A dynamic, hip, inked leader offers salvation to the left

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It says a lot, in this financially tight age in American newsrooms, when editors put a reporter on an airplane and send her halfway across the nation to hear somebody preach.

In other words, the team at The Washington Post has decided that the work of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a truly national story, one with policy-cultural implications for American religion. After all, we know that the Post isn’t into covering mere “local” stories away from the Beltway.

That recent news feature on this rising star of oldline Protestantism is also interesting because she was about to visit Washington, D.C., for a speaking engagement, which means that the earlier feature story served as a kind of PR-friendly advance story to help build the gate and attract the base, to put this in political/entertainment terms. There was no need to head to Austin to catch the Denver-based punk pastor earlier on her tour, since she was coming to DC (which allowed the Post to feature her work a second time).

Interesting. So what is going on here?

What’s going on is that Bolz-Weber represents a charismatic development in the old, graying world of liberal mainline Protestantism, a highly symbolic slice of America’s religious marketplace that has been caught in a downward demographic spiral for several decades. Apparently, the consumer-friendly world of shopping mall faith likes what this woman is pushing, including her personal style — which the Post features in the lede:

AUSTIN – Nadia Bolz-Weber bounds into the University United Methodist Church sanctuary like a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian. Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.

Right up front, why strip this preacher of her title? Where is “the Rev.” in front of her name?

Also, it helps to know that she is (for the most part) drawing crowds in the hundreds, while a successful megachurch Christian pastor draws regular Sunday flocks that number in the thousands. How do Bolz-Weber’s market statistics compare with someone like, oh, that charismatic feel-good superstar, the Rev. Joel Osteen? Don’t ask.

Glance at the photos and videos from Bolz-Weber appearances and it appears that she is drawing a larger version of the usual liberal Protestant house, with a heavy emphasis on older singles and white people with gray hair and comfortable clothing. For the Post team, that means (hang on, because this gets complex):

To Bolz-Weber’s bafflement, this is now her congregation: mainstream America. These are the people who put her memoir near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out in September. They are the ones who follow her every tweet and Facebook post by the thousands, and who have made the Lutheran minister a budding star for the liberal Christian set. And who, as Bolz-Weber has described it in her frequently profane dialect, “are [mess]ing up my weird.”

A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers … cynics, alcoholics and queers.”

Which is where — strangely enough — the match with her fans makes sense. The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.

In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism. She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.

This is good stuff. The issue is whether the story will deliver the doctrinal details to flesh out the flash.

Here at GetReligion, we think this kind of detail is important since, from Day One, we have been saying that the press doesn’t devote enough ink to the religious, doctrinal content of liberal faith groups. All too often, stories about religious liberals focus on politics and that is that.

It’s clear that this Post piece is arguing that the faith content and the style of this preacher have substance and should be taken seriously. That’s good. So what is she saying? Are readers given substance, or just style?

[Read more...]

What is this “American Catholic Church,” anyway?

What we have here is kind of a Son of the WomenPriests story — with an interesting twist.

When covering the WomenPriests, mainstream reporters have used some very awkward language suggesting, to be blunt about it, that the WomenPriests are valid Roman Catholic priests for the simple reason that they say that they are valid Roman Catholic priests.

The implication is that the Catholic Church is not in charge of declaring who is and who is not a priest in the Catholic Church. As your GetReligionistas have stressed in our posts on this topic — click here for a small library — this is something like a journalist saying he is a columnist at The New York Times for the simple reason that this reporter has decided that he is a columnist at The New York Times. Does the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway play shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals? If she proclaimed this to be true, would major newspapers print her claim as truth?

This brings me to a short political story in The Austin America-Statesman in which it was crucial to clearly present the ecclesiastical status of a man who was once a Catholic priest and, now, is a different kind of priest.

The shock, this time around, is that the American-Statesman team comes very, very close to getting an A-grade for its efforts on this journalistic equation. Here’s the top of the story:

Austin school board newcomer Dr. Rev. Jayme Mathias narrowly defeated incumbent Sam Guzman early Wednesday morning to represent District 2, an area of East Austin deeply affected by last year’s school board decision to convert a neighborhood school to an in-district charter school run by an outside organization.

That controversial move made the unseating of a board member less surprising than it might have been.

What was a surprise was Mathias’ post-election comment to a reporter that he will be the first openly-gay school trustee, something he hadn’t mentioned during his campaign. However, people involved in the election — including his opponent — said they knew Mathias is gay, and it wasn’t an issue.

Now, that first reference to the man’s name is a bit strange. Most newspapers reserve “Dr.” references for people with medical degrees. Is that the case this time? It’s hard to know. Also, shouldn’t that be “the Rev.” Jayme Mathias? Some papers, in this case, would even say “Father” Jayme Mathias.

However, this man’s clerical status is a bit complex. However, that doesn’t mean that it could not be described in simple, brief, accurate language, in keeping with the fact that the religion element of this story is of secondary importance. Thus, readers are told:

Mathias, a former Roman Catholic priest, is the first non-Hispanic to represent District 2 since the school district moved to geographic representations in 1992.

“I’ve been ministering among the Hispanic community my entire adult life,” said Mathias. “I speak Spanish fluently. I’ve been so immersed in this culture, it’s absolutely part of who I am.”

Mathias said that in March he joined the more progressive American Catholic Church, which allows priests to marry or live in domestic partnerships. He is now pastor of Holy Family American Catholic Church.

Did the newspaper need to call the local Catholic diocese for clarification in this case? Probably not.

Did the newspaper — to provide clarity for readers — need to add at least one sentence, or phrase, about the history and size of the American Catholic Church?

I think that it would have helped. Why? Well, there are about 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. How many people are in this American Catholic communion? It’s hard to tell, but it appears there are 24 small parishes in this fold — in the world. Total global membership of 2,000 or so?

This would be an interesting detail to know, if the goal is to explain the pilgrimage of Mathias. All this would take is a sentence or two. That’s all.


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