Trinity

Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

Is it time for The New York Times to hire a liturgist as a copy editor?

Well, maybe the world’s most influential newspaper doesn’t need to hire someone with a degree in liturgical studies. It might be enough to hire a few people who are familiar with (a) traditional Christian language, (b) the contents of the Associated Press Stylebook or (c) both of the previous options.

Faithful news consumers may recall the problem Times editors had following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. I am referring to the news report in which Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, was quoted — a direct quote — as saying that he rushed into the flames to save a “statue” of Jesus. In a gesture that left Catholic readers bewildered, he was said to have used the statue to bless the cathedral before rushing to safety.

Apparently, someone thought the priest’s reference, in French, to the “Body of Christ” was a reference to a statue. That led to this correction:

An earlier version of this article misidentified one of two objects recovered from Notre-Dame by the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier. It was the Blessed Sacrament, not a statue of Jesus.

This brings me to a much less serious error — but one I am sure some readers found jarring — in a story following the racist massacre in El Paso. The headline: “In a Suffering City, an El Paso Priest Needed a Message of Hope.”

The content of that message? The Times team — to its credit — noted that the Rev. Fabian Marquez preached from a specific passage in the Gospel of Matthew:

“We need to follow the commandment of love — love God, love your neighbor,” the priest said. “This was a tragedy that came to break us and separate us, but God is inviting us to spread the love that only comes from him, and only with that are we going to be able to overcome this tragedy and this sadness.”

What inspired this sermon? What was the source of this inspiration?

That’s where the Times had trouble, once again, with basic Christian language and doctrine. Read this overture carefully:

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Why did Latterday-day Saints change brands? That news story (oh no) may be linked to doctrine

Why did Latterday-day Saints change brands? That news story (oh no) may be linked to doctrine

In the months since the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the attempt to tone down use of the word “Mormon,” I have heard two questions over and over from people outside the Latter-day Saint fold.

Yes, that sentence was somewhat long and awkward, for obvious reasons.

Question No. 1: What are they going to call The Choir.

Question No. 2: Why did Latter-day Saints leaders take this step, at this moment in time, to change their brand?

If you are interested in that first question, a long, long feature story in The New York Times — “ ‘Mormon’ No More: Faithful Reflect on Church’s Move to Scrap a Moniker” — has a fabulous anecdote that shows up at the very end. Here we go:

For many Latter-day Saints, the most important cue came from the church’s iconic musical organization, known since 1929 as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The group was on tour in Los Angeles last year, singing in Disney Hall, when a bishop asked choir leaders to begin thinking about new names.

At first many performers felt “a little uptight” about the idea, said the group’s president, Ron Jarrett. … They mulled options: the Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the Tabernacle Choir in Utah, the Tabernacle Choir of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and finally landed on the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

Still, the group had to manage a swath of legal issues, like how to protect copyrights and recording labels all made under the former name. Products and recordings made before 2019 will maintain the previous legal name, but new ones will not.

“For me, it has been an opportunity to really evaluate who we are and what we stand for,” Mr. Jarrett said. “I was able to say, ‘I will follow a living prophet, and our music will remain the same.’”

The singers have retired their catchy nickname, the MoTabs. They are trying out a new one, Mr. Jarrett said: the TCats, or TabCats.

I think legions of headline writers would embrace that kind of short, catchy, option, should the church’s leaders come up with an unofficial official nickname. After all, you may recall that use of the “LDS” brand was also discouraged, along with the big change in the status of “Mormon.” The Times story notes the practical implications online:

The church’s longtime website, LDS.org, now redirects to ChurchofJesusChrist.org, and Mormon.org will soon switch over, too. In May, the church stopped posting on its @MormonChannel Instagram feed and encouraged followers to move to @ChurchofJesusChrist instead.

OK, but why did this change happen?

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This is not a trick question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

This is not a trick question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

THE QUESTION:

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This topic hit the news February 4 when Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayebb of Egypt’s influential Al-Azhar University issued a joint declaration “in the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity.” Did Francis, who was making history’s first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, thereby mean to say that the Christian God is the Muslim God?

Yes, he did, if properly understood, and this was no innovation on his part.

In 1965, Pope Paul VI and the world’s Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council approved Nostra Aetate, the declaration on relations with non-Christian religions. The decree’s denunciation of calumny against Jews gets most of the attention, but it also proclaimed this:

“The church also regards with esteem the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,” although “they do not acknowledge Jesus as God” and regard him as only a prophet. The subsequent Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise defines the belief that “together with us [Muslims] adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

Such interfaith concord is disputed by some conservative Protestants in the U.S. For example, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry believes the Catholic Church has “a faulty understanding of the God of Islam,” and Muslims “are not capable of adoring the true God.” Hank Hanegraaff of the “Bible Answer Man” broadcast — now a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy — has asserted that “the Allah of Islam” is “definitely not the God of the Bible.” [Note that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word meaning “God.”]

Back in the century after Islam first arose, such thinking was expressed in “The Fount of Knowledge” by John of Damascus, a revered theologian for Eastern Orthodoxy. John spelled out reasons why Islam’s belief about God is a “heresy” and Muhammad is “a false prophet.”

Islam’s fundamental profession of faith declares that “there is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

How are we to understand this one true God?

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Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Believe it or not, the language of theology can make news, every now and then. This is especially true when the person speaking the words is the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter.

However, this goes against one of the great unwritten laws of journalism, which appears to state something like this: Whenever the pope speaks, even in a sermon, the most important words are always those that can be interpreted as commentary on events or trends in contemporary politics. This is consistent with this journalism doctrine: Politics is the ultimate reality. Religion? Not so much.

For a perfect example of this law, please see this story in The New York Times: “Pope Francis Breaks Some Taboos on Visit to Persian Gulf.”

The taboos that make it into the lede are, of course, political and, frankly, they are important. This is a case in which Times editors really needed to insist on a difficult and rare maneuver — a lede that lets readers know that the story contains TWO very important developments.

The political angle raised eyebrows among diplomats. But there was also a theological statement linked to this story that will trouble many traditional Christians, as well as Muslims. Then again, Universalists in various traditions may have every reason to cheer. Hold that thought. Here is the political overture.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis used the keynote address of his roughly 40-hour stay in the United Arab Emirates to breach delicate taboos on Monday, specifically mentioning Yemen, where his hosts are engaged in a brutal war, and calling on countries throughout the Gulf region to extend citizenship rights to religious minorities.

The remarks by Francis were exceptionally candid for a pope who as a general rule does not criticize the country that hosts him and avoids drawing undue attention to the issues that its rulers would rather not discuss. …

But on Monday, during the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam was born, Francis was blunt in a speech before hundreds of leaders from a broad array of faiths on a day used to underscore the need for humanity to stop committing violence in the name of religion.

“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war,’” Francis said at the towering Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi.

“Let us return it to its miserable crudeness,” he added. “Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Yes, the reference to Yemen was big news. Yes, that had to be in the lede.

So what was the theological news?

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Crossroads podcast: A Muslim at an Episcopal altar? Face it, that's a complicated story

Crossroads podcast: A Muslim at an Episcopal altar? Face it, that's a complicated story

Sometimes the issue flares up in a major religious denomination. Take, for example, the 2007 case of an Episcopal priest who declared, "I am both Muslim and Christian." She was eventually defrocked. Coverage of that story led to some interesting discussions here at GetReligion.

Quite some time ago, there was the case of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who was disciplined for taking part in a post-Sept. 11 service that involved praying with Oprah Winfrey, as well as leaders from a wide spectrum of religious traditions, including Islam and Hinduism. 

Or maybe we're talking about a professor at a major evangelical Protestant school -- like Wheaton College -- who not only wore a hijab in support of oppressed Muslims, but took to social media to declare that she believes that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She quoted the pope, when making that point.

These kinds of news reports loomed in the background during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on a recent Holy Week Mass in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, during which the clergy renewed their ordination vows.

The bottom line: Stories about interfaith work and worship almost always raise complicated theological issues and, nine times out of 10, there are more than two camps of believers involved in the debates. Hold that thought.

Key details about the new Holy Week story: A Muslim interfaith leader preached during the rite, in the normal point in the liturgy dedicated to the sermon. A passage from the Quran was read, before the Gospel. The preacher stood with the bishop and others at the altar during the consecration prayers and she received the consecrated bread during Holy Communion.

All of this was discussed in my Universal syndicate "On Religion" column this week. Here is a sample of that column, which included material from contacts with Bishop Robert C. Wright, as well as the preacher, Soumaya Khalifah.

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Why care that Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses face persecution -- but get scant coverage?

Why care that Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses face persecution -- but get scant coverage?

The growing public rift between Washington and Moscow following our missile attack on a Syrian military airport couldn't come at a worse time for Russia's relatively small community of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Why? Because President Vladimir Putin's Russia appears ready to outlaw the sect for engaging in "extremist activities," a catch all legalism in Russia used to ensnare any group or individual the Kremlin is politically unhappy with.

What? You didn't know this?

I'm not surprised because other than The New York Times, no member of the American media elite appears to have done its own story on the Issue.

Of course the wires, including the Associated Press and Reuters, pumped out bare-bone versions of the story. But from my limited search it appears to me that the wire stories were largely relegated to media web pages.

Why's that? Perhaps because the few newsrooms with the ability to do their own story out of Russia view the plight of the Jehovah's Witnesses as a mere sidebar to the far more globally engrossing story of U.S.-Russia friction.

Not to mention that the sect never gets much media attention anyway. I'm guessing that's because the only familiarity the preponderance of American journalists have with the group is when it's members knock on their door to hand out tracts -- something they seemingly always manage to do at an inopportune time.

(Jehovah's Witnesses consider themselves Christians. But almost all mainstream Christians reject that claim, because of conflicts over the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Because this post is about journalism, not theology, I'm making no judgement here about that. Click here for more information.)

Here's some important background on the issue from the Times piece.

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Oh my Triune God! Washington Post edits heretical hyphen into Rubio's mouth (updated)

Oh my Triune God! Washington Post edits heretical hyphen into Rubio's mouth (updated)

There is much that can be said about the latest Washington Post look at the state of Sen. Marco Rubio's political soul, and we will get to that in a moment. But first, there is a dose of heresy at the top of this story -- "Marco Rubio talks to Iowa about God" -- that needs to be straightened out.

I totally understand that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity -- the belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit -- is complicated and people have been arguing about it for two millennia. I can understand that this doctrine might cause problems for copy-desk professionals who do not have degrees in church history. However, for the world's 2.2 billion or so Christians, this is pretty important stuff.

So what heretical statement did Rubio make, at least as he was quoted by the Post? Here is how the story opens:

BURLINGTON, Iowa -- Marco Rubio’s first questioner was blunt: “On your decision-making, will you follow God’s word?”
For the next few minutes, Rubio sounded more like a Sunday school teacher than a presidential candidate holding an early January town hall. He talked about John the Baptist, he referred to Jesus as “God-made man,” and he explained his yearning to share “eternity with my creator.”
Then, he answered the question: “Yes, I try every day in everything I do.”

What we have here is a head-on collision between the Nicene Creed and the Associated Press Stylebook, almost certainly with the help of an editor at the Post. The problem is that hyphen in the phrase in which Rubio is said to have "referred to Jesus as 'God-made man.' "

Now, did Rubio actually say to the crowd "Jesus is 'God hyphen man' " or did someone at the Post simply hear that hyphen and then edit the heretical content into the quote?

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Sarah Pulliam Bailey dives deep into Wheaton wars and conflicts inside evangelicalism

Sarah Pulliam Bailey dives deep into Wheaton wars and conflicts inside evangelicalism

So have you been waiting for someone who knows "evangelical" stuff to write the "big picture" of what is going on in the Wheaton College wars?

That is precisely what veteran Washington Post religion-beat pro Michaelle Boorstein asked former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey to do the other day. I especially appreciated that this journalistic view from 5,000 feet (or higher) involved the angle that GetReligion has been talking about from Day 1 -- the "who gets to define what 'evangelical' means, especially when jobs are at stake?"

As always, it's hard to critique the work of a former colleague. Thus, I wrote Sarah and asked if she would write a short introduction, when I pointed our readers toward a few key parts of her long, long news feature. Here it is:

I was actually on vacation when the news first broke, so I came back to the story trying to sort out what actually happened, who said what when, why it had turned into such a nightmare for the college. I saw a lot of people posting really simplistic reactions, like the college is racist or the professor equates Islam with Christianity, so clearly people didn't understand the complexities.

And there was, of course, one other interesting question linked to Sarah reporting this story (a question longtime GetReligion readers will have already thought about):

I asked our higher education reporter if I should disclose that I went (to Wheaton College). She said no, unless I'm on some alumni association or something. We have UVA grads report on UVA, etc. It's pretty easy to find through Facebook or Linked In or pretty much anywhere that I went there, but we didn't feel like it was necessary to stamp on the story itself.

So what are the real issues in this doctrinal skirmish?

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Stephen Prothero wades into Wheaton wars: 'Are Allah and Jesus the same God?'

Stephen Prothero wades into Wheaton wars: 'Are Allah and Jesus the same God?'

The drama at Wheaton College rolls on. I have held off talking about it, in part because -- after decades in Christian higher education -- I know that it will be hard for reporters to get behind the scenes and find out what is actually going on.

Why? Because money and donors are involved? Of course. Name a controversy in higher education -- left or right, secular or religious -- that doesn't involve donors.

Because believers don't like bad public relations? Yes, that's true. But privacy laws are also important at private schools. What can Wheaton leaders say about this case without legally violating the privacy of the professor at the heart of all this?

Are there First Amendment issues linked to freedom of religion and freedom of association? Yes, and what about that 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 backing the right of doctrinally defined educational institutions to hire and fire their own leaders, based on doctrinal criteria?

Because politics are involved? Yes. But it's crucial for reporters to realize that the political battles here are built on issues of doctrine. Lots of Christians -- including evangelicals -- do not agree on how to answer this question: Is the God of the Hebrews, the God Jesus intimately called "Father," the same as Allah, the radically transcendent God of Islam? What do Muslims say?

There is another factor in this timeline. The New Testament reports that Jesus said, "I am the Father are one." Jews, of course, reject the Christian Trinity, but in doing so they are arguing with Jesus and the founders of the early church -- all Jews. Islam, of course, comes after the earthly ministry of Jesus and explicitly (check out the inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock) rejects that God has a Son.

One other factor that journalists must grasp: There is no one definition of "evangelical" and there is no one prevailing authority that gets to call the doctrinal shots. Remember what the Rev. Billy Graham -- the most famous Wheaton graduate, ever -- told me long ago, when I asked him how he defined "evangelical"?

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