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News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

There were a lot of different subjects swirling around during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, so I don’t know exactly where to start. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes.)

On one level, host Todd Wilken and I talked about church buildings and sacred architecture. You know, the whole idea that church architecture is theology expressed in (List A) stone, timber, brick, stucco, copper, iron and glass.

Ah, but is the theology different if the materials being used are (List B) sheetrock, galvanized steel, plastic, concrete, rubber and plywood?

What if you built a Byzantine, Orthodox sanctuary out of the materials in List B and accepted the American construction-industry norms that a building will last about 40-50 years? Contrast that with a church built with List A materials, using many techniques that have been around for centuries and are meant to produce churches that last 1,000 years or more.

These two churches would look very similar. The provocative issue raised by church designer and art historian Andrew Gould — of New World Byzantine Studios, in Charleston, S.C. — is whether one of these two churches displays a “sacred ethos” that will resonate with the teachings of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, while the other may be both modern and more temporary.

Here’s another question along those same lines: Why did farmers, merchants and peasants in places like Greece, Russia, Serbia and Romania for many centuries insist on building churches that would last for generation after generation of believers? Also, why are the faithful in many modern, prosperous American communities tempted to build churches that may start to fall apart after a few decades?

Here’s the end of my “On Religion” column about Gould and his work, based on a lecture he gave at my own Orthodox home parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — which is poised to build a much-needed new sanctuary.

“If you build something that looks like a Byzantine church, but it isn’t really built like a Byzantine church, then it isn’t going to look and sound and function like a Byzantine church — generation after generation,” said Gould.

“The goal in most architecture today is to create the appearance of something, not the reality. ... When you build one of these churches, you want the real thing. You want reality. You want a church that’s going to last.”

Now, is this a very newsworthy subject?

Maybe not. But some of these issues can be spotted looming over big headlines some big stories in places like New York City.

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Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

Weekend think piece: Guess what? Church and state in Russia have their differences

The priest at our parish in East Tennessee returned the other day from a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the Greek peninsula that for centuries has been the beating heart of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. 

As far as I know, Father J. Stephen Freeman did not have any secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin while he was trekking from monastery to monastery on the holy mountain. However, you never know. After all, Father Stephen has many online readers in Russia and, well, he is the priest of Oak Ridge (and you know what that means).

Journalists in the West have said some rather wild things, as of late, about Orthodox Christianity and its role in Russia. This then connects with the whole "The Russians Did It, the Russians Did It" atmosphere in American politics.

But are we ready to politicize the holy mountain? Check out this passage from The Spectator, drawn from a feature with this headline: "What is behind Vladimir Putin’s curious interest in Mount Athos?" Orthodox readers may want to sit down to read this.

A secretive body of Elders governs here and all citizens are bound to total obedience. They wear identical floor-length black gowns and are not permitted to shave -- the style of dress favoured by zealots everywhere. And guess what? This state is in western Europe.
Few people have heard of Mount Athos and fewer still have visited it, and that is the way they like it. A notable exception is Vladimir Putin. He has been at least twice, once in 2006 and again in May of this year. ...
Putin has formed an unholy alliance with the Orthodox church in order to ensure he receives its blessing. This fits with his self-image as a modern Tsar embodying church and state. For believers, the Holy Mountain is the centre of their faith, their Rome, the place where the flame of their faith connects to heaven.

I wasn't expecting the Z-word.

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Hey AP: Did you really mean to state, citing no source, that the Holy Fire rite is a fraud?

Hey AP: Did you really mean to state, citing no source, that the Holy Fire rite is a fraud?

The world's Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrated Pascha (Easter) this weekend, a full month later than Western churches this year. This is one of those exotic dates on the calendar that usually draws a little bit of coverage in the mainstream press.

At the very least, journalists spend a few lines trying to explain the mysteries of the ancient Julian calendar and why all those people with candles were marching around in the middle of the night singing (in the haunting Byzantine chant tone 6) the following, in English or the language of a particular parish's ethnic roots:

Thy Resurrection, O Christ Our Savior, the Angels in Heaven sing.
Enable us on Earth to Glorify Thee in Purity of Heart.

In recent years, there has been a growing news-media awareness of the ancient "Holy Fire" rites in Jerusalem, which offers journalists an annual chance to wrestle with claims of the miraculous. My theory is that this news story has, in part, been gaining some traction because of smartphone videos being posted on YouTube each year.

So here is the top of a typical short Associated Press report this time around, with one line that jumped out at me. See if you can spot it.

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Thousands of Christians have gathered in Jerusalem for an ancient fire ceremony that celebrates Jesus’ resurrection.

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Beleagured Jehovah's Witnesses in South Korea get sympathetic treatment in New York Times

Beleagured Jehovah's Witnesses in South Korea get sympathetic treatment in New York Times

Jehovah’s Witnesses are notoriously tough to interview.

They didn’t used to be. Back in the late 1980s while I was on the religion beat at the Houston Chronicle, I arranged for myself and a photographer to follow a team work its way, door by door, through a certain posh neighborhood. Other than the fact they tried to convert me and we got into an argument as to whether Easter should be a Christian festival, it was an enlightening time. I was amazed at how rude people were to these visitors and how many doors were literally slammed in their faces.

But in 2012, when I assigned students in my religion journalism class at the University of Maryland to find a JW team to follow around, I learned that no Witnesses could talk with us now unless their New York headquarters allowed them to. And I could never get anyone from New York to answer my calls.

Which is why this New York Times story of the horrors that Witnesses face when refusing military service in South Korea was a real coup.

No doubt the Witnesses over there talked because they wanted to get word out about how bad things truly are in the Land of the Morning Calm. When reading this story, just take into account that it's unusual to get Witnesses to cooperate much with the media. The article starts out with:

SEOUL, South Korea -- Since he was a teenager, Kim Min-hwan knew he would have to make a choice: abandon his religious convictions or go to prison.

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Refugees flee ISIS: Maybe there is a religion angle in this tragic story? Maybe?

Refugees flee ISIS: Maybe there is a religion angle in this tragic story? Maybe?

If you have read anything about the rise of the Islamic State, you know that ISIS is crushing anyone who rejects its drive to build a new multinational caliphate rooted in its approach to Islam.

Thus, hundreds of thousands of people are either dead or fleeing. Who are they?

The answer is pretty obvious: They are the people who rejected the reign of ISIS. And who might that be? The answer is complex, but one fact is simple. It's impossible to talk about this refugee crisis without talking about the religion angle, because the refugees are either members of minority religions in the region, including thousands of displaced Christians, or centrist Muslims or members of Muslim-related sects that are anathema to ISIS leaders.

Now, the religion angle has jumped even higher in the story with the appeal by Pope Francis for every Catholic parish, school, monastery and social ministry in Europe to take in at least one refugee family. If you know anything about the Bible, you probably have a good idea what verses the pope is going to quote on this question.

But Europe is tense, not just because of the sheer number of refugees, but because of faith questions related to them.

So why, I ask, did The New York Times team basically ignore the religion content of this story in its major piece on the pope's challenge? The results are especially strange when contrasted with the corresponding international-desk story in The Washington Post. Here is the key passage in the Times piece:

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Weekend think piece: Mark Silk on Augustine, 'economia,' repentance and Greece

Weekend think piece: Mark Silk on Augustine, 'economia,' repentance and Greece

Time for a "think piece" trip into the tmatt folder of GetReligion guilt. Two weekend birds with one shot, in other words.

As you would expect, in recent weeks I have had quite a few people ask me what I think of the Greek debt crisis and, in particular, whether I -- as an Eastern Orthodox layman -- see any religion "ghosts" hiding in this major global news story.

The short answer is "no." The longer answer is that I have sense -- in the muddy details of this crisis -- a kind of cultural clash between Greece and the European heartland, especially Germany. But what is the religious content there?

That's hard to nail down. I mean, the typical crisis report usually has a passage or two that sounds like this, drawn from a recent New York Times report:

Many Greeks have taken Germany’s resistance personally, plastering walls with posters and graffiti denouncing what they see as the rigidity of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. ...
What many outsiders view as the rigidity of Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schäuble is widely viewed within the country as the best way to resolve the Greek debt crisis and ensure the stability of the European currency used by 19 nations.
“There are clear rules, and anybody who doesn’t stick to the rules cannot be an example for others,” Julia Klöckner, a senior member of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said in an interview Thursday.

And so forth and so on. There isn't much Godtalk in that passage, is there?

Lo and behold, a recent Religion News Service commentary by Mark Silk -- "The moral theology of the Greek crisis" -- nailed down the vague ideas that I have had in recent weeks about this drama.

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Glorious Pascha! The Baltimore Sun gets the key parts right

I keep saying this year after year, but it’s true. One of the greatest challenges for religion-beat specialists, season after season, is the long, steady march of feature stories that editors want you to produce linked to the major holy days in the various world religions. Easter was always one of the biggest challenges for me, in part because it’s always on Sunday morning (or in the ancient churches, at the stroke of midnight and on into the early hours of morning).

That sounds really obvious, but think it through. That means this story has to appear above the fold on A1 in the biggest newspaper of the week, which means editors have to think very highly of this story. It will also need large and spectacular color photography, for the reasons just mentioned. From the point of view of most secular editors, Easter is also a much more explicitly RELIGIOUS season than, let’s say, Christmas. That’s a problem.

Do you see the problem? How do you get large, spectacular Easter art when that art must be produced BEFORE the holy day itself? And what are most churches — liturgical churches, at least — doing in the days before Easter, when you need to shoot these photos? They are observing the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — beautiful, but solemn observances that, literally, offer visual images that are the exact opposite of what editors are going to want for that happy, happy Sunday A1 art.

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Reporters: beware of Greeks bearing gay gifts

The essence of life, its meanings, symbols and motives, can be found in television; reporting on the condition of man is reducible to vignettes from Seinfeld and Yes Minister.

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A quick, shallow visit to Mount Athos

Few subjects inspire the whole “National Geographic visits the strange natives” school of Godbeat journalism quicker than monasticism.

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