Manhattan

Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Yes, this was click-bait heaven.

Yes, this was an oh-so-typical Twitter storm.

Yes, this was a perfect example of a “conservative story,” in a niche-news era in which social-media choirs — conservative in this case — send up clouds of laughs, jeers and gasps of alleged shock in response to some online signal.

I am referring, of course, to that climate-change confession service that happened at Union Theological Seminary, which has long been a Manhattan Maypole for the doctrinal dances that incarnate liberal Protestant trends in America.

It’s important to note that the spark for this theological fire was an official tweet from seminary leaders. Here is the top of a Washington Examiner story about the result:

Students at Union Theological Seminary prayed to a display of plants set up in the chapel of the school, prompting the institution to issue a statement explaining the practice as many on social media mocked them.

"Today in chapel, we confessed to plants," the nation's oldest independent seminary declared Tuesday on Twitter. "Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?"

The ceremony, which is part of professor Claudio Carvalhaes’ class “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response,” drew ridicule from many on Twitter, some of whom accused the seminary and students of having lost their minds.

OK, let’s pause for a moment to ask a journalism question: Would there have been a different response if this event have inspired a front page, or Sunday magazine, feature at The New York Times?

What kind of story? A serious news piece could have focused on (a) worship trends on the revived religious left, (b) this seminary’s attempt to find financial stability through interfaith theological education, (c) the history of Neo-pantheistic Gaia liturgies in New York (personal 1993 flashback here) linked to environmental theology and/or (d) all of the above.

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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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Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

I have followed the acidic soap operas (timeline here) surrounding Jeffrey Epstein for more than a decade. That may sound strange, but there’s a logical reason — I lived in West Palm Beach from 2001-2005 and taught at Palm Beach Atlantic University, right next to the mini-towers of Trump Plaza.

Yes, that was a long time ago, back when Donald Trump was embracing his good buddies Bill and Hillary Clinton and acting like a rather mainstream Democrat, in terms of moral and social issues. And it was impossible to read the news in the Sixth Borough of New York without bumping into the kingdom of Trump. That included, from time to time, the people being courted — socially speaking — by Epstein and Co.

Life behind the scenes? That, of course, is where everyone who cares about the details of this sordid affair has to dig into the essential “Perversion of Justice” series by Julie Brown of The Miami Herald. Download it into an iPad program of some kind, because you’ll have to read it in painful chunks.

So why bring this up here at GetReligion? To be blunt: I am waiting for some kind of religion shoe to drop, some angle linked to twisted religion or anti-religious convictions. In my experience, great evil almost always involves twisted religion or blunt, demonic rejection of what is good, beautiful and true.

In one recent story, I was struck by an Epstein statement — when he was a young prep-school teacher — that mentioned his use of “spiritual” activities with his students. Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting to see the long lists of people who socialized with Epstein, did “business” with him or both. Some of those names — such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump — are already known.

Will the list contain hypocrites as well as libertines? Of course it will. We live in a sinful and fallen world.

A new Vanity Fair piece on this scandal notes that it’s hard to talk about the mysteries of Epstein’s fortune without getting into the moral dynamics inside his entourage and clients:

In the absence of much other information, the reigning theory on Wall Street currently is that Epstein’s activities with women and girls were central to the building of his fortune, and his relations with some of his investors essentially amounted to blackmail.

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Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

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Terror in Lower Manhattan: On the second day, news coverage of religion questions remains strong

Terror in Lower Manhattan: On the second day, news coverage of religion questions remains strong

In GetReligion's initial post on news coverage of the terror attack in Lower Manhattan, tmatt noted that "journalists appear to be asking the big religion questions early and often."

This is, he pointed out, a welcome change from how news organizations used to approach such stories.

In looking at some of the second-day reports on the suspect — Sayfullo Saipov — that positive trend continues.

The key second-day New York Times story on Saipov is strong.

Some of the crucial facts up high:

As with any attack like this, there is no single reason Mr. Saipov reportedly decided to kill innocents, mostly tourists enjoying a blustery fall day, 56 degrees with blue skies. He had come to the United States as a moderate Muslim with dreams of making it. He married another Uzbek immigrant and fathered three children. But life did not work out the way Mr. Saipov had wanted. He could not find a job in the hotel business, in which he had worked back home. He developed a violent temper. He lost jobs. An imam in Florida worried that Mr. Saipov increasingly misinterpreted Islam.
“I used to tell him: ‘Hey, you are too much emotional. Read books more. Learn your religion first,’” said Abdul, the imam, who did not want his last name used because he feared reprisals. “He did not learn religion properly. That’s the main disease in the Muslim community.”
In Tashkent, Mr. Saipov grew up in a well-off family who practiced traditional Islam and never embraced extremism, the Uzbek government said on Wednesday. His neighbors there said Mr. Saipov never raised suspicions and “always carried himself in a measured and friendly way,” according to the government statement. He never crossed paths with the police.

Keep reading, the Times offers more insightful background — this from his time in Ohio:

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Terror in Lower Manhattan: Reporters started asking religion questions early and often

Terror in Lower Manhattan: Reporters started asking religion questions early and often

It's a tragic reality that, over the years, I've had many, many opportunities to spot patterns in the questions asked by news consumers in the hours right after an act of terrorism here in America or somewhere else in the world.

I used to notice a common theme in complaints found in reader comments (and in notes sent to your GetReligionistas): Lots of people complained, often with good cause, that journalists seemed to go out of their way to bury information about religion, and Islam in particular. This often meant ignoring the testimony of eyewitnesses (click here for some examples).

But somewhere along the line, things changed. If you scan the coverage of yesterday's truck-terror attack in Lower Manhattan, it's clear that many reporters jumped straight into questions that must be asked in each and every story of this kind. Who was the attacker (that includes the name)? Where did this attacker come from? Was there evidence of motive, in word or deed? Did the attacker act alone? Is there evidence of ties to radical religious or political groups?

Obviously, readers around the world headed straight to The New York Times after this attack. We are talking location, location, location and resources.

If you are looking for the basics, including details about religion, it's hard to complain about this early report. (So far, I have found one potentially significant detail in another report that is not in this Times story, and I'll come back to that.) Here is the Times overture:

A driver plowed a pickup truck down a crowded bike path along the Hudson River in Manhattan on Tuesday, killing eight people and injuring 11 before being shot by a police officer in what officials are calling the deadliest terrorist attack on New York City since Sept. 11, 2001.
The rampage ended when the motorist -- whom the police identified as Sayfullo Saipov, 29 -- smashed into a school bus, jumped out of his truck and ran up and down the highway waving a pellet gun and paintball gun and shouting “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” before he was shot in the abdomen by the officer. He remained in critical condition on Tuesday evening.

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You think? There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America

You think? There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America

Frankly, it's one of the biggest religion-news stories in America these days.

You are going to be reading these news stories over and over in newspapers from New York City to Los Angeles and every major urban area in between. Thousands of people are involved, along with millions and millions of dollars.

We are talking about prime urban real estate -- specifically the sale of land (and sometimes the reuse of facilities) belonging to dying churches, synagogues and other religious institutions.

News organizations have to cover these stories, of course. It's an old doctrine of news, as well as real estate: Location, location, location. The question is whether editors and reporters will be interested in the totally valid religion-news angles in these stories, as well as the financial ones.

Yes, it's valid to focus these stories on newsy questions like: What happens next, in terms of the people and the properties? Who gets the money? What happens to the art, pipe organs, pews, altars, burial chambers and other items inside these sacred spaces?

However, journalists may also want to ask these kinds of questions: Why are some urban churches -- take New York City, for example -- closing while others are not? Why are there thriving churches in urban areas, while others are dying? Why do some have lots of members, converts and new children, while others do not? Might there be religious factors at play here, as well as relevant "secular" factors? Might demographics and doctrine be linked?

OK, I'll ask another question that some readers may be thinking: Do your GetReligionistas plan to keep noting these faith-shaped holes in all these real-estate stories, over and over and over? Good question: I think the answer is still "yes."

The New York Times recently covered religious real-estate issues in a pair of unrelated stories that ran August 6-7. Here is the overture to the first one, that ran with the headline, "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship."

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News angles abound, as Evangelicalism’s unlikely missionary to Manhattan leaves his pulpit

News angles abound, as Evangelicalism’s unlikely missionary to Manhattan leaves his pulpit

On February 26, the Rev. Timothy Keller, 66, announced to parishioners at eight Sunday services that he’ll retire July 1 as the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Keller is no publicity-seeking celebrity preacher, but if U.S. evangelicals were to create a Mount Rushmore Keller’s carved visage would deserve a place.

So far as The Religion Guy can discover, national media and even reporters in Keller’s own town didn’t cover this milestone, so there’s ample room for follow-ups. A good place to begin research would be solid features in The New York Times (2006) and New York Magazine (2009).

When Keller began Redeemer with a handful of people in 1989, a Manhattan mission startup was considered so dicey that two prior candidates had rejected the job offer. Keller seemed an odd choice because his only pastoral experience was in far different Hopewell, Va. Moreover, latitudinarian “mainline” Protestantism would have seemed far more marketable in Gotham than the strict orthodoxy of Keller’s Presbyterian Church in America. Yet eventually thousands of young professionals were flocking to Redeemer each Sunday.

Significant themes reporters could pursue: While many evangelical congregations have forsaken downtown for the ease of suburbia, Redeemer offers dramatic proof that city centers are not only spiritually hungry places but that biblical conservatism can thrive there under the right conditions. Against stereotypes of evangelicalism, Redeemer members volunteer time and donations with 40 organizations to help society’s marginalized, and Keller shuns Religious Right politicking and pulpit-pounding, offering instead calm, content-rich sermons. Explore this link, for example.

Then this: While many congregations sit on their successes, Redeemer is all about fostering new congregations, including ones in New York City that could provide competition.

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'Kellerism' case on the conservative -- even Chick-fil-A eating -- side of news business?

'Kellerism' case on the conservative -- even Chick-fil-A eating -- side of news business?

Every now and then, I hear from a GetReligion reader who asks a variation on the following question: "How come you never write about cases of Kellerism in conservative media?"

Note that -- if you follow the logic of this statement -- the assumption is that we are constantly writing about examples of Kellerism (click here and here for the roots of this GetReligion term) in "liberal" media.

Actually, our goal here is to write about news coverage in mainstream media. So by definition, "Kellerism" is when mainstream newsrooms publish stories about controversial issues -- almost always about issues of religion, morality or culture -- and do little or nothing to fairly and accurately represent the views of one side in the debate, which the editors have clearly decided in advance is wrong.

Thus, you can't have Kellerism in an op-ed column, an editorial essay or a story in an advocacy publication like The New Republic, Rolling Stone or at MSNBC.com (unless they run an Associated Press report, or similar material). The same thing is true on the political and cultural right. When I ask upset readers to send me URLs for their "conservative" Kellerism nominees, they always send me commentary items from Fox News, National Review, the op-ed pages at The Washington Times or similar locations.

I tell them the same thing I tell conservative readers who are complaining about "bias" in editorials on the left: Commentary writers and scribes in advocacy newsrooms are PAID to openly slant their coverage. This is why their organizations exist.

However, the other day I saw a mainstream Associated Press story (origins at The Daily News in Murfreesboro, Tenn.) that covered what I am sure would have been a controversial event for many readers in America. It's safe to say that some readers considered this story offensive, especially since it took place in a Chick-fil-A restaurant.

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