Follow your bliss

reiki1Reader Charlie Lehardy sent in a story from his local paper, the Arizona Daily Star. The paper regularly runs prominent articles on alternative spirituality, he said. Erin White’s interesting profile of a shamanic energy healer begins with the story of a woman, Susan Luzader Prust, who bought a piece of land to run a resort for dogs but felt that parts of the property were “a little spooky and scary.”

The businesswoman worried her company wouldn’t flourish amid the negative energy she felt. Then Prust hired Pam Hale Trachta, a shamanic energy healer who runs a business called On Solid Ground, to help her “heal” the land.

Energy healings, particularly in forms like Reiki, have surged in acceptance in recent years. The tradition dates back centuries among native South Americans, and the year-and-a-half-old Ealy Center for Natural Healing here, which is licensed by the state Board for Private Postsecondary Education, works with clients and teaches energy healing.

Energy healings may or may not have “surged in acceptance in recent years.” But the way the reader determines a quantifiable increase is through data, not an anecdote about one school being started. One of the biggest frustrations about reporting on these types of groups is the difficulty of coming up with hard numbers. But in the absence of hard numbers, it’s not appropriate to say energy healings have surged in acceptance.

Anyway, the story explains how Trachta left a corporate career of consulting. She would help companies restructure their personnel and business practices but left their “energy” untouched.

After Prust hired her, Trachta walked the acreage, calling in the four directions to create sacred space. Trachta then set out to find the heart of the land — what she considers the energy center.

“It is spiritual work — there’s no way around that,” she says, “but as soon as you mention that, people start picturing ghosts.”

That’s not an accurate idea of what she does, she says. “I work as a bridge to invisible influences that can be worked with to assist our quality of life.”

She struggles to verbalize the process in concrete terms. “It’s just a knowing,” she says. “All of a sudden, I got to a spot and felt sadness, a lump in my throat, and I ask, ‘Is this the heart of the land?’”

energystones1The two women sat on the land, and both say that, in their mind’s eye, they saw a young Apache man who told them he was sad because he’d had to leave.

After talking with the spirits still on the land, Trachta recommended a corn ceremony for healing. The two women layered tissue paper with symbolic bits — stickers of dogs, flower petals to represent plant life, sugar for Mother Earth, pink sugar for attracting clients — and buried the despacho, or offering, at the spot Trachta identified as the heart of the land.

The article goes on to describe Trachta’s business model and her self-awareness that people probably think she’s a bit out there. The reporter also talks to a skeptic with a group called Quackwatch. All in all, a great way to cover a non-traditional religious story.

Lehardy wondered whether alternative spirituality gets as much coverage in major newspapers and religion media as it does in Arizona. I seem to recall much more coverage when I lived in Colorado, which makes sense. A quick search of Reiki and New Age spirituality shows a bunch of coverage, but none in major media.

Print Friendly

CBS rolls the niche-news dice

george11You know, you just know, that the powers that be at the CBS Evening News have been focus-group testing this big move for months.

Right now they are celebrating, but they also have to know that a large chunk of America did not (early poll numbers here) want to see Katie Couric end her 173-hairstyle career at the Today Show and move to the top chair at the Big Eye.

There is something here that I am missing. CBS removed a veteran liberal general in the media culture wars (that would be Dan Rather) and immediately experienced (to the shock of all) a nice upturn in ratings under the safe, respectable, non-offensive leadership of veteran Bob Schieffer. So now it is time to name Couric, who, in her own way, is almost as controversial as Rather?

Hours before the announcement, Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik tried to connect some of these dots.

In her favor, Couric will inherit a rejuvenated newscast on the upswing. … The CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer has gained some 750,000 viewers compared to the same time last year, while both the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and ABC World News Tonight have lost audience. Since Peter Jennings left ABC’s anchor desk a year ago after announcing that he had lung cancer, World News Tonight has lost almost as many viewers as CBS has gained.

For the first time in more than a decade of dwelling in a distant third place, CBS Evening News is within striking distance of overtaking ABC — and Couric could be the beneficiary of that. But the success CBS has enjoyed is a double-edged sword. Should the momentum falter — or worse, the ratings start to drop once Couric arrives — the blame is sure to be placed solely on her.

What does this have to do with religion?

I think that CBS executives should be nervous, for reasons that have a lot to do with television viewers in red zip codes and, surprise, the moral and cultural issues that often dominate the news. I think that the focus-group folks must have said that Couric will be a hit in blue zip codes and will woo female and young viewers in the red zones.

But is she elite enough for the blue intellectuals? Can she manage to hold her tongue and convince anyone that her strong feelings on religious and social issues will not shape the newscast?

This is, after all, the early-morning host who has almost kept the conservative Media Research Center staff in business all by herself, spinning out what media critics on the right consider a world-class collection of biased sound bites. Click here to jump to a greatest hits collection in honor of her elevation. Couric has been ticking off cultural and religious conservatives for many years now, with — wow! — her recent on-air tussle with the founders of Ave Maria University providing a new chapter in a long drama.

But it is crucial to note that media critics on the left have rushed to her defense. This is the key point: She is a lightning rod for the right and, in some ways, an icon for many on the left. Hillary Clinton is rejoicing tonight.

So what is CBS up to? How will this decision affect coverage of religious, moral and cultural issues? Of conflicts between world religions? And one final question, in this age of Fox News and its rising statistics: Has CBS simply decided to venture into the marketplace of niche news by creating a franchise led by a woman who will drive away many viewers, but rally others?

Print Friendly

Straddling the fence

mccain speakingWe know presidential wannabe Rudy Giuliani is trying to get religion. Is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)?

Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, McCain was grilled by Tim Russert, who tried to establish a McCain embrace of the “religious right.” McCain did his best to say his past tiffs with right-of-center religious leaders were simply politics and he does not hold a grudge. Apparently the religious leaders don’t either. But McCain also refused to associate with the politics of those leaders, particularly Jerry Falwell’s:

MR. RUSSERT: But Senator, when you were on here in 2000, I asked you about Jerry Falwell, and this is what you said.

(Videotape, March 5, 2000):

SEN. McCAIN: Governor Bush swung far to the right and sought out the base support of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. That’s — those aren’t the ideas that I think are good for the Republican Party.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think that Jerry Falwell’s ideas are now good for the Republican Party?

fence straddlingSEN. McCAIN: I believe that the Christ — quote, “Christian right,” has a major role to play in the Republican Party. One reason is, is because they’re so active, and their, and their followers are. And I believe they have a right to be a part of our party. I don’t have to agree with everything they stand for, nor do I have to agree with everything that’s on the liberal side of the Republican Party. If we have to agree on every issue, we’re not a Republican Party. I believe in open and honest debate. Was I unhappy in, in, in the year 2000 that I lost the primary and there were some attacks on me that I thought was unfair? Of course. Do I — should I get over it? Should I serve — can I serve the people of Arizona best by looking back in anger or moving forward?

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that Jerry Falwell is still an agent of intolerance?

SEN. McCAIN: No, I don’t. I think that Jerry Falwell can explain to you his views on this program when you have him on.

Seconds later, McCain excused his address at Falwell’s Liberty University graduation ceremony as no different than speaking at “the New College or Ohio State University” and said addressing a student body doesn’t mean that he agrees with their politics.

McCain is making a careful distinction, which reporters should note (the AP handled the story quite well here). He is not aligning himself with Falwell’s policies, but he is strongly courting Falwell’s support. And apparently courting the support is enough for Falwell, at least at this point. Russert’s insistence on getting McCain to admit support for outlawing gay marriage and abortion kept him from missing the big picture: that Falwell finds McCain’s politics acceptable.

Print Friendly

Science explains everything

ben crosses the lineI remember hearing a joke about a Sunday school teacher who was telling her young students about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. This teacher was more learned than the average Sunday school teacher so she explained that the Moses hadn’t miraculously parted the water to enable the crossing. Rather, the sea was actually very shallow — only a couple of inches or feet deep, in fact. So while God did rescue his people, he didn’t use supernatural means.

“That’s amazing!” said Billy, one of her young charges.

The teacher explained that God was amazing but that this crossing hadn’t been such an amazing feat. In fact, Red Sea was a mistranslation. It was a sea of reeds. A Reed Sea. And so the Israelites only had to cross a very shallow sea.

“Wow! That’s super-amazing!” said Billy.

Exasperated, the teacher asked him what was so amazing about the Israelites traversing the Reed Sea.

“That the entire Egyptian army drowned in a few inches of water!”

I thought of that joke when I read the news today that a scientist thinks the biblical account of Jesus walking on the water has a scientific explanation. Here’s how the New York Times put it:

It was a stormy night on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples were out in a boat, battling a contrary wind, when they saw Jesus approaching, as if a spirit. “And he went up to them into the ship; and the wind ceased,” it is written in Mark 6:51. “And they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.”

Doron Nof also wondered, in a measured, scientific way. A professor of oceanography at Florida State University, he conducted an inquiry and found what might be a natural explanation: ice.

Writing in The Journal of Paleolimnology, Dr. Nof and his colleagues point out that unusual freezing processes probably occurred in the region in the last 12,000 years, icing over parts of freshwater Galilee. This has not happened in recent history, but there were much colder stretches 1,500 to 2,500 years ago. . . .

From a distance, the scientists suggested, a person on the ice might appear to be walking on water, particularly if it had just rained and left a smoothed-out watery coating on the ice.

Not to sound like Billy, but that is amazing that a boat could be battling rough seas at the same time Jesus was walking on ice nearby. Not to mention that this event occurred immediately after Jesus fed thousands with the few loaves and fishes. And remember what the Bible says about that group? That Jesus told them to recline on the “green grass”? Sounds like winter.

Following on the heels of the prayer study, it’s interesting to see so much media coverage of scientific attempts to explain either supernatural occurrences or issues of spirituality. It’s also interesting to contrast with the media treatment of religious explanations of scientific phenomena.

When any group questions or raises concerns with the current scientific explanation for a given issue, it rarely if ever gets to just tell its side of the story without rebuttal. And that’s only fair and right. But when some scientist comes up with an outlandish explanation debunking Christ’s power, it would be nice if reporters would seek a response from other scientists or followers of Jesus who could explain the significance of the story.

Print Friendly

An issue of time

dlsDaylight-saving time in Indiana is a long debated issue that can destroy families, ruin relationships and divide political parties. As my good friend Daniel Bradley wrote, “frightened residents” will “take to the streets in horror, turning cars, setting fires and looking to the sky for the Four Horsemen.”

If you haven’t already figured it out, we both write in jest for the purpose of dramatization, but it is necessary to demonstrate the gravity with which so many in our home state of Indiana consider the issue.

Most Hoosiers, upon leaving the state for a time, return speaking of the wonders of the daytime-saving tweak of the clock in April, but many within the state see no use for the twice-a-year clock change. Governor Mitch Daniels’ few years away as President Bush’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget must have converted him to the idea, because he made it a key part of his political platform and at last did what many in the state consider a political miracle: convince Indiana’s elected representatives to adopt the policy.

But not all is all in the basketball state. Stormy horrors hit downtown Indianapolis on Sunday — the first day the daylight policy had been enacted. This on a day that is supposed to be the calm before the storm, the time in between the NCAA Men’s Basketball semifinal and final game of what was a disappointingly unexciting Final Four in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson has yet to blame the time change for the storm that has the city’s downtown in gridlock — and for the sake of the city’s reputation, I desperately hope no one seriously suggests that. It would not surprise me, considering the tone of Robert King’s A1 article in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star, which describes the massive struggles religious Hoosiers will have to undergo with the time change:

Daylight-saving time’s later sunsets will test the devotion of those whose worship services follow the sun rather than the clock.

Muslims at some local mosques will change the start of their Friday worship services for the first time in more than 30 years.

Jews who strictly observe the Sabbath will get a later start than usual, cutting more deeply into their Saturday night social time.

And Christians will have to roll out of bed earlier today to get to church on time. At least one minister hopes the extra evening daylight will be given to God.

“This is new territory for us,” said East 91st Street Christian Church pastor Derek Duncan. “Obviously this hasn’t happened in forever.”

dsl2The article is religiously diverse, appropriately, and considering that the only struggle Christians suffer due to the time change is getting up an hour earlier, King probably gave them a bit too much attention, making them out to be persecuted churchgoers thanks to the time change.

Being from the great state of Indiana, I am aware that this is a huge deal for Hoosiers. As an intern in the editorial department, I wrote one of the first editorials in the Star in 2002 supporting the move toward daylight-saving time, and suffered in the reader backlash.

But Indianapolis media organizations, particularly the Star as the city’s major media outlet, must start giving their readers some perspective, particularly in this particular case. Memo to Indiana media outlets: Muslims, Jews and Christians all over the country (and in many other parts of the world) get by just fine with a time change twice a year, and it’s really not that big a deal.

Print Friendly

GetReligion is “emerging”?

solo candleWho knew?

The creators of the National Council of Churches’ 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches have decided that the two hot trends at the beginning of the 21st century are blogging and the “Emerging Church” and that one of the places that postmodern, hip, emerging church leaders do that dialogue thing they do is at GetReligion (honest).

I don’t think we need to define what a “blog” is for those who visit this site, but it is interesting to see how editors at Church Executive define that vague (yet very news-media-friendly) term “Emerging Church”:

The Emergent Church is defined by Yearbook Editor, the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, as a “conversation” (some would say movement) birthed in 20th century Protestantism and “characterized by a robust, energetic and growing online and hardcopy literature” that attempts to shape responses to contemporary culture.

Common attributes of the EC, Lindner believes, are an emulation of the person and ministry of Jesus, a fondness for anecdotes and stories as means of discovering truth, a focus on mission, and a stress on the centrality of worship, even in experimental forms. … Emergent Church has become so popular among evangelicals that an EC track appears on the agenda of the National Pastors Conference sponsored by Zondervan and InterVarsity.

If you want to compare that with the Wikipedia materials on this movement (or anti-movement), then click here.

The NCC yearbook listed 25 blogs and websites as being crucial to the Emerging Church era and its emphasis on communicating ideas — old and new — and probing the roots of Christian worship (on the way to creating highly individualistic new forms that are ultimately very modern and “free church”). Here’s that link again to see the emerging blog list — check it out.

I have been writing about some of these trends for a long time, back to the days when people referred to “post-contemporary worship.” Here is a chunk of an interview I did in 1999 with one thoughtful observer of these trends, the Rev. Daniel Harrell at Park Street Church in Boston:

If the Baby Boomers shunned churches that they thought were pompous and boring, then their pierced, tattooed and media-numbed children appear ready to shun churches that feel fake and frivolous. The key, according to Harrell, is that worship services must feel real. Services are judged to be authentic when they feel authentic. …

“(People) are borrowing things from all of these traditions, often without realizing that some of these symbols and rites may even clash with each other,” he said. “It’s easy to be cynical about this, but they really are searching for something. They are borrowing other people’s images and rites and experiences, as part of their own search for something that feels authentic. They are trying to step into the experiences of others.”

So who is the closet emerging-church mole at GetReligion?

It goes without saying that Eastern Orthodoxy is about as premodern as one can get. The Divine Ms. M is a very traditional Lutheran and young master Daniel Pulliam is an old-fashioned Presbyterian. Ah, but does his church sanctuary have giant video screens that can show icons as well as Matrix clips?

Print Friendly

Maybe God only answers the prayers of Methodists

PrayingA $2.4 million study on the effect of intercessory prayer came out last week and received a bunch of coverage. Researchers studying 1,800 heart-bypass patients at three hospitals found that intercessory prayer by strangers has no effect on the health of the person being prayed for. They also found that people fared worse — in the short-term at least — if they knew they were being prayed for.

But the study was a bit more complex than that. Over 3,000 patients were asked to take part in the study and over 1,800 agreed. Patients were randomly divided into three groups:

• people who were prayed for but were told they may or may not be prayed for

• people who were not prayed for but told they may or may not be prayed for

• patients who were prayed for and told they would be prayed for.

Some of the ways this study was done well (and it should have been for $2.4 million!) were that patients were randomly assigned, doctors were not told what group the patients were assigned to, the sample size was large and data collected about the participants showed there weren’t big differences across the three groups.

But there were problems, too. Patients may or may not have been prayed for by people who cared about them and knew them. The study didn’t capture that information — instead it farmed out first names and the first letter of last names to strangers in three different congregations (two Catholic and one Protestant). God had only 14 days to work healing. Or, rather, congregants only prayed for the patients for 14 days. My congregation prays for people as long as they are in need of prayer. In some cases, we have been praying for people for years. It never occurred to us that this meant intercessory prayer was failing!

Stories were sort of all over the map, but most reporters did a good job of characterizing the study. Here’s Michael Conlon of Reuters:

A study of more than 1,800 patients who underwent heart bypass surgery has failed to show that prayers specially organized for their recovery had any impact, researchers said on Thursday.

And here is Rob Stein in the Washington Post:

Praying for other people to recover from an illness is ineffective, according to the largest, best-designed study to examine the power of prayer to heal strangers at a distance.

It’s just interesting to see two reporters in action. The first lead emphasizes the manufactured aspect of the prayers. While the second lead shows the study looked at prayer by strangers, it makes it seem like the study proves all prayer is ineffective — which is much more broad than the study itself purports.

Anyway, I know the unemployed, sick and dying at my church will still be prayed for. Speaking of lead paragraphs, this satirical one made me laugh:

A team of scientists today ended a 10-year study on the so-called “power of prayer” by concluding that God cannot be manipulated by humans, not even by scientists with a $2.4 million research grant.


Print Friendly

Weighty story about clergy stress

ChickenPlate JPGEvery now and then you see a news feature story that makes you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Shoot, that story is so obvious, but I have never seen that story before. Why didn’t I think of digging into that one?”

That’s what I thought when a saw the “Special to the Washington Post” feature by Alison Buckholtz entitled “For Priests, a Weighty Matter — Hectic Schedules and Solo Living Make Weight Gain a Job Hazard for Christian Clergy.”

I would have mentioned this earlier in the week, but I’ve been having major email and connection problems during a three-day-plus conference in one totally over-the-top resort outside of Dallas. Go figure. Anyway, this is a story worth flashing back to.

The headline is very misleading. The story is broader than one study of “priests,” which would imply some hook to Catholicism, Orthodoxy or Anglicanism. Then you see “Christian Clergy” and, well, I thought to myself, “So rabbis don’t have weight problems?”

But the story covers most of the bases. It makes sense: Emotional burdens, long hours, stress and lots of people offering hospitality equal weight problems. Coffee or tea is not enough when you are trying to impress you know who. And, logically enough, there’s a supporting role for lawyers and insurance people.

There is no reason members of the clergy should face fewer weight-related problems than the nation as a whole. But several factors appear to make them more vulnerable.

“We laugh about all the potlucks … , but it’s a joke, not a reality,” says the Rev. Janet Maykus, a Disciples of Christ minister and principal of the College of Pastoral Leaders, an organization based in Texas. The group, with a grant from the Lilly Endowment, has launched a clergy health project involving ministers from several Christian denominations.

Clergy’s weight issues “have more to do with their sense of isolation because there has been a loss of status for clerical professions,” she said. “They are in a job without a great deal of respect, the pay is low, and there is a lot of depression among clergy. This is reflected in their bodies.”

There are more numbers and stats and the logical details about long days and, for the Catholic priests, nights alone.

And if you want holy writ and a small dose of spirituality, this story even offered all of that, too. That body and soul connection is

… (made) explicit throughout Christian literature, in which there is a long and significant link between spiritual piety and good physical health. St. Paul proclaimed, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?”

The 11th century Christian mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg advised, “Do not disdain your body. For the Soul is just as safe in its body as in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And, of course, there are the well-known biblical exhortations against gluttony. Solomon admonished to “put a knife to your throat if you are a man of great appetite” (Proverbs 23:2).

Like I said, there’s a lot of meat (and mashed potatoes) in this one. Has anyone else seen a major MSM story on this? Something solid in a clergy journal?

Print Friendly