Worship

The Atlantic locks in on that 'secret Catholic' subplot in the Jamestown reliquary mystery

The Atlantic locks in on that 'secret Catholic' subplot in the Jamestown reliquary mystery

It's rare to write about the same news topic twice in the same day, unless it's one of those hot-button topics that's driving people crazy on social media. That's a sobering thing to say, but there you have it.

However, I am truly fascinated with the depth of the questions being raised in early discussions of the silver box recently unearthed by the Jamestown Rediscovery team. This morning I raised some questions about a massive Washington Post piece on this topic and now, lo and behold, The Atlantic has posted a report on the same topic.

The Post piece pivoted on a question: Is the small silver box, containing human bones, found buried with colonial leader Gabriel Archer a reliquary or not? If it is a reliquary, in the ancient Christian sense of that word, then what saint or martyr were some of the colonialists venerating in this manner? 

Now editors at The Atlantic -- based on interviews with some of the same experts -- have published a lengthy piece that appears to be much more certain about several key facts. Check this out:

After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.

“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”

If that box is what Horn, in this new interview at least, seems certain that it is, then there are logical conclusions that can be drawn. Big ones.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Did The Tennessean mean to capture a key nuance in the post-Obergefell debates?

Did The Tennessean mean to capture a key nuance in the post-Obergefell debates?

If you set out to pick a state that was the opposite of my old state of Maryland, in terms of politics and culture, it would have to be Tennessee, where I live now.

Maryland is a historically Catholic state that has evolved -- other than in some rural corners and in most African-American church life -- into an archetypal Blue State.

Meanwhile, the political history of Tennessee has been rooted in a populist and often culturally conservative brand of Democratic Party politics, until the rise of the modern Republican Party. I mean, as a U.S. senator, Al Gore had an 84 percent National Right to Life approval rating. East Tennessee has always been heavily Republican, dating back to the Civil War in some parts of the mountains. But these are not, as a rule, Republicans who automatically hate the government. Can you say Tennessee Valley Authority?

This brings me to an interesting story that ran the other day in The Tennessean, the historically liberal Gannett newspaper in Nashville, the state capital. Whether the editors knew it or not, this story contains material that describes one of the key religious liberty debates taking place -- but rarely covered by journalists -- after the 5-4 Obergefell ruling backing same-sex marriage.

As you would expect, there are Republicans in Tennessee who pretty much want to blow up the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, the story notes early on:

Many Tennessee Republicans aren’t hiding their anger over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage across the country.
They're adamant they need to respond, either in a way they feel will champion states' rights or religious liberties. Some lawmakers want the state to consider allowing employees who object to same-sex marriage to refuse to serve same-sex couples.

There is that big idea yet again, that citizens who oppose same-sex marriage want the right to -- vaguely defined -- "refuse to serve same-sex couples." Hold that thought.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Yes, we saw that rather stunning Gawker quote about God and the mainstream press

Yes, we saw that rather stunning Gawker quote about God and the mainstream press

For years, I have heard religious leaders -- yes, most of them conservative types -- ask reporters whether or not they go to church. It's not a nice question and, I would argue, it's not the right question to ask if the goal is to understand why the mainstream press struggles to cover religion news.

The goal of this question, essentially, is to show that an unusually high percentage of the scribes and editors in newsrooms are godless heathens who hate religious people. Now, I have met a few of those heathens in newsrooms, but not as many as you would think. I've met my share of "spiritual, but not religious" journalists and quite a few religious progressives. I once heard a colleague quip that the only place that the Episcopal Church's "Decade of Evangelism," in the 1990s, was a success was in newsrooms.

As I have said before on this blog, there are plenty of non-believers who do a fine job covering religion news. Then again, I have met believers who could not report their way out of a paper bag.

No, the question religious folks should be asking journalists -- when reporters are sent to cover religion events -- is this: How long have you covered religion news and what did you do,  professionally and/or academically, to prepare for this work? In other words, stop asking journalists religious questions and start asking them journalism questions.

If you want to see a "Do you go to church?" train wreck, then check out the following commentary (and then some) from Hamilton Nolan at Gawker that as been making the rounds.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

A trend worth reporting: Philadelphia Inquirer explores multisite churches

A trend worth reporting: Philadelphia Inquirer explores multisite churches

Ten years ago, I wrote a trend story for Religion News Service on the rise of megachurches with satellite locations:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Most weekends, Pastor Craig Groeschel preaches at 23 services in five church locations across Oklahoma.
His schedule isn’t quite as busy as it sounds, though. The founder of LifeChurch.tv, a nontraditional church, Groeschel delivers only five of the messages in person. Technology takes care of the rest.
Welcome to the electronic church, live via satellite.
In the reality TV age, perhaps it’s no surprise that fast-growth churches increasingly use cameras to put their pastors in two places — or three or four or more — at the same time.

A decade later, multisite churches remain a fertile topic for Godbeat attention.

So this headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer this week caught my attention:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

With Irish friars, New York Times finds yearning for tradition, community and even faith?

With Irish friars, New York Times finds yearning for tradition, community and even faith?

Here we go again, yet another positive GetReligion post about an elite newsroom's coverage of a religious issue on foreign soil. I hope that readers won't hold all of these positive vibes against me, especially since, in this case, we're talking about The New York Times.

But first, do you remember the semi-shock felt by many traditional Catholics when National Public Radio did that glowing report on the Dominican sisters in Nashville? That was the report that opened like this:

For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits. But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.
The average of new entrants here is 23. And overall, the average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36 -- four decades younger than the average nun nationwide.
Unlike many older sisters in previous generations, who wear street clothes and live alone, the Nashville Dominicans wear traditional habits and adhere to a strict life of prayer, teaching and silence.

Now the Times has gone to Cork, Ireland, and discovered a very similar story focusing on a house of Dominican friars. The narrator, in the beginning, is recruiter Father Gerard Dunne and the topic is the medieval habit and rosary that, in a significant way, symbolize this order's approach to the faith.

Spot any themes that are similar to the earlier NPR piece?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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. ...

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy