The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the liturgy

Last Sunday’s clown Eucharist at the Episcopal Church’s powerhouse congregation of Trinity Wall Street has miraculously eluded any coverage in The New York Times, though it picked up a squib in the Daily News. That paper’s headline made the inevitable reference to Judy Collins’ hit song: “Rev. sends in clowns to teach a lesson” (to which I feel compelled to add, “Don’t bother [maudlin pause] they’re here.”

Trinity Wall Street’s rector, the Rev. Dr. James Herbert Cooper, came prepared with theological reflections on living the clown life. “Clowns represent the underdog, the lowly, the remnant people. Their foolishness is a call to unpretentiousness,” Cooper said in the Daily News article. “As St. Paul said, ‘The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of the world.’”

The niche-market Downtown Express nabbed this remark by Cooper from Trinity Wall Street’s website: “In the clown, God has shot from his cannon for us a vivid symbol of divine foolishness.”

Hey, speak for yourself, brother.

If you’ve been eager to relive the days of Godspell, there’s a streaming video (requires Windows Media Player) of the clown Eucharist — every ostentatiously unpretentious minute of it — on Trinity’s website. (If you prefer the mime-only sermon, clown-walk here instead.)

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The dilemma of digital dharma

How many of you can remember stories about the impact of cable and satellite television on evangelicals and charistmatics? Good.

How many of you remember stories about the whole wired-sanctuary, plasma-screen worship movement among modern megachurches? OK, that’s good too. All of that is valid news.

Every now and then, it is good to see a glimpse of other world religions crashing into modern technology, I mean other than the impact of cell telephones and the Internet on Islamic fundamentalism. This week’s Religion News Service “article of the week” by reporter Joshua M. Greene is a news feature that does just that.

(What this means is that RNS puts the text of this article online for a week. So if you want to read it, click here now. After that, you can Google for it or try Beliefnet’s news section, which always posts a good selection of RNS copy.)

The headline is “Hindu Holy Place Altered by Technology, Development, Pollution” and the dateline is Vrindavan, India. So what happens when you take a quiet, scenic Hindu holy place two miles from Delhi and then blend in digital telephones, real-estate sharks, boom boxes, satellite dishes, automobiles, solar panels and other signs of modern life? It’s hard not to notice the changes.

Not everyone is happy with the transition.

“It is a painful subject,” says Shrivatsa Goswami, whose family traces its roots to Vrindavan’s 16th-century restorers. “In those days, this place had the most beautiful riverside architecture in India’s history. It was like a miniature painting come alive.”

Goswami notes that previous generations of temple authorities understood the importance of holy places and took responsibility for their maintenance. Today, he says, that sense of stewardship is absent. . . . (With) modernization, the nature of pilgrimage to this holy spot has shifted dramatically. As recently as the 1980s, hardly one car a day arrived here, and there was little to distract from an all-day walking tour of medieval sites. Today, traffic backs up along the newly completed six-lane National Highway. A water park has opened less than seven miles from Govardhan, a hill that is among Vrindavan’s most sacred spots. Near the actual site of Krishna’s appearance in nearby Mathura, Pepsi-Cola has constructed a production plant. Cell phone towers loom up into the sky over temple domes.

Got the picture? But this is where the story gets interesting, raising questions that are surprisingly universal.

At what point do “austere conditions” begin to turn off and, thus, turn away modern pilgrims? Is it acceptable to modernize religious sanctuaries, if that is what the modern consumer wants? Does any of this affect prayer? The soul? How important is it to, as Greene puts it, separate the “spiritual dabblers from the truly devout”?

Now where have I heard those questions before?

Check this story out, before it goes offline. I have said this before, but people who are truly interested in religion news need a way to interact with RNS.

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SpongeBob SqaurePants, pray for us

Just when you thought it was safe to watch SpongeBob SquarePants again, David Crumm of the Detroit Free Press reports on the cartoon character’s effect on a professor’s free-speech rights. The main focus of Crumm’s report is on the new book What God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage by psychology professor David G. Myers — of Hope College in Holland, Michigan — and Letha Dawson Scanzoni.

As part of this report, though, Crumm mentions that an assistant religion professor, Miguel De La Torre, is leaving Hope for the far more gay-friendly environment of Iliff School of Theology in Denver (where he will lead the seminary’s Justice and Peace Studies program). De La Torre ran afoul of James Dobson for writing a Holland Sentinel column mocking Dobson’s concerns about a video that included SpongeBob. Here are two paragraphs from De La Torre’s column, “When the Bible is used for hate”:

Sadly, today the Bible is being used to oppress, dishonor, and persecute our queer brothers and sisters, who like the rest of us, are also created in the image of God. I am repulsed by politicians who have fanned the flames of hatred and fear toward gays in order to score votes with evangelical Christians. I am dismayed that the universal church of Jesus Christ has changed the message of salvation as an act of unconditional love to one where gays cannot be included among the saved. But does not Christ call us to love our (white, black, Latino/a, Native American, and yes gay) neighbor as ourselves?

No doubt some alert reader will respond to this column quoting the four or five biblical passages normally used to justify their continuous oppression and condemnation of homosexuality. I’ll wait till then to show how the dominant heterosexual community has been taught by their homophobic culture to read fear and bias into God’s Word, as did their spiritual ancestors.

Dobson responded in a Holland Sentinel op-ed column ten days later:

What did motivate Rev. de la Torre’s unprovoked attack? What is the hidden agenda that led him to distort the facts and spew his venom in my direction? I submit that it is politics. He is obviously an ultraliberal and I am a conservative. That’s why he is angry. He reveals that bias in the early section of his op-ed piece, when he accused me of taking credit for the re-election of George W. Bush. Again, de la Torre is dead wrong. I have never made such a statement, and have told Time, U.S. News and World Report, TV commentators Hannity and Colmes and other media outlets that my influence in the culture has been grossly overstated. I have taken credit for nothing and I deserve none.

Despite the distortions in the professor’s editorial, I wish him no ill will. I do worry, however, about the students who sit under his liberal tutelage at Hope College. I’m glad my son and daughter are not among them.

Crumm reports that De La Torre’s departure came after an exchange of letters with the college’s president, Jim Bultman:

In response to concerns on campus, Bultman met with several hundred students on April 26. He told them he had received no donor pressure and that De La Torre’s departure was his own choice.

It was only after the meeting that two letters between Bultman and De La Torre surfaced.

In a stern March 14 letter to De La Torre, Bultman criticized the SpongeBob essay.

“Hope is dependent on enrollment and gifts to drive the college financially,” the president wrote. “When people are displeased with what we do, their only recourse is to exercise their options with regard to enrollment and gifting. Several have indicated their intention to do so.”

A letter from De La Torre to Bultman in April revealed that the president also had denied the professor a merit raise.

Regarding Myers’ new book, Bultman tells Crumm, “While we may disagree on various things, Dave has always been as accurate as he can be, as respectful as he can be, and he has always attributed comments to himself, not to the college.”

Crumm writes about the significance of the new book:

“Myers’ book is a breakthrough. It’s going to be a lifeline for so many innocent people who are suffering,” Mel White, the nation’s leading religious activist promoting gay rights and head of the civil rights group Soulforce, said last week after reading an advance copy. “Hope may become known as a place of hope.”

Phyllis Tickle, an evangelical author and an expert on religious publishing, said Friday, “This book is a very important ‘first,’ not only for the gay community but also for the Christian community. This issue is so divisive that there isn’t even open conversation about it in many places. For a guy like this at Hope to be this brave is very exciting.”

But how this prophet will fare in his own hometown is unclear.

It’s not exactly a first. Back in 1978, Myers’ coauthor wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (with Virginia Mollenkott), which became a standard text at the now defunct left-of-center evangelical magazine, The Other Side. (Scanzoni revised and expanded the book in 1994.)

What will be worth watching is whether Myers’ work gives What God Has Joined Together? a deeper influence on mainstream evangelicals than Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? or Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate achieved.

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Where's the story?

I was alerted via e-mail by several people that — lo and behold — the FBI had now weighed in in the fake Koran flushing incident (previous GetReligion items here and here) in favor of claims that the flushing had, in fact, occurred.

Here’s the Washington Post story from today, and all I can say is better luck next time, guys. According to the Post (emphases added),

Nearly a dozen detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba told FBI interrogators that guards had mistreated copies of the Koran, including one who said in 2002 that guards “flushed a Koran in the toilet,” according to new FBI documents released today. . . .

Nearly all of the hundreds of pages of documents consist of FBI summaries of detainee interrogations, and therefore do not generally provide corroboration of the allegations. At least two detainees also conceded that they had not personally witnessed mistreatment of the Koran but had heard about incidents from other inmates, the records show.

I’m willing to believe that a Koran — or pages of a Koran, at any rate — were indeed flushed down a toilet as part of U.S. interrogations of prisoners. But I am not willing to believe this wholly on the prisoners’ say-so.

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Star Culture Wars (with links)

I have had some readers email me asking if I would post my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week, which can be found here.

I hesitate to do so, because that would be an obvious form of self-promotion. And if I was into obvious forms of self-promotion, I would mention the mid-November — just in time for Christmas shopping — release of my Pop Goes Religion: Faith and Culture in America, a book of new essays and clusters of columns on popular culture.

That’s what I would do if I were into that sort of thing. I might even mention that young Master Jeremy Lott is working on a book.

Meanwhile, this week’s column is about, what else, Revenge of the Sith. I think I will try to add some URLs to make this interactive. I wish I could do that with all of my columns.

So here goes:

While tweaking the original Star Wars movie for re-release, director George Lucas decided that he needed to clarify the status of pilot Han Solo’s soul.

In the old version, Solo shot first in his cantina showdown with a bounty hunter. But in the new one, Lucas addressed this moral dilemma with a slick edit that showed Greedo firing first. Thus, Solo was not a murderer, but a mere scoundrel on the way to redemption.

“Lucas wanted to make sure that people knew that Han didn’t shoot someone in cold blood,” said broadcaster Dick Staub. “That would raise serious questions about his character, because we all know that murder if absolutely wrong.”

The Star Wars films do, at times, have a strong sense of good and evil.

Yet in the climactic scene of the new “Revenge of the Sith,” the evil Darth Vader warns his former master: “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” Obi-Wan Kenobi replies, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Say what? If that is true, how did Lucas decide it was wrong for Solo to gun down a bounty hunter? Isn’t that a moral absolute? If so, why are absolutes absolutely wrong in the saga’s latest film? Good questions, according to Staub.

While we’re at it, the Jedi knights keep saying they must resist the “dark side” of the mysterious, deistic Force. But they also yearn for a “chosen one” who will “bring balance” to the Force, a balance between good and evil.

“There is this amazing internal inconsistency in Lucas that shows how much conflict there is between the Eastern religious beliefs that he wants to embrace and all those Judeo-Christian beliefs that he grew up with,” said Staub, author of a book for young people entitled “Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters.”

“I mean, you’re supposed balance the light and the dark? How does that work?”

The key is that Lucas — who calls himself a “Buddhist Methodist” — believes all kinds of things, even when the beliefs clash. This approach allows the digital visionary to take chunks of the world’s major religions and swirl them in the blender of his imagination. Thus, the Force contains elements of Judaism, Christianity, Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and even Islam.

None of this is surprising. Lucas merely echoes the beliefs of many artists in his generation and those who have followed. But the czar of Star Wars also has helped shape the imaginations of millions of spiritual consumers. His fun, non-judgmental faith was a big hit at the mall.

It is impossible, said Staub, to calculate the cultural impact of this franchise since the 1977 release of the first film — episode IV, “A New Hope.” The films have influenced almost all moviegoers, but especially Americans 40 and under.

“I don’t think there is anything coherent that you could call the Gospel According to Star Wars,” stressed Staub. “But I do think there are things we can learn from Star Wars. . . . I think what we have here is a teachable moment, a point at which millions of people are talking about what it means to choose the dark side or the light side.

“Who wants to dark side to win? Most Americans want to see good triumph over evil, but they have no solid reasons for why they do. They have no idea what any of this has to do with their lives.”

Staub is especially concerned about young Star Wars fans. He believes that many yearn for some kind of mystical religious experience, taught by masters who hand down ancient traditions and parables that lead to truths that have stood the test of time, age after age. These young people “want to find their Yoda, but they don’t think real Yodas exist anymore,” especially not in the world of organized religion, he said.

In the end, it’s easier to go to the movies.

Meanwhile, many traditional religious leaders bemoan the fact that they cannot reach the young. So they try to modernize the faith instead of digging back to ancient mysteries and disciplines, said Staub.

“So many churches are choosing to go shallow, when many young people want to go deep,” he said. “There are people who just want to be entertained. But there are others who want to be Jedis, for real.”

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There's something about "marry"

I’ve always had a soft spot in my cold black heart for The Washington Times’ refusal to run the term gay “marriage” without the scare quotes. That’s not the editorial call I would make were I in charge (and God help us all if that happens), but there’s something about the stubbornness to concede a point by accepting the usual terms of debate that I admire.

So, when I clicked on this Jerusalem Post story, the first sentence leaped out at me:

The Protestant campaign of divestment, meant to punish Israel for its “occupation,” is weakening.

The substance of the piece is solid enough. After the moral grandstanding of the last few years — during which many pro-Palestinian voices bent the ears of a number of mostly mainline Protestant churches with pleas to divest church holdings from businesses that do business with Israel — many churches are backing down from divestment. To wit:

The announcement by Massachusetts Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw — a staunch pro-Palestinian advocate — that he would oppose divestment efforts from within his church was the latest in a string of similar declarations by small member communities of America’s large liberal-leaning churches.

In fact, some of the advocates of divestment may come to regret the strategy. Reportedly, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has decided to call a pox down on both houses and encourage divestment in companies that deal with Palestinians as well as those that do business with Israel.

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The not-so-biblical biblical baccalaureate

Carolyn Bower of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch masters understatement in her report on Lindbergh High School’s students holding separate baccalaureates this year. It seems one group didn’t want to hear anything from the Qur’an, while another group didn’t want to be preached at. But let’s turn the narrative over to Bower’s story, which is all the richer for its just-the-facts tone and lack of scare quotes:

Baccalaureates are traditionally religious services held before graduation. One of Lindbergh’s will begin at 7 p.m. tonight in the high school auditorium in south St. Louis County. Invitations have listed TV evangelist Joyce Meyer as the invited headliner. Organizers call the event a biblical baccalaureate.

The other was May 17 in the auditorium also. The service offered reflections, a prayer, music, speeches and a video of teachers offering advice to students.

Earlier this year students began to disagree about what to offer in the baccalaureate service as well as who should organize the event.

Trinity Fry, 18, a Lindbergh senior, along with her mother, Joyce Fry, helped to organize tonight’s service.

“The biggest thing we didn’t want was people reading out of the Quran or other things,” Trinity said. “We wanted to include all students, but we didn’t want an interfaith service.” Trinity did not attend the service last week.

Rob Boston of Americans United also is understated in the response he offered to Bower:

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says the best solution is to have privately sponsored baccalaureates in private buildings or churches.

Boston said the Lindbergh case offered “a bit of a twist,” holding a privately sponsored baccalaureate on school grounds. But he said laws allow for private groups to access facilities on an equal basis.

“I’m not aware of other cases like this,” Boston said, adding he was shocked to hear Joyce Meyer would headline the event. “Those who attend can expect a heavy dose of Christian proselytizing.”

Bower missed one blazing irony in the story: The students who don’t want to hear anything from the Qur’an are apparently fine with hearing from one of the leading voices of prosperity theology (as reported with admirable thoroughness in the Post-Dispatch two years ago).

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Times! Finish the Ivy Christians story

The sterling New York Times reporting team of Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick served up a fine story idea this past weekend under the headline “On a Christian Mission to the Top.”

The basic question: What happens when very traditional Christians attempt to reestablish a base in what was once a haven for high-level discourse about faith — the Ivy League schools?

And the Times report about the “Christian Union” organization — which is reported in a very calm and fair manner — delivers the goods, at least at first. Here is a solid chunk of that, focusing on missionary Tim Havens and his work at Brown University:

Like most of the Ivy League universities, Brown was founded by Protestant ministers as an expressly Christian college. But over the years it gradually shed its religious affiliation and became a secular institution, as did the other Ivies. In addition to Buddhists, the Brown chaplain’s office now recognizes “heathen/pagan” as a “faith community.”

But these days evangelical students like those in Mr. Havens’s prayer group are becoming a conspicuous presence at Brown. Of a student body of 5,700, about 400 participate in one of three evangelical student groups — more than the number of active mainline Protestants, the campus chaplain says. And these students are in the vanguard of a larger social shift not just on campuses but also at golf resorts and in boardrooms; they are part of an expanding beachhead of evangelicals in the American elite.

There you have the problem, slipping in there at the end of these summary paragraphs. Instead of focusing on a truly interesting trend — evangelicals trying to engage elite academic culture, rather than flee it — the story veers off into ultra-familiar territory about evangelical niches and the movement’s rising clout in other areas of American life, business and, of course, politics.

Yes, those subjects are connected to the Ivy League story. But the Times report dedicates so much attention there that — quite literally — the story never delivers the goods on the subject in the lead. It seems that the story gets hijacked a third of the way in and it never recovers.

Here is another glimpse of what could have been:

Now a few affluent evangelicals are directing their attention and money at some of the tallest citadels of the secular elite: Ivy League universities. Three years ago a group of evangelical Ivy League alumni formed the Christian Union, an organization intended to “reclaim the Ivy League for Christ,” according to its fund-raising materials, and to “shape the hearts and minds of many thousands who graduate from these schools and who become the elites in other American cultural institutions.”

The Christian Union has bought and maintains new evangelical student centers at Brown, Princeton and Cornell, and has plans to establish a center on every Ivy League campus. In April, 450 students, alumni and supporters met in Princeton for an “Ivy League Congress on Faith and Action.”

I hope this is the start of a series of articles, but I doubt that is the case.

In the end, it seems that anything linked to religious believers has to get hooked to the true religion in the Times newsroom — politics. That is, after all, what life is all about.

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