World Religions

The Economist: Stuck in a time warp, misses real news about Global South missionaries

The Economist: Stuck in a time warp, misses real news about Global South missionaries

The classically liberal British weekly, The Economist, is known for its authoritative, tightly written, analysis-infused news coverage. While I sometimes disagree with its editorial conclusions, I include myself among those who find The Economist a satisfying read.

But even the news outlets I favor the most are capable of sometimes publishing pieces that leave me wondering.

Such was the case with an Economist piece from earlier this month on the spread of Christian missionaries coming from the Global South (formerly known as the Third World) to North America and Europe — a 180-degree reversal from the historical pattern.

This reverse flow says a lot about the state of global Christianity. It speaks to the real possibility of the political and cultural West entering a truly post-Christian age. And it underscores how the Global South — Africa, Asia and Latin America — are likely to define Christianity’s future.

But why now? Why did The Economist  bother to publish, both online and in print, a story about a phenomenon that’s been picking up speed for several decades and play it as if they’d uncovered a breaking trend?

Why would a publication as exemplary as The Economist  publish a piece that reads as if its been sitting in the magazine’s ever-green file for years?

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Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Those who read GetReligion on Dec. 20 (thereby postponing their holiday chores) may recall The Religion Guy’s list of the big three religion news themes for the new year:

(1) Ongoing debate over using the CRISPR technique to create human “designer babies” and manipulate genes that will be passed along to future generations. (The Guy – uniquely -- also proclaimed this the #1 religion story of 2018.)

(2) How Catholic leaders cope with multiplying cases of priests molesting minors, both at Pope Francis’ February summit and afterward. And don’t neglect those Protestant sexual abuse scandals.

(3) Reverberations from the United Methodist Church’s special February General Conference that decides whether and how to either hold together or to split over same-sex issues.

On the same theme, Religion News Service posted a longish item New Year’s Eve headlined “What’s coming for religion in 2019? Here’s what the experts predict.” This was a collection of brief articles commissioned from a multi-faith lineup. It turned out to be one of those ideas that seemed better in the story conference than in the resulting copy.

Understandably, no panelist expected an end to the persistent Catholic scandals.

Otherwise, the pieces predicted things like this:

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As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

Here’s an explosive combination: The democratic demand for freedom of speech and the equally emotionally laden demand that sincerely held religious beliefs not be subjected to indiscriminate insults and scorn.

Religiously speaking, we’re talking about blasphemy, an issue contemporary Westerners are apt to believe is more of a concern in Muslim communities and highly autocratic nations such as Russia — and which they would be correct to conclude.

Journalistically and artistically speaking, we’re talking about the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the novelist Salman Rushdie. Both were victims of blasphemy charges by Muslim. The former ended in horrific violence.

Now, Foreign Policy magazine — on the occasion of the Hebdo attacks fourth anniversary, and the 30th anniversary of the blasphemy fatwa issued against Rushdie by Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini — has published an intriguing analysis piece on this issue. It ran under this headline:

30 Years After the Rushdie Fatwa, Europe Is Moving Backward.

Blasphemy laws have been given new life on the continent.

Here’s a hefty chunk of the Foreign Policy essay.

But despite the unanimous rhetorical support for free speech after Charlie Hebdo, blasphemy bans have become more firmly anchored in some parts of the continent in recent years. In a recent case, the European Court of Human Rights even reaffirmed that European human rights law recognizes a right not to have one’s religious feelings hurt. The court based its decision on the deeply flawed assumption that religious peace and tolerance may require the policing rather than the protection of “gratuitously offensive” speech. Accordingly, it found that Austria had not violated freedom of expression by convicting a woman for having called the Prophet Mohammed a “pedophile.”

Some have argued that the court’s decision was a necessary defense of an embattled Muslim minority vulnerable to bigotry and religious hatred. But laws against religious insult and blasphemy are generally different from hate speech laws—which are problematic in themselves—that purportedly protect people rather than abstract religious ideas and dogmas.

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2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

End of the year lists of best-of or most-important stories have several major deficiencies.

The first is that they are wholly subjective. While the top choice may be obvious to all, ranking the stories that round out such a list in order of importance is far less so. It’s here where personal preferences, and even guesses, take over.

Not too mention that such lists often do not distinguish between single headline-grabbing event stories and the trend, or ongoing story line, that the event underscores.

The second is that such lists tend to be completed before December ends because editors and readers have come to expect such lists to be published prior to the actual start of the new year. This means the mid- to late-December stories tend not to be included to meet deadlines.

Then there is another truth that journalists need to recognize: Often we miss some of the most important stories when they happen, but recognize their magnitude later.

All of this, in fact, is what has happened to one of the more reliable top-10 story lists — the one done annually by Rabbi A. James Rudin, the long-time Religion News Service columnist, former American Jewish Committee senior interreligious director and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author.

Rudin’s list pertains to the Jewish world, which includes the global Jewish diaspora and Israel and the Middle East. It's because Rudin’s list is confined to the relatively small Jewish world that he knows so well, that I consider his list one of the “more reliable” year-end features of this sort. 

This year — just as the top story in the Catholic world is obviously the ongoing priestly sex abuse scandal and hierarchical cover up — Rudin’s top Jewish story is also obvious.

It’s the increasing displays of anti-Semitism, including, of course, the shooting in Pittsburgh that ended with the deaths of 11 Jewish Sabbath worshippers, slain by a lone gunman with a  beef against Jews and, in particular, a Jewish community agency that helps settle immigrants in the U.S.

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The New York Times wishes us a Merry Hezbollah Christmas

The New York Times wishes us a Merry Hezbollah Christmas

Well, it sounded good on paper.

A New York Times article showing us a kinder, gentler, even interfaith Hezbollah was just one of a bunch of Christmas-themed pieces that ran in the paper this past week. One standout was this depressing piece on China’s holiday crackdown on churches, orchestrated by President Xi (the Grinch) Jinping.

It was just another day for China’s 30 million underground Christians with more people tossed in jail, sanctuaries and seminaries closed for the holiday and online Bible sales prohibited. There was also this piece on the Women’s March fragmenting due to anti-Semitism.

But the strangest article was this overseas dispatch with the headline: “Christmas in Lebanon: Jesus isn’t only for the Christians.” As I will explain in a bit, the piece didn’t get the greatest reception.

BEIRUT — The Iranian cultural attaché stepped up to the microphone on a stage flanked by banners bearing the faces of Iran’s two foremost religious authorities: Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Khamenei, the current supreme leader.

To the left of Ayatollah Khomeini stood a twinkling Christmas tree, a gold star gilding its tip. Angel ornaments and miniature Santa hats nestled among its branches. Fake snow dusted fake pine needles.

“Today, we’re celebrating the birth of Christ,” the cultural attaché, Mohamed Mehdi Shari’tamdar, announced into the microphone, “and also the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.”

“Hallelujah!” boomed another speaker, Elias Hachem, reciting a poem he had written for the event. “Jesus the savior is born. The king of peace, the son of Mary. He frees the slaves. He heals. The angels protect him. The Bible and the Quran embrace.”

“We’re celebrating a rebel,” proclaimed a third speaker, the new mufti of the Shiite Muslims of Lebanon, the rebel in question being Jesus.

This being Lebanon, one can say something positive about Christianity; a luxury that Iran doesn’t allow Christians within its borders, as I wrote about recently. The audience at this event was mainly Shi’ite and an Iranian band was playing Assyrian and Persian Christmas carols; again, a luxury not allowed to Christians in Persia itself.

Nearly 30 years after the end of a civil war in which Beirut was cloven into Muslim and Christian halves connected only by a gutted buffer zone, Lebanese from all different sects now commonly mingle every day at home, at work and in public.

But few seasons frame the everyday give-and-take of religious coexistence quite like Christmastime in Lebanon.

Half the women snapping selfies with the colossal Christmas tree that stands across a downtown street from Beirut’s even more colossal blue mosque wear hijabs.

Children with veiled and unveiled mothers wait in line at the City Center mall to whisper wish lists to the mall’s Santa, and schoolchildren of all sects exchange Secret Santa gifts in class.

I wish the writer would clarify that Santa Claus isn’t a Christian concept and that the jolly Bearded One’s presence worldwide this time of year has more to do with shopping free-for-alls than religion.

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A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

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Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

On July 16, the New York Times ran a blockbuster story with this headline: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.

The man at the heart of this story was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — now ex-cardinal — long one of the most powerful Catholics in America and, some would say, the world. His spectacular fall led to a tsunami of chatter among religion-beat veterans because of decades of rumors about his private affairs, including beach-house sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians. Click here for a Julia Duin post on that.

There was another layer to all of this. McCarrick’s career was rooted in work in the greater New York City area and in Washington, D.C. He was one of the most important media sources among center-left Catholic leaders, so much so that a cluster of reporters linked to him became known as “Team Ted.”

Then came the brutal letters from the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, claiming that a global network of Catholic powerbrokers — including Pope Francis — had helped hide McCarrick and had profited from his clout and patronage.

In August there was an explosion of news about the release of a hellish seven-decade grand-jury report about abuse in six dioceses in Pennsylvania.

The bottom line: 2018 was a year in which there were major developments in two big clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic world. They were, of course, connected.

There was the old, ongoing story of priests abusing teens and children, starting with headlines in the early 1980s. Then there was the issue of how to discipline bishops, archbishops and even cardinals accused of abuse — a story in which all roads lead to Rome and, these days, Pope Francis.

Which story was more important in 2018? Which story centered on new, global developments? These questions are at the heart of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Our discussion centered on the release of the Religion News Association’s annual list of the Top 10 religion-beat stories — in which the Pennsylvania grand-jury report was No. 1 and McCarrick and Vigano fell near the end of that list.

In my own list, McCarrick and Vigano were No. 1 and the Pennsylvania report was No. 4, in part because 97 percent of its crimes were pre-2002, the year U.S. bishops passed strict anti-abuse policies.

There was another strange — IMHO — twist in this. RNA members selected Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as Newsmaker of the Year, after his long, progressive sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Oddly, McCarrick’s name was not even included on the ballot.

It helps to see the lists.

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How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

Billboards with religious messages tend to draw tons of news media interest.

Last year, a Satanic Temple billboard protesting corporal punishment (“Our religion doesn’t believe in hitting children,” it said) rankled a South Texas town, as I reported for Religion News Service.

Other headline-making billboards have insulted Muhammad, promoted a traditional view of marriage and characterized the story of Jesus’ birth as a fairy tale.

Now, “Jesus in Islam” billboards put up in the Phoenix area are in the news.

Here is the lede from the Arizona Republic:

What do Muslims think of Jesus? It's a question Dr. Sabeel Ahmed said he gets often.

To help educate people on the significance of Jesus in Islam, Ahmed's group, The Humanitarians, a Muslim interfaith organization, is launching a monthlong campaign that includes billboards along high-trafficked areas in Arizona along with radio ads.

Ahmed, the group's founder and outreach coordinator, said the intent is to highlight similarities between Islam and Christianity and bring people together during the holidays. 

"We want to educate people on who we (Muslims) are and who we are not and show people that there are more similarities between the faiths than differences," Ahmed said Tuesday during a news conference at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe.

So Ahmed’s group bought the billboards in hopes of generating positive buzz in the community and the newspaper.

Mission accomplished, at least as far as the newspaper goes.

Keep reading, and you’ll discover that this story is the epitome of a puff piece: Group holds news conference. Reporter writes glowingly about it. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It is hard to evaluate the journalistic quality of a New York Times report about a complicated, emotional religious dispute with 1,000 years worth of history when the report — when push comes to shove — is a one-sided look at its contemporary political implications.

Once again, politics trumps church history and doctrine. Surprised?

I am referring to the clash in Ukraine between Orthodox Christians who back centuries of ecclessiastical ties between Kiev and Moscow and those who support the bid by President Petro O. Poroshenko, with the backing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to create an independent, canonical Ukrainian church. Here’s the overture for the recent report in the Times:

MOSCOW — Ukraine took a major step on Saturday toward establishing its own, autonomous Orthodox Church, setting the stage for increased tensions with Russia by altering a centuries-old religious tradition under which the Kiev church answered to Moscow.

Some 190 bishops, priests and other church figures spent the day closeted in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in downtown Kiev to elect the newly unified Ukrainian church’s head, Metropolitan Epiphanius. He is scheduled to travel in January to Istanbul, the historical seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to receive an official order granting autonomy.

Hundreds of supporters of the move cheered and some wept as President Petro O. Poroshenko, who had attended the session, emerged from the cathedral to announce that Ukraine had a new church leader.

Quoting from the national poet, Taras Shevchenko, Mr. Poroshenko said that “Ukraine will no longer drink Moscow poison from the Moscow cup,” and he called on supporters to remember the day’s events as “the final acquisition of independence from Russia.”

The assumption here is, of course, that (a) the tiny, endangered church in Constantinople has the power — there is no Vatican in Orthodox polity — to create an “autocephalous” Ukrainian church that will be recognized as valid by Orthodox churches around the world. Oh, and (b), the heart of this story is a conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and modern Europe, representing the free world.

Political sizzle always trumps church history.

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