Orthodoxy

Colonial Jamestown reliquary: Secret Catholics or Protestants 'venerating' bones of saints?

Colonial Jamestown reliquary: Secret Catholics or Protestants 'venerating' bones of saints?

I love a good mystery hidden in the mists of history and it goes without saying that is doubly true of a mystery with a strong religion hook. So the Washington Post team had my my full attention when it pushed out an online promotion for a fascinating feature story about some of the latest finds in the Jamestown Rediscovery project.

The key: Researchers found a small silver box containing what appear to be human bones, with what they believe is the letter "M" inscribed on the cover. Hold that thought. Here is how the story opens:

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- When his friends buried Capt. Gabriel Archer here about 1609, they dug his grave inside a church, lowered his coffin into the ground and placed a sealed silver box on the lid. ...
The tiny, hexagonal box, etched with the letter “M,” contained seven bone fragments and a small lead vial, and probably was an object of veneration, cherished as disaster closed in on the colony.
On Tuesday, more than 400 years after the mysterious box was buried, Jamestown Rediscovery and the Smithsonian Institution announced that archaeologists have found it, as well as the graves of Archer and three other VIPs.
“It’s the most remarkable archaeology discovery of recent years,” said James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, which made the find. “It’s a huge deal.”

OK, but what was this small silver box? The story says it was probably an "object of veneration," but are we talking about some form of link to ancestors? The Post team, interviewing the experts, immediately locks into a crucial religious element of this mystery -- but misses some key questions and historical details.

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From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

At the time of 9/11, I was living in South Florida and attending an Eastern Orthodox parish in which the majority of the members were, by heritage, either Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time hearing the details of their family stories -- about life in the old country and the forces that pushed them to America.

The key detail: It was never easy living in the Middle East during the Ottoman Empire era, even when times were relatively peaceful. While it was easy to focus on the horrible details of the times of intense persecution, it was important to realize that Christians and those in other religious minorities had learned to accept a second-class status in which they were safe, most of the time, but not truly free.

In other words, the Good Old Days were difficult, but not as difficult as the times of fierce persecution, suffering and death.

Clearly, the rise of the Islamic State has created a new crisis, one that is truly historic in scope -- especially in the Nineveh Plain. The drive to eliminate Christian populations in a region that has been their home since the apostolic era raises all kinds of questions about religious freedom, as well as questions for the USA and other Western states to which these new martyrs will appeal for help.

In recent years, human-rights activists have asked when this phenomenon would receive major attention in elite American newsrooms. The coverage has, in recent years, been on the rise. That said, a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine feature on this topic must be seen as a landmark.
The epic double-decker headline proclaimed:

Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?
ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight.

There is much that I want to praise in this piece. It's a must-read piece for everyone who cares about religion news in the mainstream press.

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Weekend think piece: Mark Silk on Augustine, 'economia,' repentance and Greece

Weekend think piece: Mark Silk on Augustine, 'economia,' repentance and Greece

Time for a "think piece" trip into the tmatt folder of GetReligion guilt. Two weekend birds with one shot, in other words.

As you would expect, in recent weeks I have had quite a few people ask me what I think of the Greek debt crisis and, in particular, whether I -- as an Eastern Orthodox layman -- see any religion "ghosts" hiding in this major global news story.

The short answer is "no." The longer answer is that I have sense -- in the muddy details of this crisis -- a kind of cultural clash between Greece and the European heartland, especially Germany. But what is the religious content there?

That's hard to nail down. I mean, the typical crisis report usually has a passage or two that sounds like this, drawn from a recent New York Times report:

Many Greeks have taken Germany’s resistance personally, plastering walls with posters and graffiti denouncing what they see as the rigidity of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. ...
What many outsiders view as the rigidity of Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schäuble is widely viewed within the country as the best way to resolve the Greek debt crisis and ensure the stability of the European currency used by 19 nations.
“There are clear rules, and anybody who doesn’t stick to the rules cannot be an example for others,” Julia Klöckner, a senior member of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said in an interview Thursday.

And so forth and so on. There isn't much Godtalk in that passage, is there?

Lo and behold, a recent Religion News Service commentary by Mark Silk -- "The moral theology of the Greek crisis" -- nailed down the vague ideas that I have had in recent weeks about this drama.

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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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More media examine implications of Supreme Court gay marriage decision

More media examine implications of Supreme Court gay marriage decision

Fallout is still, well, falling out from the Supreme Court's declaration of gay marriage as a constitutional right. Most are also lagging behind the New York Times, which set the pace on Thursday with its advance story on conservative fears of the implications of the decision.

The Times lengthened its lead over the weekend, with a story on the flurry of efforts to carve out religious exemptions.

The Times gets right to the topic in the lede:

Within hours of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, an array of conservatives including the governors of Texas and Louisiana and religious groups called for stronger legal protections for those who want to avoid any involvement in same-sex marriage, like catering a gay wedding or providing school housing to gay couples, based on religious beliefs.
They demanded establishing clear religious exemptions from discrimination laws, tax penalties or other government regulations for individuals, businesses and religious-affiliated institutions wishing to avoid endorsing such marriages.

The article then cites governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana on their determination to fight gay marriage in their states. Jindal, of course, is also a candidate for president.

The Times then reviews the Supreme Court documents: first, the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, that religious groups may still teach their beliefs; a dissenting opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., warning that the high court will likely start getting cases where religious and gay rights clash.

But the newspaper hits the nail in quoting Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore:

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Does the Bible’s ban on 'graven images' forbid icons and sacred art in church?

Does the Bible’s ban on 'graven images' forbid icons and sacred art in church?

BRAD’S QUESTION:

Why don’t Catholics have a problem with the graven images that surround them in church?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Brad is obviously Protestant in his cultural outlook. That is, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches encourage religious art in church, seen as aids to devotion.

Protestants’ policies vary (as on most things!) but they broadly unite with Judaism in limiting visual images in worship settings to avoid any association with idolatry. Some Protestants prohibit all art in sanctuaries. Others allow abstractions and symbols but not human or animal forms. Some may depict Jesus Christ or saints, typically in stained glass, rarely in statues, and never as the objects of veneration. Further, some forbid flags in church to prevent idolatry toward the nation.

The discussion begins with this from the Bible’s venerable Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:8 and summarized elsewhere, e.g. Leviticus 16:1). “Graven image” means a stature or carving, while “any likeness” covers any and all visual representations.

Jewish scholars say the ban applies to art only in worship contexts due to the “bow down” and “serve” phrasing along with the immediately preceding statement that “you shall have no other gods before me.”

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That Billy Graham flashback, again: Campolo, Neff and an open evangelical left

That Billy Graham flashback, again: Campolo, Neff and an open evangelical left

It's an old question, but it keeps coming up here at GetReligion and in many other settings online, in journalism and in academia: What does the word "evangelical" mean?

Is this, as many young people insist (including lots of my students), just another name for white Republicans?

Is this a sociological term, describing a movement of people in a specific subset of conservative Protestantism, one best defined in terms of culture, zip codes and upbringing? 

Is it simply a term that describes a specific marketing niche containing conservative Protestants who consume certain types of media, admire specific religious celebrities and support the same parachurch ministries?

Is this a term with precise doctrinal and historical content, one linked to specific confessions of the faith? If "evangelical" is a term with doctrinal content, who has the ecclesiastical power to define or alter that content?

People were arguing about this issue again, of course, In the wake of the media mini-storm surrounding evangelical activist Tony Campolo's long-awaited open embrace of gay marriage, as a doctrinal statement, as well as political policy. GetReligion readers will not be surprised to learn that this was the topic of my "On Religion" column this week for the Universal syndicate and also the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune in the Issues Etc. network version of that program.

For many commentators it was much more significant that recently retired Christianity Today editor David Neff moved to the doctrinal left on gay marriage, in comparison to the rather predictable statement by Campolo. In my column I noted:

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Seeing patterns here? ISIS keeps smashing some priceless artifacts and selling others

Seeing patterns here? ISIS keeps smashing some priceless artifacts and selling others

The tragic bottom line these days is that it is rarely news when the Islamic State blows stuff up -- including priceless antiquities that predate the rise of Islam.

This fact of life has become business as usual, to the point that many mainstream journalists no longer feel the need to include material in their reports noting why this is taking place. This is tragic and, frankly, an affront to the vast majority of the world's Muslims. This is yet another classic case of journalists needing to cover the doctrinal details of what ISIS believes -- it's take on Islamic doctrine and history -- in order to let readers understand that this is not the only or even the mainstream Islamic point of view.

Once this hard work is done, journalists can move on to another topic looming in the background: Why do Islamic State radicals destroy some parts of the region's past, while allowing others to be sold off to collectors? In other words, does ISIS hate all parts of the ancient past equally?

The latest news is that this battle as moved to Egypt, with some militants there pledging allegiance to the ISIS caliphate. Does this have anything to do with Islam? The Washington Post simply does not want to go there:

CAIRO -- Militants with explosives battled Egyptian security forces outside the famed ancient Karnak temple in Luxor on Wednesday, injuring at least four people in an attempt to strike another blow on Egypt’s fragile tourism industry.

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Christ and Russia: Newsweek offers only a partial picture of a religious trend

Christ and Russia: Newsweek offers only a partial picture of a religious trend

"Russian Communists are turning to Christ," Newsweek trumpets, as if the magazine has discovered the wheel. It's almost old enough to deserve one of our "Got News?" logos.

Almost. The article does have a few things going for it -- starting with the first three strong paragraphs:

What do Vladimir Lenin, founder of the officially atheist Soviet Union, and Jesus Christ have in common? Not much, one would think. Yet according to Gennady Zyuganov, the veteran leader of Russia's modern-day Communist Party, both men sought to "save humanity" with a message of "love, friendship, and brotherhood".
Speaking in Moscow in front of a crowd of red-flag-waving supporters on the 145th anniversary of Lenin's birth late last month, Zyuganov also declared that the Soviet Union was an attempt to establish "God's Kingdom on Earth".
Had he heard that speech, Lenin would likely have turned over in the Red Square mausoleum, where his embalmed corpse has been on public display for the past 91 years. After all, some 200,000 members of the clergy were murdered during the first two decades of the Soviet era, according to a 1995 Kremlin committee report, while millions of other Christians were persecuted for their faith.

The story then traces reactions to Zyuganov's recent speech in Red Square. Some critics "pointed out the apparent contradictions inherent in his mingling of communist and Christian beliefs." Other critics regard Zyuganov's  talk a "cynical ploy" to gain support from party members and Eastern Orthodox Christians alike. And Newsweek itself says he is a "former Soviet 'agitation and propaganda' official."

Newsweek then reports some intriguing cross-fertilization between church and state. It says Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to portray himself as a defender of "Orthodox Christian values." It notes that a priest singing a "popular Soviet-era song" went viral. And it says church motifs have often served the state, such as religious icons of Josef Stalin -- and the decision to embalm Lenin's body for a mausoleum in Red Square.

Adds the article:

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