Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Back in the fall of 1993, I made — believe it or not — my first-ever trip as an adult to New York City. I had covered many important news stories in American and around the world, but had never hit the Big Apple.

I stayed in a guest room at Union Theological Seminary, since I would be attending what turned out to be, for me, a pivotal religion-beat conference at the nearby Columbia University School of Journalism. But that’s another story for another day.

Here is the story for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which is linked this week’s Twitter explosion in which Union Seminary students confessed their environmental sins to some plants and sought forgiveness.

On that beautiful New York Sunday morning, I decided to head to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I was, at the time, an evangelical Episcopalian (with high-church sympathies) at I was trying to run into my wife’s favorite author — Madeleine L’Engle (click here for my tribute when she died). She was writer in residence at the cathedral, but later told me that she worshipped at an evangelical parish in the city.

Why did she do that? Well, in part because of services like the “Missa Gaia (Earth Mass)” I attended that Sunday. As I wrote later in a piece called “Liturgical Dances With Wolves”:

In the Kyrie, the saxophonist and his ensemble improvised to the taped cry of a timber wolf. A humpback whale led the Sanctus.

Skeptic Carl Sagan preached, covering turf from the joyful “bisexual embraces'' of earthworms to the greedy sins of capitalists. The earth, he stressed, is one body made of creatures who eat and drink each other, inhabit each other's bodies, and form a sacred “web of interaction and interdependence that embraces the planet.'' … The final procession was spectacular and included an elephant, a camel, a vulture, a swarm of bees in a glass frame, a bowl of blue-green algae and an elegantly decorated banana.

The key moment for me?

Before the bread and wine were brought to the altar, the musicians offered a rhythmic chant that soared into the cathedral vault. … “Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Ausar, ruler of Amenta, the realm of the ancestors. Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and the resurrected soul.” …

Then the congregation joined in and everyone sang “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.' “

I knew about the theological reputation of that cathedral, a key player in the liberal Protestant culture of that corner of Manhattan. Still I was surprised to hear Episcopal clergy — with a bishop present — singing hymns to pagan gods of Africa and Egypt, as part of a Eucharist rite.

All of this is to say: Was I surprised, here in 2019, to read the reports about the praying-to-plants liturgy at Union Seminary?

No, I was not surprised. This is old news on the upper West side of Manhattan. And I was not tempted to think that we were dealing with a Babylon Bee pseudo-story (although that site later offered this: “Disaster At Union Seminary As Giant, Angry Carnivorous Plant Does Not Accept Students' Apologies.” What was this, a seminary production of “Little Shop of Horrors”?

No, it wasn’t. This was an event worthy of serious coverage in hard-news pages of newspapers — even though this was probably a rather ordinary interfaith worship service at a seminary that proudly notes (as I mentioned in my GetReligion post on all of this) that its student body includes (or has recently included) students in these traditions: Baptist, pagan, African Methodist Episcopal (Zion), Buddhist, Hindu, Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, Church of Christ, Friends-Quaker-Mennonite, Unitarian Universalist, Orthodox, Reformed Church in America and Seventh-day Adventist.

A Religion News Service article about this media storm included a quote noting that this service was wasn’t all that unusual, in terms of Union chapel programs:

"One day, you may come in to find a traditional Anglican communion, another day you may enter into a service of Buddhist meditation or Muslim prayer," the spokesperson continued. "Another, you may find a Pentecostal praise service or a silent Quaker meeting. We create a home where people can worship side by side, in traditions similar to and very different to their own. Through this process, we learn from our neighbors and discern our own faith more deeply."

In my reading about this Union rite, I still haven’t found coverage exploring the language used in the liturgy (if the seminary has released the text) or its theological content. Why not? Isn’t the doctrine contained in this rite part of the news?

On a similar subject, this podcast also touched on the recent controversy at Duke University, with the evangelical group Young Life being asked to leave the campus because of beliefs rooted in 2,000 years of traditional Christian doctrines on marriage and sex (click here for the GetReligion post).

Duke is a university that once had strong Methodist roots, some of which can still be seen in campus symbols and traditions. Officially, Duke is now secular and “nonsectarian.”

However, in this story, it seemed as if Duke was supporting a liberal mainline Protestant approach to sex and marriage. Let me stress that it is free to do so, as a private school. After all, conservative Christian schools have printed “covenants” that define the doctrines that shape life on these campuses. Right?

My question: Is Duke, once again, a doctrinally defined, sectarian school? It seems that the administration believes that its doctrines on marriage and sex are right and others are wrong. Are these doctrines being applied to Muslims groups, as well as those linked to Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others?

Hey, are people who defend the United Methodist Church’s current teachings being asked to move their ministry groups off campus? There could be news here.

As I mentioned in the podcast, I was reminded of an identical conflict five years earlier at Vanderbilt University, another once-Methodist campus. Here is a key part of a column on that doctrinal clash:

This private university in Nashville … affirmed that creeds where acceptable, except when used as creeds. Orthodoxy was OK, except when it conflicted with the new campus orthodoxy that, in practice, banned selected orthodoxies. …

In the furor, some conservatives called this struggle another war between faith and "secularism." In this case, that judgment was inaccurate and kept many outsiders from understanding what actually happened, according to the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican minister who worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt during the dispute.

"What Vanderbilt did affirmed the beliefs of some religious groups and rejected those of others. That isn't secularism. Vanderbilt established that there is an orthodoxy on the campus, which means that it has taken a sectarian stand," said Warren. … “The university established some approved doctrines and now wants to discriminate in order to defend them. ... As a private school it has every right to do that.”

How can reporters cover this kind of conflict without letting people on both sides describe and defend their doctrines? Why would anyone want to avoid that crucial content?

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