Post-contemporary worship: buy stock in incense, now

There’s an old saying that whatever is happening in contemporary Christian music is usually a photocopy of whatever was happening in the real world — mainstream music — a year or two earlier. I’m beginning to think that the same thing happens with the elite media and trends on the conservative side of the aisle in religion news.

Take today’s New York Times article about the emerging world of “post-contemporary worship.” It’s rare to see a topic that is “cutting edge,” supposedly, show up in elite media almost half a decade after it surfaces in a quality Christian journal such as Leadership. Score one for the editors at Leadership.

The whole idea is that — stunner! — free-church Protestants are creating new forms of worship out of the cultural materials that surround them. As if this was not what happened on the Great Awakening long ago and in the happy-clappy Megachurch movements of the recent past. This is how churches work, when Church Tradition is something that can be settled in a Wednesday-night business meeting.

Thus, contemporary Christian worship got old and people had to hunt for “what comes next.” The columns I have written on this topic over the past five years — from postmodern Celtic Baptists in Falwell country to the influential Ecclesia flock in urban Houston – have drawn a lot of response from my readers. Here is now the Times summed up the scene:

The label “emerging church” refers to the emergence of a generation with little or no formal attachment to church. The congregations vary in denomination, but most are from the evangelical side of Protestantism and some are sponsored by traditional churches. Brian McLaren, 48, pastor at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., and one of the architects of the fledgling movement, compared the churches to foreign missions, using the local language and culture, only directed at the vast unchurched population of young America.

The ministries are diverse in their practices. At Ecclesia in Houston and Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif., artists in the congregation paint during services, in part to bring mystical or nonrational elements to worship, said Chris Seay, 32, pastor of the four-year-old Ecclesia, which draws 400 to 500 people on most Sundays. At Spirit Garage in Minneapolis, in a small theater, congregants can pick up earplugs at the door in case the Spirit Garage Band is too loud. At Solomon’s Porch across town, a crowd of about 300 takes weekly communion “house party”-style, chatting with plastic cups of wine and pieces of pastry before one announces, “Take and eat the body of Christ.”

What interests me is that many of these Protestant leaders believe that they can move closer to ancient traditions with a few clicks of a computer mouse. You take an icon here, mix with a rock version of a chant from there, blend in a new gender-neutral version of an ancient liturgy from over there, light some incense and — bingo — you have a new, deep, rooted religious experience for people baptized in a visual, experiential culture.

Perhaps there is another story here. When will more churches — even on the right — openly begin using this same PoMo approach with doctrine and moral theology?

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Write your own headline for this story: insert here

There is nothing that can be added to this report, other than a massive cheer (and a sign of relief).

Rosanne Cash says she and her siblings were livid when she heard her father’s hit Ring of Fire might be used for a Preparation H commercial.

So the family rejected this cash appeal.

OLD: Meanwhile, I am hearing reports of another strange, well, marriage out there in pop-culture-religion in commercial land. Can anyone confirm whether or not the Sixpence None The Richer take on the classic hit “There She Goes” is now being used as the soundtrack for a birth-control commercial?

NEW: You readers are amazing. Someone has already confirmed this and even had the URL for the Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo commercial. But now that I’ve seen the ad I have to ask another question: Is this Sixpence or is it a sound-a-like band?

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Would a Martian grant Diane Sawyer an interview?

Imagine the better sense of goodwill that might now extend to The Passion of the Christ if Mel Gibson had talked even two hours per week in recent months with print journalists who know how to ask thoughtful questions. Diane Sawyer did about as well as one might hope for from a TV celebrity who’s famous for lobbing softball questions to people who are famous for being famous — or, in the case of Gibson, asking skeptical but poorly formed questions in an effort at being a tough interviewer.

For instance, confronting Gibson’s famous remark that the Holy Spirit was really in charge during filming of The Passion, Sawyer asked, “Do you believe God wrote this film?” Did she really expect Gibson to offer an unqualified Yes? Coming from an interviewer who makes facile distinctions between gullible literalists and learned nonliteralists, this sort of literalism is breathtaking.

Similarly, her question of whether Gibson believes every word of the Bible literally — to which Gibson did offer a surprising Yes — reveals a poor understanding of the abilities that most laity bring to Bible study. It’s on the order of asking What was the Prodigal Son’s family name? or Why did Paul want his opponents to castrate themselves?

Sawyer did coax Gibson to say that his left hand is shown holding a nail in place before it’s hammered into Jesus’ hand. And she gave him some credit for making changes suggested by actress Maia Morgenstern, whose grandfather perished at Auschwitz. (Passion star Jim Caviezel told Newsweek last week that Gibson solicited advice from Morgenstern throughout filming.)

It should surprise no one that John Dominic Crossan objects to Gibson not depicting Jesus as a political revolutionary — the only way Crossan can make sense of why Jesus died. Seeing Gibson’s amused response to Crossan’s advocacy on behalf of a theoretical Martian viewer of the film was worth the price of watching still another Diane Sawyer interview.

In fairness to my fellow journalists in the broadcasting arts, I should mention that Raymond Arroyo of EWTN’s The World Over conducted this thoughtful interview {requires RealAudio} with Gibson while he was shooting the film in Italy. The World Over will show another exclusive Arroyo-Gibson interview beginning on Friday.

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Diane Sawyer wrinkles her nose in concentration

After looking at the tape more carefully, I have a somewhat more nuanced view (cue: lofty NPR background music) of Diane Sawyer’s PrimeTime special with Mel Gibson. She did not wrinkle her nose in disdain nearly as much as I thought she did.

Nevertheless, I still find it somewhat predictable that evangelical scholar Darrell Bock is labeled an “evangelical scholar,” while the other experts are all given more neutral titles. Take the Jewish scholar, for example. Was she Orthodox, Conservative or Reform? And that former priest, scholar John Dominic Crossen, is he consistently on the left side of every Catholic debate? Viewers might like to know things like that. The implication, again, is that there are conservative views on biblical issues and then there are normal, scholarly, sensible views.

But on second viewing, I was more impressed with the range of material covered in the actual quotations in the special. There were major insights. Clearly, Gibson is not going to speak ill of his father. But clearly the son has no doubts about the reality of the Holocaust.

It also seems that Gibson knows that there are historical and doctrinal issues on both the Jewish and Christian sides of the many historical questions about Jesus. As he told Sawyer:

Let’s get this out on the table and talk about it, you know. This is what the Talmud says. This is what the Gospel says. Let’s talk. Let’s talk. People are asking questions about things that have been buried a long time. … I hope it inspires introspection.

Finally, I was fascinated by Sawyer’s final remark. It seems that reporting this story created tension in the newsroom. Was it hard to be fair when covering such an emotional, complex topic? Here is all she would say: “One more note, we should point out that all of us at ABC News who worked on this report learned a lot about each other, too. We hope you join in our conversation.”

Perhaps ABC wants feedback, as well.

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Was it something we said? Or how we said it?

As I stated early on, Doug and I will try not to turn this into a blog about “The Passion of the Christ” in the next few days. However, this whole blogging thing has me curious about what interests readers and what does not.

For example, a gag item on Britney gets comments.

But two serious stabs at the journalistic issues in mainstream coverage of THE MOVIE gets zippo response.

So I have some consumer questions, early on in the life of this blog.

Were the posts too long? Too long for weekend reading? Did they focus too specifically on “in house” journalism issues? Do you like substantial quotes from the article being reviewed? Or just hyperlinks?

Please remember that our goal is to promote journalistic coverage of religion in the mainstream. We think religion deserves a place at the table, next to beats such as law, education, sports, technology, science, politics, etc. This is what we are here for — to shine a spotlight on the “faith ghosts” that haunt many news stories. We also want to point out problems on the beat.

Here’s one that bugs us. In a major interview with Mel Gibson, the Los Angeles Times included the following background.

For the last year, Gibson has been embroiled in a controversy with a group of Jewish and Christian scholars and activists who criticized the script as having the potential to incite anti-Semitism. They now openly criticize the film, which they say portrays Jews negatively. From Gibson’s point of view, he was ambushed, his rights as an artist violated before he had even finished making his film.

Anyone who has charted this media storm has seen this kind of statement dozens of times.

Note the generic reference to a group “of Jewish and Christian scholars and activists.” There are no names. No descriptions of who they are and from where they hail. What seminaries? What religious movements or groups?

The reader is left to think that the views of these anonymous critics are normative. No one disagrees with them. Also note that the article clearly — as it should have — noted that Gibson is showing the film to hand-picked audiences. These groups are named and labeled.

Where are the names and labels on the other side? One way to find out is to look up “The Jesus War” from The New Yorker.

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James Davison Hunter, please call your service

It’s hard not to think of Dr. James Davison Hunter when reading the Los Angeles Times Magazine’s lengthy piece on Catholic traditionalists. Hunter is the sociologist who wrote “Culture Wars,” an influential book a decade or so ago that claimed to have found the dividing line in America’s moral and religious battles over sex and salvation and lots of other things.

Instead of old-fashioned divisions between various denominations, Hunter claimed to have found one fault line running vertically through American pews — between the “orthodox” and “progressive.” The orthodox believe it’s possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience and doctrines that evolve over time to fit the times.

So listen to the opening of this Los Angeles Times visit to a “traditionalist” parish, the kind favored by Mel Gibson:

It’s hard to be an absolutist in the modern world–our society simply isn’t set up for it. Boundless, diverse and brimming with energy, it’s better at fostering a culture where anything goes than one obsessed with strict definitions of right and wrong. It’s better at building a spiritual world where people customize their beliefs rather than demanding they adhere to rigid dogma. There is no black and white anymore. Most of us prefer our world in muddier-but-subtler, ever-evolving shades of gray.

Most of “us,” of course, being people who write for elite publications on the blue coasts. The priest in this tiny parish in the Santa Clarita Valley is candid and even a bit compelling. But the Times finds his words “unforgiving.”

There would be no need to translate the next few sentences for those who know Hunter’s work:

“Just because we’re in different times,” he says, “it doesn’t mean that right and wrong–true and false–change. Today nothing is sacred. Everything is open to reinterpretation. But if something is handed down by Christ, it shouldn’t change.”

You might assume your host is a Protestant fundamentalist, cousin to those evangelicals who preach salvation on the cable channels that pop up between MTV and HBO. If you took out the reference to Christ, he could even be an orthodox rabbi, admonishing his followers to keep the Sabbath and to follow the many commandments of the Torah to the letter.

Those fundamentalist priests, rabbis and evangelists are out there. Be on the lookout.

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Blood, sweat & tears

EWmelCover.jpgCompared to Newsweek‘s cover story, Entertainment Weekly‘s “The Agony & the Ecstasy” is the very model of shoe-leather journalism. Author Jeff Jensen, denied access to a screening of The Passion of the Christ or interviews with director Mel Gibson and star Jim Caviezel, spoke with more than two dozen other people, both defenders and critics of Gibson’s film.

EW promotes the story with one of Matt Mahurin’s more restrained illustrations, weaving a strand of film through a crown of thorns atop Gibson’s head. Jensen offers a telling detail about Gibson early on. It speaks both to Gibson’s combativeness in defending his film, which was under fire while he was still shooting in Italy, and his concern for his star:

While shooting The Passion in late 2002, Gibson hounded [Caviezel] like Satan tempting Christ in the wilderness: You don’t have to do this. You can quit. Caviezel tolerated his director’s doubts at first, but eventually broke. This is what I was made for, said the devoutly Catholic actor. Why do you keep bugging me? But Caviezel had misunderstood. Gibson wasn’t doubting him–he was warning him. After you finish this film, Gibson explained, you may never work in Hollywood again.

As with reporters who render Episcopalians as Episcopals, Jensen writes that Gibson “chose to re-embrace his father’s faith, a fringe Catholicism known as Traditionalism.” Gibson and his father, more precisely, embrace a Lefebvrite faith, which does, as Jensen reports, reject many of Vatican II’s changes.

But Jensen adds this ad hominem argument from silence: “These 1962-65 Vatican II reforms also absolved Jews for the killing of Christ; Gibson hasn’t said whether he rejects this as well.”

Similarly, Jensen writes as though Gibson picked this fight for the sole point of being ornery:

The director himself laid down the first piece of kindling more than a year ago, when he defended his film on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News talk show — even though no one had publicly attacked it. Seven weeks later, The New York Times Magazine published a story about his father, the Catholic Traditionalist, who was portrayed as a Holocaust-denying extremist prone to blaming Jews for the evils of the world.

The two incidents were not so far removed from each other. Gibson appeared on O’Reilly’s show because he knew that Times reporter Christopher Noxon was working on a hostile story about Gibson’s father and, by extension, about Gibson’s film, which he was still shooting in Italy.

Jensen raises an important point about artistic freedom, only to dismiss it:

Gibson defenders note that an artist has no obligation to those who would thought-police a work in progress. (Although in this case, he stands on shakier ground: “What he doesn’t get is that this isn’t about him,” says one source close to Gibson. “This is about 2,000 years of bigotry and hatred.”)

Let’s be clear about this much: As Peter Boyer reported in The New Yorker, assorted New Testament scholars attempted to demand changes in Gibson’s film. If professors at Azusa Pacific University or Wheaton College had attempted a similar stunt while Martin Scorsese was shooting The Last Temptation of Christ, most likely they would have heard–with some choice profanities thrown in for effect–that filmmakers, not professors, are the best people to direct films.

Jensen’s most troubling flourish is in comparing The Passion to one of the most notorious examples of film as propaganda:

If The Passion is denounced as anti-Semitic, and still becomes the most popular piece of hate-fueling cinema since The Birth of a Nation, his defiant, unconciliatory stance may well read as a decision to trade away Jewish concerns for Christian box office dollars. That’s something Hollywood may not be so quick to forgive or forget.

Again, the more precise comparison would be to The Last Temptation of Christ, despite the very different purposes of Gibson as a relapsed Catholic and Scorsese as a still-lapsed Catholic. Both films have generated fierce, even hysterical, levels of opposition even before opening on the first screen.

Some Christians, led by Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, offered to buy Scorsese’s prints from Universal Studios if it would agree to the film’s destruction. No one has sought to destroy Gibson’s film as a material object, but countless people have sought to destroy its reputation in utero.

This much is clear from people who have seen the film: Gibson builds on an image of the traditional Pietà , having Jesus’ grief-stricken mother stare into the camera, to implicate all people in his death. If that message somehow gives aid and succor to the Ku Klux Klan or other numbskull haters of Jews, then The Passion of the Christ will vie for the unenviable title as the most misunderstood film in decades.

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The Gospel according to Newsweek

newsweek021604.jpgThere is much to recommend in the “Who Really Killed Jesus?” cover story in the Feb. 16 Newsweek. It contains a wealth of information and weaves together the major themes in this media storm.

It’s a fine essay. It isn’t journalism, but it’s a fine essay.

When I say it isn’t journalism, here is what I mean. It is not American journalism as defined for a century or more. It is not an attempt to take a controversial story and give the reader an accurate representation of what the major players are saying on both sides.

Jon Meacham’s essay quotes many people who defend The Passion of the Christ, including a wide variety of quotes from Mel Gibson. But when it comes to the heart of the article — the wide swaths of scholarly material on the biblical and historical issues relevant to the debate — the controversy goes away.

Poof. It’s magic. There is no controversy. Apparently, all of the scholars who could speak to these bitterly contested issues are of one mind. They all agree with Meacham. Either that or anyone who disagreed with him or the scholars who guided his writing did not make it into the essay. (Newsweek describes Meacham as the perfect man to do this article, in part because he is “an observant Episcopalian.” Alas, this is a term that covers everyone from rock-ribbed evangelicals to those who blend Christian worship with salutes to other gods.)

The article is packed with information that seems to come from nowhere. The basic building block of American journalism — the “said so-and-so” attribution clause that lets the reader know the source — is nowhere to be seen, when it comes to issues of faith, doctrine and history. It all comes from somewhere on high.

Thus, liberal Christian scholars do not debate conservative scholars. Reform Jews do not differ with Orthodox Jews. The stunningly complex and angry world of biblical scholarship, for some strange reason, has become a choir that sings in perfect unison. Anyone who reads widely on these issues is left wondering: What is all the controversy about?

Many conservative critics of the article will focus on this paragraph:

But the Bible can be a problematic source. Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing in particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance. And the roots of Christian anti-Semitism lie in overly literal readings–which are, in fact, misreadings–of many New Testament texts.

However, another sweeping passage by Meacham — focusing on the work of the Second Vatican Council — is probably closer to his thesis:

The council went on to make another crucial point undercutting the use of Passion to fuel anti-Semitism, either in fact or in drama. “Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now,” Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) says, “Christ underwent his passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation.” And his mercy is not limited to those who confess the Christian faith. “The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.”

I have not seen this movie, but according to numerous friends who have, the first half of this paragraph is a crisp statement of Gibson’s main theme — that Jesus willingly gave up his life for all, to make salvation possible for all. Who really killed Jesus? All of humanity. Everyone in the theater audience. Everyone.

But it’s the second half of the paragraph that fascinates me. Note the leap from issues of “salvation” to issues of “discrimination.” Note the theological question left hanging, a question that divides liberal and conservative Catholics and many others. If the mercy of Christ is open to all, does that mean that all — even those who reject the claims of Christ — will find salvation?

Just asking. These are huge issues and very, very divisive.

But do not look for debates on such issues in this cover story. For Newsweek, these theological debates have all been settled. There is no need for journalism, in this case. There is no controversy — only the anonymous voices of the good, smart, scholarly Christians who agree with Newsweek.

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