Via New York Times, a fair portrait of 'Doomsday Prophet Who Says the Bible Predicted Trump'

Via New York Times, a fair portrait of 'Doomsday Prophet Who Says the Bible Predicted Trump'

Dominating Sunday’s Metropolitan cover of the New York Times, an in-depth piece by Sam Kestenbaum delved into — as the print edition put it — “Preaching the Gospel According to Trump.”

Unfortunately, that yawner of a headline failed to rise to the level of the story.

Kestenbaum’s nuanced, carefully crafted profile of New Jersey pastor Jonathan Cahn deserved a better, more eloquent title.

The headline on the online version of the piece is more precise and closer to the mark:

#MAGA Church: The Doomsday Prophet Who Says the Bible Predicted Trump

The subhead:

A charismatic pastor in New Jersey (who also calls himself a rabbi) leads a church fixated on end times. Before the apocalypse, however, he’s fitting in a trip to Mar-a-Lago.

Kestenbaum’s colorful opening sets the scene:

On a Sunday morning at Beth Israel Worship Center in Wayne, N.J., a bearded pastor named Jonathan Cahn stood on an elevated platform, gazing over a full house. Stage lights shifted from blue to white as the backing band played a drifting melody. Two men hoisted curled rams’ horns and let out long blasts.

“Some of you have been saying you want to live in biblical times,” Mr. Cahn said, pacing behind a lectern. Then he spread his hands wide. “Well, you are.”

Sitting at the end of a sleepy drive an hour from Manhattan, Beth Israel may look like any common suburban church. But the center has a highly unusual draw. Every weekend, some 1,000 congregants gather for the idiosyncratic teachings of the church’s celebrity pastor, an entrepreneurial doomsday prophet who claims that President Trump’s rise to power was foretold in the Bible.

Mr. Cahn is tapping into a belief more popular than may appear.

Keep reading, and Kestenbaum — a contributing editor at The Forward as well as a regular writer for the Times — demonstrates his religion writing experience as he explores Cahn’s theology.

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New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

If you’ve been following United Methodist Twitter, you know that this bitterly divided denomination has been in a behind-the-scenes uproar about a New York Times gotcha story that ran the other day. The headline: “Improper Voting Discovered at Methodist Vote on Gay Clergy.”

This is the rare case in which news consumers can find more information, and even a hint of balanced coverage, by reading official press releases from United Methodist News. Take this story, for example: “Denials, charges fly in GC2019 voting credentials review.” In this story — from the denominational press — there are actual interviews with people on the conservative side of this battle.

But back to the world’s most powerful newspaper.

Here’s a crucial question, a question that the Times story did ask and, to some degree, did answer: Did voting issues affect the crucial outcomes in the recent general conference in St. Louis? We are talking about the votes that defeated the One Church Plan favored by the United Methodist Church’s American establishment and the vote that passed some elements of the Traditionalist Plan favored by a coalition of American evangelicals and delegates from the Global South.

The Times piece played down, and avoided specifics, on another crucial issue: The fact that 30 overseas delegates were not able to attend, and thus were unable to vote, because of issues obtaining U.S. visas. In other words, the Global South coalition was stronger than it appeared in the final votes. The issue with visas also points to another issue in the Times report: Squabbles (and, potentially, translation issues) over the status of “reserve” delegates at the conference. Thus, the overture for the story:

It was a momentous vote for the United Methodist Church, as the future of the country’s second-largest Protestant church hung in the balance. In a former football stadium in St. Louis last month, church officials and lay leaders from around the world voted to strengthen their ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, a decision that could now split the church.

But at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to vote, according to interviews and a review of the church’s records. The individuals were from African delegations whose votes were critical to restricting the church’s rules on homosexuality.

The final 54-vote margin against gay clergy and same-sex marriage exceeds the number of unauthorized votes discovered so far. But the voting irregularities raised questions about the process behind the divisive decision, which devastated progressive members. Some have discussed leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.

The bottom line, of course, is whether American church officials can find a way to challenge the validity of the St. Louis votes and fight on, continuing decades of work to change the denomination’s teachings on sexuality, marriage and the ordination of clergy.

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Houston's drag queen story hour: KHOU tells us librarians let in a child molester. Who fought this?

Houston's drag queen story hour: KHOU tells us librarians let in a child molester. Who fought this?

I last wrote about drag queens reading stories to kids at public libraries about six weeks ago and now the story has taken off.

Someone –- we are not told who –- did some document digging as part of an ongoing campaign to stop drag queens from taking up space at the Houston Public Library and made an interesting discovery.

KHOU TV, the CBS affiliate in Houston tells us what that was:

HOUSTON — A registered child sex offender has been reading to children at Houston Public Library as part of its Drag Queen Storytime.

A group called Mass Resistance, which has been trying to put an end to the program, contacted KHOU about the child sex offender.

Mass Resistance claims it had been asking the City of Houston for months to disclose information about the drag queens, and when requests went unanswered, they did their own digging and made the shocking link.

The library has been trying to fix this PR disaster ever since.

A media spokesperson for the library confirmed one of the program’s drag queens, Tatiana Mala Nina, is Alberto Garza, a 32-year-old child sex offender. In 2008, he was convicted of assaulting an 8-year-old boy.

“Most parents would not allow that individual to sit in this library and be held up as a role model to our children. Shame on you, Mayor (Sylvester) Turner!” said Tracy Shannon with Mass Resistance.

In a statement, the Houston Public Library admits they didn’t do a background check on Garza and said Garza will not be involved in any future library programs.

A photo of Garza in drag appears with this blog post. Despite this hiccup, the American Library Association isn’t dropping the idea of drag queen stories any time soon. See the ALA site’s resource page for libraries facing “challenges” with staging these events.

As this NBC-TV story points out, these story hours bring “pride and glamor” to libraries and have spread like wildfire across the nation in three short years. As the Brooklyn (N.Y.) library system says on its website: “Drag Queen Story Hour captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity in childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.”

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Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

THE QUESTION: 

Looked at internationally, what’s the status of churches’ policies on the same-sex issue in the wake of the United Methodists’ important decision on this February 26?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

You may have read that in late February the 12.6-million-member United Methodist Church held a special General Conference in St. Louis, seeking to settle its painful conflict over the gay-and-lesbian issue and avert a split. The delegates decided by 53 percent to support and strengthen the denomination’s longstanding ban against same-sex marriages and clergy living in such relationships.

Though U.S. bishops, officials, and academics had advocated leeway on gays, the vote was not a shock. A 2015 poll by the denomination found 54 percent of U.S. pastors and 54 percent of lay leaders (though only 41 percent of lay members over-all)  favored keeping the traditional policy. Another poll of U.S. members, released just before the St. Louis conference, showed 44 percent identify as conservative or traditional in belief, 28 percent as moderate or centrist, and only 20 percent as progressive or liberal.

Moreover, United Methodism is a multinational denomination whose U.S. component has declined and now claims only 55 percent of the global membership. The congregations in Africa and Asia are growing, and that buttresses the traditionalist side. Unlike the Methodists, most “mainline” Protestant groups in North America and western Europe that recently liberalized on the same-sex issue had no foreigners casting ballots.

International bonds have always been central in Christianity. Currently, conservative and evangelical Protestants in North America, including a faction within liberalizing “mainline” groups, are united in sexual traditionalism with most of the Protestant and indigenous churches in Africa, Asia, the Mideast, eastern Europe and Latin America. Add in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and the vast majority of the world’s Christians belong to churches that have always opposed gay and lesbian relationships.

This broad Christian consensus results from thousands of years of scriptures, interpretations, and traditions. This is the context for the West’s serious clash of conscience — between believers in that heritage versus religious and secular gay-rights advocates — that confronts government, politicians, educators, judges, journalists, and ordinary citizens.

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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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Vogue does Justin and Hailey Bieber, their pre-marital abstinence and hipster churches

Vogue does Justin and Hailey Bieber, their pre-marital abstinence and hipster churches

There’s been a glut of news pieces recently about hipster churches that attract famous people such as pop icon Justin Bieber and new wife Hailey Baldwin.

According to this month’s Vogue cover story, complete with gorgeous photography by Annie Leibovitz (see above), the couple opens up about their marital struggles.

There’s a bunch of features out there, all of which have Bieber’s name in the headline (good for SEO), asking if the recent glut of Hollywood celebrities finding religion is ruining Christianity.

The big takeaway from the Vogue piece was the couple admitting they both refrained from sex before getting married last fall, mainly because of their faith. That one admission, hardly a shock to anyone who knows basic Christian doctrine on sexuality, made headlines in other outlets.

In an odd way it proves that at least some teachings are getting through to people who go to a new breed of megachurch that specializes in the rich and famous.

Sprinkled amidst the Vogue piece were observations about the churches Bieber/Baldwin attend, including the Manhattan branch of Hillsong, a church network originating in Australia. The couple is also connected with Churchome here in Seattle because its pastor, Judah Smith, is one of Bieber’s mentors. Vogue noted this:

On a rainy night in Beverly Hills, a thousand or so 20-somethings in leather jackets, hoodies, skater T-shirts, and stoner pajama bottoms filter into the Saban Theatre for the weekly Wednesday service of Churchome, Judah Smith’s Seattle-based ministry, which is part of a new wave of evangelical congregations attracting young Angelenos. High fives and bro hugs ripple through the auditorium.

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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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Middle East images: Week in Israel gives correspondent a different perspective on news (updated)

Middle East images: Week in Israel gives correspondent a different perspective on news (updated)

The New York Times had a front-page story this week on the strong partnership between Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Times described Trump as Netanyahu’s secret weapon in his “increasingly uphill re-election battle.”

The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported that Trump sees advantages in the current American debate over Israel and anti-Semitism.

I read both stories with a different perspective — and a heightened interest — after spending the past several days in Israel, my first visit ever to the Middle East.

I’m typing this post from my hotel room in Jerusalem. I’m here with a group of about a dozen U.S. religion journalists as part of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. The project aims to give participants an enhanced understanding of issues in this part of the world and make them think about tough questions. For me, it certainly has done that!

Rather than do a normal post while I am traveling, Terry Mattingly invited me to share a bit about the trip. Honestly, I’m still processing much of what I have seen. But I’ve learned so much as we’ve traveled via helicopter and bus to visit key sites all over Israel and heard from speakers representing a variety of perspectives.

We’re still in the middle of our itinerary — with a trip to Ramallah on today’s agenda — but here, via Twitter, are a few virtual postcards:

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Immunizations + religious exemptions: Funny thing happens when Washington Post writes about this

Immunizations + religious exemptions: Funny thing happens when Washington Post writes about this

OK, I lied.

A funny thing didn’t really happen when the Washington Post wrote about child immunizations and religious exemptions.

But I had to try some way to get you to read a serious post that doesn’t involve white evangelical support of President Donald Trump … or sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention … or other, juicier, culture-war topics that seem to drive traffic in the social-media age.

What actually happened is good news, except that positive posts don’t usually turn viral — and hey, we’re all trying to get clicks.

However, since you’ve read this far, feel free to go ahead and consider this recent story — pulled from my guilt folder — by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, one of the Post’s award-winning religion writers and a former GetReligion contributor.

Bailey’s lede:

Recent measles outbreaks in states such as Washington, New York and New Jersey have cast a spotlight on a group of Americans who receive exemptions from immunizing their children on the grounds that the vaccines violate their religious freedoms.

Now the states that suffered outbreaks are taking aim at those exemptions. In recent weeks, lawmakers in the New JerseyNew YorkIowaMaine and Vermont state legislatures have proposed eliminating religious exemptions for vaccines. A Washington state representative has proposed tightening the state’s religious exemption while eliminating a separate law that allows for a personal or philosophical exemption from immunization.

Vaccination proponents and anti-vaccination activists are watching to see whether some states will follow California, which got rid of religious and personal exemptions for vaccines after a Disneyland-linked outbreak of measles that began in 2014. The only students there who can go without a vaccination without a doctor’s signature are those who are home-schooled.

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