Jews and Jesus: A ‘Spiritual Incursion’ in St. Louis

The breaking news — only 2,000 years old — that Christians and Jews have vastly different views of Jesus made the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over the weekend (and was picked up nationally by Religion News Service this week).

To be more specific, the Post-Dispatch featured a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation that seeks to convert Jews.

The newspaper’s main headline immediately cast the effort in a negative light:

SPIRITUAL INCURSION

Now, according to my online dictionary, incursion implies “a hostile entrance into or invasion of a place or territory.” Perhaps the headline is a major reason that the story upset so many folks in the LCMS. That, and the fact that the piece used phrases such as “targeted for conversion” to describe evangelism efforts by the Lutheran congregation.

The subhead was equally tilted:

Lutheran outreach draws criticism from Jewish groups

Contrast that with RNS’ much more down-the-middle headline, which perhaps sets a different tone:

Lutheran ministry seeks to convert Jews 

Now, at major newspapers such as the Post-Dispatch, copy editors — not the person with the byline on the story — typically write the headline. I thought the story itself, written by a Godbeat pro, was actually pretty good. Of course, given my role as a media critic, I do have a few quibbles with the piece. Call it an occupational hazard.

Let’s start at the top:

In a small storefront in Dogtown, a St. Louis neighborhood known for its celebration of the Christian missionary St. Patrick, sits a congregation dedicated to converting Jews.

Congregation Chai v’ Shalom is tiny by most standards, with weekly attendance averaging somewhere between 30 and 40 members. But it has the backing of the 2-million member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

And its mission fits squarely into the Synod’s controversial effort to preach the message that Jesus was the Messiah to Jews, in hope that they will become Christian and gain salvation.

On a recent Sunday morning, a couple dozen gathered at Congregation Chai v’ Shalom, a makeshift space where stars of David, one with a cross placed in the middle, hang prominently on the walls, alongside what looks like a random collection of paintings.

The vast majority of those who attend Chai v’ Shalom are not Jewish, but they are interested in reaching out to Jews. The service itself even caters to Jews, where the Shema, a central Jewish prayer, is recited and much of the lively singing is in Hebrew.

That’s a nice lede, filled with important detail and colorful description.

My quibble is a single word that has become cliche: “controversial.” Would the lede be any less effective without that adjective? Would the writing be any more precise? To me, inserting that term there adds an unnecessary level of editorializing — even without the headline and subhead.

Instead, why not present the facts and let the readers decide if this approach is, in fact, controversial? 

Let’s read some more:

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NYTimes offers tales of two very different Christian colleges

The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana, has had a reputation as one of the toughest places for criminals to do time in this country. If you go in, and the crime is serious enough, you’re not likely to come out. For years, decades even, the prison was a hotbed of violence and strife.

While still not a “country club” institution, the temperature and mood at the Louisiana State Penitentiary has changed, and the introduction of classes from a Southern Baptist college are apparently part of the new equation. The New York Times is on the scene:

Like most of his fellow inmates, Daryl Walters, 45, can expect to spend the rest of his days in the infamous prison on a former slave plantation here. He was sentenced to life without parole for a murder more than 20 years ago in a state where a life sentence means just that.

Yet there he was on a recent evening, preaching the Gospel to 200 men in a spired church in the heart of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, talking salvation and joy to murderers and rapists and robbers who waved their arms to an inmate band’s Christian worship music.

“God is merciful,” intoned Mr. Walters, an assistant pastor at one of many churches scattered through this maximum-security prison, informally known as Angola. “God gives us so many benefits.”

Mr. Walters is a graduate of one of the most unusual prison programs in the country: a Southern Baptist Bible college inside this sprawling facility, offering bachelor’s degrees in a rigorous four-year course that includes study of Greek and Hebrew as well as techniques for “sidewalk ministry” that inmates can practice in their dorms and meal lines.

The story, by reporter Erik Eckholm, touches all the bases and quotes approvingly from the prison’s warden, and includes a left-handed compliment from an official of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter:

Mr. Cain has used religion and peer counseling — backed by sharp discipline for defiant behavior — to promote what he calls a “moral rehabilitation” of individuals and a sense of community among men who might easily be consumed by rage or despair.

“The greatest enemy here is lack of hope,” Mr. Cain said in an interview. …

Still, the seminary appears to be legal because it is paid for privately, is voluntary and admits non-Christians, said Marjorie R. Esman, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. in Louisiana.

“I think that what Burl Cain calls moral rehabilitation is, in his mind, religious doctrine, but a lot of good has come of it,” Ms. Esman said. “I think it’s unfortunate that the only college available is a Christian one, but the fact that a college is there at all is important.”

There is one source of expertise missing from the piece, and that’s anyone from Prison Fellowship, the organization founded by the late Chuck Colson and perhaps the largest evangelical Christian organization specializing in prison ministry. Surely someone could be found there to offer an informed comment, but the group is oddly absent. Instead, the Times team turns to two academics for the pro-and-con (no pun intended):

Whether religion, per se, helps create peaceful prisons and reduce recidivism is a matter of scholarly dispute. Byron R. Johnson, a criminologist at Baylor University and the author of “More God, Less Crime,” argues that studies have shown the benefits of faith in rehabilitating criminals. He is now leading a study of the impact of the Baptist seminaries inside Angola and the Darrington prison in Texas.

But Winnifred F. Sullivan, a professor of religious studies and law at Indiana University, said, “There is no firm evidence that it is the faith component that makes these programs work.”

Overall, however, the story is solid and the emphasis on the positive aspects of the program is a welcome one. Readers with an interest in the subject will want to catch the multimedia elements of the piece, which includes nearly two minutes of audio from inmate/minister Daryl Walters. Hearing his testimony might put a lump in your throat.

On the other hand, Timesman Joseph Berger, who “served as chief religion correspondent” for the paper “from 1985 to 1987,” comes up a tad short, I believe, with a discussion of a new Christian college campus in Dutchess County, New York:

For 20 years, the 80 brick buildings of what was once the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center have lain fallow, their weathered faces hidden by untamed vines, their windows buckling, their emerald lawns turning to weeds.

Local residents have long been dismayed at the waste of such a handsome rustic property set in a green valley between two ridges.

Then in the summer, the lawns were mowed, the ivy and brush stripped away, and bulldozers cleared land for a soccer field. A sign appeared: Olivet Center. Townspeople learned that the mysterious new owner of most of the 900-acre property was Olivet University, a small evangelical Christian college of about 250 undergraduates based in San Francisco.

Olivet wanted to open a campus 65 miles north of New York City, not exactly the evangelical heartland, but perhaps a new frontier for attracting believers.

Dutchess County may not be the “Bible Belt,” but has there not been some growth in evangelical churches there in the past 20 years? I’m fairly sure there has been, and it might have helped to put a little more effort into finding that out, such as locating and talking with some local pastors, perhaps.

The Olivet University in this story is connected with controversy, however, and the Times team is quick to point that out:

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Valid apologetics or another case of Anglican syncretism?

Sometimes it seems that the Church of England just can’t catch a break.

Now, trust me, I know that some very strange things have gone on in recent decades in the hazy spiritual territory between Anglicanism and hip, alternative forms of spirituality. Trust me on that.

However, The Telegraph recently published a story that — if you know any of the basics about the players and the teams inside the modern Church of England — just didn’t make any sense.

The context, of course, is that Anglicanism — in the West, as opposed to the Global South — is in a state of demographic collapse. So all kinds of people are doing all kinds of strange, or even logical, things in the name of apologetics and evangelism. On the liberal side of the doctrinal fence, this can sometimes lead straight to the door called syncretism — with the lines between major world religions getting blurred in ways that can warp the creedal basics of the faith.

That appears to be what is going on in this Telegraph report:

The church is training ministers to create “a pagan church where Christianity [is] very much in the centre” to attract spiritual believers.

Ministers are being trained to create new forms of Anglicanism suitable for people of alternative beliefs as part of a Church of England drive to retain congregation numbers.

Reverend Steve Hollinghurst, a researcher and adviser in new religious movements told the BBC: “I would be looking to formulate an exploration of the Christian faith that would be at home in their culture.” He said it would be “almost to create a pagan church where Christianity was very much in the centre.”

Now here is the crucial question: Is this an attempt to create an Anglican approach that fuses or blends elements of Christianity and streams of pagan or neopagan belief, or is the goal to ask Anglican ministers and parishes to address some of the specific concerns and questions of people who are seeking answers by turning to other religions?

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Why can’t press get religion, when covering black churches?

Let’s face it. The mainstream press really struggles when trying to cover life in African-American churches.

On one level, black churches are treated like giant political institutions that — in a city like Baltimore — speak for a crucial segment of the voting public.

There is some truth in that view. Any student of American religion knows that, for generations, the pulpits of major churches played a central role in black culture, a place where strong, prophetic voices could be heard during hard times when they were not welcome in the public square.

Thus, reporters will show up to hear black preachers talk about politics. But is there more to preaching in black churches than mere politics?

Journalists also know that the black church is a powerful force in culture, especially when it comes to music. How does anyone try to tell the story of popular music in America without focusing on the role that gospel musicians played in the birth of blues, jazz, funk and soul music?

So, yes, journalists know that the black church is a powerful force in the arts and in culture. But is there more to the music of African-American churches than that beat, that power and, yes, that soul? What about the content of the songs and hymns?

Now what else is missing in this picture?

I think it’s crucial for reporters to remember that we are, first and foremost, talking about CHURCHES, not political think tanks or concert halls.

Many times, while covering events in black churches over the years, I have heard pastors say something like this: Why is it that reporters always want to talk to me about politics, but the minute I start talking about Jesus they just aren’t interested?

I thought about that this morning while reading The Baltimore Sun obituary for the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor at New Shiloh Baptist Church — a truly historic figure in our city on a number of different levels.

What is missing from this obituary? Try to guess.

The story starts strong and then, at a crucial moment, the Sun team simply drops the ball.

The Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter Sr., senior pastor of the New Shiloh Baptist Church, whose legendary preaching spanned generations and brought him an audience beyond his congregation of 5,000 members, died of cancer Thursday. He was 76.

In 47 years of ministry, Dr. Carter preached with legends of the civil rights era, before his congregation in West Baltimore and to bigger audiences across America and in foreign countries. And for years, his resounding voice could be heard on Sundays on WBAL-Radio.

One sermon more than three decades ago — when he filled 14,000 seats in what is now the 1st Mariner Arena for an evangelistic crusade — still resonates with the Rev. A.C.B. Vaughn, the senior pastor of Sharon Baptist Church and a family friend.

“The greatest sermon he ever gave was his life,” said Vaughn. “Harold Carter was one of the crown jewels. His main thrust was prayer and evangelization. He had a passion for saving souls.”

That’s pretty good. So how does the story follow up on the key elements of his life, which were evangelism, prayer and preaching? By the way, he was also a leader in the evangelical Promise Keepers ministries for men, a major force for racial reconciliation in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.

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Pod people: Proselytization, blasphemy and Gosnell

On this week’s Crossroads podcast with host Todd Wilken, we talked media coverage of the Pentagon and proselytization, religious freedom and the Benghazi whistleblowers and the trial of Kermit Gosnell. So yeah, we packed a lot in there.

Partly we discussed the Pentagon because of recent GetReligion posts such as “I share, you evangelize, they proselytize” and “Media treatment of Mikey Weinstein under scrutiny.” I also wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s Houses of Worship column on the matter, which you can read here. For this piece, I had a fairly nuanced point. While many of the claims that generated alarm were exaggerated, taken out of context or wrong, that doesn’t mean that things are totally calm on the religious liberty front. While I think that partisans on either side of the issue may take issue with my middle-of-the-road approach, I received excellent feedback both from folks in the military and traditional religious liberty advocates. So that’s always nice. Also, Joe Carter should like it since not only did he complain about the lack of media coverage given Southern Baptists who expressed concern about the Pentagon’s approach but also because I quoted him in the piece. And, again, major props to The Tennessean for covering this story thoroughly and with exactly the kind of balance that is ideal. One thing I loved about that paper’s approach was that it quoted people without buying into their arguments — on either side. Whereas some conservative outlets just ran with the more alarmist claims, some mainstream outlets responded by just uncritically accepting the view of the military. If this week has taught us anything, perhaps it’s that skepticism of the official line is in good order.

Speaking of, we also talked a little bit about the religion angle to the Benghazi situation. Or angles, I should say. Obviously the religious motivations of the attackers should receive coverage. Some papers have handled that brilliantly in recent months, it’s worth saying. Another religion angle I was thinking of was how the initial false reports that placed blame on a YouTube video may have contributed to a perception that Muslims are irrational and easily led. But an angle I really wish we’d see more coverage of is how the false reports about the YouTube video led some prominent politicians and media types to call for limits on religious expression. It even led to statements from high U.S. officials that we’d get the YouTube video and punish him. Which we did (ostensibly not for the Benghazi killings but you’d be forgiven for thinking so).

Finally, we discussed a bit more about the continued downplaying of the Gosnell trial. If you were a reader of some papers or a watcher of some newscasts, you could very easily know nothing about this trial. I’m not surprised but, as a fan of the mainstream media model, I’m disappointed.

I share, you evangelize, they proselytize


Many moons ago, before I came to write for GetReligion, I was a devoted GetReligion reader. And I remember reader Will Linden used to comment something along the lines of:

I share, you evangelize, they proselytize.

Such wisdom in that line. I thought of this when I saw the tweet above.

Let’s look at the definitions of both terms.

pros·e·lyt·ize
1. Convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another.
2. Advocate or promote (a belief or course of action): “Davis wanted to proselytize his ideas”.

Synonyms
proselyte – convert

e·van·ge·lize
1. to preach the gospel to.
2. to convert to Christianity.
Synonyms
homilize, preachify, proclaim, proselytize, sermonize

So you can do one and not the other. You can convert but you can’t convert? Sounds confusing. Precisely what do the regulations say?

The Religion News Service piece mentioned above attempts to tamp down some Christian concern that erupted this week. And tamping down is good, in one sense, since there was bad information out there that suggested a policy change by the military. (If you want to get up to speed, you can do no better than this piece from The Tennessean, which lays out the current environment very well.)

Back to the RNS piece. Basically the military already has a regulation against proselytism but some anti-religion activists who are used as consultants by the military have been pushing the military to change how they enforce those regulations against people who “share” their religion.

So while the headlines of “sharing Jesus will totally get you court-martialed” were inaccurate, I’m not entirely sure that headlines definitively stating you won’t get court-martialed for sharing Jesus are on much stronger ground. At least from what I’m reading in the news stories.

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BBC probes Johnny Cash’s vague interest in redemption

YouTube Preview Image

The late Johnny Cash was a lot of things at the same time, which has often left journalists a bit confused about the sources of his remarkable passion and creativity. For starters, the man ended up in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. I think that covers most of the bases. Did I miss a hall of fame or two?

Anyway, I think Cash did a great job of covering the essentials when he was asked to describe his tastes in music:

“I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And mother. And God.”

That has to be one of the Top 10 music quotes of all time. That says it all. That’s Johnny Cash, right there — saint, sinner, whiskey, anger, grace and all.

Anyway, the venerable BBC took a shot, the other day, at a truly newsworthy subject — trying to describe the legacy of Cash and his art in terms of his impact on the movement to reform U.S. prisons. The goal was to get past the legendary concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin and look for the roots of Cash’s activism. Here’s one of the summary passages:

Fitting the gigs in around his relentless touring schedule, the “Man in Black” performed for inmates all over the US, always unpaid, and in the process, became a passionate and vocal spokesman for prisoners’ rights. …

The roots of Cash’s empathy lie as far back as 1953, when as a 21-year-old radio operator in the US Air Force, he saw the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison and was inspired to write a song. Folsom Prison Blues, released two years later, after Cash had signed to Sun Records, turned the young singer into a star.

The song, and in particular the now-notorious line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” was sung with such raw menace that many assumed Cash knew what he was talking about. …

This is one of the ironies of Cash’s prison reform crusade. The very thing that made convicts connect with him, and US senators hang on his every word — the air of authenticity that stemmed from the belief he had served hard time himself — was in reality a misconception.

This story captures the rough and flawed side of Cash’s story, the grim realities that stuck him in quite a few jails for overnight visits following rampages linked to alcohol, rage, drugs and a variety of other weaknesses. For the BBC team, that seemed to be the heart of the Cash story.

Well, it’s half the story. Want to guess the side of Cash’s life that didn’t make it into the story, other than one or two timely hints?

Cash, you see, was seeking more than prison reform. He was shooting at a bigger spiritual target. Here’s the chunk of this story that comes the closest to hitting the mark. The key voice is that of biographer Michael Streissguth.

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Halloween: trick or treat for Christians?

YouTube Preview ImageIn yet another case of liberal bias by GetReligion, tmatt screamed “Boooo!” the other day at a one-sided story praising Halloween evangelism.

I chimed in with a comment noting that in my Associated Press days I did a “hell house” story and included both sides — long before GR-style ghostbusting became a ghastly gleam in the Internet’s eye.

Since it’s Halloween, I thought I’d highlight a couple of stories reporting on how some Christians deal with the holiday’s pagan roots. Before I do, I want to be sure to give a hat tip — pumpkin hat, that is — to Religion News Service for the above video, which RNS included in its daily e-mail today.

The first story was written by Taya Flores, a reporter for the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Ind. Flores does a nice job of taking what could be a yawner of an annual story and making it interesting reading. The top of the story:

Heather Salemink of Lafayette has celebrated Halloween since childhood. She can recall dressing in costume and her dad decorating the house.

So even as a Christian, she never questioned whether her children would celebrate the holiday, too.

“Kids need opportunities to imagine themselves in different worlds,” said Salemink, 34. “It’s really kind of fun to watch them explore different parts of the world through their imagination. In Christianity, there is so much that requires belief in things that you can’t see.”

But not all religious groups approach Halloween with such ease and excitement. Controversy still surrounds the holiday, which has origins in ancient Celtic spiritualism.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of anecdotal ledes that start with someone who does not fit the theme of the story. In other words, if the story is about people who don’t approach Halloween with ease and excitement, begin the story with one of them, not with somebody who has no problem with Halloween.

Nonetheless, there’s much to like about this story. The writer provides historical background, quotes experts and pastors and even includes other faiths besides Christianity:

Other religions may shy away from the holiday as well. Traditionally, Muslims do not approve of Halloween either.

“Halloween, because it has pagan roots and traditions, is not something Islam will approve for its followers,” said Aurangzeb, president of the Purdue Muslim Student Association.

There’s variance among Jewish believers. Daniel Frank, director of the Jewish Studies Program and professor of philosophy at Purdue University, said from a traditional point of view, Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish festivals, whether it be pagan or Christian.

However, some conservative and reformed Jews may celebrate Halloween as a cultural holiday.

“Orthodox Jews as a typical rule don’t celebrate Halloween,” said Nora Rubel, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York. “Conservative and reformed Jews can, but it’s left to the individual family. It’s not just the pagan roots that bother Orthodox Jews but also the Christian roots.”

No pagans are quoted, however.

The other story was written by Tim Townsend, religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Townsend’s piece focuses on St. Louis-area churches using Halloween’s pagan roots to grow their flocks. The top of the story:

DES PERES — Jason and Stacey Leeker grew up going door to door on Halloween night, collecting candy in costumes. But after the couple dedicated their lives to their Christian faith, they decided they would shield their own children from Halloween’s pagan roots.

Last Saturday evening, the Leekers and their three children ventured out to Faith Des Peres Presbyterian Church’s trunk-or-treat party.

Trunk-or-treats — Halloween tailgating parties, with kids going from car trunk to car trunk — are an increasingly popular alternative for schools, churches and community groups to traditional doorbell trick-or-treating.

For the Leekers, the church atmosphere provided a safe Halloween outing where they could give their 5- and 3-year-old a taste of the holiday’s fun.

Like the Indiana story, the Post-Dispatch report provides historical context:

Jack Santino, a professor of folklore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has written that Halloween has its origins in a pastoral festival called Samhain (pronounced sah-ween). Throughout Europe, it was the biggest festival of the Celtic calendar, and a celebration of the end of harvest and the beginning of winter.

The Celtic people believed that during Samhain, the souls of those who had died during the year “traveled into the otherworld,” Santino wrote, and “their ghosts were able to mingle with the living.”

They lit bonfires to honor the dead, “to aid them on their journey and to keep them away from the living.” Early missionaries appropriated many pagan rituals and subtly transformed them into Christian rituals.

Like a trick-or-treat bag full of candy, Townsend’s story brims with specific details from trunk-or-treat events that he obviously visited firsthand.

If the story lacks anything, it’s a perspective on how mainstream Halloween has become in churches and whether many still resist the holiday. That’s a minor criticism, however, because I think the report’s strong focus on a specific phenomenon — trunk-or-treats — gives it a newsy, journalistic edge.

Your turn, GetReligion readers: Any insights on the stories mentioned? Any links to other Halloween-related religion stories that you’ve come across and your thoughts on them?


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