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Mustachioed villain attacks brave theologian -- at least in St. Louis Dispatch story

Mustachioed villain attacks brave theologian -- at least in St. Louis Dispatch story

Remember the classic old-timey movie villain, twirling his mustache while laughing "Nyah-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaa"? Did you know he's Lutheran?

Well, no, he's not, as far as I know. That's just kinda the way Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, comes off in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Right in the first two paragraphs, we get this:

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod recently carried out what various members consider the equivalent of a modern-day heresy trial.
The Kirkwood-based church has 2.3 million members. The case pits two-term synod President Matthew Harrison — who is known for his bushy mustache and conservative views — against Matthew Becker, an outspoken pastor.

Hmmm. Maybe a little Grand Inquisitor there, too, judging by the "heresy trial" phrase.

Becker is a theology professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, a Lutheran school that isn't affiliated with LCMS. He has criticized the synod's teachings about creationism and women's ordination. In the latter, he even compared male-only ordination to slavery and racism, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Harrison also scolded Becker for his part in an interfaith vigil after the student shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a violation of the LCMS constitution, the newspaper adds.

But there's more. In a Facebook post -- which is linked in the newspaper story -- Harrison also accuses Becker of advocating homosexuality, the errancy of the Bible and communion with members of other faiths. Several panels investigated, then cleared Becker, the article says.

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Life after the DUI bishop: Deseret News listens to Episcopal voices talk alcohol

Life after the DUI bishop: Deseret News listens to Episcopal voices talk alcohol

I imagine that faithful GetReligion readers noticed that in the past I have paid very close attention to the story of the DUI Episcopal Bishop in Maryland -- now simply Heather Elizabeth Cook, after she was defrocked.

It was, after all, a local story since I was living in Maryland at the time. This was also a story with the potential to have a strong impact on regional and national leaders in the Episcopal Church, even if Baltimore Sun editors didn't seem all that interested in that side of things.

With the trial ahead, it is also clear that this story is not over. Several Maryland Episcopalians and former Episcopalians kept raising an interesting question: If it is true that Cook was drunk AND texting, might she have been doing church business on a work cellphone when she struck and killed that cyclist? If so, what are the implications for the shrinking Maryland diocese?

Then there is the issue of the Episcopal Church and its love/hate relationship with alcohol. This is the stuff of cheap humor (insert joke about four Episcopalians here), but it is also a serious topic linked to substance abuse and people in power looking the other way. 

So during the recent Episcopal General Convention in Salt Lake City, the Cook case made it impossible for church leaders not to talk about alcohol. To their credit, it appears that they took this issue fairly seriously. With gay-marriage rites in the news, however, the coverage of the topic was light.

Thus, I want to point readers toward a major feature story on this topic that ran in The Deseret News. It is somewhat awkward to do this because it was written by former GetReligionista Mark Kellner, who now works on that newspaper's national religion desk. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Besides, how can you pass up a story with an anecdotal, on-the-record lede as devastating as this one?

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Listening to Chattanooga voices, in the mosque and public square (but not in churches)

Listening to Chattanooga voices, in the mosque and public square (but not in churches)

From the beginning, the New York Times reporters probing the shootings in Chattanooga have shown a willingness to dig into the religious questions linked to the troubled life and mind of Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez. They have not blown questions about the role of Islam out of proportion, but they have certainly not ignored them, either.

The journalistic task at hand was simplified by the faith-related blog materials that Abdulazeez left behind that, to some degree, described his state of mind. Meanwhile, the young man's personal struggles were right there in the public record. There was no need for speculation, other than covering the actions of authorities who were trying to find out if Abdulazeez had any online ties to violent forms of Islam.

As it should, this research led to the local mosque to see how this Muslim community -- deep in Bible Belt territory -- was reacting. The Times did an fine job with that story, as well. And the reactions of believers in the faith community on the other side of this drama? Hold that thought.

With the mosque story, the regional context (just down the road from my Oak Ridge home) was crucial:

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Just beyond a massive strip mall, with its Best Buy and Hobby Lobby, Abdul Baasit, the imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, found himself preaching on Friday about a nightmare.
It was Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, normally a time of gift-giving and carnival celebration. But the party that had been planned was canceled: A man who had attended prayer services at the center’s mosque killed four Marines on Thursday. And Mr. Baasit, 48, was trying to help Chattanooga’s Muslim faithful cope with their grief over the deaths, and their fear of reprisal. ...

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Did NPR shortchange the religious left during its Obergefell coverage? Uh, yes

Did NPR shortchange the religious left during its Obergefell coverage? Uh, yes

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with a reader, someone with a long history of reading my "On Religion" syndicated column (my column has run in The Knoxville News Sentinel for 26-plus years) and now this blog.

To be blunt, this person (Catholic, by the way) was a bit upset about my recent column that went out on the wires with this suggested headline: "Triumphant day for the Episcopal Church establishment." In particular, this reader was upset that -- in lengthy quotations -- I let the openly gay, noncelibate retired Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire essentially do a victory dance celebrating (a) the 5-4 Obergefell decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court backed same-sex marriage and (b) the Episcopal Church's decision to proceed with same-sex marriage rites in its churches.

Why did I do this in my column? I responded: Because that was the essence of the story. Robinson and the Episcopal left won and, for readers to understand that victory, they needed to know what that meant to one of the symbolic figures in that long and painful drama.

I bring this up because several readers have asked your GetReligionistas what we thought of the recent commentary at National Public Radio on a related issue, one that ran under this headline, "Ombudsman Mailbag: On Staffing, Missing Information, And Religious Viewpoints." Settling up the crucial discussion, Elizabeth Jensen wrote:

I've heard from some Christians who feel NPR's coverage of the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage left the impression that all Christians oppose it. There's quite a bit of social media chatter on this, as well.

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Amid all the MSM thumbsuckers about gay marriage and religion, one piece stands out

  Amid all the MSM thumbsuckers about gay marriage and religion, one piece stands out

“Thumbsuckers” (think pieces) about the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to nationalize same-sex marriage will be flowing forth for some time to come. In the early batch, one article from Religion News Service stands out. The writer is the invariably interesting Tobin Grant, a Southern Illinois University political scientist.

Thanks to the massive sample in the 2007 “Religious Landscape Survey” from  Pew Research, Grant could access detailed breakdowns on beliefs within  dozens of specific U.S. religious groups.

Note: Pew conducted a similar survey in 2014 and reporters should be alert for updated results on marriage attitudes that are likely to appear later this year. Also note: Perhaps Grant himself takes the liberal view on these matters since his RNS page posts a response to the conservative Gospel Coalition from Matthew Vines, whose recent book offers "the biblical case in support of same-sex relationships."

Grant’s analysis of the Pew data has two aspects.

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AP has Catholics standing alone, sort of, in debates over California right-to-die bill

AP has Catholics standing alone, sort of, in debates over California right-to-die bill

Last time I checked, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has quite a few congregations in the state of California.

The same thing is true for the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God and the whole world of nondenominational evangelical Protestantism. Can you say Vineyards? Surely there are quite a few mosques, Orthodox Jewish synagogues and Hindu sanctuaries, as well.

Why do I make this rather obvious point?

Check out the top of this recent Associated Press report about the latest front in the political and moral wars over the whole right to die, death with dignity, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia question. Spot anything strange?

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Legislation that would allow California physicians to help terminally ill patients end their lives has met strong opposition from lawmakers in Catholic districts and others. ...

Aid-in-dying advocates hoped the nationally publicized case of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old California woman with brain cancer who moved to Oregon to legally end her life last fall, would prompt a wave of new state laws allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending
medications. But no state has passed right-to-die legislation this year, and efforts have been defeated or stalled in Colorado, Maine, New Jersey and elsewhere.

And there's more:

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After the earthquake(s): National Cathedral seeks lots of money and some kind of new life

After the earthquake(s): National Cathedral seeks lots of money and some kind of new life

Building and operating cathedrals has never been an easy or noncontroversial task. In recent years, several Episcopal Church dioceses have simply given up and closed the doors of their cathedral sanctuaries, often because of the decline of the congregations inside those buildings.

At the same time, far too many Episcopalians on the doctrinal left and the right have been lawyered up for decades, involved in lawsuits that are rooted in disputes about doctrine, but almost always end up focusing on property, buildings, trust funds and sacred assets.

It doesn't help if your cathedral is shaken by a literal earthquake, as well as the tremors of lawsuits and demographics. As most journalists know who follow trends in American religion, membership in the Episcopal Church has declined from about 3.6 million in the glory days of the '60s to about 1.8 million today.

This brings us to a recent New York Times story talking about the struggles to rebuild the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. -- both the earthquake-damaged sanctuary and the human congregation in its pews. Here are the crucial summary paragraphs that set the stage:

Almost four years after a magnitude-5.8 earthquake shook the site -- cracking finials and half a dozen flying buttresses and sending pieces of pinnacles tumbling hundreds of feet -- the National Cathedral is struggling to piece itself back together, physically and financially, even as contractors put the finishing touches on the $10 million first phase of repairs to the interior.
Before the earthquake damage, years of shortsightedness by church leaders, little known to outsiders, left the cathedral in need of millions of dollars in repairs and exposed to the worst of the 2008-09 financial crisis, when it had to cut its budget in half and lay off almost 100 out of its 170 full-time employees.

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Getting out of civil marriage biz? Tribune details one side of debate in Chicago

Getting out of civil marriage biz? Tribune details one side of debate in Chicago

Several months ago, I heard about an interesting decision made by Father Patrick Henry Reardon, a very outspoken and influential Eastern Orthodox priest up in the Chicago area. After the state of Illinois approved the redefinition of marriage -- including same-sex unions -- Reardon decided that he would get out of the civil marriage business and stop signing secular marriage licenses.

This was, for Reardon, an intensely theological subject and he was most comfortable discussing the topic in those terms. It was a challenge to quote him in ways that were accurate, yet could be included in a column for readers in mainstream newspapers. This was pretty complex territory.

The priest knew, of course, that a U.S. Supreme Court on this subject loomed in the near future and he assumed that it would complicate matters even further, especially in terms of the First Amendment and religious liberty. But the key, for him, was that he was discussing a sacrament of the church and doctrines on which he could not compromise. Thus, I ended my Universal syndicate column on this topic like this:

At his altar, said Reardon, this means, "I cannot represent the State of Illinois anymore. … I'm not making a political statement. I'm making a theological statement."

I also quoted the American leader of the branch of Orthodoxy in which Reardon serves, who, while not directly addressing the issue of civil marriage licenses, made it clear that his church would not be taking part in a major reshaping of marriage.

The upcoming Supreme Court decision could "mark a powerful affirmation of marriage between one man and one woman … or it can initiate a direction which the Holy Orthodox Church can never embrace," stated Metropolitan Joseph, of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. "Throughout the history of our faith our Holy Fathers have led the Orthodox laity" to unite to "preserve the faith against heresy from within, and against major threats from societies from without."

For me, as an Orthodox layman, the most interesting part of that statement were the words focusing on the church and the theological tensions that are ahead, the part when the metropolitan mentions the struggles to "preserve the faith against heresy from within."

Heresy is not a word that bishops toss around without careful thought.

Now, in the wake of the 5-4 Obergefell decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy and the U.S. Supreme Court, the Chicago Tribune has followed up with a news report about Reardon that does a good job of describing his decision, yet does very little to dig into the thoughts and beliefs of those who either oppose or dismiss his strategy. Consider, for example, this passage in which an Orthodox bishop seems to echo, in reverse, some of Reardon's thinking:

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Weekend think piece: Probing post-Obergefell fault lines in Christian higher education

Weekend think piece: Probing post-Obergefell fault lines in Christian higher education

The vast majority of the time, GetReligion features critiques -- positive and negative -- of mainstream press coverage of religion news. However, in recent years we have started adding some other features by veteran religion-beat specialists Richard Ostling and Ira Rifkin that address Godbeat work in short features that we think will be of interest to people who care about domestic and international trends in religion -- period -- or who are professionals on the beat.

In the "Religion Guy Memo," for example, I have asked Ostling to serve as kind of Metro desk sage, a veteran editor talking about issues related to the beat the way an editor might chat with a religion-beat scribe over a cup of coffee. As any reporter knows, a good editor helps you discern what stories "have legs" and what stories may be just over the horizon.

That is what Rifkin is doing in "Global Wire," as well, focusing on questions raised by recent events around the world or, on occasion, trying to spot slow developing stories that may be on the rise, or those that are about to pop into the open.

On weekends, I also like to share what I call "think pieces" -- links to pieces about developments on the beat or essays by religion insiders who are clearly trying to discern what will happen in the news in the near or distant future. All reporters have writers and thinkers that they follow online, seeking clues about future stories. Think Pew Forum folks. Think John C. Green of the University of Akron. For decades, Martin Marty of the University of Chicago was THE go-to brain for religion-beat pros. I mean, the man answered his own telephone!

You don't have to agree with this kind of insider in order to draw information from them. The key is that they have some unique insight into developments within specific religious communities. They can read the spiritual weather forecasts, in other words. It also helps if they speak common English, instead of inside-baseball jargon.

So with that in mind, please consider this new essay about a topic that -- for obvious reasons -- is of great interest to me as a writer and as a teacher. That would be trends in Christian higher education in the wake of the recent 5-4 Obergefell decision on gay marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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