Sam Kestenbaum

Friday Five: Billy Graham rule, Marianne Williamson, nun's curveball, MZ's Kavanaugh book

Friday Five: Billy Graham rule, Marianne Williamson, nun's curveball, MZ's Kavanaugh book

A famous steakhouse off Interstate 40 in Amarillo, Texas, offers a free, 72-ounce steak.

The only catch: You must eat it all in one setting.

On a reporting trip this week, I stopped there for lunch. Spoiler alert: I didn’t order the 4.5-pound hunk of beef. I chose something slightly smaller.

While I savor the delicious memories, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This may not be the most important story of the week. In fact, veteran religion journalist G. Jeffrey MacDonald questioned on Twitter whether it’s news at all.

But I’m fascinated by the coverage of a little-known Mississippi gubernatorial candidate who invoked the “Billy Graham rule” in declining to allow a female journalist to shadow him for a day. I wrote about all the national media attention state Rep. Robert Foster has received — and the lack of details on Foster’s actual religious beliefs — in a post Thursday.

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Friday Five: 2020 politics, doctrine-defying Catholic teachers, Mormons in the news, Mongolia fundraiser

Friday Five: 2020 politics, doctrine-defying Catholic teachers, Mormons in the news, Mongolia fundraiser

Happy Fifth of July!

OK, that doesn’t have the same ring as “Happy Fourth of July!” But I’m too late for that.

I hope you enjoyed the Independence Day holiday. Perhaps you’re still celebrating it, if you have today off. That’s my plan, as soon as I finish this Friday Five post.

So let’s dive right into it:

1. Religion story of the week: The role of religion in the 2020 presidential race keeps making significant headlines.

In case you missed it because of the holiday, Richard Ostling wrote about Democratic candidates seeking a modernized faith formula that works.

Earlier in the week, Terry Mattingly reflected on this Trump-related question: “How many Democrats would back a pro-life Democrat?”

And this morning, Julia Duin posted on the battle at the border and evangelical leaders jostling for Trump-era media relevancy.

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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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Mainstream media have some explaining to do about Black Hebrew Israelites. Also: It's complicated

Mainstream media have some explaining to do about Black Hebrew Israelites. Also: It's complicated

“I still can't believe that the *black Israelites* are playing a key role in a multi-day national controversy,” Washington Post political writer Dave Weigel tweeted Monday as the various videos of whatever happened Friday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were dissected again and again.

“If you live in a big east coast city you've been putting in headphones and ignoring those guys your whole life,” Weigel added.

Here at GetReligion, my colleagues already have delved into various crucial angles of the brouhaha. Read the latest here, here and here.

But let’s go ahead and delve into another one, especially since the Black Hebrew Israelites angle is so fascinating and, believe it or not, important to grasping the full story.

Kudos to the Washington Post, which turned to Sam Kestenbaum, a contributing editor at The Forward, to write an explainer on the group:

In the initial media churn, they were nearly missed.

But a small band of Hebrew Israelites, members of a historic but little-known American religious movement, may actually be at the center of a roiling controversy that has gripped the nation in recent days.

It began with a now-viral video clip, filmed Friday at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which high school students from a Catholic school in Kentucky appeared to be in a faceoff with a Native American elder, who was beating on a drum. The boys, some wearing red hats with President Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, appeared in the clip to be mocking a man, named Nathan Phillips. The clip was widely understood as being centrally about the dangers of Trumpism, and the teens were condemned.

But a longer video soon bubbled to the surface, widening the lens. It showed how a group of half a dozen Hebrew Israelites had, in fact, been goading and preaching at both the Native Americans and high schoolers, using profanity and highly provocative language, for nearly an hour. Phillips later told journalists that he was seeking to defuse tensions between the Israelite group and the high school students by stepping in between them.

But who are these Hebrew Israelites?

From there, Kestenbaum does a nice job of explaining the group’s history. I won’t attempt to summarize here but rather point you to his full article.

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Goths, games and what seems to be faith: New York Times dives into vampire fantasy culture

Goths, games and what seems to be faith: New York Times dives into vampire fantasy culture

Before too much time goes by since Halloween, I wanted to spotlight an alternative religion -– no other word for it –- piece in the New York Times that talks about Goths and vampires.

I had no idea that Goths had a spirituality but freelancer Sam Kestenbaum, who has written on the occult and alternative traditions before for the Times, found a businesman-and-would-be-vampire who’s good at mining the Goth search for meaning, as it were.

It’s not a group I know anything about, so I gave it a read.

The big question, of course: Does the word “religion” apply to all of this? If the answer is “no,” then why is that?

In the dim corner of Halloween Adventure, a two-story costume store in Manhattan, a man called Father Sebastiaan sculpts vampire fangs by hand. A Ouija board hangs crooked on the wall, near a purple crystal and an uneven pile of occult books. His work stall, no larger than a broom closet, is barely visible behind pirate and cowboy masks.

A small gaggle had soon formed at the door, and Father Sebastiaan looked up. “The people who come to me are lost souls,” he said to a young assistant. “This is why I’m here. Fangs help them tap into their primal vampire nature. Fangs are magic.”

Two women squeezed in the stall to be fitted for fangs. “I’m a modern-day vampire who loves life,” said Christina Staib, a woman with leather boots and bat tattoos. Her friend Melanie Anderson had come for her first pair. “They give off an aura,” she said. “A spiritual vampire aura.”

Obviously the “Father” part of Sebastiaan’s title is faux.

Father Sebastiaan is just the man to help cultivate that aura. A 43-year-old with long hair, the fang maker once styled himself the king and spiritual guru of New York’s vibrant vampire scene in the 1990s. He hosted raucous parties, wrote books and launched product lines — jewelry, contact lenses and the fangs — with financial success. It was a good time to be a vampire in New York…

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