Worship

Liberal white Catholic parish vs. new conservative black priest = clumsy Oregonian story

Liberal white Catholic parish vs. new conservative black priest = clumsy Oregonian story

I attended college in southwest Portland; my first newspaper reporting job was just south of town; I have multiple friends in the area and my brother was an Oregonian reporter for 36 years.

In other words, I know a thing or two about the area, its people and the local media.

Religion coverage at the Oregonian has had some definite highs and lows in past decades. Highs were the coverage of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s, reporting by Mark O’Keefe in the 1990s and in recent years, Melissa Binder, who was on the beat for a short time. She then left the paper about a year ago.

The beat seems to be at a low point now, if the paper’s recent profile of a Catholic church torn by dissension is any indication. This story is so weak that it’s really hard to read.

The new priest took charge of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church more than a year ago. Week after week, parishioners said, George Kuforiji changed their church in ways they didn’t think he ever could.

They talked to him, wrote letters to the Archdiocese of Portland about their frustrations, resisted change and protested during Mass.

But after a while, some couldn’t take it anymore. They left the Southeast Portland church for other parishes or their own spiritual groups. Others said they would stay to the bitter end.

The parish where some had prayed for decades was slipping away. St. Francis is one of the oldest churches in Portland. It has long been known as a bastion of progressive Catholic faith.

So far, so good. However, at this point this news report turns into a one-sided jeremiad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Igor Stravinsky (yes, you read that right) and how feature ideas emerge, even during the summer

Igor Stravinsky (yes, you read that right) and how feature ideas emerge, even during the summer

Every summer, The Religion Guy luxuriates in a visit to western Massachusetts, known for outstanding theater troupes, art museums, a dance center, lectures and other cultural offerings all surrounding the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s incomparable Tanglewood music festival. (Disclosure: The Guy’s daughter is a BSO player.)

One BSO concert this July offered two George Gershwin piano features (not the over-programmed “Rhapsody in Blue”) and then “Petrushka” by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), a tuneful and witty ballet score about the life and loves of a classic Russian puppet. That got The Guy thinking about Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet in which musical art exploded into modernity, “The Rite of Spring: Pictures from Pagan Russia” (originally titled “The Great Sacrifice”).

His theme was the worship of pre-Christian Scythians adoring the earth, evoking their ancestors and then choosing a young maiden who danced herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods for a good harvest. The music is creepy, orgiastic, harmonically dissonant and rhythmically jagged. The premiere in Paris provoked a scandalous near-riot as astonished attendees audibly jeered, argued and tussled while the music proceeded.

That in turn brought to this listener’s mind the radical religious contrast between the “Rite” and another Stravinsky work The Guy heard at the Tanglewood debut of Andris Nelsons, who was later appointed Boston’s music director. Back in 1930 the orchestra marked its 50th anniversary by commissioning new works by the likes of Copland, Hanson, Hindemith, Honegger, Prokofiev and Respighi, and wanted Stravinsky to produce a conventional symphony.

Instead, he came up with a unique piece of sacred music, “Symphony of Psalms” for chorus and an orchestra minus violins and violas. This ranks as the 20th century’s finest composition on a biblical theme (any competitors?) and Time magazine proclaimed it one of the century’s three greatest classical compositions, alongside Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Ravel’s string quartet.

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2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019

2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019


When news consumers think about politics and religion, they probably think about the clout that evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have in the post-Ronald Reagan Republican Party.

Can you say “81 percent”? I knew that you could.

There is a very good reason for this state of mind in the news-consuming public. Many (perhaps most) journalists in elite American zip codes have always viewed the Religion Right as the modern version of the vandals sacking Rome. Thus, that is THE religion-and-politics story of the age.

What about the Democrats? What about the evidence of a “pew gap” (active religious believers tend to back the GOP, whether they want to or not) that hurts the Democrats in the American heartland?

It is very rare to see coverage of this kind of story, other than the evergreen (1) rise of the Religious Left news reports or maybe stories about (2) Democrats making new attempts to court people in pews.

In this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — we focused on a recent New York Times piece about the three major divisions inside the Democratic Party, right now, and the role that religion is playing in that drama. This was a follow-up to my recent post: “Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor.”

Before we get to that, check out the top of this interesting news report about the Democrats and their recent debates. Doesn’t the point of view here sound strange?

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Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

The topic should be catnip for any journalist writing about religion: creating a church without God is hard work and sometimes the idea fails.

But Faith Hill’s report for The Atlantic (“They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked”) does not deliver well, not least because her angle is more about components than convictions. It’s like reading an economist’s insights into romantic poetry.

Hill starts well enough by making the report personal. We meet Justina Walford, who has left the faith of her childhood, but misses the experience of church. But even here the problems in Hill’s reporting arise quickly: she describes Walford as once being “deeply religious,” but losing her interest because of “overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth.”

This is nearly robotic language to describe a now-lost belief in and engagement with God. The problem is just as bad when Hill tries to convey the purported advantage that traditional churches have compared to their God-free alternatives:

According to data from the latest version of the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Atlas,” 25 percent of Americans today are religiously unaffiliated, up from single digits in the 1990s. Among young people, that number is 39 percent. Those numbers describe not just a retreat from organized religion, but also an erosion of community.Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. …

In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings — but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.

“Faith congregations,” “tithings,” “attendees” — this is a foreign dialect. And it’s an undisputed reality that except when tithing is mandatory, it is a minority phenomenon and hardly the basis of an abundant annual income. 

Maybe the narration improves when Hill turns to the challenges faced by the pioneers of God-free mass meetings? Yeah, not so much:

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Hey, team CNN: Isn't there some Catholic DNA linked to Halloween being on Oct. 31?

Hey, team CNN: Isn't there some Catholic DNA linked to Halloween being on Oct. 31?

It’s hard to understand what happens in American life, and when it happens, without understanding what I like to call the “liturgical calendar of the shopping mall.”

The best example? That would be the locked-solid fact that the cultural steamroller called “Christmas” now begins somewhere around the start of the National Football League schedule and it kicks into high gear with Black Friday after Thanksgiving. Forget that whole holy season called Christmas, as in the 12 days after Dec. 25.

Oh, and when is Thanksgiving? That was a question for the U.S. Congress and the Chamber of Commerce, as well.

Some people would argue that “The Holidays” — at the level of candy, music and decorations — now start after Halloween. And when is Halloween? At the moment, Halloween is on October 31. Why is that?

That question brings us to an interesting, and rather hollow, CNN story with this headline: “A petition to move Halloween to the last Saturday of October nears 100,000 signatures.” Here is the overture:

There are lots of reasons to hate holidays: traffic, awkward family reunions, expensive gifts that would wring a tear from anyone's wallet. But if there's one celebration absent from all of this holiday drama, it's Halloween.

It's too bad that, more times than not, the sugar-laden holiday is set right in the middle of the week, when would-be revelers have to get to bed early.

But there's a petition aiming to change that. … It’s lobbying to bump Halloween from October 31 to the last Saturday of the month.

The petition, launched last year by the nonprofit Halloween & Costume Association, argues that moving the date of Halloween will lead to a "safer, longer, stress-free celebration."

Wait a minute. A “safer, longer, stress-free celebration” of WHAT, precisely? What is Halloween and why is it observed on October 31?

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Union made in tabloid heaven: British woman wants 'open' marriage with a chandelier

Union made in tabloid heaven: British woman wants 'open' marriage with a chandelier

Talk about a story that has tabloid headlines written all over it.

The headline in The Mirror, on the other side of the Atlantic, was rather low key: “Bride plans to marry chandelier — but is in open relationship with other objects.

I realize that this is a bit of a reach, for GetReligion. Nevertheless, I have a question about the mainstream news coverage of this story, as in: If there is going to be a marriage ceremony in this case, who will perform the rite?

If there is a rite, will there be any religious content in the text? I think that it’s safe to say this particular circumstance was not anticipated by liturgists who created the modernized, alternative service books that have expanded the Church of England’s old Book of Common Prayer.

So are we talking about a service by a click-here-to-be-ordained online minister? Will this be a neopagan rite of some kind? A simple secular union rite? Didn’t any reporter think to ask this logical question?

Let’s pause to hear from the bride:

A bride-to-be is excitedly planning her big white wedding in a bid to marry her chandelier.

Amanda Liberty, describes herself as being in an open relationship with several chandeliers and is determined to shed light on her unusual relationship. She hopes that 'marriage' to her favourite one will prove her love is valid.

Amanda, 35, from Leeds, identifies as an objectum sexual — which means she is attracted to objects. And the bride-to-be - who had previously changed her surname by deed poll during a relationship with the Statue of Liberty — has decided to seek a commitment ceremony to her chandelier known as Lumiere.

What a minute! There’s a New York City angle to this wedding?

Amanda Liberty changed her name in the wake of her, uh, same-gender union with the Statue of Liberty? There has to be a New York Post headline for this story.

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Yo, Los Angeles Times: Crystal Cathedral's architecture raised all kinds of Catholic questions

Yo, Los Angeles Times: Crystal Cathedral's architecture raised all kinds of Catholic questions

If you have ever been part of a well-researched tour of a great cathedral, then you know one thing — these sanctuaries are packed with symbolism. Almost everything in these buildings has some connection to centuries of Christian tradition.

The biggest symbol is the shape of the cathedral itself. It’s all about processions (think pilgrimages) through the cross to reach the high altar.

This brings me to the Los Angeles Times coverage of the transformation of the iconic Crystal Cathedral — an soaring version of a Protestant megachurch — into Christ Cathedral, the spiritual home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

Here’s the key: The late Rev. Robert Schuller made an important request when he asked the legendary architect Philip Johnson to design the Crystal Cathedral — build a church that is also a giant television studio.

That’s precisely what Johnson did. Thus, ever since the Orange diocese bought Schuller’s masterwork, I have been waiting to read a Times story explaining how this giant symbol of TV Christianity could be turned into a cruciform Catholic sanctuary. Here is the top of the recent story that ran under this headline: “Crystal Cathedral, the original evangelical megachurch, has a conversion to Catholicism.”

… The former Crystal Cathedral, a Southern California landmark that has long stood at the intersection of kitsch and postmodernism just three miles from Disneyland, was officially rededicated by the most unlikely of saviors: the Catholic Church.

When the soaring Philip Johnson-designed megachurch opened in 1980, the Crystal Cathedral was, strictly speaking, neither crystal (the structure is composed of more than 10,000 rectangular panels of glass) nor a cathedral (it housed a televangelist, not a Catholic bishop).

That televangelist — late pastor Robert Schuller — once called the compound a “22-acre shopping center for God.”

This short feature — there’s no real coverage of the dedication rites — focused on how Schuller symbolized a shiny era of Southern California, offering drive-in church services during the “same year Disneyland opened its doors and Ray Kroc launched his first McDonald’s restaurant.”

The text is snappy and packed with details — about Schuller. The new Christ Cathedral? Not so much.

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Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

A quarter of a century ago, I started teaching journalism in big American supercities — first in Washington, D.C., and now in New York City.

From the beginning, I heard students (most from Christian liberal arts colleges) asking poignant, basic questions about the impact of journalism on their future lives, in terms of job stress, economics and, yes, marriage and family life. These questions were often asked in private. Needless to say, these questions have continued, and intensified, with the ongoing advertising crisis that is eating many newsrooms.

I continue to urge my students to talk to real New Yorkers (or Beltway folks) who are living the realities — rather than accepting stereotypes. It’s crucial to talk to married folks with children and discuss the communities and networks that help them thrive or survive. The challenges are real, but the stereotypes are — in my experience — flawed and shallow.

These subjects hovered in the background as we recorded this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). This podcast digs into the implications of my earlier GetReligion post — “Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?” — about an Axios story on the economic and political clout of American super-cities.

If you want a deep dive into the marriage and family issue, check out the stunning essay at The Atlantic by staff writer Derek Thompson that just ran with this dramatic double-decker headline:

The Future of the City Is Childless

America’s urban rebirth is missing something key — actual births.

The opening anecdote will cause a shudder (perhaps of recognition) among many New Yorkers that I know:

A few years ago, I lived in a walkup apartment in the East Village of New York. Every so often descending the stairway, I would catch a glimpse of a particular family with young children in its Sisyphean attempts to reach the fourth floor.

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