New York City

Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Back in the fall of 1993, I made — believe it or not — my first-ever trip as an adult to New York City. I had covered many important news stories in American and around the world, but had never hit the Big Apple.

I stayed in a guest room at Union Theological Seminary, since I would be attending what turned out to be, for me, a pivotal religion-beat conference at the nearby Columbia University School of Journalism. But that’s another story for another day.

Here is the story for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which is linked this week’s Twitter explosion in which Union Seminary students confessed their environmental sins to some plants and sought forgiveness.

On that beautiful New York Sunday morning, I decided to head to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I was, at the time, an evangelical Episcopalian (with high-church sympathies) at I was trying to run into my wife’s favorite author — Madeleine L’Engle (click here for my tribute when she died). She was writer in residence at the cathedral, but later told me that she worshipped at an evangelical parish in the city.

Why did she do that? Well, in part because of services like the “Missa Gaia (Earth Mass)” I attended that Sunday. As I wrote later in a piece called “Liturgical Dances With Wolves”:

In the Kyrie, the saxophonist and his ensemble improvised to the taped cry of a timber wolf. A humpback whale led the Sanctus.

Skeptic Carl Sagan preached, covering turf from the joyful “bisexual embraces'' of earthworms to the greedy sins of capitalists. The earth, he stressed, is one body made of creatures who eat and drink each other, inhabit each other's bodies, and form a sacred “web of interaction and interdependence that embraces the planet.'' … The final procession was spectacular and included an elephant, a camel, a vulture, a swarm of bees in a glass frame, a bowl of blue-green algae and an elegantly decorated banana.

The key moment for me?

Before the bread and wine were brought to the altar, the musicians offered a rhythmic chant that soared into the cathedral vault. … “Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Ausar, ruler of Amenta, the realm of the ancestors. Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and the resurrected soul.” …

Then the congregation joined in and everyone sang “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.' “

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About George Packer's takedown of wokeness: is moral absolutism the problem?

About George Packer's takedown of wokeness: is moral absolutism the problem?

Generally at GetReligion we try to avoid duplicate posts on one article, but Terry Mattingly has graciously agreed to let this piece follow his analysis of “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” I wrote it on the weekend, before I had any idea that tmatt had called dibs on a specific religion angle in this must-read piece in The Atlantic Monthly in a message to my more prolific colleagues.

Here, then, is my perspective. There are many important topics in Packer’s essay.

Packer’s 10,000-word essay on how hard-edged wokeness affected his children’s education is a stirring account of a liberal writer who has been backed into one too many corners by illiberal progressives and entrenched powers. Most of Packer’s work here makes me want to welcome him to the freedom of not caring what wokeness partisans think of you.

Packer describes conflicts in education first as a clash between democracy and meritocracy, sometimes with a self-effacing humor:

True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

When parents on the fortunate ledge of this chasm gaze down, vertigo stuns them. Far below they see a dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates — and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling. They’ll stay married, cook organic family meals, read aloud at bedtime every night, take out a crushing mortgage on a house in a highly rated school district, pay for music teachers and test-prep tutors, and donate repeatedly to overendowed alumni funds. The battle to get their children a place near the front of the line begins before conception and continues well into their kids’ adult lives. At the root of all this is inequality — and inequality produces a host of morbid symptoms, including a frantic scramble for status among members of a professional class whose most prized acquisition is not a Mercedes plug-in hybrid SUV or a family safari to Maasai Mara but an acceptance letter from a university with a top‑10 U.S. News & World Report ranking.

What leaves me restless in Packer’s essay is the language he sometimes uses to describe the conflict. In disputing the school’s resistance to standard testing, he refers to the tests’ fierce opponents as engaging in “moral absolutism.”

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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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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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Union made in tabloid heaven: British woman wants 'open' marriage with a chandelier

Union made in tabloid heaven: British woman wants 'open' marriage with a chandelier

Talk about a story that has tabloid headlines written all over it.

The headline in The Mirror, on the other side of the Atlantic, was rather low key: “Bride plans to marry chandelier — but is in open relationship with other objects.

I realize that this is a bit of a reach, for GetReligion. Nevertheless, I have a question about the mainstream news coverage of this story, as in: If there is going to be a marriage ceremony in this case, who will perform the rite?

If there is a rite, will there be any religious content in the text? I think that it’s safe to say this particular circumstance was not anticipated by liturgists who created the modernized, alternative service books that have expanded the Church of England’s old Book of Common Prayer.

So are we talking about a service by a click-here-to-be-ordained online minister? Will this be a neopagan rite of some kind? A simple secular union rite? Didn’t any reporter think to ask this logical question?

Let’s pause to hear from the bride:

A bride-to-be is excitedly planning her big white wedding in a bid to marry her chandelier.

Amanda Liberty, describes herself as being in an open relationship with several chandeliers and is determined to shed light on her unusual relationship. She hopes that 'marriage' to her favourite one will prove her love is valid.

Amanda, 35, from Leeds, identifies as an objectum sexual — which means she is attracted to objects. And the bride-to-be - who had previously changed her surname by deed poll during a relationship with the Statue of Liberty — has decided to seek a commitment ceremony to her chandelier known as Lumiere.

What a minute! There’s a New York City angle to this wedding?

Amanda Liberty changed her name in the wake of her, uh, same-gender union with the Statue of Liberty? There has to be a New York Post headline for this story.

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Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

With Jeffrey Epstein, it was all about the selfies and party pictures.

Yes, his infamous “little black book” of contacts (Gawker link here) contained the names of legions of apparently innocent elite-zip-code personalities (lots of journalists here) who may have never even met Epstein — but he wanted their contact information because they had influence in the public square. Some of the man’s victims made it into the book, as well.

But then there are the people who made it into all of those photos that document the good times shared by the powerful people who were courted by Epstein or who courted him. We are talking about the people who made it to his private island or who flew — for various reasons — on the private Epstein jet. A few were, literally, royals.

It will be hard, but try to make it all the way to the end of the current New York Magazine feature that ran with this revealing double-decker headline:

Who Was Jeffrey Epstein Calling?

A close study of his circle — social, professional, transactional — reveals a damning portrait of elite New York

What do we see in this long list of powerful and famous names?

It’s hard to be more specific than the final words in that headline. This predator’s “little black book” was a guide to “elite New York” — the people with power and access to power. What role did religion play in this drama? That depends on how one defines the term “religion.” (Click here for my first post on this topic.)

Here’s the thesis of the New York piece:

For decades, important, influential, “serious” people attended Epstein’s dinner parties, rode his private jet, and furthered the fiction that he was some kind of genius hedge-fund billionaire. How do we explain why they looked the other way, or flattered Epstein, even as they must have noticed he was often in the company of a young harem? Easy: They got something in exchange from him, whether it was a free ride on that airborne Lolita Express, some other form of monetary largesse, entrée into the extravagant celebrity soirées he hosted at his townhouse, or, possibly and harrowingly, a pound or two of female flesh. …

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Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

A quarter of a century ago, I started teaching journalism in big American supercities — first in Washington, D.C., and now in New York City.

From the beginning, I heard students (most from Christian liberal arts colleges) asking poignant, basic questions about the impact of journalism on their future lives, in terms of job stress, economics and, yes, marriage and family life. These questions were often asked in private. Needless to say, these questions have continued, and intensified, with the ongoing advertising crisis that is eating many newsrooms.

I continue to urge my students to talk to real New Yorkers (or Beltway folks) who are living the realities — rather than accepting stereotypes. It’s crucial to talk to married folks with children and discuss the communities and networks that help them thrive or survive. The challenges are real, but the stereotypes are — in my experience — flawed and shallow.

These subjects hovered in the background as we recorded this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). This podcast digs into the implications of my earlier GetReligion post — “Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?” — about an Axios story on the economic and political clout of American super-cities.

If you want a deep dive into the marriage and family issue, check out the stunning essay at The Atlantic by staff writer Derek Thompson that just ran with this dramatic double-decker headline:

The Future of the City Is Childless

America’s urban rebirth is missing something key — actual births.

The opening anecdote will cause a shudder (perhaps of recognition) among many New Yorkers that I know:

A few years ago, I lived in a walkup apartment in the East Village of New York. Every so often descending the stairway, I would catch a glimpse of a particular family with young children in its Sisyphean attempts to reach the fourth floor.

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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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New York Times scribe has big problem with 'New South' -- it's full of backward church people

New York Times scribe has big problem with 'New South' -- it's full of backward church people

To be honest, I had shoved the Ginia Bellafante feature at The New York Times — “Abortion and the Future of the New South” — so far back into the “think piece” folder of guilt that I almost forgot that this “Big City” masterpiece still existed.

In this case, the term “masterpiece” is defined as a piece of first-person journalism that has to be in the running as one of the greatest summary statements of Gray Lady-speak ever put on paper.

I mean, Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher — a former Brooklyn resident — had already produced this truly fab summary statement of what’s going on here. Before we get to the latest response to the Bellafante opus — at Scalawag, hold that thought — let’s let Dreher kick off this thinker-fest:

I’m so sorry. Really, just very sorry. Here entitled Yankees like the NYT’s Ginia Bellafante thought the American South existed to give Millennial Brooklynites a place to reproduce Park Slope, but more affordably, and now we’ve gone and ruined it for them with our deplorable social and religious views.

Ah, right. All that icky religious stuff. That really messes things up for “Tess” and other relocated New Yorkers. Here is the essential Times-talk overture:

Tess wanted her own kingdom, and New York — forbidding, impossible — wasn’t going to let her build it. The start-up costs for the baking and catering business she envisioned were going to be too high; the rent on her apartment in Bed-Stuy was increasing. When she moved in it was $1,800 a month; just a few years later, it was approaching $3,400.

This young woman was a citizen of the New South now. Her business, Tess Kitchen, was thriving. Her New Orleans apartment, at $1,900 a month, had three bathrooms.

I called Tess on the day that the Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee backed legislation to prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat was detected. This came 24 hours after Alabama passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, one that does not allow exceptions for rape or incest. That followed the passage of another restrictive abortion law in Georgia.

Living in a very liberal city in a very conservative state is a trick mirror. “You really forget that you are in the Deep South here,’’ she said.

Need more? It’s all about the word “backward,” you see. You see the people who are, to New York-raised reformers, still yearning for the “Old South” are still fighting the Civil War.

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