Category Archives: Covering religion

Blogging versus reporting

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi (right) introduces Pope Benedict XVI to journalists during a news conference aboard the Pope's plane prior to landing in Darwin July 2008. Photo: AFP

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi (right) introduces Pope Benedict XVI to journalists during a news conference aboard the Pope's plane prior to landing in Darwin July 2008. Photo: AFP

Two recent reports from the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent Riazat Butt show the way mainstream journalists are using bogs and traditional reports to cover their beat. Butt filed two reports of the Vatican communication’s director Federico Lombardi’s defense of recent Vatican press gaffes. What is interesting is that her blog report and her news item contain pretty much the same information but vary greatly in tone. Her standard report begins:

The Vatican’s communications chief has defended his handling of the controversies surrounding Benedict XVI’s papacy by arguing that the furores have benefited the Holy See.

Father Federico Lombardi said that many of the scandals had led people to think deeply about topics such as inter-faith dialogue, anti-Semitism and Aids prevention.

The pope has aroused controversy on several issues. His quoted remarks about Islam being “evil and inhuman” prompted violent protests around the world. Catholic-Jewish relations were severely tested when he lifted the excommunication of Richard Willamson, a priest who was a Holocaust denier. Benedict also angered health campaigners, politicians and activists by claiming that condoms aggravated HIV/Aids.

The incidents meant the pope’s ability and judgment were questioned as never before.

Despite the episodes generating unprecedented hostility towards the Vatican, Lombardi said in a speech in London on Monday night he was “convinced” the question of Christian-Muslim relations had been addressed more frankly following the pope’s 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, in Germany, when he talked about Islam. He also said the “clamorous response” to Williamson’s declarations had allowed the Vatican to reinforce its position on anti-Semitism, and that the pope’s remarks on condoms had led to a “greater understanding” of “truly effective” HIV/Aids prevention strategies in Africa.

Her blog report relates to the same speech but is much more personal – and cynical – in tone:

Last night I had the pleasure of going to mass in search of Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s director of press, who was giving a lecture on communications. It doesn’t take a genius, never mind a religious affairs correspondent, to think that the head of Vatican PR pontificating (ha) on communications is akin to Norway giving masterclasses on getting a joke. Lombardi, an Italian priest who started his press career on La Civiltà Cattolica, working his way up before replacing the long-serving Joaquin Navarro Valls in 2006, has come under sustained fire since taking over at the helm of the Holy See press office.

First there was Regensburg. Then there was the lifting of the excommunication of the Holocaust-denying priest Richard Williamson. I know the decision was unconnected to the Holocaust denial, but it’s not that hard to Google, I do it before every date. Then there were unscripted remarks about condoms aggravating the spread of AIDS that were later edited to say something rather different. Bring in a bit of papal revisionism – he wasn’t a member of the Hitler Youth, oh hang on yes he was – and an almost unintelligible speech that angered gay rights campaigners and dominated news cycles for 48 hours with little or no clarification from the Vatican and we have all the makings of what Catholic and non-Catholic commentators called a PR failure, carnage, nightmare and train wreck. But wait! Apparently, we/I/you/they got it wrong. Citing not so much divine intervention as the law of unintended consequences Lombardi said that Muslim-Christian relations were better because of Regensburg, that the Williamson episode had allowed the church to clarify and strengthen its position on antisemitism and Holocaust denial and that the pope’s intervention on condoms was carefully crafted to allow deeper discussion and reflections on the topic.

Apart from the jokey tone the interesting thing about the blog report is that it links to details of all the previous reports such as stories about Regensburg and the Williamson fiasco. So the blog report is both more personal and potentially more personalised in the sense that it provides vertical history to the story which enables the reader to personalise the story for themselves.

Both reports use the same key quotes from Lombardi. The standard report is clear inverted pyramid style writing which quickly summarises the key points of the story while the blog report also introduces the key elements but does this in a less formal and many would argue a more engaging way. Given that the information is virtually identical in both reports it is interesting to compare the apparent objectivity in the standard report with the clearly cynical tone of the blog post. This is an easy case where the conventions of objective journalism – such as the judicious use of quoted phrases – allows a source like Lombardi to hang himself without any visible bias in the reporting.

Next Gen Evangelicals

Jonathan Merritt...one of a new breed of evangelicals

Jonathan Merritt...one of a new breed of evangelicals

A surprisingly detailed and measured look at the changes in the evangelical landscape from gay magazine The Advocate raises some of the same points covered in the Newsweek article I wrote about a few days ago. It notes that young evangelicals are more likely to be concerned about the environment and more likely to believe in some form of relationship recognition for gays. Jonathan Merritt a young evangelical leader puts it this way:

“My generation will not fight to preserve the platform for traditional marriage that our predecessors have fought for,” the 26-year-old says. “Older evangelicals are so stubborn and unable to compromise or reach out a hand. And they’re in danger of losing their legacy.”

Whatever his personal beliefs on marriage equality are, you’re not likely to hear him rail against a gay rights agenda in the vitriolic vein of Pat Robertson or James Dobson. On his blog Merritt criticizes a Starbucks-addled American culture that ignores the atrocities in Darfur. He renounces the use of torture. Most notably, Merritt recognizes the burden of 6.7 billion people on the world’s ecosystems and chastises Christians who don’t view conservation and carbon footprint reduction as godly mandates. “Environmental stewardship has been integrated into Christian thought since the beginning of time,” he says. “Unfortunately, when modern evangelicals began associating themselves with a particular political faction, they were skittish about issues seen as leftist or liberal policy.”

Matthew Fox the former Dominican who was hounded out of the Catholic church for his exploration of creation centered spirituality makes a great point about the individualist drive of traditional religious right positions:

“So much of the [evangelical] agenda has come from the modern consciousness of the individual,” says Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest and theologian in Oakland, Calif. “Am I saved? Am I a sinner? Am I going to hell? But I think this generation has grown up with the realization that the planet is dying and that its survival is a little more important than whom people sleep with.”

For more from Fox check out this interview

The death of Christian America?

Newsweek explores the empty pews...Photo: Newsweek

Newsweek explores the empty pews...Photo: Newsweek

Amidst the proliferation of religion stories to coincide with Easter, the Newsweek cover story is a fantastic piece that has depth and currency. Written by the magazine’s editor, Jon Meacham, it is beautifully researched, engagingly written and strongly argued. It draws out a number of different points of view and possibilities around the theme of what a reported drop in religious affiliation might mean:

Let’s be clear: while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian. A third of Americans say they are born again; this figure, along with the decline of politically moderate-to liberal mainline Protestants, led the ARIS authors to note that “these trends … suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more ‘evangelical’ outlook among Christians.” With rising numbers of Hispanic immigrants bolstering the Roman Catholic Church in America, and given the popularity of Pentecostalism, a rapidly growing Christian milieu in the United States and globally, there is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious—far more so, for instance, than Europe.

Still, in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, fewer people now think of the United States as a “Christian nation” than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008). Two thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is “losing influence” in American society, while just 19 percent say religion’s influence is on the rise. The proportion of Americans who think religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is now at a historic low of 48 percent. During the Bush 43 and Clinton years, that figure never dropped below 58 percent.

A few teaching points on style:

  • note the way he bookends the long feature with an anecdote from one of his key sources, Albert Mohler;
  • note the way he acknowledges his own religious position but neither his personal voice or faith dominate his argument;
  • note the diversity of primary and secondary sources and how he makes use of academic texts in a very reader friendly way; and
  • note the way he deep backgrounds the American constitutional tradition and various religious movements.

In a web post accompanying the article Meacham makes the point that some readers interpreted the story as an attack on Christianity. This is clearly not the case and is pretty obviously a knee jerk reaction to the coverline (“The decline and fall of Christina America”) by believers inculcated with the view that the press is anti-religious. Meacham notes:

Some have read the piece (or, I suspect, the cover line) as an attack on Christianity, which it is not and which would, in any case, be an act of self-loathing, since I am a Christian, albeit a poor one. Note that we did not say we were discussing the decline and fall of Christianity, or even the decline and fall of Christianity in America. But “Christian America” is something else again. It is the vision of a nation whose public life is governed by explicitly articulated and adopted Christian principles in the hope, I think, that God will bless and protect the country and its people in the spirit of II Chron. 7:14. To see how well that is going from the perspective of the religious right, take a look at the news from Iowa and Vermont. I do not think, as some evangelicals do, that we are entering a “post-Christian” phase, but I do believe we are growing rather more secular than I would have anticipated even five years ago. The cumulative effect of a somewhat declining Christian population and a weakening Christian force in partisan politics is likely, I think, to lead to a more secular politics. Not wholly secular, to be sure, but more secular than we have been accustomed to in our Jesus-Winthrop-Reagan “city on a hill.”

Billy tells nothing

Billy Graham, Pastor-in-chief...photo: Time

Billy Graham, Pastor-in-chief...photo: Time

Pastor in Chief from Time’s Nancy Gibbs and Michel Duffy has a perfect anecdotal opening:

You have to climb a steep and narrow road, past the moonshiners’ shacks and dense rhododendrons and through the iron gates to get to the house on the mountaintop that Ruth Graham built after her husband Billy became too famous to live anywhere else. By 1954, after she caught her children charging tourists a nickel to take a picture of their old house and noticed Billy crawling across the floor of his study to keep people outside from catching a glimpse of him, she knew it was time to move.

And as we read further we are promised so much. Gibbs and Duffy tell us that they visited their famous subject, Billy Graham, several times over thirteen months, and that the aging pastor who has been a fixture on the American political scene for over fifty years had agreed to talk to them about his unique relationships with the last 11 presidents. What a story!There are some lovely moments and the picture we get of Graham, as a lovely old man who has led a fascinating life but still retains his innocence, is finely drawn. We are told that the Presidential families and the Grahams could empathise with each other because they were all public figures:

For a preacher who had no church, and who spent his life preaching to football stadiums full of people he never saw again, the First Families gave Graham the rare chance to be a family pastor. He gave them a sanctuary; they gave him a congregation. He carried the families through times of loss–literal and political; several wanted him to be with them during their last nights in the White House. Richard Nixon collapsed in Graham’s arms at his mother’s funeral in 1967. Bill Clinton took him to sit at the bedside of a dying friend in 1989. Graham was the first person outside the family whom Nancy Reagan called when her husband died in 2004.

We are treated to intriguing little scenes such as his last conversation with Lady Bird Johnson:

Last month, Johnson’s daughters Lynda and Luci reached out to him as their mother was dying. Two days before she passed away, he called and talked to them, and since Lady Bird was awake and alert, they put the phone to her ear. The former First Lady and the former White House pastor chatted some and then shared a prayer together.

We are told he “thinks a lot of” Hillary Clinton. That Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with his own mortality and commissioned a “secret” actuarial report on the likelihood of surviving another term in office. But there are no real secrets revealed here although some startling hints are dangled:

Was it crossing a line when he invited presidential candidates to his crusades or sent along suggestions for their speeches at National Prayer Breakfasts? What about when he lobbied lawmakers on behalf of a poverty bill or an arms deal, or consulted with candidates on their campaign ads or their running mates? It was one thing to serve as Eisenhower’s or Johnson’s private pastor. But it was quite another to act as Nixon’s political partner, carrying private messages to foreign heads of state, advising on campaign strategy and assembling evangelical leaders for private White House briefings.

These fascinating questions are raised by the authors but we are not privy to any of Graham’s answers. His role in lobbying lawmakers on an arms deal certainly sounds like a “line” was crossed and an exploration of this would have made for a much more revealing feature. I suspect there were strict guidelines about what could and couldn’t be written about and maybe this is Gibbs and Duffy’s way of hinting at what they can’t write about until after Graham goes to meet his maker. But in the end they don’t come close to fulfilling the promise of their stated purpose:

At a time when the country was bitterly debating the role of religion in public life, we thought Graham’s 50-year courtship of – and courtship by – 11 Presidents was a story that needed to be told. Perhaps more than anyone else, he had shaped the contours of American public religion and had seen close up how the Oval Office affects people.

In the end they add absolutely nothing to this “public debate”. All we get is Graham hagiography. It’s a perfect example of a beautifully crafted feature, on a fascinating subject that fails dismally because it says nothing so well.

Fallen Preacher Man

Haggard858_1162844730

In amidst following the election coverage (and all my corrections) I have still found time to be fascinated by the Ted Haggard scandal and have been spending time as a lurker in the Christian blogsphere (a revelation in itself – a very vibrant and diverse community) where the discussion has been fierce. What struck me immediately is how Christians, no matter their protestations, have taken it in their stride, this is because in some way “sin” is even more familiar to them than sanctity. As Jeff Sharlet commented on radio open source:

Is this the end of the Christian Right? No, no. Where does it go from here? Ted’s downfall is just going to make the movement stronger…This is a classic narrative, the fallen preacher. They know how to deal with this story, they depend on this story for drama, just as much as secular reporters depend on it.

This embrace of the predictable narrative is very striking. It is what gives Christianity a disturbing circular logic. Take this comment:

Praise the Lord that He knows what is best for HIs children. Even through this dark time I see more of God’s grace. Although the world my use this as an excuse to point the fingers at us Christians as hypocrites…we can point back to Christ as our Savior. Let us brothers and sisters show the Lord that they too need a Savior as Ted Haggard does. Let us show the world that He will forgive His child and that we are not perfect beings…just forgiven. Let us count it all joy through this trial and glorify God in the midst of it. We must stand together for the Lord’s sake.

Christianity as a narrative is all about the miracle of paradox: God/Man, Three-in-one God, darkness into light, he died that we might have life etc. At its most sophisticated it represents a deft worldview that engages in a beautiful dance with both the sacramental/symbolic and the materiality of life but at its most mundane it becomes just plain hokey: one door closes another opens. Either way, for the believer it is an unshakeable, incredibly buoyant framework.The other aspect of this symbolic world is that it is populated by a set of contradictory signs that depend on each other. The fall of Haggard is not only understandable it is in some ways necessary to the ongoing strength of the symbolic narrative and as Sharlet has pointed out the “gay man” (archetype not person) is also vitally necessary to the construction of the contemporary evangelical self.

This whole idea of purity as a way in which you can become a real activist in the cause. You might not be out there protesting outside an abortion clinic, or going out on a mission trip, but you are sort of conducting a mission trip in your own genitals. Driving lust out from your body the way Christ drives the demons out. And it makes everyone feel like, wow, I’m a part of something big…And the reason that the gay man looms so large is because, in their imagination, he’s the one who gives into his temptations entirely…The gay man, he’s not even procreating, it’s just about him, it’s just about pleasure, it’s just selfishness.

There have of course been some quite sophisticated takes on what Haggard means by Christian bloggers. The editor of Reformation 21 has what is in many ways a very traditional view of the whole episode but he recognises that there are two narratives and both the “denounce Ted” and the “just like Ted” narratives are equally flawed. But he does make the interesting point:

The Ted Haggard situation exposes a lot of dark reality in the evangelical movement that we should not gloss over in the interests of “grace”. A high percentage of our churches have hired ministers based solely on their oratorical gifts, with little consideration of whether or not they really are men of God. Godly men who lead holy lives are run out of pulpits so that hip, cool, media personalities can be put in their place. It is generally true, in my opinion, that our evangelical movement has pursued lifestyle happiness over biblical holiness, has emphasized numerical sucess over biblical truth, and has revelled in the gifts of men rather than in the glory of God. In this respect, I fear that the “show grace to Ted” argument fails to confront the values that dominate the broader Christian movement of which we are a part that have contributed to such scandals.

This post or others like it are not going to change these structural issues within American evangelical christianity but it does show a recognition that the logic of transformation at the heart of the personalised message of salvation does have to be taken seriously at the orgainsational level.

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A Christmas gift for Ted..

All I want for christmas...Mike Jones poses on his website

All I want for christmas...Mike Jones poses on his website

This is what Ted Haggard wanted for Christmas… It’s just one of the poses from Mike Jones massage web site. Rev Haggard is obviously not the only local Jones was keeping happy, his site says:

“Voted best massage and personal trainer for the years 2000, 2001 and 2002 by readers of the community newspaper Out Front Colorado. Former state bodybuilding and powerlifting champion.”

Now you know why Ted was tempted.

It is interesting that some of the media are being quite coy about Jones describing him as a “former prostitute” yet he is quite happy to say that he was with Haggard as recently as August.

As the photo indicates Jones is anything but coy: “If you like a strong muscle man to bring pleasure to you then please call me. I am a muscle stud with a friendly personality and a caring heart.

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Evangelical male order

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

It’s fascinating to watch yet another Evangelical/Republican homo-sex scandal erupt. After Rep Mark Foley was introduced to the world by a White House page, Rev Ted Haggard hits the media courtesy of a Denver prostitute called Mike Jones. Not only did the (now former) president of the National Association of Evangelicals pay Jones for sex he also bought crystal from him.

As delicious as it is as a scandal, it is also a fascinating media story and an even more fascinating religion story.

As Colorado Springs gay news site Gazette reports, the story has been brewing for some time and is a great example of the new press rules on how and when a scandal becomes public. NBC Denver affiliate KUSA had been investigating Jones’ claims for two months but say they couldn’t find corroborating evidence. But when Jones went on talkback radio and claimed to have been paid for sex by “one of the biggest religious guys in the country” KUSA decided that they could do an accusation/rebutal story if Haggard agreed to speak to them.

“It became public and we decided we would do the story if Pastor Haggard responded to it, and he did. We presented it as such: There’s an allegation, and there’s a response,” KUSA’s assistant news director told Gazette.

Interesting example of how the journalistic rules suddenly change when a media organisation suddenly thinks it might be scooped, on what is obviously going to become a pretty dynamic story. It’s a classic example of “strategic objectivity” being abandoned because it was no longer strategic. It’s also a story about elections. Jones says he wanted it out before next weeks elections because Haggard had been playing such a key role in the Colorado marriage amendment.

The rules of the PR game are also in effect. At first Haggard denied the claims. Then he stood down from his church position while an independent investigation took place. But after that an incremental series of admissions have leaked from the pastor himself, culminating in the strange: I only contacted Jones to buy drugs and a massage not to have sex, yeh I did buy the drugs but I didn’t use them and ah the massage no, there were no happy endings – sorry we are all tempted. Positively Clintonesque: I did not have sexual intercourse with that man nor did I inhale. As Josh Holland on Alternet sarcastically comments:

The sad thing is that Haggard’s followers will probably buy all that. After all, they throw millions of dollars at these “spiritual leaders” who are transparent con-men of the worst sort. They support Republicans who pay them lip service but ignore them until the next election rolls around. ‘It’s all political,’ they’re saying to themselves now — part of the Grand Liberal Conspiracy® to tear down people of faith.

Probably the most interesting reflection on the whole saga comes from Jeff Sharlet who did a long profile on Haggard for Harpers last year. He writes: “The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it’s a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism.” He also admits to missing that the first time around:

I wrote about the role of sex in Ted’s theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right’s men’s sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted’s sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they’re intimately bound in a worldview of “order,” one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

In the Nerve article Sharlet notes how “the gay man” as archetype fills the role of the “harlot” of old as the new seductress:

It is no longer acceptable to speak of loose women and harlots, since sexual promiscuity in a woman is the fault of the man who has failed to exercise his “headship” over her. It is his effeminacy, not hers, that is to blame. And who lures him into this spiritual castration? The gay man.

Christian conservatives loathe all forms of homo- and bisexuality, of course, but it is the gay man (singular; he’s an archetype) who looms largest in their books and sermons and blogs and cell group meetings. Not, for the most part, as a figure of evil, but one to be almost envied. “The gay man” is the new seductress sent by Satan to tempt the men of Christendom. He takes what he wants and loves whom he will and his life, in the imagination of Christian men’s groups, is an endless succession of orgasms, interrupted only by jocular episodes of male bonhomie. The gay man promises a guilt-free existence, the garden before Eve. He is thought to exist in the purest state of “manhood,” which is boyhood, before there were girls.

And it is this state of unordered – uncoded – manhood that is such a threat, and so seductive. A seduction it appears Haggard could not resist.

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Fundamentalist Occultism

From a review of David Kats’ The Occult Tradition from the Renaissance to the Present Day in today’s Australian:

His most provocative claim however, is that “messianic fundamentalist Christianity” belongs firmly within the occult tradition. It is not difficult to see why fundamentalism is significant within the contemporary US political landscape: 91 per cent of Americans believe in God, 71 per cent believe in hell, 34 per cent believe the Bible is inerrant and, Katz estimates, 20 per cent “can be called ‘evangelical Protestants'; that is, fundamentalists”.

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush all embraced evangelical Christianity, yet its “establishment quality … should not exclude fundamentalism from the history of the occult tradition”.

“Fundamentalists predict the future through deciphering a document whose meaning is hidden, occult rather than manifest,” Katz writes. “[They] believe in the imminent … Second Coming of Christ, according to a plan that they have worked out from encoded references in the Bible, with supernatural implications for everyone living today on earth.”

According to this Armageddon theology, true believers will be spared the tribulations of the impending End Times by being bodily removed from the earth in the “rapture of the church”.

When The Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward asked Bush whether he had discussed his planned invasion of Iraq with his father, he replied: “You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength: there is a higher father that I appeal to.”

In one of the most fascinating passages, Katz turns to Bush’s speech announcing air strikes against Afghanistan a month after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US. This contains clear allusions to the books of Revelation, Isaiah and Job, which enable Bush to communicate with fellow fundamentalists, “winking at them conspiratorially as partners in a type of Christianity that is based on the careful reading of an esoteric text”.

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Revelation wrestling

From USA Today:

Tonight on ABC’s World News, correspondent Jake Tapper reports on a pro-wrestling match Saturday in Winterville, Ga., complete with body slams, men in tights and a revved-up crowd.

“Ultimate Christian Wrestling is like any other pro-wrestling bout you might see on a Saturday night in rural Georgia,” Tapper says. “Except the characters and story lines come to a dramatic climax at the end of the show straight out of the Book of Revelation: At the end of this show, dozens of folks in the audience said they were called to accept Jesus into their hearts. It was quite a thing to behold.”

Along with rock music, video games, movies and car racing, “wrestling is one of many non-traditional ways evangelicals are reaching out to Americans in what seems a very significant spiritual revival going on,” Tapper says.

From Iconculture:

Wrestling enthusiasts are a diverse group; Christian grapplers hope to tease out those eager to find God and bring them into the fold. The Lord is popping up throughout the culture, from U2 sermons to Papal text messages to Christian paintball. But pro wrestling seems a particularly powerful fit, since it’s already proven well suited for political evangelism. Hardcore piledriving fans can forget about WWE-style bloodbaths, though. Founder Rob Fields promises family-friendly, spiritually uplifting entertainment. Well, as family-friendly as a “Dr. Shock” vs. “Nightmare” grudge match can get.

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The corporate-religious-complex

Interesting quote from a Sunfell post on Daily Kos that I picked up via Jesus Politics, a good blog that I just discovered which seems to be collecting lots of stufff about religion and American politics/culture:

Rev. Rod Parsley, a pastor of the World Harvest megachurch in Ohio…declared, “We’re not Democrats. We’re not Republicans. We’re Christocrats!”

“Christocrats”. Straight out of the preacher’s mouth. That might also lead to another term that seems to be percolating under the surface of the metasphere: the idea-meme of the corporate-religious complex- that synergistic, and potentially fatal (to our country) blend of Gilded Age corporate greed and hard right religious fervor. The corporate-religious complex has replaced the military-industrial complex as the driving force behind our government. If we plan to keep our country, this complex must be derailed, the synergy spoiled and the perpetrators sent off chasing their own tails.

Shorting the corporations to ground will take some brave lawmaking, and a lot of time- one giant at a time. They have to return to being responsible citizens. Doing the same to the Christocrats will require a lot of deep study of what makes them tick. Someone mentioned the ‘flock mentality’. That needs to be understood, but the followers are not sheep, or stupid. But they are intellectually lazy, since they accept the pap fed to them by their leaders. We must understand that they have a monstrous persecution complex and a deeply held belief that they/we are living in the “End Times” and that the Bible- particularly “Revalation”, is literally true. We must also understand that their leaders have fed them gigantic lies and are the embodiment of the ‘wolves in sheeps clothing’ warned about in the very Scriptures they believe are literally true.

It’s a tough nut to crack, but it is crackable. They’re human beings, with a huge cross-shaped chip on their shoulder. If that wood could be used for something useful, to build a bridge, perhaps, we could find a way to talk them down from their Apocalyptic treehouse.

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From saving the soul to reinventing the self

A fascinating article in the NYT about the rise of evangelical ministries at Ivy League colleges in America. They are a deliberate attempt to reach and influence those who will hold key culturally influential positions.

Some interesting data about the rise of evangelicals in class terms:

As late as 1965, for example, a white mainline Protestant was two and a half times as likely to have a college degree as a white evangelical, according to an analysis by Prof. Corwin E. Smidt, a political scientist at Calvin College, an evangelical institution in Grand Rapids, Mich. But by 2000, a mainline Protestant was only 65 percent more likely to have the same degree. And since 1985, the percentage of incoming freshmen at highly selective private universities who said they were born-again also rose by half, to 11 or 12 percent each year from 7.3 percent, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A range of forces were at work here:

There were also demographic forces at work, beginning with the G.I. Bill, which sent a pioneering generation of evangelicals to college. Probably the greatest boost to the prosperity of evangelicals as a group came with the Sun Belt expansion of the 1970’s and the Texas oil boom, which brought new wealth and businesses to the regions where evangelical churches had been most heavily concentrated.

And the evolution of the Assemblies of God is particularly interesting. Founded in 1914 they were originally shunned as a sect of outsiders speaking in tounges and against movies and dancing. They gradually changed and became one of the first groups to preach a prosperity christianity

Assemblies preachers began speaking not only of heavenly rewards but also of the material blessings God might provide in this world. The notion was controversial in some evangelical circles but became widespread nonetheless, and it made the Assemblies’ faith more compatible with an upwardly mobile middle class.

By the 1970’s, Assemblies churches were sprouting up in affluent suburbs across the country. Recent surveys by Margaret Poloma, a historian at the University of Akron in Ohio, found Assemblies members more educated and better off than the general public.

As they flourished, evangelical entrepreneurs and strivers built a distinctly evangelical business culture of prayer meetings, self-help books and business associations. In some cities outside the Northeast, evangelical business owners list their names in Christian yellow pages.

The rise of evangelicals has also coincided with the gradual shift of most of them from the Democratic Party to the Republican and their growing political activism. The conservative Christian political movement seldom developed in poor, rural Bible Belt towns. Instead, its wellsprings were places like the Rev. Ed Young’s booming mega-church in suburban Houston or the Rev. Timothy LaHaye’s in Orange County, Calif., where evangelical professionals and businessmen had the wherewithal to push back against the secular culture by organizing boycotts, electing school board members and lobbying for conservative judicial appointments.

The complex interrealationship between class, geography, religion and subculture is fascinatingly apparent. As is the move from a notion of saving the soul to saving or reinventing the self which ironically is a modernist concept arising out of decidedly anti-modernist movement.

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The Revealer: Written on the Body

The Revealer’s Jeff Sharlet, breaks through all the media hype on the Pope with an intriguing reflection:

There is another form of religious media to consider with the pope’s death, that of the body. More widely read than any of his books were the images of the suffering, dying man; a message, many believe, that was the pope’s final teaching. The pope wrote his theology on his own broken body, and reproduced it by means of millions of images carried by secular media. And yet, this suffering is not a text that should be too glibly read; we should not assume to immediately understand its meaning. If we take John Paul seriously as an intellectual — and we should — then we should take his last statement seriously, too, as a set of ideas. Those who’d reduce the pope’s suffering to an easily-translated political program are, literally, fools, clowning on a dead man’s body. Those who find in the image of the man a message as banal as “the triumph of the spirit” inadvertently make a humanist out of John Paul. And those who turned away from what they perceived as grotesque, whispering about vanished dignity, choose for themselves a kind of illiteracy.

I think there is a wider application of this insight as well. I have been puzzling about what the Pope means. I know what he did. I can retrace his actions that were divisive and his actions which brought people together. Politically I can sum up his effect both inside and outside the church in ways that I don’t think the mainstream media is exploring. But still the question remains: what does the big slavic man in the long white gown mean?

I think there are millions who have noted his image, have taken heart in his presence, without knowing or caring much about his message, except to acknowledge that it is spiritual. Karol Wojytla through the mediation of television cameras and photojournalists became the bodily imprint of this message of spirituality.

His smile, his apparent gentleness, his hulking stooped body came to mean something in direct contradiction, and unrelated, to his appalling attacks on the dignity of women, gays, lesbians and dissidents within his own church. To those who took note only of his image, and this group was perhaps his largest congregation, he stood for a different vision of the world: resistance, possibility, hope. That image brought comfort, insight, pause, to many who didn’t really know or care about the details of his theological positions. They were pleased that he was there. In this sense he was undoubtedly an innovative force for spirit and change in the confusion of the late 20th century.

But two cautions: there are those, his victims, (and throughout his authoritarian rule he most definitely collected victims) who are forever and only confronted with the image of an oppressor, and the ubiquity of his lauded image is a reinforcement of their own victimisation. Secondly: more than anything else his image is that of “Holy Father” and while he has managed to imprint on this masculine holiness an image of gentleness and a certain humility, the bodily spiritual image he projects is necessarily at some level an unhelpful reinforcement of dominant patriarchal religion.

I am not wanting to reduce Wojytal to any of these images or storylines. Sharlet is right about the complexity of images and the literacy of storytelling. Part of the power of images is their simultaneity, their ability to tell many tales at once.