Union Theological Seminary

Friday Five: Heidi Hall's last story, mainline blues, praying to plants, FFRF stenography, Ukraine scoop

Friday Five: Heidi Hall's last story, mainline blues, praying to plants, FFRF stenography, Ukraine scoop

Friends and loved ones mourn Wednesday’s death of Heidi Hall, a former religion and education editor for The Tennessean.

As noted by that newspaper, the cause of her passing was metastatic colorectal cancer. She was 49.

Hall wrote a final story, published Thursday.

“It's the story of her life — of losing everything when she left the (Jehovah’s) Witnesses — and finding a new family of her own,” RNS editor-in-chief Bob Smietana noted on Twitter.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Yes, our own Terry Mattingly is a tough critic.

But he gave an extremely positive review to Washington Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer’s piece that ran this week with this headline: The circuit preacher was an idea of the frontier past. Now it’s the cutting-edge response to shrinking churches.”

“If you start reading this one, you will want to read it all,” tmatt said.

Amen.

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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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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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Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

After 20 Democratic candidates’ “food fight” debates (thank you, Kamala Harris), pundits are pondering whether Harris or Elizabeth Warren will win their developing faceoff, whether senior citizens Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are slipping and whether the party is roaming too far left to win the mushy American middle.

Meanwhile, political reporters interested in religion, and religion reporters interested in politics, should examine whether the Democrats can improve their religion outreach after a lackluster 2016 effort, amid perennial predictions that a revivified “religious left” could counterbalance Republicans’ familiar “Religious Right.”

This time around, Democrats have uttered more religious mentions than usual, but hopes center upon one newcomer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an outspoken gay Episcopalian.

Asked about immigration during the debate, Episcopalian Buttigieg said “the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion” while “our party doesn’t talk about that as much,” largely because of commitment to separation of church and state. Then this: “For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is O.K. to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

There’s upcoming news in Buttigieg’s pick for full-time “Faith Engagement Director.” The job ad says the campaign “rejects transactional interactions” in favor of “creative ways to unlock cultural appreciation.” (Translation, please.) Notably, “women, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people are strongly encouraged to apply.” (What, no blacks and Latinos?)

The Democratic Party has already made a similar hire, with the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins serving as director of religious outreach, which he also was in 2012. Back then, the left worried he’d lack enthusiasm for open-ended abortion and gay rights, but interviewers will presumably find he’s now fully on board, in the cultural liberalism department.

Harkins was the assistant pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City and pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas and Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Since 2015 he’s been “Senior Vice President for Innovations in Public Programming” at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Under Harkins, the party’s first listening session was with the pro-LGBTQ Union of Affirming Christians.

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Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes

Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes

There was an interesting op-ed the other day in The New York Post that had a very GetReligion-esque feel to it, to say the least. The headline stated: “New York Times hits new low with mortifying Notre Dame correction.”

Then there was that familiar Hemingway byline.

“Mark Hemingway, that is.”

I realize that I have already written a post about this latest Gray Lady offense against 2,000 years of Christian doctrine, history and language. If you missed that one, click here: “Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?” Here is a refresher, care of Hemingway:

… The New York Times later appended this correction to the story: “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.”

How could the newspaper possibly confuse these two things? The most logical explanation is that Father Fournier referred to the “body of Christ,” and the reporter took his words literally and not seriously. It doesn’t appear to be a translation error; the reporter who wrote the story, Elian Peltier, appears to be fluent in French and tweets in the language regularly.

Why return to this subject?

What Hemingway offers in this short piece is a collection of stunning and, at times, unintentionally hilarious Times errors linked to essential Christian doctrines — including the narrative of Holy Week and Easter. (For Western Christians, this past Sunday was Easter. For Eastern Christians, such as myself, this week is Holy Week and this coming Sunday is Pascha, or Easter.)

Since we are talking about GetReligion basics, let me stress that no one believes that editors at the Times — the world’s most prestigious newspaper — need to BELIEVE these essentials of Christianity. The goal is to understand them well enough to be able to write about them without making embarrassing errors. Try to imagine Times-people making errors like these when dealing with the basics of Judaism, Islam or, for heaven’s sake, the latest Democratic Party platform.

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In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

The Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations have scumbled long-standing visions of America's role in the world. During times past, the then-regnant “mainline” Protestantism might have addressed matters, but its intellectual impact has eroded. Are any resources from this or other segments of American religion equipped to provide moral guidance on foreign policy for such a confusing time?

 That’s a big fat story theme, which brings us to the current boomlet to reclaim the “Christian realism” of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Niebuhr was deemed the nation’s “greatest living political philosopher” by his ally Hans Morgenthau, a noted foreign policy analyst. In more recent times, Niebuhr has been lauded by former Democratic Presidents Obama and Jimmy Carter.

Yet, surprisingly for a theological liberal and longtime Socialist, Niebuhr also has moderate and conservative disciples. Jack Jenkins proposed in a May 18 ThinkProgress piece that President Trump’s “greatest ‘conservative’ opponent may turn out to be” Niebuhr. Others utter hosannas in a Niebuhr documentary premiered in January at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where he taught for 32 years.   

Another fan, of all people, is the hyper-newsworthy James Comey, late of the FBI, who mentioned this to New York Magazine years ago. In March, Ashley Feinberg of gizmodo.com even unmasked Comey as a Twitter user under Niebuhr’s name. The Comey angle is fleshed out in “The F.B.I. and Religion,” co-edited by Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman (University of California Press) and in a May 19 Weitzman article for Christianity Today.

Comey’s 1982 senior thesis at William and Mary compared the Reverend Niebuhr’s political theology favorably over against that of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Moral Majority. Both men cited Scripture and advocated Christian political involvement, Comey observed, but Niebuhr always recognized the ambiguities and shunned “America-first” fulminations.  

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Another newsy question: What does the Bible say about physical punishment of children?

Another newsy question: What does the Bible say about physical punishment of children?

AN ANONYMOUS READER ASKS:

In the U.S. there is a strong tendency among certain segments of the population to emphasize only the negatives of Islam and only the positives of Christianity. What would you say to the Christians who believe in beating their children?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This responds to our July 26 item on verse 4:34 in the Quran that directs husbands to beat rebellious wives, currently a political issue in the Muslim world. Islamic interpreters explain that beating is a last resort and should be done lightly, not severely. The questioner raises the fact that Christians (and Jews) have a similar issue on physical discipline of children. Poet Samuel Butler coined the maxim “spare the rod and spoil the children” but it’s a biblical idea expressed in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs:

“He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (13:24; all translations from the Revised Standard Version). “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (22:15). “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol” (23:13-14). “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother” (29:15).

However, other biblical Proverbs balance that, saying God’s people should be “slow to anger” and “overlook an offense,” while “love covers all offenses.” We find that emphasis in the New Testament Book of Ephesians: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4).

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