One-sided look at controversial Baptist flock in Charlotte

It has been quite some time since I have used an old GetReligion term (Cheers!), so I think it might help for me to pause and explain the “tmatt trio” to new readers.

Back when I was on the religion beat full-time, I developed a series of three doctrinal questions that helped me scope out the dividing lines inside the battles that were shaking so many Christian denominations and ministries. You see, they all seemed to be arguing about the same issues over and over (James Davison Hunter, your ears should be burning), no matter what doctrinal heritage they were claiming to honor.

Yes, there are small-o orthodox and progressive answers to these questions, but that is beside the point. The goal of the questions, for me as a journalist, was to listen carefully to how people answered, or attempted not to answer, these basic doctrinal questions. The trio never failed to yield interesting answers and evasions that helped me, as a reporter, learn more about where people were actually coming, in terms of ancient doctrines (as opposed to mere contemporary politics).

So, here are the three questions:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Of course, there are churches that would not use the term “sacrament” in connection with marriage. Thus, I would tweak the wording on that question from time to time. Obviously, you need totally different questions when dealing with other faiths. The key is that you ask doctrinal, not political, questions.

Now, I have a personal confession to make. I first formulated these questions in the early 1980s, while working at The Charlotte News and then The Charlotte Observer. They grew out of my experiences as a member of the final Baptist congregation that I ever called home.

To be specific, if was the congregation discussed in this recent (alas, it has been in the tmatt guilt file for some time now) story in the Observer. Every reporter knows that clergy come and go all the time. In this case, the editors decided that a ministerial exit was news.

With tears and applause, hugs and handshakes, Myers Park Baptist Church said goodbye Sunday to a longtime senior minister who announced last week that he needed to walk away from the stresses of pastoring a 2,200-member congregation.

The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, who recently sought treatment at a Maryland facility for anxiety and depression, also bid his “beloved community” farewell with a final sermon that cast his resignation and the 70-year-old church’s upcoming search for a new leader as opportunities for each to start a new day.

“God is giving to me a new dawn, and God is giving to you, the congregation, a new dawn,” the black-robed Shoemaker said after climbing the stairs to the church’s pulpit one last time. “God is a God of new beginnings.”

Shoemaker, who also had admitted “self-medicating with alcohol,” wants to devote his attention to an intensive 90-day, out-patient recovery program and then pursue a career of teaching and writing.

Now, it helps to understand that Myers Park Baptist is a very controversial church and that has been the case for decades. On one level, this rather high-church, liturgical congregation is known for taking, as the story notes, “liberal stands” on the usual social and cultural issues. The congregation took early public stands in favor of gay rights, for example, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the story, the content of these “liberal stands” is hinted at in this paragraph:

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Why do some Protestants teach “young earth” chronology?

ANNE ASKS:

What is the explanation for today’s “young earth” movement among evangelicals?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question highlights the split between many Christians in science and a wing within conservative Protestantism that believes Genesis chapter 1 requires a “young earth” chronology with earth and all living things originating some 10,000 years ago, not the billions of years in conventional science.

Confusingly, this is — especially in news reporters — called “creationism” though Christians who accept the long chronology also believe God created earth and life. Most “creationists” also say God literally formed the world in six 24-hour days, immediately fixed all species and humanity without evolution, and caused a flood that covered the globe.

In the 19th Century, geologists shifted to the vast timeline that was later confirmed by measuring radioactive decay in earth’s minerals. Long chronology was essential for Darwin’s theory that gradual evolution produced all biological species.

Whatever they thought of Darwinism, leading evangelicals and fundamentalists originally saw no biblical problem with the new geology.

Some figured the “days” of Genesis meant long “ages,” the “gap” theory proposed a vast era between the first two verses of Genesis, and there were other explanations. The “old earth” was accommodated by B.B. Warfield, the 19th Century formulator of “inerrancy” (the Bible’s total accuracy on history); William Jennings Bryan, the famous prosecutor of Darwinism at the 1925 “monkey trial”; “The Fundamentals,” the 1910-1916 booket series that gave rise to fundamentalism; and later on by numerous Christian professionals in the American Scientific Affiliation.

Yet Gallup found in 2007 that two-thirds of grass-roots Americans (and not just Christians) think it’s “definitely” or “probably” true that God created humanity “within the last 10,000 years.” The expert on this is Ronald L. Numbers, who teaches the history of science at the University of Wisconsin and wrote “The Creationists” (expanded edition, 2006). He takes special interest as someone raised in the creationistic Seventh-day Adventist Church (though agnostic as an adult).

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An ISIS tax on Christians? The accurate word is ‘dhimmitude’

A month ago, I wrote a post about the events unfolding in Mosul and argued that journalists who covered this story — those brave enough to venture into the Nineveh Plain region — needed to grasp the meaning of the word “dhimmitude.”

Yes, this is a controversial term.

Yes, it is the right word to use when covering the unfolding strategies of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, when dealing with the ancient Christian communities in this region. As I wrote in that post:

The key is that people of other faiths living in lands ruled by Islam are given “dhimmi” status in which they receive some protection under sharia law, in exchange for paying a Jizyah tax as a sign of submission. The big debates are about other conditions of submission which are, or are not, required under dhimmitude. Dhimmis are not allowed to protect themselves (some claim it is impossible to rape a dhimmi), to display symbols of their faith, to build (or even repair) their religious sanctuaries, to win converts, etc. Historically, dhimmis have been asked to wear some form of distinctive apparel as a sign of their inferior status. The key is that this is an protected, but inferior, status under strict forms of sharia law.

This term should have been used in the courageous New York Times piece — “Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order With a Darker Side” — that is getting quite a bit of online attention right now, and justifiably so.

Yes, I know that this article violates the Associated Press Stylebook’s rule on use of the historic term “fundamentalist.” What else is new? This appears to be a consistent policy at the Times, making sure that readers link this term from conservative Protestantism with the worst of what is happening under Islam. Thus, concerning ISIS, the world’s most powerful newspaper stresses that the group has “begun imposing its vision of a state that blends its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with the practicalities of governance.”

However, this story is crucial because it includes on-site reporting in the region.

An employee of The New York Times recently spent six days in Raqqa and interviewed a dozen residents. The employee and those interviewed are not being identified to protect them from retaliation by the extremists who have hunted down and killed those perceived as opposing their project.

Included in this fresh reporting, near the bottom of the story, is the following information:

Raqqa’s three churches, once home to an active Christian minority, have all been shuttered. After capturing the largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, ISIS removed its crosses, hung black flags from its facade and converted it into an Islamic center that screens videos of battles and suicide operations to recruit new fighters.

The few Christians who remain pay a minority tax of a few dollars per month. When ISIS’s religious police officers patrol to make sure shops close during Muslim prayers, the Christians must obey, too.

Note the reference to ISIS demands that members of minority faiths pay a special tax. What, pray tell, is that all about?

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So, what religions use mind-altering drugs?

MICHAEL-ANN’S QUESTION:

While millions observed Easter Sunday or the Passover season April 20, some folks were celebrating the annual “4-20,” numerical code for the marijuana subculture. That coincidence caused Michael-Ann to wonder “how many religions use weed (and other mind-altering drugs) to reach spirituality?”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The best-known example is the Rastafarians, who are deeply rooted in Jamaica and among U.S. immigrants from that nation. Rastas, easily identified by their dreadlocks, smoke “ganga” in worship though they prohibit consumption of alcohol and coffee. Just last month Jamaica announced plans to decriminalize pot possession, which will foster this faith and reflects its influence.

Rastafarianism emerged from the 1920s “back to Africa” movement of Marcus Garvey, who taught that Jamaicans were the true Israelites in exile. A Garvey vision led to worship of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975) as the earthly incarnation of God. (Selassie himself declined the honor since he was a devout Orthodox Christian who urged the Rev. Billy Graham’s first world evangelism congress in 1966, “Let us labor to lead our brothers and sisters to our Savior Jesus Christ, who only can give life in its fullest sense.”)

A smaller faith built around a different controlled substance received notice during the Supreme Court’s recent case on Hobby Lobby and mandatory birth control funding. The discussion referred to the court’s Employment Division v. Smith ruling (1990) involving two adherents of the Native American Church. This group, incorporated in 1918 in Oklahoma with several branches elsewhere, worships by eating hallucinogenic peyote. The court ruled that devotees’ religious liberty claims do not justify violation of state drug laws.

Several small marijuana sects have emerged lately, among them The Hawaii Cannabis Ministry (clever name since THC is the plant’s main psychoactive chemical), Greenfaith Ministry, Entheogenic Reformation Church, and Church of Reality (though “marijuana inspired” it officially “neither encourages the use of marijuana nor discourages it”). Will such New Age-y sects have much reason to exist if more states follow the lead of Colorado and (as of this week) Washington to freely allow recreational sale and use of cannabis sativa? Other similar groups have died out over the years.

The late biochemist and New Age figure Robert S. de Ropp surveyed the history of religions employing mind-altering substances. There’s evidence Rastafarian ritual stems from older practices in Africa. Ancient Mexicans used peyote and psychedelic mushrooms. South Pacific islanders consumed kava. Some devotees of the Hindu goddess Kali worshipped with drugs. Medieval terrorists in one Muslim faction were called “the Assassins” due to their practice named by the Arabic “hashishiyya” or “hashish users.” However, mainstream Islam has always strictly forbidden drugs and alcohol.

Biblical religion likewise stresses sobriety. Some advocates contend that God endorsed pot when he declared at the creation, “I have given you every plant yielding seed … You shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29). Such wooden literalism would stupefy even a Fundamentalist since God obviously didn’t demand consumption of all species including thistles and poisonous plants.

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Middle East stories: The territory includes religion

Terrorists may have declared a new Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, but coverage of their actions is all over the map.

Some media fixate on the land or tribal alliances. Some dig into history or listen to Washington. Few look at religious roots of the conflict.

The new angle is that the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has rebranded his jihadist group the Islamic State and declared the birth of a modern-day caliphate, an old-fashioned transnational kingdom ruled by Islamic law. Since the caliphate was run by the Sunni branch of Islam, religious and historical currents clearly underlie the announcement.

Unfortunately, many reports keep those currents way under the surface.

Typical of the brisk-but-shallow approach is that of the Washington Post. Here’s how they styled the new events:

BAGHDAD — The extremist group battling its way through swaths of Iraq and Syria declared the creation of a formal Islamic state Sunday, building on its recent military gains and laying down an ambitious challenge to al-Qaeda’s established leadership.

In an audio statement posted on the Internet, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced the restoration of the 7th-century Islamic caliphate, a long-declared goal of the al-Qaeda renegades who broke with the mainstream organization early this year and have since asserted control over large areas spanning the two countries.

The Associated Press, to my surprise, did a little better in their story on the rebranded ISIS. The article spells out the Islamic State’s actions in classic shariac terms:

The showcase of the extremist group’s vision of its Islamic state is Raqqa, a city of 500,000 in northern Syria along the Euphrates River. Since expelling rival rebel groups this spring from the city, the militants have banned music, forced Christians to pay an Islamic tax for protection, and killed violators of its interpretation of Islam in the main square, activists say.

Elsewhere, the story skips a little lightly over facts that would help us understand the violence:

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NYTimes: Waves of generic refugees run for their lives in Iraq

http://youtu.be/_-4hjgmuKJM

The news from Iraq grows more and more distressing, at least for those who favor old-liberalism virtues found in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations. Here is a typical mainstream-news update, care of The Los Angeles Times.

But let’s back up for a moment and look at two key elements of one of the first major stories that shook the mainstream press into action. I refer to The New York Times piece that ran under the headline “Sunni Militants Drive Iraqi Army Out of Mosul.”

I concede, right up front, that I am concerned about two key issues: (1) the symbolic and practical importance of Mosul to Christians and members of other religious minorities in the Middle East and (2) the tactics and goals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militants behind this drive into Iraq. At the top of its report, the Times paints this horror story in very general terms.

BAGHDAD — Sunni militants spilling over the border from Syria on Tuesday seized control of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, in the most stunning success yet in a rapidly widening insurgency that threatens to drag the region into war.

Having consolidated control over Sunni-dominated Nineveh Province, armed gunmen were heading on the main road to Baghdad, Iraqi officials said, and had already taken over parts of Salahuddin Province. Thousands of civilians fled south toward Baghdad and east toward the autonomous region of Kurdistan, where security is maintained by a fiercely loyal army, the pesh merga.

The Iraqi Army apparently crumbled in the face of the militant assault, as soldiers dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and blended in with the fleeing masses. The militants freed thousands of prisoners and took over military bases, police stations, banks and provincial headquarters, before raising the black flag of the jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over public buildings. The bodies of soldiers, police officers and civilians lay scattered in the streets.

OK, so we have thousands of generic civilians fleeing.

Is there anything else that can be said about that word “civilians”? Veteran human-rights activist Nina Shea — yes, writing at the conservative National Review Onlinenotes a few crucial details about the symbolic importance of Mosul. It helps to know that Iraq’s second-largest city has been the final safe zone for believers in the nation’s 2,000 year-old Christian community and for those in many other small religious minorities. Thus:

Mosul’s panic-stricken Christians, along with many others, are now fleeing en masse to the rural Nineveh Plain, according to the Vatican publication Fides. The border crossings into Kurdistan, too, are jammed with the cars of the estimated 150,000 desperate escapees.

The population, particularly its Christian community, has much to fear. The ruthlessness of ISIS, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, has been legendary. Its beheadings, crucifixions, and other atrocities against Christians and everyone else who fails to conform to its vision of a caliphate have been on full display earlier this year, in Syria. …

(In) February, it was the militants of this rebel group that, in the northern Syrian state of Raqqa, compelled Christian leaders to sign a 7th-century dhimmi contract. The document sets forth specific terms denying the Christians the basic civil rights of equality and religious freedom and committing them to pay protection money in exchange for their lives and the ability to keep their Christian identity.

News consumers who have been paying close attention know that ISIS isn’t just a group that is linked to al-Qaeda, it is a group that has been so ruthless and violent that it has been shunned by many jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda.

The bottom line that might interest American readers: One of the world’s most ancient Christian communities is literally running for its life, trying to escape militants who are too violent to work with al-Qaeda.

Now, read the bland Times report and try to figure out that this is one of the key elements — yes, I said ONE — of the tragedy that is unfolding. Here is how these realities are reported by America’s most powerful newsroom:

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Bowe Bergdahl: Calvinist, Buddhist, Muslim seeker?

While most of the DC Beltway journalists do that dance that they do (Will the vaguely legal Taliban prisoner swap hurt Democrats in 2014 elections?!), there are some interesting religion-beat questions hiding between the lines in the story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

As a jumping-off point, consider the following rather bizarre passage in this New York Post report:

As a teen, the home-schooled son of Calvinists took up ballet — recruited to be a “lifter” by “a beautiful local girl,” Rolling Stone reported, “the guy who holds the girl aloft in a ballet sequence.” The strategy worked: Bergdahl — who also began dabbling in Budd­hism and tarot card reading — soon moved in with the woman.

A BBC explainer has some of that information, but with a few more specifics:

Sgt Bergdahl was born to the couple on 28 March 1986 in Idaho, where his father worked in construction. He and his younger sister, Sky, were home schooled by their devout Calvinist parents, instructed in religion and morality.

Sgt Bergdahl was taught to shoot a rifle and ride horses by age five, and reportedly grew interested in adventure tales.
At age 16, he became interested in fencing and ballet, and moved in with the family of a local girl studying dance who instructed him in Buddhism and Tarot.

It appears to me that these media sources were paraphrasing from some earlier document or story, which I have not been able to find yet. Note, for example, the difference — in the ballet, Buddhism and tarot card reference — between Bergdahl “moving in with the woman” and, at age 16, his move to live “with the family of a local girl.” A vague difference, but important from a moral perspective.

This is especially true in light of that “devout” attachment to the “Calvinist” label.

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BBC: Another generic, mysterious ‘honor killing’ (updated)

This time the bloody honor killing took place in a public place, for all to see — outside the Lahore High Court. The short BBC report noted:

Police said 30-year old Farzana Bibi died on the spot after being attacked with bricks and sticks. Her father handed himself in, but police say her brothers and former fiance, who also took part in the attack, were still free. …

Farzana Bibi’s parents accused her husband, Muhammad Iqbal, of kidnapping her, and had filed a case against him at the High Court. However, she testified to police that she had married him of her own accord. Police said the couple had been engaged for a number of years.

Religion, apparently, had nothing to do with this event, which was said to be a mere cultural phenomenon. However, the report ended by noting:

Under Pakistani law, the victim’s family is allowed to forgive the killer. However, in many cases family members are themselves responsible for the killing.

And what legal system forms the foundation of Pakistani law? What, for example, has been the root cause for the headline-generating Pakistan cases in which believers in a minority faith, usually Christianity, are accused of apostasy against the faith at the heart of the nation’s government and culture?

(By the way, the Associated Press included — in its lede — another detail BBC missed or omitted, the fact that Bibi was pregnant at the time she was murdered.)

There is no need to dwell on the Islamic element of this crime and it would be wrong to suggest that all Muslims in Pakistan, and elsewhere, practice, accept or ignore “honor killings.” In fact, a Washington Post report on this same crime did an excellent job of including the essential details. For example:

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