, stilted English. He is looking, he said, for something that shouts: “This priest is just meant for Kentucky!”

“If we didn’t get international priests,” he said, “some of our guys would have had five parishes. If one of our guys were to leave, or God forbid have a heart attack and die, we didn’t have anyone to fill in.”

The writer doesn’t avoid details like Venter’s cigarettes, a fully stocked bar at a local retreat, or the casino some priests visit — but neither does she dwell on them. They serve to illustrate and humanize the story she is telling.

She also explores the tensions that may arise when overseas clergy minister in American Catholic parishes.

Are they coming to America so that they can support their family at home?

From a global perspective –what happens when clergy leave countries, like Mexico and those in Central and South America, where the clergy shortage is even worse?

Most of the priests serving in Owensboro support Father Venters’s recruiting drive, but some voice doubts. The Rev. Dennis Holly, with the Glenmary Home Missioners, an American order dedicated to serving regions that are not predominantly Catholic, like Western Kentucky, believes America is essentially taking more than its share of resources, behaving like a mere consumer by spending money to attract priests from countries that have even greater shortages. He thinks the Catholic church should place priests where they are needed most around the globe.

“We experience the priest shortage, and rather than ask the question, ‘Why do we have a priest shortage?’ we just import some and act like we don’t have a priest shortage,” Father Holly said. “Until we face the issue of mandatory celibacy and the ordination of women, we can’t deal with the lack of response to the invitation to priesthood.”

But Father Venters is a pragmatist. He said those were good questions, “but, in the meantime, you have to respond to the needs of people.”

I’d be interested in knowing whether it’s solely the clergy belonging to a religion order (and less constrained by diocesan loyalties) who are asking these questions, or whether parochial clergy are also concerned.

One missing thread here that also bothered me –we learn a lot about the entrepreneurial Venters, but where is the Bishop? Surely his role in recruiting clergy goes beyond providing a full stocked retreat bar.

The second part of the series tells the story of the Rev. Chrispin Oneko, a priest from Kenya who takes a post in the Kentucky town of Oak Grove. If anything it is an even more compelling read.

Why? Because, in the mundane details of religious life, it offers readers a place to find themselves — and to understand the dilemmas of a foreign priest grappling with American Catholic culture.

In the third article, published today, Goodstein traveled to India
to look at the clergy shortage from the viewpoint of a diocese that once sent clergy to other countries, but now might wish to keep them.

By including that perspective, Goodstein prompts her readers to view the Catholic priest shortage from a global perspective as well as a local one –something I wish more religion stories would do. It’s terrific that the Times had the resources, and the inspiration, to do it this time.

Picture of Kentucky highway is from Wikimedia Commons

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The theology of liberation

emancipationproclamationdecSometimes I get the feeling that reporters struggle to cover annual events. This leads to less coverage of the liturgical calendar and its festive celebrations and penitential seasons than to events marked by trend-driven church bodies. You don’t see much coverage of Pentecost, marked annually by millions of American Christians, compared to, say, the sex sermon series being pushed by some pastor in Michigan.

But I found this story about a service held in black Christian congregations for going on 150 years to be fascinating and fresh. New York Journal News religion reporter Gary Stern has the details:

Tradition holds that on the night of Dec. 31, 1862, Americans of African descent gathered in churches to await the news that President Abraham Lincoln would indeed sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

New Year’s Day came and all slaves in the states of the Confederacy were declared legally free – even if true freedom would require a long wait.

Over the next several decades, many black Americans developed a tradition of returning to church on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day to commemorate the end of slavery. The black Christian tradition held that God, not man, had delivered the slaves to freedom, so church was the right place to remember the pain of bondage and the joy of being free.

The story goes on to explain Watch Night and Freedom’s Eve services that continue to this day. In my experience, these services occasionally take place on New Year’s Day. The article explores whether the election of a black man to be president will add new meaning to the services. Stern looks at local festivities sponsored by the United Black Clergy of Westchester and speaks with the group’s president, Rev W. Darin Moore:

The AME Zion denomination was formed in 1820 – 42 years before emancipation – when black Christians fled the institutional racism of the white Methodist church. The AME Zion Church became known as “the freedom church.”

“The theme of Scripture has always been emancipation and liberation, whether it’s the story of Israel and the exodus from Egypt or the liberation we find in Christ from sin,” Moore told me. “There’s always been a social/political component and a spiritual component. Particularly in the African-American church, there has been an insistence that we not separate the two.

“That’s why this service is so important in our community,” he said. “It looks back and commemorates the liberation from slavery, using the Emancipation Proclamation as a milestone – understanding that there were many complexities to the political motivations for it. But for us, it’s bigger than that, representing a journey to complete human liberation.”

I couldn’t help but read this without remembering the whole Jeremiah Wright debacle. In large part because of the pastor in question but also because of the media’s obsession with politics, the coverage of Wright had so little actual discussion of the spiritual aspects of black liberation theology. There wasn’t much theology in the coverage, to put it mildly.

It’s so nice to see a story that plays liberation theology as it lays, with both political and spiritual aspects. The article also discusses the mega-hot-button issue of the day:

Now Obama’s getting attacked from the left for choosing Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Warren is an increasingly famous (and white) megachurch pastor who has focused on fighting worldwide poverty and disease even as he opposes gay marriage and holds mostly conservative theological views.

Baisden said he has no problem with the choice.

“I see it as consistent with President-elect Obama’s efforts to bring us together,” he said. “We have differences in many ways, but these things should be able to pull us together.”

I find the use of the word “even” to be completely unnecessary. I’m aware that many in the mainstream media are under the impression that there is some sort of intrinsic conflict between holding conservative theological views and fighting poverty and disease and yet history doesn’t exactly bear that impression out. Christian charity throughout history has coexisted with a belief in the sanctity of marriage as a heterosexual union. There’s no need to use the word “even” and quite a few arguments against it.

“Even” so, the story is great and ends with a verse from the processional hymn to which the clergy will enter the church for the Emancipation Service, “God Of Our Fathers.” Stern provides an informative, interesting, detailed and newsy account of a long-standing faith tradition.

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