Happy holidays?

meccakids2While the population of the country is over three-quarters Christian, it is not surprising that there are regions where other religions predominate or are large enough to make a significant impact.

The Muslim student population in Dearborn, Michigan, is a case in point.

Detroit Free Press reporter Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki, who handles the education beat, shares the details. Apparently 35 percent of the kids are expected to be absent on Tuesday so they can celebrate Eid al-Adha. But because the school district mistakenly thought the three day festival began on Wednesday, the school district is going to be out $100,000. Such funding cuts occur if attendance is below 75 percent on any day.

The article is largely about the ramifications to the school district if attendance lags, but the reporter interviewed Muslims and provided the religious context for the day:

“Even if there is school, my son will not be attending,” said Ghada Makki, who has a 15-year-old son, Nour, at Fordson High School. “We come to the mosque, we pray, we celebrate with family.”

“It’s haram to work on our Islamic holy days,” Makki said Friday, using the Arabic word for prohibited. “It will be a sin to do something that is haram. Even my husband, he owns a shop. He will close.”

Eid al-Adha, known in English as the Feast of Sacrifice, marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and is one of the two most important Muslim festivals each year. The other is the Eid al-Fitr, celebrating the end of the fast of Ramadan.

On Eid al-Adha, Muslims around the world celebrate in solidarity with pilgrims in Mecca, recalling the ancient patriarch Abraham’s obedience to God and his sacrifice of a ram.

The exact date the festival begins each year is based on the appearance of the new moon over Mecca, to coincide with those making a pilgrimage there.

It is interesting to see how government schools accommodate various religious holy days. It’s also not hard to see how some religious devotees might prefer running their own private schools over navigating the bureaucracy. Certainly that explains the large Roman Catholic and Lutheran parochial school systems in this country.

Either way it’s important for reporters on the education beat to look at how students celebrate their holy days on a government calendar that is, of course, largely devoid of sacred time.

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Visit with a coal-country pastor

minechurch200It’s time for a compliment. The Baltimore Sun has a very simple and very moving story today that does what I have been hoping someone would do all week — take us inside the doors of the Sago Baptist Church.

Sure enough, reporter Stephen Kiehl was able to talk to the Rev. Wease Day, a man who, sure enough, has coal country in his blood and knows something about the theology of suffering.

This isn’t rocket science. All Kiehl had to do was interview the pastor who was there and give us the details. It’s called journalism. Here is a sample:

Day, 49, would do as he had done for the past 40 years, since he was spiritually saved in the church he now heads: He would let the spirit in and trust the Lord.

“We heard about the tsunami. We heard about Katrina,” the pastor said in an interview with The Sun last week after mine officials announced the deaths. “This one was here, and we had to deal with it. It’s easy to play football from the stands. But when you get down on the field, it’s a whole different ballgame, and we were standing in the middle of the field.”

Ministering to these relatives and friends was a role Day is uniquely qualified to fill. He grew up in the hills around the mine, went to Sago Baptist Church before he was old enough to walk and returned as its pastor nine years ago. For the past 25 years, he has been a bus driver for the county school system. …

He expects the tragedy to bring the families closer to God and help them realize what they still have. The problems within families or small disagreements that kept people apart probably won’t seem so important anymore. Fences that had been built up will be torn down.

“You can’t always feel like praising the Lord,” Day said. “But in the worst of times, this is what we have: faith in God.”

Day will not stand in his pulpit today, snap his fingers, and try to preach a sermon that makes the pain go away. His church is at the door of the Sago Mine and he knows all about the people who work there and die there.

As I journalism professor, I am always telling my student that their goal — when seeking sources for information and color — is to find voices with authority. Some people have what I call the “authority of title.” They are experts and have impressive titles associated with their names, often with degrees from impressive institutions. Then there are people with “authority of experience” and, by describing their lives, a reporter can show readers why their information is crucial to the story.

In this tragic story, Pastor Day has both kinds of authority — big time. His title? Ask the miner families if the word “pastor” offers “authority of title” in this neck of the woods.

Thus, I am glad that Kiehl let us see this story through his eyes.

By the way, this story also includes that gripping cable-news quote from Anna Casto that I mentioned in my post the other day

“We have got some of us saying that we don’t even know if there is a Lord anymore,” Anna Casto, a cousin of a dead miner, told CNN. “We had a miracle, and it was taken away from us.”

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The pastorpreneur

megachurchBecause I’m a new subscriber to the London-based magazine The Economist, you’ll likely hear more from me about this excellent source of news and commentary. Appropriately for the day of the week, I sat down to read an article titled “Jesus, CEO,” and was alerted to a term that I hadn’t seen in the American press, and I believe it accurately sums up the megachurch movement: the pastorpreneur.

Apparently the man behind the website has written a book on the subject, and the unnamed author of the Economist piece (removing bylines is something American magazines should consider!) uses the term throughout to describe the growing movement of CEO-led, business strategy considering churches in America:

Yet three things can be said in the mega-churches’ defence. The first is that they are simply responding to demand. Their target audience consists of baby-boomers who left the church in adolescence, who do not feel comfortable with overt displays of religiosity, who dread turning into their parents, and who apply the same consumerist mentality to spiritual life as they do to everything else. The mega-churches are using the tools of American society to spread religion where it would not otherwise exist.

The second line of defence is that they are simply adding to a menu of choices. There is no shortage of churches that offer more traditional fare — from Greek Orthodox to conservative Catholic. The third defence is more subtle: these churches are much less Disneyfied than they appear. They may be soft on the surface, but they are hard on the inside. The people at Lakewood believe that “the entire Bible is inspired by God, without error”. Cuddly old Rick Warren believes that “heaven and hell are real places” and that “Jesus is coming again”. You may start out in the figurative hell of a Disney theme-park, but you end up with the real thing.

The other common criticisms of the mega-churches — and the marriage of religion and business that they embody — are practical. One is that the mega-churches are a passing fad, doomed to be destroyed by a combination of elephantiasis and scandal. Another is that they are an idiosyncratic product of red-state America: amusing to look at, but irrelevant to the rest of the world. Again, neither argument is entirely convincing.

The article is an excellent roundup of the mega-church movement (sorry for those who cannot link, the magazine limits a good amount of their content) uses a balanced approach and addresses the subject of personal religion — as it should be — seriously:

Another problem is subtler: how do you speak directly to individual parishioners when you have a church the size of a stadium? Some mega-churches have begun to see members drift away in search of more intimate organisations. And many mega-preachers worry that they are producing a flock who regard religion as nothing more than spectacle. So they have begun to adopt techniques that allow churches to be both big and small at once.

One ruse is to break the congregation into small groups. Most big churches ask members of their congregation to join clutches of eight-to-ten people with something in common (age or marital status, for example). A second is to segment the religious market. Willow Creek has two very different services. The Sunday one for new “seekers” is designed to exhibit the Christian faith in a “relevant and non-threatening way”. Willow Creek estimates that over half of the people who come to its Sunday services would otherwise be “unchurched”. The Wednesday service for people who are committed to Christianity is designed to deepen their faith.

As an attendee of a church that employs the small-group strategy, I can say that it’s great for getting new people involved in a larger organization. That said, my church cannot boast megachurch numbers.

From my limited readings of The Economist, I have found that it takes a fresh approach to stories on American trends, often highlighting aspects that journalists in the United States overlook or simply don’t see as significant. My favorite from this piece is the reversal trend:

Indeed, in a nice reversal businesses have also started to learn from the churches. The late Peter Drucker pointed out that these churches have several lessons to teach mainline businesses. They are excellent at motivating their employees and volunteers, and at transforming volunteers from well-meaning amateurs into disciplined professionals. The best churches (like some of the most notorious cults) have discovered the secret of low-cost and self-sustaining growth: transforming seekers into evangelicals who will then go out and recruit more seekers.

The author of this piece clearly gets religion. I wonder if he/she gets it more than some of these people pushing the pastorpreneur/CEO church trend.

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Follow-up question for Anne Rice

Do you ever wish that you could have been present during an interview between a major newspaper and a major newsmaker or popular personality? This happens to me when I read a really amazing quote and then think to myself, “OK, if the reporter didn’t follow up on that by asking this question, he (or she) should be abandoned in journalism purgatory.”

anne riceThis past week, the Baltimore Sun ran an interesting feature on novelist Anne Rice by reporter Anne-Marie O’Connor. Clearly, we are still in major publicity mode for “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.” By all means, read the story for yourself, because it has some interesting material in it.

I have been interested in the dueling themes in the press coverage of this book. Stories tend to say (a) the book’s take on Christianity is amazingly orthodox, given Rice’s past, and conservatives are rather pleased with it or (b) Rice has come back to Catholicism on her own terms, which blend personal faith with progressive takes on moral issues. In other words, she is a brave Catholic reformer. Some people have tried to say (a) and (b), which is tricky, but possible.

Thus, I was fascinated by this section of the Sun piece:

Rice favors gay marriage. She believes the church position regarding birth control is a grievous error that is not supported by Scripture. She repudiates what she sees as intolerant, “sex-obsessed” church leaders and says she does not find support in the message of Jesus for their focus on sexual orientation or abortion. She argues for a more inclusive church.

“Think of how the church bells would ring and the pews would fill if women could become priests and priests could marry. It would be the great resurgence of the Catholic Church in this country,” Rice said recently, seated in front of a roaring fire, in the La Jolla, Calif., mansion she moved to after she left New Orleans.

OK, so what is the very next question that the reporter could have, or even should have, asked?

Here is my clue for you. It is closely related to the question I have sent to Andrew Sullivan several times and he has never answered. It would start: “Ms. Rice, are you familiar with the statistical trends …”

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Take Pat Robertson, please

robertson timeThe latest wave of Pat Robertson madness has rolled on throughout the day. Here is a large chunk of one of my favorite statements. The name of this game is to guess the source.

I am both stunned and appalled that Pat Robertson would claim to know the mind of God concerning whether particular tragic events, such as former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke, were the judgments of God. Pat Robertson should know better.

A far greater expert on God’s will than Pat Robertson will ever be, the Apostle Paul, declared, ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?’ (Romans 11:33-34 KJV)

The Bible clearly reveals God to be a God of justice and righteousness as well as a God of forgiveness and mercy. Does God judge? Yes. However, whether or not a particular event is God’s judgment is something that the Apostle Paul has told us is ‘past finding out.’ No one ‘hath known the mind of the Lord.’

Even if one agreed with Pat Robertson’s position that the Israelis do not have the right to grant part of the Holy Land to the Palestinians, it would be well beyond Rev. Robertson’s competence to discern that these tragic events were in any way, shape or form the result of God’s judgment on any individuals. I am almost as shocked by Pat Robertson’s arrogance as I am by his insensitivity.

National Council of Churches? Jim Wallis? Jimmy Carter?

Actually, this is from Dr. Richard Land, the Oxford-educated president of The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Land went on to say that he asked a classroom full of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary students today what they thought of this latest statement from Robertson and they were “embarrassed and incensed.”

I do not have a URL for Land’s statement, yet, but click here for Baptist Press coverage.

So here we go again. Is this latest Robertson statement a news story?

Of course it’s a story.

When I say that I wish that journalists would excommunicate Pat Robertson, I say that knowing that it will make headlines when a famous person spews out a remark of this kind. What concerns me is when this point of view is portrayed as typical of the Christian or even evangelical mainstream. Is it typical of many so-called Christian Zionists? Yes. All of them? No. Of all conservative Christians? Way, no way. Of traditional Christian beliefs in ancient churches, including those in the Middle East? Get out of here.

So would it be valid to use this Robertson howler as a hook for a story on what various Christian groups believe about the Middle East? Yes. Journalists can compare and contrast all they want and I urge them to dig deep, because there are many different types of Christians out there with many different beliefs on this topic — even on the right side of the church aisle.

I am happy to report that quite a few people are beginning to raise concerns similar to those I voiced in my Poynter column. Consider this essay today at the CBS News weblog by Brian Montopoli. He notes:

I asked “Evening News” host Bob Schieffer for his thoughts on Robertson and whether he thought there were others who better represent evangelicals. Schieffer, who considers himself a religious person, has covered Robertson and interviewed him several times in the past, and says “at the beginning he represented a particular point of view, and articulated it quite well.” But he’s reluctant to cover him now.

“I think we have to be very careful about quoting Robertson, because I’m not sure who he represents anymore,” he said. “His comments have gone beyond interesting and into bizarre.” …

This isn’t, ultimately, just a religious issue, says Schieffer. It’s rooted in larger questions about the way the media functions. “One of the problems we have in TV is that we too often go to the first person who has something to say — and that’s often the person we should be paying the least attention to,” he says. “We go out and find the people who are on the most extreme sides and let them scream at each other.”

This CBS essay also quotes, among other hyper-linked sources, a Washington Monthly blog essay by the omnipresent Amy Sullivan, who notes:

… (That) the evangelical community (and even the conservative evangelical community) is very diverse and doesn’t have one acknowledged leader. But given that, there are a few different groups of people who should be (and sometimes are) featured as evangelical voices. For religious leaders, there are Ted Haggard of New Life Church and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, Brian McLaren of Cedar Ridge Church, Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church, Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church, and Franklin Graham (Billy’s son). Political voices include Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Cizik of NAE, Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation, and Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

And then, of course, there are your white liberal evangelicals (Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo) and your black evangelicals (Herb Lusk, TD Jakes).

There are many excellent contacts in that list. Then Sullivan adds, speaking from the left, the point that I have been trying to make for several years now.

Preach it, lady:

As for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, their heyday was 20 years ago; the only reason they’re still booked as talking heads is that most producers don’t know these two men no longer have any power. But more than that, they’re just not representative of today’s evangelicals. Robertson is a Pentecostal and Falwell is a fundamentalist, and while you could broadly say that most Pentecostals and fundamentalists are evangelicals, not all evangelicals are Pentecostals or fundamentalists. That’s why some of the more extreme theological statements you hear from those two (God let 9/11 happen because of gays and women and the ACLU) aren’t shared by a lot of evangelicals. That’s not to say that many evangelicals (and some of the names I mentioned) don’t hold intolerant, troubling views. But when we criticize them, we should be able to distinguish between widely-held beliefs and the wacked-out positions of a couple of has-beens.

So, let’s run over the basic points again. First, is the Robertson statement news? Sadly, yes.

Who does he speak for? Himself and a large, but declining, number of Pat Robertson fans. Consider him the Bishop Jack Spong of the far right.

Is his viewpoint of the Middle East newsworthy? Yes. Cover it and interview the legions of people who think his point of view is out of line. (In biblical terms, is “Israel” a zip code? A chunk of land? A people? A kingdom with a small “k” or a large “K”? The questions go on and on.)

Are journalists betraying their bias or laziness if they continue to act as if Pat Robertson is a major player in modern evangelicalism or the wider movement of politically active conservative Christians? I’ll leave that one up to you.

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Jesus Christ on trial, again

thorns and gavelI wanted to make a note of a remarkably weird religion story playing out in Italy where a judge has ordered a priest to prove “that Jesus Christ existed,” reports The Times.

The evangelicals among us may react against the use of the past tense to describe Christ’s existence. Could the Catholic priest take on the challenge of proving that Christ still exists, or is that cutting to close to the realm of faith? Oh wait, the judge has already done that by letting this lawsuit go forward. Forget the separation of church and state in Italy, since they have such a great history understanding that concept.

So anyway, here are the details:

The case against Father Enrico Righi has been brought in the town of Viterbo, north of Rome, by Luigi Cascioli, a retired agronomist who once studied for the priesthood but later became a militant atheist.

Signor Cascioli, author of a book called The Fable of Christ (not available on Amazon.com), began legal proceedings against Father Righi three years ago after the priest denounced Signor Cascioli in the parish newsletter for questioning Christ’s historical existence.

Yesterday Gaetano Mautone, a judge in Viterbo, set a preliminary hearing for the end of this month and ordered Father Righi to appear. The judge had earlier refused to take up the case, but was overruled last month by the Court of Appeal, which agreed that Signor Cascioli had a reasonable case for his accusation that Father Righi was “abusing popular credulity”.

Signor Cascioli’s contention — echoed in numerous atheist books and internet sites — is that there was no reliable evidence that Jesus lived and died in 1st-century Palestine apart from the Gospel accounts, which Christians took on faith. There is therefore no basis for Christianity, he claims.

I also take issue with the author’s use of the word atheist to describe those who do not believe in the existence of Christ. Not believing in the existence of Christ does not make a person an atheist just as believing in the existence of Christ doesn’t make a person a Christian. Also, I’m sure there are people out there who do not believe Christ exist yet would not want to classify themselves as atheists. It’s a big world out there with many religions.

This one-man campaign is making quite a bit of news, but I had trouble finding much speculation as to what would happen if this lawsuit were successful. Amy Welborn gives us the link but appropriately did not choose to comment.

Ted Olsen over at Christianity Today‘s blog predicts that the lawsuit will be unsuccessful and gives us a link from the Guardian that has more background on the case. My take is that this is one of those “that’s weird, why are they doing that?” stories. But it will be interesting to see how it unfolds.

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Back to our “no comment” department

Here we go again. Click here. Then click here, again and again. Then leave your comments. Your friends at GetReligion will attempt to read them if we have the strength.

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Please talk to the coal miners’ pastors

STG HZ MinuteByMinute 4pI believe the woman’s name was Anna Casto. She appeared several times during the Wednesday NBC Nightly News coverage of the Sago Mine disaster. Her comments were blunt, agonizing and stunningly on target. I wish I could quote them to you, but I do not have Tivo and, for once, got caught without a notepad nearby.

For all I know, Casto and others are featured in some of the materials stored online at the broadcast’s cyberhome at MSNBC (photo). Here, for example, is a print story drawn from the coverage. And here is the link to the actual online version of the Brian Williams newscast. (However, since all of this material is based on Microsoft products, I cannot get the software to work on either of my computers — either my iMac G5 or an up-to-day Windows machine. Would someone please alert me when NBC offers a QuickTime or RealPlayer option?)

Anyway, back to Casto and the mourning mine families. I was struck by two of her comments. In one, she said that the whip-lash effect of hearing that their friends and loved ones were safe, then finding out they were actually dead, had left many of the believers huddled in the Sago Baptist Church doubting whether “the Lord is real.” I think that was the phrase she used. Later, with an obvious reference to the attitudes she has seen displayed about her region in national media, she said something like this: “We’re Christian people. … We’re West Virginians. … We may be dumb, but we love our families.” Again, I hesitate to put that in quotes, but that is very close to verbatim.

Meanwhile, the powerful, yet vague, aura of Bible Belt faith lingered over the evening newscasts like the smoke from the memorial candles held by the mourners on the church step as they sang old hymns, standing in an arc toward the television cameras. Those old, old songs were all chopped up by the video editors, many of whom obviously did not know the words or they would have selected the verses that applied directly to the emotions of the people singing. The people talked about God a lot and the journalists let them talk, sharing faith and doubt in the midst of their pain.

You can see this in the opening of the New York Daily News story entitled “Anguish, rage in church” by reporters Derek Rose (on the scene) and Corky Siemaszko (in New York):

One moment they were praising God, the next they were cursing His name. That’s how furious those in a church full of heartbroken West Virginians were early yesterday after reports of the miraculous rescue of 12 miners turned out to be false.

“I believe that everybody was stunned,” said John Casto, who was celebrating in the Sago Baptist Church with the miners’ relatives when they were hit by a tsunami of grief. “Just a few minutes before they were praising God and then they was cursing because they thought they lost a loved one.”

Casto, who lost a pal in the mine, said some of the angry men tried to slug the mine operator who delivered the devastating news. He said the church pastor tried to calm the furious crowd by saying, “Look toward God.”

“One of the men said, ‘What in the hell has God done for us?’” Casto said, his eyes welling up with tears.

Yes, note the last name — Casto.

group1I kept wanting the journalists to actually go inside the church or try to find a few minutes with one of the pastors. You see, my father was a Southern Baptist pastor and hospital chaplain. I have been around a few ministers in hard times. I also imagine that the pastors clustered with those suffering people have handled more than their share of mine tragedies and miracles. If they are anything like the pastors that I know, they have moved light years past the kind of one-level Bible commentary that appeared, in splinters and shards, on the national networks last night.

We did get to meet one pastor in a Washington Post piece entitled “After 44 Hours, Hope Showed Its Cruel Side.” But, once again, we get to read what I am convinced is only the first layer of what a veteran coal-country pastor would say in this circumstance.

The Rev. Jerry Murrell, pastor of the Way of the Holiness church in Buckhannon, was one of the local clergy members keeping vigil with the families at Sago Baptist. “There were times of intense prayer, and times of softly singing hymns,” he said. “Ministers would take turns reading Scripture. The one we seemed to keep turning back to was Romans 8:28 where the Apostle Paul promises that all things work together for good to those who love God.”

Memorial services almost always include sermons. The sermons almost always address the tough issues that face the people hit by the tragedy of the moment. In coal country, the sermons have to address the pain, terror, risk, guilt and fury involved in an entire way of life in a region that knows more than a little about faith and sorrow. You want Dante? These people live Dante, with some finding relief in bars, some in churches and many in both places.

Yes, these sermons will be packed with all of that Jesus language and the Bible verses that, to many journalists, sound like fingernails on a chalkboard or the unknown tongues of flyover country natives. But those pastors know more about coal mines, coal miners and death than most of the producers out in the television production trucks. Please. Go talk to them.

P.S. My dear friend (wife of our family’s parish priest) Frederica Mathewes-Green has a theological reflection on the Sago tragedy posted over at Beliefnet.com — click here to read it. Here is her version of another interview clip with John Casto:

John Casto tried to explain, in an accent broad as the hills, how this works, how faith can make it so you’re not alone. “You know, I’m not kin to none of these people under that hill over there, but each and every one of ‘ems a brother to me. Each and every one of them.” He then looked toward the reporter and said, “Because you’re my brother,” and then turning to the cameraman, “and you’re my brother. The way I look at it.”

There was something electrifying about that moment. In the midst of bitterness and turmoil, Casto broke through the wall.

“Because I love Christ,” he went on. This is not the sort of thing you usually hear on the news, and the camera was already pulling back. The reporter’s voice softly murmured “All right, John.” But Casto continued, “We’re gonna to pray for each and every one of these people.” At this point, the reporter patted him on the shoulder, with a “that’s enough, now” gesture.

P.S., number 2: Readers who are interested in the many, many journalistic issues raised by the coverage of this event will want to stay plugged in at Poynter.org — which currently has this round-up on its front page.

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