Seeking forgiveness

ForgiveDavid Crumm, a veteran religion writer and columnist at the Detroit Free Press, makes an ingenious gift suggestion for Christmas: Offer a heartfelt apology to somebody.

Crumm turns to the Rev. Robert Dulin Jr., pastor of the Metropolitan Church of God, to explain the difference between a real apology and a fake:

He straightened up, summoned a deep baritone and declared with wooden authority, “If what I have said or done might have offended anyone, then I am sorry.”

He laughed derisively. “That’s not an apology! That’s an explanation mixed up with an excuse!”

In an essay on fighting in marriage, my friend Gray Temple Jr., longtime rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, reflects on five steps toward offering a person real forgiveness. This step is what has best challenged me:

4. Pray and intend the other’s prosperity
Persistent anger is pretty close to what ancient primitive people meant by a “curse.” In praying for another’s prosperity, we break whatever curse we’d laid on them. I suppose that is a form of blessing, but I’ve found that when I try to bless someone who has hurt me I wind up doing something like this: “O God, bless So-and-So with some insight into his own obnoxious character.” Rather than pray such a prayer — a religious-looking curse — I find it best to pray, “O God, you know what he needs and wants; please supply them both richly. When I see him prosper and happy, I’ll know you have listened to me.” That’s very difficult, but you can do it if you clench your teeth.

Early in my life, my father taught me a valuable lesson in asking people’s forgiveness: Seek it quickly, and seek it face to face. Once, when I had insulted the principal of a Catholic boys’ high school with my reckless driving, my father insisted that I make an appointment with that principal and ask his forgiveness face to face. It was mortifying and, because this good priest extended forgiveness readily, it was glorious.

Help us out, readers: Do you have any favorite stories of forgiveness — whether of seeking it or extending it?

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An amazingly bookish "anti-intellectual"

BernardPriya Jain has published a fascinating essay in Salon, which holds up the 12th-century lovers Abelard and Heloise as icons for religious progressives in the 21st century. Jain bases her essay on a biography of the couple published by British journalist James Burge earlier this year.

Here’s a good summary of where Jain takes the argument:

While the era’s worldview was dramatically different from our own, its political battles were strikingly similar. The reform movement, which you might call the religious right of its day, believed that not only sex but also sexual fantasies were inherently evil, and enforced chastity was high on its agenda. It saw the prostitution, fornication and even the women’s fashion of pointy shoes as evidence of a corrupt society. Burge, a documentary filmmaker for the BBC and Discovery Channel, puts the controversial love story of Abelard and Heloise squarely in the middle of this movement, and the result is a riveting study of faith and sex, set against a conservative uprising so familiar it will make you gasp with recognition.

Pointy shoes aside, this paragraph is what made me gasp, though not with recognition:

In his second trial, Abelard faced his archenemy, Bernard of Clairvaux, the head of the Cistercians. They were a reformist monastic order that would become the most influential in Christendom, and Bernard was the George W. Bush of their movement. He “was accustomed to having people listen to him and then eventually agree,” Burge writes. Bernard was deeply anti-intellectual, casting Abelard as elitist, overeducated and anti-religious.

Here is a sample of what the Biographical Dictionary of Christian Theologians (Hendrickson, 2002) has to say about Bernard of Clairvaux:

Bernard published numerous treatises on the spiritual life. Between 1124 and 1125, he published his first treatise, The Steps of Humility and Pride, which expands on the discussion of humility in Benedict’s Rule. During this time he also published Four Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin. In 1125, he addressed the conflict between the Cistercians and the Cluniacs concernng the Cistercian interpretation of the Rule. In this work, he rebuked the Cistercians for complacency, satirized Cluniac customs, and encouraged simplicity in ecclesiastical art and architecture.

 . . . Bernard’s writings evidence a thorough education in Scripture, the classics, and the Fathers, which permeates his vision of the Christian life. While Bernard adapted his style to his audience, he constantly emphasized the theme that God is love and that this love alone can satisfy the longings of the human soul. Bernard’s soteriology centers on the grace-full capacity for restoration of the human soul to the likeness of God.

I’ll leave it to others to debate Jain’s repeated complaint that Burge “pulls back” from the nitty-gritty details of Abelard and Heloise’s lovemaking, including what Jain takes as Heloise’s enthusiasm for S&M-level submission.

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Desist and apologize for your blaspheming ways

Trouble_with_islamWas I ever ahead of the curve on this one. Last October, when I was still assistant managing editor of the American Spectator, we ran a piece on the website by Kathy Shaidle (of Relapsed Catholic fame) about Irshad Manji, the Toronto-based writer who had just written the book The Trouble With Islam.

According to the article, Manji is "Canada’s most famous Muslim lesbian feminist." Shaidle interviewed Manji on day ten of her Canadian book tour and speculated that the author would be a big deal when she launched her American tour this January. My favorite bit from the piece was a quote from Manji’s website. An angry correspondent wrote in with the following:

Do you think that just because you have a mind, you should use it? Desist and apologize for your blaspheming ways while you still have a chance. People like you should not exist. It is no wonder there is a hell. Enjoy your short stay in this world, for God only knows what is coming for you.

Fast forward to this month, well over a year after the Shaidle piece. The December 20 issue of Newsweek has a piece by an alphabet soup of staff writers. Titled "Rocking the Casbah," the article talks about the efforts of female Muslims to reform Islam — from Manji to GetReligion favorite Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Newsweek identifies Manji and Ali as the two loudest voices in a growing chorus, though it doesn’t identify many other singers in the choir. The authors admit that "their message and their lifestyles are so far from the torpid Muslim mainstream they’re almost in the desert." However, it is "precisely because" (not just "because") Manji and company are "taking such radical stands," that there is some hope they might create "space for more moderate voices to be heard and accepted."

The only thing is, Newsweek presents very little evidence that this is in any way likely to happen. Ali is famous for renouncing Islam and speaking out against the growing influence of the religion in the Netherlands, as waves of immigrants challenge the post-Christian status quo. She is currently in hiding under 24-hour police guard, because she cooperated with Theo van Gogh’s auto-fatwa of a film.

Manji has an audience, but it’s mostly made up of Western liberals and conservatives, who are concerned over the clash between "modernity" and Islam (though her book is available to download in Arabic for free). She has hired a bodyguard, replaced her regular windows with bulletproof glass, and the Globe and Mail got hold of a letter from her book publisher to the Canadian government asking for police protection.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe and the emerging Methodists

Our_lady_of_guadalupeOne of the trend stories right now in hip evangelicalism centers on what is called the "emerging church," a concept that is rooted in postmodernism and is just as hard to define.

Wait a minute. Can something be "rooted" in postmodernism?

Anyway, you might be wondering: What, precisely, is an emerging church? Is this a kind of megachurch for people who know "The Matrix" by heart? Are these churches for evangelicals with NPR coffee mugs on their desks?

I need to admit right up front that I have not been able to grasp this concept, in part because I am a premodern church kind of guy. Still, I am fascinated by the people involved in this post-contemporary church, post-suburban megachurch movement. I think they are searching for something real in our media-saturated culture.

One aspect of this movement that troubles me is its emphasis on taking pieces of ancient Christian art and worship and then, blender style, combining them into something that is brand new and very Protestant, yet the people involved in the service think that what they are doing is very old and even catholic, with a small or a large "c." Here is a glimpse into one such church from a column I did not so long ago.

The first thing people do after entering the quiet sanctuary is pause at a table to light prayer candles for friends and loved ones, the tiny flames adding to the glow of nearby candle trees.

The ministers wear oat-colored, hooded robes tied at the waist with ropes and guide their flock through ancient prayers, a litany of confession and silent meditations marked by a series of bells. Hymns are accompanied by an ensemble that includes fiddle, acoustic guitar, wind chimes, pennywhistles, a Bodhran and even bagpipes. . . .

This is not your typical Southern Baptist service. Nevertheless, this Celtic service is held every Sunday at this historic church in Lynchburg, Va.

This is not, needless to say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s church in that fair city. This is a "moderate" Baptist church with gender-neutral liturgies, progressive politics and lots of other, well, NPR-coffee-mug traits. It is trying to embrace symbols, but not sacraments, ancient traditions, but not the ancient doctrines. It’s a postmodern thing. For another glimpse of this movement, click here.

For some time now, I have been wondering when this trend might swing over to the true religious left. Now, I realize — believe me, I realize — that all kinds of experimental, even syncretistic things are already happening over there. That’s not what I am talking about. I am not talking about taking pieces of non-Christian faiths and splicing them into Christian life and worship.

If you want to see this kind of liberalism in full flight, check out the website of the St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in, where else, San Francisco. This is the congregation that has made headlines with its elaborate, dance-driven Eucharists and its giant Eastern Orthodox-style iconography of "dancing saints" — which when finished will include Charles Darwin, Cesar Chavez, John Coltrane, Martha Graham (naturally), Eleanor Roosevelt and many, many others. Some people consider this church’s approach brilliant. Others see it as heresy and, to boot, a deeply offensive warping of the traditions of other believers. But, hey, it is free speech.

As you might guess, all of this is prologue to an interesting religion-news article from the mainstream press (seeing as how that is the purpose of this blog). The Chicago Tribune recently dug into what happened when a United Methodist congregation decided — with a nod to its Hispanic members — to bring a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe into its sanctuary. On top of that, the congregation actually decided to use some elements of Catholic spirituality.

Well, it was hard to mix Methodists and the rosary. Reporter Manya A. Brachear noted that some of the charter members of the Amor de Dios United Methodist Church immediately hit the doors — headed out.

Pastors of other Hispanic Methodist congregations objected too. They said praying to the Virgin equaled idolatry. And Roman Catholics in the neighborhood worried that the church might be selling itself as something it was not.

Still, Rev. Jose Landaverde allowed the statue to stay. He says he sees no harm in embracing a tradition — the Virgin is an unofficial national symbol of Mexico — that might bring people closer to God.

"It’s coming from the people, which is the real presence of the Holy Spirit," said Landaverde, 31, a student pastor from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. "You cannot bring theological debates to the people when they need spiritual assistance."

Ah, but there is the question. Did this well-meaning mainline Protestant pioneer bring Catholic theology into his sanctuary, or merely a comforting statue with powerful cultural symbolism? This is not an insignificant question for mainline Protestants, who have seen their churches age and fade in an era of increasingly cultural diversity.

So what does it really mean, when a Protestant congregation celebrates a novena in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, parading a "2-foot-high statue around the neighborhood, singing songs and reciting the rosary"?

Other United Methodists — including Hispanics, as well as Anglos — believe that this is going too far. They told the Tribune the statue might even be seen as a sign of oppression, meaning the oppression of Protestants by Catholics in Mexico. The local Catholic pastor feared that the Methodists were merely pretending to be something they are not. Might some Hispanics be confused, not unlike the Jews who respond to High Holy Day ads for "Messianic Jewish" churches? Or is Our Lady of Guadalupe "merely" a cultural or even political symbol?

The article raised more questions than it answered. I hope the Tribune keeps an eye on this trend and, in the future, even asks doctrinal, as well as cultural, questions.

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Macy's II

Macys_3As we were hoping earlier, Religion News Service has deigned to cover the efforts of the Committee to Save Merry Christmas.

The group’s founder, Manuel Zamorano, insists that he doesn’t have “any desire to hurt anybody’s bonuses, anybody’s income, anybody’s Christmas. But I don’t want these retailers to simply use us and sell to us at Christmas and never actually say ‘Merry Christmas.’”

To that end, he urges that people boycott all Federated Department Stores, including Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, until they incorporate the phrase “Merry Christmas” into their advertising.

A spokeswoman for the chain, who may get a lump of coal this year, shrugged off calls for customers to refuse to shop at the stores: “People are always boycotting. It’s sort of like get in line and take a number.”

RNS reports that the chain has no “formal policy” on “Merry Christmas” and that it encourages “clerks to be inclusive of all shoppers.” Translation: Though the advertising will be as secular as Santa, clerks will not be disciplined for saying Merry Christmas to shoppers, unless, you know, someone takes offense.

But reporter Kevin Eckstrom finds the protesters much more interesting than the protest. He explains,

While Zamorano’s boycott has yet to pick up any real steam, his campaign reflects a growing resentment among many Christians that creeping secularism now has its sights set on Christmas. It’s part of the annual “December dilemma” for people who say the birth of Jesus Christ is increasingly overshadowed by excessive commercialism.

Frustrated over nativity scenes that are unwelcome in public squares, Salvation Army kettles that have been banned from Target stores and school “holiday” plays that feature Hanukkah songs but no “Away in a Manger,” they’ve had enough. And Macy’s will be the first to pay.

But the story ultimately comes down on the side of the take-Christ-out-of-Christmas crowd:

“I don’t know if it ever had an extremely strong religious component in America,” said Karal Ann Marling, a University of Minnesota art historian whose book, “Merry Christmas!” chronicled the evolution of Christmas. It has always been “more secular than sacred,” she said.

In early America, religious celebrations of Christmas were shunned by many Puritan-minded Protestants, and Dec. 25 was a relatively quiet feast day for liturgical Catholics and Anglicans. It wasn’t until about 1850 that trees and gifts entered the scene, and merchants really caught on by the 1880s, around the time Macy’s unveiled its landmark storefront windows brimming with holiday goods.

Leigh Schmidt, a professor of religion at Princeton University, said there have always been “mixed motives” for celebrating Christmas, from families who celebrate its sacred roots to retailers mindful of their bottom line.

“They’re all overlapping,” he said. “The churches get more into it, the family customs become more involved, the stores start to get into it. It all goes together, it all overlaps.”

Bah humbug, says Zamorano, who insists he will not budge.

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There he goes again

Frank Rich is back and he’s still mad about The Passion and all of the hateful fundamentalists who made it one of the cultural events of the year. Once again, Rich’s goal is to paint the story in terms of Christians vs. Jews, rather than reading the evidence in his own reporting that it is largely a collision between traditional believers of many kinds and the powerful blue-zip-code coalition of oldline religious progressives and secularists. Rich says the last thing Americans will see on TV anytime soon is the nuanced, intelligent views of religious liberals. He’s right, sort of. Actually, the last thing Americans will see on TV is moral traditionalists who do not fit into the Falwell-Robertson-Donohue “straw man” chair.

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¡Yo quiero politica!

Steve Taylor skewered the insularity of Christian Yellow Pages back in 1984 with his song “Guilty By Association”:

So you need a new car? Let your fingers take a walk
through the business guide for the “born again” flock.
You’ll be keeping all your money in the kingdom now
and you’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow.

Taylor’s song came to mind as I read Jennifer Skalka’s report for the Chicago Tribune about the websites Choose the Blue and Buy Blue, which both encourage frustrated John Kerry supporters to let their politics shape where they spend money.

Skalka explains that Ann and Bill Duvall used records from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics to document donations by leading American companies and their employees.

“This is not a boycott,” said Bill Duvall, a software creator who was involved in the transmission of the first e-mail message 35 years ago. “. . . It’s just that we believe it’s possible to direct some of your spending so we can begin to at least even the playing field.”

A link on Buy Blue’s website describes the mission more bluntly: “Find out which businesses have been naughty . . . and which have been nice. Shop accordingly!”

The numbers on Choose the Blue point to some surprises. Who would have thought that Arby’s, with its talking oven-mitt mascot, is pure blue but Taco Bell is mostly Republican? Say it isn’t so, Taco Bell Chihuahua!

On the media front, Choose the Blue devotes a front-page link to News Corp., which shows that Rupert Murdoch’s employees are not nearly as predictable in their politics as one might expect.

Here are some other numbers from Choose the Blue:



Jet Blue89
Hard Rock Cafe100

Auto insurance

Retail stores

Barnes & Noble98
State Farm19
Urban Outfitters36


Sports teams

Charlotte Bobcats100
New York Jets9

Car rental

Travel agents



Wireless service





Skalka spoke with two scholars who are skeptical about how well the strategy will work:

“The question that remains then is which side does a better job of spreading the word to those who are most likely to act on it,” said Eszter Hargittai, an assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University and a faculty fellow in the Institute for Policy Research.

Richard Feinberg of Purdue University said most people don’t make their shopping decisions based on personal ideology. They look for the best bargains or the most convenient stores.

“The handful of people that it might influence are already boycotting or not spending money on businesses that they think go against their political grain,” said Feinberg, director of the school’s Center for Customer Driven Quality. “It’s not going to change a neutral person.”

Happy shopping to all Americans, especially during the holy season of Christmahanukwanza!

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What's it all about, Democrats?

AlfieAs state by heartland state turned red on the night of 11/2, a few brave Democratic strategists began hinting that something would have to be done to move their party closer to the center of American life and, in particular, to lessen its hostility to traditional religious believers who once were part of the FDR-Truman coalition.

Ever since, GetReligion has been watching for signs of compromise on the lifestyle left, especially on the big issues — abortion and the redefinition of marriage. Clearly the debates have begun behind the scenes and they are seeping into public view. Richard Cohen’s op-ed this week in the Washington Post — "Democrats, Abortion and ‘Alfie’ " — is one sign of this, but there are others.

We’ll get to his take on the "Alfie" movies in a minute. His key political statement is that the Democratic Party simply has to make room for people who — for intellectual, moral, scientific and even theological reasons — are convinced that abortion is a complex life-and-death issue that is hard to reduce to a bullet-proof slogan. He writes:

Yet the party insists otherwise. It entertains no doubts and counters reasonable questions and qualms with slogans — a woman’s right to choose, for instance. The party is downright inhospitable to abortion opponents. Therefore, it was good Sunday to hear Howard Dean — both a physician and pro-choice — say on "Meet the Press" that "I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats."

Dean may make a run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and so what he says could matter. As it is now, being pro-choice is a litmus test for all Democrats, especially their presidential candidates. It is almost inconceivable that a Democratic candidate could voice qualms about abortion. It’s almost inconceivable, though, that the candidates don’t have them.

In this entertainment-drenched culture, Cohen has structured his column as a clash between the classic ’60s movie "Alfie" and the current remake. The former, he notes, included a strong reference to abortion. The latter does not. He sees this as a sign — with a nod to those values voters — that times have changed and that abortion opponents have changed some minds.

What he seems to have missed is that the abortion in the older film is treated as a soul-searing tragedy, not as a triumph for individualism. The new film veers around a possible abortion, yet strongly hints that life would have been better if a problem pregnancy had been ended. (Tip of the hat to views expressed in a personal email from Frederica Mathewes-Green of Beliefnet.)

So Cohen may have the movies backward, but that does not negate his political point. (By the way, the Weekly Standard has a fine essay that notes that Bill Naughton’s 1966 novel "Alfie" was even more complex and — gasp — rooted in a Catholic worldview.) You could make a case that the new "Alfie" tried to soft-sell its moral worldview, rather than face up to it. This may not have worked with blue consumers or with all of those alleged red-culture consumers.

Meanwhile, back to the main point. Apparently, Howard Dean is not the only Democrat who is thinking it may make sense to let a few more pro-life congress-persons in the side door of the once big tent. According to Newsweek, Sen. John Kerry has asked the same question. Here’s the lead from Debra Rosenberg’s report:

The week after Thanksgiving, dozens of Democratic Party loyalists gathered at AFL-CIO headquarters for a closed-door confab on the election. John Kerry dropped by to thank members of the liberal 527 coalition America Votes. When Ellen Malcolm, president of the pro-choice political network EMILY’s List, asked about the future direction of the party, Kerry tackled one of the Democrats’ core tenets: abortion rights. He told the group they needed new ways to make people understand they didn’t like abortion. Democrats also needed to welcome more pro-life candidates into the party, he said. "There was a gasp in the room," says Nancy Keenan, the new president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The freak out will not end soon. However, there was an interesting news peg in the body of the story. It seems that a small group of red-zone Democrats — Newsweek names Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh — have joined a "a new progressive advocacy group" called Third Way that wants to discuss compromises on the hot cultural issues.

How will we know that this is serious? Reporters can start by watching for signs of a Democrats For Life link on mainstream party websites — ending the existing ban. We can also listen for louder screams in party publications such as the New York Times.

UPDATE: Friend of the blog Peggy Noonan has suggested another possible battle front in this war of the symbols in the Democratic Party. Want to send a signal to pew-gap Americans? Why not come out in favor of Christmas?

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