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:

To Rev. Kevin Parviz, of Chai v' Shalom, the contrasts aren't strange but intentional.

"I wanted to identify what was Lutheran about the service and express that in Jewish ways," said Parviz, 57, who was reared in an observant Jewish family but who converted to Christianity about 1991 after marrying a Lutheran.

Who said the contrasts were strange? The RNS' version of that lead-in to Parviz's quote:

To the Rev. Kevin Parviz, of Chai v’ Shalom, the contrasts are intentional.

Bingo. Perhaps that edit was for space. But more likely, the original terminology threw up a red flag for someone at RNS.

Then we get to the criticism. From the Post-Dispatch:

Some in the Jewish community find this kind of worship service offensive.

Among them is Ruth Guggenheim, executive director of Jews for Judaism, an organization dedicated to preserving Jewish identity. She says melding Jewish and Christian practices can be misleading and confusing to those targeted for conversion.

"It's offensive to have spiritual predators out to get our people," she said.

Now, Lutherans reading the story might not like being called "spiritual predators." But that's journalism, folks. Journalism gives all stakeholders — as Poynter describes them — an equal opportunity to state their case.

And kudos, too, for the Post-Dispatch allowing Parviz to respond to the criticism:

That kind of criticism doesn't dampen Parviz's enthusiasm.

"The most anti-semitic thing we can do is withhold the love of Jesus to our Jewish people," Parviz said. "The bottom line for me is if I truly believe what the Scriptures teach, and I do, then the worst thing I could do for my Jewish parents, my Jewish friends, my Jewish people is say 'Oh just go to hell, and I'll be quiet.'"

The wording of "Some in the Jewish community find this kind of worship service offensive" does make me wonder: Are there Jews who don't find this offensive? If so, I think it would have been interesting to include their voice in this story, too.

At the end, the Post-Dispatch attempts to cover an awful lot of historical background in just four paragraphs. I'm not certain this is really enough space to plow the amount of ground attempted:

But to many in the Jewish community, such as Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder of Jews for Judaism, the problem isn't conversion but the methods used to reach that end.

They're "really trying to redefine what Judaism is and that's an insult to Judaism," said Kravitz, who maintains Judaism cannot be separated from its theology.

Kravitz also argues that those evangelizing to Jews are missing a major historical development: Only a small number of Jews accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Christianity spread in earnest during the Roman Empire, mainly among Gentiles. Jews expected the Messiah would be a king, not divine.

Philip A. Cunningham of The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, which is dedicated to enhancing mutual understanding between Jews and Christians, adds that most mainline churches understand that the ultimate destiny of Jews is not in the hands of Christians, but God.

By all means, read the whole story yourself and weigh in on the journalism and the approach taken. Feel free to disagree with my quibbles. All comments are good comments in the blogging world, right?

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