Question authority (absolutely)

QuestionMark.jpgA developing story in mainline Protestantism reminds me of the oft-repeated joke about what you get if you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness: Somebody who knocks at your door for no apparent reason.

This is the developing story: Liberal Protestants are developing programs to compete with the Alpha Course, a curriculum from the Church of England parish called Holy Trinity Brompton that has found a home among churches ranging from Roman Catholic to The Salvation Army.

Like Alpha, these alternatives begin with a community meal, offer a teaching on videotape or DVD and then turn to roundtable discussion in small groups. Like Alpha, they say all questions are welcome. Unlike Alpha, they prefer questions over answers.

I wrote a feature about one such curriculum, Via Media, for the July/August 2004 Episcopal Life. More recently I wrote a critique of it for Kendall Harmon’s weblog, Titus One Nine.

Lawn Griffiths of the East Valley Tribune in Arizona has written about a United Methodist curriculum called Living the Questions. Unlike Via Media, Living the Questions has chosen some pugnacious representatives of Jesus Seminar theology, including retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and Methodist theologian John B. Cobb Jr.

Griffiths mentions that the curriculum’s two creators, the Rev. Jeff Procter-Murphy of Phoenix and the Rev. David Felten of Scottsdale, believe Living the Questions presents “a deeper understanding that challenges their intellect and goes beyond historic doctrines and teachings.”

Spong states the contrast more bluntly:

During a recent celebration to launch the program, held at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Bishop Spong said he doubted the Christian church would die from controversy. “I think it will die of boredom,” he says in touting the Living the Questions program. Boredom comes when “no one is engaged when it speaks a language that doesn’t translate into your world,” he said.

Religious fundamentalists — be they in Judaism, Islam or Christianity — reject the modern world. “They are people who cannot embrace the reality of the world in which they live, so they build a defense against modernity. They sing their hymns and close their minds” and proclaim, “We have the truth. The Bible is inerrant, the pope is infallible, there is only one way to God, and we possess it,” Spong says. Such statements, he said, “become the language of their security.”

Whether Living the Questions represents a second Reformation, as the two pastors believe, will be a story worth watching for many years to come. That may depend on whether the program spends less time on the phantom threat of fundamentalism and more time on what its adherents can affirm — other than more questions, of course.

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A ghost in Jessica Simpson's tummy aches

JEssica2.jpgLet me assure readers that I am not writing the following post in another attempt to lure search-engine hits by linking the words “Jessica Simpson” and “GetReligion.” Honest. That’s the naked truth. I just had to get that off my chest and make a clean breast of things.

No, I saw this Los Angeles Times article last week and then lost it in the overload of email on my computers. I ran into it again today and it bugged me again.

OK, the basic idea is that CNN is so desperate for viewers that it is seeking new ways to pump up news numbers, primarily through a fusion of subjects such as politics and entertainment, crime and entertainment and, well, entertainment and entertainment. The headline was a classic: “Jessica Simpson’s tummy aches, next on Headline News.” Here is a key part of reporter Paul Brownfield’s story about the new “Headline Prime” lineup at CNN Headline News:

You know Headline News, it’s where you go to get nuance on the Islamist platform of the United Iraqi Alliance while you’re on the treadmill at the gym. Now the network has scheduled “Showbiz Tonight” at 4 and then again at 7, a beguiling hour of entertainment industry nonsense, followed by “Nancy Grace,” which is pitched as a tough-talking legal affairs program, but is closer in spirit to “America’s Most Wanted,” not to mention Maury Povich, Sally Jesse Raphael and Jerry Springer. . . .

Then follows a spruced-up, hourlong version of Headline News’ bread and butter, called “Prime News Tonight.” Co-hosted by Mike Galanos and Erica Hill, who are trying for a news-magazine feel, the show spends four minutes on the bird flu story instead of one. It means to be more serious, to slow down Headline News’ usual Orwellian loop of national and global misery and fear, and it does this job in a serviceable way. But the rubric is still the world as infotainment: Should we be scared of this bird flu? And what’s this latest identity theft scam? Now here’s our tech guy to tell you about some new gadgets.

Here is my question (or, truth be told, questions). If CNN is interested in finding new niche audiences linked to prime news topics, what would it take to demonstrate the need for a regular show focusing on news and commentary about religion? I realize this is not exactly Ted Turner territory, but there may be people in CNN executive suites who have noted some of the Fox demographics.

But while we are talking about that, what would it take to inspire Fox News to do a hard news and commentary show on religion? Doesn’t that seem like a rather obvious product for the Bible Belt cable-news giant?

Peter Jennings once told me that World News Tonight‘s reports on religion by Peggy Wehmeyer generated the program’s highest positive viewer response rates — ever. I do not know if that is still true, but I doubt — in light of world events over the past four years or so — that viewer interest in religion news has declined.

Of course, I fear that some cable network is going to create a format that combines religion and entertainment and then hire some born-again celebrity to host it, someone such as — Jessica Simpson?

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Right hooks, left crosses

Healy.JPGGetReligion doesn’t normally take notice of obscure right wing fisticuffs, but I’m going to make an exception because I was one of the dogs in the fight, and because the fight ended up in The Boston Globe.

On Wednesday, February 23, I took part in an America’s Future Foundation roundtable at the Fund for American Studies building. The title was “Conservatives and Libertarians: Can This Marriage Be Saved?”

As the ad copy put it, “Arguing to keep the marriage together will be W. James Antle III of the American Conservative and Jeremy Lott of the Cato Institute. Amy Mitchell of the American Spectator and Nick Gillespie of Reason will take the side of divorce.”

The debate was moderated by colleague Gene Healy (pictured). He told me after that he had a heck of a time not jumping in.

The way Cathy Young frames it in her Monday column for the Globe, the tension on the panel was between secular, tolerant libertarians and government-boosting, finger-wagging social conservatives. That tension was there, but I believe it was not the important fault line in the debate.

In his post-debate summary, Healy noted that

In the course of debating whether conservatives and libertarians should stick together, it became clear that there was no fundamental agreement about the definitions of conservative and libertarian. In Jim Antle’s telling, a conservative is someone who champions family, faith and freedom against the forces of centralization, whether red-team or blue. I don’t think I’m being unfair to say that in Amy Mitchell’s account, it’s someone who roots, roots, roots for the red team.

Nor was there much agreement about what it means to be a libertarian among the libertarian panelists. Jeremy Lott saw no inconsistency between libertarianism and moderate social conservatism, so long as it’s not enforced by the state. Nick Gillespie, on the other hand, argued that a monomaniacal focus on the state left out some important aspects of liberalism. He rejected the notion that libertarianism could be limited to the realm of political philosophy. At one point, he noted that we were dramatically freer than we had been decades ago, because, among other things, in 1970 it was difficult for an unmarried couple to check into a hotel together. Afterwards, I wondered what the hell that had to do with libertarianism, and a friend cracked that I must have skipped the part about hot-pillow joints in Locke’s Second Treatise.

Former boss Nick Gillespie and yours truly came to blows over precisely what libertarianism is. I picked up on a statement that he had made on a television chat show recently to the effect that “Libertarianism isn’t just about government. It’s about expanding choices,” and said, Oh no it isn’t.

I insisted that libertarianism is and always has been a philosophy of government. It’s about distrusting the state and attempting to limit it, draw it back, check its excesses. I pointed out that the first entry in the book The Libertarian Reader is a selection from the Bible, where the high priest Samuel tells the people the horrible things that would come their way if they decided to have a king.

My debate partner Jim Antle insisted that, in the political arena, libertarians who chose to go it alone would be remembered as a bunch of ineffective “hipster-posers,” which drew a few laughs.

I gave myself over to the difficult task of selling social conservatives to libertarians. I argued that the “modern religious right as a mass political movement began not with Roe v. Wade but with Jimmy Carter’s ham-fisted attempts to interfere with private Christian schools.” People forget that a lot of the millions of freshly registered conservative Christian voters who put Reagan over the top in 1980 saw their collective political involvement as what we might call a “defensive action.”

I didn’t skirt difficult issues such as abortion, but I cautioned against dividing voters into economic conservatives and social conservatives. For some, such as GetReligion’s own Terry Mattingly, the division is there. But for most churchgoing, right-of-center voters, I argued,

Religious conservatives may not hold to the canons of libertarianism as laid out by Murray Rothbard or even Charles Murray, but the instincts are there. They understand the virtue of thrift and they don’t want the government to spend like a drunken Democrat either. They want a less oppressive tax burden just as much as we do. And George W. Bush would not be pursuing Social Security privatization if James Dobson and Franklin Graham objected.

So there you go. Outraged readers may now proceed to call me a selfish hedonist in the comments threads.

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Is Jeff Koyen a free speech martyr . . .

presslogo.gif Or just a gasbag? I’m strongly leaning toward the latter opinion after reading Koyen’s letter to the New York gossip website Gawker, explaining why he chose to resign as editor of the New York Press rather than take a two week unpaid suspension over last week’s anti-pope cover story.

As Koyen wrote, “I won’t be sent to my room without dessert. Hence, I resigned this morning.”

Koyen refused to go without getting in a few shots. He called publisher Chris Rohland a “spineless alt-weekly weenie” who is too comfortable with his wife and two kids in New Jersey to want to get caught up in controversy, and he accused owner David Unger of being “similarly spineless.”

After thanking his colleagues, Koyen again launched into Rohland and Unger, saying that “Such weak-willed and lackluster men should not be in control of a newspaper, especially not in these times of editorial restriction by way of advertiser dick-sucking. They’re too vulnerable to the appeal of money.”

As Koyen saw it, the publisher and owner had committed two offenses. They had told him to take those two weeks to “think about what this paper should be,” and they had refused to stand up for him in this “battle” of “free expression.”

“Problem is, New York Press already is the paper it should be,” Koyen wrote. “We are iconoclastic, occasionally obnoxious but always intelligent. If you see through the nasty Pope jokes, for instance, you will see a well-reasoned political argument.”

Koyen seized on Rep. Anthony Weiner’s mild comments that he hoped fellow New Yorkers would “exercise their right to take as many of these rags as they can and put them in the trash,” and cried censorship.

The only problem with that interpretation of Weiner’s remarks is that it completely misses the context. Weiner began by saying that, as a free alt-weekly, the Press is “way overpriced.” He then affirmed that “everyone has a right to free speech.” Further, it’s not clear that the congressman was telling New Yorkers to remove bundles of copies from the newsstands to trash them rather than just the one that they’re allowed. In other words, the sanest reading of Weiner’s words would be, “Ugh! This is trash!”

I would be negligent if I didn’t repeat here that even Satanists seem to agree with that judgment.

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Evangelicals without placards — will miracles never cease?

AbortionPlacards.jpgHanna Rosin of The Washington Post wandered onto David Kirkpatrick’s turf during the weekend, attempting to explain those strange new creatures in town who are called evangelicals. Rosin interviews several people, but the anecdotes of one political consultant, Lyric Hassler, provide the central image of the piece.

Embarrassing memories from Hassler’s teenage years — “chastising her church youth group for wasting time on frivolous pizza parties, ignoring any TV that wasn’t ‘The 700 Club’ — become a symbol for what Rosin describes as evangelical political involvement in previous decades.

Hassler uses the word “Uchhhhhh” (or “Uccch” — your spelling, like Rosin’s, may vary) in recalling her teenager zeal, and Rosin projects it onto an entire adult subculture:

It’s the sound of a movement shoving aside its past like so many pairs of braces. The conservative Christian political movement that burst on Washington in the ’80s, the activists with their aborted-fetus placards and their heady plans to colonize school boards and their here-and-now visions of the Apocalypse, their early years are now a source of embarrassment to themselves.

Amen to them. No more thundering sermons on Wiccans and floods and child molesters, caught on tape and leaked by a political opponent. No more pronouncements about “signs” showing up in California. No more horrors from the Book of Revelation.

What, no reference to the Vanishing Hitchhiker or screams from Hell at a Siberian drilling site? Evangelicals who served in Congress during those years, such as Mark Hatfield and the late Rep. Paul B. Henry, don’t appear in Rosin’s story, perhaps because they weren’t waving “aborted-fetus placards.”

It’s not that evangelicals are any less unusual in what they believe, Rosin suggests, but that they’ve learned good PR skills: “They may believe everything they believed before, but they’ve learned to speak in ways that are more measured and cautious and designed not to attract attention.”

The tone continues as she describes newcomer John Thune:

Sen. John Thune is the movement’s new David, having overthrown former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. When talking about abortion, the South Dakota Republican prefers abstractions: “I like to connect my principled view with my policy objectives,” he says. “Good principles can lead to good policy.”

“Principles.” “Policy.” This could be Hillary Clinton talking about health care, Ralph Nader discussing emission standards. He could be anyone in Washington, talking about anything.

To secular humanists or even your average Democrat, Thune Land is a scary, scary frontier. “He is this new kind of Republican creature who puts an innocuous face on the religious right,” says a Daschle aide who worked on the campaign. “Behind this cheerful frat-boy basketball-star persona is just the same old beast of the far right.”

What qualifies Thune for this description? That never becomes clear, unless holding conservative positions on abortion or gay rights now qualifies as far right: “But Thune has nothing to hide. Ask him about abortion or gay rights, and he will answer straightforwardly, nicely, sensibly. He’d rather be elected deputy majority whip (which he just was) than lead a fringe movement.”

Ah, but Rosin sees through the façade of civility. Evangelicals still believe that, whatever the question, Jesus is the answer:

Rick Warren heads the list, and he is the perfect embodiment of the new ethos. Warren, who is a pastor in California, wrote “The Purpose Driven Life,” the best-selling hardcover book in U.S. publishing history. There is only one way to find purpose: “placing our faith in Christ,” by being “born-again.” Period.

Is that not the most horrifying punctuating mark you’ve read in months?

On another cultural front, the Post‘s David Montgomery makes a lighthearted visit to Church of the Pilgrims Presbyterian, a gay-friendly congregation in the District, for a covert screening of the gay-friendly episode of Postcards from Buster.

Montgomery writes of the episode — TiVo’ed and burned onto a DVD by a church member’s sister — as if it’s video samizdat for the preschool set.

He quotes this dialogue from the show:

Buster: So Gillian’s your mom, too?
Emma [age 3]: She’s my stepmom.
Buster: Boy, that’s a lot of moms!
Emma: Yup. [Showing framed family photo.] This is mom and Gillian right here.
Buster: That’s a nice picture.
Emma: This is one of my favorite pictures.
Buster: How come?
Emma: Because it has my mom and Gillian, people I love a lot, and they read a lot to me.

Montgomery paraphrases Gillian Pieper, one of Emma’s two moms, as saying the producers “had been looking for two-mom families and settled on hers after another option fell through.”

It’s probably only a matter of time before pirated versions of the episode become available on eBay. If GetReligion readers know where to screen the episode via the Internet, give us a holler.

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Satanists for standards

JPII.jpgOver in the comments threads of Enter Stage Right, longtime New York Press contributor Alan Cabal tenders his resignation over the Press‘ recent anti-pope cover story. Cabal explains that he gave new editor Jeff Koyen and his sidekick Alexander Zaitchik

the benefit of the doubt [when they took over the paper after founder Russ Smith sold it], as I do with people in almost all circumstances. Their initial efforts seemed feeble and clumsy, but I felt that with some measure of support from the Old Guard they might be able to keep the transgressive pulse that drove the paper intact and keep it steady in these perilous times. I accepted the reduction in rates as a necessary sacrifice to keep the fiscally floundering effort afloat, assuming that at some point in the future, the disastrous decline in advertising revenues triggered by the 911 event might be reversed.

But he found that things didn’t exactly pan out:

Gone are the great iconoclasts attracted by [previous editor John] Strausbaugh’s unerring command of syntax and context. [Alexander] Cockburn, [Christopher] Caldwell, Andrey Slivka, R.S. McCain, J.T. LeRoy, Ned Vizzini, the incomparable Tony Millionaire, Taki, Szamuely, Bill Bryk, Amy Sohn, my dear friend Darius James, who first introduced me to John Strausbaugh — all gone. What fills the space? Bullies like J.R. Taylor and dickless juveniles like Matt Taibbi, whose hack tendencies clearly run in the family. Daddy does Michael Jackson on NBC, Sonny Boy trashes the Pope in a meaningless cat box liner. . . .

Lightweights all, desperately striving to be dangerous while leaving open the possibility of some safe and secure upward mobility in the defanged world of mainstream media. I’m a certified Satanist, and our current issue featuring Taibbi’s adolescent assault on the Pope embarrassed me. It was a waste of paper, and a mere insult, not in the least bit challenging, to the city’s Roman Catholic population. He could have gone into P2, Marcinkus, and the assassination of John Paul I, but no, the lazy brat just ran off a stupid and ugly list that a 12 year old Marilyn Manson fan could have done better.

Bottom line:

My loyalty has its limits, and here we are. Take my name off the masthead. I am no longer a “contributing writer” to this sophomoric mockery. NY Press once challenged the [Village] Voice — now it can barely compete with The Onion.

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Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput offers a Catch-22

chaput.jpgOne of the most exciting and terrifying features of the World Wide Web for me is the degree to which it places the building blocks of many news stories at the fingertips of readers and other journalists.

So you pick up your morning newspaper and read a reporter’s take on a major address by a local political leader. Hmmmm, you think to yourself, that report seems a little strange. So you get on the computer and click your way to the political leader’s homepage and read the transcript of the speech for yourself. Lo and behold, the reporter has ignored large chunks of the text, including sections that address the very topic that most interests you.

Will you trust this reporter’s byline again? Are you more likely to question his judgment and, perhaps, even ponder whether some bias is at work? You betcha.

I have advised friends who face tense news interviews to tape the interview for themselves. That way, if worse comes to worse, you can transcribe the tape and post it for yourself. Let people make up their own minds about what you said.

Here’s why I bring this up. The other day, the always outspoken Archbishop Charles Chaput addressed the City Club of Denver. It was a lively event, as was made clear in the opening of the Rocky Mountain News’ daily story, by veteran religion writer Jean Torkelson:

Verbal fisticuffs broke out Tuesday between Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and a luncheon audience that challenged him to defend the church’s role in public life.

“Why do (religions) feel they have to impose their views on us?” asked one woman during a spirited question-and-answer session following Chaput’s speech to the City Club of Denver.

“If we don’t — you’ll impose your views on us,” Chaput shot back to murmurs from the group of about 120 business and civic leaders.

And so forth and so on. The shorter piece in The Denver Post took basically the same approach — cover the questions raised by the speech rather than the speech itself.

Meanwhile, the cyber-friendly archbishop did that World Wide Web thing he likes to do. He posted the entire speech on his homepage at the archdiocesan site. If you read the speech, you can see that the reporters present were put in a rather ticklish situation. The opening of Chaput’s speech made it clear that he was tired of the press focusing only on one or two controversial Catholic teachings, while ignoring the church’s other work and teachings in areas that Rome believes are woven into one fabric of life and doctrine. Here is what that sounded like:

Some of you may remember that a year ago I was part of a rally on the Capitol steps to protect state funding for the poor and homeless. But you didnÂ’t read about it in the Rocky or the Denver Post, because they didnÂ’t cover it.

Last September, just a few weeks before the election, I preached a homily to 5,000 people at Red Rocks, and I had them repeat out loud three times that if we forget the poor, weÂ’ll go to hell. ThatÂ’s one of the principles of Catholic social teaching. If we forget the poor, God will forget us. By our indifference, we will damn ourselves. But you didnÂ’t read about that in the press either, because – again — nobody covered it.

Our diocesan website has at least 18 articles IÂ’ve written and talks IÂ’ve given against the death penalty in the past few years. TheyÂ’re just a fraction of what IÂ’ve said and done against capital punishment for more than three decades. The press covered that one time recently — when I criticized our Republican governor.

I think you can figure out where the archbishop is headed with this. He also knew, of course, that these quotes would never make it into the local newspapers.

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Theology of the snotty

nypress.jpgThe story thus far: On Tuesday, the Manhattan-based alt-weekly New York Press ran as a cover story an article by Matt Taibbi. The title? “The 52 Funniest Things About The Upcoming Death of The Pope.”

The first entry read:

“Pope pisses himself just before the end; gets all over nurse.”

The final entry:

“Throw a marble at the dead Pope’s head. Bonk!”

In between were such gems as:

“After beating for the last time, Pope’s heart sits there like a piece of hamburger.”


“Dead Pope, still with baboon face, wheeled through corridors of Gemelli Polyclinic in Rome, learns answer to Great Mystery.”

Taibbi has the haunted corpse of the pope complaining he can’t reach his penis and worrying that someone else is taking his job. He has the College of Cardinals burning “5000 back issues of Manscape and Hung Inches that had accumulated in the Vatican lobby” in the chimney to announce the election of the new pope. Taibbi included a lot of riffs that might appeal to a bunch of frat boys late Friday night/Saturday morning, after a kegger.

Outrage commenced.

In the New York Daily News, Lloyd Grove called the Press “a handout that is best used to line birdcages.” He wrote that the story was “shockingly offensive,” and solicited comments from fellow New Yorkers. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, Mayor Bloomberg, and even Abraham Foxman lined up to denounce the alt-weekly. And Press editor Jeff Koyen, who is not normally in the business of backing down from a fight, refused to call Grove back.

The Catholic League got into the act, using the cover story as an opportunity to take a shot at what it believes is the reigning ethos of the Press. The press release “quoted” President William Donohue as saying that the alt-weekly’s “celebration of libertinism leaves it squarely at odds with the sexual reticence favored by Catholicism.” He continued:

It also leaves it squarely at odds with nature, which explains why attending funerals is not an uncommon experience for those who work there. But like a dopey dog who doesnÂ’t recognize his master, they plod along never learning from the wisdom the Catholic Church has to offer. And, of course, they hate the pope. Which makes sense: he is the one man whose commitment to the truth has literally driven them over the edge.

(I should break from narrator mode here to say that I don’t think I’ve ever seen Donohue land a more effective — or personal — shot.)

Drudge linked to the cover story, which briefly shut down the New York Press website. The blogs are still all over this. On her site Open Book, Amy Welborn called the story “pathological” and “insane” and wondered why Taibbi wasn’t locked up in a mental ward somewhere. Because of the difficulty that people were having getting through to the story, she reposted it in its entirety. She taunted, “Sue me NYPress, I really don’t care.”

At his Rightwing Film Geek blog, Victor Morton explained why he wouldn’t be reading the alt-weekly anymore. Morton wrote that his own “sense of humor is sufficiently sick that I could imagine myself, in principle, laughing at an article titled ’52 Reasons Person X’s Death is Funny.’”

Indeed, Morton would be willing to “excuse a LOT if I think it funny.” But he didn’t think this article was in any wise funny, and, given the length and stridency of the thing, he argued that it gave readers a window into a very black heart, “because keeping up that attitude for that length requires simple, pure, unvarnished, unredeemed hate.”

Morton further argued that there was good reason to stop reading the Press over this story. He explained, “[P]utting something on a professionally-produced publication’s cover says something about the kind of publication it is.” In this case, the Press chose to say something about itself that many readers should find distasteful and disqualifying.

Over at Demure Thoughts, Jennifer Somebody decided to mock the Press‘ slogan: “‘New York Press, New York’s [Premier] Alternative Newspaper.’ Alternative to what? This is just the shit the Times wishes it could print.”

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