Worship

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

There were a lot of different subjects swirling around during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, so I don’t know exactly where to start. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes.)

On one level, host Todd Wilken and I talked about church buildings and sacred architecture. You know, the whole idea that church architecture is theology expressed in (List A) stone, timber, brick, stucco, copper, iron and glass.

Ah, but is the theology different if the materials being used are (List B) sheetrock, galvanized steel, plastic, concrete, rubber and plywood?

What if you built a Byzantine, Orthodox sanctuary out of the materials in List B and accepted the American construction-industry norms that a building will last about 40-50 years? Contrast that with a church built with List A materials, using many techniques that have been around for centuries and are meant to produce churches that last 1,000 years or more.

These two churches would look very similar. The provocative issue raised by church designer and art historian Andrew Gould — of New World Byzantine Studios, in Charleston, S.C. — is whether one of these two churches displays a “sacred ethos” that will resonate with the teachings of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, while the other may be both modern and more temporary.

Here’s another question along those same lines: Why did farmers, merchants and peasants in places like Greece, Russia, Serbia and Romania for many centuries insist on building churches that would last for generation after generation of believers? Also, why are the faithful in many modern, prosperous American communities tempted to build churches that may start to fall apart after a few decades?

Here’s the end of my “On Religion” column about Gould and his work, based on a lecture he gave at my own Orthodox home parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — which is poised to build a much-needed new sanctuary.

“If you build something that looks like a Byzantine church, but it isn’t really built like a Byzantine church, then it isn’t going to look and sound and function like a Byzantine church — generation after generation,” said Gould.

“The goal in most architecture today is to create the appearance of something, not the reality. ... When you build one of these churches, you want the real thing. You want reality. You want a church that’s going to last.”

Now, is this a very newsworthy subject?

Maybe not. But some of these issues can be spotted looming over big headlines some big stories in places like New York City.

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Sort of Friday Five: Of course the terrorist attack in New Zealand is a religion-beat story

Sort of Friday Five: Of course the terrorist attack in New Zealand is a religion-beat story

The terrorist set out to massacre Muslim believers as they gathered for Friday prayers in their mosques.

He covered his weapons with names of others who committed similar mass murders and military leaders that he claimed fought for the same cause.

The terrorist left behind a hellish manifesto built on themes common among radicals who hate immigrants, especially Muslims, and weave in virulent anti-Semitism themes, as well (BBC explainer here). He claimed to have “been in contact” with sympathizers of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people — most of them children — in 2011.

1. Religion story of the week. The gunman’s motives may have been pure hatred, with no twisted links to any world religion, but it’s clear that the New Zealand massacre is the religion story of the week — because of the faith of the 49 victims and the faith statements of millions of people that are offering prayers and help in the wake of the attack.

The gunman labeled his own motives, as seen in this New York Times report:

Before the shooting, someone appearing to be the gunman posted links to a white-nationalist manifesto on Twitter and 8chan, an online forum known for extremist right-wing discussions. …

In his manifesto, he identified himself as a 28-year-old man born in Australia and listed his white nationalist heroes. Writing that he had purposely used guns to stir discord in the United States over the Second Amendment’s provision on the right to bear arms, he also declared himself a fascist. “For once, the person that will be called a fascist, is an actual fascist,” he wrote.

The Washington Post noted:

The 74-page manifesto left behind after the attack was littered with conspiracy theories about white birthrates and “white genocide.” It is the latest sign that a lethal vision of white nationalism has spread internationally. Its title, “The Great Replacement,” echoes the rallying cry of, among others, the torch-bearing protesters who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.

Also this:

Video on social media of the attack’s aftermath showed a state of disbelief, as mosque-goers huddled around the injured and dead. Amid anguished cries, a person could be heard saying, “There is no God but God,” the beginning of the Muslim profession of faith.

Please help us spot major religion themes in the waves of coverage that this story will receive in the hours and days ahead. Meanwhile, with Bobby Ross Jr., still in the Middle East, here is a tmatt attempt to fill the rest of the familiar Friday Five format.

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One thing about Lent: There are lots of stories to cover, including this valid Twitter hook

One thing about Lent: There are lots of stories to cover, including this valid Twitter hook

It’s that time again. Great Lent is here and my home fridge has gone almost completely vegan, following ancient traditions (no meat or dairy) in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

If you live in an area with a significant Orthodox population, there might be some interesting stories linked to this. For example, when do most Orthodox children begin following a meat-free version of this fast (as much as possible) during Lent? How do things go at school, in this age in which more children are already vegetarians? I’m just thinking out loud here.

However, for most reporters, Lent means one thing — literally. Yes, it’s time for waves of stories about people giving up “one thing” for Lent. A decade or so ago, I attempted to find the roots of this “one thing” idea (I assumed Anglicanism) and, well, found out that this alleged tradition isn’t really a church tradition at all. It seems to have come out of nowhere.

I don’t know: Maybe some reporters should give up one-thing Lent stories for Lent this year? There are newsy alternatives around. For example, what are the actual Catholic fasting traditions in Lent? Does anyone know? How many Catholics follow them?

Meanwhile, a veteran freelance writer for Religion News Service just moved a thoughtful piece linking the one-thing Lent concept with another hot news hook — the acidic impact of Twitter on the lives of journalists and “public intellectuals” whose jobs require them to spend many, many hours swimming in those snark-invested waters. The headline: “Pundits repent of Twitter sins, apply faith to social media.” Here’s the overture:

On March 5, Fat Tuesday, Paul Begala, a consultant for CNN and veteran D.C. insider who has spoken publicly about his Catholic faith, made a public act of contrition, tweeting:

“I love Twitter, but I fear it’s making me more superficial, snarky, and judgmental – flaws I already have in abundance,” Begala announced. “So I’m giving up Twitter for Lent. I want to apologize in advance to my neighbors for shouting out the window in rage for the next 40 days.”

Then he signed off.

Begala wasn’t the first to admit his Twitter sins.

Now, I should mention the byline on this piece — Elizabeth Evans. Longtime GetReligion readers may ask if this is the Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans, the former GetReligionista.

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Priests trapped in closets: The New York Times offers updated talking points for Catholic left

Priests trapped in closets: The New York Times offers updated talking points for Catholic left

At this point, there is no reason to expect a New York Times story about sexuality and the Catholic Church to be anything other than a set of talking points released by the press office at Fordham University or some other official camp of experts on the Catholic doctrinal left.

This is, of course, especially true when the topic is linked to LGBTQ issues.

New York City is a very complex place, when it comes to Catholic insiders and experts. However, it appears that there are no pro-Catechism voices anywhere to be found in the city that St. Pope John Paul II once called the “capital of the world.”

We had a perfect example this weekend of the Gray Lady’s role in defining the journalistic norms for covering Catholic debates (as journalists prepare for the Vatican’s global assembly to discuss sexual abuse by clergy). Here’s the epic double-decker headline:

’It Is Not a Closet. It Is a Cage.’ Gay Catholic Priests Speak out

The crisis over sexuality in the Catholic Church goes beyond abuse. It goes to the heart of the priesthood, into a closet that is trapping thousands of men.

Looking for a news story that offers viewpoints from both sides of this issue? Forget about it.

Looking for complex, candid thoughts from gay Catholics who actually support the teachings of their church? Forget about it (even though they exist and are easy to find online.)

Looking for any point of view other than the Times gospel stated in that headline? Forget about it.

So what is the purpose of this story?

Simple stated, the goal here is to define this debate for legions of other journalists. Here is how Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher describes this role in the journalism ecology in the Theodore McCarrick era:

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Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

I had no idea there was a woman who took it upon herself to find homes for the many “brown babies” conceived in post World War II Germany between black American occupying soldiers and German women.

But when the New York Times recently ran the obituary of Mabel Grammer, a black journalist (which was unusual in itself in the ‘40s for a female of any color to be a reporter), I learned a lot about this brave woman.

What I didn’t learn is how her Catholic faith informed what she did, including a near-death vision of the Virgin Mary. This is, after all, not a newspaper that often sees a connection — in terms of facts worth reporting — between a person’s faith and what they do with that faith. Instead, we hear about what tmatt likes to call “vague courageous faith syndrome.”

I had to go to Catholic sources to find out the basic facts about what inspired Grammer to do what she did — working to create ways to help between 5,000 and 7,000 of these children.

But first, the obituary, which is a bit late in that Grammer died in 2002. However, there is a good reason for that. The Times has recently been doing obituaries of noted black Americans who died without a write-up.

They were called “brown babies,” or “mischlingskinder,” a derogatory German term for mixed-race children. And sometimes they were just referred to as mutts.

They were born during the occupation years in Germany after World War II, the offspring of German women and African-American soldiers. Their fathers were usually transferred elsewhere and their mothers risked social repercussions by keeping them, so the babies were placed in orphanages.

But when Mabel Grammer, an African-American journalist, became aware of the orphaned children, she stepped in. She and her husband, an army chief warrant officer stationed in Mannheim, and later Karlsruhe, adopted 12 of them, and Grammer found homes for 500 others. …

Though many German mothers wanted desperately to keep their children, they saw what the other mothers faced: They were ostracized, denied jobs, housing and ration cards, and were unable to feed their babies or themselves.

We find out that she approached orphanages and the nuns who ran them to see if they’d release these babies to black families in America and Germany.

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I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I did not watch the State of the Union show last night, in keeping with my long-standing policy that I strive to prevent the face of Donald Trump from appearing on my television screen. I took the same approach to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 race.

In other words, I wait for the transcript of the speech and I read the key parts. This approach is much easier on my aging stomach lining. In other words, I’m interested in what was said — not the Trump dramatics and the talking-heads circus that followed.

This time around, I was interested in what Trump had to say about the current firestorms in Virginia and New York about what U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has called “fourth-trimester abortion.”

You’ll be shocked, shocked, to learn that fact-checkers at The New York Times were not impressed with Trump’s comments in this area. Click here to see that, and then click here for a conservative academic’s skeptical fact-check of the Times fact-check.

I also checked Twitter a bit, during the speech, and then read all the way through my feed this morning looking for signs of post-SOTU intelligent life.

Thus, I ran into the amazing tweet by New York Times White House correspondent Annie Karmi stating:

Trump Just Ad-Libbed "They Came Down From Heaven" When Quoting A Holocaust Survivor Watching American Soldiers Liberate Dachau. Jews Don't Believe In Heaven.

Wow. I had no idea that there was a Jewish catechism that definitively stated loud dogma on issues of this kind.

I was under the impression — based on graduate school readings on trends in post-Holocaust Jewish life and culture — that trying to say that “Jews believe” this, that or the other is rather difficult. In this case, are we talking about Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Buddhist Jews, “cultural” Jews, Jewish agnostics, secular Jews or what?

Saying “Jews don’t believe in heaven” is sort of like saying “Democrats don’t believe in God.” I mean, there are Democrats who believe in God, and there’s evidence of that, and there’s some evidence that lots of Democrats don’t believe in God. How would anyone try to make a definitive statement about something like that?

Ditto for Jews and “heaven.”

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Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Religion News Service recently ran the sort of news feature cum-opinion-column that I find a welcome intellectual and emotional respite from the culture wars cum-all-religion-is-political hit pieces that currently crowd my ever-more exasperating news feeds.

The piece ran under the intriguing headline, “Secular saints, folk saints and plain old celebrities.”

If you don’t at least skim the piece chances are it will be difficult to follow my thinking here.

The piece was contributed by novelist, unconventional — by my reckoning — theologian (though she writes that she regularly attends a “traditional” Episcopal church), and new RNS columnist Tara Isabella Burton. Seems to me she has just the right combination of imagination and thick skin to delve into the origins of religious thought in its broadest, and perhaps unconventional, sense.

The thick skin is a requisite because of the inevitable harrumphs I’m sure she endures from some religion traditionalists prone to dismiss her as a frivolous thinker.

That, plus the equally dismissive slights that anti-religion cynics I’m equally sure aim her way for daring to consider in a spiritual light the myriad aspirations that, often unconsciously, underpin so much of human motivation and thought.

However, given the enormous changes currently afoot in Western religious circles — the rise of the so-called “religiously unaffiliated” or “nones,” for example — I think voices such as Burton’s are increasingly important to the Western discourse on the place of religion in public life.

In short, there’s far more to popular and even quirky religious expression than is often immediately evident.

In this particular piece, Burton addresses aspirational thinking and the huge role it can play in shaping personal faith.

Question: Are you familiar with the term “cargo cult”? Yes, no? Either way I’ll return to this extreme example of aspirational faith below. But first, here’s the top of Burton’s piece.

On a recent Sunday in church, the officiating priest invited us (as he does every Sunday) to pray. We prayed for those you might call the “usual suspects”: for the bishop, for those in positions of political authority, for the recently departed.

But among those we also prayed for was “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and for all the other saints … ”

Technically speaking, King is not a saint in any mainstream established Christian tradition.

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What do we know? Drum chants 3.0 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (updated)

What do we know? Drum chants 3.0 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (updated)

So what else happened after the 2019 March for Life?

At this point, do new developments matter? What are the odds of journalists managing to cover them in a calm, professional manner?

However, I think it’s crucial to keep paying attention and asking practical journalism questions.

So with that in mind, let’s turn to the Catholic News Agency — yes, a conservative Catholic news outlet — report about a tense confrontation at the faith’s most symbolic site in Washington, D.C. Here’s the overture:

While chanting and playing ceremonial drums, a group of Native American rights activists reportedly led by Nathan Phillips attempted Jan. 19 to enter Washington, D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a Saturday evening Mass.

The group of 20 demonstrators was stopped by shrine security as it tried to enter the church during its 5:15 pm Vigil Mass, according to a shrine security guard on duty during the Mass.

“It was really upsetting,” the guard told CNA.

“There were about twenty people trying to get in, we had to lock the doors and everything.”

The key phrase, of course, is this one — “reportedly led by Nathan Phillips.”

In light of the ongoing journalism train wreck surrounding the confrontation between Phillips and students from Covington (Ken.) Catholic High School, it’s totally valid to ask questions about sourcing on volatile information such as this.

What’s going on? If you read carefully, it appears that the “reportedly” reference is to draw a distinction between information that is clearly shown on videotape and information drawn from eyewitnesses.

Normally, journalists place a high degree of trust in eyewitness accounts — especially the testimony of participants in an event. However, these are not normal times.

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