Memorial Day frame game

GetReligion readers: What’s wrong with the lede to this AP story?

Pope Benedict XVI stepped into an Italian referendum battle Monday, endorsing efforts by the country’s Roman Catholic bishops to restrict assisted fertility treatments.

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A most ecumenical parting of ways

In writing a brief profile of newly approved federal judge Priscilla Owen, David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times touched on her experience at St. Barnabas the Encourager Evangelical Covenant Church:

In more recent years, Ms. Owen also became much more religious, her sister said. Republicans have lauded her role as a founding member of St. Barnabas Church, a theologically conservative congregation in Austin where she still teaches Sunday school. “On any given Sunday, you can find Justice Owen hopping on one leg, reading stories,” Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said last week.

Democrats have criticized an allusion to religion in an opinion she wrote arguing against exempting a teenager seeking an abortion from the state’s parental notification law. The law’s requirement of an “informed” decision, Ms. Owen argued, included an understanding “that some women have experienced severe remorse and regret” and consideration “that there are philosophic, social, moral and religious arguments” about abortion, as well.

Ms. Owen’s defenders argue that she was interpreting an ambiguous law in a way consistent with its legislative history and that courts later cleared up its meaning. And her pastor, the Rev. Jeff Black, said she would never impose her religious views in a court. “If it was a believer who came to her and said, ‘What should I do?’ then she would say, ‘Here is what the Scripture says,’” Mr. Black said. “But in a court of law, she would never do that.”

Hold the phone: St. Barnabas the Encourager Evangelical Covenant Church? As the name suggests, this congregation did not begin its life within the Evangelical Covenant fold.

St. Barnabas is a religion writer’s dream of a feature story with eclectic details. Black built the congregation — as a mission of the Episcopal Church — through meetings of the Alpha Course. But then along came the General Convention of 2003, which took the Episcopal Church in a decidedly more liberal direction on homosexuality, and St. Barnabas became one of several congregations to break from its diocese and the denomination.

As Eileen Flynn wrote in the Austin American-Statesman in late March, St. Barnabas is now a former Episcopal parish and a new member of an evangelical Protestant denomination meeting in the activity center of St. William’s Roman Catholic Church:

Black and St. William’s pastor, the Rev. Joel McNeil, found that they shared the same biblical view of homosexuality.

McNeil said when he heard about St. Barnabas last year, he was “impressed with the integrity of the pastor and the congregation” for determining they could not in good conscience remain in the Episcopal Church.

“There’s a lot of pressure, it seems, to make the church like the world rather than evangelizing the world,” McNeil said. “I admire that they have resisted those pressures and have decided to maintain the traditional Christian belief.”

Word of McNeil’s support traveled to Black via a St. William’s parishioner visiting St. Barnabas as a photo copier salesman.

The two priests started talking and discovered they could help each other.

Founded in 1997, St. Barnabas congregants had been worshipping in rented North Austin office space and wanted a permanent home. St. William’s was building a church near its present location on McNeil Road and needed to sell a 6½-acre parcel and parish center.

And it just so happened that Black’s mother was the librarian at McNeil’s junior high school in Rome, N.Y., in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, the roughly 250 St. Barnabas members had decided they wanted to officially join the Chicago-based Evangelical Covenant Church, an ecumenical fellowship of churches founded by Swedish immigrants in 1885, after several months of an informal association.

The covenant offered to buy the St. William’s property and closed on the $1.7 million sale with the Catholic Diocese on Friday. Black said his congregation expects to invest $400,000 in improvements to the property, including an additional building for offices and classrooms.

The two congregations will share the parish center over the next year until St. William’s facility is complete.

The details are too intricate for a brief profile of Priscilla Owen, but they’re fascinating nonetheless — especially amid the now-standard accusation that any congregation breaking away from the Episcopal Church is guilty of Donatism and doomed to a lifetime of schism.

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What will Andrew Sullivan say to this?

That sound you just heard on the other side of the Atlantic was the million or so people who still sit in pews in the postmodern Church of England picking up a copy of the Sunday Times and shouting, in unison, “Say WHAT!?!?!”

This will be followed by a louder response to the same headline at altars in the more traditional Anglican Third World.

The headline on reporter Christopher Morgan’s exclusive says it all: “Church to let gay clergy ‘marry’ but they must stay celibate.” And here is the opening of this amazing story, which will almost certainly infuriate all kinds of people on both sides of the church aisle.

Homosexual priests in the Church of England will be allowed to “marry” their boyfriends under a proposal drawn up by senior bishops, led by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The decision ensures that gay and lesbian clergy who wish to register relationships under the new “civil partnerships” law — giving them many of the tax and inheritance advantages of married couples — will not lose their licences to be priests.

They will, however, have to give an assurance to their diocesan bishop that they will abstain from sex. The bishops are trying to uphold the church doctrine of forbidding clergy from sex except in a full marriage. They accept, however, that the new law leaves them little choice but to accept the right of gay clergy to have civil partners.

You have to hand it to Williams, that bookish Oxford don with the knack for splitting hairs — poetically. This compromise is really going to calm things down before that tense June 21 conclave that is supposed to sort out all of the loose ends about sacraments and sexuality (and major donations from the rich Episcopal Church in the United States). Things were tense enough in the Anglican Communion as it was.

“Married,” but with mandatory celibacy. I wonder who came up with that compromise? Try to figure out the theological logic of it, beginning on either the left or the right. In other words, Pope Benedict the XVI may want to check his voicemail for calls from England.

Which raises another question. Anyone want to predict what Andrew Sullivan will have to say about this? I asked him, a year or two ago, why he had not left Rome in order to join the C of E. He never answered back.

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Bono defends U2's "Streets"

There isn’t a strong religion-news hook to this next item from the Chicago Tribune, unless one assumes that any story involving U2 and Bono has a neo-messianic theme in there somewhere between the lines.

Or maybe religion really does have something to do with this unusual in-print encounter between the U2 frontman and music critic Greg Kot, which ran online with the headline “Bono: ‘We need to talk.’” The Tribune page for the Q&A has several interesting links to previous stories that let you know where this all came from.

Suffice it to say, Kot thinks U2 has gone stale and old-fashioned, during the current hot-ticket tour. The band is performing too many of its classics, he thinks. On top of that, he is upset about U2′s “Vertigo” ad — done for no pay — on behalf of the iPod universe.

Just to get specific about things, Kot wants to know why U2 is so fond of songs like that old-fashioned, non-ironic, hyper-sincere chestnut, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” What’s up with that?

Bono was rather ticked off and called Kot up, requesting a heart-to-heart on the record. That’s the source of the Tribune update. They cover all kinds of ground, but the many U2 fans-of-faith will be especially interested in what Mr. Sunglasses has to say in defense of that old “Streets” song.

It seems that it does play a crucial role in the band’s inner world. A certain place is going to freeze over before this particular justice-hungry glimpse of a New Jerusalem shows up in an ad.

We have turned down enormous sums of money to put our songs in a commercial, where we felt, to your point, where it might change the way people appreciated the song. We were offered $23 million for just the music to “Where the Streets Have No Name.” We thought we could do a lot of good with that money. Give it away. But if a show is a little off, and there’s a hole, that’s the one song we can guarantee that God will walk through the room as soon as we play it. So the idea that when we played it, people would go, “That’s the ‘such-and-such’ commercial,” we couldn’t live with it.

All in all, it is a very interesting exchange for music fans and especially for those who have followed U2 for a long time. I do get the impression that the music critic isn’t all that fond of the Catholic-Presbyterian fusion side of the band. Kot wants more Zoo TV-style experimentation. The U2 base still wants three chords and the truth.

But forget U2 for a minute. Three cheers to Bono and Kot for even having this conversation and then putting it into print. There are many, many religion-related stories that I wish could receive this kind of follow-up attention in a major MSM outlet — printed on dead tree pulp or online in bytes. More!

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Special "ooooh, you said the f-word!" edition

“[F]ear, fundamentalism, and Fox News.”

Those, according to the always interesting religion writer Mark Tooley, are what the National Council of Churches’ Bob Edgar told Religion News Service he wants to redefine the term “moral values” to transcend. In a fun piece for The American Spectator, Tooley tries to broaden our understanding of the religious dimension of the filibuster debate. Worth a read:

The Religious Right was popularly portrayed as a chief supporter for Republican efforts to curtail filibusters against President Bush’s judicial nominees. But the Religious Left was just as outspoken in supporting filibusters, even while hypocritically chastising Senate Republican leader William Frist for supposedly injecting religion into the issue.

Characteristic of the Religious Left’s vituperations was a letter of protest to Senator Frist from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

“The rhetoric that some people of faith — Republicans, conservatives, or fundamentalists — ‘have it right’ and all other people of faith have it wrong not only is self righteous, but inappropriately polarizes people of faith for political purposes,” said Bishop Mark Hanson.

Hanson accused Frist of “political manipulation” for allegedly judging the faith of some based on their politics. But only a month earlier, Hanson was questioning the faith of President Bush and his supporters based on the administration’s budget proposals, which reduced the rate of increase in some social welfare programs. …

The National Council of Churches (NCC) led the way in excoriating the ostensible threat of theocracy posed by President Bush, Senator Frist, and conservative religious people who support Bush’s judicial nominees.

“Their attempt to impose on the entire country a narrow, exclusivist, private view of truth is a dangerous, divisive tactic,” intoned Bob Edgar, the United Methodist minister and former Democratic congressman who heads the chronically left-leaning NCC.

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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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