Holiday Target practice

kettlesIf you have picked up a newspaper in the past week or so, you have surely noticed that we are well into our culture’s annual Christmas Wars.

This is that magical time of year when lawyers on both sides of the culture wars get to earn overtime pay, making the world safe for secular menorahs and faith-neutral holiday trees. Meanwhile, many people who think of themselves as conservative Christians do their best to make innocent store workers feel guilty if their corporate bosses will not let them say “Merry Christmas.” Meanwhile, most churches are worn-out with “Christmas celebrations” a week or more before Dec. 25th — the first day of the 12-day Feast of the Nativity.

It’s a mess. It makes you want to fast and pray, or something.

Even with his snarky tone, I have to admit that Adam Cohen of the New York Times is on to something with his essay entitled “This Season’s War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else.”

Here’s the opening:

Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They’re for it.

The American Family Association is leading a boycott of Target for not using the words “Merry Christmas” in its advertising. (Target denies it has an anti-Merry-Christmas policy.) The Catholic League boycotted Wal-Mart in part over the way its Web site treated searches for “Christmas.” Bill O’Reilly, the Fox anchor who last year started a “Christmas Under Siege” campaign, has a chart on his Web site of stores that use the phrase “Happy Holidays,” along with a poll that asks, “Will you shop at stores that do not say ‘Merry Christmas’?”

Bah, humbug. The story that actually interests me this year is related to the Christmas wars, but actually has some content. It also concerns Target, Wal-Mart and a bunch of other people. It focuses, of course, on the decision by Target — perhaps honoring a request by gay-rights groups — to start enforcing its ban on solicitations outside its doors by “Merry Christmas” whispering bell-ringers at those offensive red kettles. The result is a PR professional’s nightmare in a competitive economy, which you can see by clicking here.

I wrote about the Salvation Army a week ago for Scripps Howard and mentioned some of this, while focusing on this organization’s battle to retain or regain some of its public identity as a church. Religion-beat veteran Ken Garfield of the Charlotte Observer also published a thoughtful column on this standoff that included the following:

… (For) some who view the bells and kettles as a symbol of Christmas compassion, the ban by Target rankles — especially after Katrina and the other disasters to which the Salvation Army has responded. The debate is also deepened by the fact that other retailers, such as Harris Teeter, welcome the Salvation Army to their front doors.

Charlotte’s Susan Chaffin shared her embrace of the Salvation Army, and a warning to retailers, in a letter to the editor after Katrina: “To deny their traditional places and opportunities is to deny their efforts and contributions to these and other needy people in America. So just remember, no bell-ringers, no me.”

saltargetSure enough, folks on the anti-Target right are cheering a recent dip in the company’s stock, while those folks at Wal-Wart are singing glad tidings (to the sound of Salvation Army bells).

Meanwhile, my friend Simon J. Dahlman at Milligan College recently, in his “Face to Faith” column, addressed a topic that I believe should get more coverate this time a year — the religion of commercialism and the sacraments that people consume at the mall. Here, friends, is the war at Christmas that matters the most and, yes, it is spiritual. Would that more churches were concerned about this. Dahlman writes:

“Consumerism serves as a form of religion,” says the Rev. John Kavanaugh, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches philosophy at St. Louis University. “The mall serves as the new parish church, the new gathering place. People go there to socialize. It’s a community center, centered on shopping.”

Kavanaugh, who has written several books that examine the complex relationships between American culture and religion, including “Following Christ in a Consumer Culture,” notes other similarities between religion and retail.

“It’s amazing how many products are associated with values and with self-esteem,” he said in a phone interview this week, rattling off brand names to illustrate his point: Boss, Freedom, Joy, Easy to Be Me.

I could keep quoting, but I suggest that you read it yourself. If you see similar stories on this theme, please let me know.

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But yoga is so hip!

A casual glance at the headlines would indicate that reporters love to cover stories about changes to public school curriculum. Especially changes to public school curriculum that allegedly are motivated by political or religious viewpoints. The debate over inclusion of intelligent design theories in textbooks has been hot for months. Reporters are still going crazy over the big, bad intelligent designers and their Pennsylvania and Kansas curriculum battles.

So how is it possible that reporters have, for the most part, managed to completely miss the dramatic success that Hindu nationalists had this week in revising California textbooks over the objections of renowned scholars? If the Hindu nationalists themselves hadn’t sent me a note (I subscribe to one of their listservs), I wouldn’t have known about it:

California Hindus were celebrating today their victory in yesterday’s meeting of the State Board of Education Curriculum Commission. The Vedic Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation worked for months to have changes made to sections of California textbooks that deal with India and Hinduism. Then there was a hasty intervention by a group of scholars of Indology which threatened to reverse many of the changes. Fortunately, the Curriculum Commission sympathized with the Hindus and allowed only a few changes to what Hindus had requested.

The estimated population of Hindus in America is small but growing rapidly: over 1 million adherents. Like most groups, Hindus have some pretty serious and conflicting divisions. The Hindus who won this victory are Hindu nationalists. The controversial movement got going around 100 years ago in response to British rule, the political victories Muslims were having in certain regions and the success Christians were having in conversions and subsequent subverting of the Hindu caste system. It has gained stature and adherents in India in recent decades.

Hindu nationalists have a few beliefs outside the mainstream of academic thought, including one view that science can prove human civilization has been around for 1,900 million years. They believe Hinduism originated in India and that Aryan culture traveled to Iran from India rather than vice-versa. They also believe Sanskrit is the mother language of every language in the world, including that of Native Americans. These unorthodox views are disputed by most historians and linguists who believe that the Vedic religion and Indo-Aryan Languages came from Central Asia along with the Aryans around 3500 years ago.

Curriculum battles in California are heated not only because the state is the nation’s largest textbok purchaser, but other states tend to follow California’s lead in textbook approval. Religion has been a required course of study in California since 1987 where students learn about Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity in sixth grade, and Islam in seventh grade.

While nationalists are not a Hindu majority even in India, they are a powerful political group. For months they heavily lobbied California’s Board of Education to make changes in the textbooks, such as asserting that Aryans were not a race, but a term for persons of noble intellect.

The lobbying prompted Harvard Indologist Michael Witzel to write a letter to the California Board of Education which said, in part:

The agenda of the groups proposing these changes is familiar to all specialists on Indian history, who have recently won a long battle to prevent exactly these kinds of changes from finding a permanent place in the history textbooks in India. The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature, and are primarily promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their area of expertise.

But, if the Hindu Press International report is to be believed, the nationalists won. It seems like this would have been an excellent story for reporters to follow before now, whether from the education, religion, or intelligent design angles. It’s also a great reminder that one of the best things a busy religion reporter can do to stay on top of the beat is to subscribe to religious media.

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Sing a new song

Journalists have trouble covering “normality” and everyday events in religious life, Terry noted yesterday. While news organizations tend to cover religious perspectives on contentious issues, denominational infighting, and the latest clerical scandals, the real action for the average devotee is in worship, prayer, personal piety and, if we’re being honest, coffee hours.

David Crumm, a prolific and longtime religion writer and columnist at the Detroit Free Press, breaks this mold with a substantive look at how faith inspires art. Using an unlikely subject, he manages to get a newsworthy story out of the ordinary life of the church:

One evening as his mom was fixing supper in their Bloomfield Hills home, 11-year-old Harrison Kenum laid aside his Lego construction sets and Star Wars games and launched an unusual new mission.

In the next 30 minutes, he wrote a remarkable hymn that will be sung at a 9 a.m. Dec. 11 service at Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield Hills.

It would be easy to write this as a novelty story. The elements are all there: precocious kid, seasonal schmaltz, feel-good religiosity. But Crumm does not condescend to his pre-teen subject — or his audience — and permits Kenum to explain the creative process and religious influences that fueled his hymnwriting:

At the core of this effort is his vivid Christian faith in which he says he clearly senses God sitting in the heavens and ruling with a compassionate hand.

To capture that lofty image in verse, Harrison found himself calling upon a host of traditional religious words that have swirled around in his head during the seven years he has performed in boys’ choirs.

“To make it sound like it should, I knew that I had to put in ‘doth’ and ‘ne’er’ and some other words like that,” he said. “To sound right, hymns like this always need a ‘thy’ or two.”

Also commendable is how many resources Crumm and his colleagues devoted to the piece; it’s more of a news package than a story. On the website, at least, the article is accompanied by the lyrics and audio to the hymn, pictures, and a video interview of Kenum explaining his vision. The 11-year-old definitely has a theology he used to write the hymn and Crumm highlights it and puts it in the context of congregational life. The writer even understands that the liturgical season most Christians are in right now is Advent, not the High Holy Days of Commercialized Christmas. Crumm explains how the Magnificat — the song Mary sings upon hearing she will bear the Savior — will be one of the appointed readings for the congregation’s upcoming Advent service:

“This is the season of Advent for us and that’s the theme on Sunday in the service where we’ll sing Harrison’s hymn: Everyone’s got a song to sing,” [assistant pastor Rev. Lana] Russell told me.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone took time like he did to think about these things? I want people to ask: What’s the song that I’ve been waiting to sing?”

Eleven-year old hymnwriters might not exist in every area, but editors and religion writers would do well to look at how faith and religious devotion affect every vocation, from mothers and barkeepers to janitors and soldiers. Real life, real news, and all that.

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Clearly we were Left Behind

HomeAloneThe debate over whether the Bible is an authentic historical record has been going on for more than 200 years. And historians are not the primary people affected by debate, it’s archaeologists. Archaeology relying on the Bible has become a way to explore the Old Testament and its discoveries can have profound implications in world politics.

The significance of this A1 story in Friday’s Washington Post cannot be underestimated. Overall, it is a well-researched, thorough and relatively balanced article that I enjoyed reading. Here’s the gist:

She believes she has found the palace of King David, the poet-warrior who the Bible says consolidated the ancient Jewish kingdom around the 10th century B.C. and expanded its borders to encompass the Land of Israel. Others are doubtful.

“There is sometimes a reality, a very precise reality, though maybe not all true, described in the Bible,” Mazar said. “This is giving the Bible’s version a chance.”

Mazar’s find is emerging at the nexus of history, religion and politics, volatile forces that have guided building, biblical scholarship and war in this city for millennia. Even before the findings have been assembled in a scientific paper, the discovery is prompting new thinking about when Jerusalem rose to prominence, the nature of the early Jewish kingdom, and whether the Bible can be used as a reliable map to archaeological discovery.

This is a fascinating discovery, a solid article and a reporter knowledgeable of the facts, willing to dig (no pun intended) for precise insights, except for this one paragraph that seems to have a tense confused:

Finkelstein, who is in charge of the excavation in northern Israel where the Bible says the battle of Armageddon took place, visited Mazar’s dig a few months ago. The 56-year-old scholar, tall and voluble with a salt-and-pepper beard, has often argued with colleagues whose reliance on the Bible he finds misguided.

Am I missing something here? A co-worker of mine actually pointed this out to me Friday morning at work while reading it on my recommendation after I had skimmed it over while eating my breakfast. We were both quite confused.

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Can journalists cover “normal” religion?

1932792066 01 LZZZZZZZOur friends over in the Christianity Today kingdom often wait, for a few weeks, before some of the pieces in their publications make their way from dead tree pulp into cyberspace. Thus, I have held off a bit posting a note about the recent Books & Culture essay by historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University entitled “Religion and the Media: Do they get it?”

This is, on one level, a book review by Jenkins of “Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas About Religion And Culture,” a Baylor University Press volume edited by Claire H. Badaracco. But Jenkins, who is best known among Godbeat writers for his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” opens with some comments about the state of the Godbeat (or godsbeat) that would be interesting to all. (Click here for his famous Atlantic Monthly cover story called “The Next Christianity.”)

While MSM journalists do muck up religion news quite a bit, Jenkins has high praise for many beat professionals. He does name names and newspapers. The key, however, is not so much in the stories that the press covers as in the stories that newsrooms do not cover. In particular, he says that the press has trouble handling the day-after-day, century-after-century, power of faith in normal life. “Normality” gets bad press or no press.

Given conventional priorities, the customary and unsensational is not news, so that media stories about Islam are likely to expose terrorism and subversion rather than everyday piety, while according to most media accounts, the Roman Catholic church is either engaging in moral crusades or picking up the pieces after the latest sex scandal. If all an observer knew of Roman Catholicism was drawn from mainstream reporting over the past forty years — or indeed, from the Hollywood productions of that period — what would that person know of the central fact in the church’s life, the Eucharist, or how radically the lived realities of the Catholic faith have changed following the liturgical reforms of those years? And the same might be asked of any other tradition. How many media professionals have the slightest idea of the distinctive theological beliefs that characterize evangelicals or Pentecostals, as opposed to knowing the political and sexual prejudices such groups are presumed to share?

In some ways, this sounds a bit like the people who always complain that the press spends more time covering the “bad news” rather than the “good news.” Whenever you hear this, it is good to remind them of that C.S. Lewis quote — it goes something like this — about the “Good News” starting off as the “bad news” about humanity, before if becomes the eternal Good News.

Jenkins, however, hones in on another issue that is crucial on this beat (and in this blog). It is hard to cover religion news in a serious manner unless you have some idea what all the words mean and, thus, can cover complex topics (even in the lives of ordinary people) in an accurate manner.

And then there are those words that turn into straw-man stereotypes, complete with the “sneer quotes” that so irk the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc. Lo and behold, Jenkins veers — he is a historian, remember — straight into familiar GetReligion territory.

One such demon word is fundamentalism, originally a description of a particular approach to reading Christian Scriptures, but now a catch-all description for supernaturally based anti-modernism, repression, and misogyny. Within the past few years, evangelical has been similarly debased, gaining its popular connotations of white conservative politics. (Sorry, African American evangelicals don’t exist, and as everyone knows, all Latinos are traditionalist Catholics. Right?) Most pernicious of all, perhaps, is the benevolent-sounding word “moderate,” which equates to “the side that we (the media) agree with in any religious controversy, no matter how bizarre their ideas, or how bloodcurdlingly confrontational their rhetoric.” In this lexicon, likewise, theological is an educated synonym for nitpicking triviality.

Read it all (as the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon likes to say).

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In praise of (disturbing) journalism

IMG7138108LOHere’s a hopeful note, for those who care about high-quality religion coverage in the mainstream press.

The name of this blog is GetReligion, because we believe that many journalists do not “get religion.” However, you could run another blog called GetJournalism, because there are many, many, many leaders in religious organizations — left and right — who have zero appreciation for the role that journalists play, or should play, in this culture. Many people with “Rev.” and especially “the Right Rev.” in front of their names want public relations, not journalism.

So I was encouraged when I saw this commentary on Baptist Press entitled “The perverse logic of abortion,” by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., one of the most brilliant minds on the rock-ribbed right side of Southern Baptist higher education. The subject of his commentary is that gripping feature story on abortion by Los Angeles Times reporter Stephanie Simon.

Now, as young master Daniel Pulliam noted earlier this week, this article is brutal in its candor and in its almost evangelistic use of “born again” language in describing the work of abortionist Dr. William F. Harrison of Fayetteville, Ark. Obviously, Mohler is sickened by much of what is reported. But, and here is the crucial point, he praises the journalist for the information reported, even though he is appalled by these very same details. Far too often, religious leaders lash out at the journalists in a classic damn-the-messenger manner.

This is progress.

Perhaps the most shocking dimension of Dr. Harrison’s candor is the manner in which he cloaks his practice of abortion in religious language. In the Los Angeles Times article, Harrison refers to women who have terminated their pregnancies as being “born again” through the experience. In his statement published in the Reproductive Freedom Task Force newsletter, Harrison claimed to have heard “a still, small voice asking, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ to which I was at last compelled to reply, ‘Here am I, send me.’” Here we confront the breathtaking delusion of a man who would cite God’s call to the prophet Isaiah as a parallel to his “calling” to be an abortionist.

The debate over abortion is often reduced to a battle over statistics and politics. Stephanie Simon’s article should remind us all that the reality of abortion is unspeakably ugly, undeniably tragic and morally corrupting. The statements made by these women seeking abortions — and by the doctor who so gladly performs them — reveals the true nature of the challenge we face. The culture of death is rarely revealed with such clarity.

Amen. May other hierarchs pay heed. It is good to praise journalists when they do their jobs with excellence. This will also pay off, when it comes time to put a hot spotlight on journalistic heresies.

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About Mollie Ziegler

MolliePictGR.jpgGreetings, fellow religion nerds. Today marks my debut on GetReligion. Since we’ll be discussing many stories in coming months, I’d like to share a bit about myself.

I’m a reporter in beautiful Washington, D.C., where I cover the management of government programs for Gannett’s Federal Times. I got into the journalism game a bit late, beginning with a stint at Radio & Records, the trade publication for the radio and recording industries. My education and previous professional background are in the dismal science of economics.

Most of my stories are straight news, but I have done some commentary and feature writing on religion, baseball, music, film, books and monkeys. Though my professional experience with the latter does not extend much further than a very exclusive Monkey News list-serv that I run, editors should feel free to contact me on all primate issues (despite a predilection against lemurs that I’d rather not discuss here).

In 2004 I won the Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship. This wonderfully generous program permitted me to spend a year researching and writing Losing Our Religion, a book on the changing shape of civil religion in America. Using original reporting, analysis of Supreme Court cases, and general historical review, I argue that the country has an official syncretistic religion.

This interfaith religion preaches that the public square is a great place for religious expression, so long as multiple religions are present; sacred scriptures are excellent for inclusion in political speeches, so long as multiple texts are cited; and state funerals and remembrances of national tragedy or pride can only be marked with religious services led by clergy from multiple religions. Most people think this is fine and good, but I argue that the arrangement trivializes religious differences and disenfranchises those folks who oppose syncretism. No matter where you stand on the issue, the book should make a great Chrismahanukwanzakah gift for everyone on your list next year.

Of course, my interest in these issues is informed by my background. My father is a Lutheran pastor and my mother teaches fourth grade at a government school. Sometimes my parents like to remind me what a difficult child I was. But the bottom line is that I’m Lutheran. Our perspective is unique — focused on the Sacraments, creeds and confessions of faith, and the eternal and otherworldly aspects of the faith. It’s in strong contrast to the American idea of religion, which focuses on personal morality and politics. As a result Lutheranism is rarely noticed or understood in the press. It’s extremely frustrating but great training for this gig: I’ve spent decades contemplating what’s missing from religious stories. And my past year studying Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism confirmed that the problem extends well past Christianity.

Here at GetReligion, I hope to shed a bit of light and heat on local religion coverage. I grew up reading Old Man Mattingly in the Rocky Mountain News, where I learned that all the best religion stories are local. Snake handlers drinking strychnine don’t start out as national news after all. In research for my book, I came to rely on a number of excellent religion reporters at medium to large papers and I look forward to highlighting their work on these pages.

For what it’s worth, I attend Immanuel Lutheran Church, a congregation of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, in Alexandria, Va. I serve on the LCMS Board for Communication Services. I also serve on the board of Higher Things, which helps parents, pastors and congregations cultivate a Lutheran identity among youth. I have four awesome nieces and a nephew. I have almost 1,000 LPs, ranging from Sufjan Stevens to Roberta Flack. And my favorite color is green.

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Monkeyfishing

Fish StanleyThe teaser copy atop the December issue of Harper’s is simple — “Stanley Fish on Intelligent Design.” What fan of Stanley Fish or the Intelligent Design debate wouldn’t want to read that creative pairing of author and subject?

Fish begins with an unpredictable angle by accusing I.D. proponents of misappropriating the academic style of Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago:

What the Christian Right took from him (without acknowledgment) was the idea that college instructors should “teach the conflicts” around academic issues so that students will learn that knowledge is neither inertly given nor merely a matter of personal opinion but is established in the crucible of controversy.

Then he shifts into overstating what I.D. proponents seek:

What is ironic is that although Graff made his case for teaching the controversies in a book entitled Beyond the Culture Wars, the culture wars have now appropriated his thesis and made it into a weapon. In the Intelligent Design army, from Bush on down to every foot soldier, “teach the controversy” is the battle cry.

It is an effective one, for it takes the focus away from the scientific credibility of Intelligent Design — away from the question, “Why should it be taught in a biology class?” — and puts it instead on the more abstract issues of freedom and open inquiry. Rather than saying we’re right, the other guys are wrong, and here are the scientific reasons why, Intelligent Design polemicists say that every idea should at least get a hearing; that unpopular or minority views should always be represented; that questions of right and wrong should be left open; that what currently counts as knowledge should always be suspect, because it will typically reflect the interests and preferences of those in power.

By the end of his brief essay, Fish argues that I.D. proponents are guilty of — oh, he knows how to hit where it hurts — relativism:

In the guise of upping the stakes, Intelligent Designers lower them, moving immediately to a perspective so broad and inclusive that all claims are valued not because they have proven out in the contest of ideas but simply because they are claims. When any claim has a right to be heard and taught just because it is one, judgment falls by the wayside and is replaced by the imperative to let a hundred (or a million) flowers bloom.

There’s a word for this, and it’s relativism. Polemicists on the right regularly lambaste intellectuals on the left for promoting relativism and its attendant bad practices — relaxing or abandoning standards, opening the curriculum to any idea with a constituency attached to it, dismissing received wisdom by impugning the motives of those who have established it; disregarding inconvenient evidence and replacing it with grand theories supported by nothing but the partisan beliefs and desires of the theorizers. Whether or not this has ever been true of the right’s targets, it is now demonstrably true of the right itself, whose members now recite the mantras of “teach the controversy” or “keep the debate open” whenever they find it convenient.

I’ve been unable to find any response to Fish’s essay on the Discovery Institute’s website, or on Evolution News and Views, its blog that critiques media coverage of evolution debates.

Considering that Fish directly takes on Philip Johnson, and knowing how Johnson loves a good argument, the response should be worth the wait.

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