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The Times speaks: “No miracles allowed”

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

This is, of course, the famous credo used time and time again by the late Dr. Carl Sagan. What has always fascinated me about this statement is its open use of religious — even creedal — form and its willingness to launch beyond the rules of science and into a kind of anti-theology.

How, in a lab, can one prove under the rules of science that the material world is all there is? How does one run scientific experiments in the past? And how in the world does one claim to be able to test the future?

Sagan knew what he was doing, of course. I had a chance to ask him about it. He knew his famous Cosmos series was making an argument that the scientific evidence backed up these sweeping truth claims that carried him far outside the rules of research. He believed he had the facts on his side and, thus, he was willing to make a leap of faith from facts to a larger philosophy. Then he became an evangelist for this philosophical point of view.

I was reminded of Sagan while reading the massive New York Times series on how the priesthood of modern science is responding to the rebels gathered under the banner of Intelligent Design. Click here to go to a clearinghouse page for all of the Gray Lady’s efforts on this issue in the recent past.

Clearly we are in the midst of a blitz. Cages have been rattled.

As I have stated before, I try to stay on the fringes of this issue because I have so many close friends who are at the heart of it. So take what I say here with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that the scope of this Times series is so large that it would take days to respond to it point by point.

On the whole, I think it is a rather mixed bag. There is some give and take by the most intelligent voices on each side of the debate and that is a good thing. I am sure the powers that be in the newsroom believe it is a totally balanced package. For example, the reports do stress that the ID leaders are, if anything, trying to increase the amount of attention evolution is given in the classroom, not ban the theory. They simply want students exposed to the debates that are already taking place within the scientific community. They also do not think the religious implications of these debates — on either side of the table — should be included in public classrooms. The ID leaders want this to be a scientific discussion. However, this would apply to Darwinian philosophy as well as to deism or theism.

I digress. There are times in the Times, however, when it is clear that the scientific arguments at the heart of the story simply cannot be covered in depth in a newspaper series. When this happens, the Times uses this formula: The controversial religious people make this claim. The real scientists make this response, based on facts. That’s that. There is no need to let the critics respond to their critics.

At one key moment, reporter Jodi Wilgoren even slips into the old “fundamentalist” trap, violating logic, the facts and The Associated Press Stylebook all at the same time. Here is the context, speaking of the ID leaders:

Their credentials — advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California — are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.

“They’re interested in the same things I’m interested in — no one else is,” Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. “What I’m doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It’s not something a ‘scientist’ is supposed to do.” Other than Dr. Berlinski, most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

What does the word “fundamentalist” mean in this context, when speaking of a group that includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and a dozen other faith traditions? Why use this word? Is the goal to underline a basic assumption that one side uses faith and the other intellect?

Let me conclude by returning to Sagan. The various Times writers seem to glimpse, every now and then, the larger fact that Darwinian orthodoxy makes truth claims that are based on claims of logic as well as laboratory results. What they seem to miss is that the Intelligent Design people want to use the same sequence as Sagan. They believe that laboratory evidence and logic point to an unknown designer — something that cannot be tested in a lab by science. But what they also want people to note is that the ultimate claim made by many in the Darwinian priesthood also cannot be tested.

In academic circles, evolution has been defined as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.”

The controversy centers on the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal.” That is the heart of this story. These are the words that Sagan and others cannot test in a laboratory, yet many still believe they are at the heart of all legitimate science. For, you see, any involvement whatsoever by a Divine Person — any meaningful role for a Creator — is called a miracle. That is bad. Millions and millions of taxpayers, representing (cue: Sagan voice) billions and billions of tax dollars, must be shown the light.

Thus, the Times notes:

. . . (M)ainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science. For one thing, these scientists say, invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific.

“One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “That’s a fundamental presumption of what we do.”

That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live. And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations.

Thus, one side gets to use the equation — science, logic, philosophy — but the other side does not. One side gets to make leaps of faith in the public square, but the other side does not. Rules are rules.

Dr. Sagan would be proud.

P.S. For a lively discussion of the terms that journalists are tossing about in this coverage, click here for a visit with William Safire.

Preaching in Billy Graham’s shadow

TwoGrahamsPeter J. Boyer of The New Yorker has become an indispensable reporter on the Godbeat, and his recent story on Billy and Franklin Graham is another solid achievement. (The article, from the Aug. 22 issue, is not available online, but the magazine atones for that by offering an engaging slideshow of black-and-white photos by Mary Ellen Mark, along with an audio track by Boyer.)

Boyer focuses strongly on the differences between father and son, and those differences defy stereotypes. So often the script for a World War II-era father and his Baby Boomer son would be that the elderly father is a crusty ideologue and the son is more experimental and laissez-faire. Not so here:

Although Franklin’s preaching style is cooler and more conversational than his father’s he is much less willing to smooth the edges of the faith. If Billy’s theme, especially in his later years, was the saving grace of God’s love, Franklin’s is more elemental. “My message is very focussed,” he says. “My message is to call on people to repent their sins.” Franklin believes in a sulfurous Hell, and has no doubt about who is going to be there. “The Bible says every knee under the earth, every knee that’s in Hell, one day is going to bow,” he says. “And every tongue is going to confess Him as Lord one day. Now, either you’re going to do it voluntarily and submit your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, or you’re going to be forced. And when you’re forced it’s going to be too late then.”

Boyer’s 13-page article is a thorough survey of the highlights in Billy Graham’s long vocation as an itinerant evangelist, and of his role in giving evangelicalism a public face. Boyer is especially strong in explaining Graham’s decisive break from fundamentalism. (This article is a rare case of using that word accurately and without a sneer.)

The article glosses over some of Billy Graham’s harder edges as a younger preacher. Some of Graham’s critics in the 1950s were just as troubled by his remarks on communism as today’s critics would be by Franklin Graham’s remarks on Islam.

Still, the article also mentions that Franklin already has attracted the respect of Richard Holbrooke’s, President Clinton’s former Ambassador to the United Nations:

Holbrooke says that Graham has been “enormously important” in the fight against AIDS abroad. “Samaritan’s Purse created one of the most important new developments in American foreign policy in the last generation — the entry of Christian conservatives into American foreign policy as pro-foreign-aid people.”

Are j-profs losin’ their religion?

ManAngelThat man Jay Rosen, a veteran professor at New York University’s Department of Journalism, is at it again — digging into the religious structures beneath the cathedrals of journalism.

A long, long time ago, a Sojourners essay took a stab at describing the links between religion and journalism, saying that journalists turn over the rock to reveal the dirt and ministers shovel off the dirt to reveal the rock. This is the same territory that Rosen covered in one of those essays that I hope every GetReligion reader has read — “Journalism Is Itself a Religion.” Note that this link takes you to the The Revealer, where it is stored as one of that blog’s statements of core doctrine.

If you want an update on some of those themes, check out Rosen’s “Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion,” which dissects the role that the Watergate Myth played in the idealism of a whole generation of journalism leaders. Here’s the readout from the top of that essay: “Watergate is the great redemptive story believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. Whether the story can continue to claim enough believers — and connect the humble to the heroic in journalism — is a big question. Whether it should is another question.”

Now, if any of that interests you, you are ready for the Rosen report from the recent AEJMC convention in San Antonia (tmatt asks: Great summer climate. Was hell booked up?) where some veteran journalism professors had a chance to testify — in the Bible Belt sense of that word — during a panel discussion called “Things I Used to Teach That I No Longer Believe.” It seems that the old-time religion just isn’t converting a new generation. As a journalism professor myself, I feel their pain.

It’s impossible to miss the faith language in the San Antonio remarks. Here is a clip or two from Rosen’s report:

First up was Carl Sessions Stepp, a contributing writer to American Journalism Review, a former national correspondent and editor for the Charlotte Observer and USA Today, and a professor at the University of Maryland’s J-School. He said that most of what he believed when he began teaching in 1983 he still believed, with one big exception.

Then he would have said that nearly all journalists employed in the field were people “on a mission.” They saw their work as a noble public service, and shared a sense of duty that helped them define what the service was amid a hectic news environment. Students quickly picked up on this creed, and newsoom culture supported it.

That was then. Now, he said, the sense of mission is not the same. He didn’t say it was gone; plenty of journalists still heard the call. And young people still showed up in his classes ready to believe. But changes in the news business and “workplace culture” have turned the mission into a fairy tale much of the time. There is no universal sense of calling any more, Stepp declared. Journalism as a whole isn’t “on a mission,” but journalists as individuals still can be.

The obvious question: What is the nature of this secular “calling”? As a Christian who works in mainstream journalism, I have always struggled with that word for the simple reason that many people hear it and link it directly to the work of ordained ministers. The traditional Christian doctrine, however, is that people are called to a wide variety of professions and God does not rank them — from rock & roll guitarists to airplane pilots, from (gulp) lawyers to painters. In that sense, one can be “called” to be a journalist, working in this industry to the best of one’s ability and following the rules of the craft.

Rosen argues that many journalists are actually semi-ordained evangelists in a church of journalism. They are on a mission from the gods and the gods have names such as Woodward and Bernstein, who produced The Good Book that inspired young believers to make personal professions of faith and walk the true path.

So what does it mean if young people don’t want to do “mission” work in modern newsrooms? What is the modern j-student seeking?

Back to Rosen’s report:

Next was Dianne Lynch, dean of the School of Communications at Ithaca College, a journalist, and former executive director of the Online News Association. She told us a startling story about an exceptional student who gave up a four-year scholarship worth over $200,000, including tuition, room and board, even travel money. The student came to the dean’s office to let Lynch know that she was quitting journalism and switching to sociology. “I decided that I just can’t be in such a terrible profession,” the student said, adding that it did not seem to her a field where a young person could “make a difference.”

There was a slight gasp in the room at that. This was because the phrase used, “make a difference,” though tedious and vague, was once the very thing that identified to journalists their own idealism. You didn’t do it for the money, and it wasn’t the wonderful working conditions, or a chance for advancement. For a certain generation (whose mortality was lurking about the panel, way under the laughs) journalism, at its best, was all about “making a difference.” Speaking truth to power, and all that.

And so forth and so on, world without end. Amen.

So do modern j-students want to preach, as in pour out their beliefs in secular sermons in openly partisan publications? Are we facing the rise of the new, New Journalists? Is the goal to do unto the bloggers what the bloggers want to do unto you?

These are interesting times and Rosen is must reading, no matter what church you have joined.

No left turns on red

It’s hard to know where to start with this AFP piece on a phantom “left turn” in “America’s pulpits,” so let’s just take it from the top. The article begins by saying that “America’s moderate and progressive evangelists,” long “outgunned” by the “mighty ‘religious right,’” have finally demanded a cut of the political action.

As evidence, the report cites — you’ll never guess this — Jim Wallis, who claims that a “silent majority of moderate and progressive Christians” have felt excluded from “the conversation.” One Patrick Mrotek, of the Christian Alliance for Progress, boldly declares that “We can no longer stand by and watch people speak hatred, division, war and greed in the name of our faith.”

And . . .

That’s it, really. There is some polling evidence, but all of it seemingly cuts the other way. Republicans in the last election got a decent majority of the Catholic vote and an unassailable majority of the Protestant vote by stressing issues that drive progressives to distraction.

Certain indicators are marshaled to prove that at least nominal Christian faith in America is still loud and influential. To wit, “A Newsweek poll in December 2004 found that 79 percent of Americans believed the Virgin birth was literal truth.”

I did, however, get a kick out of the author’s decision to cite Rush Limbaugh to close out the piece. “The religious left in this country,” Limbaugh is reported to have said, “hates and despises the God of Christianity and Catholicism and whatever else . . .”

* * *

I’d like to break out of character to wish all American GetReligion readers a happy Fourth of July.

Billy Graham in exile

When addressing members of the Evangelical Press Association in April, Anne Graham Lotz cited her father as a Christian who has remained focused on evangelism, even at age 86. Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times provides the details on what a toll Graham’s age has taken on his health, and the result is far more interesting than a snapshot of a plaster saint:

The evangelist shuffles with a walker down a small ramp into his living room. He has prostate cancer, hydrocephalus and the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and last year broke a hip and his pelvis. He says he leaves the mountain only three or four times a year, and cannot even remember his last time down.

. . . Although Mr. Graham moved and spoke slowly, his blue eyes were sharp. He wore a bright blue blazer that matched his eyes, and pressed blue jeans. He said that every day from about 11 a.m. on, he goes numb over most of his body and especially in his face. “I don’t feel normal. It’s a neurological thing,” he said. “If I tell my hand to reach up it’s a delayed action between my brain and what happens.”

Goodstein interviewed Graham for an hour on the porch of his mountainside home in Montreat, N.C., as he prepared for a new crusade at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. She acts on the rare opportunity to ask Graham about his embarrassing remarks on Jews (in a private but taped conversation with Richard Nixon in 1972) and his son Franklin’s remarks about Islam: “We had an understanding a long time ago, he speaks for himself.” Pressed further, he responded, “Let’s say, I didn’t say it.”

She ends with the clear parallels between Graham’s suffering and that of Pope John Paul II:

Mortality is on his mind. Of the pope’s funeral, he said, “I watched every bit of it.” Asked why, he said: “He was teaching us how to suffer, and he taught us how to die. I didn’t agree with him on everything theologically, but as a person and as a man, he set a great example and he was a wonderful personal friend to me.”

Mr. Graham said that with each health setback, “I’ve rejoiced in all of it.” The Lord, he said, was making it possible for him to relate to other suffering people.

The other night he said he caught an old clip of himself being interviewed on “Larry King Live.” “I looked at myself, it was only six or seven years ago, but I looked so vigorous,” he said. “And I thought to myself, how different things were to me then than they are now.”

Christian niche news bad for The Nation?

I thought some GetReligion readers might find the following Dallas Morning News report interesting (even though I show up in it as a source).

In some ways, this feature by reporter Colleen McCain Nelson is old news. Conservative Christians have been turned off by mainstream news for a long time, which helped fuel the rise of the televangelists long ago and clearly sparked some of the talk-radio blitz, too. Now we are seeing another rise in the power of niche market cable television and web news on the right. Here is Nelson’s summary:

(Many) Christians are seeking out alternative sources of news, and not just for information on religious topics. With the number of Christian television networks, radio stations, Web sites and magazines on the upswing, they have plenty to choose from.

The number of religious radio stations grew by 14 percent in the last five years, from 1,769 to 2,014, according to Arbitron. And a recent report by The Barna Group found that more people use Christian media than attend church. Technological advances, a polarized electorate and the increasing prominence of evangelicals have spurred the growth in Christian news.

On one level, more media is always a good thing. But at some point you have to wonder if anyone in the culture is going to be coming into contact with points of view other than their own. As a journalism educator, I really worry about things like that. What comes after that? Googlezon?

Take, for example, this recent irony.

This same basic topic — alternative forms of Christian news — got grilled big time recently in the Columbia Journalism Review in a lengthy cover article titled “Stations of the Cross: How evangelical Christians are creating an alternative universe of faith-based news.”

As you might expect, reporter Mariah Blake had lots of bad things to say about this trend, many of them valid. However, I did find it kind of ironic to read such a long attack on highly partisan, ideologically defined, agenda-driven, biased niche news in the hallowed pages of CJR — especially one that ended with the following credit line:

Mariah Blake is an assistant editor at CJR. The magazine gratefully acknowledges support for her research from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.

Say what? This strong warning about the dangers of advocacy journalism was funded by The Nation? Isn’t that sort of like Focus on the Family funding a documentary on the life of Elton John? Or a Rush Limbaugh newsletter expose on Hillary Clinton?

The dilemma of digital dharma

How many of you can remember stories about the impact of cable and satellite television on evangelicals and charistmatics? Good.

How many of you remember stories about the whole wired-sanctuary, plasma-screen worship movement among modern megachurches? OK, that’s good too. All of that is valid news.

Every now and then, it is good to see a glimpse of other world religions crashing into modern technology, I mean other than the impact of cell telephones and the Internet on Islamic fundamentalism. This week’s Religion News Service “article of the week” by reporter Joshua M. Greene is a news feature that does just that.

(What this means is that RNS puts the text of this article online for a week. So if you want to read it, click here now. After that, you can Google for it or try Beliefnet’s news section, which always posts a good selection of RNS copy.)

The headline is “Hindu Holy Place Altered by Technology, Development, Pollution” and the dateline is Vrindavan, India. So what happens when you take a quiet, scenic Hindu holy place two miles from Delhi and then blend in digital telephones, real-estate sharks, boom boxes, satellite dishes, automobiles, solar panels and other signs of modern life? It’s hard not to notice the changes.

Not everyone is happy with the transition.

“It is a painful subject,” says Shrivatsa Goswami, whose family traces its roots to Vrindavan’s 16th-century restorers. “In those days, this place had the most beautiful riverside architecture in India’s history. It was like a miniature painting come alive.”

Goswami notes that previous generations of temple authorities understood the importance of holy places and took responsibility for their maintenance. Today, he says, that sense of stewardship is absent. . . . (With) modernization, the nature of pilgrimage to this holy spot has shifted dramatically. As recently as the 1980s, hardly one car a day arrived here, and there was little to distract from an all-day walking tour of medieval sites. Today, traffic backs up along the newly completed six-lane National Highway. A water park has opened less than seven miles from Govardhan, a hill that is among Vrindavan’s most sacred spots. Near the actual site of Krishna’s appearance in nearby Mathura, Pepsi-Cola has constructed a production plant. Cell phone towers loom up into the sky over temple domes.

Got the picture? But this is where the story gets interesting, raising questions that are surprisingly universal.

At what point do “austere conditions” begin to turn off and, thus, turn away modern pilgrims? Is it acceptable to modernize religious sanctuaries, if that is what the modern consumer wants? Does any of this affect prayer? The soul? How important is it to, as Greene puts it, separate the “spiritual dabblers from the truly devout”?

Now where have I heard those questions before?

Check this story out, before it goes offline. I have said this before, but people who are truly interested in religion news need a way to interact with RNS.

The not-so-biblical biblical baccalaureate

Carolyn Bower of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch masters understatement in her report on Lindbergh High School’s students holding separate baccalaureates this year. It seems one group didn’t want to hear anything from the Qur’an, while another group didn’t want to be preached at. But let’s turn the narrative over to Bower’s story, which is all the richer for its just-the-facts tone and lack of scare quotes:

Baccalaureates are traditionally religious services held before graduation. One of Lindbergh’s will begin at 7 p.m. tonight in the high school auditorium in south St. Louis County. Invitations have listed TV evangelist Joyce Meyer as the invited headliner. Organizers call the event a biblical baccalaureate.

The other was May 17 in the auditorium also. The service offered reflections, a prayer, music, speeches and a video of teachers offering advice to students.

Earlier this year students began to disagree about what to offer in the baccalaureate service as well as who should organize the event.

Trinity Fry, 18, a Lindbergh senior, along with her mother, Joyce Fry, helped to organize tonight’s service.

“The biggest thing we didn’t want was people reading out of the Quran or other things,” Trinity said. “We wanted to include all students, but we didn’t want an interfaith service.” Trinity did not attend the service last week.

Rob Boston of Americans United also is understated in the response he offered to Bower:

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says the best solution is to have privately sponsored baccalaureates in private buildings or churches.

Boston said the Lindbergh case offered “a bit of a twist,” holding a privately sponsored baccalaureate on school grounds. But he said laws allow for private groups to access facilities on an equal basis.

“I’m not aware of other cases like this,” Boston said, adding he was shocked to hear Joyce Meyer would headline the event. “Those who attend can expect a heavy dose of Christian proselytizing.”

Bower missed one blazing irony in the story: The students who don’t want to hear anything from the Qur’an are apparently fine with hearing from one of the leading voices of prosperity theology (as reported with admirable thoroughness in the Post-Dispatch two years ago).


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