The "Witness" and purple spirituality

Witness_1One cannot overstress the following fact: The whole “red” and “blue” typology works at the level of the Electoral College and, much more so, when applied to “progressive” and “traditional” cultures with counties (think college towns vs. rural) and zip codes (think latte artsy urban vs. Home Depot suburban). But it is impossible to divide American culture into two zones at the level of most people’s lives.

Study the polls and you end up with true reds, true blues and a wide sea of purple. Study opinion polls about abortion. Or look at a Gallup or Barna survey on religious commitment and beliefs. What you find is that somewhere between 8 and 15 percent of the nation can truly be called consistently red conservative on religious/cultural issues. Meanwhile, somewhere around 10 percent or more of the population is consistently secular or blue liberal on these issues. And what is in between? The answers you get seem to depend on how questions are worded and how people are feeling. The great middle ground is what I call Oprah America.

I bring this up because of the ghost that pops into view near the end of Janet Maslin’s New York Times piece entitled “Scott Peterson’s Other Woman Speaks (Again). What’s Left to Say?” The big question: Why is the new Amber Frey book called “Witness: For the Prosecution of Scott Peterson” at the top of the New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list? Take it away, Maslin:

Why would anyone want to read Ms. Frey’s account? Most of it has already been plastered all over every possible tabloid, magazine and television outlet. There’s not much more for her to say, except that Pink Lady is her favorite kind of apple (Mr. Peterson once made her a caramel-coated version) and that her favorite Christmas ornament was an angel made out of a clothespin. Oh, and that “to me, Scott Peterson would always be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

This is a depressing subject for those of us who care about the future of Western Civilization. The answer, of course, is linked to how this emotional, tragic story makes people feel about a host of different hot-button issues that the media often have trouble addressing, covering everything from infidelity to murder, from good-for-nothing husbands to abortion. Calvin College communication scholar Quentin Schultze likes to call these kinds of stories “hypernews,” when they break out of one region and the whole nation gets obsessed.

Lo and behold, there is even a kind of lowest-common-denominator salvation thread in this story. Say what? Perhaps you missed the part when God served as Amber’s romance counselor:

. . . Ms. Frey, a California massage therapist, describes a great deal of weeping, repenting and communicating with God. “You do need someone, Amber,” she says God told her. “And you’ll find someone.” She also writes that God was on her side during Mr. Peterson’s trial. And she recommends that Mr. Peterson, whom a jury recommended be sentenced to death, seek God’s forgiveness in a hurry. The book refers frequently to the Bible, especially when describing the enlightenment Ms. Frey experiences in its closing pages.

“I was overcome by a sense of power and possibility,” she writes. “I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I knew I was on the right path, and I felt incredibly good about myself.”

Well, that’s what really matters. This is also the kind of mushy faith angle that makes red purists and blue purists alike grind their teeth.

Why is “Witness” at the top of the sales charts? Think purple. How are journalists supposed to cover these stories? I think we simply have to let people tell their stories and share their beliefs and then print the results. Who are the experts in this field?

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Evangelicalism: The tattooed generation

JaycoverThere’s little new about the story that Jamie “Jay” Bakker — the son of PTL Club cohosts Jim and Tammy Faye — survived a hellish journey through teenage alcoholism, reclaimed his Christian faith and has become a pastor in Atlanta. Bakker wrote about it in his autobiography, Son of a Preacher Man (2001).

Nevertheless, John Leland’s 3,000-word profile in The New York Times Magazine is captivating, sympathetic and humorous. Leland, who has written frequently about rock & roll and is the author of Hip: The History, is at his finest when drawing parallels between Bakker’s ministry, Revolution, and skate-punk culture:

Revolution is one of several thousand alternative ministries that have emerged in the last decade, meeting in warehouses, bars, skate parks, punk clubs, private homes or other spaces, in a generational rumble to rebrand the faith outside of what we think of as church. To travel among them is to feel returned to the alternative-rock scene of 15 years ago, just before Nirvana and Lollapalooza put it on the map. Instead of criticizing major record labels, these ministries criticize megachurches; instead of flattening the status of the rock star, they flatten the status of the pastor. They cluster in cells rather than in denominations or arenas, and connect through D.I.Y. zines online. They are a counterculture on two fronts: at odds with both their secular peers and conventional churches.

. . . On a sluggish afternoon at an Atlanta strip mall, I asked Bakker about the influence of punk rock in his ministry. We were in a shop called Timeless Tattoo, where Bakker was getting an afternoon’s worth of minor touch-ups. Though the shop has no religious affiliation, a couple of the staff artists play in Christian punk bands; another had played with Bakker in the Creeps, their Social Distortion cover band. Bakker took several passes at the punk question, never mentioning music. “Those are the people that reached out to me when the Christian world rejected me and my family,” he said of the punks and skaters. “That’s something about punk-rock ethics. Your friends have your back. We share our lives together, and there’s a loyalty there.”

Leland also touches on the surprises of evangelicals dipping their toes into tattoo culture:

His biography, which forms the narrative center of his ministry, is an object lesson in what Ryan Dobson, the heavily tattooed son of James Dobson, founder of the conservative group Focus on the Family, calls “the Christian tendency to shoot our wounded.”

. . . His tattoo habit dates from this period and has become a connective strand in his family life. He got his first, “Revolution,” when he was 18; his father did not approve, he said, because “it reminded him of prison.” His mother became interested through her son, though. Last fall, when I met Tammy Faye, she had just administered her first tattoo, on one of Jay’s friends. “I thought I was going to throw up,” she said, excitedly. “I was so scared that I was going to hurt him. I was shaking so bad the cross was crooked, and I straightened it out when I calmed down a little bit. And I signed it, ‘TF.’”

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No rubber stamp

WearypopeLast week, when the whole world was abuzz with news that the Spanish arm of the Catholic Church had made noises to the effect that condoms were AOK in the fight against AIDS, a few friends asked me what I thought of this new development of doctrine.

Would the Catholic Church finally see the light/get with the program/insert clichÃ(c) here and join the 21st Century?

I had a two-word response: just wait.

After what one can only imagine were a few very heated phone calls from the Vatican, the conference of Spanish Bishops explained that the offending statement “must be understood in the context of Catholic doctrine, which holds that use of condoms is immoral sexual conduct.”

Translation: There’s nothing to see here. Move along.

What were the words that set this particular tempest to boil? Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, spokesman for the conference of bishops, had told reporters that “condoms have a place in the global prevention of AIDS.”

The press can be forgiven for playing this one up. This is not the sort of thing that one expects to hear from a spokesman for the Catholic Church, and apparently the Vatican was so stunned by it that the higher-ups initially didn’t know what to say to reporters.

What is less forgivable is how reporters covered the story as a Historic Shift in the Church’s teaching rather than what it likely was: the aberrant statement of a contrarian voice.

The AP quoted the president of the Spanish Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals, and Bisexuals as saying, “I think it was absolutely inevitable that the Church would change its stance,” but didn’t quote anyone saying, Hey, let’s not jump to conclusions or anything.

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Hey, Zondervan: Next time try more kitsch

Putdowndrugs_1GetReligion fell silent last week on the several stories about Rolling Stone rejecting an ad for Today’s New International Version Bible. Why?

I was stunned into silence by Rolling Stone executives’ discomfort about the words “real truth.” I found their decision beyond parody, beyond snark, beyond righteous or unrighteous indignation.

Well, thank God for Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times, who has unearthed this story’s ironies and turned them into a fine column.

These are my favorite paragraphs:

A spokeswoman for Rolling Stone told me they wouldn’t comment on the Bible brouhaha, but she stayed on the phone long enough to say that a USA Today article quoting Kent Brownridge, general manager of Wenner Media, which owns Rolling Stone, was accurate.

“It doesn’t quite feel right in the magazine,” Brownridge told USA Today. “We are not in the business of publishing advertising for religious messages.”

This from a magazine that famously and for years published notices for the Universal Life Church’s mail-order ordination in its classified ads.

. . . [Zondervan executies] asked for the magazine’s no-religious-advertising-only policy in writing. And they’re still waiting.

Maybe if the religious message is appropriately sarcastic or kitschy, it doesn’t count. This would explain the presence of a small ad for T-shirts emblazoned with a cartoon Jesus — crown of thorns, arms outstretched — and the words “Put down the drugs and come get a hug” on page 71 of Rolling Stone’s Jan. 26 issue.

Perhaps Rolling Stone honchos were worried that an ad for a Bible would somehow blow the cool.

Sadly, that ship has already sailed, having been launched (if it hadn’t been years earlier, as many argue) when “American Idol” star Clay Aiken graced its cover on July 10, 2003.

Update: The Jan. 25 USA Today brings news that Rolling Stone will accept the ad after all and has issued a standard mistakes-were-made apology. Cathy Lynn Grossman reports:

“We have addressed the internal miscommunications that led to the previous misstatement of company policy and apologize for any confusion it may have caused,” Lisa Dallos, spokeswoman for Wenner Media, Rolling Stone‘s parent company, said Monday. She declined to elaborate.

This story joins thousands of others in the “Uproar = Free Advertising” category:

“We’re frankly thrilled that Rolling Stone has decided to accept our ad,” said Paul Caminiti, Zondervan’s president of Bible publishing.

. . . Meanwhile, the controversy has driven such demand for TNIV, Caminiti said, that Zondervan will be moving it into stores ahead of schedule.

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Greater Trumps: On the Sunday morning after

Bethesda_2_1Some of you may have heard that we had a wedding down here in Palm Beach County. Yes, Donald Trump’s third trip to the altar did receive a little bit of media attention here and elsewhere.

Palm Beach, on Palm Beach Island, is not to be confused, however, with the humble community in which I live and work — West Palm Beach. The island is one of the wealthiest zip codes on the planet and it has a lingo and logic all of its own. It’s the kind of place where The Donald is rich, but he is not the right kind of rich.

This was a new-money wedding, calling forth an awesome cast of stars from Northeast media politics and culture. However, the rites were staged at the right place for old-money gravitas. I refer, of course, to the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea — an ecclesiastical location that would offer just the right combination of high-church atmosphere (the 360-degree video tour does not appear to be working) and, perhaps, a don’t ask, don’t tell attitude toward the past six years in the private lives of the billionaire groom and his new supermodel trophy bride.

While the public turned out to critique the stars and the fashion, I read the newspapers carefully (no, I did not drive over the bridge to join in the festivities) to see if anyone in this high-profile congregation made any comments about the meaning of this, well, sacramental rite.

My hard work paid off when I read deep into reporter Akilah Johnson’s Sunday-morning-after feature in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, with the headline “Palm Beach peaceful again after blissful Trump wedding.” In addition to hearing from police, tourists, the shop owners and others, Johnson spent some time at the church — where people were seen posing for pictures in front of the leftover tulip arrangements.

So what was this all about for the parish? Father Ralph Warren offered this take:

“This was my evangelist effort of 2005,” he quipped from the pulpit. “We had all sorts of people staring at us across the way.”

It worked for Hannah McSwain, a 24-year-old graduate student at Palm Beach Atlantic University. She recently moved to West Palm Beach from Georgia and has been trying to find a church.

“With all the media attention, I couldn’t help but come,” she said.

This is interesting, because the Episcopal Church has experienced on ongoing exodus of members during the past generation, at the same time that it was vowing its commitment to a “decade of evangelism” effort to double its ranks. Perhaps Father Warren is on to something. We know that The Donald prides himself on picking winners. I am still looking to see if any reporter asked if the greater Trumps are active in the parish.

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The good bad news

MintsIn a story that must have been in the can for a while, Newsweek reports that 271 independent members of what used to be known as the Christian Booksellers Association closed down in 2003. No word on store closures for 2004, but Bill Anderson, president of the CBA, “estimates that 200 more are sputtering.”

The cause isn’t a dearth of demand but the kind of cultural proliferation that I wrote about in my feature story in the February 2003 issue of Reason magazine.


Not long ago, if someone wanted a work by Christian horror writer Frank Peretti or lay theologian Philip Yancey, they would have had to visit a religious specialty store. Now they can find it at Barnes & Noble or Borders.


[S]uccess [of evangelical books, music, etc.] has attracted big book chains and discount retailers that are aggressively taking over the market, selling Christian books often at a steep discount. . . .

The independents, says Anderson, “have been thrust from a protected specialty niche into an open field with a price-driven market.” The retail climate, says Anderson, is “the worst it’s been in 30 years.”

Reporter Peg Tyre seems to sympathize with the Christian retailers who are being crushed by McBookstores, Wal-Mart, and other aggressive discounters. “Christian booksellers,” writes Tyre “are tired of turning the other cheek” while “modern-day Goliaths” carve into their market share.

The CBA has begun advertising on Christian radio to try to keep people coming to the niche stores, and individual members have started to experiment with new forms of marketing. It’s a good thing they’re in it for the long haul because, as Tyre reminds, Christian retailers “won’t be able to defeat this behemoth with a single shot.”

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L.A. Times plays it straight on some hot stories

ReemsIs it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the Los Angeles Times is on a tear these days on the religion beat? Several times a week, the newspaper’s push-tech email I receive every morning includes two or three stories that dig into the religion hook of major events and the lives of interesting people.

Some of these stories are, I admit, a bit strange. Yesterday was a good example. Face it, it’s hard NOT to read a story that has a headline such as this: “After ‘Deep Throat,’ G-rated life: A new film highlights Harry Reems’ porn fame, but now he’s a born-again Christian who sells real estate.”

Uh, right. This sounds like an oh-so-cynical riff that David Letterman would dream up. However, reporter Kenneth Turan’s story plays this profile rather straight. After all, there was no need to liven up the story. Here are two summary paragraphs:

[When] Harry Reems takes a poetic moment and says “What a ride this thing called life is,” he is not being hyperbolic. As Linda Lovelace’s costar in “Deep Throat,” the most successful pornographic film ever made, he has gone from obscurity to celebrity to criminal notoriety to gutter-dwelling debauchery to born-again sobriety and success in one hectic lifetime.

“I’ve been through things most people never experience even vicariously, let alone for real,” he says. “I’m truly proud of myself; I’ve overcome some major problems. I really believe God is at work in my life.”

Normally, Reems only tells his story in churches and 12-step programs, but he is in the spotlight at the moment because of a major documentary entitled “Inside Deep Throat,” produced by Brian Grazer for Universal and HBO. Reems also admits that he would love to return to his acting career — legitimate acting.

This short feature includes many twists and turns, including his arrest in a government crackdown on the pornography industry. Most of all, Reems was drowning in a sea of alchohol. He was what he now calls a “blackout drinker.” Finally a 12-step program led to a charismatic Methodist minister and Reems, who was a secular Jew, was converted. Soon he vanished, embracing a normal life.

Also Saturday, the Times offered a very straightforward and balanced story linked to another hot-button issue, with this headline: “Church Plans to Bury the Ashes of Fetuses From Abortion Clinic.” Reporter David Kelly sticks to the basics, letting leaders on each make a case for their actions. The bottom line: A mortuary decided it would be more compassionate to let a local Roman Catholic church bury the dead, rather than throwing away the remains. The abortion facility disagrees and may or may not try to take this to court.

Particularly striking is this quote from one of the nation’s most fierce, unapologetic defenders of late-term abortions:

“They have taken it upon themselves to make a macabre ritual out of this, inflicting pain on everyone,” said clinic director Dr. Warren Hern. “I have women calling me who are very upset over this. These fanatics simply cannot leave other people alone with their most intimate sorrow.”

Meanwhile, here is a poignant detail from the other side. It seems that the Sacred Heart of Mary parish has

… a Memorial Wall for the Unborn, with tiny plaques put there by women who have had abortions. Each one has a message: “Forgive Me.” “No less real, No less loved.”

The remains of 3,000 fetuses are buried near the wall. On Sunday, 600 to 1,000 small boxes of ashes will be emptied into a tomb and covered.

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Battle at Baylor: Will the atmosphere change?

During the past few years, I have hesitated to write about the national coverage of Baylor University’s academic civil war — either in my Scripps Howard columns or on this blog.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, I have two degrees from Baylor and my whole family bleeds green and gold and, to varying degrees, some members are involved in Baylor life. The man who has been the lightning rod at the heart of the Baylor changes — President Robert Sloan — is a friend. Now he is standing down.

Nevertheless, let me make a few comments — stressing that everything I say here is my own analysis and should not be pinned on others.

First of all, the mainstream media coverage so far in the state of Texas has had little to do with the issues at the heart of the Baylor conflict, other than the personality clashes linked to Sloan and those who oppose him. There are significant ideas at the heart of the war and you will rarely see them in the newspapers. Without a doubt, the best article about the Sloan era was printed in a liberal, mainline Protestant magazine — The Christian Century. To read it, click here. More on this article in a moment.

In the Texas press, the Baylor war is often linked — directly or indirectly — with the multi-decade conflict within the Southern Baptist Convention, pitting “moderates” against “fundamentalists.” This is half right.

In the SBC civil war, the “moderate” Baptists — think Bill Moyers, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — have lost virtually everything when it comes to corporate power, seminaries, etc. In Texas, Baylor has always been at the center of “moderate” life. A small number of these Baptists are, literally, crypto-Unitarians who simply like good preaching. However, most would feel right at home in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Above all, they do not think of themselves as evangelicals and they cannot tolerate “fundamentalists.”

The “moderates” are at the heart of revolt against Sloan and the vision known as Baylor 2012. As they often say in private: “We are not going to lose our Baylor,” with an emphasis on “our.”

Following a common media-coverage template, that means Sloan represents the “fundamentalists.” The only problem is that he does not. A wide variety of people have backed his cause, from mainstream evangelicals to traditional Catholics, from Anglicans to the Orthodox. At the national level, many Christian educational leaders — from Notre Dame to Yale, from Duke to Harvard — have endorsed the Baylor vision. Check out this list.

The Baylor conflict has pitted “moderate” Baptists against this diverse national coalition — call it the ecumenical traditionalists. Are they conservatives? Yes, mostly. Are they in favor of “Christian education”? Yes, in the historic sense of the term. Are they “fundamentalists”? No, they are not. Many of the central thinkers in Baylor’s move toward the integration of faith, research and learning are Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.

The Christian Century piece captured this. The big question: Does the historic Christian faith have intellectual content? Does this matter on a university campus that calls itself “Baptist,” “Christian” or both?

Here is a key section of Robert Benne’s piece in the Century. I have done some editing to shorten this. Note the role of the former Baylor president, Dr. Herbert Reynolds, a key figure in the campaign to oust Sloan:

The Christian identity Baylor leaders are seeking is not defined by a confessional tradition, as at Calvin College, or by evangelical definitions of faith, as at Wheaton College. It seeks a “big tent” kind of Christian orthodoxy that includes Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and others, as well as the hoped-for number of Baptists. It is a “mere Christianity” kind of orthodoxy.

What’s so controversial about this? The answer lies in the particular form of Baptist piety — with its accompanying view of Baptist higher education-that has prevailed at Baylor and is now being formally challenged. For former President Reynolds and his faculty supporters, one’s relationship with Christ is what is essential in faith. … Christianity, in this form of Baptist piety, includes an inevitable moral imperative. But in one’s relationship with Christ — which is highly individual and inward — one has “soul competency.” A true Christian shares the freedom of the priesthood of each believer. This competency and freedom compel one to read the Bible and its meanings according to conscience. Nothing about the faith should be articulated in creeds or systems of Christian thought. . . .

This traditionally Baptist construal of the faith results in a particular vision of the Christian university. Some have called it the “atmospheric” or “two-spheres” approach. The Christian character of the university resides in the hospitable, friendly, caring, just and edifying atmosphere created by sincere Christians. It also resides in the religion courses and the extracurricular religious activities that permeate the university. But what happens in the classrooms of this kind of Christian university is pretty much the same as what occurs in public universities. . . .

Above all, traditional Baptists disagree with Sloan’s contention that Christianity has intellectual content. In the view of Baylor’s new leaders, faith is more than atmospheric. There is a deposit of Christian belief that all Christians should hold to. On the basis of that belief they should engage the secular claims of the various academic disciplines. In Sloan’s view, the Christian faith gives a comprehensive account of all of life and reality; it addresses the key questions of life, death, human nature, salvation, history, meaning and conduct.

Now, with this in mind, you are ready to read some of the coverage of the announcement that Sloan has decided to leave the Baylor presidency, stating his conviction that the board of regents will carry on with Baylor 2012. It will be interesting to see how openly the “moderate Baptists” attempt to campaign for a president who wants a “Baptist” university but not a “Christian” university.

Here is the Sloan package at Christianity Today and here is the main story at the dominant newspaper in the state, the Dallas Morning News. The old, establishment, mostly moderate Baptist newspaper in Texas — the Baptist Standard — has posted a story offering its perspective.

Above all, anyone interested in these latest developments at Baylor should take the time to watch the video coverage of the actual press conference in which Sloan and Board of Regents Chairman Will Davis discuss what led to this moment and what might happen next.

Let me end with a quote from the Dallas Morning News coverage that offers a hint of the real issues in this bitter conflict — even if the reporter did not fully grasp what this Sloan opponent was saying.

“Traditionally, Baylor has been an outstanding academic education with a Christian atmosphere that produced lots of good teachers and lawyers and physicians and dentists,” said former regent Gracie Hatfield Hilton of Arlington. “It has not been a research institution. Research is great and fine and good — I am not opposed to it, but that is not what Baylor has traditionally been about.”

The key word? “Atmosphere.” There is “education,” then there is “atmosphere.” Two spheres. That’s the story.

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