What did the university print and …

gay flag… when did it print it? That’s the question.

Here’s a quick note to the reporters covering the case of Jason Johnson, the student who has been expelled at the University of the Cumberlands after outing himself in his MySpace.com profile. I should, just to be clear, note that Cumberland is a Baptist university, but not part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the global network in which I teach.

This is one case where reporters are going to need documentation on dead-tree pulp. We need to know precisely what the school said in its student-life policies and when it said it.

Why does this matter? In a Louisville Courier-Journal article by Mark Pitsch we learn that at the time the theater major was recruited the school’s code of conduct barred only “lewd and indecent conduct.” Is that true? It would appear so, since we also learn that a new policy says:

“Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw from the University of the Cumberlands.”

Obviously, the word “promotes” is crucial. But that is not the big question for reporters at the moment. The big question is this: What did the student life handbook say the year that Johnson actually enrolled as a freshman? Were the policies in the handbook actually referenced in a printed document of some kind that he signed of his own free will when he agreed to become a student at this Baptist-affiliated school?

Here is why I ask. Over at the Lexington Herald-Leader, reporter Jamie Gumbrecht has some additional information, but not the smoking gun.

… (A) copy of the student handbook provided by the university confirmed the policy was not spelled out in 2003-04, when Johnson chose to attend. The school did not provide a copy of the policy for the 2004-05 school year. The 2005-06 student handbook says: “Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw.”

School officials said that although the 2003-04 policy did not explicitly mention homosexuality, it did say that students must “conduct themselves, on and off the campus, in a manner which is consistent with the objectives of the College and with its standards of conduct.”

Yes, it would appear the key is that missing 2004-05 student handbook and any documents the freshman signed that fall. However, there is a chance that Johnson — as a sophomore at the start of the fall of 2005 semester — may have signed an updated student-code pledge of some kind. It matters if he, at some point, signed a document that said he was bound to honor future changes in the university’s student-life code.

Reporters need to ask these questions for a simple reason. Private colleges — on the left and the right — have the ability to make the rules for their own voluntary associations. “Freedom of association” is the key phrase here, and this applies to Baptist colleges as well as to voluntary associations of gays, lesbians and lots of other people. On that theme, Pitsch provided some helpful background in that Courier-Journal story:

Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said yesterday that private colleges are entitled to enact rules and require students to abide by them.

“The relationship between a student and a private institution is purely contractual in nature. A student is presumed to be aware of the terms and conditions of that contract. Case closed,” Steinbach said.

Pitsch also notes:

In a written statement last week, President Jim Taylor said: “At University of the Cumberlands, we hold students to a higher standard. Students know the rules before they come to this institution. We’ve followed our policies and procedures in keeping with our traditional denominational beliefs. … We are different by design and are non-apologetic about our Christian beliefs.”

If students “know the rules before they come to this institution,” that means they are written down somewhere and that students had a chance to affirm or reject them as they enrolled. It appears to me — as a reporter and a veteran professor on Christian campuses — that the journalists covering this story need to find out what the university printed and when it printed it.

The school has every right to make its own rules and to attempt to enforce them consistently. Reporters — find that signed piece of paper and you have the story.

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The myth of A=M

voterguideIf access equals power and power equals money (A=P=M), then Monday’s Washington Post article on the near demise of the Christian Coalition left an unanswered question that probes deep into the true influence of evangelicals on the Bush Administration. Or perhaps it’s the connection of access and influence?

But first let me take issue with the story’s lead:

In an era when conservative Christians enjoy access and influence throughout the federal government, the organization that fueled their rise has fallen on hard times.

I know most liberals view the evangelical influence on the current White House as driven by the often idiotic comments of Pat Robertson, but please, how was the Christian Coalition the organization behind the rise of evangelicals in politics and the supposed grip the group has on national politics? How about not?

Try the Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship for starters.

Founded 17 years ago by former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, the organization is mired in debt and internal conflict. Part of the article’s hypothesis is that the coalition is on hard times due to its success. As an opposition group, the coalition thrived on raising money against President Clinton and a Democrat-dominated Washington. But since the Republicans ascended to power in at least two of the three branches of federal power (who controls the Supreme Court is difficult to determine conclusively), what is the coalition supposed to rally against? So the theory goes.

All that said, Robertson and the group he founded are made out to be a force that remains to be reckoned with, despite poor finances:

The Christian Coalition is still routinely included in meetings with White House officials and conservative leaders, and is still a household name. But financial problems and a long battle over its tax status have sapped its strength, allowing it to be eclipsed by other Christian groups, such as the Family Research Council and the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Although some of those groups have begun moving into the coalition’s specialty — grass-roots voter education and get-out-the-vote drives — none is poised to distribute 70 million voter guides through churches, as the Christian Coalition did in 2000.

The coalition’s decline is a story that can perhaps best be told along biblical lines: It is the narrative of a group that wandered after the departure of its early leaders, lost faith in some of its guiding principles and struggled to keep its identity after entering the Promised Land — in this case, the land of political influence.

From its inception, the coalition was built around two individuals, Robertson and Ralph Reed. Both were big personalities with big followings.

CCLogoSo a group that is routinely included in White House meetings can’t stay afloat financially? Most groups will do anything for that kind of access, and I have trouble believing that the coalition’s big asset at this point — its 70 million church-distributed voter guides — is all that precious, valuable or much of a bargaining chip when it comes to influencing key Bush administration officials. What real influence does the Christian Coalition — or Pat Robertson for that matter — have on George W. Bush and the people around him?

The closest thing I can come up with is two Supreme Court nominations that seem to have somewhat placated the 4 million evangelical voters that, yes, allegedly put Bush back in the White House. A key factor that many miss is that both nominations came after the last election Bush will ever face.

The Christian Coalition’s financial hard times have little to do with a decline in power and influence in Washington, because I don’t believe the coalition was ever that influential. I think a more likely culprit is a bit of good old American competition from similar groups. These groups have crowded out the financial support for the coalition, which has a founder many believe is frighteningly unfit as a spokesman for evangelical Christians.

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P is for PR campaign

fsttmsdvdThe anonymous scribe “Diogenes” over at Catholic World News’ Off the Record blog doesn’t have much to say that is positive about “The Gospel of Judas” and its pre-Holy Week publicity blast. There is, for example, this link to a dissection of a Dallas Morning News story in the wave of coverage.

The key themes, once again, are obvious. The gnostic gospels are not new. The Gospel of Judas is not new. This manuscript does apppear to be an important document, for those interested in gaining insights into the oral traditions linked to the gnostic Christians around A.D. 200 to 300, as opposed, let’s say, to the older oral traditions that the early church insisted were rooted in the teachings of the disciples of Jesus.

The Judas campaign is an important event for those who believe that the gnostics were, and are, right and traditional Christianity was, and is, wrong. This includes the usual suspects writing in the usual places.

But all of that is old news.

The Diogenes post is zooming around the Net today because of its snarky little satire of this whole affair — a mainstream press report about the discovery of “The Gospel of Skip and Muffy.” The cultural roots are not hard to spot:

“The Gospel of Skip and Muffy” is an extended dialogue between two young theologians who take a startling new approach to the faith. The document suggests that young Christians of the 1970s generation did not accept Church teachings on some controversial moral issues. B.F.D. Zeitgeist, a Professor of Serious Christianity at Dupont University, said that the Gospel of Skip and Muffy will force Christians to re-examine the nature of Church authority. He pointed to one key passage in the manuscript:

“The Church is — I mean — it’s just a bunch of, like, rules and stuff,” said Muffy.

“Yeah,” Skip replied. “I mean, really. Hey, don’t let that thing go out.”

The Judas affair is one of the most amazing pre-Easter press campaigns I have ever seen. Or maybe this story was timed as a follow-up to the V for Vendetta release. Or, maybe, is there a new DVD edition of Jesus Christ Superstar coming out?

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Sun shines on prayers at City Hall

mandala 01 lowBaltimore Sun reporter Nichole Fuller recently turned in an interesting story that, the more I think about it, raises some interesting questions about the separation of Buddhism and state.

Here’s the hook: It seems that someone in the office of Mayor Martin O’Malley invited Thupten Tsondu Tashi, a monk from Mongolia who is currently on a U.S. fundraising tour, to drop by City Hall to spread some peace and compassion by creating a work of sacred art. Here’s a brief description of the process (the art with this post is not from the Baltimore event):

On a plywood board atop the building’s immaculate marble floor, Tashi, dressed in his traditional red and yellow garb, created an intricate, flower-like pattern with fine Indian sands from his chakbu, an iron funnel. His creation — called a mandala — is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist artwork that serves as a sacred home for a particular meditational deity and is usually reserved for the birthday celebration of a Buddha, Tashi said.

The mandala embodies qualities such as purity and harmony, which sometimes prove elusive in a place like City Hall.

This turned into your basic civic event, with the monk receiving a certificate making him an honorary citizen of Baltimore, an American flag and some regional collectables. The display was a hit with visitors and with staff members seeking a chance to relax and, well, exercise their rights of religious expression in a government facility. As Frank Perrelli, the mayor’s webmaster and art director, put it:

“I’m having a really busy day, but this is nice and relaxing,” Perrelli said. “I had no idea it was so intricate. It’s great. It’s really exquisite.” City Hall is a perfect place for such a display, he said. “City Hall is a rather somber place due to its municipal nature, so this is a welcome presence,” he said. “I wish it were more permanent. It’s a nice chance for people to sort of meditate.”

Note the use of the word “meditate,” as opposed to the dangerous word “pray.” Sure enough, one visitor connected the dots and even added a slight political overtone or two.

A longtime meditator, Beth Hare, 56, of Lauraville sat transfixed. … “There are societies in which spiritual practices and government are not separate,” Hare said. “I think separation of church and the government is really important, but I think having a government that has awareness of spiritual life is essential.”

Asked whether she thought the mandala would give O’Malley any luck in his quest to become governor, she replied, “I don’t think it gets that specific.” But she added, “It depends if the mayor is in harmony with the energy of the universe.”

There are more details in the story. However, I do hope that the greater Baltimore area includes a few mischievous artists in other religious traditions, eager to bring their own versions of purity and harmony to this newly established safe zone for prayer and religious expression. Can the Orthodox write icons here, with all the prayers that accompany this process? How about video monitors that offer Christmas videos by megachurch rock bands? Is this a nice place for Catholic liturgical dancers? Wiccan liturgical dancers? A fundamentalist artist or two, carving the 10 Commandments in various forms of stone (but not the floor itself)? Schoolchildren doing sacred art on tiles in honor of those killed by terrorists? I could go on and on.

Is religious expression in this government space only acceptable if it, quote, brings purity and harmony? Which office in City Hall is in charge of passing judgment on this tricky church-state issue? Purity and harmony for what groups?

I am sure that future prayer and religious fundraising events at City Hall will receive glowing coverage in the Sun. At least, I hope so, just for the sake of consistency.

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A story of humility

footwashingHumility, for Christians, is a difficult thing to maintain. Those who talk about their humility are by definition not very humble. The attribute of humility is best when it is practiced, but unfortunately, Christians in the public spotlight are in a tough spot when it comes to demonstrating humbleness.

I am a week late in posting on this excellent Washington Post article on foot-washing and how it relates to being humble. Reporter William Wan portrays in vivid detail the lowly nature of following Jesus’ model in washing feet:

As they prepared for the holy ritual, the churchgoers had all the essential items: latex gloves, nail clippers, chlorine and antibacterial soap. The only things missing were the feet, and soon enough they poured into the church by the dozen.

Many were callused and cracked from cold nights spent on the streets. Some were sore and infected. What they needed was some old-school — we’re talking centuries here — Christian doctrine in action. So volunteers at Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond got down on their knees and scrubbed.

The practice of foot-washing, rooted in the biblical account of what Jesus did for his disciples, has ebbed and flowed throughout church history, abandoned at various times for reasons of dogma or embarrassment. But in recent years it has grown in popularity as an act of submission, both at Easter season services and in many other settings.

The article, as part of the Post‘s monthly On Faith feature, took me back to an honors class I took in college called “Hands-on Spirituality.” In it we discussed and practiced everything from yoga to meditation to totai chi.

While I learned little in the class, largely because I was too busy with the school newspaper and other duties, I did appreciate it. The thing I remember most vividly was the one week we devoted to an exclusively Christian practice, which was foot-washing. Simply put, washing a classmate’s feet was probably the most humbling school-related action of my four years in college. All in all the experience was quite moving spiritually.

A brief history on why the foot-washing rite has gone in and out of style among Christians is explained in the article. The reporter makes a very good case, by nailing the spiritual significance of the practice, that this is something that should be practiced more often by followers of Christ.

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The gospel of ignorance

judas3My newsroom was all abuzz this week with the revelation of the Gospel of Judas. The media have been going nonstop with the news that a Gnostic tract has been translated that says Judas was helping Jesus rather than betraying him.

Well, where to begin? Before I criticize the ridiculous ignorance of the media in covering this very old story, let me offer a critique of the church. If Christians knew anything about their history, if they knew anything about how the New Testament canon came to be formed, I doubt these stories would be met with more than a yawn.

Sometimes I get the feeling that Christians — and others — think the Bible was delivered to the church in present form upon Christ’s death and resurrection. In fact, the Gospels, which were written soon after Jesus’ time on earth, were fixed into the canon by the last quarter of the second century. Other books were included by A.D. 220. But there were many, many other books that were considered. And then there were some extremely heretical books that were never really considered. Various principles for inclusion were debated, but as a rule the books were tested against each other. So if the Apostles themselves said, for instance, that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, you would be hard-pressed to include a book written by a sect centuries later that said Judas was all good.

The thing is that for those who know their church history, Gnosticism is not news. It is a syncretistic movement with roots in pre-Christian times. It reached its zenith around the time the Judas Gospel was written. And it was based on the very non-Christian idea that its adherents possessed a secret message, bequeathed to a select few, that held the key to higher life.

For crying out loud, Irenaeus condemned the Judas writing in A.D. 180 in his book Against Heresies. He summed up the Judas tract as follows:

Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.

The Gospel of Judas claims to be a secret discussion between Judas and Jesus. Compare that with the four Gospels of the New Testament where Christ’s preaching is extremely public. The Gospel of Judas claims secret knowledge for a limited few. Compare that with Christ’s teaching that he came for all. The Gnostics tried to rehabilitate every bad guy in the Bible from Cain on down. They thought Yahweh was evil. I mean, is it really that shocking that Irenaeus, and the larger church, condemned these guys?

This story is sort of akin to folks in A.D. 3800 translating a Weekly World News story from this year that says Abraham Lincoln was actually a woman dressing as a man. I mean, sure, it’s true that Gnostics existed, accessed Christianity and wrote several tracts. But why do the media treat this as some sort of breaking news story that casts doubt on the veracity of the Gospels? And why has their coverage provided no context and no understanding of the relative credibility of the Gospel of Judas? Perhaps it is because, as Harold Bloom notes, Gnosticism is America’s cultural religion?

Let’s go to the Associated Press story, which reached news outlets far and wide:

A “Gospel of Judas” was first mentioned around 180 A.D. by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, in what is now France. The bishop denounced the manuscript as heresy because it differed from mainstream Christianity. The actual text had been thought lost until this discovery.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, said, “The people who loved, circulated and wrote down these gospels did not think they were heretics.”

Gnostic Sea SaltI love the way AP characterizes Irenaeus’ theological whipping of the Judas-adoring Cainites. “Sorry, guys, but you differ from mainstream Christianity.” That’s like saying the Flat Earth Society was denounced for differing from mainstream cartography. I also love the Pagels quote. Really? The Gnostics didn’t think they were heretics? Well, I guess the battle between orthodox Christians and Elaine “Gnostic Gospels” Pagels is settled, then. And that’s precisely what the AP story makes it out to be. The next quotes are just odd, really. I kept waiting for a Christian who thinks the Judas Gospel is bunk (and lived after A.D. 180) to appear. Instead we got this:

Added [the] Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago: “Let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin.”

Senior expressed doubt that the new gospel will rival the New Testament, but he allowed that opinions are likely to vary.

Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, said New Testament explanations for Judas’ betrayal range from money to the influence of Satan.

“Perhaps more now can be said,” he commented. The document “implies that Judas only did what Jesus wanted him to do.”

Christianity in the ancient world was much more diverse than it is now, with a number of gospels circulating in addition to the four that were finally collected into the New Testament, noted Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina.

Eventually, one point of view prevailed and the others were declared heresy, he said, including the Gnostics who believed that salvation depended on secret knowledge that Jesus imparted, particularly to Judas.

Could they not find one modern-day scholar or observer, even, who is less impressed by this supposed blockbuster? In fact almost all of the stories I read used the same few people to provide context. The Washington Post reporters who wrote about the Judas Gospel also managed to quote the same people as the AP story, but in a way that made them seem to be saying much different and more sensible things. It’s actually worth comparing. Here, though, they quote Pagels again:

Some scholars suggested that view — if it had been accepted — might have lessened anti-Semitism over the centuries. “The story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas gave a moral and religious rationale to anti-Jewish sentiment, and that’s what made it persistent and vicious,” said Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels.

Lord, have mercy. I mean, I’m beyond glad that Christians don’t riot at the slightest offense. But this public relations stunt (coincidentally timed to prep for the fictional Da Vinci Code?) released just before Palm Sunday heading into Holy Week? Christians have every right to be offended. There were some other media outlets that handled this news with a bit more cynicism and analysis, but for the most part, I give the media a failing grade.

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Why is no one covering the “why” angle?

iraq womens army 01Here we go again. Read this giant daily news story from the Washington Post and tell me if you learn anything whatsoever about why the Sunni and the Shiites are slaughtering each other.

All together now: Who, what, when, where, why and how.

Can someone out there in the MSM please address the “why” in this equation? Or break off one or two questions and explain them?

Consider this short section of the story, for example:

Practically every Shiite political party in Iraq maintains a force of men with guns — some virtual armies of several thousand or more, others what Peterson described as little more than a “neighborhood watch on steroids.”

Iraq’s other major factions maintain armed forces as well. Insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and Ansar al-Sunna are composed predominantly of Sunni Arabs and conduct frequent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and Shiite civilians. The pesh merga, a large militia maintained by ethnic Kurds, is formally under the command of the Iraqi army, operates mainly in the Kurdish north and poses no major security threat, U.S. officials say.

So al-Qaeda of Iraq is primarily Sunni. Why not “totally” Sunni? Why would Shiites join or refuse to join? What is the doctrinal difference between the Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Islam of al-Qaeda? How do they both — with deadly results — clash with the doctrines of the Shiites?

I am still looking for a single good MSM story that explains any of this. Please understand that I am not knocking reporter Jonathan Finer. But this is a 1,600-word story, which is a huge chunk of news hole in this day and age.

If the “why” element of a major story cannot be addressed in a story of this length, when and where will it be addressed in mainstream daily news? Come to think of it, has anyone seen a good Sunday newspaper story on the doctrinal content of all of this? A mainstream magazine piece?

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It does sort of look like a clerical collar

Oreo Trans Fat Suit12may03I’m sorry to return so quickly to the pages of the Wall Street Journal, but I do live in Maryland only a few miles up the highway from Annapolis. Thus, the new James Taranto profile of the controversial GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate caught my eye.

That candidate, of course, is Michael Steele, the state’s 6-foot-4 African American lieutenant governor who, during the 2002 campaign, the Baltimore Sun editorial board slapped with this dismissive phrase — he “brings little to the team but the color of his skin.”

You may remember that Steele is the public official who had Oreo cookies (you know, black on the outside, white on the inside) tossed at him during a public appearance. And then there was that flap about the liberal wing of the blogosphere and the infamous headline “I’s Simple Sambo and I’s running for the Big House.”

Taranto’s profile makes it clear that Steele is a rather complex man, with economic and social views that are not hardcore GOP. But he is a moral conservative. He grew up as a Democrat and his emotional tie to the party of Ronald Reagan formed, Steele explained, because he heard the Gipper affirming the basic moral values of his mother.

But you know there had to be more to the situation than that. Sure enough, this appears to be yet another “pew gap” story.

Taranto does not spotlight this angle, but it is hard to miss this reference in a story about a political life that bridges the Roe era.

(Steele) earned a degree from Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, spent a few years studying at a Catholic seminary, and eventually settled in Prince George’s County, Md., where he became the local GOP chairman and later state chairman. If Mr. Steele is a Reaganite, he is not a doctrinaire right-winger. On several issues he takes what seem to be liberal positions, though he explains them in terms that a conservative can appreciate. He opposes capital punishment, he says, “because I’m pro-life.”

In other words, Steele is Catholic and is serious enough about his faith that, as a young man, he actively sought the priesthood. That would make him a poor fit in the Libertarian wing of the Republic Party. But it would make him a heretic in the modern Democratic Party. Ask the once pro-life Jesse Jackson, who in 1977 wrote in National Right to Life News:

“It takes three to make a baby: a man, a woman and the Holy Spirit. What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of a person and what kind of a society will we have 20 years hence if life can be taken so casually?”

So there is the religion ghost in the Steele story up here in Maryland. I will watch the local newspapers to see if this element of the story gets any ink. A quick search at the Baltimore Sun site turned up very little, in terms of recent coverage on this angle of one of the biggest stories in state politics.

Surely I missed something. I’ll keep looking.

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