Are there any culture wars inside the Great Gray Lady?

Here’s a safe prediction for 2014: Look for another year with tough culture wars cases — whether from courthouses in Utah or your local Christian university or parachurch ministry — rolling toward the church-state crossroads at the U.S. Supreme Court.

If that’s the case, journalists will continue to face a numbing barrage of stories in which they will be challenged to accurately and fairly report the views of activists on both the religious left and Religious Right.

Yeah, right.

With that in mind, consider this interesting Quora.com comment by elite columnist Nicholas Kristof, in response to this question: “What is the culture like at The New York Times?”

Things start rather slowly, before candor strikes:

There isn’t really a simple answer to this question, because the culture of the Times varies by section and even time of day. In my part of the building, where the opinion columnists have their offices, it tends to be a bit more relaxed, even sleepy, while the metro desk at deadline on a big story will be frenetic and full of electricity. When I started at The Times in 1984, it was mostly male, and we wore jacket and ties; there was plenty of smoking and drinking. These days, the dress code is much more casual, and somewhat more earnest; not a lot of whiskey bottles hidden around today. There are also lots of women, which means there’s less of a locker room atmosphere. …

But what about the word “culture” as in, well, you know what?

People sometimes ask if everybody is liberal politically, but I’d say that journalists define themselves less by where they are on the political spectrum and more as skeptics providing oversight to whoever is in power.

Classic answer. How many Americans still accept that, when looking Times coverage of, well, you know, certain issues?

I would say, though, that while there is a range of ideology from liberal to conservative on political and fiscal issues, on social issues most journalists (everywhere,not just at The Times) tend to have an urban bias: They are more likely to be for gun control and gay marriage than the general public, and much more likely to believe in evolution. They are also less likely to have served in the military or to have working class backgrounds.

That’s more like it. Now, what is the religious, the doctrinal content (even strictly secular beliefs have doctrinal implications) of an “urban bias”? Is that essentially saying that elite urbanites find it easier to embrace doctrinally liberal forms of religion, as opposed to those who believe in transcendent, eternal doctrines?

What was it that William Proctor — author of “The Gospel According to the New York Times” — said long ago?

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So which Bible version is really the most authentic?

DUANE ASKS:

There are many different versions of the Bible: King James, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, etc. Which is considered the closest to the earliest available manuscripts?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Folks shopping for Christmas gift Bibles are well aware of the countless editions on sale, those aimed at Moms, teens, substance abusers in recovery, ESL students, and the like, and all the useful study Bibles with marginal notations, explanatory articles, timelines, maps, and indexes. However, Duane isn’t asking about such add-ons but the many English translations of the Bible itself.

The beloved “Authorized” or King James Version from 1611 is a monument of English literature that retains wide popularity, especially among Protestant Fundamentalists, some of whom champion a “King James Only” movement. The King is the sole Bible used in Mormonism. But experts note that it isn’t ideal in terms of Duane’s criterion of closeness to the best ancient texts. (The question says “earliest,” which is not always “best,” but let’s leave aside the textual technicalities.) Important ancient manuscripts were not available to the King James team, for instance key 4th Century codices and the Hebrew scriptures found among the celebrated Dead Sea Scrolls. A secondary problem is that the King’s Elizabethan language is occasionally hard for 21st Century readers to comprehend easily or correctly.

Still, something is lost with today’s profusion of modernized translations compared with the time not so long ago when generally similar and memorable phrasing was shared by the Protestants’ King James, the Catholics’ Douay-Rheims Bible from that same era, and the 1917 Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (the Hebrew-based term for what Christians call the Old Testament).

Proponents of each modern translation on the market will assert that it’s faithful to the Hebrew and Greek. Indeed, most renditions from recent decades are reliable products from well-credentialed scholars capable of wrestling with the best available texts. Because there are so many ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts and the meaning of some Hebrew Old Testament terms is unclear, there are differences in wording among the translations, but key substantive disagreements are few. Instead, the major differences involve the philosophy of translation and, to a lesser extent, the reading skill of the intended audience.

One approach is thought-for-thought or “functional equivalence” translation that emphasizes the text’s meaning for clear understanding. An example is the Good News Bible, a.k.a. Today’s English Version, which is especially helpful for those who aren’t fluent English readers. The other main option is more literal word-for-word or “formal equivalance” renditions. The King James leans that way along with modern translations generally following in that tradition such as the Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, and somewhat more literalistic New American Standard Bible.

An interesting Jewish translation by Everett Fox works to evoke the wording and feel of the underlying Hebrew. For instance, here’s the call of Abraham in Genesis 12: “YHWH said to Avram: Go-you-forth from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see. I will make a great nation of you and will give-you-blessing and will make your name great. Be a blessing!”

One recent issue is the degree a Bible uses gender-inclusive language, a hallmark of the 1989 New Revised Standard Version.

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Does God hear prayers from just anyone?

ROBERT ASKS: Do you think God hears, listens to, prayers of anyone?

THE GUY RESPONDS: Nobody should care what a mere journalist like The Guy thinks on matters like this beyond his spiritual pay grade that are better left to pastors or theologians. However, the topic is important so here are a few notes. This assumes we’re talking about “petitionary” prayer that asks for things, not prayers of adoration or thanksgiving.

As part of this, the questioner asks whether God hears only prayers from Christians. The Guy recalls the famous prayer fuss in 1980 when Oklahoma pastor Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, made this off-the-cuff comment: “It’s interesting to me at great political battles how you have a Protestant to pray and a Catholic to pray and then you have a Jew to pray. With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. For how in the world can God hear the prayer of a man who says that Jesus Christ is not the true Messiah? It is blasphemy.”

Predictable uproar ensued. Ronald Reagan, campaigning for his first term as U.S. president and seeking conservative Christian votes, spoke at the same event as Smith. Asked later about this remark, he disagreed: “Since both the Christian and Judaic religions are based on the same God, the God of Moses, I’m quite sure those prayers are heard.” Noted Fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell said God “does not hear the prayers of unredeemed Gentiles or Jews,” but then requested a meeting with the American Jewish Committee and refined his stance to say God “loves everyone alike. He hears the heart cry of any sincere person who calls on him.”

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Clash of absolute truths in WPost coverage of Schaefer trial

And this just in.

The editorial team of The Washington Post has published a direct quotation from an outside voice, a figure of authority, who supports the doctrines and disciplines of the United Methodist Church, which reflect centuries of Christian tradition on marriage and sex. This is the first time that this old-school journalistic device — a throwback to the days in which balance and fairness were journalistic virtues — has been used in the newspaper’s national-level coverage of this local-news story in rural Pennsylvania.

While the Post has done an admirable job of quoting local voices linked to the case of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a pastor accused of violating his ordination vows by performing his gay son’s wedding rite, the crucial framing material explaining the national context and meaning of this story has consistently been drawn from supporters of efforts to change and modernize United Methodist doctrines. (For a previous GetReligion post on this story, click here.)

First, here is how this local news story opens:

SPRING CITY, Pa. — A jury of clergy Tuesday night suspended for 30 days a pastor who officiated at the wedding of his gay son, telling him he must decide whether he can embrace church rules — or, if not, leave the Methodist ministry.

The dozens of gay and lesbian advocates in the audience threw their folding chairs on the floor in protest after the announcement and began singing hymns and performing Communion in the middle of the gym that had been used as a courtroom. …

Gay advocates across the country lit up Twitter with anger at the ruling, which many saw as a “de facto defrocking,” but the Rev. Frank Schaefer and some members of his congregation, a small country church in Lebanon, said the jury could have removed him immediately. The call for him to follow the rules “in their entirety” might give him a chance to argue again that he believes he is, they suggested.

Once again, it is clear that Schaefer has merely violated some church rules. Also note that the Post team claims that the key question is whether he “can” embrace church rules, which avoids the issue at the heart of the trial — which is that, when ordained, Schaefer had already vowed to defend the “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline” of his denomination.

This brings us to the shocking quote from a leader in an unnamed conservative United Methodist group:

Thomas A. Lambrecht, vice president of a traditional group of Methodists who advised the church counsel in this case, said he was pleased with the penalty and did not consider it ambiguous.

“I think it registers how serious the breach of the covenant was that took place. At the same time gives a time of grace for Reverend Schaefer to reconsider and potentially change his mind,” Lambrecht said.

The key word in that quotation is “covenant,” a reference to the ordination vows in Schaefer’s past.

In your typical online dictionary, “covenant” is defined this way:

1. A binding agreement; a compact. …
2. Law
a. A formal sealed agreement or contract. …
3. In the Bible, God’s promise to the human race.

A covenant has two sides. Schaeffer’s ordination vows where part of a covenant to which he consented.

Once again, the Post team does a fine job of showing that there is little or no unity in the United Methodist Church on issues linked to marriage and sex, although — for several decades — liberals in the church have fallen short in their efforts to change the denomination’s doctrines. You can see the same tensions and divisions in this Religion News Service report on the Schaefer trial.

I have been following the United Methodist wars close since the early 1980s, when I began covering the case of the Rev. Julian Rush in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual conference. With that background, I thought that this passage in the new Post report was especially well done:

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Is it time for the old Mainline churches to shed that label?

BOBBY ASKS:

Who are the “Mainline” Protestants today?

DOUGLAS LIKEWISE ASKS:

(Paraphrasing) What do we make of proposals for “Mainline” Protestants to drop that label for themselves? And where does that leave me, an “evangelical” who remains in the Episcopal Church “as a grain of sand in the oyster”?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

The dictionary definition of “mainline” signals mainstream prestige, so “Mainline” Protestantism’s decline over recent decades could mean this designation has long since outlived its usefulness. In his email, Douglas considers it “adjectival mayhem.”

The discussion has been renewed by the Christian Century magazine, often considered the bible of the Mainline or at least of the Mainline Left, such that Elesha Coffman’s new history is titled “The Christian Century and the Rise of Mainline Protestantism” (from the excellent Oxford University Press). The book provoked a piece for the “Century” by Carol Howard Merritt urging fellow “progressives” to rebrand: “It’s time to discard that tired label that ties us too closely with a particular race and class. It’s time to call forth another name.” Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary agreed via the First Things journal that the Mainline was “unfortunately named” and “liberal” or “ecumenical” would be “slightly better” adjectives.

Some context: The inexorable shrinkage among Mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s — and simultaneous growth among non-Mainliners, though lately plateauing in some cases — is a sweeping trend that has reshaped American religion. It ranks in significance with the large influx of immigrant Asians and Hispanics. The origins of the commonly used Mainline label are obscure (anyone have information on that?). But it certainly raises thoughts of suburban Philadelphia and “Establishment” standing.

The Guy’s definition: The predominantly white, long-existing, and relatively affluent U.S. Protestant denominations with pluralistic theology, which are easily categorized by ecumenical affiliations with the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches (alongside major African-American and Orthodox denominations).

We’re talking about (in order of size) the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and several smaller bodies often called the “Seven Sisters.” Together they remain an important bloc with 20 million adherents, but that compares with 30 million at the end of the 1960s, an unprecedented slump as memberships both declined and aged.

Meanwhile, these groups generally floated leftward, in doctrine, politics and culture.

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Pod people: Are Christians crazy, or just stupid?

There is little new under the sun when it comes to anti-theistic arguments. Whether it be high minded philosophical critique or rabble rousing anti-clericalism, what was old is now new.

Richard Ostling observed in his Get Religion post “Is the ‘New Atheism’ any different from old atheism?” the content of the criticism remains the same, but the tone has changed. The new atheism has taken a:

[A] tactical lurch toward emotion-laden partisanship and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that might make a Fundamentalist blush.

In this week’s Crossroads, aGet Religion podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I discussed two posts that touched on anti-theism — but approached the subject from different perspectives: French media disdain for religious believers and a “heretical” Episcopal bishop.

While there have been other non-theistic Episcopal bishops, Jack  Spong of Newark was the media  darling of the ’90s. A fixture on talk shows and op-ed pages in his day, Bishop Spong was the subject of a profile written by the Religion News Service that was released in advance of his next book.

Pressed by Todd whether my dislike of the story was motivated more by my theological disagreements with Bishop Spong than journalistic concerns, I responded that I had no quarrel with Bishop Spong being Bishop Spong. What stoked my ire was the the lack of balance, hard questions of context in the RNS piece. It was more of a People magazine puff piece than journalism.

The second half of the story was a review of my criticism of two different accounts of the trial of four French West Indian immigrants in Paris, accused with kidnapping and torturing a fellow immigrant. They have denied the charge, and in their defense have claimed they were exorcising demons from their victim. The journalistic issue I saw was the discrepancy between AFP’s English and French language stories — released at the same time. The English language version noted the defendants said they were motivated to act by the tenets of their Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. But it included the information the four had been expelled from the church some time ago — and that their actions were contrary to that church’s doctrine and discipline.

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Is the ‘New Atheism’ any different from old atheism?

BETH ASKS:

Are there any substantive differences between traditional atheism vs. what is called “New Atheism”? Or is the term used just to describe a bunch of popular books (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, etc.) coming out at once? Who coined the term “New Atheism” and can it be described as a new philosophical movement (or reframing of an old one)?

THE RIDGEWOOD RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The “New Atheism movement” originated, or at least gained wide currency, with a 2006 article by Gary Wolf in Wired the technology/cyberspace magazine (whose innovative founding editor Kevin Kelly happens to be a devout Christian).

Yes, Wolf’s news peg was a “bunch of popular books” preaching atheism that appeared around that time: “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins (now professor of science literacy at Britain’s New College of Humanities), “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett (co-director of Tufts University’s Center for Cognitive Studies”) and “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris (a Ph.D. in neuroscience who runs Project Reason). Later books capitalized on the trend.

What’s new about New Atheism?

No, not substantive arguments for disbelief, which are as perennial as the case for God. Rather, a tactical lurch toward emotion-laden partisanship and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that might make a Fundamentalist blush. Such tactics win visibility and sales, much like what we get in current U.S. politics and political media. Wolf said the new approach demands uncompromising hostility by folks like himself, “we lax agnostics, we noncommital non-believers, we vague deists.” The New Atheists insist that such fence-sitters must arise to ”help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith… They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil.”

Thus all religions must be ridiculed, believers scorned as naive or stupid, and even trivial acknowledgments of religious heritage extirpated from public life. Some proponents even think parents should no longer be permitted to raise children in their faith. (It’s unclear whether government should enforce this by law or whether in fairness atheists should likewise be forbidden to press their skepticism upon offspring.)

No more mere tut-tutting in faculty lounges or living rooms. It’s all a throwback to Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), a preacher’s kid and onetime Illinois attorney general who fashioned a lucrative career delivering caustic, entertaining lectures that assailed religion and the Bible.

What did agnostic Wolf conclude about the anti-God ruckus?

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Did Aaron Alexis fall into a hole in ‘American’ Buddhism?

http://youtu.be/uXJLybu4cwg

It’s a sad comment on our age that, in the first tense hours after the Navy Yard shootings (just over a mile down 8th Street from my office), discussions about cause and motive kept circling back to questions about religion. Everyone was waiting for the shoe to drop, especially during the hours when mainstream media outlets were reporting that there might have been three gunmen.

One gunman? All kinds of causes leap to mind. Three gunmen? That’s a different story.

Of course, information later began to bleed into public media about the background of Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter who was killed in this tragic attack. One of the most perplexing facts was that he was, at least at one point in his adult life, a practicing Buddhist.

Early on, many asked a fair question: Was this information relevant? If it was relevant, what did this faith connection mean? Would the information automatically have been relevant if the shooter turned out to be a Muslim from, let’s say, Detroit? How about a true fundamentalist Christian from Kansas?

You can sense tense nerves in an early New York Times report:

In recent years, Mr. Alexis dated a Thai woman and began showing up regularly at Wat Busayadhammavanara, a Buddhist Temple in White Settlement, Tex., a Fort Worth suburb. He had Thai friends, adored Thai food and said he always felt drawn to the culture, said Pat Pundisto, a member of the temple answering the phone there. …He was a regular at Sunday services, intoning Buddhist chants and staying to meditate afterward. On celebrations like the Thai New Year in April, he helped out, serving guests dressed in ceremonial Thai garb the temple provided.

At the temple, he met Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, who went on to open the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant in White Settlement in 2011, said the restaurant owner’s cousin, Naree Wilton, 51, in a phone interview. Mr. Alexis helped out at the restaurant in exchange for food and a room in Mr. Suthamtewakul’s house.

One of my first questions was this: Is there a rite or ceremony that officially signals that a person has “converted” to Buddhism? Journalists were saying that Alexis was “interested” in Buddhism, when the facts suggested that he was at one point actively practicing the faith and connections to a specific worshipping community were central to his life in Texas.

Next question: What happened when he moved to the Washington, D.C., area?

When writing about the connections between a given faith and a person who is — for good or ill — in the news, it is always wise to document, to the greatest degree possible, how this believer was linked to that tradition by facts on the ground. What congregation? Active in worship? Close ties to key leaders? Was the person following the work of particular writers or speakers?

As the religion angle was fleshed out, journalists began discussing another interesting angle: Aren’t Buddhists committed to peace and non-violence? Veteran members of the religion team at the Washington Post produced an interesting story focusing on that angle. The top of the story is quite blunt:

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