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How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis

How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis

The events of the past few days have truly been monumental for the Roman Catholic church.

You may not have noticed — unless you’ve bothered to read the ever-growing list of Catholic news websites on both the right and left. While liberals and conservatives within the church continue to wage a very public war over everything from the future of Christendom in the West to the ongoing clerical abuse crisis, two prominent voices have led the charge when it comes to these two issues.

Again, it was conservative Catholic media that proved to be the preferred mouthpiece for Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Both men — with help from right-leaning news organizations — have been very vocal about the problems plaguing the modern church in our ever-secular world.

It is fitting that these two men — one considered a potential future pope, the other already a pope — are the ones leading the charge as the church continues to become polarized. Under Francis’ papacy, the ideological split has become more pronounced. As the curia continues to polarize itself in public on issues like immigration and homosexuality, church leaders like Sarah and Benedict refuse to be silenced. Once again, it’s those Catholic media voices on the right that are helping to spread their message.

Case in point: this past week. At a time when Christians around the world continue on their Lenten journey, Sarah and Benedict are making a statement about the direction of Catholicism, the legacy of Vatican II and where the church is going. Sarah, who hails from the majority-Muslim nation of Guinea in Africa, contrasted Pope Francis’ statements in telling Christian nations they should open their borders to Islamic refugees.

The 73-year-old cardinal, in his new book” Evening Draws Near” and the “Day is Nearly Over,” argues that it’s wrong to “use the Word of God to promote migration.” Sarah laments the “collapse of the West” and what he calls “migratory processes” that threatens Europe’s Christian identity. As birthrates continue to drop across Europe, and workers from other continents are needed to take jobs, the culture of the continent is changing.

“If Europe disappears, and with it the priceless values of the Old Continent, Islam will invade the world and we will completely change culture, anthropology and moral vision,” he wrote.It’s worth noting that Sarah has been at odds with Pope Francis and his allies over an array of issues, including liturgical matters and translations of Latin texts.

The excerpt was largely ignored by mainstream news outlets.

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This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

Every semester, in my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College in New York City, I dedicate a night to the role that Stephen Colbert’s Catholic faith has played in his life and career.

It’s important, of course, to spend some time looking at the humorist’s break-out show — The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central. This show was, of course, a satire focusing on the flamethrower commentary of Bill O’Reilly for Fox News work.

With Colbert, every thing on the show was upside-down and inside-out, with his blowhard conservative character making lots of liberal political points by offering over-the-top takes on some — repeat “some” — conservative stances. I argued that to understand what Colbert was doing, you had to understand O’Reilly and then turn that inside out.

Thus, I asked: What kind of conservative is, or was, O’Reilly? Students always say things like, a “right-wing one?” A “stupid one”? An “ultra-conservative one”? I’ve never had a student give the accurate answer — a Libertarian conservative.

I realize that there have been lively debates about the compatibility of Libertarianism and Catholicism. However, it’s safe to say that most Catholics reject a blend of liberal, or radically individualistic, social policies and conservative economics. Turn that inside out and you have what? Conservative morality and progressive economics?

This brings me to the massive New York Times Magazine deep-dive into the life and career of Rupert Murdoch. Here’s the humble headline on this long, long piece (150 interviews, readers are told) by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg: “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World.”

So the question: What kind of conservative is Murdoch? Is it possible that there is some kind of moral or even religious ghost in this story?

It opens with a rather apocalyptic scene in January, 2018. The 86-year-old press baron — on holiday with his fourth wife, Jerry Hall — has collapsed on the floor of his cabin on a yacht owned by one of his sons. Is this the end? The big question, of course, is, “Who will run the empire after the lord and master is gone?”

So here’s what’s at stake:

Few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than the man lying in that hospital bed, awaiting his children’s arrival.

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Time for a solid update on the changing realities in U.S. evangelicals' retail business

Time for a solid update on the changing realities in U.S. evangelicals' retail business

Hammered by superstore chains and then the online omnipresence of Amazon, America’s bookstores are struggling.

Thus there was more sorrow than  shock when the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources announced on March 20 it will close down its chain of 170 brick-and-mortar stores, which sell books, Bibles, curriculum and a variety of other religious products.

Baptist Press reported the gap between LifeWay stores; sales and operating expenses grew from a manageable $2.3 million in 2010 to $35.5 million by 2017. That year, LifeWay’s chief rival, Family Christian Resources, shut all of its 240 retail locations, following the 2013 demise of the United Methodist Church’s 38 Cokesbury stores.

The Baptist collapse raises two themes for solid stories, the limits on what products religious stores should be selling, and the ongoing disruption as U.S. religious retail, dominated by evangelical Protestants, shifts toward online and phone-ordering operations. As a company, LifeWay will continue alongside the likes of family-owned Christian Book Distributors.  There will be ever fewer independent stores surviving to serve as local ministry and fellowship centers. 

 On the first theme, officially Christian stores obviously are not going to sell lottery tickets, randy novels and movies, pop music that degrades women, or books that deviate from their faith’s doctrines. The Baptists’ no-no’s include the prosperity gospel and  accounts of purported visits to heaven. Some respondents danced on LifeWay’s grave over the way its policies reflected the Southern Baptists’ narrowing definition of doctrinal fidelity.

The most-discussed example occurred in 2012 when LifeWay refused to sell “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” a slightly sassy book on the gender wars by well-known author Rachel Held Evans,  published by Thomas Nelson, an evangelical subsidiary of HarperCollins that’s based in Nashville, the same city as LifeWay.  

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The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather, before it was an Academy-Award winning film, was a book. The crime novel, written by Mario Puzo, was released on March 10, 1969. The fictional account of Vito Corleone’s life is chronicled during a 10-year span starting in 1945.

The book’s 50th anniversary has been a great opportunity for newspapers, magazines and websites — especially the ones that cover the entertainment industry — to unleash nostalgia pieces looking back at the book and the three movies that later grew out of Puzo’s book and Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece films, the first of which was released in 1972.

Amid all the immorality, crime, violence and ultimately Michael Corleone’s final despair (for anyone who could sit through The Godfather III) isn’t just a series of mob movies. The Godfather book and movie trilogy is loaded with religious symbolism.

Anniversary journalism is a very big part of what reporters write and what Google search thrives on — so it’s important that The Godfather get the proper treatment. This is something another book/movie from that era, The Exorcist, also suffered the same lack of religion coverage.

Since Corleone (played by Marlon Brando and by Roberto De Nero in the sequel during the flashback scenes) is an immigrant from Sicily, the story’s symbolism is largely Roman Catholic. Like The Exorcist, The Godfather has suffered the same journalistic fate when it comes to lack of a religion angle. Even the book’s name, The Godfather, refers to a male godparent in the Christian tradition tied with baptism and original sin.

This is not to say the Catholic angle has been totally ignored. In 2013, The Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Atlanta diocese, ran an opinion piece by Dr. David King, an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University.

Though Coppola himself has struggled with his Catholicism, his imagination is so steeped in Catholic practice and atmosphere that he can never fully abandon the faith, any more than his greatest character Michael Corleone can. Coppola has often said that his favorite word is “hope,” and it is that sense of hope and belief in redemption that best defines “The Godfather” films as Catholic art.

King goes on to say that the films are “full of Catholic themes, including justice and mercy, fate vs. spirituality, the dialectic between family and country and community, the letter and the spirit of the law, and time and timelessness, they are also charged with a deep Catholic mise en scene, or atmosphere.”  

The Church is everywhere in “The Godfather” films: baptisms, funerals, confessions.

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Thinking about social media: Baptist progressive says pastors should pull the plug -- period

Thinking about social media: Baptist progressive says pastors should pull the plug -- period

Having watched the entire social-media era, from beginning up to the current craziness, I have a confession to make. I have been shocked that we have not heard more neo-Luddite sermons from the conservative side of the religious world.

I’m not talking about making a case for a full-on Amish withdrawal from the Internet and from social media.

As someone who has taught mass-comm courses in a traditional Christian content — at a seminary and then in two liberal-part colleges — I realize that we are talking about a classic theological puzzle linked to culture. Traditional Christians believe we live in a creation that is both glorious (as created by God) and fallen (touched by sin and The Fall).

Social media can be wonderful or totally evil — sometimes on the same website in the same thread in material submitted by two different people within seconds of one another. We’re talking about a medium a very high ceiling and a very low floor.

I am starting to hear more debates about the role of smartphones (and addictions to them) in a truly religious home.

However, there is another social-media question that I have expected to read more about; Should pastors be active participants in social media?

That brings me to this weekend’s think piece, care of the progressives at Baptist Global Media. The author — John Jay Alvaro — is a Baptist, in Southern California, with a degree from Duke Divinity School (not a normal Southern Baptist seminary education option, to say the least). Click here to visit his website (yes, he has one) about religion and technology.

The headline on this piece: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” The basic thesis is that pastors need the time to be pastors and that this is, well, an analog, face-to-face calling. This is a pastoral issue, not a theological issue with technology.

Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence. It is as simple as that. Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don’t leave your system peacefully. But it will be worth it.

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The Seattle Times waxes lyrical about anti-Trump 'Chick tracts' created by 'Patriotic Christians'

The Seattle Times waxes lyrical about anti-Trump 'Chick tracts' created by 'Patriotic Christians'

It’s not often that you read a religion story in the Seattle Times arts and entertainment section, but on Tuesday, there appeared this feature on about a pair of local artists — they are self-identified as “Patriotic Christians” — who put out “tracts” satirizing President Donald Trump.

Which raises some questions. What if a group was distributing tracts making fun of someone else, ie former President Barack Obama or “crooked Hillary”? Would it be a cute political joke still or would they be racist or sexist screeds?

Is it safe to only mock someone like Trump — and his supporters, of course — but no one else? And should a story of this kind include people who are offended by these products?

The article is clever, I do admit.

Little Dickie Glitz was born rich. His parents gave him lots of stuff, but he was never satisfied and always hollered for more. His parents were lax in the manners department, so Dickie earned a reputation as the loud, spoiled neighborhood brat. The other kids didn’t like to play with Dickie — every time he started losing a game, he stormed away, yelling: “I quit! This game is rigged!”

These habits continued into adulthood, and Dickie became a rich, arrogant loudmouth who made a deal with a devilish-looking guy (who bore a striking resemblance to Vladimir Putin) and somehow got elected President of the United States.

That’s the basic narrative arc of “I’m Rich!,” a roughly 3-by-5-inch comic-book tract printed on cheap, newspaper-grade paper and lightly sprinkled with gallows-humor wit and relevant Bible verses: “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24), “Everyone who is arrogant is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 16:5), “Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness” (Luke 12:15).

“I’m Rich!” and its companion tract (“Good Morning Amerika”) were created and published by an enigmatic group called Patriotic Christians for a Better America (PCBA), who have been anonymous — until now. (Its national headquarters is in a cozy house in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

As the story goes on, I learn some facts about the artists and see examples of their work.

But here is a very important journalism issue: Readers are never told, or shown, what sort of Christianity they follow, much less how they are “patriotic Christians.”

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Opening Day memories: Was Jackie Robinson's Methodist faith part of his epic life story?

Opening Day memories: Was Jackie Robinson's Methodist faith part of his epic life story?

A lot has been said and written about Jackie Robinson. The baseball great — famous for breaking baseball’s color barrier — was known for many things. Robinson’s athletic abilities, courage in the face of racism and the dignity with which he went about it all remain the focal points.

What is often ignored, and even forgotten, was Robinson’s Christian faith.

This past January 31 marked the day the trailblazing Robinson would have turned 100. He died at age 53, meaning that he’s been gone almost as long as he lived. Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947 when he donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform — that now-iconic No. 42 emblazoned across his back — at Ebbets Field and how his relationship with Branch Rickey, the team’s general manager, forever changed race relations in the United States.

“I think there are different explanations why his faith has been ignored. One of them is that Robinson — unlike Rickey — was private about his religion. It wasn’t something he talked a lot about,” said Chris Lamb, who co-authored a book in 2017 with Michael Long entitled Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography. “The book of Matthew quotes Jesus as telling us to avoid praying publicly. Secondly, Robinson’s significance comes more in his work in baseball and in civil rights and not in religion. That said, he couldn't have achieved what he did without his faith and his wife Rachel.”

The centennial of Robinson’s birth (and the many events associated with the celebration that will culminate in December with the opening of a museum in his honor in New York City) has allowed Americans of all ages to recall Robinson’s great achievements in the diamond — including helping the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series and having his number retired by every Major League Baseball team in 1997 — and the impact he would have on ending segregation and helping to spur the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 53.

Robinson’s famous quote — one etched on his tombstone at his Brooklyn gravesite in Cypress Hills Cemetery — reads: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

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Lee Habeeb likes to tell human stories, but The Daily Beast smells culture wars

Lee Habeeb likes to tell human stories, but The Daily Beast smells culture wars

Lloyd Grove’s Daily Beast profile of Lee Habeeb and his Our American Stories venture in Oxford, Miss., calls to mind the aphorism that the late Clare Booth Luce kept on an embroidered pillow: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”

Many conservatives consider NPR, as Grove writes, “rightly or not, as inhospitable to anything that isn’t progressive or politically correct.”

For a good example of why conservatives should entertain such thoughts, listen to Terry Gross of Fresh Air anytime she welcomes Jane Mayer as a guest. The default setting is not to have conservatives speak for themselves, but to have one writer present speculations about why conservatives do what they do.

That NPR receives any federal funding for such programming becomes doubly galling to conservatives.

Conservatives have launched hundreds of programs on talk radio since the Ronald Reagan years. The difference in Habeeb’s effort is his emphasis on storytelling instead of political arguments. It’s a rare conservative radio host who will tell the back story of “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, remember the late character actor John Cazale or give props to the rock forerunner Sister Rosetta Tharp.

Amid this programming, Grove inquires about the funding behind Habeeb’s nonprofit foundation:

The program is produced by a tax free nonprofit that Habeeb established in 2014, American Private Radio, which is supported largely by charitable donations (a cumulative $3.3 million in tax years 2015 and 2016, as reflected on APR’s publicly available 990 forms).

The program has begun to share advertising revenue with the local stations (three minutes of commercial time per hour, vs. five minutes for the stations). Habeeb, however, refused to discuss his financial backers.

“Donors have a right to privacy. I respect it,” he said in an email, citing several court decisions that protect the anonymity of donors to nonprofits. “They like the stories, which are positive, and love that we tell stories about American history, about people like Steinway [the piano maker] and US Grant [the Civil War general and president] and so on … I am waiting to see if you take a deep dive on such matters about Pro Publica and the host of left wing non-profits that arise, and will you be scouring the 990’s of those institutions?”

It’s fair enough to bring the gimlet eye to any person, but what difference does it make if this conflict-averse content is quietly funded by the Koch Brothers, Chik fil-A or Tom Monaghan?

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'End Times' thinking: Do biblical prophecies explain why so many evangelicals back Israel?

'End Times' thinking: Do biblical prophecies explain why so many evangelicals back Israel?

Hey journalists, can you say “Premillennial Dispensationalism”?

Believe it or not, the odds are very good that, in most elite newsrooms, some editor or reporter on the political desk knows — or thinks that he or she knows — the meaning of this theological term. Hint: It’s a modern interpretation of apocalyptic passages in the Old and New Testament, producing a kind of “how many Israeli fighter jets can fit on the head of a pin” view of the end of the world.

After all, there are all of those “Left Behind” novels all over the place. Then the books led to several movies that, in some corners of the evangelical subculture, are kind of like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” They’re so over the top that they have become high-grade camp.

The key is that there are some modern Protestants who can accurately be called “Premillennial Dispensationalists.”

Repeat after me — “some.”

As in, “not all.” As in, not even a majority of conservative evangelicals fit under this doctrinal umbrella. Why does this matter, in political terms? Here is David French of National Review to explain, in this weekend’s think piece. If fact, this is a think piece inside of a think piece. Hold that thought.

It never fails. Whenever a Republican president makes a controversial or contentious move to support Israel — such as moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, or yesterday’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — you’ll see various “explainers” and other stories that purport to inform progressives why the American Evangelical community is so devoted to the nation of Israel.

The explanation goes something like this — Evangelicals believe that the rebirth of Israel is hastening not just the second coming of Christ, but a particular kind of second coming, one that includes fire, fury, and war that will consume the Jewish people.

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