Buddhism

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

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.' “

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Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Yes, this was click-bait heaven.

Yes, this was an oh-so-typical Twitter storm.

Yes, this was a perfect example of a “conservative story,” in a niche-news era in which social-media choirs — conservative in this case — send up clouds of laughs, jeers and gasps of alleged shock in response to some online signal.

I am referring, of course, to that climate-change confession service that happened at Union Theological Seminary, which has long been a Manhattan Maypole for the doctrinal dances that incarnate liberal Protestant trends in America.

It’s important to note that the spark for this theological fire was an official tweet from seminary leaders. Here is the top of a Washington Examiner story about the result:

Students at Union Theological Seminary prayed to a display of plants set up in the chapel of the school, prompting the institution to issue a statement explaining the practice as many on social media mocked them.

"Today in chapel, we confessed to plants," the nation's oldest independent seminary declared Tuesday on Twitter. "Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?"

The ceremony, which is part of professor Claudio Carvalhaes’ class “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response,” drew ridicule from many on Twitter, some of whom accused the seminary and students of having lost their minds.

OK, let’s pause for a moment to ask a journalism question: Would there have been a different response if this event have inspired a front page, or Sunday magazine, feature at The New York Times?

What kind of story? A serious news piece could have focused on (a) worship trends on the revived religious left, (b) this seminary’s attempt to find financial stability through interfaith theological education, (c) the history of Neo-pantheistic Gaia liturgies in New York (personal 1993 flashback here) linked to environmental theology and/or (d) all of the above.

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NBC takes on the Epoch Times in bid to push Falun Gong-linked outlet off Facebook

NBC takes on the Epoch Times in bid to push Falun Gong-linked outlet off Facebook

Whenever I see one media outlet go after another, red flags pop up in my mind. The recent spectacle of NBC attacking a conservative newspaper called the Epoch Times is a bizarre head trip in that NBC is pretending to have discovered that the paper was founded by members of the Falun Gong, a spiritualist Chinese group.

“NBC News has exclusively learned that the popular conservative news site The Epoch Times is funded by a Chinese spiritual community called Falun Gong, which hopes to take down the Chinese government,” the network stated on Aug. 20.

Excuse me? Those of us on the religion beat have known about the Epoch Times (ET) for many years. Founded in 2000, it never hid its Falun Gong origins nor its hope that China’s Communist overlords would experience divine retribution.

Why? Ever since 2009, news has been leaking out that the Chinese government is torturing and killing Falun Gong members. I was reporting on this back then, especially after members of Congress began having hearings on Capitol Hill about forced organ “donations.”

Thus, it’s understandable that the ET might be a bit unhappy with the Chinese government and very happy with President Trump who has taken China on. So why has NBC mounted a multi-week campaign against the ET and persuaded Facebook to censor any ET ads, particularly those that support President Trump?

It’s entirely possible that the ET broke Facebook’s rules on transparency and may have deserved its punishment. But NBC’s over-the-top campaign against the Epoch Times goes way beyond whether or not it broke some Facebook rule. No, the newspaper is seen as a dangerous fifth column empowering Trump supporters and for that, it must be taken down.

Let’s start with this NBC newscast that broke the story. The anchor’s opening statement begins as follows:

Exclusive reporting from NBC News linking a Chinese spiritual group footing the bill for some of the biggest pro-Trump advertising on FB. The Epoch Times has spent more than $1.5 million on 11,000 pro-Trump advertisements in the last six months alone. …

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And this just in from the 13th century: What did the popes (secretly) say to the Mongols?

And this just in from the 13th century: What did the popes (secretly) say to the Mongols?

I’ve been in Mongolia the past two weeks helping a friend write a book and seeing as much of this Central Asian nation as I possibly can. I say “central” because the ethos of this place is high steppe, not the coastlines of the Far East.

English-language media are almost non-existent here, but I have found one: Montsame, a government-run national news agency, that ran a tiny piece last week about letters between Mongol emperors and medieval popes during the 1200s.

Is that breaking news? Maybe not. But today we will focus on new information.

St. Francis had been dead about 20 years when all this started. Marco Polo was being born (in 1254). A photo I’ve included with this entry shows how folks (minus the 21st century interlopers) dressed during this time.

Ulaanbaatar /MONTSAME — On July 9, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received official copies of letters of khans of the Ilkhanate to the Popes.

Copies of letters from Pope Innocent IV to Guyuk Khan (March 13, 1245), Pope Urban IV to Khulegu Khan May 23, 1263, Abaqa Khan to Pope Clement IV (summer of 1268), Pope Nicholas III to Abaqa Khan (April 1, 1278), a travel permit given to the envoys of Roman Catholic Church by Abaqa Khan, two letters from Pope Nicholas IV to Argun Khan (April 2, 1288) and the letter from Argun Khan to Pope Nicholas IV were received.

Never knew the 13th century had so much ecumenical activity, did you?

The letters were copied according to the official agreement with the Vatican Secret Archives established with the support of the officials of Mongolian Embassy in Italy headed by Ambassador of Mongolia to Italy Ts. Jambaldorj.

This is pretty stilted, but there’s a fascinating story behind it all.

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SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

To cut to the chase: I have just returned from a long eye exam (things are OK) and focusing on a computer screen is not going to be easy for several hours.

So let’s make this a quick post. OK?

What we have here is your basic Washington Post law-and-politics story, one running under the headline: “Last-minute execution decisions expose wide and bitter rift at Supreme Court.”

The death penalty is, of course, a hot-button issue linked to debates involving religion and morality, as well as political and legal realities. Here is the opening of this report:

The Supreme Court meets in private to decide last-minute pleas from death-row inmates to stop their executions, and what happens behind the maroon velvet curtains often stays behind the maroon velvet curtains.

But that changed Monday, with justices issuing a flurry of explanations and recriminations on cases decided weeks ago. The writings named names and exposed a bitter rift among members of the court on one of the most emotional and irreversible decisions they make.

Decisions on last-minute stays usually come with only a minimum of reasoning. But three justices issued a set-the-record-straight opinion that took aim at one of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissents from a month ago. Breyer had said that the court’s conservatives deviated from “basic principles of fairness” in refusing to take more time to consider the plea of an Alabama murderer, Christopher Lee Price, who had asked to be executed by inhaling nitrogen gas rather than risk a “botched” lethal injection.

“There is nothing of substance to these assertions,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch. They said that Breyer’s reasoning, which was joined by the court’s three other liberals, “does not withstand even minimal legal scrutiny.”

Now, since my eyes are under the weather, let’s let GetReligion readers look through this story through a media-criticism lens.

This story contains a lot of religion, since the court cases here involve Buddhist and Muslim prisoners and their First Amendment rights. Think religious liberty issues, without the “scare quotes.”

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Question for reporters and preachers: Is there a God-shaped hole in the Avengers universe?

Question for reporters and preachers: Is there a God-shaped hole in the Avengers universe?

It was Christmas Eve as Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the town of Godric's Hollow, searching through the snowy church graveyard for the graves of the teen wizard’s parents, Lily and James Potter.

Here’s how the scene is depicted in the final novel — “"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" — of J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume set. Christmas carols are drifting out of the church when the duo discovers the tombstone for the family of the late Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The inscription is from the Gospel of St. Matthew: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

That’s just the start of the faith content in the Potter-verse rooted in the author’s worldview. Hang in there with me, because this is going to link up with this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) and the national column that I wrote about the God-shaped hole in “Avengers: Endgame.”

Now, about the Potter family tombstone: In a 2007 “On Religion” column on this topic, I noted:

… The Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."

Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?

"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."

This is another Bible verse — one that Rowling said stated the theme at the heart of her Potter series. It also helps to know that the Harry Potter stories grew out of the author’s grief after the death of her mother. Rowling wanted to make a statement that death is not the end.

It also matters that Rowling has been upfront about the fact that she is active in the Scottish Episcopal Church and, based on her remarks through the years, it’s pretty clear that she is on the left side of Anglicanism. Her academic background in classics (and love of Medieval Catholic symbolism) also shaped the Potter-verse.

So what is the context of the verse on that Potter headstone?

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After Sri Lanka, news media pros should consider taking a long, detailed look at China

After Sri Lanka, news media pros should consider taking a long, detailed look at China

The horrendous Easter massacre in Sri Lanka dominates the current news cycle, with good cause.

By  coincidence, only weeks ago The Guy surveyed the worldwide phenomenon of  terror, murder and persecution against Christians. Looking ahead, the media might prepare features on a long-running and elaborate government effort aimed at all religions, with this upcoming peg: the 70th anniversary of Mao’s October 1 proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. 

Michael Meyer, author of “The Road to Sleeping Dragon” and other books on China, reminds us in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (behind pay wall) about three religious anniversaries in 2019. It is 10 years since deadly riots in Xinjiang province provoked a major crackdown against Muslims; 20 years since the party launched its effort to liquidate the Fulan Gong movement; and 60 years since Tibet’s young Dalai Lama fled Chinese occupiers’ harassment of Buddhists. All three campaigns persist.

As for Christianity, the regime fears the increasing numbers of converts and continually applies counter-measures.  In north central China, for example, troops last year demolished the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, spiritual home for 50,000 evangelicals, just weeks after a Catholic church was destroyed in Xian city.  Under Communist Party boss Xi Jinping’s policy of severe social control, less severe damage has been inflicted on at least 1,500 church buildings.   

The most recent U.S. Department of State survey on global religious freedom notes that China recognizes only five “patriotic” associations that cover Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam. All gatherings are required to register with the atheistic regime  -- which believers understandably resist – or risk criminal penalties.  “There continue to be reports the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups,” State says. 

For China roundups, writers might ask who  is the most important figure in the world’s largest nation in terms of religion.

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The Easter Sunday massacre: Sri Lanka's complex religious landscape is a challenge

The Easter Sunday massacre: Sri Lanka's complex religious landscape is a challenge

When I first heard news of the bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, I wondered which group was to blame this time. At first, the government was calling it a terrorist attack by “religious extremists.”

That’s it? Think of it: 290 people dead. That’s five times the amount of Muslims shot by in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. And everyone tried to sidestep the identity of the perpetrators?

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country and hardline Buddhist groups have consistently harassed the minority Christians there. This is a complex situation, as former GetReligionista Ira Rifkin noted in this post last year.

Writing in the Guardian, a Muslim writer points out here that religious Muslim and Christian minorities in Sri Lanka have been sitting ducks for militant Buddhists for a long time. Even after a Methodist church was attacked by Buddhists on Palm Sunday in the northern part of the country, no precautions were taken for Easter celebrations.

But when I heard the attacks were set off by suicide bombers, that brought to mind radicalized Muslims, not Buddhists. The former is known worldwide for its use of suicide bombers. (However, Sri Lanka is the birthplace of the mainly Hindu Tamil Tigers, who pioneered suicide bombings in the 1980s. More on that in a moment.)

As I wrote this Sunday night, no one was saying a word as to which religious group did this. Now, government officials say they believe an “Islamist militant group” is to blame. No group has taken credit for the attacks.

So far, the U.K. press has been more on top of this story than was American media, with the exception of the New York Times, which has turned out some very good pieces in the past 24 hours. First, so I turned to the Guardian:

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Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

“Journalists really need to follow up on this crucial religious-liberty case,” our own tmatt wrote in February after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the execution of a Muslim inmate. The big issue in that case was Alabama inmate Domineque Ray’s execution without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side.

But last week, the high court granted a rare stay of execution for a Texas inmate as he was waiting in the death chamber. Justices ruled that the refusal of Texas to allow a Buddhist spiritual adviser to be present violated Patrick Murphy’s freedom of religion.

Wait, what gives?

Why let one inmate die and another live in such similar cases?

Such questions sound like perfect pegs for inquisitive journalists.

Speaking of which …

Robert Barnes, the Washington Post’s veteran Supreme Court reporter, points to the court’s newest justice:

It’s difficult to say with certainty why the Supreme Court on Thursday night stopped the execution of a Buddhist inmate in Texas because he was not allowed a spiritual adviser by his side, when last month it approved the execution of a Muslim inmate in Alabama under almost the exact circumstances.

But the obvious place to start is new Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who seemed to have a change of heart.

Kavanaugh on Thursday was the only justice to spell out his reasoning: Texas could not execute Patrick Murphy without his Buddhist adviser in the room because it allows Christian and Muslim inmates to have religious leaders by their sides.

“In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination,” Kavanaugh wrote.

But Kavanaugh was on the other side last month when Justice Elena Kagan and three other justices declared “profoundly wrong” Alabama’s decision to turn down Muslim Domineque Ray’s request for an imam to be at his execution, making available only a Christian chaplain.

“That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” Kagan wrote then.

Keep reading, and the Post notes differences in how the inmates’ attorneys made their arguments:

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