Terry Mattingly

Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

If you dig into the history of Duke University — formerly Trinity College — it’s hard to avoid its deep roots in the evangelical Methodist movement.

The key, today, is that Duke is a private university, one defined by research, basketball and modern doctrines linked to its powerful nonsectarian identity. You can still see a few Methodist ties that do not bind in the way the school’s trustees operate (click here for more on that).

However, it is educational — when considering Duke history — to follow the money.

The University has historic ties to the United Methodist Church. The institution was begun in 1838-39 when Methodist and Quaker families in northwest Randolph County united to transform Brown's Schoolhouse into Union Institute, thus providing permanent education for their children. A formal agreement with the Methodist Church was entered into in 1859 when the name of the school was changed to Trinity College. The motto, Eruditio et Religio, which is based on a Charles Wesley hymn, and the official seal, both of which are still in use today, were adopted in 1859. The name of Trinity College continues as the undergraduate college of the University.

The most significant development in the history of the school came with the adoption of Trinity College as the primary beneficiary of the philanthropy of the Duke family in 1889. This occurred in part because the college was an institution of the Methodist Church and Washington Duke practiced stewardship as taught by his church. 

So here is an interesting question linked to a current doctrinal dispute on the Duke campus.

Right up front, note this: Duke is a private university and, thus, its leaders have every right to define the doctrines and covenants that govern their campus. That’s true for liberal once-Christian schools as well as many traditional colleges and universities. The question for journalists and lawyers is whether Duke leaders are being consistent in the proclamation and application of their new doctrines.

This leads us to a recent Religion News Service article that ran with this headline: “Duke University’s student government rejects Young Life over LGBTQ policies.” The problem is that Young Life doesn’t have “policies” that are independent of 2,000 years of traditional Christian “doctrines” on marriage and sexuality.

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Kosher sort-of shrimp and cheeseburgers: Do plant-based foods violate spirit of biblical law?

Kosher sort-of shrimp and cheeseburgers: Do plant-based foods violate spirit of biblical law?

Back in my Rocky Mountain days, in the 1980s, I heard an Orthodox rabbi give a fascinating talk with a title that went something like this: “The quest for the kosher cheeseburger.”

His thesis: If the result of this quest is a cheeseburger — mixing meat with a milk product — then it’s not kosher. If you end up with something that is kosher, then it isn’t a real cheeseburger. So what’s the point?

The Orthodox rabbi was using the “kosher cheeseburger” as a symbol of the efforts that many Jews make to blur the line between assimilating into what can, at times, be a hostile culture and following the traditions of their ancient faith. Can modern Jewish believers create a golden cheeseburger and eat it, too?

This is an essentially spiritual question, but it’s a question that takes on a whole new meaning with the explosion of attention now being given to plant-based meat substitutes (note the blitz of ads for Burger King’s new Impossible Whooper).

The Washington Post business team recently covered this trend and did a fine job of digging into these religious questions, starting with the headline: “Shalt thou eat an Impossible Burger? Religious doctrine scrambles to catch up to new food technology.” It’s rare to see scripture in a business lede, but this one was right on point — focusing on on a symbolic food that is totally out of bounds in Jewish tradition.

You think a kosher cheeseburger is a wild idea? How about kosher shrimp?

Leviticus 11 contains a zoo’s worth of animals. The hyrax and the monitor lizard. The katydid is there, as is the gecko. And it ends: “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.”

Dietary restrictions are woven into religious texts, the Old Testament and the New, the Koran, the Vedas and the Upanishads. Some are mercifully practical, as in the law of necessity in Islamic jurisprudence: “That which is necessary makes the forbidden permissible.”

Now, Tyson executives are seeking certification from various agencies declaring their plant-based shrimp both kosher and halal. The team at the Post business desk identified the religion ghost in that equation and produced this solid thesis statement:

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The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

One of the most talked about articles in the American news media last week, at least in the Twitter-verse, was not a news piece.

But it could have been a news piece. In fact, I would argue that it should have been a news piece — at least in a world in which New York City metro editors have their ears open and can spot religion-and-culture angles in public and private schools.

I am talking about George Packer’s essay at The Atlantic Monthly that ran with this poignant and news double-decker headline:

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids

Caught between a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism, a parent tries to do right by his children while navigating New York City’s schools.

This is, I think, one of the few times that readers can see the term “culture wars” used in a manner that reflects the definition given that term in the landmark James Davison Hunter book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” Here is how I described the University of Virginia sociologist’s main point in a tribute column long ago, on the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion” column. In that work:

… (He) declared that America now contains two basic worldviews, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

On one level — the most obvious level — Packer’s Atlantic piece is about the role that fiercely woke “identity politics” is playing in elite New York City culture, as demonstrated in public schools. So what does “identity politics” mean, right now?

This whole article wrestles with that issue, from the point of view of a progressive parent who has been shaken awake by the facts on the ground. However, Packer also noted that not all identities are created equal, in this world. This is one of the only places where readers get a glimpse of the religious and moral implications of this fight, in the years after Barack Obama era:

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Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide

Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide

This week’s “Crossroads” podcast about the death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson (click here to tune that in) was not business as usual. Here is my original GetReligion post on this topic: “Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all.”

For me, this topic got personal really quick.

First, there was the subject of depression and suicide. Anyone who has wrestled with depression (or has had loved ones face that darkness) knows that, at times, people swim in what seems like an ocean of irrational feelings and impulses.

My senior year of high school was like that. Several times I kind of came to my senses and would not know how I got to where I was — usually the classical music section of the main Port Arthur, Texas, music store. I still cannot hear the second movement of Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), without shuddering. There are memories there (cue at 8:46 and hang on).

I am sure that whatever I experienced was only a glimpse of what Wilson faced. It’s amazing to me that he preached on these topics and bravely took on the task — the calling — of helping others. Wilson said that he wanted God to show him a purpose for his life. He had to know that answering the call involved risk.

Also, then there was the timing of this week’s tragedy. Yes, this unfolded hours just before Suicide Awareness Day. And then came the anniversary of Sept. 11.

I found myself thinking about Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan friar who served as a chaplain for New York City firefighters. He ran into the North Tower of the World Trade Center with the first responders. When the South Tower fell, firefighters discovered that the 69-year-old priest had collapsed. His heart gave out. Firefighters carried his body out of the rubble and placed at the altar of the nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Then the firefighters went back to work.

This priest had to know that there was risk involved in running into that last fire. But that was part of his calling. At his funeral, his friend Father Michael Duffy said this in the sermon:

Mychal Judge's body was the first one released from Ground Zero. His death certificate has the number '1' on the top. Of the thousands of people who perished in that terrible holocaust, why was Mychal Judge number one? And I think I know the reason. Mychal's goal and purpose in life was to bring the firemen to the point of death so they would be ready to meet their maker.

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From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

I do not go out of my way, as a rule, to praise the religion-beat work of one of my former students in the old Washington Journalism Center (which has now evolved into the New York City Journalism semester at The King’s College).

But it’s time to break that rule.

I say that because of a feature story by Katherine Burgess — a name to watch on the religion beat — that ran at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. The headline: “Bishop Mason built COGIC out of revival, the faith of former slaves.

In roughly 40 years of religion-beat work, I know of no organization that is harder to cover than the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). As a result, this massive Pentecostal flock receives way less coverage than it deserves. I don’t think the denomination’s leaders are hostile to the press (although I have encountered one or two who were), but they certainly do not seek out the attention.

How many news-consumers in West Tennessee, white and black, know the history of this important institution or even know that it is based in their region? Thus, Burgess needed to start at the beginning, with the story of one man:

He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.

Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.

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Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Did you need more evidence that we live (and strive to do good journalism) in a broken world?

Did you need a reminder that any journalist who works on the religion-news beat needs to dig into a dictionary and learn the meaning of this theological term — “theodicy.”

The death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson unfolded on social media, with shock waves ripping through the digital ties that bind (including in newsrooms). He had worked to bring comfort to those suffering with mental-health issues — while being candid about his own life. Wilson reminded those struggling with suicidal thoughts that they were not alone and that God knew their pain.

This gifted preacher — married, with two young children — knew that and believed it. But something snapped, anyway.

Here’s the top of the team-written Religion News Service report about this tragedy which, hopefully, will shape the mainstream coverage of that will follow.

(RNS) — Jarrid Wilson, a California church leader, author and mental health advocate, died by suicide Monday evening (Sept. 9) at age 30.

Wilson, known as a passionate preacher, most recently was an associate pastor at megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. A co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope, Wilson was open about his own depression, often posting on his social media accounts about his battles with the mental illness.

“At a time like this, there are just no words,” said Harvest Senior Pastor Greg Laurie in a statement.

But there were words with which to wrestle — from Wilson, on the day he took his own life.

What journalist would imagine details more symbolic than these?

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Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Reporters who are truly interested in the future of the American faith-scene need to know this number — 100. Or maybe it’s 85 or 90. I’ve heard others say the crucial number is 115 in expensive zip codes.

But the late Lyle Schaller, a legendary church-management guru in oldline Protestant circles, once told me that it took about 100 actively contributors to fund the salary-and-benefits package for a credentialed minister in a mainline church. When Schaller said “mainline,” he was talking about the “Seven Sisters.” In descending order by size, that’s the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In other words, if a church had more than 100 active members (or households) it could provide for its minister and then do other things — like keep the building from falling down. With fewer than 100 members, a church would be constantly struggling with basic expenses, trying to keep the doors open.

So that’s the statistic that looms over that glowing New York Times feature about a lively Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that represents the future of the religious left. The dramatic main headline states: “The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary.”

Yes, I hear what many readers are thinking. This is a church that even the New York Times can love. And how many people are in these pews? Readers will have to read way down into the story to find that information. Meanwhile, the summary lede contains a few details:

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

You have to love that detail about the “perils of genetically modified vegetables.” However, the thesis statement comes a few paragraphs later, as the editorial angels sing a song of hope for a future free of nasty stuff like ancient doctrines:

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary.

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Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

If you ever needed proof that the editor of The New York Times saying something is what makes a point of view “real,” then check out the new Religion News Service opinion piece with this headline: “What it means to ‘get’ religion in 2020.”

Charles C. Camosy of Fordham University starts his “Purple Catholicism” column in a perfectly logical place. That would be the celebrated National Public Radio interview nearly three years ago in which Times executive editor Dean Baquet sort of admits that many journalists have trouble grasping the importance of religion in real life in America and around the world.

That’s the interview that, at the time, was marked with a GetReligion piece under the headline, “New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever.”

(RNS) — Following the 2016 presidential election, Dean Baquet, then executive editor of The New York Times, declared that one of his “big jobs” was to “really understand and explain the forces in America” that produced such a surprising result. Leading media organizations, he admirably admitted, simply do not “get religion.”

Baquet was right to be concerned. Otherwise sophisticated journalists and commentators regularly display minimal understanding of religion and how theological claims ought to function in public discourse. This not only hampers journalists’ ability to get to the heart of a story, it contributes much to the massive and growing distrust religious people tend to have of major media institutions.  

Comosy seems to assume that Baquet’s words brought this sad situation into the light of day, as opposed to millions of words of media-criticism and praise published here at GetReligion over nearly 17 years. I could note my cover story on this topic at The Quill in 1983, but that would be rather indecorous.

However, I will pause to be thankful for the first URL included in this RNS piece — the “minimal understand of religion” link — which points to at GetReligion post with this headline: “Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes.” Yes, that Mark Hemingway.

But here is the key to this piece: Rather than focusing on embarrassing religion errors that make it into print (even though errors are a sign of deeper issues), the RNS columnist digs deep into a philosophical issue noted many, many, many times at here at GetReligion. I am referring to the tendency by journalists that some subjects are “real” (politics and economics), while others are not so real (religion).

Here is the heart of the matter, from his perspective.

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Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

In my opinion, the world’s two most powerful and influential news outlets are the BBC and The New York Times.

Needless to say, both of these news organizations have offered coverage of Pope Francis and his latest visit to Africa. It’s interesting to note some consistent thin spots — doctrine-shaped holes, really — in the background coverage explaining why this trip matters so much, in terms of certain demographic realities in the modern Roman Catholic Church.

Consider this crucial passage in the BBC advance feature that ran with this headline: “Pope Francis in Africa: Is the continent the Catholic Church's great hope?” This three-nation trip to Africa will be:

… his fourth visit to the continent since he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013, compared to the two his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, made during his eight-year papacy. 

The importance of Africa to the Catholic Church can be summed up in a word — growth. 

Africa has the fastest growing Catholic population in the world, while Western Europe, once regarded as the heartland of Christianity, has become one of the world's most secular regions, according to the US-based Pew Research Center. And many of those who do identify themselves as Christian in Western Europe do not regularly attend church.

Here is a stunner of a statistic, care of the Center for Applied Research.

Start here. The number of Catholics in the world increased by 57% to 1.2 billion, between 1980 and 2012. However, growth in Europe was just 6%. Frankly, I am surprised to hear that Catholic numbers rose in Europe at all. I would be interesting to see a comparison of Western and Eastern European nations.

Meanwhile, the Catholic population rose 283% in Africa.

So why is that happening? Thinking like a religion writer, the first things that leap into my mind are (1) African Catholics are having more babies and (b) they are making more converts. Both of those factors have major doctrinal components in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. You could also note that the African church is raising up many more priests than the somewhat frozen European churches.

The BBC team, I think it’s safe to say, saw zero doctrinal component in the African church’s growth.

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