Pod people: So what could reporters cover during Lent?

Long, long ago, back at the beginning of Lent, I put up a post that asked a simple question: In all of those stories about more and more Americans deciding to “do Lent,” what did it actually mean to say that one was going to “do Lent”?

The answer, of course, was that whole “give up one thing for Lent” deal, the whole do-it-yourself plan in which an individual creates his or her own personal Lenten challenge. The problem, as you may recall, was that this pseudo-tradition actually has nothing to do with the traditional spiritual disciples (click here for a modernized list from the Western church) linked through the ages with the observance of Great Lent — such as prayer, worship, fasting, alms giving, acts of penitence, etc.

But the create-your-own-Lent thing is very, very American and it’s quirky, creative and even funny, at least as practiced by lots of Americans who, well, enjoy strutting their Lent stuff in social media.

Now we are reaching the end of the season of Lent and we’re heading into Holy Week. Thus, Crossroads podcast host Todd Wilken and I kind of looked in the rear-view mirror at Lent 2014 this week and discussed that the mainstream press could have done this time around, in terms of Lenten news coverage. Click here to listen in.

The bottom line: What could news pros have done instead of merely focusing — as I mentioned in a second post linked to Lent, the one with the infamous Hooters sign picture — on a few style-page features on fried fish and other matters related to food? What else was there to cover that was newsworthy, in any conventional sense of the word?

Well, Wilken and I concluded that the key word was “confession.” No, seriously.

Now, “confession” — or penitence in general — is a big part of Lent, as understood by the church through the ages. But how is that topic newsworthy?

Good question. I thought of two potential story hooks.

First of all, the ongoing collapse in the number of Roman Catholics who go to confession — ever — is one of the biggest and most important stories in the life of the church today. Remember that wise old D.C. priest I interviewed who, when asked to evaluate the whole “Catholic voter” angle in political coverage, stressed that the press needs to understand that there are really four different kinds of Catholic in American life today. Remember his typology? Here is a simplified version with the politics trimmed out:

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So who is Stephen Colbert really? Maybe ask a priest?

A decade ago, when I started writing a Washington Journalism Center syllabus on the history and future of news, I wanted to include a full day of material focusing on some element of the whole “entertainment as news” trend. I wanted to argue that the political commentary featured in settings such as Comedy Central represented, not the future of news, but the future of the old-school op-ed page.

After surveying what was happening in fall 2005-spring 2006, I decided to focus on the work of the hip young satirist Stephen Colbert. The question everyone was asking back then, of course, was: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? What does he really believe?

Well, I delivered that lecture on Colbert again last week, while reports began circulating that he would soon sit in David Letterman’s postmodern-humor chair at CBS. Now it’s official that Colbert has the “Late Show” nod and, once again, the dominate question in the coverage is: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? Will we finally find out who Stephen Colbert is now that he has said that he will stop playing that fictional “Stephen Colbert” character?

In other words, there are journalists out there who do not realize that it is quite common to see Colbert drop the “Stephen Colbert” mask and speak for himself. When? It happens almost every time that there is a Catholic guest or a guest who is on the show to talk about moral/religious issues, as opposed to strictly “political” issues. For example, consider the following exchange with Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, author of “The Lucifer Effect.”

ZIMBARDO: “If God was into reconciliation, he would have said ‘I made a mistake.’ God created hell. Paradoxically, it was God who created Hell as a place to put Lucifer and the fallen angels, and had he not created Hell, then evil would not exist.”

COLBERT: “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. God gave Satan, the angels, and man, free will; Satan used his free will and abused it by not obeying authority; hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love, which is what Hell is: removing yourself from God’s love.”

ZIMBARDO: “Wow.”

COLBERT: “You send yourself there, God does not send you there.”

ZIMBARDO: “Obviously you learned well in Sunday School.”

COLBERT: “I teach Sunday School, motherf****r.”

The Catholic side of Colbert’s work has received significant ink over the years, but very few publications are mentioning his faith in their coverage of his new “Late Night” gig. As you would expect — with Rush Limbaugh raising all holy heckfire — publications are asking political questions about Colbert, since politics are real and, well, faith is not really real.

So the New York Times offers this:

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Dear Sun editors: Do you favor a state-endorsed faith or not?

Anyone who has been paying attention to American public life in recent decades knows that lots of people are getting very uncomfortable with that whole First Amendment thing.

Many people are especially uncomfortable with free, even offensive speech about religion in any setting connected with government, public life, tax dollars, etc. Some even act as if religious speech is uniquely dangerous, in comparison with speech about other topics.

This is a serious issue and one that journalists cannot avoid covering, in these times.

The key church-state principle is that the government is not supposed to favor a particular religion. Thus, state officials are supposed to avoid getting involved in decisions — “entangled” is the big word — about which religions and doctrines are acceptable and which ones are not. They are supposed to err on the side of free exercise, but without allowing officials to openly favor one set of religious doctrines over another.

But what happens when some state officials consistently use their free speech rights in ways that offend the religious views of others (in effect establishing a favored, state-endorsed religion)? That’s when people of good will need to evoke “equal access” principles.

Now, I realize that equal access principles — another product of the amazing left-right church-state coalition in the Clinton era — are primarily used in disputes linked to schools and the use of other public lands and facilities. But every now and then you see disputes of this kind show up in other settings. Take, for example, the drama that The Baltimore Sun is currently attempting to cover in nearby Carroll County. Here is the top of the report:

A divided Carroll County board of commissioners voted Tuesday to no longer invoke Jesus Christ in prayers before government sessions, a measure one commissioner said “binds me to an act of disobedience against my Christian faith.”

The measure passed by a 3-2 vote amid legal pressure for the board to stop sectarian references in invocations. A federal judge in Baltimore last month issued an injunction against the practice, which is being challenged in court by some county residents who say the prayers disregard their beliefs. The commissioners resolved Tuesday that prayers may still reference “God,” “Lord God,” “Creator” and “Lord of Lords,” among other monotheistic names. But they must be non-sectarian and led by board president David Roush, who voted in favor of the change.

Richard Rothschild, one of two commissioners who opposed the resolution, said it would force him “to refuse to acknowledge the Son of God,” a statement that drew shouts of “Amen” from the handful of residents on hand.

“I humbly and respectfully declare that I cannot and will not sign a document that forward binds me to enact disobedience against my Christian faith,” Rothschild added.

So what is the problem here, from the point of view of the board’s majority?

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The final days march past: Was there any news in Lent 2014?

Let’s face it folks. There is a very real possibility that this posts exists as a rather flimsy excuse to post this wonderfully ironic Baton Rouge, La., photograph sent by a witty priest to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher.

Now Lent is almost over, so it’s now or never.

Actually, this photo does symbolize a question — a journalistic question, actually — that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit during Great Lent this year: Do mainstream journalists realize that there is more to Lent than food?

I mean, the U.S. Catholic bishops have in recent years put quite a bit of effort into a public campaign to promote — following ages and ages of tradition — the importance of believers going to Confession during the season of Lent. I kind of expected that this the “light is still on” effort might get more press attention this time around, especially after the media-storm called Pope Francis did a daring thing the other day by choosing to go to Confession in clear view of the world.

So take a look at a Google News search for “Catholics,” “Lent,” “Confession” and “light on.”

Not much, right?

So we’re back to food.

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Baby boomers and (some) traditions for ‘green’ funerals

The other day I wrote a post noting that, in addition to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the so-called “Woodstock Generation” also had a taste for spiritual adventure that has helped shape American life and culture ever since. Basically, without the Age of Aquarius, you don’t end up with a parade of scholars and gurus teaching Oprah how to raise her hands up to the heavens while praying to the Universe, with a big “U.”

Some GetReligion readers were a bit miffed that I seemed to think that all Baby Boomers (me too, I guess) could fit under the same Woodstock banner.

That wasn’t my point, of course. I was simply saying that the alternative approaches to life explored in the late 1960s and early ’70s have had a major impact on shaping how all Americans think and live. Part of that cultural wave was captured in the sexual revolution, part was popular culture that soaked into the soul and part was an openness to alternative forms of spirituality (some of it serious, some of it fleeting), often from the Far East.

Truth be told, some Baby Boomers have also turned into strong believers in traditional forms of faith. Ask any megachurch pastor about that. There are also Baby Boomers who have switched brands and churches, looking for alternatives to the faiths in which they were raised. Some of them (ask your local Orthodox rabbi) ended up digging back into ancient forms of faith. Some have explored traditional forms of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc.

Once people start searching their paths can go all over the place.

This leads me to that New York Times feature that traced some of these trends right to the final acts of seekers’ lives. The headline was:

The Rise of Back-to-the-Basics Funerals

Baby Boomers Are Drawn to Green and Eco-Friendly Funerals

The New York City opening — in trendy Park Slope, of course — sets the tone. Spot all the key elements, one at a time:

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Did Pope Francis have to go to confession?

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RACHAEL ASKS:

Who does the pope go to if he has to go to confession or is he exempt because he’s the pope?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The pope gets no pass because he’s the pope.

Pope Francis, who has shown a flair for the dramatic his first year in office, demonstrated this in highly unusual fashion during this Lenten season, which puts special emphasis on contrition for sin. On March 28, to the surprise of worshippers in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pontiff publicly kneeled before a priest with his back to the cameras and congregation and confessed his sins for about three minutes. The AP reported the priest seemed to chuckle so perhaps he was also surprised. Then Francis joined 61 priests along the sanctuary walls who heard confessions from penitents, something popes usually do on Good Fridays.

The doctrine of original sin says (and history sometimes proves) that the popes are flawed humans just like all the rest of us. A pope’s infallibility involves only his personal definitions of faith and morals.

Francis explained at a weekly “general audience” talk last November that “priests and bishops too have to go to confession. We are all sinners. Even the pope confesses every 15 days, because the pope is also a sinner. And the confessor hears what I tell him; he counsels me and forgives me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness.”

Francis appreciates performing this priestly function. In off-the-cuff remarks on Pentecost Eve last year he said he regrets he cannot do it more often. “When I go to listen to confession — and I can’t yet because to go out and listen to confession, well, I can’t leave this place. But that’s another issue … ”

Catholicism asks all parishioners to regularly confess in order to be in the proper spiritual state to receive Communion, and by all means to do so during Lent.

Confession must be done before a priest who alone can grant absolution on God’s behalf and prescribe deeds of piety and charity as “satisfaction” for sin, as opposed to Protestants’ individual or group prayer for forgiveness directly to God. Francis stated in the November talk that God himself wills that believers “receive forgiveness by means of the ministers of the community.”

Penance (also called the sacrament of reconciliation) is so central that it takes up 76 sections in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This includes the teaching, rejected by Protestants, that the church has the unique power to grant “indulgences” that remove partial or full punishment due to sin for either the living or the dead in Purgatory. Observance of Penance has declined this past generation more than with the church’s other six sacraments (Communion, baptism, confirmation, clergy ordination, marriage and the anointing of the sick).

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Why did some ancient religions fall and others rise?

MADDIE ASKS:

What caused ancient religions to become less prevalent?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Our previous Q and A item treated ancient Confucianism, Jainism, Shinto and Taoism, which have survived into the 21st Century but with radically diminished status. Maddie wonders why ancient Babylonian, Greek and Roman mythologies died out and Zoroastrianism has nearly disappeared while Judaism and Hinduism didn’t vanish like other ancient creeds. She asks, did the younger proselytizing faiths of Christianity and Islam simply “push out” the dead creeds?

All very intriguing.

There’s ample mystery here and The Guy is a journalist, not an expert on the history of world religions. But we can scan some common theories. Of course believers in an ancient faith that survived presumably attribute this to divine intervention.

Does dynamism explain the expansion of Christianity and Islam? Or rather, did internal weaknesses of other faiths doom them? Perhaps both. Islam has always had global ambitions and expanded through evangelism (“dawah,” Arabic for “invite”) and also political, social and military pressures. Christianity is equally evangelistic but in modern times mostly gains adherents without political or military force.

Zoroastrianism has at least survived while many other ancient creeds did not. This great faith was formulated by Zoroaster (or Zarathushtra) around the 6th Century B.C.E., the same remarkable spiritual epoch that produced the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, Mahavira, and major prophets in the Bible. It long dominated its homeland of Persia (present-day Iran). But Muslim forces invaded in a 7th Century C.E. conquest and over time used this control to almost totally supplant the older religion. Unlike Islam, Zoroastrianism has not utilized evangelism or political-military tactics. Today it survives among some few Iranians who haven’t emigrated along with perhaps 200,000 “Parsis,” descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Persia for India. Today’s tiny numbers appear destined to shrink even further due to a low birth rate.

Zoroaster shared with Judaism the worship of one supreme being, Ahura Mazda (the “Wise Lord”) and some propose that monotheism is the key to perpetuating a faith. Perhaps so in some cases, but that cannot explain the long lifespan and impact of Hinduism, with a multitude of gods, or of Buddhism, which doesn’t necessarily worship gods at all.

Another theory that seems to better fit the historical evidence is that long-term success requires a definitive body of holy writings with captivating messages in poetry and prose. Such are the Zoroastrian Avesta and the Rig Veda, a hymn collection that’s the earliest and most important of Hinduism’s four central scriptures. Tradition says the Hindu text dates back countless thousands of years; western experts believe that at minimum it originated prior to Moses, the traditional author of the Bible’s first five books.

Similarly, the remarkable survival of Judaism despite oppression could be attributed to its incomparable Tanakh (Christians’ “Old Testament”). As Simon Schama’s new book The Story of the Jews says, the Hebrew Bible provided “compact, transferable history, law, wisdom, poetic chant, prophecy, consolation and self-strengthening counsel.” With the Bible came articulated belief in the one God, developed scriptural moral codes and laws, and bookish intellectual rigor growing from biblical study and commentary, all resulting in strong ethnic solidarity.

Today’s world Jewish population is 15 million. Though Judaism has survived, like Zoroastrianism it seems destined to gradually fade as secularized Jews defect from belief in God and study and practice of their ancestral faith, alongside higher intermarriage and lower birth rates.

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Just another generic do-gooder on a Baltimore pro team

At this point, I have just about decided that the editors of The Baltimore Sun sports section have banned the use of the word “Christian” in stories about local and national athletes. Several times a year (for an imperfect survey, click here), the newspaper that lands in my front door prints a sports story that, from beginning to end, is full of religious themes, yet stops short of printing a few crucial facts.

Consider, for example, this profile of Jemile Weeks, who is competing for a second-base slot in the Baltimore Orioles line-up. This is very ordinary sports-page stuff, although it is pretty obvious what Weeks is from a rather unusual family (and I’m not talking about the fact that his big brother is the better known pro Rickie Weeks).

The X-factor in his family? The only word that leaps to mind is “ministry.” Note the hook at the end of the opening anecdote.

In early December, Jemile Weeks’ baseball career was thrown upside down. He was traded away from the only organization he had ever known, the Oakland Athletics, and sent to the Orioles for one of the franchise’s most popular players, closer Jim Johnson, in what was immediately deemed a salary dump.

Although the 27-year-old second baseman viewed it as a new opportunity, the external pressure was once again descending on Weeks, a 2008 first-rounder who grew up playing in, and around, the shadow of his All-Star big brother, Rickie.

But Weeks didn’t have time to get caught up in the hoopla; he was too busy trying to figure out how to feed 1,000 people and how he could borrow a bounce house or two.

Feeding the 1,000? What is that all about? As it turns out, the event is linked to a charity near his old stomping grounds in Orlanda, Fla.

Spot the key word in this summary of the roots of this project:

A month before the deal, his offseason schedule got particularly complicated when he announced at a periodic family meeting — yes, two pro ballplayers and a community-relations professional sister still have occasional family meetings with their parents — that he wanted to host a community event for charity near where he grew up in Orlando, Fla. Never mind that Weeks had never attempted such an event or that Christmas was a month away. That was what he wanted to do. And so it was going to happen.

“With my own hands, I reached out to people I know and my sister did, along with my mom’s church,” Weeks said. “I just phoned friends. I got the bounce houses and the food, pizzas and ice cream, and asked for live performances from people I knew.”

Simple as that.

Now what, precisely, does the phrase “my mom’s church” mean? Also, what does it mean — a few lines later — when the story notes that the event featured the work of an “inspirational rapper”?

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