More on Rice’s return to Rome

AnneRice smI cannot tell you how many times I have had readers ask me why so many religion-news stories seem to turn on the issue of homosexuality.

Actually, the issue at the heart of all this is broader — the moral status of sex outside of marriage and the sexual revolution in general. Behind that looms a mountain range of towering issues linked to ancient Christian doctrines, traditions and biblical authority. But it’s the fights over gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered that are getting the headlines right now. That’s what is making news.

For example, consider this update on the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc’s recent post about the religious revival in the life of the controversial Anne “Interview With the Vampire” Rice. Her new book is titled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and it is the first installment in a series on the life of Jesus.

Rice made news with her testimony that she has returned to the Roman Catholic faith. However, you just knew that sexuality questions had to be in there somewhere.

This is not surprising, since her writings have always been popular in the gay community. It is also not surprising that sexuality shows up in a lengthy report in The New York Times. Reporter Laura Millier is writing a feature story about Rice’s new home in California, yet we still get to learn:

In 1998 Ms. Rice rejoined the Roman Catholic Church for the first time since suffering a “total breakdown of faith” at age 18. “That was in 1960, before Vatican II, and I was a very strictly brought-up Catholic,” she explained. “I lost my faith because what I had been taught was so wrong.” An overwhelming desire to “return to the banquet table” and assurances from a priest in New Orleans that she didn’t have to resolve all her differences with the church (most notably over the issue of homosexuality) led to the reconciliation.

Well now, I wonder — when these books reach the adult life of Jesus — what we will learn about his relationship with Mary Magdalene? I would not be surprised in Rice’s series turns out to be a major event on the Christian left.

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The return of St. Mad Max

chichenSo Mel Gibson’s next movie is in the Mayan language, but the title (Apocalypto) is the Greek word for “a new beginning.”

It’s about the rise and fall of civilizations, and it would seem that Gibson may be able to have the Maya empire fall before the Catholic missionaries and Spanish conquistadors arrive on the scene. But who knows? Rare is the movie that can make Alpha Males scratch their heads in Hollywood, Colorado Springs and (probably) Rome.

We do know that it’s going to be bloody and the creator of The Passion of the Christ may turn the movie into some kind of parable about the modern world.

As you would expect, the Los Angeles Times had a reporter at the Veracruz, Mexico, press conference in which a bearded Gibson tried to explain his latest renegade, self-funded project. Reporter Reed Johnson made an admirable attempt to stay away from speculation on how this new film will be marketed to born-again Christians and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics who love warfare and rituals that involve lots of knives.

But there is a hint at the end of his newsy report about the debates that may pop up in the future.

… (While) violence may be an unavoidable ingredient in a story about a civilization in conflict, so too is a quest for understanding, he indicated. Immersing himself in the Maya world, after the Judeo-Christian worldview of “The Passion,” has been “kind of this anthropological journey.”

“It’s amazing, it’s fascinating, and it makes your brain work overtime. In fact, you meet yourself coming and going. I mean, there are some questions that you simply can’t answer. But that doesn’t stop the search.”

Stay tuned. We have not heard from Frank Rich yet.

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Help Jeremy find pop hypocrites

frank02I’m on the road in Kansas City. Can you imagine a national journalism conference with no WiFi? Frustrating.

Anyway, I did manage to notice (hat tip to Amy Welborn, yet again) that young master Jeremy Lott has issued a public call for help as he researches the mass-media angles of his upcoming book on the virtues of hypocrisy. His appeal does not have a strong news hook, unless some link this to Karl Rove, but I think GetReligion readers will find it fun anyway.

Dive in! Help out this young journalist! He writes:

… (This) is one of my rare requests for advice. The fourth chapter of my book will wrestle with hypocrisy in Hollywood. I’m looking for two kinds of information:

1) Quotes by celebs condemning hypocrites or hypocrisy. If you send these in, please identify the source of the quotation.

2) Famous hypocrites in film. Obvious candidates include Captain Renault in Casablanca, Robert Duvall in The Apostle, and Steve Martin in Leap of Faith.

Have at it folks. My e-mail address is JEREMYAL123 — AT — YAHOO — DOT — COM.

OK, I’ll take the challenge. Let’s assume that by “Hollywood” Jeremy means either television or film. If that is the case, I would argue that the most famous and, in some ways, influential hypocrite in the pop-culture era of the Baby Boomers would have to be Maj. Frank Burns of M*A*S*H.

All the key elements are there — a stupid white male conservative who thinks of himself as a puritan while shagging a nearby blonde hypocrite who is later liberated to become a brilliant feminist by the brilliant sensitive liberals (whether faithfully married or gleefully unmarried).

I think Frank Burns, in many ways, was just as powerful a figure as Archie Bunker.

The challenge in this thread is going to be nominating people who are not carbon copies of the old Elmer Gantry template. Jump in, readers. At the very least, let’s come up with a dozen or so five-star pop-culture hypocrites. Let’s go for superstars and not sink into Jim and Tammy Bakker territory.

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Bono on sex, God and rock & roll

BonoInRSOne of the more endearing things about Jann Wenner is that he still writes for Rolling Stone nearly 40 years after founding it. His pieces are memorable: a lengthy Q&A with John Lennon shortly before Lennon’s murder, a gang interview with presidential candidate Bill Clinton at Doe’s Eat Place and off a one-page editorial endorsing Al Gore. Whenever Wenner contributes again to the pages of his flagship, you can be sure he’ll bring passion to it.

Who can blame Wenner for claiming some of the best assignments for himself? His cover story for the Nov. 3 Rolling Stone, based on roughly 10 hours of interviewing Bono, is one such assignment, and this time he’s sharing some of the audio in a podcast series.

The first podcast, and an excerpt of the cover story, give Bono another chance to discuss his faith. It’s one of the lengthier and more relaxed conversations Bono has engaged in about religion. (The book Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas offers more.)

One of the most fascinating segments concerns Bono’s understanding of, to turn a phrase of tmatt’s, sex, salvation and rock & roll:

Here’s the strange bit: Most of the people that you grew up with in black music had a similar baptism of the spirit, right? The difference is that most of these performers felt they could not express their sexuality before God. They had to turn away. So rock & roll became backsliders’ music. They were running away from God. But I never believed that. I never saw it as being a choice, an either/or thing.

You never saw rock & roll — the so-called devil’s music — as incompatible with religion?

Look at the people who have formed my imagination. Bob Dylan. Nineteen seventy-six — he’s going through similar stuff. You buy Patti Smith: Horses — “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine . . .” And she turns Van Morrison’s “Gloria” into liturgy. She’s wrestling with these demons — Catholicism in her case. Right the way through to Wave, where she’s talking to the pope.

The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognize the pivot, that God is at the center of the jaunt. So the blues, on one hand — running away; gospel, the Mighty Clouds of Joy — running towards. And later you came to analyze it and figure it out.

The blues are like the Psalms of David. Here was this character, living in a cave, whose outbursts were as much criticism as praise. There’s David singing, “Oh, God — where are you when I need you?/You call yourself God?” And you go, this is the blues.

I’ve sometimes expressed dismay about Bono’s sense of the ribald. This interview helps me understand it better. Thanks to Wenner for sharing his celebrity access with the rest of us, and for engaging Bono on a topic that’s always sure to satisfy those of us who love both U2 and God.

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Yes, Newsweek missed the Church Ladies

NewsweekOprahFor the past week or so, something kept bothering me about the Newsweek cover story titled “How Women Lead.”

I mean, I survived reading the thing (it is soooooo neo-People magazine) and I even marked it up a bit. Then I tossed it on my desk and it has been there ever since, staring at me. If you want to see the basic, non-ghostly holes poked in it, I suggest that you turn to Myrna Blyth’s “Girly Gobbledygook” column at National Review Online.

But I decided pretty quick that there wasn’t much to write about, looking at “How Women Lead” from a GetReligion point of view.

Then somebody sent me a reminder about the recent Christine Rosen “Houses of Worship” essay in The Wall Street Journal. That’s the one with this punchy, even pushy headline: “Church Ladies — Women dominate America’s pews. Is that a problem?” Here is the opening of that essay:

This fall, the entering class of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, is 34% female. At Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, women are nearly half the student body. At many Protestant seminaries, women pastoral students now outnumber men, and between 1983 and 2000 the number of women who identified themselves as clergy tripled. It seems that Catholic scholar Leon Podles’s prediction of a few years ago, that “the Protestant clergy will be a characteristically female occupation, like nursing, within a generation,” may soon prove true.

Pulpits aren’t the only places that women dominate. According to a recent survey, the typical U.S. congregation is 61% female. Women are also the force behind most lay organizations and volunteer activities and make up the majority of church employees.

Bingo. Now I knew what was bugging me about that shallow Newsweek cover story. Somehow, the team that produced it forgot about the Church Ladies and the tremendous impact that women are having on modern sanctuaries.

This is a big news story. Some social critics will even say that this rise in female power is directly linked to at least three major Godbeat stories — the lack of men in pews, the decline of the liberal mainline and the rise (sort of, the stats suggest more like a plateau) of the new conservative mainstream. 0785260382

Here is what that argument sounds like, with Rosen riffing on the work of David Murrow, author of the book Why Men Hate Going to Church.

Interestingly, Mr. Murrow notes that, among the major Christian denominations, it is the mainline churches that suffer the largest gender gaps in church attendance. These churches, still pilloried by feminists for their patriarchal pretensions, have in fact become spiritual sorority houses. It is the more conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, that have the most even ratios. In these more traditional churches, many of which do not have female clergy, parishioners hear less about cooperation and feel-good spirituality and more about spiritual rigor and the competition to win souls. Churches that embrace male leadership, including the Roman Catholic Church, remain the largest in the country, and the Mormon Church, which also does not have female clergy, is the fastest-growing.

(Personal note: Before people start leaving comments on this, let me confess that my family worships in an Eastern Orthodox parish, the most ancient of churches and one in which women can be saints, theologians, professors, iconographers, apologists and all kinds of things, but not priests.)

The power of religion does show up — very briefly — in the Newsweek mini-profile of Brigadier General Sheila Baxter. I had noticed this reference, with its strong faith language, but this theme had really not been woven into the piece. Baxter testifies:

The other thing that is very important is my spiritual background. I received my calling in the ministry in 1988 when I was stationed in Germany. The Lord called me through a dream. It was 2 in the morning and I jumped up out of the bed. I heard his voice clearly. The next day I talked to my pastor and he put me into a training program. I was licensed with the Church of God in Christ. When I retire, I plan to go to seminary and pursue a divinity degree.

However, note that the Church of God in Christ is a very conservative denomination, in terms of its culture and social views. It ordains women, but this is not a flock that most people would put on the left side of the sanctuary when it comes to moral issues and basic doctrine. This is not the United Church of Christ.

No, I think that the most important piece of Godtalk in the Newsweek package, the one most closely linked to the skyrocketing statistics about women in pews and mainline pulpits, can be found in the profile of the Rt. Rev. Oprah Winfrey.

Come to think of it, this paragraph is the closest thing this cover package offered to a thesis statement. Maybe there is a ghost in there after all.

And behold, Oprah said:

All the women leaders I have met led with a greater sense of intuition than men. I am almost completely intuitive. The only time I’ve made a bad business decision is when I didn’t follow my instinct. My favorite phrase is: “Let me pray on it.” Sometimes I literally do pray, but sometimes I just wait to see if I wake up and feel the same way in the morning.

And millions of Americans said: “Amen.”

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Newsweek’s mailbag

mail callThe mail call for Newsweek‘s splash on the Mormon Church was thick and heavy, judging by those letters published in this week’s issue. There are a total of 15, by my count. Here’s a good summary:

One member “anxious about inaccuracies” was “pleasantly surprised at the great job of compactly presenting such a huge topic.” Another insisted that “the Mormon Church has no need to ‘confront’ its past.” Still another wondered how an article by “a current member of the church could offer a ‘fair and balanced’ portrayal.” Many readers took exception to calling Mormonism a Christian denomination, and others criticized the church for its secret ceremonies and exclusivity. “The Mormon Church is a Masonic lodge dressed up for public view as a Christian church,” a former member said. Others questioned Mormonism’s history, pointing to the frequently altered Book of Mormon and founder Joseph Smith’s reported discovery of gold plates. Charged one, “This obviously fairy-tale religion was founded by a boy magician and latter-day con man.”

Some of the letters are quite vicious, many voicing the opinions already voiced on this blog, but in Newsweek, as with most publications, full names and localities are published. The effort involved and the publication of a bit more personal information somehow give them more weight.

The highlight for me was the letter addressing the issue of Newsweek‘s allowing a lifelong Mormon to report the piece:

Elise Soukup may be a lifelong Mormon, but her reporting displays little knowledge of Christianity. She wrote a nice PR piece for the Mormon Church, which fits well into its campaign to promote itself as mainstream and Christian. When Soukup notes the wonderful care the Mormon Church gives the daily needs of its members, she is correct. The Mormons are unlike the Lutherans or Catholics who, with their huge social-service programs, take care of anyone in need. Caring for all, not just one’s own church members, is what Jesus taught his followers to do.
Charles Jones
Chicago, Ill.

So is Mr. Jones being sarcastic? I believe so. But I’m having trouble sorting out his exact point.

More importantly, is this a big issue? Frequent GetReligion commenter Stephen A. first brought this to our attention early on. It’s something I wish I had known for the original post, because part of me believes this should have been disclosed in the article, but that could establish a bad precedent for religion reporting.

In an online chat, Soukup is quick to disclose this fact. Perhaps that’s a more appropriate forum for disclosing personal information like this.

She addresses it later in the chat and is quite upfront about it:

Salt Lake City, UT:
How can you write a cover with your conflict of interest, without disclosing your bias in your article?
Elise Soukup: Good question. In the [editor's] note at the front of the magazine, I’m identified as “a lifelong member of the Mormon Church.” I am definitely upfront about it! But the larger question is the one of, how can you write an article about a church if you are a believing member? First off, I have to say that I am just one of the many people that worked on this article before it made it to print. It went through several senior editors — none of them Mormon. So there’s definitely a checks and balance system! With that said, it’s not uncommon for reporters to write about what they know (e.g. I believe that the person who wrote last week’s TIME article about gay teens was gay himself). But my job became easy when I realized that I didn’t have to take sides. Really, what I tried to do was provide a straightforward and candid account of founder Joseph Smith, the church he established and the most common debates or controversies that are discussed. I’ve gotten angry letters on both sides, so I feel that I’m doing my job.

Just doing her job, trying to be straightforward, receiving angry letters from both sides … as a journalist, this works for me.

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Face it, the Miers nomination is …

Toast btIn a city that is already buzzing with gossip, it takes a really hot story to crank the chatter up another notch. Well, the latest Washington Post twist in the saga of Harriet Miers and God certainly did that. Here’s the bottom line in reporter Jo Becker’s fine story (which deserved much better headlines): Bush’s legal sidekick, while serving as president of the Texas Bar Association, told elite female audiences that she backed what is essentially a libertarian position on abortion.

That will be very hard to spin in Colorado Springs. Thus, Becker reports:

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate said that Miers’s speech … appears to contradict a position she took just four years earlier, when she was running for the Dallas City Council. Then, she told activists at the Texans for Life Coalition she personally believed that abortion was murder and filled out a questionnaire for an antiabortion group in which she checked a box pledging to “actively support” a constitutional amendment banning abortions except to save a woman’s life.

Former NARAL Pro-Choice America president Kate Michelman said the right to self-determination is at the heart of the case law granting a woman’s right to an abortion.

“If you take what she said at face value, you would conclude that she recognizes the right of a woman to choose an abortion as a matter of self-determination,” Michelman said. “She seems to be a woman who over time is pulled in different directions, as many of us are, as she searched for answers.”

Journalists will want to note that the website package includes links to the two key speech texts, both in PDF, here and here. I would imagine that many, many copies of these texts are being printed out in several Christian right offices today, and we can expect MSM stories tomorrow on reactions from all of the usual zip codes.

Unless, of course, somebody you know where leaks you know what about you know who.

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Hat tip to Duin (two of them, in fact)

questionsBIG2One of the advantages of having a veteran reporter on the Godbeat is that they have long memories and they can spot key updates in ongoing stories. Here are two fine examples, in the recent work of Julia Duin at The Washington Times. Both of these stories are linked to one of the major U.S. religion trends of the past generation or two, the statistical implosion of what was once called mainline Protestantism.

• Remember those hot United Church of Christ ads that trumpeted this denomination’s more-inclusive-than-thou status on issues of sex, race, singleness, handicaps and who knows what all? The church on the left edge of American Protestantism is preparing another wave of ads, and Duin has a very informative interview with the Rev. Ron Buford about what is ahead in this drive to find a way to do liberal evangelism. Here is a sample:

Although evangelical Christian groups have boomed since the 1960s, mainline Protestant denominations have hemorrhaged members because of differences over women’s ordination, issues surrounding homosexuality, biblical interpretations and the importance of evangelism. After the UCC unearthed, through market research, an undercurrent of alienation among unchurched Americans toward church in general, it began playing up themes of inclusivity and acceptance.

“I consider ourselves evangelical, too,” Mr. Buford said, “but for a different market segment.”

The hook for Duin’s report is that other churches on the religious left are launching similar efforts, trying to reach beyond their aging demographics. (Our thanks to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington for granting permission to reproduce one of its ads in this post.)

• Speaking of Episcopalians, Duin (who has a degree from an evangelical Anglican seminary) latched on to a hot lead out there in cyberspace. It seems that someone connected to (or close to) the Episcopal Church leaked a key set of notes from an anti-traditionalist strategy session to someone who forwarded them to someone who carbon-copied (or blind carbon-copied) a set to the famous (or infamous) Anglican news-blogger David W. Virtue. The key question, of course, is this: Is the material real?

Duin quickly confirms that, along with the detail that plans are in fact underway to toss out as many as 16 conservative Episcopal bishops:

Informally named the “Day After” for the aftermath of the June 13-21 event, the strategy outlines a way to file canonical charges against conservative bishops, unseat them from their dioceses, have interim bishops waiting to replace them and draft lawsuits ready to file before secular courts for possession of diocesan property. The strategy was revealed in a leaked copy of minutes drafted at a Sept. 29 meeting in Dallas of a 10-member steering committee for Via Media, a network of 13 liberal independent Episcopal groups.

“It was a worst-case scenario — what people in various dioceses would need to do if their bishop and much of their diocesan leadership decided to walk away from the Episcopal Church,” said Joan Gundersen, the steering committee member who drafted the minutes. Conservatives also “have made statements to that effect,” she said.

Where in the world are the major dailies on this story? There are all kinds of explosive details in here, including Duin’s note that: “In July, about 20 liberal and conservative Episcopal bishops met secretly in Los Angeles to discuss how to divide billions in church assets in the event of a split.”

UPDATE: Doug LeBlanca participant in this Anglican story, and thus silent about it — tells me that the religious-press scoop on the Via Media story belongs to the venerable journal for Episcopalians called The Living Church. I will try to confirm that, if and when I can ever get the publication’s slow website to respond and let me read the story.

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