Can a laundromat replace the traditional church?

Loads of Love, just one of the popular laundry ministries organized by churches across the nation, involves a whole lot of quarters — and conversation.

In Texas, the United Methodist Church’s Arlington Urban Ministries program has operated a laundromat ministry since 1997. In Charlottesville, Va., the Belmont Baptist Church has offered the needy access to washers and dryers, free detergent and laundry supplies since 2010. In Portland, Ore., volunteers with the Eastside Church of Christ began going into laundromats in 2010 as “a coin-friendly way to share Christ.”

A few months ago, the Episcopal News Service reported on “Laundry Love” ministries involving some of that denomination’s California churches. A video posted on the Episcopal Church’s website earlier this month highlighted Laundry Love as “modern day footwashing.”

This week, Laundry Love made its way to NPR:

It’s 7 p.m. on a weeknight at a strip mall in Huntington Beach, Calif., and people have been lined up for hours outside a laundromat here. They’ve been waiting for a chance to do their wash for free. As they file in, volunteers direct them to the machines and help them to supplies.

This is “Laundry Love” at work — a ministry that raises money to pay for detergent, dryer sheets and quarters for machines.

Laundry is a daunting chore for many people, but for the working poor, the cost of doing laundry — not to mention the time involved in hauling it to a laundromat — can be prohibitive. It can also mean going without other basic essentials.

The idea for Laundry Love began at an Episcopal congregation in Ventura, Calif., and slowly but surely, it’s spreading. Now, more than 70 churches, mosques and synagogues around the country have adopted the practice.

The NPR story does not specify when the ministry started, but the Episcopal News Service report indicated it began about 10 years ago. Nor does the NPR story provide any context on other laundry ministries — and approaches — that exist outside of the Laundry Love effort.

Still, it’s an interesting story — albeit an incomplete one.

NPR advances the notion (as does the writer’s tweet) that the laundry ministry somehow replaces traditional church:

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Middle East stories: The territory includes religion

Terrorists may have declared a new Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, but coverage of their actions is all over the map.

Some media fixate on the land or tribal alliances. Some dig into history or listen to Washington. Few look at religious roots of the conflict.

The new angle is that the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has rebranded his jihadist group the Islamic State and declared the birth of a modern-day caliphate, an old-fashioned transnational kingdom ruled by Islamic law. Since the caliphate was run by the Sunni branch of Islam, religious and historical currents clearly underlie the announcement.

Unfortunately, many reports keep those currents way under the surface.

Typical of the brisk-but-shallow approach is that of the Washington Post. Here’s how they styled the new events:

BAGHDAD — The extremist group battling its way through swaths of Iraq and Syria declared the creation of a formal Islamic state Sunday, building on its recent military gains and laying down an ambitious challenge to al-Qaeda’s established leadership.

In an audio statement posted on the Internet, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced the restoration of the 7th-century Islamic caliphate, a long-declared goal of the al-Qaeda renegades who broke with the mainstream organization early this year and have since asserted control over large areas spanning the two countries.

The Associated Press, to my surprise, did a little better in their story on the rebranded ISIS. The article spells out the Islamic State’s actions in classic shariac terms:

The showcase of the extremist group’s vision of its Islamic state is Raqqa, a city of 500,000 in northern Syria along the Euphrates River. Since expelling rival rebel groups this spring from the city, the militants have banned music, forced Christians to pay an Islamic tax for protection, and killed violators of its interpretation of Islam in the main square, activists say.

Elsewhere, the story skips a little lightly over facts that would help us understand the violence:

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NPR asks Vatican experts to discuss hopes of the Orthodox

Try to imagine a story about crucial, tense talks between Democrats and Republicans that only offered material drawn from interviews with Republicans, even when talking about the beliefs and aspirations of the Democrats.

Try to imagine a report about, oh, talks between liberal Episcopalians and conservative Anglicans that only featured commentary from one side or the other (actually, in some mainline publications that’s pretty easy to imagine). Or how about a pre-Super Bowl story that tried to cover the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams in the big game, but only talked to experts skilled in covering one of the teams or only talked to the coaches on one team. Can you imagine veteran journalists doing that?

This brings me to a report by NPR superstar Sylvia Poggioli that ran, online, under this headline: “The 1,000-Year-Old Schism That Pope Francis Seeks To Heal.”

Hear me now: This is not a fatally flawed news story, although some of the information is rather shallow. For example, any discussion of attempts to heal the painful schism between the ancient churches of East and West simply has to begin with, or at least mention, the efforts of St. John Paul II and this issue was a high priority for Pope Benedict XVI as well. NPR didn’t need to get these two popes into the headline, but one sentence in the story itself? That’s a must.

Also, let me note that the sources quoted in the piece are very qualified, especially when it comes to all things Rome. However, let’s see if we can spot a pattern in this report:

Meeting in Jerusalem in 1964, Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras set a milestone: They started the process of healing the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity of the year 1054. Moves toward closer understanding followed, but differences remain on issues such as married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican.

OK, pause. It’s crucial to know that the smaller Eastern Rite Catholic bodies, like the large churches of Eastern Orthodoxy, already follow the ancient tradition of having married priests and celibate, usually monastic, bishops. While the celibate priesthood is the norm in the West, I have never heard anyone say that this is a big issue affecting healing between Catholics and Orthodox. What’s up with that strange unattributed claim?

Back to the story:

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Baptists ‘unofficially’ changing doctrine on homosexuality?

Southern Baptist leaders are seeking a “softer approach on homosexuality,” reports National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

While noting that “the country’s largest protestant (sic) group … still preaches that marriage can only be between one man and one woman,” NPR points to a recent, vaguely identified meeting of pastors to back up its headline:

The Southern Baptist Convention held a gathering of pastors at its Nashville headquarters in April. For an organization that has previously used opposition to gay marriage as a rallying point, statements here from church leaders, like Kevin Smith of Kentucky, shocked the auditorium of pastors into silence.

“If you spent 20 years and you’ve never said anything about divorce in the church culture, then shut up about gay marriage,” Smith said.

Pastor Jimmy Scroggins of Florida went even further.

“We’re all in agreement that the cultural war is over when it comes to homosexuality, especially when it comes to gay marriage,” Scroggins told the pastors.

A quick aside: As noted previously by GetReligion, Southern Baptists passed a resolution in 2010 on “The Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce,” so Smith isn’t exactly the first Baptist to bring up that subject.

Another quick aside: Did all those “silenced” pastors lose their voices for as long as Zechariah? Otherwise, it would have been nice to hear their direct reaction to what was said.

But back to the main point: Hang on to your keyboards, tablets and smartphones and swallow any coffee or other hot liquids before considering this next broad statement of fact by NPR:

Officially, Southern Baptists aren’t backing down from their belief that homosexuality is sinful. Gays and lesbians are still barred from church membership without first repenting. But Scroggins says they’re sitting in his pews and shouldn’t be the butt of preacher humor. He calls that “redneck theology.”

Officially!?

Does that mean that “unofficially,” Southern Baptists are backing down from their belief that homosexuality in sinful? Seriously, NPR? This story certainly provides no evidence of that dramatic change in doctrine. (I have written about a similar effort in my own fellowship — Churches of Christ — that aims to change approach, not doctrine.)

If Southern Baptist pastors were to tout a more loving approach toward Christian men who struggle with viewing images of naked women online, would NPR write, “Officially, Southern Baptists aren’t backing down from their belief that pornography is sinful.” Or would the difference in tone and doctrine be clear?

Let’s keep reading:

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NPR stumbles on GOP and Darwinian orthodoxy

Here’s a shocker, but not really. More Democrats than Republicans believe in evolution, or so says a survey from the Pew Research Center. Overall, Pew says:

…six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that ‘humans and other living things have evolved over time,’ while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that ‘humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.’ The share of the general public that says that humans have evolved over time is about the same as it was in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.

The predictable party gap seems of interest to many, though mostly political pundits.

National Public Radio is not content to leave speculation to mere political bloviators, however, and trumpets the change in party affiliation of creationists as a major political issue:

A new national survey showing that the share of Republicans who believe in evolution has tumbled from 54 to 43 percent over the past four years comes at an inopportune time.

The Pew Research poll suggests that the GOP, already struggling with an identity crisis and facing ferocious internal battles, is out of sync on the issue with independents and young voters, who are far more likely to believe in the science of evolution than their forebears.

NPR raises what it considers the key question:

But just how politically significant is the finding, which shows that the evolution belief gap between Republicans and Democrats has since 2009 grown from 10 percentage points to 24 points?

Now there are all sorts of interesting — and interested — people who could address the topic. People who are experienced in science and theology, or people who hold informed opinions about evolution or creationism. Instead, the first “expert” sought out by NPR is a political consultant, albeit a Republican one:

For Republican strategists like Whit Ayres, however, the evolution results are politically insignificant. More than anything, he says, it reflects the trend of both parties gravitating toward their more extreme wings, which, in the GOP, includes evangelical Christians. He argues that it is unlikely to define the GOP negatively or otherwise in any sustaining way.

“It’s not a particularly surprising result, especially if you follow Gallup data on how Americans interpret the Bible,” says Ayres, of North Star Opinion Research. “There’s a significant minority of Americans who believe that the Bible is the actual true word of God.”

Apart from a grammatical flaw that always annoys me — did they really talk to Ayres or someone “like” him? — why is his view on how many Americans believe “the Bible is the actual true word of God” more useful than that of Randall Balmer or George Barna or someone else who “gets” debates about doctrine and science?

NPR does link to the Gallup numbers, but again, is there another, better voice? If so, you won’t find it here.

And what about the “political” implications of this interesting and crucial passage?

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NPR’s curiously biased quest for the historical Jesus

Did you know that Jesus wasn’t really God? Despite what his disciples claim, he never believed he was the Messiah, much less God incarnate. He was a merely a Jewish revolutionary that was crucified by the Roman Empire and later deified (quite literally) by people who really didn’t know him.

That’s not a new claim, of course, but it’s getting new attention because of a new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. Many media outlets have covered the book or interviewed the author. But one of the most peculiar is an interview by Terry Gross on NPR:

Writer and scholar Reza Aslan was 15 years old when he found Jesus. His secular Muslim family had fled to the U.S. from Iran, and Aslan’s conversion was, in a sense, an adolescent’s attempt to fit into American life and culture. “My parents were certainly surprised,” Aslan tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

As Aslan got older, he began his studies in the history of Christianity, and he started to lose faith. He came to the realization that Jesus of Nazareth was quite different from the Messiah he’d been introduced to at church. “I became very angry,” he says. “I became resentful. I turned away from Christianity. I began to really reject the concept of Christ.”

But Aslan continued his Christian scholarship, and he found that he was increasingly interested in Jesus as a historical figure. The result is his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth — a historical look at Jesus in the context of his time and Jewish religion, and against the backdrop of the Roman Empire.

From that introduction you might get the impression that Aslan is a historian and an unbeliever, probably an agnostic or atheist. So you might be surprised to hear that Aslan is a devout Muslim and a professor of creative writing at University of California at Riverside. While Aslan has a PhD in sociology of religions, he is not a trained historian. Rather than a work of “Christian scholarship” the book is merely one Muslim’s opinion about the historical figure of Jesus.

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NPR misses the symbolism — and reality — of Jane Roe

NPR had a story on the Texas legislature passing what journalists usually call “sweeping abortion restrictions.” Let’s look at a big chunk of the story right at the top:

“What this does is completely reshape the abortion landscape in the state,” says Elizabeth Nash, who follows state issues at the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research group. “With this legislation, Texas will become one of the most restrictive states in the country. And Texas really matters.”

First, Texas is the second most populous state in the nation, with four major cities and 5.5 million women of reproductive age. It also has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

And symbolically, Texas was home to Jane Roe, whose fight for a legal abortion went all the way to the Supreme Court — which decided in 1973 that abortion is a woman’s fundamental right under the Constitution.

Under the new law, abortion doctors must get admitting privileges at nearby hospitals; abortion clinics must upgrade to surgical centers; abortion-inducing pills can only be taken when a physician is present; and abortions would be banned 20 weeks after fertilization.

Well, kudos to NPR for actually describing these “sweeping” restrictions, however briefly. But did you catch that bit about Jane Roe? Texas matters because Jane Roe came from here? And hers was the case that decided that legalized abortion is a fundamental right under the Constitution?

And then on we are to the next line without mentioning some crucial information.

I like the idea of including “Jane Roe” and her symbolism in a story about Texas’ move to change the abortion regime in that state. She might be the perfect symbol of what this battle in Texas says about our country’s messy views on abortion. But, as the reader who submitted this story put it:

What a way to spin.  How convenient to ignore that “Jane Roe” was the assumed name of Norma McCorvey, who is now outspokenly pro-life, and who has made it clear that she was used by pro-abortionists who wanted to push their agenda. Even Wikipedia notes this.

It’s amazingly convenient and misses the real, the ultimate symbolism of this Texas woman. There are even religion ghosts all over her story. Let’s go ahead and look at the portion of her Wikipedia entry dealing with her views on abortion:

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Not all things considered: NPR on hymns

YouTube Preview ImageLet’s get the praise for this story about praise music and hymnody out of the way first.

NPR’s All Things Considered did something very rare and they did it nicely. The show featured a full four minutes on Christian worship music. The show managed to do this without sneering and without any politics. The show featured actual Christian voices talking about their views on worship. This is a wonderful thing and kudos to them.

If that’s all you’re looking for from NPR, you will love listening to this piece, “Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday.”

As it happens, not everyone was as pleased with this piece. We heard about it from more than a few readers. I’m with them in having some criticism. Perhaps it’s because I had too-high expectations. I’m Lutheran. We take our hymnody very seriously. This week’s hymn in our house is “We Praise You And Acknowledge You,” by Stephen Starke, a modern hymn writer. (It’s the one playing in the video embedded above.) Last week’s was “To God The Holy Spirit Let Us Pray,” by Martin Luther, who hasn’t been writing new hymns for 500 years or so. I’ve had the pleasure of writing about hymns and choral music and the greater pleasure of a worship life built around hymns.

If you bill your story as “Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday,” I want the story to be about that. I want to see if the prolific Stephen Starke is in it. But this story was really not about modern hymn writers so much as a very narrow subset of Christianity and just a couple of modern hymn writers. The story would have been improved by making that clear. Instead, the lede was this:

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: In recent decades, worship music has trended away from the church organ and classic hymns in favor of more rocking songs made popular by Christian radio. Now a crop of modern hymn writers is pulling Sunday morning singing back to a more traditional style. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports from Nashville.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: There was a time when hymns were used primarily to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. Then came the praise songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OUR GOD”)

MATT REDMAN: (Singing) Our God is greater, our God is stronger…

FARMER: Matt Redman’s song “Our God” is the most popular piece of music in Christian churches today. That’s according to charts that track congregational singing – yes, there is such a thing. But approaching the top 10 is a retro hymn co-written by Keith Getty.

Such broad strokes, eh? If I tell you that later in the story we’re told that we’re more or less talking about Southern Baptists in this piece, would that help? It helped me. I mean, the Southern Baptists are a large group and a story about their worship practices and trends is great. But it was weird to read about these “charts” that track congregational singing. I know that my large Lutheran denomination doesn’t track these things and I wasn’t terribly familiar with either the praise song or the hymn mentioned in the lede. So I spent the next few minutes trying to figure out how narrow the story would end up being.

It’s quite narrow. And nicely so. Bob Smietana’s piece on the same topic from April of this year helped the reader much more by laying the focus all on the line right there at the top:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks.

Both stories are interesting and both stories are about the Gettys but I appreciate Smietana’s approach.

Back to this NPR piece, I did think it managed to get some helpful doctrinal points in. Here’s one perspective:

KEITH GETTY: Our goal is to write songs that teach the faith, where the congregation is the main thing and everybody accompanies that.

FARMER: There’s no definition for what’s a hymn and not a praise song, but Getty says it should be singable without a band, easy for anyone sitting in the pews to pick up. And it should say something bold.

GETTY: And I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth, is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.

Later we’re told that the Gettys have 12 hymns in the latest Southern Baptist hymnal. (This caused me to look something up in my hymnal, where I saw that Starke has 32(!) listings, more than Paul Gerhardt or Martin Luther.) And we learn that the substance of the Getty’s work is helping encourage other songwriters to follow suit. We hear some of the repetitive sections of praise music but also a defense of them:

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