The tolerant quote of the day

main cap tree borderThe following sort of reminds me of the story about Georgetown University debating the wisdom of removing crucifixes from its classrooms as a sign of that very hip Catholic school’s commitment to diversity. In the midst of the mini-media storm, it was the Muslims on campus who said the whole idea was nuts. In fact, a Muslim chaplain threatened to resign if the school took this step.

Now we have this interesting quotation, from a blunt editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer defending public officials who take the controversial step of calling a Christmas tree a “Christmas tree” in this troubled age:

Let’s be clear. Christmas is a holiday for Christians, when believers celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. Calling it what is, is not meant to slight those who don’t believe as Christians do.

Karen Dabdoub, president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was right when she told the Enquirer: “Who are we fooling? The Jews don’t put up a tree for Hanukah; the Muslims don’t put up a tree for Ramadan. It doesn’t take away from my celebration of my holiday for other people to celebrate their holiday. I don’t want anybody’s holidays to be watered-down. I think they’re all wonderful.”

Oh my. I think this attitude is called “tolerance” — “civic tolerance” (as opposed to “theological tolerance”), to be precise.

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Moving beyond the North Pole

Most of my friends recall the moment they figured out that Santa Claus wasn’t real. They would joke about the psychological harm the revelation had on their fragile 8-year-old psyches. I never experienced this because for some odd reason my wonderful parents never taught me about him. This matters not at all to me but apparently harmed my mother who now has made up for lost time with a bit of a Santa obsession. Her conception of the jolly old man is based on the Clement Moore version, of course.

My Santa revelation experience occurred later in life when I found out he was real — and important. The Dutch called him Sinterklass, which we Americans morphed into Santa Claus. But the man behind the legend is St. Nicholas, fourth century Bishop of Myra. Born into great wealth, he served God by giving away his inherited fortune and became renowned for his generosity to the poor and needy.

The most famous of many stories told about him is how he saved three girls from a life of prostitution by tossing dowry money through their windows so they could get married. Yet for a man about whom so little is verified, his legend crossed all over the world. Much of Europe (he is Greece’s patron saint) celebrates his feast day today; German children put out their shoes last night and woke to find them filled with candy and toys this morning. (The Orthodox do this too.)

Celebrations also occur today throughout the United States. St. Nicholas is one of the few saints to be recognized and popular in both Eastern and Western Christianity. It’s not uncommon to find Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran or Episcopalian churches named in his honor.

Rather than mapping their seasonal coverage directly onto the retail calendar, complete with the glowing profiles of the Sacred Santa ensconced in his Bishop’s seat at the local sanctuary mall, reporters might do well to look at how locals are marking St. Nicholas’ day. Some reporters already managed this in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.

David Crumm, the Detroit Free Press religion writer, had a great local angle on the story with his profile of a woman who promotes the celebration of St. Nicholas.

Since the Web site was launched in 2002, Carol Myers’ nonprofit promotion of St. Nicholas has become her year-round job. Every day, she adds to the vast collection of educational materials, history and festive holiday ideas at www.stnicholascenter.org, because she is convinced there’s a growing interest in the religious traditions of Christmas. She argues that there’s far more to this season than the elves, red-nosed reindeer and talking snowmen that often overshadow the faith.

Myers’ biggest effort is promoting St. Nicholas’ feast day on Tuesday, when millions of Christians celebrate the 4th-Century saint, who was born in what is now Turkey and was famous for helping the poor.

“I’m not anti-Santa,” Myers said this week. “But, I do want people to know that this figure is based on a real person with a deep faith in God and compassion for people in need. At this time of year, I want people to focus more on compassion and less on consumption.”

On a related note, the Philadelphia Inquirer runs a feature called the Interfaith Calendar. It posts dates of import to the world’s religions. Here’s how it read for today (emphasis mine):

Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox (New Calendar), Byzantine Rite Catholic
Feast of St. Nicholas, legendary fourth-century archbishop of Myra. He is known in the East as the “Wonderworker” and as patron of the Byzantine Rite faithful. He is also the patron of children, scholars and merchants and one of the ancestors of Santa Claus. Traditionally, this was the first of the Christmas season’s gift-giving days.

Argh! How many times must we remind reporters that corporations and the Christian church use different calendars? The Christmas season for the former begins in, what, September? For the Christians, it begins on, well, Christmas. We’re still in Advent, people.

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How woman can shape the story in Europe

women's studiesAs a college student, I was often confused and frustrated that my university offered classes on women’s studies. I did not understand what the big deal was. But after a time, I learned that unique perspectives can be gained through a study of the history of women, a sociological study of women at a certain time and place or a study of female poets in the late 1800s. Such studies can lead to misperceptions if they are not properly balanced, but overall the knowledge contributed to furthering my education of how the world got to where it is now.

Such is the case with this New York Times Magazine article on female German Muslims and the challenges they face. Written by Peter Schneider, a writer based in Berlin, it pre-empts what could be a huge story in a matter of years, or even months, giving readers a roadmap of the territory, which is something magazines and their writers tend to excel. It is a frightening piece overall, that is at sometimes shocking.

Here’s the territory on which Schneider guides us:

Heavily veiled women wearing long coats even in summer are becoming an increasingly familiar sight in German Muslim neighborhoods. According to Necla Kelek’s research, they are mostly under-age girls who have been bought — often for a handsome payment — in the Turkish heartland villages of Anatolia by mothers whose sons in Germany are ready to marry. The girls are then flown to Germany, and “with every new imported bride,” Kelek says, “the parallel society grows.” Meanwhile, Ates summarizes, “Turkish men who wish to marry and live by Shariah can do so with far less impediment in Berlin than in Istanbul.”

Before the murder of Hatun Surucu there were enough warnings to engage the Germans in a debate about the parallel society growing in their midst. There have been 49 known “honor crimes,” most involving female victims, during the past nine years — 16 in Berlin alone. Such crimes are reported in the “miscellaneous” column along with other family tragedies and given a five-line treatment. Indeed, it’s possible that the murder of Hatun Surucu never would have made the headlines at all but for another piece of news that stirred up the press. Just a few hundred yards from where Surucu was killed, at the Thomas Morus High School, three Muslim students soon openly declared their approval of the murder. Shortly before that, the same students had bullied a fellow pupil because her clothing was “not in keeping with the religious regulations.” Volker Steffens, the school’s director, decided to make the matter public in a letter to students, parents and teachers. More than anything else, it was the students’ open praise of the murder that made the crime against Hatun Surucu the talk of Berlin and soon of all Germany.

In a skillful way, Schneider ties this article into the issue of terrorism and national identity that is facing European countries. Terrorist attacks in first Spain, then the London bombings and now riots in France are causing European governments to re-think their immigration policies, their police powers and even their own identities as countries, as Schneider explains:

Germans’ confidence that their nation can continue as it had been – integrating immigrants without an integration policy, remaining true to the traditional German identity, preserving the reassuring post-1945 chronology of advancing modernism – is on the line. It turns out that in the heart of German cities a society is growing up that turns modernity on its head. …

The German-Turkish author Necla Kelek sums it up this way in “The Foreign Bride”: “The guest workers turned into Turks, and the Turks turned into Muslims.”

Schneider ties it all together in this paragraph with a striking condemnation of Islam and how it must change if it is to integrate with the Western world:

Politicians and religious scholars of all faiths are right in pointing out that there are many varieties of Islam, that Islamism and Islam should not be confused, that there is no line in the Koran that would justify murder. But the assertion that radical Islamic fundamentalism and Islam have nothing to do with each other is like asserting that there was no link between Stalinism and Communism. The fact is that disregard for women’s rights — especially the right to sexual self-determination — is an integral component of almost all Islamic societies, including those in the West. Unless this issue is solved, with a corresponding reform of Islam as practiced in the West, there will never be a successful acculturation.

Can this integration happen? Coverage of this story — the eventual collision between Islam and Western societies in Europe — has been spotty here in the United States. The coverage is certainly different in Europe, but I’m not talking about major front-page take-outs in the Economist or Le Monde. I’m talking about the everyday stories that engrain an issue into a community’s consciousness (check out some examples here, here and here). If any GetReligion readers out there know of some good ones, please pass them on to us.

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Put Christmas back in the church

manager emptyThis Associated Press report is one of those “believe it or not” stories that you just have to write straight and let the readers shake their head.

Or is it just me that thinks this way, since I am one of those strange liturgical calendar kind of guys?

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Central Kentucky’s largest church will be dark on Christmas Day, a decision drawing some criticism among the faithful.

Southland Christian Church near Lexington is joining several evangelical megachurches across the country in canceling services for the holiday, which this year falls on a Sunday. Officials at the church, where about 7,000 people worship each week, said the move is designed to allow staff members and volunteers to spend the holiday with their families.

The megachurches, which rank among the largest congregations in America, will hold multiple Christmas Eve services instead. Among the churches closed on Christmas Day are Willow Creek Community Church, the Chicago area’s largest congregation; Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich.; North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.; and Fellowship Church near Dallas.

The move is drawing mixed reviews. Critics say it’s the day of the week — not the day of the year — that’s sacred. To them, closing the doors of the church on the Lord’s Day is unthinkable.

Some churches are scaling down their Sunday schedule on Christmas. Louisville’s Southeast Christian Church, where 18,000 people worship each weekend, is scheduled to hold one service on Christmas in the fellowship hall.

You know, I think Easter falls on Sunday as well and that can be inconvenient, too.

But, seriously, this is a wonderful example of a news story that is the mirror image of the Christmas Wars story that some of you are so tired of, it seems. (Thanks for the link, Michael.) Actually, I remain interested in the “Merry Christmas” speech battles because, like Ms. Mollie, I am interested in anything that has to do with the blurring of public speech about religion. I am interested in what happens when people call out the lawyers to settle religious issues.

But the story that interests me just as much or more is the amazing fade out of Christmas in real, live, big-sign-on-the-lawn CHURCHES. It seems that the actual traditions of Christmas are being rolled over by The Commercialized Holidays Steamroller — and the mall calendar that goes with it — inside the doors of actual churches.

So I wish the Associated Press or one of the local newspapers touched by this trend had gone a step or two further and let us know what the leaders of these megachurches were actually thinking when they made this decision.

Do Christmas rites matter? Why not? Put Christ in Christmas? How about put Christmas back in the Church? Having the Feast of the Nativity fall on a Sunday morning would seem, to me, to be a chance to do more with this holy day — the first day of the 12-day Christmas season — rather than less.

If anyone sees a report of a Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran or Eastern Orthodox congregation canceling Christmas morning services or scaling them back, please let me know.

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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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