Highlighter envy

For those who don’t have much to do in the next week, you might want to take a look at the post-Thanksgiving Christianity Today Online weblog on religion, culture, government, theology and public manners (I am sure I am forgetting something major). Amy Welborn had a nice headline for this: “370! Links!” Just for kicks (and because of massive intimidation) I slapped this baby into a Word file and the basic text of this one blog collection is just a smidgen below 14,000 words. Ted Olsen and Co. have even added a much-needed innovation — yellow highlighter pen-like splashes to point out the really essential stories. It’s the blog within a blog within the blog. It’s kind of an evangelical Zen thing.

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Emergent synagogues, timid networks and …

Southbeach7_1Another day, another airport and another newspaper. In this case, I had some time to kill with the Miami Herald in the tiny airport in Key West. There were at least three items in this one issue of the newspaper that could merit GetReligion attention, in my opinion. So I will combine them into one post, starting with the best.

* It is so, so, so hard to have good stories about the standard holidays, but reporter Alexandra Alter pulled it off with a feature for the opening night of Hanukkah. The headline was a snooze: "Synagogue Faithful Pick a Way to Pray." But the story offered an insightful journey into what David "Bobos In Paradise" Brooks has called "flexidoxy" — an attempt to blend religious experience with the radical individualism of the American marketplace. Here’s the opening of the story:

As 150 congregants gathered for prayer on a recent Friday evening in the sanctuary of Temple Beth Am, Rabbi Terry Bookman settled onto a yoga mat in another room. Angling his head toward the two votive candles, he moved gracefully from the downward facing dog position to the child’s pose.

Clad in loose white pants and a long Indian shirt, Bookman wasn’t ditching Shabbat service for yoga class. He was leading an alternative service, one of five happening simultaneously at Beth Am’s Pinecrest campus.

The dizzying array of activity is part of Synaplex, the Jewish version of the multiplex theater — where congregants can sing, stretch, pray, create art or just sit in silence. Developed by a Minneapolis-based organization to rejuvenate synagogue life, Synaplex was inspired in part by megachurches that tailor worship services to suit congregants of different ages.

Bingo. No, they didn’t offer bingo. I mean Alter has hit the nail on the head. You just knew that, at some point, religious groups in the middle and the left of the American marketplace were going to start trying to follow the lead of the birds-of-a-feather evangelical Protestant franchises. What better time of year to run a few ads and fish for seekers?

What’s next, an "emergent" synagogue movement, where hip meets ancient and everyone gets to make up his or her own tradition? You bet. Read the whole story. The details all fit. Oprah goes Shabbat.

* Over on the editorial page, Eileen McNamara took a stab at the ongoing debate about that UCC vs. the Normal Churches advertisement (click here for the LeBlanc-ian take on this). Once again, we have the same doctrinaire take on the controversy — arguing that Bush-friendly forces in the shadows had zapped the ads because of the gay-rights thrust.

The latest act of fealty to the conservatism now in vogue in Washington is the refusal of CBS and NBC to run an ad from a mainstream Christian denomination on the grounds that its message could generate controversy and be perceived as “advocacy advertising.” (ABC does not accept any religious advertising.) The networks say that they refuse such ads as a matter of policy, although they certainly showed no reluctance to run advocacy political ads this fall that were both inflammatory and false.

The radical notion promoted by the 30-second commercial from the United Church of Christ is inclusiveness, an idea deemed controversial because it encompasses gay people, the pariahs of the conservative-values crowd in the ascendancy this post-election season. Never mind that the disputed ad could not be more innocuous.

Here at GetReligion, we want to see the ads in prime time immediately. We are pro-free speech on these things. Run these ads in tandem with spots by Exodus International and other religious groups that cause nightmares for cautious media executives.

However, the gay angle misses the point. McNamara is right that there is nothing blatant in the ad’s imagery that pushes homosexuality. It is very low-key. What the ads do proclaim is that the UCC is not racist, which clearly says that other churches are racist. She is right that the networks are too timid. But she misses the point. The hottest button in the ad was race, not sexual orientation.

* And finally, I mention another story simply because I was morally outraged by it. The Tropical Life section of the paper had, on its cover, what has to be the DEFINITIVE South Florida-South Beach trend story. You could say there was a ghost in it, since the story totally avoids asking any moral questions about an issue that raises all kinds of moral questions. You could say the same thing about feminist questions, by the way.

What is the issue? Should parents give their teen-aged daughters breast implants as high-school graduation gifts? Yes, the story has lots of art and people quoted on the record. Check it out. Where is Focus on the Family or Ms. magazine? Am I out of line on this one?

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Brainstorming for Newsweek

Rob Moll of Christianity Today Online’s Weblog has pointed out the imbalance of Newsweek‘s cover story on the Nativity, and GetReligion has previously identified Jon Meacham’s frequent practice of warning against the dangers of “certainty” and “literalism” in stories involving historic Christian dogma.

I’ll comment on this week’s issue of Newsweek from a different angle, then: The headline and deck (“The Birth of Jesus: From Mary to the manger, how the Gospels mix faith and history to tell the Christmas story and make the case for Christ”) feel a tad anemic for a story that assumes the virgin birth probably is just another quaint myth, then quotes mostly those academicians who reinforce the assumption.

Here are some other story ideas, accompanied by punchier headlines and decks, on which Newsweek may wish to find the via media between historic Christianity and disbelief:

Advent
Deck the Halls, Already: For thinking Christians, fourth-quarter consumerism isn’t the problem. It’s where to find the best bargains and hip stocking-stuffers. [Note to sales reps: This could make for a great Special Advertising Section tie-in.]
Sidebar: Christmas or Chrismahanukwanzakah?: Culturally aware believers are torn. [Thanks to reader Bruce Geerdes for the link.]

Epiphany
Other Mansions, Other Voices: No thinking Christian believes the Three Wise Men found their way to the infant Christ. Newsweek decodes this legend’s actual message that all paths — including astrology! — lead to God.

Lent
Ashes to Ashes: How the institutional church, with the help of Opus Dei, hoodwinked its members into 40 days of self-denial and asceticism.

Easter
He Lives in Our Memories: The Jesus Seminar has settled the myth of bodily resurrection. But that’s no reason to deprive our irony-loving children of chocolate bunnies and Marshmallow Peeps.

Pentecost
Substance Abuse and Denial in the Early Church: The crowd had it right — the first Christians were drunk at nine in the morning. An exclusive Newsweek investigative report.

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Washington Post covers (so to speak) the cucumber story

CucumberI will eat my hat if someone comes up with — ahem — hard evidence of a public school teaching 10th graders how to put condoms on cucumbers. . . .

Posted by: Jeff Sharlet | December 5, 2004 05:14 AM

Sorry, but I have been on the road the last two days, down to an amazing Ethics & Public Policy Center mini-conference in Key West, Fla., entitled "Toward an Understanding of Religion, Politics and Public Life." Some of the materials from this — including large segments of White House speechwriter Michael Gerson’s talk on religion and presidential rhetoric — will be available online or in newsletters sooner or later. I seems that several of the two dozen mainstream journalists present have plans to write about one or more of the presentations at some time or another. Watch David Brooks and E.J. Dionne Jr. for starters.

But I did want to respond a bit to the earlier cucumbers and condoms thread, including the comment by The Revealer‘s Jeff Sharlet.

As I noted in the comments section, the Washington Post has weighed in on this story after it received quite a bit of attention from the Washington Times. So at this point, the reality of the controversy is no longer in question.

However, various reports — including the broadside from Maureen Dowd’s brother referenced earlier — debated a key fact in the story. What is the age of the cucumber-sheathing female in the public-education video? There may be an element of suburban legend to this.

For some people, it would seem inaccurately, she is a 10th-grade girl. The Post says she is a "young
woman." Another reference says it is a very young looking college student. The latter seems like the best bet to me, when you consider where these kinds of educational materials seem to originate.

In the Post, reporter Rebecca Dana describes how this Montgomery County (Md.) School Board controversy seems to be gaining strength (I am frantically seeking safe adjectives) rather than fading. Right in the lead, the story stresses that normal people — they don’t even have to be religious! — are upset about the cucumber-and-sexual-identity thing. Here is one of the key passages:

Under the changes, 10th-graders — except those whose parents opt them out of the sex-ed portion of the required high school health education class — will see a short video demonstrating how to apply a condom. Also added will be a one-week instructional segment on sexual identity, including discussions about
homosexuality and bisexuality. This segment, proposed for eighth- and 10th-grade health classes, will be tested in the spring at three middle schools and three high schools, not yet chosen.

The school board president, Sharon W. Cox (At Large), said the strong feedback was expected. "The response did not surprise me, either in its tenor or volume," she said.

Some people say the heat is related to the election results, of course. Maryland is a unique blend of ultra-red and ultra-blue zip codes. As the story notes, with a sniff: "In the region, some school districts do have leaner sex education curricula." In one nearby county they use a wooden phallus — no word on the type of wood — instead of a green vegetable. Just another day in real-world classrooms.

Stay tuned. I am sure the HBO special report (or Frontline) will be lively.

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'Tis the season to boycott Macy's

Another item from the GetReligion assignment desk: I’ve said it before, religious conflicts are by far the most interesting ones. We’ll get to my specific suggestion in a minute, but first, a news story.

It appeared in the December 3, 2001, issue of the Baltimore Sun under the title "Town is aswarm in Santas." Reporter Michael Scarcella reported on the annual Christmas tree lighting from the small Maryland town of Kensington.

In response to the complaints of a few families (probably Jewish, though the details the story provides are extremely sketchy), the mayor and town council members had voted to have an entirely secular lighting ceremony. They claimed that they wanted to focus on honoring firefighters, police officers, and other uniformed "heroes" in the wake of September 11.

The problem was, they ruled that Santa Claus was a not a secular figure. St. Nick would normally turn the lights on to bring in the Christmas season, but he was to be barred from this ceremony. Kensington residents did not take this lying down.

The firefighters told the town council that they would be sending their own Santa on a fire truck, resolution or no. About 50 people showed up at the lighting ceremony in Santa suits. Protesters chanted "No Santa, No Peace!," carried signs announcing the Grinch’s candidacy for mayor, and inveighed against "Mean Spirited Arrogant Santa Hating Liberals."

Some less jolly protesters briefly held a banner that read, "If Jews can ban Santa, why can’t we ban Jews?" But one Santa ripped it down, which drew cheers from a crowd that, presumably, didn’t want its message to be tinged with anti-Semitism.

This ruckus was only the latest in a long line of skirmishes all over the country between those who want Christmas to be a very public celebration and those (like Maureen Dowd) who are at least vaguely put off by the whole experience. Before you had red states and blue states, you had Season’s Greetings or Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas.

And there, my fellow reporters, should you choose to accept it, is your assignment: Chronicle the cultural conflicts that this blessed time of year sets off. Here are a few leads for this go-round:

1) The mayor of Denver has decided to change the city’s greetings from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays" and ban a church group from marching and singing carols in the annual "Holiday of Lights" parade. Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin has started a lump of coal campaign to try to embarrass him into reversing the decision.

2) The Committee to Save Merry Christmas is calling for a boycott of all Federated Department Stores over the chain’s decision to move toward the "Happy Holidays" usage. (Some discretion is being allowed to individual stores but the chain does encourage those members to err in a multicultural direction.) The chain includes Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s.

I’m hopeful that good religion reporting will find a few gems this Christmas season. For sheer pith and vinegar, it would be hard to top the Baltimore Sun‘s "Mean Spirited Arrogant Santa Hating Liberals," but they don’t call it the most wonderful time of the year for nothing.

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The New Yorker goes behind The Door

Door_coverThe New Yorker has published an engaging and sympathetic profile of Ole Anthony, leader of the Trinity Foundation, the Dallas-based scourge of TV evangelists. Anthony’s appearances on network television, and the changes he brought to The Door magazine, can leave the impression of a man obsessed with televangelists.

Burkhard Bilger’s 11-page profile, published in the Dec. 6 issue, is not available online. Two paragraphs best capture Trinity’s effects on The Door:

When Trinity inherited the magazine, nine years ago, it was a favorite among seminarians for its subversive wit and its interviews with theologians. The current editor, Robert Darden, is a Trinity supporter who teaches writing at Baylor. He has tried to preserve the magazine’s spirit, but Trinity’s investigations sometimes introduced a strident, acerbic tone. Mild satires like “Harry Potter in the Lake of Fire” now alternate with cover stories on Pat Robertson, “Lifetime Loser,” or on Charlton Heston as a “Christian Soldier of Fortune,” dressed as Moses with a machine gun.

The low point, even Trinity members now say, came when The Door set its sights on W.V. Grant, a local faith healer who presided over a five-thousand-seat church. In 1996, after a two-year investigation by the foundation, Grant was sentenced to sixteen months in prison and ordered to pay three hundred and fifty-three thousand dollars in back taxes, in addition to a fine. Afterward, to celebrate the conviction, Anthony insisted on publishing a Playboy-style centerfold of a picture that a Trinity investigator had found. It showed Grant standing at a window, buck naked and uncommonly hairy. If Darden hadn’t objected strenuously, Anthony would have added a caption in large print: “Even the hairs on his ass are numbered.”

Bilger’s profile tells of Anthony’s decades-long path to becoming a Christian and founding the Trinity Institute — being kicked out of a Lutheran catechism class, taking drugs as a teenager, setting a wooden cross on fire, serving in military intelligence, and witnessing a nuclear-weapons test in 1958:

Anthony’s body still bears traces of the explosion. His blood is so marked by radiation that a doctor once told him he should be dead. His flesh is pocked with more than four hundred lipomas — hard, fatty tumors, strung under his skin like knots in a clothesline. . . . His foundation, as it turns out, is named not after the Holy Trinity but after the first nuclear device, which was detonated in New Mexico, in 1945. “God vaporized my value system the way that bomb vaporized its target,” Anthony says.

The article is most valuable, though, in showing Anthony’s daily life of ascetic discipline, helping homeless people and drug addicts and living among the poor and gang members of East Dallas:

“I couldn’t be a believer outside this community,” he said, when I stopped by his office to say goodbye. “I know my own greed and my need to be right.” He leaned back in his chair and glanced around the room, at the peeling paint and the twittering bird and the books full of words about the Word. “I own nothing, I have nothing, and I make fifty-five dollars a week,” he said. “I’m sixty-six years old, and I have no privacy and no retirement plan. I am a blithering idiot by my own definition.” He shrugged. “The mystery is, this place satisfies every desire of my heart.”

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An honorary Oscar statue for Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

submission01Speculation about who will receive what honor at the Academy Awards starts early and runs right through the ceremony itself. So let me openly campaign for a person who I believe should receive a major standing ovation that night. This has nothing to do with Whoopi or Mel.

No, I hope that Hollywood shines a spotlight, somehow, on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, once of Somalia and currently — in hiding — in the Netherlands. I will let a Dallas Morning News editorial from this week pick up the story:

In 2003, she was elected to the Dutch Parliament but has had to go into hiding on several occasions after receiving death threats. Her most recent retreat into the underground came after the Nov. 2 slaughter of filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam. Police have charged a Muslim extremist with that murder. Ms. Hirsi Ali collaborated with the assassinated artist on Submission, an 11-minute film . . . protesting the condition of women under Islam. A note pinned to the dead man’s chest with a dagger said she would be next.

Hirsi Ali has vowed to carry on, including plans for a sequel to Submission (which is accessible at iFilm.com). The issue, according to the editorial, is what activists in the rest of the world can do to help protect her, especially “artists, writers, political activists and feminists.”

Maybe, maybe not. It’s been more than week since The Wall Street Journal ran a column by Catholic writer Bridget Johnson titled “Look Who Isn’t Talking: A filmmaker is murdered, and Hollywood loudmouths say nothing.” The topic is old, by now, but still timely — since little or nothing has appeared in the mainstream press or the entertainment press on the topic. Strange. Johnson notes:

There’ve been many films over the years that have taken potshots at Catholics, but I don’t remember any of us slaughtering filmmakers over the offense. You didn’t see the National Rifle Association order a hit on Michael Moore over “Bowling for Columbine.”

One would think that in the name of artistic freedom, the creative community would take a stand against filmmakers being sent into hiding à la Salman Rushdie, or left bleeding in the street. Yet we’ve heard nary a peep from Hollywood about the van Gogh slaying. Indeed Hollywood has long walked on eggshells regarding the topic of Islamic fundamentalism. The film version of Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears” changed Palestinian terrorists to neo-Nazis out a desire to avoid offending Arabs or Muslims. The war on terror is a Tinsel Town taboo, even though a Hollywood Reporter poll showed that roughly two-thirds of filmgoers surveyed would pay to see a film on the topic.

The conservative press has, of course, been all over this story.

Which is really strange if you stop and connect the dots between the issues raised in this murder. Tick them off again, with the Dallas Morning News editorial — women’s rights, artistic freedom, the right to offensive free speech. Sounds like a Frank Rich column to me.

Instead, it was the launching pad for a column in Human Events by that noted voice for human rights — wait for it — Pat Sajak. I have to hand it to him. In his “A Hush Over Hollywood” essay, Sajak has come up with a logical way to turn this story inside out and see it in a different light.

GetReligion readers on the left should take a deep breath and proceed. Is this fair, or what?

Somewhere in the world, a filmmaker creates a short documentary that chronicles what he perceives as the excesses of anti-abortion activists. An anti-abortion zealot reacts to the film by killing the filmmaker in broad daylight and stabbing anti-abortion tracts onto his body. How does the Hollywood community react to this atrocity? Would there be angry protests? Candlelight vigils? Outraged letters and columns and articles? Awards named in honor of their fallen comrade? Demands for justice? Calls for protection of artistic freedom? It’s a pretty safe bet that there would be all of the above and much more. And all of the anger would be absolutely justified.

So here is my appeal to the academy: Can you spare an honorary Oscar statue for Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

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The Big Three wimp out

ucc adThe three major broadcast TV networks stepped in a deep cowpie by turning away a witty ad from the United Church of Christ, and the UCC likely will gain more attention through news reports than it would have through the ad.

News reports in three major dailies — The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle (where it appeared on the front page, below the fold) — focus on different finer points of the story.

The 30-second ad makes a favored point among liberal Christians: that some churches, by stressing Christianity’s historic teachings on homosexuality, are being exclusive, turning people away or otherwise being spiteful. The ad takes that idea up a notch by depicting a church as excluding a gay couple, a young Latino man and an African American girl.

The ad’s humorous genius is in how it illustrates the concept: two muscular, bald, black-clad bouncers stand outside a church and behind a proverbial velvet rope. One says in a voice of deadpan contempt: “Step aside, please,” “No way, not you” and “I don’t think so.” What American who loves fair play and underdogs could watch this commercial and feel anything other than revulsion for these goons (or the one white married couple they let through the rope)? Is this a church, or Studio 54?

In Michael Paulson’s report for the Globe, one striking detail is that UCC officials did not expect that the commercial could be taken as criticizing any other church:

[The Rev. Nancy S.] Taylor [president of the UCC's Massachusetts Conference] said the ad is not intended to criticize other denominations. She said she showed the ad to members of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, an umbrella organization of Protestant and Orthodox churches, where it drew no criticism.

That detail may say more about the goo-goo atmosphere in councils of churches, even at the state level, than it does about the ad’s content.

Another striking detail from Paulson’s report: Although NBC and CBS have taken the bulk of criticism for flatly rejecting the ad, ABC got off the hook by accepting the ad on its ABC Family cable channel. Otherwise, in the chirpy and conflict-averse spirit of Disney, its parent company, ABC rejects ads from all religious bodies. (One irony here: ABC Family began its life as the 24-hour channel for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, became Fox Family for a time, and still broadcasts The 700 Club a few times a day.)

In the Chronicle, arts and culture critic Steve Winn quotes a UCC minister who sees the long and theocratic arm of the Bush administration yanking the networks’ chains:

“It’s ironic that after a political season awash in commercials based on fear and deception by both parties seen on all the major networks, an ad with a message of welcome and inclusion would be deemed too controversial,” said the Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, in a statement. “What’s going on here?”

The Rev. Kyle Lovett, pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in San Francisco, proposed an answer. On the eve of President Bush’s second term, she said, the networks “can’t afford to go against the administration’s version of Christianity and what counts as moral values and what doesn’t count as moral values.”

In fairness to Lovett, GetReligion is baffled by this explanation from a CBS official mentioned in Paulson’s story: “Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact that the Executive Branch [the Bush administration] has recently proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast.” Since when should legislative actions of the executive branch determine whether a network accepts an ad that violates no decency standards of the FCC?

In the Tribune‘s story, religion professor Alan Wolfe of Boston College raises a concern that we’re likely to hear many times during the next four years:

“CBS and NBC seem to be afraid, not of stirring controversy, but of alienating potential viewers, the kind, moreover, that like to organize boycotts and write letters,” Wolfe said. “There may be a new form of political correctness arising in America, one in which attempts are made to avoid violating the sensibilities, not of women or racial minorities, but of conservative Christians.”

The Tribune also managed to find two conservative Christians who approved of the networks’ decision:

Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, gave a strong thumbs up to the networks’ decision.

He said that in the late 1990s, conservative groups wanted to run a commercial featuring “ex-homosexuals who had been converted back to being heterosexuals.” Under pressure from gay-rights groups, the networks refused to accept the spots.

“At least they’re being consistent,” LaBarbera said.

Karl Maurer, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, also endorsed the networks’ stand, calling the commercials “false advertising.”

“When the Roman soldiers in the Gospel came to Jesus and said, ‘How can I be saved?’ Jesus did not respond, ‘Be inclusive.’ Jesus responded, “Follow the commandments.’”

LaBarbera has a point: When networks reserve the right to turn away any ads they deem too controversial, that sword can cut conservatives as much as liberals.

Nevertheless, the networks would show more integrity — and provide more interesting broadcasts — if they were less skittish about a 30-second ad from the UCC than they are about the Coors twins.

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