Worship

Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

What we have here are two interesting stories, which appear to be connected by a bridge of New York Times paranoia. It’s that latest addition to a growing canon of work attempting to connect Donald Trump to a vast right-wing Catholic conspiracy to bring down the compassionate, progressive Pope Francis.

The first story is a legitimate profile of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, whose life has taken her from the heights of glitterati fame to where she is now — a Catholic philanthropist with very conservative Catholic beliefs and a willingness to work with the rich and the poor.

The second story is — brace yourself — about Stephen K. Bannon and his ongoing efforts to promote his own power and prestige, primarily by spinning conspiracy theories that make cultural progressives go nuts. (Click here for a GetReligion post about a previous chapter in this drama and here for another.)

That leads us to the New York Times opus with this headline: “The ‘It’ ’80s Party Girl Is Now a Defender of the Catholic Faith.”

This is a story that I would think made Bannon very, very happy.

At the same time, it is a story in which Princess Gloria makes one or two comments about Bannon, but then basically shows herself to be a conservative Catholic who greatly admires the now retired Pope Benedict XVI. Yes, the does have questions about some of the actions of Pope Francis and, yes, she admires Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. You know what that means in mainstream press circles.

Let’s tiptoe into this, looking at the key summary statement and, then, the statement of Gray Lady theology that frames this whole two-stories-in-one train wreck.

Princess Gloria — once christened “Princess TNT” for her explosive years as a hard partying, art-collecting, punk-haired aristocrat — has grown into the sun queen around which many traditionalist Roman Catholics opposed to Pope Francis orbit. Her Regensburg castle is a potential “Gladiator School” for conservative Catholics on a crusade to preserve church traditions.

Her Roman palace overlooking the ancient forum is a preferred salon for opposition cardinals, bitter bishops and populists like Stephen K. Bannon. Many of them are hoping to use the sex abuse crisis that amounts to the greatest existential threat to the church in centuries to topple the 81-year-old pontiff, who they are convinced is destroying the faith.

Now, for that blast of Times theology. The key is that the following shows, once again, that the journalism issue here is NOT an anti-religious bias. No, the key to this piece of advocacy journalism is that there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and that the Times team gets to decide who is who.

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Seeking a Hanukkah miracle: Why can't the Gray Lady 'get' the Festival of Lights?

Seeking a Hanukkah miracle: Why can't the Gray Lady 'get' the Festival of Lights?

Now here is a headline that a GetReligion scribe has to pass along, pronto: “Why can’t the New York Times get Hanukkah right?”

What we’re talking about is a Religion News Service commentary by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin. Consider this a kind of early weekend think piece, since it’s talking about op-ed page work.

However, religion-beat professionals will certainly want to read (and maybe file way) this to get a refresher on some history and facts about the eight-day “Festival of Lights,” which is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that punches way above its weight class for reasons that are quite ironic, to say the least.

The opening is very clever and slightly snarky at the same time.

Every few years, the New York Times runs a contest: “Best Essay About Hanukkah By An Ambivalent Jew.”

That is the only explanation for this past week’s crop of New York Times op-ed pieces about Hanukkah.

“The Gray Lady” is showing signs of advanced Jewish arteriosclerosis.

Take yesterday’s article, “That’s One Alternative Santa.”

The author, a comedy writer, begins with the traditional disavowal of any substantive Jewish connections or affiliations.

In theological terms, there is little love lost between me and Judaism. But culturally — with my unwavering devotion to [Howard] Stern on the radio, [Philip] Roth on the page, [Bob] Dylan on the stereo and kugel in the oven — I am a Hasid.

This self-identification as a Rhett Butler Jew — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” — points him in the direction of embracing the “traditional” Hanukkah symbol — Hanukkah Harry — a fictional character on Saturday Night Live.

You get the idea. Somehow, I had missed “Hanukkah Harry.” Just lucky, I guess.

Here’s the big question: What does all of this have to do with Judaism? That leads to a common debate topic this time of year: Are we talking Judaism the religion or Judaism the culture.

The answer, of course, is “yes.”

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One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

Try to imagine covering a worship service, in a cathedral, using modernized Anglican rites and a river of glorious sacred music and managing to produce news features that focus on (fill in the blank) instead of (fill in the blank).

After this week, you can probably guess what this post is about.

Yes, it’s another post about the mainstream news coverage of the state funeral — and too a lesser extent, the oh-so-Texas funeral in Houston — of former President George H.W. Bush. I’ve writing about that subject a lot this week (click here for a Bobby Ross, Jr., post with lots of links) and now you can listen to a “Crossroads” podcast on that subject, as well. Click here to tune that in.

Frankly, there is still a lot to talk about, especially if you think that that these various rites were about Bush 41, rather than Donald Trump. However, I’d like to signal that this post will end with some good news, a story about the state funeral that actually mixed lots of religion into a report on this topic. Hold that thought.

I’m at home in East Tennessee, these days, not in New York City. Thus, the newspaper in my driveway is the Knoxville News Sentinel, which is owned by the Gannett chain. Thus, I watched the whole funeral and then, the following day, read the following USA Today report in that local paper: “George H.W. Bush state funeral: 'America's last great soldier-statesman'.”

I was, frankly, stunned that this long story was, basically, free of faith-based content. Did the USA Today watch the same rite I did? Here is a long, and very typical, passage:

Ever the diplomat, the elder Bush managed in death to bring together the nation's four living ex-presidents, as well as President Donald Trump, the Republican he and his son George W. Bush refused to support two years ago. The gathering was at times awkward as Trump and his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, ignored each other.

The most touching moment came when the younger Bush, delivering the last of four eulogies, choked up recalling "a great and noble man, and the best father a son or daughter could have." As the late president's three other sons and daughter looked on tearfully, the audience burst into applause for the only time during the ceremony.

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Yes, state funerals are political, but Bush 41's funeral was also full of faith. The coverage?

Yes, state funerals are political, but Bush 41's funeral was also full of faith. The coverage?

State funerals are what they are — the high-church rites of civil religion.

Obviously, they are political events that may include elements of partisan drama. Obviously, they are civic events featuring warm, mostly secular, salutes to national leaders. At the same time, they are funerals in which families confront the death of a loved one, a process that is often complex and emotional.

But may I add one more statement to this list of facts? The vast majority of state funerals are also worship services and this is especially true when dealing with political leaders who were faithful members of a parish and their lives were framed in a specific religious tradition.

With all of these realities in mind, let me suggest a quick, digital test that readers can use when evaluating the mainstream press coverage of the long, beautiful Washington Cathedral rites for former President George H.W. Bush.

First, search the story for this name — “Russell Levenson.”

Then search the story for this name — “Donald Trump.” After all, everything in Beltway land, these days, is ultimately about the Tweeter In Chief.

Now, compare and contrast what you find.

Who is Levenson? He is the rector of the large Houston parish attended by George and Barbara Bush and, thus, their pastor for more than a decade. Since this funeral was a rite of Christian worship, Levenson delivered the sermon at the end. Yes, this was the rare event where a priest spoke AFTER an address by the president, in this case a former president.

The way I see it, it’s hard to cover a worship service while ignoring the sermon and, come to think of it, the actual contents of the funeral rite itself.

So let’s look at some of the content in two crucial news sources in elite American media — The New York Times and, naturally, The Washington Post.

The main story at Times included material addressing secular and religious content in this particular state funeral. Sure, I would have liked a stronger emphasis on the faith content, but I know I am not part of this newspaper’s target audience, it’s choir. I thought this was a rather restrained, solid story.

Yes, there was a reference to Levenson’s sermon — at the very end.

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Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Back when I was breaking into journalism, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, I quickly learned that religion-beat specialists know lots of inside jokes.

Take this classic one, from the “light bulb” genre: How many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: One. Along with 10 others to start a newsletter about the utter irreplaceability of the original, historic bulb.

Yes, that’s a really old joke. Today, “newsletter” would be “Facebook page,” or something like that.

In this GetReligion post, the key thing is to note, in this joke, that “Episcopalian” is a noun.

Want to see the adjective form?

While working at the old Charlotte News (RIP), I got some nasty telephone calls after writing a column with this lede: “When covering an Episcopal convention, never stay in the hotel room next to the ice machine.”

As the late Associated Press religion reporter George Cornell — an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian, if there ever was one — once offered, in my presence, a quip that went something like this: You can tell that a journalist is a religion-beat reporter when they know that “Episcopalian” is a noun and “Episcopal” is an adjective.

I bring this up because lots of journalists — few of them religion-beat specialists — will be covering the funeral rites for President George H.W. Bush. Since he was a faithful Episcopalian, of a rather traditional bent, all of these rites will occur in Episcopal settings, with Episcopal clergy involved.

It’s safe to say that mistakes will be made. Consider, for example, the following passage in a lovely Houston Chronicle sidebar about the current emotions in the parish that Barbara and George Bush attended in Houston. The headline: “At Bush’s church, a moment of pause for ‘a remarkable life’.” The story opens with images from the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, a service that tends to attract an older, quieter crowd:

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Yes, this is a hard news story to cover: More talk about The Atlantic and modern exorcists

Yes, this is a hard news story to cover: More talk about The Atlantic and modern exorcists

The Bible doesn’t come up, all that often, here at GetReligion, unless we are talking about news stories that mangle a crucial piece of scripture. Remember this M.Z. Hemingway classic about the Ascension of Jesus? Or how about this M.Z. post, about The New York Times and Easter?

Anyway, to understand this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), I need you to pause and read the Gospel According to St. Luke, chapter 8: 26-36.

The key: Try to look at this through the eyes of a journalist who was going to mention this New Testament passage in a news report. We are doing part of a discussion of that interesting feature that ran the other day in The Atlantic, focusing on the sharp rise in requests for the ministry of exorcists in today’s Catholic church. So, here is our Bible story for today:

Then they arrived at the country of the Ger′asenes, [a] which is opposite Galilee. And as he stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons; for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he lived not in a house but among the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me.” For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him; he was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert.)

Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed.

Now, my goal here is not to ask readers — as skeptical journalists — whether they believe this story or not. I am not asking whether readers think this is a mere folk story, as opposed to being inspired scripture handed down by the early church. I am not asking for a scientific evaluation of this text.

I am simple noting that it is hard to read this passage and not grasp that the reality of evil and the demonic is part of the Christian tradition. What we also see her is an archetypal image of the work of the exorcist, especially that of a priest acting in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

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The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

Five years ago, I had a chance to eat lunch with the late William Peter Blatty, an articulate Catholic apologist who won an Academy Award for turning his novel, "The Exorcist," into a stunning Hollywood screenplay.

Yes, I called Blatty a Catholic apologist.

Why? In part because he viewed his masterwork as a vehicle for criticizing this materialistic age. Here is a chunk of that column, in which Blatty explains his motives. In “The Exorcist”:

The fictional Father Damien Karras experiences paralyzing doubts after his mother's death. Blatty was typing the second page of his earliest take on the story when he received the call that his mother had died.

"I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death," said Blatty, in a Bethesda, Md., diner near his home, not far from the Georgetown neighborhood described in "The Exorcist."

After studying the explicit details in the journals of exorcists, he decided that a story about "what happens in these cases could really be a boost to the faith. It could show people that the spiritual world is real."

The bottom line: "The Exorcist" scared the hell out of millions of people. 

This brings me to the feature story in The Atlantic that stirred up lots of online conversation over the weekend, the one with this haunting double-decker headline:

American Exorcism

Priests are fielding more requests than ever for help with demonic possession, and a centuries-old practice is finding new footing in the modern world.

A serious piece of journalism on this topic faces a big question: How much space should be dedicated to the views of people who, well, think demon possession is real? As Blatty noted, it is impossible to talk about this topic — exorcisms — without debating evidence that the material world is not all that there is. (Click here for a Rod Dreher discussion of this angle.)

Toward the end of this long feature, reporter Mike Mariani offers this summary of what he was seeing, hearing and feeling:

Pore over these spiritual and psychiatric frameworks long enough, and the lines begin to blur. If someone lapses into an alternate identity that announces itself as a demon bent on wresting away that person’s soul, how can anyone prove otherwise? Psychiatry has only given us models through which to understand these symptoms, new cultural contexts to replace the old ones. No lab test can pinpoint the medical source of these types of mental fractures.

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Friday Five: Thanksgiving, missionary death, Jordan Peterson, hurricane heroes, homeless church

Friday Five: Thanksgiving, missionary death, Jordan Peterson, hurricane heroes, homeless church

Happy (day after) Thanksgiving!

I’ve been mostly away from the news this week, enjoying my favorite holiday.

If I missed any important headlines that I should have included here, by all means, leave a comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

In the meantime, let’s dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is an international story, so you might have missed it. The Washington Post reports from New Delhi on an American missionary who tried “to meet and convert one of the most isolated hunter-and-gather tribes in the world” by offering them “fish and other small gifts.”

Instead, the Post reports that “the tribesmen killed him and buried his body on the beach, journals and emails show.”

The story offers revealing insights from the journal as well as quotes from the missionary’s mother.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: As often happens, the words “Jordan Peterson” in a headline tend to attract attention.

Last week’s No. 1 most-read post was by our editor Terry Mattingly — the piece that he wrote to support last week’s “Crossroads” podcast. The headline on that: “Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?” Here’s a bite of that:

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Catholic connection to Thanksgiving Day? That's a great story that is rarely told

Catholic connection to Thanksgiving Day? That's a great story that is rarely told

If Christmas is referred to as “The greatest story ever told,” America’s first Thanksgiving could very well be “The greatest story you’ve never heard before.”

The reason for that is because the first recorded Thanksgiving meal between the Pilgrims and Native Americans at Plymouth in 1621 may not have been the first of its kind. In fact, some historians say it actually took place more than 50 years earlier in St. Augustine.

Spanish documents, first highlighted by University of Florida Professor Michael Gannon, revealed that the first meal between European colonists and Native Americans on U.S. soil took place on the grounds of what is now the Fountain of Youth in 1565.

The city’s founder Pedro Menendez de Aviles and the colonists broke bread with the Timucua Indians soon after the Spanish made landfall on September 8. In Gannon’s book, The Cross in the Sand, he noted, “It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land.”

De Aviles came ashore on that day and subsequently named the land St. Augustine in honor of the saint on whose feast day was August 28, the day Florida was first sighted by the ships. Members of the Timucua tribe greeted the fleet. Records show it was a peaceful exchange.

In his memoirs, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who celebrated mass that day, wrote: “The feast day [was] observed… after mass, [Menendez] had the Indians fed and dined himself.”

Although Gannon’s book was published in 1965, no one paid attention to it until 1985 when a reporter from The Associated Press called the professor looking for a new angle on the holiday. When the wire service put the article out for its member newspapers to print a few days before Thanksgiving, the story sent shockwaves across New England. Gannon was immediately dubbed, “The Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”

The meal celebrated by the Spanish had already been planned as a feast to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus, and coincided with their safe arrival. Historians like Gannon have argued that the first real Thanksgiving didn’t feature Protestant separatists in Massachusetts, but Catholic explorers in Florida.

Gannon, a legendary figure among Florida historians, died last year at age 89. Gannon may have died, but the Catholic case for Thanksgiving lives on thanks to other historians, researchers and writers who argue the honor should go to Spanish settlers.

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