This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctine is key to church growth

This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctine is key to church growth

From the first days of this blog, I have argued that religion-beat professionals need to dedicate more coverage to theological, doctrinal and cultural issues on the religious left (hardly anyone uses capital letters).

Why? Consider this equation: One of the biggest news stories of the late 20th Century was the rise -- in terms of public-square clout in America -- of what became known as the Religious Right (almost everyone uses capital letters).

There were, no doubt about it, big stories there to cover -- especially among evangelical Protestants shaken by the Roe vs. Wade ruling. But consider this question: Were religious conservatives, to some degree, stepping into a cultural void created by decades of numerical decline among liberal Protestants? I would argue that both halves of this equation needed lots of coverage.

There have been attempts by liberal churches to fight back against the demographics that have been pulling them down, by which I mean declining numbers of converts and the cumulative impact of decades of low birthrates.

There are valid stories to cover, in all of this. Thus, I was glad to see Religion News Service dedicate nearly 1,800 words to a feature about church-growth efforts at a Bible Belt (but college-town) congregation in the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As things turned out, 1,800 words were not enough. Here is the overture:

CARY, N.C. (RNS) -- At a Bible study on a weekday evening, Lutheran minister Daniel Pugh paced before a group of 50 church members in cargo shorts and a plaid button-down shirt talking about Adam and Eve.
Clutching a hand-held remote he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, telling members of Christ the King Lutheran Church that one way to interpret the story of Adam and Eve is as a coming-of-age allegory about a pair of carefree teens caught red-handed having sex.
In this, alternative reading of The Fall, the “forbidden fruit” offered to Eve in Chapter 3 may be a metaphor for sex, he said, and the “serpent” may be a metaphor for a penis.

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Why did British journalists throw a PR pity party for an offended transgender activist?

Why did British journalists throw a PR pity party for an offended transgender activist?

Remember the news stories about the bakery in Gresham, Ore., that got sued out of existence by two lesbians? I wrote about the jaundiced press coverage of Sweet Cakes by Melissa here.

Nearly the exact same story is now playing out in British media. Sometimes when I feel depressed about the state of American media, I take a look at what’s available overseas and realize how enlightened, accurate and occasionally balanced things here are in comparison. Sometimes that is not saying much.

However, the Times of London’s take on the matter more resembled classic Fleet Street work than fair and balanced coverage. It began:

A Christian printer has refused to produce the business cards of a transgender diversity consultant because he did not want to promote a cause that he felt might harm fellow believers.
Nigel Williams, a married father of three based in Southampton, turned down the chance of working for Joanne Lockwood’s consultancy, SEE Change Happen, which offers advice on equality, diversity and inclusion.

So far, so good. That's just basic news. Then:

He wrote to her: “The new model of diversity is used (or misused) to margin­alise (or indeed discriminate against) Christians in their workplaces and other parts of society if they do not subscribe to it. Although I’m quite sure you have no intention of marginalising Christians it would weigh heavily upon me if through my own work I was to make pressure worse for fellow Christians.”

Am I right that the printer isn’t so much objecting to her being transgender as he is objecting to her use of “diversity” tactics as a cudgel?

Lockwood, 52, who has been living as a trans woman since January and changed her name in July, said she was “gobsmacked”, adding: “I was not expecting a lecture. I disbelieved this could happen in 2017. I have been distraught and cried and my wife consoled me.”

Now where have we heard this before?

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The Amish population is booming: Could their religion have something to do with it?

The Amish population is booming: Could their religion have something to do with it?

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a fascinating story recently about the booming Amish population.

The trend piece — much to its credit — contained a fair amount of religion-related details that gave insight into what the Amish believe.

At various points as I read the feature, I found myself both (1) appreciative that the Post-Dispatch delved into the faith of the Amish and (2) wishing that the newspaper had unraveled the yarn just a little more. 

The lede set the scene:

LICKING, Mo. — The story of abrupt change in this small south-central Missouri town starts with the water tower. A giant baseball is painted on top as a fading reminder of when Rawlings was king.
As sporting goods manufacturing dried up, a $60 million maximum-security prison opened in 2000. The South Central Regional Correctional Center doubled the local population to more than 3,000 people.
“We just try to go with the times,” said Licking Mayor Keith Cantrell. “Whatever happens, we try to deal with it and go on.”
Unlike Rawlings, the prison hunkers out of sight, just west of downtown. Now, another group has settled that also appreciates privacy, only its members arrived under the shade of straw hats and black bonnets.
The Amish, who are undergoing exponential growth, have chosen Licking as one of many new settlements. Facing overcrowding and increased government pressure in more traditional areas, they broke new ground here in 2009, after buying an 800-acre ranch. They bought another large property a few years later.

Big question: Why is the Amish population growing? Hang on to that thought.

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Religion ghost? Ethiopian refugee thrives with strong values, family and maybe something else

Religion ghost? Ethiopian refugee thrives with strong values, family and maybe something else

Every now and then, I get a letter from a reader that is rather poignant. It's like this person is reading a good story in the local newspaper and then there is a passage that produces a kind of melancholy feeling, a sense of curiosity and loss.

Was there a religion ghost hiding somewhere in the story? Would anyone else read this news report and feel the same way? Would other readers have the same suspicion that there was crucial religious material missing?

So the reader sends me the URL to the story, often with a note that reads something like this:

Numerous media outlets have published stories about Oromo Ethiopian refugee Tashitaa Tufaa's success in the US. ... As a Greek Orthodox when I read the article I was curious as to whether his religion -- Christian or Islam -- had any effect on him. I reviewed many of similar articles. Religion was never mentioned.

In this case we are dealing with a story from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The double-decker headline proclaims, success-story style:

Minneapolis/St. Paul transit entrepreneur Tashitaa Tufaa is Entrepreneur of the Year
Tashitaa Tufaa, who built a $12 million school bus service in just a decade, is the Metropolitan Economic Development Association's 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year

Simply stated, this is a business story about -- from all accounts -- a remarkable man:

Tashitaa Tufaa, whose walk to school in his native Ethiopia was a 10-mile round trip in bare feet, now sees to the safe transit of thousands of schoolchildren daily as president and CEO of Fridley-based Metropolitan Transportation Network Inc.

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Missouri paper takes 'Wild Kingdom' approach to observing ... a real, live Roman Catholic

Missouri paper takes 'Wild Kingdom' approach to observing ... a real, live Roman Catholic

Television viewers from the pre-Discovery Channel epoch might remember "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," a nature program that examined wild creatures such as the anaconda (video above) with a mix of detachment and drama.

In a similar vein, the St. Joseph, Missouri, News-Press has trained its editorial eye on another rare and exotic species -- a young, faithful member of the Roman Catholic Church.

After reading the story, it seemed a bit odd for a newspaper smack dab in the middle of the so-called "Bible Belt" to take such an approach. Plus, the paper fails to ask, let alone answer, some key questions about the subject's story, a physical therapist who goes online to promote her faith.

The headline, which at first sounded like something from The Onion, reads "Woman incorporates religion into daily life, practice." For this observer, things went downhill from there:

During the age of information, it can seem as if most have turned away from religion, but as Maureen Holtz has found, incorporating her faith into her everyday routine has given her the grounding she needs.
According to a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, millennials are much less likely to be religious than previous generations, but Holtz says being raised Catholic has provided the framework for her life.
While Holtz, a millennial herself, credits her strong Catholic upbringing for her ties to the church, she also shares her faith online, too. With only 4 in 10 millennials saying religion was very important to them, there is more of an ideological divide than ever before. Coupled with social media, Holtz said it’s not uncommon to be met with negativity online when someone shares his or her beliefs.

The impression that comes from the lede is that here is an unusual specimen, someone who still believes in something during "the age of information," whatever that is.

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New era of Coptic martyrs: RNS dives into big questions about a deadly serious subject

New era of Coptic martyrs: RNS dives into big questions about a deadly serious subject

Lots of news stories -- big ones and everyday ones -- are haunted by religious themes (and even factual material) that mainstream reporters skate right past. Here at GetReligion, we call these religion-shaped holes in stories "ghosts."

There are also news stories that, to be blunt, are haunted by questions and issues that can only be described in terms of theology, often requiring a willingness to dig into centuries of history and debates of a complex or even mysterious nature.

I sincerely appreciate attempts to write these theologically driven stories, because I know that they are (a) hard to get right, (b) hard to get approved by editors and (c) hard to write in words that work in a daily newspaper (think accuracy plus readability).

So I really want to cheer for a Religion News Service feature that came out with this headline: "Unrelenting killing of Coptic Christians intensifies debate over martyrdom."

This is a story about a very complex issue: Is there a point at which praising Christian believers who are killed by the Islamic State turns into a bad thing, when crying "martyrdom" begins to blur the lines between terrorism and the kinds of heroic witness honored by the church through the ages?

Before I mention my one question about this fine story, let's look at some crucial summary material near the top:

The 2,000-year-old Coptic Church of Egypt has a long tradition of hallowing those who died affirming their faith in the face of violence. But the group that calls itself the Islamic State has launched waves of attacks on the Coptic community in recent years -- claiming at least 70 lives and wounding scores of others -- an unrelenting assault that has opened a debate in the community about martyrdom.
The issue has been most recently punctuated by the deadly knifing of a Coptic priest in a poor Cairo neighborhood Thursday (Oct. 12). A suspect was arrested but his motive is still unknown.
Recently, another Coptic priest -- the well-known Rev. Boules George from the well-heeled Cairo suburb of Heliopolis -- took to the television airwaves to “thank” the Islamic State terrorists who launched the Palm Sunday church bombings that claimed 45 lives, saying they provided “a rocket” that delivered victims straight to heaven.

Here is the crucial question: Is being blown up by a bomb, or killed in random violence, truly an act of "witness" to the Christian faith delivered to the apostles?

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Fatima centennial: Is it wise to cover, or to ignore, famous claims of the miraculous?

Fatima centennial: Is it wise to cover, or to ignore, famous claims of the miraculous?

Although 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door, there’s another religious anniversary -– a centennial -– this past Friday that got far less publicity.

Oct. 13, 1917, is the date when some 70,000 people, including a few newspaper reporters, witnessed the “miracle of the sun” in Fatima, a town north of Lisbon in central Portugal.

Many dismiss this as outdated Catholic lore, but the alleged appearance of the Virgin Mary in Fatima was a big deal for St. Pope John Paul II, who was nearly assassinated on May 13, 1981. He attributed his escape from death to Our Lady of Fatima.

Yet, I found very little about this anniversary in the secular media. The Philadelphia Inquirer was one of the exceptions, possibly because the local archbishop, Charles Chaput, made its observance a priority.

Throughout the year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million Catholics have been observing the anniversary with special services, lectures, movie screenings, retreats, and pilgrimages.  Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will preside over a consecration service at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.
Fatima is among the three most popular Marian apparitions, including one reported in 1858 by St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France (Our Lady of Lourdes), and another in 1531 by St. Juan Diego and his uncle on the Hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City (Our Lady of Guadalupe), according to Jason Paul Bourgeois, an assistant professor at the International Marian Research Institute at the University of  Dayton in Ohio.
Messages of prayer, penance, reparations for sin, and devotion to Mary are oft-repeated in Marian sightings, but Our Lady of Fatima’s three secrets — prophecies and apocalyptic visions of specific events to come — set it apart.

The story is quite complete, going into the history of the three secrets of Fatima as well as other Marian apparitions. My only complaint is that it gave too much credence to those debunking the “miracle of the sun” -- in that how does one deceive 70,000 people? The skeptics never explain that one.

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Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

The priest at our parish in East Tennessee returned the other day from a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the Greek peninsula that for centuries has been the beating heart of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. 

As far as I know, Father J. Stephen Freeman did not have any secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin while he was trekking from monastery to monastery on the holy mountain. However, you never know. After all, Father Stephen has many online readers in Russia and, well, he is the priest of Oak Ridge (and you know what that means).

Journalists in the West have said some rather wild things, as of late, about Orthodox Christianity and its role in Russia. This then connects with the whole "The Russians Did It, the Russians Did It" atmosphere in American politics.

But are we ready to politicize the holy mountain? Check out this passage from The Spectator, drawn from a feature with this headline: "What is behind Vladimir Putin’s curious interest in Mount Athos?" Orthodox readers may want to sit down to read this.

A secretive body of Elders governs here and all citizens are bound to total obedience. They wear identical floor-length black gowns and are not permitted to shave -- the style of dress favoured by zealots everywhere. And guess what? This state is in western Europe.
Few people have heard of Mount Athos and fewer still have visited it, and that is the way they like it. A notable exception is Vladimir Putin. He has been at least twice, once in 2006 and again in May of this year. ...
Putin has formed an unholy alliance with the Orthodox church in order to ensure he receives its blessing. This fits with his self-image as a modern Tsar embodying church and state. For believers, the Holy Mountain is the centre of their faith, their Rome, the place where the flame of their faith connects to heaven.

I wasn't expecting the Z-word.

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Catholics 'clutch' rosaries in Poland? Journalists should pay attention to details in worship

Catholics 'clutch' rosaries in Poland? Journalists should pay attention to details in worship

The big issue in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) was a question raised in my recent post about coverage of a remarkable religious rite that took place on the border of Poland.

Poland is, of course, an intensely Catholic land. Thus, there were several layers of symbolism present when legions of worshipers lined up along parts of the nation's borders to pray the rosary, specifically praying for the future of their land and all of Europe.

Note that I called the participants "worshipers."

Yes, that was a value judgment on my part, a decision that was unavoidable when writing about this event. It was clear in the news coverage (I focused on BBC and The New York Times) that the Poles were, to some degree, mixing religious faith and concerns about current events and trends.

Thus, were these people "worshipers" or were they, oh, anti-Muslim activists?

The language didn't get that blunt in the BBC coverage, but it was a close call. At that global news powerhouse, this was a political event that was using religious symbolism linked to Polish nationalism. At the Times, this was a religious event with strong political overtones.

You can see these two competing narratives in the coverage. In this case, I think the Times did the better job.

However, the podcast raised another issue. Wouldn't it have been good to have included some of the language of the rosary prayers in the story? Might that be linked to the message of the event?

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