What is the X-factor in Syrian bloodshed? DUH! (updated)

It seems that many networkers in the online world remain fired up about that recent Washington Post explainer that ran under the headline “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.” That’s the one you may recall, in part because of this GetReligion post, that was the first of many similar mainstream media pieces that have tried to explain the rising violence in Syria without including information about its crucial religious divisions.

What kind of religious divisions at the heart of the violence?

Well, how many of you out in GetReligion reader land have seen the following Associated Press report in your local newspaper, a national newspaper or your favorite news (as opposed to analysis) website? You would have seen a headline that looked something like this: “Al-Qaeda-linked rebels assault Syrian Christian village.” A shout out to CBS, by the way, for at least covering that event online.

Anyway, all of that is to point readers toward a long, deep piece that ran the other day at the CNN Belief Blog, written by co-editor Daniel Burke, under this rather remarkable headline, in the current media climate: “Syria explained: How it became a religious war.” Here’s the top of the story:

(CNN) – How did Syria go from an internal uprising to a wider clash drawing funding and fighters from across the region?

In a word, Middle East experts say, religion.

Shiite Muslims from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran have flooded into Syria to defend sacred sites and President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Sunni Muslims, some affiliated with al Qaeda, have rushed in to join rebels, most of whom are Sunni.

Both sides use religious rhetoric as a rallying cry, calling each other “infidels” and “Satan’s army.”

“That is why it has become so muddy,” said professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “The theological question has returned to the center.”

So who is crying out that the key to the rising conflict is religion? That would be the United Nations.

Why does that matter so much?

Religious civil wars are longer and bloodier than other types of clashes, according to studies. They are also twice as likely to recur and twice as deadly to noncombatants.

“People hold onto religious fights longer than battles over land and water,” said Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, an expert on foreign policy at Georgetown University and a 10-year veteran of the U.S. State Department. “It becomes existential and related to belief in a higher calling.”

Some combatants in Syria appear to believe that fighting in the name of God justifies the most barbaric measures.

Remember that video of a rebel eating the heart of a Syrian soldier while shouting “God is great!”? Or the other video showing the beheading of three men with butcher knives, also while praising God?

Of course, as CNN accurately notes, the ruling regime has been just as brutal in many cases. However, one complication — yes, captured in the CNN report — is that Syrian troops are often the only forces that are standing between tiny, in many cases defenseless, religious minorities and the elements of the rebel forces that can accurately be called Islamist and, in some cases, linked to al Qaeda.

So who are the other players on this sectarian chess board?

[Read more...]

Pod people: ‘Conservative’ Baptists spark a conversation

In three and a half years, I’ve written 439 posts for GetReligion (this makes 440, I believe). That ranks me No. 5 on the all-time GetReligionista list, with tmatt the Hank Aaron of GR at 3,139 and Mollie next at 2,015.

That’s a lot of posts.

And that’s a lot of opportunity to type a quick opinion on deadline and either not express it clearly enough or — in some cases — botch it altogether.

In a post this week titled “AP embraces cliches, labels in seminary prez profile,” I questioned the repeated use of the term “conservative” in a profile of Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. I noted that the term appeared seven times in the 800-word story — five times as an adjective.

My criticism drew this response from one reader on Twitter: 

In the comments section of that post, GetReligion guru tmatt himself noted:

But, hey, conservative is accurate. Fundamentalist would have been inaccurate in this case. Smaller sins!

That prompted two replies from me.

The first (typed in defensive mode):

Maybe conservative is accurate.

But it’s overused and vague.

Better journalism would be to show, not tell, that someone is conservative.

The second (after a bit more reflection):

[Read more...]

Agnus Dei: Presbyterian hymnal fight makes news

Before we look at a news story from The Tennessean, a little background. Last week I read a fascinating piece in First Things about a particular kerfuffle in one denomination’s hymnal development. It began:

In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he named the kind of mainline religion he encountered in 1930s America: Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”

Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse, but nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath. Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.  The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” For this they wanted to substitute: “…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.

What followed was a fascinating discussion of atonement theories and God’s love, featuring Protestants, Pope Benedict XVI and church fathers alike.

You could also read about this hymnal debate in Christianity Today and throughout the Christian press and blogosphere. It was huge news and a major point of discussion.

Everywhere, that is, except for in the mainstream media.

The thing is, as anyone who regularly worships God with the aid of a hymnal can tell you, liturgy and song are major issues. They define our relationship to God and our understanding of hymn. They convey the doctrine of the church with amazing efficacy. Martin Luther called music theology’s handmaiden. One of the most exciting stories of my church body’s recent history was the assembly, production and widespread acceptance of our latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book “proclaiming the Good News of forgiveness, life, and salvation; celebrating Christ and all His benefits; giving voice to the people’s thanksgiving and praise”). Even if my church body’s worship wars aren’t quite as dramatic as other denominations, developing a hymnal used by millions is no small feat. I know a little bit about that story and it involved some hard-fought battles over theology and practice.

Some readers had noted the lack of mainstream media discussion about an interesting story from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s hymnal development project. And it is interesting that 100% of all stories related to anything involving same-sex attraction are greenlighted for the front page of metro dailies (or so it seems) while a really interesting theological debate isn’t even covered.

So major props to The Tennessean for not just reporting the story but adding some helpful depth to it as well. It begins:

Fans of a beloved Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction in a new church hymnal.

[Read more...]

What The Economist Gets Wrong About Calvinist Baptists

Image source: Christian Post

Today is the 504th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (July 10, 1509) — and the 497th anniversary of misunderstanding Calvinists.

To commemorate the event, let’s look at a recent notable example provided by The Economist. The article is out-datedly titled, “Dippers divided” and the subhead is “Where evangelicals disagree.” Where evangelicals disagree, apparently, is on whether to maintain,

the “theocon” alliance in American politics between Catholics and evangelicals, who have set aside their doctrinal differences (over the Virgin Mary, for example) to take a joint stand against abortion and in favour of the traditional family.

What could be causing the rift between Catholics and evangelicals. According to The Economist, the alleged culprit is Calvinists in the Southern Baptist denomination.

. . . the effectiveness of the Catholic-evangelical axis may be compromised by a deepening ideological fissure within the evangelical camp; or more specifically within America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which has about 16m members.

Broadly speaking, the difference is over whether Jesus Christ died to save mankind as a whole, or sacrificed himself only for a particular group of human beings, the elect, whom God had chosen in advance. The latter view is associated with John Calvin, the French reformer of the 16th century; critics find it too fatalistic, and inconsistent with the idea of a loving God. Taken to its logical extreme, some say, Calvinism can lead to an introverted, exclusive mindset: if most of humanity is irrevocably damned, what’s the point of engaging with the world?

Who is this “some” who “say?” Probably the same “some” who claim that premillennial dispensationalists (who are rarely, if ever, Calvinists) also believe that if most of humanity is irrevocably damned (see: the Left Behind novels), there is no point of engaging with the world. Of course, these same groups — Calvinists and dispensationalists — are frequently portrayed as also wanting to create a theocracy in America, so who knows what to believe. The “some” have a tendency to “say” contradictory things.

The Economist adds,

[Read more...]

Watching for ghosts in the news flashes from Egypt

YouTube Preview Image

A few journalistic thoughts while I continue to watch the waves of news coverage rolling in from Egypt:

* Over the past decade or two, I have attended a number of conferences and seminars with scholars and mainstream journalists — Christians and Muslims — who work in Islamic cultures. Most of our conversations have centered on freedom of the press, but it’s hard to talk about freedom of expression in one part of life without getting into others, such as the protection of religious minorities.

Here is how I would sum up the main point I have heard from these journalists over the years: In the end, it doesn’t matter what your constitution says about your rights if the police will not step in and stop rioters from killing people and burning either newsrooms or religious sanctuaries. Take your pick.

* Until the Pew pollsters come up with new data, I will continue to point GetReligion readers toward those 2011 Pew Research Center numbers indicating, among other things (care of one of my Scripps Howard columns):

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion. … About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran.

* Why do those numbers matter so much? When you look at what Egyptians say in polls and at the ballot box, it’s pretty clear that — when it comes to desires for an Islamic state of some kind — the military leaders (religious views never stated) just acted against the will of a majority of Egyptians. However, they may have acted in the economic interests of the nation by favoring the more tolerant views of the more secular and moderate urban elites. Think tourism. Think international ties.

We are back to an old, old question: Is it possible, in a land in which the majority of voters hunger for Islamic law, to defend the rights of religious minorities and secular liberals without the help of a military that is willing to oppress and jail Islamists? Think about that as you watch the unfolding campaign against President Mohamed Morsi and his followers.

* This leads me to note that, in the early coverage of the coup, The Los Angeles Times — a newspaper I have lashed on a regular basis lately for weak coverage in the Middle East — had the best short summary of key religious elements of the unfolding events. Want to see that?

[Read more...]

There’s more to Egypt’s pain than secularism vs. religion

YouTube Preview Image

Many GetReligion readers have, I am sure, spent some time today following the urgent news bulletins out of Egypt, where some of the largest protests in the history of the world have been taking place.

It’s hard to know, precisely, what is happening — because there are so many different groups involved in the coalition that is revolting against the nation’s first democratically elected leader.

As I write, this is the latest from The New York Times:

CAIRO – Egypt’s top generals on Monday gave President Mohamed Morsi 48 hours to respond to a wave of mass protests demanding his ouster, declaring that if he did not, then the military leaders themselves would impose their own “road map” to resolve the political crisis.

Most reports earlier in day pivoted, as usual, around one crucial, but still undefined word — Islamist. It’s clear that religion is playing a crucial role in these events, but mainstream journalists continue to struggle when it comes time to define the differences between the goals and the beliefs of the competing Muslim camps in Egypt.

For the most part, journalists are saying this is a battle between liberal secularists and the Islamists symbolized by the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, these liberals — are they Muslims? What are the beliefs that define them and separate them from Morsi & Co.?

How about the military leaders — are they Muslims? They represent the old guard, which offered its own approach to Islam. What defined that version of Islam?

And Morsi, of course, leads a group that, only a month or two ago, was being called the “moderate” Islamist party — since the Salafi Muslims are to the president’s cultural and theological right. At some point, will the Salafists turn on Morsi? If so, what are the defining beliefs and policies that separate these two camps?

Then there are various religious minorities who play a crucial role in Egyptian life, led by the Coptic Orthodox Christians (who, with other Christians, make up about 10 percent of the population).

That’s a pretty complex landscape. Yet in the main Los Angeles Times story today, readers are — once again — told about a simple contest between secular liberals and Islamists, with the military (religious affiliations, unknown) looming in the background. Here is a key slice of that:

The battle for Egypt lies between these two poles, divided by sectarianism and driven by economic despair. These emotions were evident at anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square and the presidential palace, and amid prayer rugs and open Korans carried by Morsi loyalists in front of one of Cairo’s main mosques.

“Egypt is our country, the land of the Nile that carries us all, and it’s our duty to protect it without violence or committing assaults,” Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, whose Christian minority has been increasingly persecuted by Islamists, said on Twitter. “The blood of every Egyptian is precious, please participate, but respect others.”

And that is pretty much that.

The New York Times team, led by the omnipresent David D. Kirkpatrick, briefly attempted to hint at divisions INSIDE the Islamist world, cracks and schisms that clearly are threatening Morsi and the future of his government. Here is some crucial material more than halfway into the summary story earlier in the day:

[Read more...]

Attention liberals: Blasphemy cases on the rise in Egypt

As I have said numerous times, I cannot imagine how hard it must be to cover the aftermath of the Arab Spring in a land as complex as Egypt, especially in news articles of a thousand words or less.

For example, some of the key terms used by people at the heart of the events — “Islamist” is the best example — are being used in vague ways that make them almost impossible for outsiders to understand. What is the difference, in practical terms, between a “moderate” Islamist, an Islamist and a Salafi Islamist?

A recent New York Times report took on one of the most dangerous trends in Egypt today, which the rising number of blasphemy cases being filed against Christians, liberals and other religious minorities. This story does not mention that, as a rule, blasphemy charges are used against Islamic minorities and dissenters even more than against Christians, Jews and other non-Muslim believers. One must assume, I guess, that the actual trend in Egypt at the moment is a rising number of cases filed against Coptic Orthodox believers and other Christians.

This story impressed me for one simple reason: It provided human, understandable details about the cases. The story disappointed me, however, in that it never offered examples of what people were saying or doing that led to the blasphemy charges.

That’s a rather basic fact to omit. Was the Times afraid of printing so-called blasphemy?

Here’s a crucial chunk of the background:

Blasphemy cases were once rare in Egypt, and their frequency has increased sharply since the revolution. More than two dozen cases have gone to trial, and nearly all defendants have been found guilty. At least 13 have received prison sentences.

The campaign is driven at the local level, where religious activists have also forced officials to suspend teachers and professors. In at least 10 cases, Christian families have been expelled from their homes after perceived insults, according to Ishaq Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Blasphemy complaints have been lodged across the society, against poor teachers in villages, a deputy prime minister, Egypt’s richest man, and some of its most prominent writers and journalists. A firebrand Muslim preacher who tore up a Bible at a protest was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His son received eight years on similar charges.

“Contempt of religion, any religion, is a crime, not a form of expression,” said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has not been instrumental in filing the cases but does not oppose them. “Is setting fire to the Bible freedom of expression? Is insulting religion freedom of expression?” …

None of this should have surprised anyone who watched the polls in Egypt during the overthrow of the previous government. In a 2011 Scripps Howard column, I noted some numbers from the Pew Forum:

[Read more...]

Fundamental misunderstandings of ‘fundamentalism’

When it comes to religious terms, you would be hard pressed to find a word more misapplied by the media than “fundamentalist.”

As your GetReligionistas have stressed a gazillion times, that is why the term has its own cautious entry in the Associated PRess Stylebook:

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Alas, whenever this term is used by the media, you can be assured that it’ll have almost nothing in common with its original meaning.

Here’s how we got the term: In the early 1900s a conservative movement sprung up within Protestantism — including the mainstream Protestant churches — in reaction to liberal theology and the form of Biblical interpretation known as higher criticism. A series of articles was written and collected into a four-volume work called The Fundamentals which was intended to outline the key doctrines, the “fundamentals”, of the Christian faith. The movement eventually moved away from its intellectual roots, though, and by the end of World War II it had receded from the culture at large.

Nowadays, though, the term “fundamentalist” has become synonymous with just about any strict conservative stance in any religion or ideology. Once again, it pays to remember that the AP stylebook notes that it has “taken on a pejorative connotations” and advises avoiding it unless a group applies it to themselves.

Unfortunately, that suggestion is rarely followed and the label is applied in seemingly contradictory ways. Take, for example, the title of a report an ABC New’s Nightline: ‘Modern Polygamy: Arizona Mormon Fundamentalists Seek to Shed Stereotypes.’

The story contrasts a group of “1,500 fundamentalist Mormons” living in Centennial Park, Ariz. with another group of nearby polygamists, “the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints followers, or FLDS, the group led by self-described prophet Warren Jeffs.” There’s no indication the Centennial Park polygamists call themselves fundamentalists so why use the term to compare them with a group that does?

The “stereotype” referred to in the title is that Mormon polygamy is repressive to women:

[Read more...]


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X