Douglas LeBlanc

Eric Alterman celebrates Bruce Springsteen as 'Jew-ish' in The Atlantic

Eric Alterman celebrates Bruce Springsteen as 'Jew-ish' in The Atlantic

On occasion at GetReligion, an essay crosses the threshold that evokes no disappointment or sense of incompletion. Eric Alterman — who writes an always provocative column for The Nation on why the mass media are too corporate, too conformist, too conservative — takes a different turn in “Bruce Springsteen Is Jew-ish,” posted Oct. 1 at The Atlantic.

The hyphen in the headline is not a mistake but a wry concession: Alterman does not argue that Springsteen, a son of 20th-century Catholicism in America, is really a Jew. The point is that he is a cultural ally who draws from Jewish scripture and history. 

Alterman’s essay is adapted from “Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen” (Rutgers University Press), which also includes contributions by Martyn Joseph, Greil Marcus, Richard Russo and A.O. Scott.

This sort of writing may be familiar to journalists who take their faith and their rock music seriously. Back in the mid-1980s, I devoted a lot of time to landing an interview with a graduate student at DePaul University who was one of the first to observe Catholicism’s presence in Springsteen’s writing. A famous sociologist, novelist and priest — the Rev. Andrew Greeley — later wrote of Springsteen’s Catholic imagination, and the singer made his divided feelings about Catholicism more explicit in “Springsteen on Broadway.”

To his credit, Alterman acknowledges the uphill nature of his argument straight away:

Bruce Springsteen is the son of Catholic parents and grandparents. There is no ambiguity on this point. And yet, in much the same way that New York football fans have casually annexed the stadium across the river to root for what they like to pretend is their “home” team, some Jewish Springsteen fans are devoted to proving that New Jersey’s favorite Irish Italian son is, if not actually Jewish, nevertheless somehow Jew-ish. Perhaps you thought young Bruce was mostly singing about cars, girls, and getting the hell out of town before he switched gears to focus on the dignity of working folk, the broken promises of the American dream, and more cars and girls. But amid the empty factories, crowded barstools, and swimming holes that constitute the foundation of the Springsteen oeuvre, some detect a whiff of the Chosen.

What’s most refreshing in this piece by a pundit of the political left, writing about a musician of the political left, is the minimal degree of politics used when making this argument.

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One-sided story about Mike Pence needing to find his conscience is true enough -- for today's journalism

One-sided story about Mike Pence needing to find his conscience is true enough -- for today's journalism

A snippet from Mike Pence’s life as vice president has appeared twice in recent major-media writing about him, both times at the end of a piece and both times as though this information offers keen insight into an empty soul.

As has become too common in journalism today — especially when The New York Times discusses Donald Trump’s White House — journalists need to look carefully at the origins and attribution of one person’s subjective experience.

This story seems the most damning in the version passed along by Peter Baker of the Times, reviewing reporter Tom Lobianco’s book “Piety and Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House”:

When an evangelical pastor who once prayed with Pence in his congressional office ran into him at a ceremony last year, he told him: “You know, Mr. Vice President, more than anything, we need you to find your conscience, the country desperately needs you to find your conscience.”

“It’s always easier said than done,” Pence replied cryptically, and then walked away.

The mind reels. Who was this unnamed evangelical pastor who once prayed with Pence? Franklin Graham? Pat Robertson? Fellow Catholic-turned-evangelical Larry Tomczac? Did this language about Pence finding his conscience have a context? Was it focused on a specific moral issue? Would readers like to know if this pastor is a conservative or progressive evangelical?

Maureen Groppe, describing the same book 20 days earlier for USA Today, named the pastor and grounded the confrontation in a specific event:

Robert Schenck, who had prayed with Pence in his congressional office years before, watched his old friend administer the oath of office in 2018 to Sam Brownback, Trump’s new ambassador for religious freedom. 

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On not sweating due to evangelicalism's 526th death rattle (as discussed in The Atlantic)

On not sweating due to evangelicalism's 526th death rattle (as discussed in The Atlantic)

G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man  (1925): “At least five times, therefore, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.”

No two sentences better capture my response each time there’s a new essay about evangelicalism facing a new life-threatening crisis, or a report about a trendy ex-evangelical counting evangelicalism as unworthy of allegiance or a former official from either Bush administration who has been sent around the bend by a Donald Trump tweet.

For the sake of clarity: I do not consider evangelicalism the sum total of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. As Alan Jacobs writes in his new essay for The Atlantic, “Evangelical Has Lost Its Meaning,” tthe nondenominational force identified as “evangelicalism” is a “complex and fluid movement dedicated to the renewal of Christianity, largely among Protestants, though its efforts have occasionally reached into Catholicism.”

Jacobs in in pain, and I sympathize, but not enough to share that pain. Writing in The Atlantic, Jacobs grieves what he discerns as evangelicalism’s deep cultural captivity:

By now, God-and-Country believers are so accustomed to voting Republican — and to being disdained or mocked by Democrats — that few of them can remember doing anything else. And God-and-Country Believers are what most Americans, whether religious or not, now think that evangelicals are.

Those white evangelicals who voted for Trump? They and only they are the true evangelicals, no matter what shelves of church-history books say.

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About George Packer's takedown of wokeness: is moral absolutism the problem?

About George Packer's takedown of wokeness: is moral absolutism the problem?

Generally at GetReligion we try to avoid duplicate posts on one article, but Terry Mattingly has graciously agreed to let this piece follow his analysis of “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” I wrote it on the weekend, before I had any idea that tmatt had called dibs on a specific religion angle in this must-read piece in The Atlantic Monthly in a message to my more prolific colleagues.

Here, then, is my perspective. There are many important topics in Packer’s essay.

Packer’s 10,000-word essay on how hard-edged wokeness affected his children’s education is a stirring account of a liberal writer who has been backed into one too many corners by illiberal progressives and entrenched powers. Most of Packer’s work here makes me want to welcome him to the freedom of not caring what wokeness partisans think of you.

Packer describes conflicts in education first as a clash between democracy and meritocracy, sometimes with a self-effacing humor:

True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

When parents on the fortunate ledge of this chasm gaze down, vertigo stuns them. Far below they see a dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates — and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling. They’ll stay married, cook organic family meals, read aloud at bedtime every night, take out a crushing mortgage on a house in a highly rated school district, pay for music teachers and test-prep tutors, and donate repeatedly to overendowed alumni funds. The battle to get their children a place near the front of the line begins before conception and continues well into their kids’ adult lives. At the root of all this is inequality — and inequality produces a host of morbid symptoms, including a frantic scramble for status among members of a professional class whose most prized acquisition is not a Mercedes plug-in hybrid SUV or a family safari to Maasai Mara but an acceptance letter from a university with a top‑10 U.S. News & World Report ranking.

What leaves me restless in Packer’s essay is the language he sometimes uses to describe the conflict. In disputing the school’s resistance to standard testing, he refers to the tests’ fierce opponents as engaging in “moral absolutism.”

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In ELLE, Jehovah's Witnesses + Sunni Jihadists = a non-religion story

In ELLE, Jehovah's Witnesses + Sunni Jihadists = a non-religion story

The story of sisters Samantha and Lori Sally is a jackpot of drama.

It includes, let’s see, a fierce sibling loyalty, strict Jehovah’s Witness parents, two sisters marrying two brothers, deceit, arms trafficking, betrayal, wife abuse, Islam in America, the Islamic State in Syria, child slavery, child rape, federal charges against Samantha (more often Sam) because of her late husband’s involvement in ISIS, and rekindled loyalty. Did I miss anything? Possibly.

Jessica Roy of ELLE tells most of this story with sparkling writing, empathy, and a sustained focus on the sisters’ respective struggles. Her report of 10,400 words (divided into Sam’s story and Lori’s story) is blessedly free of ideological posturing, jargon, or rambling diversions into first-person details.

Here’s a sample of Roy’s narrative style, from high in her first report:

How does a woman from Arkansas, a woman who used to wear makeup and take selfies and wear flip-flops, end up dragged across the border into a war zone by her fun-loving husband? How do you grow up in the United States of America, surrounded by Walmarts and happy hours and swimming holes, and end up living in Syria under a terrorist group?

Samantha Sally met her husband Moussa Elhassani in Elkhart, Indiana. A few years after meeting, she says he forced her to move to Syria so he could fight for ISIS.

Lori, maybe more than anyone, knows how. She’s the reason Sam moved to Indiana. And the bad guy Sam married, the one who became an ISIS fighter? He was Lori’s brother-in-law. The two sisters married two brothers. Lori was there with Sam, until Sam was gone, beyond reach. Until not even Lori knew whether what the Justice Department claimed—that Sam was an accomplice, not a prisoner—was untrue.

Lori passes through the metal detectors and makes her way to the fourth-floor courtroom, which is circular and paneled with brown oak. Sam seems to sense her little sister come in, and she looks up and smiles, gives a small wave. Lori slides into a bench near the back.

There is a significant qualifier amid my praise, however: in Roy’s reporting of this story, vast details are sealed off behind the word religious.

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If you feel snarky about missionary John Chau’s death, read this elegant GQ update

If you feel snarky about missionary John Chau’s death, read this elegant GQ update

Here’s a confession: when the world learned of John Chau’s death late last year when he tried to make contact with the isolated and violent residents of North Sentinel Island, I had one immediate reaction: “That young man was a fool.”

I admit that with shame. Like Chau did, I believe that the good news of Jesus should be spread across the world; that everyone should hear this good news; that serving Jesus may well mean becoming a martyr; and that missionaries discern God’s clear direction to take the good news to a specific group of people somewhere in the world.

Unlike Chau, I do not believe this means disregarding laws meant to protect outsiders from probably fatal encounters with the Sentinelese, and to protect the Sentinelese from unwelcome visits by outsiders. There are still thousands of people groups throughout the world that have never heard anything of Jesus Christ. Obeying Christ’s Great Commission hardly obliges a missionary to attempt a mission among people quite likely to kill first and ask no questions later.

Nevertheless, I was haunted by the hostility of my initial reaction to Chau’s death.

I cannot forget Christ’s warning about calling someone a fool, or about the noble church tradition of the holy fool. Maybe God did call Chau to this quixotic errand. I tremble at that thought, and then can only find comfort in the thought that only God and Chau know the answer.

Now comes Doug Bock Clark of GQ, whose work I have praised before, when he wrote about the underground railroad leading out of North Korea. He has also written in stunning detail for GQ about Otto Warmbier’s ordeal as a prisoner in North Korea, and of the brazen murder of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. If a report is set in Asia and it involves complex details, Clark is the man for the job.

As soon as I saw the web headline to Clark’s 10,000-word essay — “The American Missionary and the Uncontacted Tribe” — I knew that Chau would benefit from Clark’s style of extensive research and elegant writing.

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Esalen brings its New Age vibe to Big Tech ethical questions

Esalen brings its New Age vibe to Big Tech ethical questions

Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker has a bit of fun with the Esalen Institute in a report for the Aug. 26 issue, posted online as “Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience.” Marantz reports on a widely perceived problem in 21st-century America: how well the leaders of Big Tech companies recognize the social harm in their innovations, and whether they intend to decrease that harm. 

Marantz does not flat-out mock Esalen or what happens there, but instead quotes keynote speakers who favor jargon and therapy-speak. The amusing remarks begin by the end of the first paragraph:

“This isn’t a place,” a staffer told me while rolling a joint on a piece of rough-hewn garden furniture. “It’s a diaspora, a guiding light out of our collective darkness, an arrow pointing us toward the best way to be fully human.”

To be clear, it is also a place: twenty-seven acres of Big Sur coastline, laid out lengthwise between California Route 1 and the Pacific, a dazzling three-hour drive south of San Francisco. Its full name is the Esalen Institute—a tax-exempt nonprofit, founded in 1962.

Still, Marantz devotes most of his 6,600 words to reporting the background of what troubles some of tech’s innovators, and how they are trying to limit the damage of social media.

Much of the report centers on Tristan Harris, a former project manager at Google who worked on Gmail:

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Pro-choice doctor on abortion and Israeli law: In this case, the story is complicated

Pro-choice doctor on abortion and Israeli law: In this case, the story is complicated

Frederica Mathewes-Green, a longtime friend of GetReligion and its founders, began her transformation into a pro-life activist in 1976, after reading a piece called “What I Saw at the Abortion” in Esquire. Read it and I predict you can tell the passage that grabbed her and would not let go.

We never quite know the potential of one honest essay or journalism feature to move a person’s conscience. This leads me to “I Found the Outer Limits of My Pro-choice Beliefs” by Chavi Eve Karkowsky, a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine, writing for The Atlantic.

Karkowsky remains resolutely pro-choice in her sympathies, as reflected in how she describes pro-lifers protesting at late-term abortion facilities as “screaming at [women] not to do what they have already spent days or weeks weeping about.” It’s odd that pro-lifers — diverse people who often protest in silence, pray the rosary, have calm conversations with women and offer to help them bring their babies to term — apparently can only scream in their mass-media appearances.

But I digress. Karkowsky’s new awareness of these outer limits emerges from a time of working in Israel, after her husband took a job there. Israel’s laws on abortion are more permissive than those in the United States, although they also require taking the decision to a Termination of Pregnancy Committee (va’ada), as Karkowsky explains:

In this majority-Jewish country with deep socialist roots, abortion law has never been constructed around the idea of a woman’s power over her own body, or around the value of fetal life. The basics of abortion law were passed in the 1970s, and were largely built around demographic concerns in a tiny collectivist country that, at the time, was almost continually at war. Though changes have been made, those foundational laws still prevail. In Israel, terminations of pregnancy, regardless of gestational age, must go through a committee, a va’ada. Without its assent, an abortion is officially a criminal offense. But here’s the surprise: In the end, more than 97 percent of abortion requests that come before the committee are approved.

The va’ada can approve abortions for specific reasons spelled out by the law: if the woman is over 40, under 18, or unmarried; if the pregnancy is the result of rape, an extramarital affair, or any illegal sexual relationship, such as incest; if the fetus is likely to have a physical or mental defect; if continuing the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s life or cause her mental or physical harm. Some of these rationales, such as rape and incest, are familiar from the U.S. abortion debate. Other justifications, such as those involving the woman’s age or marital status, bespeak a certain amount of social engineering, and may strike Americans as odd matters for the law to take into account.

Karkowsky describes herself as homesick for Roe v. Wade, which sounds ghoulish for a moment, but her explanation makes it warmer and — how to put this? — almost pro-natal:

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Attention readers and reporters: Is this the interfaith Marxist Moment?

Attention readers and reporters: Is this the interfaith Marxist Moment?

Two recent essays — the first by a young Catholic writing for the Jesuit magazine America and the second by a graduate student published in Aeon — argue that Karl Marx is compatible with two of the world’s major religions.

Both devote precious little attention to communism’s sordid history of oppressing people who believe in something transcendent, from Catholic martyrs in Cuba to Buddhists in Tibet.

The question: Does the debate surrounding either of these pieces tell us anything about trends in the age in which we read and report the news?

In his piece for America, Dean Dettloff responds to “What Catholics don’t understand about communism,” which Dorothy Day wrote for America in May 1933. If Dettloff is aware that Day was a communist before becoming a Catholic, he does not make that clear by the quality of his argument. Instead, at one point he reduces her essay to the caricature of “we should hate the communism but love the communist.”

Dettloff finds it impressive that some Catholic theologians have been friends of communist rulers, and that contemporary communists seem more receptive to some Catholics than in past decades:

Despite and beyond theoretical differences, priests like Herbert McCabe, O.P., Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, S.J., Frei Betto, O.P., Camilo Torres and many other Catholics—members of the clergy, religious and laypeople—have been inspired by communists and in many places contributed to communist and communist-influenced movements as members. Some still do—for example in the Philippines, where the “Christians for National Liberation,” an activist group first organized by nuns, priests and exploited Christians, are politically housed within the National Democratic Front, a coalition of movements that includes a strong communist thread currently fighting the far-right authoritarian leader Rodrigo Duterte. …

The Communist Party USA has published essays affirming the connections between Christianity and communism and encouraging Marxists not to write off Christians as hopelessly lost to the right (the C.P.U.S.A. paper, People’s World, even reported on Sister Simone Campbell and Network’s Nuns on the Bus campaign to agitate for immigration reform). In Canada, Dave McKee, former leader of the Communist Party of Canada in Ontario, was once an Anglican theology student at a Catholic seminary, radicalized in part by his contact with base communities in Nicaragua. For my part, I have talked more about Karl Rahner, S.J., St. Óscar Romero and liberation theology at May Day celebrations and communist meetings than at my own Catholic parish.

Dettloff mentions neither Pope John Paul II’s pointed rebuke of Ernesto Cardenal nor the Sandinistas’ attempts to shout down the pope as he celebrated Mass in Managua.

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